25 September 2009

The challenges of creating family

Lesbians and gay men can face significant challenges as they seek to create and maintain families that include children but in most cases they overcome these challenges with considerable success, new research funded by the Families Commission has found.

The paper We’re a family - A study of how lesbians and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand by Alexandra Gunn and Nicola Surtees from the University of Canterbury, was supported by the Commission’s “Blue Skies” research grant scheme. Twenty interviews were conducted with parents from 19 families. The majority of interviews were with lesbian mothers either parenting as single women or as couples. Two of these couples were also parenting with single gay men. One interview was with a gay male couple.

The authors found that there were different challenges facing gay and lesbian parents depending upon whether they were using assisted reproduction, or whether they were bringing children into a family from a previous heterosexual relationship.

“For donor families,” Nicola Surtees says, “the challenges focused on how best to achieve assisted reproduction. For instance, access to sperm was not automatic. The numbers of donors available via fertility services prepared to assist lesbian couples to conceive, as well as the numbers of men approached through social networks that were willing to help, were limited. Approval processes and waiting lists at fertility services, coupled with lengthy searches for, and negotiation with, potential donors, were also contributing factors to delaying inseminations.”

Co-researcher Dr Gunn said that for blended families most of the challenges related to the taking up of parenting roles by non-biological parents: “In many ways the challenges experienced by the couples interviewed would be similar to any families using assisted reproductive technology, or for any adults and their children creating a new family after separation from a previous relationship. However, there were some significant challenges unique to gay and lesbian couples, such as dealing with institutional assumptions of heterosexuality, and homophobia from within official organisations and communities.”

Ms Surtees concluded: “The great thing was, most of the couples found that taking a very positive and open approach to their sexuality and their circumstances was a successful way of overcoming these barriers and building and maintaining successful, well-functioning families.”

Chief Commissioner Dr Jan Pryor says the Families Commission’s 2008 study on the makeup of New Zealand Families, The Kiwi Nest, shows that New Zealand families are becoming increasingly diverse, to the extent that “non-traditional families” – such as gay and lesbian, sole parent and blended families - now make up a large section of this country’s family makeup.

“The Families Commission’s role is to advocate for the interests of families to help ensure that our laws, services and community structures help all families to be the best that they can be. This paper raises important issues for many families about parenting rights and obligations, the legal role of sperm and egg donors, and how society supports families to function well, whatever their structure.

“There is wide-ranging benefit to families, communities and the nation when all families are empowered to do well. The knowledge gained from this paper will help the Commission with that advocacy,” Dr Pryor says.