Same-sex parented families in Australia

CFCA Paper No. 18 – December 2013

Lesbian-parented families

Far more published research exists on the characteristics and experiences of lesbian parented families than families parented by gay men (see Andersson et al., 2002; Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Patterson, 2007; Short et al. 2007; Tasker & Patterson 2007). This reflects the greater likelihood of lesbians, as women, being resident parents.

Equity in divisions of paid work and domestic labour between mothers and co-parents has been found to be the rule rather than the exception in lesbian-parented families (Dalton & Bielby, 2000; Dunne, 2000; Perlesz et al., 2010; Reimann, 1997; Sullivan 1998). Data from the 2011 Census indicate that in female same-sex couples, 59% of partners engaged in the same amount of unpaid domestic work such as housework, food preparation, laundry and gardening, compared to 38% of partners in opposite-sex couples (ABS, 2013). Dunne (2000) emphasised that it is the lack of "gendered scripts" in lesbian relationships that leads to greater egalitarianism in relation to the sharing of economic resources and domestic duties including child-rearing. Perlesz et al. (2010) compared the divisions of labour of 317 cohabiting Australian and New Zealander lesbian and gay parents who took part in the Work, Love and Playstudy with 958 cohabiting heterosexual parents taking part in the Australian Negotiating the Life Course study. They found that lesbian couples, some of whom had had children in heterosexual relationships and some of whom had raised children together from birth, divided their household labour more equally than the heterosexual couples. Lesbian couples in the study also divided their parenting tasks more equitably than the Negotiating the Life Course comparison group.

Lesbian co-parenting couples display a range of parenting strengths. In a recent meta-analysis conducted in the US, Crowl, Ahn, and Baker (2008) found that on average, parents of children in planned lesbian-parented families reported higher quality relationships with their children than parents in comparable heterosexual families.5 Lesbian co-parenting couples have been found to have greater parenting skills and to devote more time to parenting than matched samples of heterosexual couples. Several studies comparing donor-conceived children parented by heterosexual and lesbian couples found that the lesbian couples had greater parental awareness and problem-solving capacity, had higher quality interactions with children, were more available to them, and demonstrated more respect for children's independence (Bos, van Balen, van den Boom, & 2007; Brewaeys, Ponjaert, van Hall, Golombok, 1997; Flaks, Ficher, Masterpasqua, & Joseph, 1995; Golombok, Tasker, & Murray, 1997). Lesbian co-parenting couples in other studies of donor-conceived children have been found to spend more time with their children than their heterosexual counterparts. This includes time spent in imaginative play, and on shared interests or activities (Golombok et al., 1997; Golombok et al., 2003; MacCallum & Golombok, 2004). In the Avon Longitudinal Study of Children in the UK lesbian mothers tended to engage in less smacking than the heterosexual mothers in the study (Golombok et al., 2003). A study by Johnson and O'Connor (2002) in the US found that the lesbian (and gay male) parents reported less use of corporal punishment and more use of reasoning techniques with children than a normative sample of American parents. It is important to acknowledge, however, that some of the research literature on parenting has compared lesbian couples with heterosexual couples without taking into account differences in levels of parental education, social class and household income (e.g., Bos et al., 2007; Crowl et al., 2008). It is possible that the differences in the demographic characteristics of lesbian couples compared to heterosexual couples may explain any differences observed between the two groups.

Although most lesbian couples form two-parent families, there are a number of ways in which they involve the biological father and/or other men in their family lives (see Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Dempsey, 2006; Goldberg, 2010; Goldberg & Allen, 2007; McNair, Dempsey, Wise, & Perlesz, 2002). Some lesbian parents either choose not to or cannot involve the biological father in their families, yet value the contribution of other male friends and family members (see Dempsey, 2006; Donovan & Wilson, 2008; Short, 2007). McNair and colleagues (2002) found that known sperm donors were preferred by Australian lesbian mothers for a range of reasons, including (at that time) limited legal access to clinical donor insemination, wanting children to have access to knowledge about their biogenetic paternity, the desire to give a male friend the chance to have children in their lives, or belief in the importance of male role models for children (see also Clarke, 2006; Clarke & Kitzinger, 2005; Goldberg & Allen, 2007; Ryan-Flood, 2005). Other lesbian mothers believe it is important for their children to have contact with men rather than the biological father per se (see Clarke, 2006; Clarke & Kitzinger, 2005; Goldberg & Allen, 2007). Women's fathers, brothers and heterosexual or gay male friends are known to be valued as "male role models" for children, due to lesbian parents' desire for children to have access to diverse adult male and female social networks (Borthwick & Bloch, 1993; Gartrell et al., 1996; Goldberg & Allen, 2007; Wakeling & Bradstock, 1995).

Key messages: Lesbian-parented families

  • Lesbian co-parenting couples tend to divide their household labour and child care responsibilities more equitably than heterosexual couples. This includes lesbian couples parenting children conceived in previous heterosexual relationships as well as couples who have raised children together from birth.
  • Lesbian co-parenting couples display a range of parenting strengths, for example, less authoritarian parenting styles, and report higher quality relationships with their children than matched samples of heterosexual parents. They also tend to spend more time with their children.
  • An important limitation of the literature to date is that some samples were not matched on education and income and therefore demographic factors may explain differences found between lesbian and heterosexual couples.
  • With regard to family formation in planned lesbian-parented families, known or identifiable sperm donors are often preferred by Australian lesbian mothers. This is for a range of reasons including: wanting children to have access to knowledge about their biogenetic paternity, the desire to give a male friend the chance to have children in their lives, or belief in the importance of male role models for children.



5 Meta-analysis is a technique researchers can use once numerous published studies of the same phenomenon become available. It is useful for alleviating the problem of inconclusive results in individual studies. Meta-analysis enables researchers to group together findings from a number of studies and apply statistical tests to see if the results found in the individual studies still hold. Also, the advantage of a meta-analysis is that the larger size of the pooled data set lends more evidence to any conclusions drawn in the smaller studies (see Allen & Burrell 1996; Marks, 2012; Schumm, 2012).