On the other hand, Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon, theorizes that if there is a lack of strife over domestic labor in gay-parent homes, it might be attributed simply to a greater willingness to negotiate. “When there are two mothers or two fathers, there is not one ‘go-to’ person, so there is more natural potential for equality between the parents,” she says. But Reis acknowledges that an ability to negotiate is one that any couple, gay or straight, should be capable of. “It’s important to keep in mind that there are straight parents who make a conscious effort to share parenting responsibilities, too. It’s all about open negotiation between partners, and that doesn’t matter if they’re two women, two men, or one woman and one man.”
It’s not just a willingness to discuss and negotiate that distinguishes many same-sex couples from straight couples. The couples I spoke to also uniformly reported that the sheer deliberateness and planning that gay people must go through just to have children—whether through an expensive adoption process or the complex ordeal of seeking candidates for artificial insemination or surrogacy—adds an extra element of gratitude to their home life and the way they regard their partners. It’s this “bonding through adversity,” as one lesbian put it, that gives gay parents a more empathetic view of the world and that helps them to function harmoniously as parents and as partners.
There is some science to back this up: In 2003, the Relationship Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that conducts research on marriage, family, and relationships, published a 12-year study of the communication styles of 21 gay male couples and 21 lesbian couples. The study found that, compared to straight couples, gays are “generally more upbeat in the face of conflict,” “use fewer controlling, hostile emotional tactics,” and that in a fight, “gay and lesbian couples take it less personally.”
"We realized the arguments weren’t about chores, but about being appreciated for what you were doing."
“This data suggests that when same-sex couples become parents, they may also be better able to buffer themselves from the inevitable stresses that all parents face when they have a child,” says Dan Yoshimoto, research director of the institute. “Their strength in being able to resolve conflict more effectively than heterosexual married couples may provide them with a step up when it comes to creating a healthy emotional environment for their children.”
Several studies, including those conducted by Gartrell and Patterson, suggest that in addition to being able to effectively and calmly work out disagreements over domestic chores, same-sex parents tend to share household responsibilities fairly equally—while separate studies have suggested that in households run by heterosexual parents the opposite is true, and that more resentment can occur as a result. According to the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Families and Households, in a heterosexual partnership in which both parents work, a wife spends 31 hours doing housework each week, while a husband spends 14. If the wife stays home, those hours increase to 38 each week, while the husband’s contribution decreases to 12 hours. Research conducted at the State University of New York at Buffalo shows that 58 percent of women in heterosexual couples report feeling frustrated by the uneven distribution of domestic duties.
Cindy Bunker, 49, a public defender in Multnomah County, says that when she listens to some of her straight female counterparts at work talk about the uneven distribution of labor at home, she’s grateful for her own domestic situation. She and her partner, Teri, 44, a nurse practitioner, have two adopted 14-year-old sons. Because both she and Teri work full-time, they have to delineate clear divisions of labor, which means, among other things, that she handles all the yard work and Teri does all the cooking. “I’ve cooked three meals in 10 years,” Bunker says. “I can’t even tell you what a gallon of milk costs because she handles all the shopping.” It’s not a perfect system, she admits, but it works for them. And, perhaps most important, neither of them feels resentful.
For many gay parents who don’t have the option of a stay-at-home caretaker, or who simply don’t want to completely give up a career in order to have a family, home life tends to be a planned-down-to-the-minute affair, as it certainly can be for heterosexual parents.