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Challenges and Lessons from Lesbian Mothers

  • This folder contains a research article summary of Koenig Kellas and Suter (in press) and a downloadable brochure on Challenges and Lessons from Lesbian Mothers.  

                A $3,000 Wayne F. Placek Investigator Development Grant awarded by the American Psychological Foundation supported this study. Importantly, in congruence with the mission of the Placek grant, we aim for this research to have a direct impact on the general public’s understanding of heteronormativity. As such, please find a downloadable brochure in this folder. This brochure was developed for individuals to print for their own use and for distribution to the general public to aid understanding and promote affirmation of the lesbian family form. Please distribute these brochures to individuals or organizations you feel might benefit from this information.

  • Final Report on:

    Keonig Kellas, J., & Suter, E. A. (in press) Accounting for lesbian-headed families: Lesbian mothers’ responses to discursive challenges. Communication Monographs.

    Context of Study

    Lesbian-headed families face challenges because of their perceived non-conformity to heteronormative standards—the standards that dictate the traditional, monogamous, heterosexual lifestyle that is deemed “normal.” As a result of this perceived non-conformity, lesbian-headed families are vulnerable to how others react to their family life. Although there are accounts of affirmation, when others react with skepticism, discomfort, or hostility, lesbian mothers can experience rejection and decreased social support. Coping mechanisms that seek to reduce heteronormative discrimination and prejudice can be seen in the communicative patterns employed by lesbian mothers. It is important to understand the role of communication when the lesbian family is challenged, especially considering the proliferation of lesbians deciding to have children. Little research has been conducted to look at the communicative strategies that lesbian mothers use to affirm their family identity or how the strategies are perceived.

  • Relational Challenges

    The purpose of the Koenig Kellas and Suter (in press) study was to explore how lesbian mothers and co-mothers discursively respond to legitimacy challenges about their family structure and how the communicative strategies are perceived. The study is of significance because of the growing number of lesbian-headed families and the reactions people have about the perceived non-conformity of the two-mother structure. It is important to understand how co-mothers communicate about their families to help other mothers and foster community acceptance about familial differences.

    Koenig Kellas and Suter (in press) use accounts—explanations made for untoward behavior—to understand how lesbian couples affirm their family identity through communication. They conducted 10 focus groups with 44 lesbian mothers from Colorado and Nebraska. The focus groups sought to uncover the communication patterns that the mothers’ use, and included questions such as, “Have you ever felt like you had to justify your family to someone else?” and “Can you remember a time when someone outside your family either directly or indirectly challenged (rejected, questioned) your family form?” The questions revealed information that was grouped into a sequence of events according to the aforementioned accounting framework: the reproach (i.e., the challenge; questioning or rebukes), the account (i.e., an explanation of the “offense”), and the evaluation (i.e., the follow-up or aftermath).

    The lesbian mothers in Koenig Kellas and Suter (in press) reported four types of challenges. The first challenge identified the use of indirect or open-ended questions that call into question the identity of the family. For example, in indirect or open-ended questions, challengers compared the lesbian family form to the heterosexual family form or question the role of one or both of the mothers. Indirect questions included questioning the role of one or both of the mothers. Mother’s cited indirect questions such as “What does your daddy look like?” and “Who had her?”. The second challenge came in the form of direct questions or rebukes. Direct questions or rebukes could be aggressive or attacking, non-threatening, or rejection of the family, such as “Why would you want to have kids [in a lesbian family]?”. The third challenge was no verbal reproach, which included silences such as exclusion, dirty looks, or non-negative silences. Finally, the master narrative challenge included educational, legal, religious, political and health care narratives that undermined the lesbian-led family. For instance, they would encounter master narrative challenges at their child’s school, where consent forms identified “mother” and “father” as opposed to “parent.” Another example is in the political master narrative, such as facing Proposition 8 in California, which undermined the family identity.

  • Responses to Relational Challenges

    To address the varying challenges, lesbian mothers discussed the accounts they used. Accounts included justifications, concessions, refusals, pre-emptive responses, leading by example, and second-party accounts. Justifications include accounts where the mother discounts the challenge, claims there is not a negative consequence of the “untoward behavior,” or cites the positive consequences. For example, mothers in this study would justify their family in four ways: citing family ties, love, normalcy, and positive consequences of the lesbian family form. Concessions included direct explanation where the moms conceded that they were the members of a lesbian-headed family—this involved matter-of-fact answers such as openly stating that the child had two mothers if asked about the father.

    The most common type of refusal was challenging back. Challenging back referred to the mother addressing the challenge directly or calling the challenger to take responsibility for their actions. These types of responses ranged from addressing the situation in the tone of the refusal to more aggressive behavior such as saying, “Go to hell” to hostile or near physical violence. Refusals also took the form of providing evidence of the legitimacy of the lesbian relationship or family, such as showing birth certificates to prove that both mothers were indeed legally mothers. Finally, lesbian mothers also simply refused to account through avoidance, purposeful ambiguity in their communication, or avoiding a relationship with a challenger altogether by ceasing the relationship.

    Lesbian mothers also identified preemptive responses, which were accounts given in anticipation of a challenge. This includes mothers explicitly questioning their children’s future teachers to make sure that there would not be a problem or just anticipatory fear based on previous interactions.

    Lesbian mothers also identified leading by example through education, “being who we are,” and “meeting them where they are.” Education was a means to provide correct information to those eliciting challenges. Leading by example also took the form of living by example—if the lesbian-led family was perceived as “normal,” they would be treated as such. “Meeting them where they are,” or the ability to respond to questions and challenges in order to explain and model their family structure, inspired hope and patience, but also allowed for parting ways with the challenger.

    The final step of the accounting sequence is evaluation, which refers to the challenger’s reaction or the aftermath of the situation. Mothers identified seven different evaluation categories: agree/acceptance (challenger accepts mother’s account), nonhonoring/take issue (re

  • Introduction to Brochure

    A $3,000 Wayne F. Placek Investigator Development Grant awarded by the American Psychological Foundation supported this study. Importantly, in congruence with the mission of the Placek grant, we aim for this research to have a direct impact on the general public’s understanding of heteronormativity. As such, please find a downloadable brochure below. This brochure was developed for individuals to print for their own use and for distribution to the general public to aid understanding and promote affirmation of the lesbian family form. Please distribute these brochures to individuals or organizations you feel might benefit from this information.

  • Brochure: Challenges and Lessons From Lesbian Mothers


This portfolio last updated: 31-Mar-2019 7:11 PM