As feminist concepts grow in power and modern presence, new research is exploring the effects of this on lesbian couples who pursue a family together. Now that rights are becoming increasingly equal for people over every sexual orientation, the prevalent thinking was that these individuals would fall into the egalitarian ethic. Essentially, this ethical construct means that many have historically presumed that lesbian couples wish to distribute their working lives more equally than heterosexual couples. This is because lesbian couple may wish to avoid traditional gender roles because these roles are the same that have marginalized same sex couples. However, in the context of 2010 study called, “Lesbian mothers’ constructions of the division of paid and unpaid labor” this was not found to always be the case. Instead, even same sex couples distributed paid labor unequally in order to manage new challenges of the household that are inherent to having a child. It seems that rather than remaining stanchly against normative gender roles, lesbian couples who have their first child seek out the freedom to make their own decisions about how their household best functions rather than reacting against or along with traditional roles.
The study was particularly enlightening because it assessed subjects directly via qualitative means. Couples were asked about their own roles in the home and their partner’s role(s). The study primarily involved Caucasian, North American lesbian mothers of three and a half year old children. Participants had to be first time mothers and in a committed relationship with their partner. In total thirty lesbian couples (60 women total) were assessed. Inclusion criteria was outlined in the study (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). There were some notably limitations in the study sample, however. The majority of the sample included white women, and most were highly educated which may not make the results of the study generalizable to people from other socioeconomic backgrounds or racial groups. Additionally one of the problems inherent to qualitative studies such as this is that they analyze self report from participants. Such participants may not always recognize the social constructs that are involved in their own life. Thus, this study captures the perspectives of the participants rather than measured data of what is really going on in their lives. This is still an important way to answer the research question at hand.

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Researchers wished to address two major questions with this study. First, they asked. “how do couples negotiate the balancing of work and family?” (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). Secondly, they wished to answer whether or not the women had an overt understanding of their gender roles (whether they pushed against them or maintained them). Ultimately, the study questions did not result in one straightforward answer and every couple was found to be quite different from one another. Some women actually wished to transgress traditional gender roles altogether because they felt that these roles are perceived as much too rigid by society in the first place (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). This is an extremely important thing to consider even before discussing additional findings within the study. Most women did agree that they wanted some freedom from gender roles, which from the perspectives of some feminists should be the goal all along.

From a more social constructionist perspective, which was what the authors of this study utilized, the presumption is that people are constantly manipulated by their social gendering. They may or may not be aware of this occurrence. And, they may or may not be purposefully choosing one specific gendered behavior over another. Additionally, gender roles are not something that are chosen at birth and adhered to for ones entire life. Instead, gender represents a fluid process that is linked to individual personalities in the first place. Even thought the study found that most women in a lesbian couple did split work unevenly, they did not inherently see this split as making a decision about where they stood on the gender side of things. Most explained that decisions about who would stay home and who would engage in paid work opportunities was a matter of their own personal preference and not in any way related to their gender roles (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). The majority of couples did not have equal paid work; however they still reported being satisfied with how things were split between them. This was true even though the birth mother was often the one to stay home with the child more often as opposed to the non biological mother. Those eight couples that did share work equally reported that they wanted more time at home with family. In fact, non biological mothers reported this more than once demonstrating that they still felt a close mothering relationship with their child. And, interestingly enough, only one biological mother gave credence to her role saying that because she gave birth to her baby, she had a “kind of insider intuition about how it should be” (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). Otherwise most of the women at least perceived an equal relationship between them if not equal payment of the bills.

What was so influential about this study is that it raises new questions about feminism perception of gender. The concern here is not gender alone, which is a stereotyped idea in and of itself, but there is also judgment in the heteronormative world surrounding paid versus unpaid work. Many people feel that paid work is somehow more meaningful and more deserving of praise than working in a domestic context as a “stay at home mom.” Perhaps rather than a focus on gender, there should instead be a greater examination of the stereotyping that exists between male roles and female roles. As one participant stated, “there is no obvious role that each of us is supposed to take on or resist” (Downing & Goldberg, 2010). Rather than fighting the world for a specific designation, there should be a fight for equality. And, equality might be a much more complex measure than was previously thought by authors of the study.

  • Downing, J.B. & Goldberg, A.E. (2010). Lesbian mothers’ constructions of the division of paid and unpaid labor, Feminism & Psychology, 0(0):1-21.