Reinventing the Family, by Laura Benkov
Brave New Family
Reinventing the Family: The Emerging Story of Lesbian and Gay Parents.
by Laura Benkov.
Crown. 304 pp. $22.00.
There is a baby boom now under way among homosexuals. Thanks to advances in technology and changes in the law, both homosexual individuals and homosexual couples are having and adopting children in record numbers; in the urban, socially-advanced communities where some of us live and are raising our children, such arrangements have increasingly become an element of our daily experience. In Reinventing the Family, Laura Benkov, a writer, a psychologist, and a lesbian mother, chronicles the shifts that have made possible this revolution in family life, and celebrates homosexual parenthood.
The traditional family structure is corrupt and increasingly irrelevant, Benkov announces, and the homosexual family is one of several new forms that have begun to take its place. For her, this marks a “moment of majestic proportions” in the evolutionary development of nature and mankind, equivalent to the moment when “fish [mutated] into reptiles” and when “cave dwellers [moved] into structures built with their own hands.”
In accordance with this momentous transformation, Benkov confidently dismisses the categories of masculine and feminine as wholly artificial constructs—“gender roles,” she calls them—which need not be associated with men or women at all. This means that the “shape” or “structure” of families is incidental, and so is the sex of parents. In fact, neither fatherhood nor motherhood is necessary for successful family life. As long as “relationships” are loving and caring, the sexual identity of the parties in them is a wholly irrelevant detail.
To illustrate how such “reinvented” families can operate in practice, Benkov introduces her readers to a collection of gay and lesbian parents whose stories she recounts. These so-called families come in a variety of configurations.
In some, homosexual couples have obtained children through legal adoption. In others, lesbians have had children after being inseminated by men with whom they are acquainted (and who may or may not remain involved with the children after birth) or by unknown men. In still another variant, homosexual men contract with uninvolved surrogate mothers, or with lesbians of their acquaintance with whom they share the children’s upbringing. What all this means for the children is that some have one parent, some have two parents of the same sex, and some have two parents of different sexes, along with these parents’ sexual partners who also form part of the “family” unit.
Benkov rejoices in the diversity of these arrangements. What is more, she represents virtually all of the families she describes as contented and prospering—the children cheerful, plucky, and proud.
But are they? Not if one judges by the evidence presented in this book. Although Benkov is at pains to highlight the best these homosexual families have to show, the strains within them are not easily hidden, even by an author who writes as a passionate advocate of their cause.
Take, for example, the story of the Southern poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, who realized in 1975, after a decade of marriage and two children, that she was a lesbian. Knowing it was unlikely the courts would permit her to keep her children, then aged seven and five, if she lived openly as a lesbian, Pratt had to choose between remaining with them or living with her lover. She opted for the latter course.
And what was the effect on her children? “Her older son,” Benkov honestly reports, “screamed ‘No! No! No!,’ running in circles around the room like a trapped bird bouncing from wall to wall in search of a way out.” Of course, Benkov blames his grief on the society that would not let his mother be herself—for Benkov, needless to say, “only a life of integrity [makes] sense.” But whether society or, as some benighted individuals might contend, the mother herself was responsible for this child’s pain, the pain itself can hardly be denied.
In fact, as is clear from the families one meets in this book, homosexual parents require major sacrifices from their children at every step of their development, including before they are born. One lesbian mother recounts to Benkov how she chose to be inseminated at a sperm bank rather than by a known donor, thus creating her son fatherless even though she knew he would come to resent it. (Her rationale, of which Benkov wholly approves: he could “be angry at me for my decision, rather than feel hurt because there’s a man he can identify who doesn’t behave as a father.”) Another mother speaks blandly about her child’s difficulty in shuttling between his father and his father’s lover on the one hand, and her and her lover on the other:
I think he suffers as any being would suffer from everything changing all the time. . . . He always has his little shopping bag and carries his blanket with him wherever he goes. I think he’ll either grow up to be a person who will only be in one place and will be kind of rigid about it because he’s had enough of this, or he’ll be someone who any place he hangs his hat will be his home.
Of course one has to acknowledge that the children of divorced, heterosexual parents also travel back and forth between two homes, but divorce represents an acknowledged breakdown, whereas the division of this family was intentional from the start and, Benkov believes, an admirably innovative thing.
Children are not the only ones to suffer. While Benkov says it is fine for a child to have “two mommies,” her examples illustrate how this can easily become a recipe for misery all around, with the children left to wonder which is their “real” mother, and the maternal duo either feeling redundant or struggling to suppress mutual envy. Benkov comments that this is “similar to what many heterosexual fathers say about their experience,” ignoring the fact that unlike a lesbian “second mother,” a father is not trying to duplicate his child’s other parent.
Although Benkov’s arguments are sloppy, tendentious, and presented in prose that seldom rises above psychobabble, her book is part of a serious movement—the movement for homosexual “rights”—that has gained considerable ground in American political life. Benkov’s particular contribution is to locate the family as the essential battleground where this movement must next engage. The fight is not only over the right of individual homosexuals to adopt or become foster parents, but also over the legalization of adoptions by “second parents,” so that a child may officially have two mothers or two fathers.
To side with Benkov in this matter is to believe, with her, that the idea that heterosexual unions “are somehow necessary to the survival of the species and therefore morally superior” is a “myth.” Her book, ironically and inadvertently, undercuts this proposition rather severely. That, however, hardly settles the matter. The fight is on; and it remains to be seen whether, when push comes to shove, American society as a whole, and the American legal system in particular, will be prepared to go on protecting the most elementary and necessary arrangements for the care and nurturance of children.