Managing the Emotional Side of LGBTQ Family Building
What you may be feeling and how you can move through it
Between advocacy efforts, changes in legislation, and new and expanding reproductive technologies, there are now more ways than ever to build a family. People experiencing infertility, as well as single people and LGBTQ individuals and couples, have opportunities to build families that were simply not possible thirty or forty years ago, and for some families, even in the past few years.
Many people pursue family building through adoption, foster parenting, or co-parenting, and the exponential growth of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) also presents new biological and genetic options, including egg, sperm, and embryo donation, reciprocal IVF, surrogacy, and fertility preservation. But the medical, emotional, financial, legal, and ethical implications of these processes are also becoming increasingly complex.
In our work at Seleni, we support people in all stages of life, especially around family building and reproductive mental health. This article explores some of the emotional challenges and unique obstacles that LGBTQ individuals and couples may face, as well as resources to help families grow and flourish.
You may feel overwhelmed
It's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed as you begin your journey to parenthood. The enormity of the uncertainty – how the story will go – is challenging for anyone. And these feelings may feel even more complex for LGBTQ families because planning may involve considerably more logistical challenges.
LGBTQ family building tends to involve a lot of research, as well as conversations and meetings with agencies, healthcare providers, lawyers, financial planners, mental health professionals, and advocates. All parents-to-be hope to find professionals who are understanding and empathic to their needs, and people in the LGTBQ community may have an even harder time locating educated and sensitive professionals to work with. Working with fertility clinics or adoption agencies can also feel challenging in various ways if you do not actually meet the clinical criteria for infertility. It’s a lot to wrap your mind around.
Often, LGBTQ individuals and couples are building families that may look different from their families of origin, and it can feel overwhelming to "start from scratch," or feel that you don't have a model to follow. On the other hand, this leaves lots of room for possibility and excitement.
But when a number of puzzle pieces are still moving into place, you may find yourself unsure of what steps to take. You may even feel stuck. If this happens, it can be helpful to keep in mind which aspects of the family building process are most important to you. Exploring your values can help you to sort through your feelings and come to a decision that you feel good about. If you have friends and family who can help, that's great. But know that you can also seek help from advocates and medical, legal, mental health, and financial professionals, as well as from online resources (see below).
As you go through this process, you may find that you are constructing a new community – perhaps meeting new professionals and friends along the way – which is a great way to build ongoing support.
You may worry a lot
Stress and anxiety are inherent in everyone's life, especially during family building. Feelings of uncertainty and fear of the unknown are normal, and they can sometimes get in the way of excitement and joy.
You may live in a community that does not have many other LGBTQ families. You also may worry about how to have conversations with people in your community, such as physicians, teachers, childcare professionals, and even family and friends.
LGBTQ families encounter unique challenges around social, workplace, financial, and legal issues. People are not always sensitive to where you are coming from. You may have had tough experiences with discrimination or trauma in the past that make starting this new chapter even scarier. And if you identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, a person of color, or come from a minority religious faith, you may face additional stigma and discrimination around these deeply sensitive issues.
One important and meaningful way to address these concerns is to create a supportive community in some way – one in which you, your partner or co-parent, and your children, feel welcomed, respected, and understood. This community may include other LGBTQ families who look like yours or people who just "get it." It may include your faith community. It may include people who live nearby or far away. Some people will be able to get together in person for dinners and play groups, while others will send supportive text messages from 3,000 miles away.
There are also wonderful online resources to help you through your journey (again, see below). And if you ever find that worry or trauma is affecting your sleep, eating habits, work, or relationships, or that you are coping in unhealthy ways, it may be time to seek support from a mental health professional.
You may feel grief
Though the future may feel exciting, family building can also bring up feelings of loss and grief. The journey can include concrete losses, such as difficulty conceiving, pregnancy loss, or disrupted family building arrangements, as well as less tangible – but no less difficult – losses of wished-for experiences.
For example, the inability to biologically create a child together with your partner can feel like a loss. People who build families through third-party reproduction, adoption, or foster care may mourn the loss of a full genetic connection to their child. Female partners' decisions about when to get pregnant can also feel like a loss to one or both partners, as can having different birth experiences. Same-sex male couples and couples pursuing adoption may feel sad not to be more closely involved in a pregnancy. And single people may feel a sense of loss about building a family without a partner.
These losses can feel unfair. They can make you angry. They can bring up painful losses from the past. All this is totally understandable. Even if these losses were expected in some way, they can still hurt.
That's why it's especially important to take care of yourself. Know that whatever you are feeling is OK, and then figure out how to express it so that others can hear and support you. Good communication with your partner or co-parent, friends, family, and professionals will be very helpful. Sometimes the people in your life may not fully understand the complexities of what you are going through, and you will just have to be direct about how you are feeling in order to feel supported. This might mean politely correcting the medical professional who asks, "But who's the real mom?" despite a pang of anger and hurt. It might mean addressing people's use of insensitive language or comments about family roles or names. It might mean doing some diplomatic educating. Or it might just mean explaining very plainly how you feel and what you need.
You may have more conflict with your partner or co-parent
At some point in the family building process, most parents and parents-to-be encounter conflict. This may begin with the conversation about how and when to start a family. Each parent-to-be may have different cultural or religious backgrounds, or value other factors in starting a family and raising children. You may have different opinions about whether and how much to involve extended family members in the process.
For LGBTQ parents, the complex medical, emotional, financial, legal, and ethical issues of third-party reproduction, adoption, and foster care offer even more areas for conflict to surface. And the new landscape that is LGBTQ family building may be especially difficult to navigate because you may be pioneering a new way of family building without a lot of people before you to give you direct advice.
Again, communication and support are so important. If you can, keep the perspective that most parents argue (especially about family building), and that what matters is not whether you argue, but how you argue. Mental health experts acknowledge that conflict is inherent in most relationships, and in some situations, tension actually may be helpful in solving problems.
But coming out of arguments in a healthy way involves respect, effective communication, and reciprocity. If you find yourselves getting into the same argument over and over, or if either of you feels stuck, hurt, consistently angry, abused, or has difficulty regulating your emotions, a mental health professional can help you to sort out your feelings and communicate effectively.
Before scheduling an appointment, ask professionals what training and experience they have working with LGBTQ parents. Online directories and community centers are a good place to start if you are seeking professional support.
You can also feel excitement and hope
Let's not forget this one. Starting to build a family is exciting! It's so important not to let that joy get lost in the process. This doesn't mean that you need to feel 100 percent excited and hopeful every moment of the day (even though there can be pressure to feel this way). But the stress of family building can sometimes overshadow the rich feelings of joy and hope that are part of it, too.
Talk with your partner, co-parent, friends, and family members about how you want to celebrate in a way that is meaningful to you. If a baby shower or a religious ceremony doesn't quite resonate, make up a new ritual or celebration, or have someone host a party, gathering, or fun outing. The important thing is to celebrate this process (and the victories, big and small) along the way, and to involve the people in your life who know how to celebrate you and your growing family.
Resources for LGBTQ families and parents-to-be:
Articles, books, and personal stories
American Society for Reproductive Medicine's Bibliography (see books for "Gay/Lesbian Families")