Same-sex households forming new family portrait

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (MCT) – Margaret Maddy Condon-Lorenz grinned at her reflection in the picture window and cocked an eyebrow. “The story of how I came to be in a house with two dads,” the 12-year-old said with aplomb, “is kind of a miracle.”

Giggly and charming, Maddy is the cherished princess of her Elk Grove, Calif., family: gay dads Ed Condon and Norman Lorenz, and her little brother, Tim. Maddy’s adoption in 1995 was the first for a gay couple in Sacramento County, making her both a pioneer and a poster child for same-sex parenting.

“Maddy makes up for the lack of females in this house,” Lorenz said affectionately as his daughter danced off to change clothes – again.

The news last month of the pregnancy of Mary Cheney, the vice president’s lesbian daughter, focused attention on a national trend: the number of gay and lesbian parents is on the rise.

Sociologists tracking this said children of these households tend to be as well-adjusted and successful as offspring from heterosexual households. By some measures, they are faring better.

“It’s pretty consistent – the overwhelming finding is that the children are fine,” according to Judith Stacey, a sociology professor at New York University and a leading researcher in the area of gender and family. “And there are some findings of certain positive characteristics among them: self-esteem, popularity, warmer relationships with parents.

“These advantages have to do with the obvious fact that these are very desired children. They are unbelievably wanted.”

That’s clearly the case for Maddy and Tim.

Also for Shannon McDonnell-Bryant of Davis, Calif., whose lesbian mothers decided to use donor sperm to become parents 17 years ago.

And, in Woodland, Calif., it’s true for Terra and Skyler Mikalson, children of a heterosexual marriage whose mother came out as a lesbian five years ago. Shortly afterward, Terra, not yet 13, realized she was a lesbian herself.

Life isn’t always perfect for these families – kids and parents alike have faced hazing and condemnation by outsiders. But, within the family circle, there is abundant love and acceptance.

For them, having two dads or two moms is perfectly normal. Even, as Maddy said, kind of a miracle.

Condon and Lorenz – their kids call them Daddy Ed and Daddy Norman – have been a couple for 25 years. Condon is executive director of the California Head Start Association and Lorenz is a consultant with the state Department of Education. Previously, they owned several Montessori schools in the region.

After a dozen years together, the men realized they wanted to be parents. In the course of their inquiries into adoption, a pregnant woman sought them out.

She was Maddy’s birth mother. “Out of the blue, she asked if we would like to adopt her child,” Lorenz recalls. “We matched up with her in January of 1994. In March, Maddy was born.”

Maddy’s two dads were in the delivery room.

“Then they took me home in a convertible,” Maddy announces with mock astonishment. “A convertible!”

Condon took four months off from work to care for the newborn.

“I’d never been left with a baby in my life. At noon on the first day, I called Norman and said: ‘You’ve got to come home!’ I was very needy as a new mother.” He laughs. “My postpartum anxiety was quite real.”

Tim, who is 9, joined the family in 1998 when he was 18 months old.

Perhaps Condon was anxious at first, but today both men are relaxed fathers. They said, and the children agree, that having gay parents has not proved to be a problem – or even an issue – for the kids.

Maddy said people sometimes are a little confused, however. “Almost all my friends already know,” she said. “They’re, like, OK with it. But a lot of other people assume I have a mom. I just said: ‘No, I have two dads.'”

Her friends’ mothers often treat her like another daughter.

“It’s sweet of them and good for Maddy,” Condon said. “Raising a girl has been a different kind of journey for us. It’s interesting – we’ve found that parents of boys are more guarded with us than parents of girls. It’s a good thing we had our daughter first – we’re more confident now. Maddy blazed the way.”

For Mother’s Day events, the children usually invite their aunt or grandmother, but last year Lorenz filled the role at tea party.

“Father’s Day,” Condon said, “is a national holiday in this house.”

Ask them about their futures, and the Condon-Lorenz kids sound like a typical boy and girl. Tim: “I wanted to be a policeman and a fireman, but now I think I only want to be a policeman. It’s too hard to be both.” Maddy: “I want to be an ER nurse and a hair stylist. And an actor.”

As for her own gender identity, Maddy has no doubts, according to Lorenz: “She’s very clearly told us, ‘I am straight.’ Maddy loves boys.”

“I do,” confirms Maddy, still nodding earnestly at her reflection in the window. “I love boys.”

Terra Mikalson loves girls. And that has nothing to do, she said, with her mother’s lesbianism.

At 17, Terra is as slim and poised as a ballerina. She and her brother Skyler – a cuddly, precocious 8-year-old – live with their two moms on a quiet street near downtown Woodland. The street may be quiet, but the small house often rocks with laughter.

Five years ago, Poshi Mikalson – the children’s biological mother – ended her straight marriage and came out as a lesbian at age 41. She fell in love with Reed Walker, who has a grown son from her own marriage, and the two women began building a life together.

For Terra, the hardest thing about that transitional time was not her parents’ divorce. Nor the news that her mother was a lesbian. Nor her own realization that she herself was a lesbian.

The hardest thing was the bullying of another student at her junior high, a boy whose relentless hazing made her dread school and even contemplate suicide.

“I went off to junior high and I was very open about myself and all into my rainbow stuff,” Terra said. “I didn’t realize that people wouldn’t want to be friends with me. A lot of girls avoided me. And one boy harassed me every single day for six months. Not because my mom was a lesbian – that was an afterthought. It was because I was a lesbian.”

Listening to her daughter, Poshi Mikalson’s eyes fill with tears.

“She was ostracized,” said Mikalson. “She was shunned. Once she told me about it, I got on the phone to the principal and he handled it very well. But who was the problem here? Not the gay student. The problem was the homophobic students and the teachers who turned their heads.”

Now that Terra is in high school, things have mellowed and her confidence has grown.

She and her mother both bridle at the suggestion that Terra is gay because Poshi Mikalson is gay.

“First of all, she was showing signs of being lesbian before I ever came out,” her mother said. “It’s not a choice – it’s who you are. And, if having a lesbian mother makes a lesbian daughter, so what? By even raising the question is to suggest that there’s something wrong with being gay. Do you ask straight parents why their kids are straight?”

Terra and Skyler, who both visit their father regularly, see the benefits of living in this unconventional but loving home.

“I think Skyler is really lucky,” Terra said. “He’s being raised by Mom and me and Reed, and he’s able to knit and still fart at the dinner table!”

In a townhouse on the outskirts of Davis, there’s another dinner table. This one overflows with textbooks, papers, computer gear, and a huge canister of red licorice. Beside it is a card table with a partly finished, devilishly difficult jigsaw puzzle.

The companionable juxtaposition of the two tables said a lot about the relationship of Sharon McDonnell and her 16-year-old daughter, Shannon. A high school junior, Shannon is awash in the homework of a full schedule of honors classes. So her mother does the puzzle nearby.

Neither mother nor daughter knows the identity of the donor whose sperm impregnated Sharon.

“I was in a long-term relationship with a woman, and we decided to co-parent,” McDonnell said. “We had Shannon – and then a year later the relationship ended.”

McDonnell’s ex co-adopted Shannon six years ago; the two women share custody. So Shannon has two single-parent moms.

McDonnell, 48, came out as a lesbian at 20. Her own parents, who reared a big family on a Rancho Murrieta turkey farm, discouraged her from parenthood.

“They were very adamant that I shouldn’t have a child – but I am stubborn and I wanted a child, so I did it.” She smiles at her daughter. “Now they adore Shannon.”

Asked about the difference between same-sex parenting and heterosexual parenting, McDonnell shrugs. “Other than the concern that someone would harm your child because her parents are gay, I don’t think there are any differences. We love this kid. Like other parents, we want to give her everything she needs.”

Shannon believes that her unusual family has made her very tolerant of other people’s differences. It’s an attribute many children of gays and lesbians share, researchers find.

“It’s made me more open-minded,” said Shannon. “I can see how things are different, from one family to another. But really not all that different, after all.”