Two-father families and society’s expectation

Creating a family through surrogacy: Negotiating parental positions, familial boundaries and kinship practices

Julia Teschlade, Almut Peukert

GENDER – Zeitschrift für Geschlecht, Kultur und Gesellschaft, Issue 2-2019, pp. 56-70

This article focuses on male same-sex couples who fulfil their wish for a child through gestational surrogacy. As two-father families they must engage with society’s expectation that every child has both a mother and a father. Thus, the position of the mother must be filled, or at least accounted for. The empirical data derive from interviews with male same-sex couples from Germany. Following the grounded theory approach, we analyse the couples’ ‘doing (being) family’ from two perspectives. First, we discuss how family roles are negotiated within the family formation process. The fathers employ different strategies to address the issue of the ‘absent mother’. Second, we examine how the couples draw boundaries in family formation processes to ensure that they are seen as the child’s only parents. We argue that social discourses lack broader definitions of (family) relations beyond the gendered categorizations of father and mother.

surrogacy, egg donation, gay fathers, doing family, parenthood


Familiengründung durch Leihmutterschaft – Aushandlungen zu Elternschaft, familialen und verwandtschaftlichen Grenzen

Im Fokus des Artikels stehen gleichgeschlechtliche Männerpaare, die ihren Kinderwunsch durch Leihmutterschaft erfüllen. Als Zwei-Väter-Familie müssen sie auf die gesellschaftliche Erwartung reagieren, dass jedes Kind auch eine Mutter hat und diese vakante Position erklären. Anhand narrativer Interviews mit schwulen Elternpaaren aus Deutschland analysieren wir das ‚doing (being) family‘ aus zwei Perspektiven: Erstens nehmen wir die Aushandlungen von Eltern- und Familienrollen in den Blick. Die Väter verwenden unterschiedliche Strategien, um die Abwesenheit der Mutter zu erklären. Zweitens leisten die Paare Abgrenzungsarbeit, um als die einzigen Eltern des Kindes wahrgenommen zu werden. Wir argumentieren, dass gesellschaftliche Diskurse nur unzulängliche Begrifflichkeiten bereitstellen, um die Diversität von (Familien-) Beziehungen jenseits der Geschlechterdifferenzierung von Vater und Mutter abzubilden.

Leihmutterschaft, Eizellspende, Gleichgeschlechtliche Paare, doing family, Elternschaft


1 Introduction: Contextualizing family, kinship and social change

In the context of assisted reproduction, the idea that family ‘just happens’ is contested. Rather, family and kinship are generally “performance achievements and a result of so­cial construction processes” (Jurczyk 2014: 119). Gay and lesbian couples who wish to have children engage in complex family arrangements involving social parents with and without biological ties, gamete donors, gestational carriers1, lovers and friends (Weeks/ Donovan/Heaphy 1999). Family composition varies depending on whether the couples fulfill their wish for a child through co-parenting arrangements, adoption, foster care, gamete donation or surrogacy. Despite increasing options for family formation, par­enthood and family are not solely individual processes of negotiating meanings, roles and responsibilities: what constitutes a family is always also defined by social norms and law. Furthermore, New Kinship Studies emphasize that the cultural meanings of blood, lineage and genes are historically grounded and entangled with their contemporary perceptions. They “are mobilized to create the inclusions and exclusions definitive of kinship” (Franklin/McKinnon 2000: 275). Families must negotiate their kinship and family practices around these expectations, and their subject positions are socially em­bedded and structured.

In this paper, we focus on gay male couples who fulfill their wish for a child through gestational surrogacy. In order to become parents, it is a biotechnological requirement for gay couples to use donated oocytes to create an embryo with their own biogenetic material. This usually requires the help of at least two women: a gestational carrier and an egg donor.2 The donated oocytes are inseminated with the sperm of one of the male partners (in vitro fertilization/IVF) and the embryo is transferred to the uterus of a second woman—the gestational carrier. Both women receive monetary compensation, and both usually relinquish their (potential) parental rights through contractual agreements,3 making the two fathers the only legal and social parents of the child. This way, conception, gestation and social mothering do not coincide. As a consequence, their child grows up without a mother,4 although two women were involved in the process of conception.

Nevertheless, gay couples must integrate both the egg donor5 and the gestational carrier into their family narrative, because they cannot hide the fact that they received help from “facilitating others” (Mitchell/Green 2007: 82). Moreover, they must define and draw boundaries between themselves—as the only parents who constitute a family with their child—and the technological process of procreation. However, societal expectations and cultural scripts demand that the couples engage with discourses on motherhood. Especially, the hegemonic narrative that every person not only has at least one father, but also a biological and genetic relation to at least one woman, must be addressed. Even if the woman is not considered to be a mother in a social and caring way, the position must be filled or at least accounted for.

A considerable body of research has examined how gay couples become fathers through surrogacy and their decision making accompanying this process (Berkowitz 2013), how their family practices are shaped by the traditional kinship patterns of the heteronormative social structure as well as new forms of kinship subjectivities (e.g. Nebeling Petersen 2018), and how both affective and economic exchanges structure relationships between intended gay fathers and gestational carriers (Smietana 2017; Moreno 2016). However, the question of how gay couples negotiate different family roles in third-party reproduction remains open. Therefore, we focus on intimate narratives of gay couples founding a family in the context of ambivalent (shifting) normative frameworks.

In general, commercial surrogacy remains highly contested in the field of assisted reproduction. Feminist scholars discuss surrogacy as commodification of female repro­ductive labor and oppression of women (e.g. Rothman 1989). Ethnographic research, however, shows that the situation of gestational carriers is complex and ambivalent (see e.g. Jacobson 2016; Rudrappa 2015; Teman 2010).

Shedding light on surrogacy practices from the perspective of intended parents, we draw on interviews with German couples who commissioned gestational carriers in the United States and analyze their ‘doing (being) family’ from two perspectives. First, we draw on the negotiation of family roles within the family formation process. We argue that the family positions and concepts must be negotiated against the backdrop of a so­cietal understanding of a child having two parents (not three or four) and the expectation that a child has both a father and a mother. In the second part of this article, we show how the setting and unsettling of rules and boundaries is necessary within processes of family and (potential) kinship formation. This entails practices that negotiate the (ir)relevance of kinship relations through boundary-making processes.

In the following sections, we briefly introduce the normative perception of con­temporary family life and its heteronormative imperative, and provide an overview of gay parenting and surrogacy. Next, we present the empirical data and research methods. Finally, we analyze how the couples who were interviewed define the role of the mother, negotiate boundaries and integrate the egg donor and/or the gestational carrier into their family narrative. Here, they are confronted with an unexpected demand to engage with the meaning of kinship against the backdrop of scientific knowledge on genetic lineage. We conclude with a theoretical outlook on the construction of family.

2 Contemporary family formation practices in the context of changing norms and societal institutions

Today, lesbian and gay families are a social reality. Due to increasing legal equality and greater public visibility and recognition, gays and lesbians form their families outside of (former) heterosexual relationships. New reproductive technologies have created op­portunities to become parents with the help of techniques such as donor insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), and surrogacy.

Nevertheless, the traditional ideal of the nuclear family persists despite changes in adoption law, greater acceptance of gay and lesbian parents, and a greater diversity of families (Bergold et al. 2017).6 Until today, the ideal of the heterosexual couple with biologically related children has constituted the hegemonic order of family constellations. While this seems contradictory and creates a tension between social reality and social norms, it also demonstrates how social institutions like the gender binary, coupledom and heteronormativity regulate our intimate and familial daily practices.

The nuclear family, consisting of a heterosexual couple and their biologically related children, is organized along the lines of gender differentiation. Societal assumptions of dyadic, heterosexual procreation and two-parent-families as ‘natural’ are based on the gender binary. This ideal is built upon a gendered division of labor, with a male bread­winner and father, and a homemaking and child-rearing mother. It has been regarded as the (mostly implicit) hegemonic reference since the end of the 19th century. Closely intertwined with the societal assumption of the gender binary is the norm of romantic coupledom. Following the idea of exclusively heterosexual procreation, parents are dif­ferentiated as fathers and mothers. It is common sense that children always have at least and only a mother and a father (e.g. Peukert et al. 2018). This was made visible and criticized as heteronormative by queer theorists: Originally described by Warner (1993), heteronormativity refers to the societal norms of the gender binary and heterosexuality. We reference this concept when discussing practices and institutions that privilege certain kinship ties as well as intimate and familial ways of life that are structured by heterosexuality and the gender binary. ‘Others’ who deviate from this norm are marked as ‘not normal’ (Butler, 2002).

Innovations in reproductive technology have challenged societal assumptions of kinship, parenthood and family. The birth of Louise Brown, the first human conceived using in vitro fertilization, in 1978 and the possibility of in vitro fertilization as well as surrogacy arrangements, called the Roman law principle mater semper certa est—and thus the status of ‘the mother’—into question: children can now have (1) a genetic relation to a woman who provides gametes; (2) a corporeal relation to a woman who carries the fetus and gives birth to the child, (3) a legal relation to a woman who has legal guardianship, and (4) a parental relationship to a woman who nurtures and cares for the child. This is a rather analytic differentiation, because the general understanding is that all four relations are embodied by one person—the mother. However, the presence of blended families and the possibilities created by reproductive technologies demand more complex handling of ascribed categories such as parenthood. With regard to ‘motherhood’ the German legislature reacted to these changes in 1997 by introducing a definition of ‘who is the mother’ into §1591 of the civil code, stating that “the mother of a child is the woman who gave birth to it”.

How can we best understand and explain social change regarding same-sex couple­dom, parenthood and family formation? Research demonstrates that long-term relation­ships are common to both heterosexual and homosexual ways of life. Weeks, Donovan and Heaphy argue that “[t]he relationship becomes the defining element within the sphere of the intimate, which provides the framework for everyday life” (Weeks/Donovan/Heaphy 1999: 85). Referring to Giddens’ concept of the “pure relationship” they find that “the transformations of intimacy, themselves the product of the breakdown of traditional narratives and legitimizing discourses under the impact of long-term cul­tural, social and economic forces, are making possible diverse ways of life which cut across the heterosexual dichotomy.”

Similarly, studies on gay fathers show that the ideal of having a family with children is usually interlinked with romantic love and coupledom. Gay men refer to specific mo­ments and experiences that triggered their desire to have a child, such as taking care of nieces and nephews or being introduced to adoption and surrogacy by other gay couples (see e.g. Teschlade 2018; Berkowitz/Marsiglio 2007). They often situate the beginning of their story at the moment when they met each other, which positions the couple re­lationship at the center of their narrative. These couples describe their wish for a child as a “natural” reproductive desire within the realm of their conventional relationship rather than something new or pioneering. The cultural repertoire people refer to when discussing couple relationships and family is shaped by cultural scripts of the social and political context they live in (Gabb/Fink 2015). Heaphy/Smart/Einarsdottir (2013) analyze this ‘ordinariness’ in same-sex couples’ relationships, whereby greater public and legal recognition allows the couples to experience privileges formerly reserved for heterosexual couples.

While the two-parent family is an important cultural script, it is contested in the context of third-party assisted reproduction. The decision to have a child through gesta­tional surrogacy is often preceded by thoughtful deliberation processes about alterna­tive parenting options such as co-parenting, foster care, and adoption (e.g. Berkowitz/ Marsiglio 2007). Surrogacy, however, allows gay men to procreate as a couple and to build a two-parent family: they can have a child which is biologically related to one of the partners, and often choose an egg donor who somehow resembles the non-biological parent (Mitchell/Green 2007; Teschlade 2018). Nevertheless, the normative societal expectation that every child has two parents—and that one of them must be the mother—creates a delicate situation for these couples: with two fathers, they are already a two-parent family.

1 Gestational carrier is the term most commonly used for a so-called surrogate mother. It describes a woman who carries and gives birth to a child who is not genetically related to her but was conceived through egg donation and IVF. Gestational surrogacy (GS) replaced traditional surrogacy (TS) arrangements, in which the woman is genetically related to the child.
2 The development from TS to GS indicates a complex interplay of different interests and power relations between the reproductive industry, medical professionals, commissioning parents, as well as gestational carriers and egg donors. These are structured by social, legal, and biotechnological opportunities and restraints. For further discussion see e.g. Teschlade (2018).
3 Gestational surrogacy is legal in many parts of the United States. Legal parentage can be assigned to the intended parents before the child is born (pre-birth order) or afterwards (post-birth order). In post-birth states, the intended parents and gestational carriers usually appear in court within a few days after the birth.
4 Within the network of global reproductive economies and chains of procreation and care, the concept of “parenthood” and especially “motherhood” is contested (Ergas/Jenson/Michel 2017). In this paper, we refer to the term mother only when talking about the normative perception of motherhood, where the genetic, gestational, legal and social relatedness between the child and the woman coincide. We differentiate between genetic, gestational, legal and/or social mother only if analytically necessary. However, we argue that mother and father, or more general, parent, should only refer to nurturing, caring and parental practices. In contrast to our use of the term mother, we refer to father as the social parent (while the legal and genetic relatedness for some fathers coincide). See also chapter 2 and for further discussion Peukert et al. (2018).
5 In the United States, egg donation is not necessarily anonymous. Couples have the opportunity to choose a ‘known’ donor (Teschlade 2018).
6 However, these developments are especially questioned and contested by religious, conservative and right-wing voices all over Europe.

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