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How We Raised Two Adopted Sons as a Gay Couple

How We Raised Two Adopted Sons as a Gay Couple

What it was like to raise our kids during changing times.

We met in Boston in 1986 and quickly cut to the chase. One of us indicated that he planned to adopt a child, since he had known he wanted to be a parent since the age of 12. The other shared he was HIV positive and had never thought about the possibility of parenthood.

Fast forward through a brief romance, moving in together, marching in front of then-governor Michael Dukakis’ home to oppose an intolerant foster care policy, and then turning to foreign adoption options. It is now 31 years later; we have raised our two adopted sons from Cambodia and now are enjoying being grandfathers to two granddaughters. The journey in many ways is very different than the one we had envisioned, but it is ours, and we are in equal measures humbled, proud, a bit bruised, and ultimately contented. 

As far as we are concerned, whoever coined the phrase “Practice makes perfect” clearly was not a parent. We have made our share of mistakes—as did our parents and their parents and so on throughout history—but we haven’t been terrible parents. Sometimes it was the thing we swore we would never say to our child that we did say in the heat of the moment. Sometimes it was something of our own creation that was equally hurtful or certainly not very helpful. Sometimes it seemed like we didn’t have better options.

Now that our sons are adults (ages 19 and 30) the challenges they present are vastly different from when they were younger (not surprisingly), and we are sometimes at a total loss for how to react or what to say. We try to remember the maxim that if you openly disagree with something your child is doing he will tend to cling all the more tightly to that behavior. And as parents of children from another culture, we have always had to consider whether our perspective is objectively “right” or only makes sense from the standpoint of the lens with which we see the world. Biological parents sometimes say their children are so different from themselves that they swear the child must have been switched at birth. We held no expectations that our children would look like us or act like us, and they haven’t disappointed.  

The world certainly has changed since we were in our 20s, especially in terms of how alternative families are perceived and received. Not too long ago our teenage son introduced us to one of his friends, and she shrieked, “You have two gay dads! That’s awesome!” We were surprised that she—and everyone else in the school—didn’t already know, and we wondered if our son was somehow ashamed of our family constellation. (Weren’t we all ashamed of our parents for one reason or another at some point in our lives?) On the other hand, maybe he just did not see any need to mention it. 

In his last year of high school, this same young man came out to us as bisexual in the midst of a play in which he was acting. He had blocked us from a number of Facebook posts in which he had been questioning who he was, but some family members and friends had reported back to us already. Prior to this we had always been forbidden from setting foot anywhere near where he might be street dancing or acting in a play, so we knew something was up when he invited us to this performance. I’m afraid that the shock value wasn’t present on our faces as he made his announcement during the talk-back after the play.

Both of our sons have felt free to experiment with who they are and are very accepting of others whose way of being in the world may not be considered the norm. They are very empathetic to those who are bullied or are somehow labeled and treated as different or other.

Perhaps we haven’t done such a bad job after all.

Photo courtesy Rod Howe and Mark Pedersen 

Main image: The authors’ sons when they were children, circa 2001.


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Author: Rod Howe is the product of a large, ever-expanding, and inclusive family from upstate New York, where he and Mark Pedersen have resided for the past 27 years. He is now the executive director of a history center after retiring from Cornell University. Pedersen, originally from the Boston area, now works for a local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Their two sons and grandchildren all live within 10 miles of each other. See More

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