Life as a gay father: Neil Patrick Harris opens up to Oprah

What NPH (and my new book on gay fatherhood) can teach us about gay parenting

By Abbie E. Goldberg

Photo: George Burns

In their recent interview with Oprah, Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka opened up about parenthood, surrogacy, and raising twins. As Harris emphasized in his interview, “We really, really wanted kids. We really had thought it through financially, emotionally, relationship-wise. We didn’t just accidentally get pregnant and decide that now we need to make this work. These kids come into our world with nothing but love.” Oprah then admitted to an “aha” moment, wherein she realized, “The children [of gay parents] are so loved!”

The topics that Harris and Burtka touched on in their interview with Oprah – who came to their house – intersect with many of the issues that I address in my new book, Gay dads: Transitions to adoptive fatherhood, which will be published by NYU Press in July 2012. As Harris alluded to, the process of deciding and then becoming a parent as a gay man is one that is highly intentional. The 70 gay men whom I spoke to emphasized the numerous decisions involved in pursuing parenthood, including:  How should they become parents – adoption, surrogacy, or some other route? If they should pursue adoption, what type of adoption (private domestic, public domestic, international) should they pursue?  Who would be the legal adoptive parent (for those living in states that did not allow gay male couples to co-adopt)? How would they tell their parents and families about their decision to become parents? Should they seek out female role models for their child? Should they move to a more progressive, gay-friendly area?…and the list goes on and on.

Harris and Burtka also discussed the challenges that Harris encountered in bonding to his twins early on. Like some of the couples whom I interviewed, Harris and Burtka had different comfort levels with infants, with Burtka expressing greater ease and comfort with infant caregiving, and Harris acknowledging greater perceived aptitude at dealing with and parenting older children.  As I discuss in my book, gay parents – like all parents – may be differentially attached to their children early on, with one partner bonding more readily to the child(ren) than the other. These differential attachment patterns may be related to the division of labor (i.e., who is home more; who is doing more child care), parents’ personalities, children’s personalities, and a variety of other factors.

Harris and Burtka also talked about their different “roles,” particularly in the initial stages of parenting. Burtka was home more, while Harris worked more (on his hit TV show, How I Met Your Mother). Thus, their foci (caregiving and breadwinning) were somewhat different during early parenthood. This pattern is not unusual in gay or heterosexual couples; as I discuss in my book, in about half of the 70 couples whom I interviewed, one partner worked part-time or stayed home while the other partner worked full-time. Those who took on different roles in relation to providing and caregiving described both challenges and benefits of their arrangement. For example, in some cases couples worried that the child would become more bonded to the partner who was home more; yet on the other hand, they were grateful that they could afford to have a parent at home, at least part-time, and thereby minimize their reliance on outside child care.

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka’s interview with Oprah underscores the main message of the book: Gay parents are, as Burtka states, “the new nuclear family.” In this way, their experiences are, in many ways, similar to those of the heterosexual parents – but yet their experiences are also uniquely shaped by their relational status as two men, their minority status in society, and the continued pervasiveness of societal heterosexism.

Abbie E. Goldberg is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University, and the author of Gay dads: Transitions to adoptive fatherhood.

Read more articles like this from Dr. Goldberg on her Psychology Today blog.

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