40 | Answering Tough Questions

Meet the Guests:

Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD, lives in south Florida with his wonderful husband, Greg, his brilliant daughter, Adelle, and their oddly cute dog, Tippy. Dr. Barsky teaches conflict resolution, social work practice, and professional ethics courses at Florida Atlantic University. The family enjoys participating in theater, music, travel, silliness, and social action.

Sam Skye is an art therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor living with his partner and two children in Portland, OR. Sam works in private practice with LGBTQ+ people of all ages specializing in supporting individuals through gender exploration and transition. Sam is currently working on a children’s book for youth considering puberty blockers and planning a summer arts camp for gender diverse kids in elementary school.

Further Reading

Episode Transcript:

Emily: I am an adult queerspawn who was made by my lesbian mom and a sperm donor. Growing up I knew our family was different and that the way that I was conceived was not the same as my friends. I loved my family and I knew the scientific basis about how babies were made, but there was a lot left out by my parents. So, as kids do, I filled in the gaps and just made up stuff in my head. And that is to say, only when I wasn't boldly explaining what a sperm donor was to my new friends at age seven, much to the shock of their parents. I remember the stories that I made up, like how I pretended my donor was trying to send me secret messages. I know many other queerspawn have similar stories. I wanted to talk about this experience with some parents who know the other side of tough questions or funny creativity from queerspawn, from kids with LGBTQ parents. With me are Allan and Sam. Allan Barsky lives in south Florida with his husband Greg, daughter Adelle, and their dog Tippy. Dr Barsky teaches conflict resolution, social work practice, and professional ethics courses at Florida Atlantic University. The family enjoys participating in theater, music, travel, silliness, and social action. Sam Skye is an art therapist and licensed professional counselor, living with his partner and two children in Portland, Oregon. Sam works in private practice with LGBTQ+ people of all ages specializing in supporting individuals through gender exploration and transition. Sam is currently working on a children's book for youth considering puberty blockers and planning a summer arts camp for gender diverse kids in elementary school. So welcome Allan and Sam. I'm going to start by asking the question that I ask everybody as we get started.Who is in your family and how was your family formed?

Allan: Sure. In our household it is myself, my husband Greg, my daughter Adele, and our dog Tippy. Often when strangers ask us questions like, where did you get her, talking about our daughter, we will tell them that we found her in the bakery aisle at Publix and the conversation goes from that. So sometimes people will ask intrusive questions out of the blue and sometimes we'll just kinda joke around. And when we get to know people we will explain that our daughter was born through surrogacy. We had a surrogate to give birth to our daughter and she's a wonderful woman who we still have a relationship with. Our family sees her on an ongoing basis. We also have an anonymous egg donor who we have never met.

Sam: My family consists of myself, my wife, Megan, and our two kids, Jude and Sage. Sage is eight years old and uses they/them pronouns and Jude is almost two. I was Sage's natal parent, so I was pregnant with Sage, and Sage calls me Papa. Sage was conceived with their other dad who I was married to at the time. His name is Jay. We divorced when Sage was still an infant and Megan and I met when Sage was around three years old. We've been together for six years and we've been married for three. Megan is Jude's natal parent and we conceived Jude through ICI at home with help of my brother, who was our donor.

Emily: Okay. And what are some of your favorite things to do as a family?

Sam: Our family loves to go on adventures together. We travel a lot. Last year we spent a month traveling through Germany. When we're not doing that bigger adventure stuff, we just like to have play dates and there are constantly kids in our house just having fun or watching movies.

Emily: Great. And Allan what are some of your favorite things to do with the family?

Allan: We live in south Florida, so going to the beach and swimming sometimes in out pool, and board games. We also enjoy travel and being active in our communities.

Emily: Great. So this episode I really wanted to talk about two sides of some of the really interesting things that kids say. What is in their brain, what they're going through, what they're thinking about. We know that kids say some pretty hilarious things. Look on Twitter or Facebook and you'll find parents sharing great things, articles or listicles about it. Is there anything that sticks out in your mind of some of those like real gems of particularly funny things your kiddos have said that surprised you?

Allan: Our daughter, Adele, has come home from school a few times and told us that she had to explain sex education to kids as early as pre-k and kindergarten. She said "kids were asking questions but they didn't even understand what sperm was."

Emily: Yep! Has she ever told you like what she's telling them? Is she getting it right? Is she accurate?

Allan: Yeah, well she's fifteen now so hopefully it's accurate! But even back then we were always very open about biological connections and how she was born so all of that just came very naturally to her. What was interesting was from what was normal and natural to her, she was surprised that friends didn't understand this or that. A lot of times kids will say, 'yeah, but who's your mom' and she explains that she has two dads. That can get tiresome when you're a young person, answering the same question over and over. Especially when the people asking don't really believe what you're saying.

Emily: Totally. And Sam do any particularly interesting or funny stuff from your kiddos come to mind?

Sam: When Sage was pretty young, when I transitioned, they were probably three or so, just barely old enough for us to explain it to them, it had to be very simplistic. We were talking about taking hormones for medical transition, what testosterone does, that sort of thing. They started calling it beard medicine, which I thought was very cute label for what testosterone is and still to this day they refer to it as beard medicine. Recently we were all out to eat as a family. There was this little boy sitting next to us with his dad, and he looked over, he was maybe five or so, he looked over at Sage and in this mean tone said 'do you have a dad? Because it doesn't look like you do.' We just didn't have any idea what to say because he was a little kid and he was with his parent and his parent looked mortified. Anyway, so we just went back to eating and kind of laughed because A) it's hilarious because Sage actually has two dads. And B) Sage was just so sweet. They came over and looked at me, gave me a hug and held my shoulders, They were like, 'I know you're my dad. You're a manly man.' Which I just thought was very sweet. Not normally something I would use as a label for myself in any way, but just a really sweet moment.

Emily: Yeah. And I have to say, I really do think that kids with LGBTQ+ parents or caregivers, can be especially surprising or creative or funny because, as you've both mentioned, we're given age appropriate information about our families, how we came to be in a family and how other people might perceive our family. But a lot of our peers are not given even that age appropriate information. So kids fill in the gaps . I love that shock sometimes that other kids can experience. I mean I have no memory of this but my best friend's mom tells the story now of when I had just I moved to a new town, she was meeting me as her daughter's new friend for the first time and was driving us. She tuned out a little bit and when she tuned back in, she says, I was in the back seat explaining what a sperm donor was to her daughter at age seven. She was like, what is happening, although she played it cool. To me that was what I did. I had to talk about that all the time. Why wouldn't I talk about having a sperm donor? That is my every day. I actually put a call out on social media to ask for other stories from folks. So I just want to share a few of them, and then we can talk about them a little bit. The first one is: "We've always been very open about how babies are made in our house. When I was preparing to be a surrogate, we were also open with our kids about that process. We were hanging out with the intended parents and our son who was almost five at this point turns to the dad and very seriously asks, 'have you already taken the sperm of your body to put it in my mom? And the intended dad's face got bright red. Then he backed away slowly." Which is a story I just love. Like sometimes we know the science but we don't know all of the science or exactly how it works. Somebody else shared that, "when my kiddo made his first friend at Family Week in Provincetown, he said, 'you have two dads? I don't even have one dad!" Family Week in Provincetown is the largest gathering of LGBTQ families in the world. So I just love that. Have you noticed your kids filling in some of those gaps in knowledge or have you heard them talking biology that they kind of know but don't all the way know?

Sam: Yeah, I can definitely speak to that. With our second kid, Jude, we've been really open about that whole process. In my professional work, I've seen that the research suggests that transparency is really the best approach. A developmentally appropriate transparency, right? So we've been talking about that a lot, but also when you're that age, like five, six, even now with an understanding the science behind it, it's complicated. Jude came to be because my brother was the donor and my brother is gay, which is something that Sage knows, although I think they still kind of totally don't fully understand the concepts of sexual identity, which is totally fair when you're eight. So we were talking about it and just trying to understand Steven's role as a donor. And they described Steven as Jude's straight uncle, which I think is their way of trying to explain like the reproduction science. It was just such an interesting term to apply. So that was kind of an example of that for me.

Emily: Allan, do you know of your daughter filling in any of those gaps in information there?

Allan: Yeah, I knew that sometimes she's just got a good sense of humor about it. She was in a science class and a teacher pulled out a Petri dish and she goes, 'oh my mom'. We sometimes get phone calls from well-meaning parents, who they say, I'm not sure how I'm supposed to handle this, I'm getting certain questions. And Family Equality had some materials that we gave to teachers and other parents and there are other books and videos, so that was really helpful. So I think it's, it's actually a good thing you don't want to always put on your kids. You are in charge of informing other families about how LGBT families can be constructed. But it is a role that our kids are taking.

Emily: Absolutely. Especially with our peers. You know, in those conversations when adults aren't always present, it's happening. It is also true that kids can ask questions or say things that can feel surprising or shocking or sometimes hurtful to parents, without the kids intending to necessarily be hurtful. I as I grew older, I think I still felt pretty comfortable asking some of those questions. And part of that was definitely kudos to my parents for telling me if I wanted to talk about my donor, it's okay. They were open to it. But that's hard to do sometimes and it can be really hard for some folks. Yeah. Does that seem true to you as well?

Allan: So I think when Adele was younger, she knew that she had the surrogate mom who gave birth to her. And that was kind of sufficient and more recently she's thinking more and understanding more about her biological mother. She's wanting to get in touch with her. And so, we had a written agreement through the fertility clinic. So we actually have tried to pursue that but it does get a little bit more challenging to ask some more questions as she gets older. But it really fits their stage of development, she wants to know where she's coming from. I can really understand that. So I want to be supportive of that and help her through it. But at the same time you're not able to get in contact with the biological mom.

Sam: Yeah. Allan, what you're saying really resonates with me in terms of using understanding of development to help separate yourself from any questions that could feel potentially hurtful. Or we might translate them in our adults minds and feel like they are almost judgmental or somehow against our family structure. For me, using that lens of saying, well this is just my kid's process and how they become the full-grown version of themselves and develop their own stories and narratives about their life. So it empowers me to push through anything that might kind of touch on more sensitive subjects for me. As an example, because Sage was so young, they are kind of forgetting some of the original details of my life before I transitioned. And so they recently asked what my old name was before I changed it. And it really bothered me. I mean, I want so badly to live this fantasy that my name and my identity were always mine and to put the past away because fundamentally things like saying my old name makes me feel dysphoric. But as a parent, I really felt like it was important to be honest. This is Sage's history too. And I think it's important for them to be able to integrate and organize their memories. All of us are constantly writing, rewriting, and reprocessing our life stories. So I feel like it's my duty to support my children in that work. And practically speaking, Sage is going to need to know my old name anyway. So I just sort of told them in that moment, but also reflected very gently that that wasn't the right name for me and it doesn't really feel good to reflect on or talk about very much.

Allan: A slightly different take on it - you asked about questions that kids ask. Sometimes it's the adults that make things the most awkward. So we'll have well-meaning family and they'll say, oh I can be your mom, I feel bad because Adele doesn't have a mom. Most of the times she doesn't feel bad that she doesn't have a mom. But there are occasions when something will come up, there's a mother-daughter event or Girl Scouts or something, then I will gladly participate in all of that. But sometimes it feels awkward cause you're the odd person out again and we work with Adele to help her with the words that she can use to explain. And there are actually times when she'll actually say to one of her friend's mom, 'you're like a mother to me'. So there are those expectations and as Sam was saying there are those narratives out there and you're trying to fit in. So thankfully we live in an age where there are more diverse narratives, but still the predominant narrative is a mom and dad.

Emily: Sam, do you have things that you've done, or as professionals just advice for folks, of how do you handle that in a way that makes kids feel feel comfortable and safe asking questions, while still feeling good about that happening for yourself. That is something that I just see so often coming up in social media - parents sharing, my kid asked about this or asked why don't I have a mom? Or what if this person was my dad? And that the adults can feel that in a way that I think most kids are not even aware of. Kids are not actually feeling some loss or a sense of my family is not enough. It's just kids being kids or being creative or other outside people asking about it. So I am interested then in advice for how to handle that as the adult in the situation.

Sam: For me it's having a lot of of support. So recognizing that I like going to therapy for myself, having good friends, friends who are, when possible, in similar situations in terms of being trans, being parents, being somewhere in there. So that I can work through those things without my kid in the room and I can feel more ready and prepare to put my reactivity to the side and just address the need of the child that's in front of me. That's really for me, one of the most helpful things. And I'm also not afraid to try to buy time and just say, you know, you're asking some really good questions. I'm going to think on that and come back to you. Which isn't always the most satisfying to them in the moment, but sometimes I just need a little bit of time to think about how I want to come at this specific question. And also, if it's specifically triggering for me in one way or another, to allow myself to calm down a little and come at it from a less emotional place.

Allan: Sam is right on in terms of, if now isn't right moments because you're triggered, you're tired or angry or whatever, come back to it at a different time. We've been lucky in south Florida, we helped develop and participated in social groups for LGBT parents and their kids. We were thinking that this will be good for kids, they'll be able to talk about issue. But our kids would get together and then just be kids. And it was the parents who would talk about how do you handle this question? It is good to have other parents to talk to. But everyone's child is different.

Sam: I find that being around other people going through similar stuff helps you to discover the things that you didn't know, that weren't even on your radar. And they bring it up and you go, "oh right, yeah, that's something I didn't even think about. But now that you bring it up, yes, I can totally resonate with that or think about this solution and this different angle." I feel like even even hearing Alan talk, thinking about the idea of bringing books in the classroom, that's such a great idea. And one of those things that is a solution that wasn't on my radar, so absolutely great thing to do.

Emily: What do you think brings on those questions from kids? You've talked sometimes about development and my experience, I definitely think it came from questions from peers. But I'm really curious, as professionals working with families and working in therapy and psychology, what is it that brings on those questions from kids?

Sam: Oh well that fear coming up in the adult, to me definitely speaks to what we've been talking about - how adults can oftentimes filter questions through their own lens, which often can be a lens that has a lot of insecurity. Like, is this the right kind of family? Am I doing this? Is this okay? Is my kid going to be okay? Maybe that's some internalized phobia stuff that we're processing as parents as we're building these families. To your other point, I think that really those questions for the kids oftentimes are just because they're curious and trying to figure out their story or from peers, which has been my personal experience.

New Speaker: So this year Sage started in a new school, which has been awesome for them and so many ways, but in terms of gender equity is pretty regressive. And so almost all the families are really classic cis, hetero nuclear families with a stay at home mom who's devotes tons of time at the school. That is not in any way, shape or form close to our reality. So that's been bringing up a lot of kind of jealousy and curiosity for Sage. And then a lot of their peers doubted that I'm Sage's natal parent. And even when Sage goes to explain it and says, yeah, my Dad, Sam was pregnant with me. They still don't believe it because in their minds there's no way that a dad could ever be pregnant. And even if they try to share the details of how that works scientifically, it just doesn't really resonate. And Sage just wants to play and have fun and be respected. That's kind of their main goal in life. So I try to remember with all of these questions or concerns that come up that they just want to be a kid.

Allan: Looking back, I came out rather late in life for some reason. I had imagined that once I came out to everyone, I wouldn't have to come out again. And then you realize you're constantly coming out. I think that's kind of the same thing with the kids and having these discussions when they meet new people and it could be their parents or their teachers or other adults. They get these questions and then they're kind of forced into answering them and they have to choose what way that they want to answer them. We had a situation when Adele was in a religious school and had a well-meaning teacher. Around Mother's Day the teacher was having all the do cards in Hebrew. And my daughter is like, I don't have a mother. The teacher said, well, you have to do one because of course you have a mother. So she had to explain it. When you can preempt those problems when kids are younger and talk to the adults, that's great, but you won't always be there to protect your kids from those situations and fortunately/unfortunately, they'll figure out how to deal with them.

Emily: How do you decide on the timing of what to share? Do you wait for maybe a hint of a question? Do you just front load that information so that they have those tools? And how do you determine what is age appropriate? Is that just gut instinct? Is that reading books? Is that talking to peers?

Sam: Gosh, I have a lot of reactions to this question. It's a great one. In terms of understanding development, it doesn't hurt at all to do some reading and to understand some formal models of child development just to have that in your back pocket. But obviously every kid is so different. And observing your child and spending time with them, playing with them, just hanging out, is a great way to start doing some calculations of your own about where your kid's at and their coping abilities. As you start noticing the strengths that they do have, you can think about how to reinforce them or if you notice some gaps, how to fill that in a little bit so that they're able to take care of themselves even if they're in a situation and they can't quite explain it or cope with it. They have some personal skills to deal with it. To some degree, I feel like the classic 'good enough' parenting is what we can offer. We're not going to get it perfect. There's going to be some things where we share too much or too little and we don't quite get it right. But as time goes on, you get chances to do this over. We're constantly rehashing this, reapproaching it and finding the right sweet spot in terms of like getting ahead of things. I often talk about sharing our logic brains. We have this fully developed prefrontal cortex that a lot of young people haven't quite gotten to. So as adults, we're able to say, let's talk this through for a minute. Let's imagine a scenario and let's think of some ideas about how we might want to deal with it. You're lending your ability to logic and map out some potential realities and then working with them to talk about some extra information or possible solutions.

Allan: Our daughter was born 12 weeks early. So as prepared as we were, having a daughter born 12 week early, we weren't so prepared. I think from that point in time, we got very much into let's be on top of things. Let's be ahead of things. So we were probably talking to Adele about different issues before she really needed to. The best guide is if the child is old enough to ask the question, then they are old enough to hear the answers. So we've tried to find what's an appropriate answer and sometimes scientific, physiological explanations are really not what they're looking for. There's a joke about some child comes home to their parents and is crying. The parents ask, 'what's wrong, what's wrong?' 'Well, you know, the kids said something and I didn't understand one of the words and they were making fun of me.' 'Well what do they say?' 'They said they found a condom on the veranda.' So the parents start explaining what condoms are. And the child says, 'No, I know what conoms are, what's a veranda?' So you have the check what they want to know. And sometimes it's more involved than what you expect. Try to do your best to have these conversations and sometimes it'll be awkward or not be the best thing. But you'll have other opportunities to correct it.

Emily: I think that's such a good point. The both of you have made that no one's going to be a perfect parent. Parents put so much work into either bringing kids into the family and coming out through any kind of process. There's often so much work done having that kid and we've worked so hard to be a fully present parent or to be a parent in the first place, that you want to do it right. And there's just a million ways to do it right. And a million ways to do it wrong. And everyone does have a combo of the two and that's okay. I often will share comments and I see people writing on social media things that I would do. Like, my kiddo is playing that they have a dad that he's a spy or a secret agent, and that's why he's not around. And the parents are thinking, what does this mean? What's wrong? What am I doing wrong? Of course I don't know the answer, there is no answer. But from my experience, the answer is nothing. You're not doing anything wrong. I loved my family, I felt very safe at home. I had loving adults in my life and I still pretended that my sperm donor was trying to send me secret messages and he was actually a prince who was trying to reach me to invite me to live in his castle. And it's not that I didn't have a happy house, I just was a dramatic kid and loved the drama of that idea. So that would honestly be my answer. Sometimes kids are just being kids and it's totally healthy to be having these conversations or questions. For parents who are hearing some of these tougher questions or questions that they perceive as being a little sensitive or are challenging for them as a parent, what advice do you have for them?

Sam: Well, like I had mentioned before, my advice generally is to be developmentally, appropriately transparent and try to figure out your kid's coping skills and abilities and reinforce those. Just give them the truth to the extent that they can cope with it as far as you're able to assess. Really just being very concrete and specific and what's in front of them, what's in there, what's actually in their life that they're experiencing, rather than sort of getting onto our adult tangents and thinking in these big terms. Most of the time I feel like kids tend to be really concrete. It's really about what's in front of them. That's what I've felt has been most effective for us in our family.

Allan: Parents sometimes feel like they have to be perfect because they're being judged more. Adele was growing up in an age where same-sex marriage was not legal. And in Florida adoption was not legal by gay and lesbian parents and so on. We had to prove that we were as good parents as everyone else. And I think there's still some of that. I think partly it's just telling ourselves to do our best and our kids are going to be fantastic and in some ways they're actually going to have advantages from the families that we are creating.