What is Parenthood? Linda McClain

03.21.2013, 10:00 AM

Linda McClainLinda McClain, Co-Editor of What is Parenthood? and Professor of Law at Boston University

How Contrasting Models of Parenthood Can Help Us Understand Conservative Briefs Filed for – and against – Same-Sex Marriage

As co-editor of What Is Parenthood?: Contemporary Debates about the Family, I welcome this chance to explain, in this online symposium, the book’s genesis and what it can contribute to contemporary debates about parenthood, families, and marriage. I will illustrate by commenting on two conservative amicus curiae (friends of the court) briefs filed on opposite sides in Hollingsworth v. Perry, one of the two same-sex marriage cases now before the United States Supreme Court.

In the brief that made headlines because of its many prominent Republican signatories, Kenneth B. Mehlman and a group of “social and political conservatives, moderates, and libertarians” argue that “traditional conservative values,” including “the belief in the importance of stable families,” are not only “consistent with” but “are advanced” by “providing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.” That brief urges the Court to affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling that Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to declare that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” violates the federal constitution. In contrast, prominent conservative political philosopher Robert George, along with Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis (his co-authors of the book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense), have filed a brief in Hollingsworth arguing that, far from extending marriage’s “stabilizing norms,” “redefining marriage” to allow same-sex couples to marry would “undermine” those norms and harm “spouses, children, and others.”

How can these briefs, which share the premise that marriage fosters stable families, reach such different conclusions about same-sex marriage? One reason, on which What Is Parenthood? sheds light, is that they hold different views about parenthood. They differ, for example, on whether biology and gender complementarity are central to parenting and child well-being. They differ on whether the benefits and protections marriage offers for adults and children are available only if marriage is made up of one man and one woman.

What Is Parenthood? grew out of a public conversation between my co-editor, Daniel Cere, and me about how the liberal feminist approach to the family and marriage that I developed in my book, The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility, differed from the conjugal model of marriage that Dan elaborated in his work and in publications by the Institute for American Values. Why did we see things so differently? Were there points of common ground? That conversation, facilitated by David Blankenhorn, led us to undertake a book project to explore how disagreements about marriage and the direction family law and policy should take often rest in conflicting convictions about parenthood. In What Is Parenthood?, we, along with a distinguished group of scholars from different disciplines, grapple with significant questions about parenthood. As a guiding framework, we use two contrasting models of parenthood: the integrative model and the diversity model. We acknowledge that there are variations within these models and that the image of a continuum might help us to map approaches to parenthood. I am very grateful to legal scholar Nancy Dowd, our series editor at NYU Press (and contributor to this symposium), for seeing the value of the book’s approach to parenthood.

I urge readers to consult the book for a full account of these models. Here is a thumbnail sketch. The integrative, or conjugal, model, regards marriage as the central social institution for uniting heterosexuality, reproduction, and parenthood so that children grow up with their two biological parents. Calling the model “integrative” highlights that biological, social, and legal parenthood should all fit together in marriage. The model stresses sex difference and gender complementarity: marriage channels human bonding and reproduction to ensure that children have a biological father and mother, who tend to parent differently.

The diversity model recognizes and responds to the diversity in patterns of family life, including the different pathways to parenthood. Many proponents of the model (including me) share the integrative model’s conviction that marriage is an important institution for linking adult-adult intimate bonds to the parent-child bond. However, the diversity model supports same-sex marriage as furthering child well-being. The model defines parenthood more by reference to the quality of the relationship between adult and child than to whether a biological or formal legal tie exists between them. Thus, it supports adoption and the use by adults of assisted reproductive technology to become parents. Instead of insisting that children need and have a right to one biological mother and father, it maintains that children have a basic right to healthy attachment and good parenting. The model also embraces family law’s move away from fixed gender roles for spouses and parents and toward equality as a basic norm.

With these two models in mind, how do the two contrasting amicus briefs map onto contemporary debates about parenthood? First, the George Brief asserts the integrative, or conjugal, model of parenthood and marriage. It contrasts marriage as a “conjugal relationship – the type of union that only a man and woman can form” with a “revisionist view” that marriage is “just the sort of emotional union that any two (or more) adults can form.” Marriage is unique: while same-sex couples (and close friends, for that matter) can unite hearts and minds, only one man and one woman can unite bodily in a generative act – sexual intercourse – and produce new life. Society’s interest in marriage is as (quoting James Q. Wilson) “‘a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve.’” Because of marriage’s special role, allowing same-sex couples to marry will “obscure the true nature of marriage as a conjugal union.” This will undermine – rather than extend – marriage’s stabilizing norms.

The George Brief links the conjugal model of marriage to gender complementarity: it asserts that “‘men and women bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise’” (quoting W. Bradford Wilcox) and that (citing studies) “a conjugal union is, on the whole, the most appropriate environment for rearing children.” Recognizing same-sex relationships would “legally abolish that ideal,” and “teach that mothers and fathers are fully interchangeable.”

Second, the Mehlman Brief is a hybrid of the integrative and diversity two models. Marriage’s role in fostering stable families, it argues, will be furthered – not undermined – by “providing civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.” It continues: “there is no legitimate, fact-based reason for denying same-sex couples the same recognition in law that is available to opposite-sex couples.” To the contrary, “the facts and evidence show that permitting civil marriage for same-sex couples will enhance the institution, protect children, and benefit society generally.” Thus, “the stability and mutual support and obligation” that marriage confers should be available to same-sex couples.

“Marriage,” the brief asserts, “also benefits children.” Consistent with the diversity model, the Mehlman Brief rejects gender complementary as necessary for optimal parenting. The benefits of marriage for adults and children, it asserts, “do not depend on the gender of the individuals forming the married couple.” Further, there is “no biological justification” for denying civil marriage to same-sex couples, and no evidence that allowing them to marry will undermine marriage’s importance for opposite-sex couples. The brief also appeals to findings that there are “no significant differences” in child outcomes between same-sex and heterosexual parents. Marriage, it states, is a “child-protective institution,” but this includes protecting children who are not biologically related to their parents (such as adoptive children).

The brief cleverly offers the example of the First Family to challenge the idea that marriage’s primary role is to “channel the procreative impulse”: “Our Nation’s first President and his wife had no children together, but their marriage provided a protective family structure for raising Martha Washington’s children by her first marriage as well as her grandchildren.” In other words, children will benefit by bringing same-sex couples under the big tent of marriage.

Like the integrative approach to parenthood, the Mehlman Brief asserts that marriage is the optimal setting for child-rearing. However, like the diversity approach, it asserts that a marital family consisting of two men or two women can foster child well-being and family values. The brief also resonates with the diversity model in insisting that an appeal to gender difference does not justify excluding same-sex couples from marriage and the protections it brings for parents and children.

That prominent “social and political conservatives, moderates, and libertarians” are arguing that same-sex marriage will strengthen marriage and promote important values is a dramatic and encouraging development in society’s evolving approach to parenthood. (The brief is also significant for its argument that marriage is a fundamental right that should be available to same-sex couples, but I confine myself here to the parenthood dimension of the brief.) Marriage, on this conservative view, is a big tent that can include families with married, same-sex parents. This seems consistent with the call by the Institute for American Values for a “new conversation about marriage.”

That said, I have three concerns, from the perspective of a diversity approach, about this big tent conservative approach. I raise them to invite comment, but must defer a full discussion to another day. First, as a prior symposium on this blog (on the State of Our Unions 2012 report) detailed, in the United States, there is a growing, class-based marriage gap, or what I called there “the other marriage equality problem.” How should family law and policy address this gap, particularly when adults who feel marriage is out of reach become parents? Second, the diversity model would resist the inference that because marriage is a valuable way to integrate intimate and parenting bonds, it is the only valuable family form or the one most worthy of governmental and societal support. One premise of the diversity model is that some degree of diversity in family forms and parenthood is inevitable as people exercise their moral capacity and freedom to live out their vision of the good life.

Third, both the George Brief and the Mehlman Brief stress the important role of marriage in advancing a traditional conservative value – limited government – by reducing the need for governmental support of children and families. We might call this the “private welfare function” of families. Certainly, families do play a vital role in providing nurture and care for, and meeting the economic needs of, their members, but this does not mean that government has no responsibility to meet such needs. (Interested readers may find the work of Martha Fineman a useful introduction to this issue.) There are lively and significant points of disagreement between conservatives, on the one hand, and liberals, feminists, and progressives, on the other, about the contours of public and private responsibility when it comes to supporting families!

I look forward to the comments on What Is Parenthood? in this symposium and encourage those whose curiosity is sparked to consult the book as the political and legal debates over parenthood, families, and marriage continue to evolve.

13 Responses to “What is Parenthood? Linda McClain”

  1. Diane M says:

    My first reaction to the two models of marriage is why can’t we say that being raised by your biological parents is ideal and children benefit from having parents of each gender, but sometimes families are different?

    So I suppose I end up liking the Mehlman Brief with its hybrid.

    I generally think we as a society need to support and promote the model that works best as much as we can. Then we need to also provide help to families that don’t fit the marriage model. It’s a very tricky thing to do.

    In terms of the need for government assistance – once again, I want to combine both ideas. Encouraging and supporting the formation of two-parent families would end up saving the government money. At the same time, we should keep providing assistance to all families that need it. And, of course, we may need to invest in families in order to get the long-term savings.

  2. Amy Z says:

    I like that the book quickly shows how much these models rest on a nuanced spectrum as each researcher offers variations within each model. Thanks Linda-for kicking things off!

  3. Ralph Lewis says:

    I, too, like how the book sets out a binary model (integrative vs. diversity, form vs. functionality), but doesn’t rest on it. The different authors use it as a template that helps the reader get (and stay) oriented for a discussion that has to cover a lot of ground.

  4. Beau Weston says:

    “Second, the diversity model would resist the inference that because marriage is a valuable way to integrate intimate and parenting bonds, it is the only valuable family form or the one most worthy of governmental and societal support.”

    A position like Mehlman’s explicitly rejects the implication that married parents raising their children is the only valuable family form.

    I think the tension between the models, and indeed in the whole book, is between those who see the integrative models as, on the whole, best for children, while some of the diverse forms are “good enough,” vs. those who also see the integrative model as, on the whole, best for children, but who also want to argue that some of the diverse forms are “as good as.”

  5. Mont D. Law says:

    Here’s my question. How can you rest an argument on

    (a conjugal model of marriage to gender complementarity: it asserts that “‘men and women bring different gifts to the parenting enterprise’”)

    when the only part of gender they want to consider is people’s genitals. Masculine straight women and feminine straight men exist, marry and parent as they please. There is no civil requirement that parents fulfill these roles. In fact the only religions I can think of that makes any attempt to enforce these do it after marriage with stigma, social pressure and violence or the treat thereof.

    There was a time when this was not the case. The law enforced gender complementarity but that was then and this is now.

  6. Kevin says:

    Consevatives love to say how they don’t want the government to pick winners (straight people) and losers (gay people), yet this is exactly what they’re doing with marriage.

    I agree with Mont D. Law: what, exactly, are the differences in parenting that automatically accrue to gender, and that aren’t just stereotypes? And how to we enforce those parenting differences, even if we were to agree that only different-sex couples may be allowed to raise children? What what does parenting have to do with whether same-sex marriage should be legal?

  7. Linda McClain says:

    I thank Mont D. Law for making an excellent point about gender, gender roles, and parenting and what civil law actually does and does not require. Contemporary family law underwent a gender revolution, spurred by the Supreme Court’s Equal Protection cases of the 1970s, in which the Court took a closer look at sex-based clasifications. For example, in 1975, in Stanton v. Stanton, the Court stated: “No longer is the female destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family, and only the male for the marketplace and the world of ideas.” The Court said this when it struck down as irrational a Utah statute that child support should be paid to female children only up to 18, but to male children up to 21. If a boy needs child support beyond 18 “while he attains his education and training,” then to assume that a girl does not, the Court observed, “coincides with the role-typing society has long imposed.” The move in family law away from such “role-typing” is evident in many other areas as well. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that traditional marriage affords children a home with “dual gender parenting.” However, contemporary family law has moved away from “traditional marriage” with its hierarchial and complementary gender roles for husband and wife, and father and mother. When I was a child, the law of my home state (Ohio) declared: “The husband is the head of the family. He may choose any reasonable place or mode of living and the wife must conform thereto.” Surely, children in such dual gender households did learn something about gender roles! But family law today stresses equality and gender neutrality. And as commenators on this blog point out (and as What Is Parenthood? elaborates), fathers understand and perform masculinity in many different ways, just as mothers in different households take different approaches to feminity and what being a woman means. This is consistent with the law’s move away from gender stereotypes and fixed notions about gender. Otherwise, the only way to ensure optimal childrearing, on the dual gender parenting model, would seem to be that each mother and father must perform gender a particular way!

  8. Diane M says:

    I think there is a value to dual gender parenting, although I don’t think that precludes same sex marriage.

    We live in a gendered society and it is helpful for children to have a model of how their gender is supposed to behave in their family.

    In addition, there are times as children get older (pre-teen/teen) when it is helpful to have someone of your own gender to talk to.

    I hope we can figure out a way to acknowledge this, even while supporting families with only one responsible parent or two parents of the same gender.

    If we don’t acknowledge it at all, I am afraid we won’t do the things we can do to help children. Single parent families or single gender families can make an effort to have relatives and good friends play a role in their child’s life, for example. Religious and community organizations can provide mentors.

  9. Kevin says:

    “We live in a gendered society and it is helpful for children to have a model of how their gender is supposed to behave in their family.”

    Yours is a circular argument: if we don’t reinforce gender behavioral stereotypes, then we won’t be reinforcing gender behavioral stereotypes.

    To that I say, so what? What is it that a male parent does than a female parent doesn’t, or can’t do?

    A child is certainly not 100% the product of who or what his/her parents are. I think that needs to be part of the discussion. There are many other influences, for better or worse, for who and want a person becomes.

  10. Diane M says:

    @Kevin – I don’t think gender behavioral stereotypes are something we need to reinforce or teach. Children are going to have them anyway.

    Children actively construct reality. They look around and see that there are boys and girls. Then they try to figure out what that means. Small children often have more rigid stereotypes about gender than the adults around them. They will enforce them, too, until the adults step in and say that boys can so be ballerinas and sometimes women drive trucks.

    Gender is a social construction, but it is one that has been with us for thousands of years. Our children are going to grow up with a sense that they are either a man or a woman. We can help them to feel positive about that and to accept their own individual self. We can teach them that gender should not limit your personality or goals.

    That does not mean that our children will be genderless or without a sense of gender identity. Having a parent of your own gender can make this process easier.

    I also don’t think that having a male or female parent around to model behavior for your gender means that they will model traditional gender roles. In fact, it can be exactly the opposite. An involved father can teach his son that part of manhood is gentleness. Role modeling by a parent can go against the sex-role norms society is pushing at your child. That is one of its values in my book.

  11. THX-1138 says:

    Please see this research called “Gender differences in parenting styles and effects on the parent-child relationship”


    See page 9 (“This illustrates the gender expectation that it is the woman’s responsibility to take care of the children”) and (“mothers are more overprotective and caring than fathers…”)

  12. THX-1138 says:

    I don’t agree…both the 8th and 11th circuit have identified children being raised by their mother and father is what’s best for children.

  13. intheagora says:

    Does the natural biological family have any rights the state is bound to respect or does the state simply determine what is “best?”