What is Parenthood? Christine Dieter

03.22.2013, 3:00 PM

Christine DieterChristine Dieter, 2012 graduate of Boston University School of Law

Don’t Co-opt the Message: A Case for Family Diversity

What Is Parenthood? forces both sides of the marriage and parenthood debate into conversation about social science, biology, and legal analysis. This debate isn’t just about how to get the “best” results in parenting. It’s also about our core constitutional values, including commitments to equality, liberty, and personal dignity. Our right to make fundamental decisions about how to achieve basic social goods necessarily leads to a plurality of family forms. It’s not enough to look at empirical evidence, which in any event we probably cannot understand in any objective way. We must also consider our constitutional commitments.

For example, although differing on the specifics, most of the book’s contributors agree that children benefit significantly from secure attachment to at least one adult. Some additionally emphasize the particular importance of attachment between a biological mother and her infant, but this becomes tricky. If the mother-infant relationship is really so critical, does it follow that we should implement mandatory maternity leave or banish women from the workforce unless they foreswear motherhood? If we focused exclusively on “best outcomes” for children, then perhaps it would. But parenthood implicates the rights and wellbeing of multiple stakeholders, and forcing women to mother in a particular way, even to salutary effect, would undermine their basic equality, liberty, and personal dignity. Our Constitution rejects efforts to force women, and men, into predefined parenting roles.

What we’re left with then, unless we reinvigorate a more coercive State, is the fact of diversity in family life. To some extent, the integrative model, which emphasizes heterosexual marriage as “the central social institution for integrating sexuality, reproduction, and parenthood,” acknowledges that diversity. But in preserving the integrative ideal, supporters have made concessions that undermine it. For example, the integrative model accommodates adoption by married couples, even though this violates the integrative tenet of biological connection between parents and children. But this adoption scenario doesn’t stray too far from the integrative ideal: it still features a married heterosexual couple raising children.

We’ve reached a fascinating moment in the same-sex marriage debate, however, where integrative model adherents have come out in support of same-sex marriage. First David Blankenhorn, star witness for proponents of the same-sex marriage ban in California, announced his support. Now a cadre of Republicans has joined former RNC Chairman Kenneth Mehlman in support of same-sex couples before the Supreme Court. How do we understand this dramatic shift? I think it suggests an attempt to reconcile the fact of diversity, and the fact that same-sex marriage garners greater acceptance each year, with a desire to maintain the hegemony of the integrative family ideal. We see a shift to emphasize aspects of same-sex marriage that fit the integrative model – two people, committed relationship, childrearing. But we need to consider just how big a concession this is. Same-sex marriage does not fit comfortably within the integrative model. It eliminates gender complementarity and biological connection of children to both parents (though a child might still be biologically related to one parent). These are key integrative tenets, and supporters have relied heavily on them to exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage. Remarkably, then, Mehlman’s brief contends that the benefits of marriage to children “do not depend on the gender of the individuals forming the married couple.” I agree, just as I absolutely believe that same-sex couples should have the unequivocal right to marry. But I don’t think we can say this still fits the integrative model.

Diversity model supporters should resist this attempt to co-opt same-sex marriage within the integrative framework. At some point the exceptions swallow the ideal. If the integrative model comes to accommodate same-sex marriage, then we risk further marginalizing other family forms that would benefit from legal recognition and support. Certainly, same-sex marriage has been about many things, but there has always been some concern for challenging gender norms inherent in traditional marriage and recognizing the dignity and moral good of a variety of adult intimate relationships and parent-child relationships. As we come closer to national recognition for same-sex marriage, we shouldn’t lose sight of its transformative potential.

In keeping with the spirit of What Is Parenthood?, this is the moment to expand the conversation. We should continue to fight for same-sex marriage, but we also need to point out that marital children may flourish in part because the State provides extraordinary support to marital families. We must continue to emphasize that children often experience important attachment relationships with caretakers other than biological parents. We should stress, as contributors Carbone and Cahn do, that we can improve child outcomes by helping adults invest in themselves and their families’ futures, whatever diverse forms those families take. Let’s keep the focus on family diversity and the supports these families require to thrive.


7 Responses to “What is Parenthood? Christine Dieter”

  1. Diane M says:

    “Some additionally emphasize the particular importance of attachment between a biological mother and her infant, but this becomes tricky. If the mother-infant relationship is really so critical, does it follow that we should implement mandatory maternity leave or banish women from the workforce unless they foreswear motherhood? If we focused exclusively on “best outcomes” for children, then perhaps it would. ”

    Or we could give all mothers paid maternity leaves for a year.

    Sometimes the rush to make sure mothers aren’t oppressed means that we want to ignore research about what is good for children. And then, crazily, we have no grounds to get something that would actually be good for mothers.

  2. Diane M says:

    I really, really disagree with this: “It’s not enough to look at empirical evidence, which in any event we probably cannot understand in any objective way.”

    You need to evaluate evidence, but don’t throw science out the window.

    However, your overall point is a good one – we need to look at the rights and interests of everyone involved. There may be more than one principle to consider.

    Unlike you, I like Mehlman’s adaptation of the integrative model. Bringing together two committed people to raise a child with the institution of marriage makes sense.

  3. Diane M says:

    So a few more serious questions:

    “there has always been some concern for challenging gender norms inherent in traditional marriage and recognizing the dignity and moral good of a variety of adult intimate relationships and parent-child relationships.”

    Why can’t we challenge traditional gender norms and have an integrative model of marriage? (for example, marriage brings together two parents to raise children and the father is an at-home dad for a few years.)

    “we risk further marginalizing other family forms that would benefit from legal recognition and support.”

    What other family forms? What legal recognition and support do they not have? What legal recognition should they have?

    Because I jump to single parents as one family form. They are legally recognized. They can get support, sometimes more easily than a married couple (to the extent that anyone can get support anyhow).

    Another family form is cohabiting parents – but they are choosing not to marry, so what would it mean to give them legal recognition and support? Would they want it?

    “We should continue to fight for same-sex marriage, but we also need to point out that marital children may flourish in part because the State provides extraordinary support to marital families.”

    What are the supports the State provides marital families that it does not provide to single parent families? divorced families? cohabiting families?

    I strongly suspect here that married families generally get and are often eligible for less support from the state (this is one reason some people don’t marry).

    I think the real difference is that two-parent families provide children with more resources than one-parent families. They generally have two or one and a half incomes compared to one income. They often live in more expensive neighborhoods that are safer and have better schools. Even when they have only one income, they have the unpaid work of the other parent. And they have much more time for their children.

    “We must continue to emphasize that children often experience important attachment relationships with caretakers other than biological parents.”

    I am not sure what you mean here. I agree with you if you are talking about adoptive relationships. They are parents and critical to their children’s well-being.

    “We should stress, as contributors Carbone and Cahn do, that we can improve child outcomes by helping adults invest in themselves and their families’ futures, whatever diverse forms those families take. Let’s keep the focus on family diversity and the supports these families require to thrive.”

    I’d like to see our society help adults in all families invest in themselves while also doing what we can to encourage married parent families in the long run.

    Building on the Knot Yet report, I think we need to figure out how to re-connect childbearing and marriage so that women generally marry before they have children, not after. It really is better for the children.

    The policies we use to get there could be liberal (birth control) or conservative (telling people not to cohabit) or non-partisan (job creation).

    What I think would be a mistake is to say that all family forms are equally good and so this social trend of babies before marriage is not a problem to deal with. That would just hurt people.

  4. Diane M says:

    So I’m off to dinner and spring break, but I hope you’ll keep blogging here.

    Greetings to all and hope you all have a good week.

    Fannie, I love the tweet about feelings. Very useful for married couples and families, too.

  5. intheagora says:

    Does the natural biological family have any rights that the state is obliged to honor? Or can the state simply decide what is “best?”

  6. maggie gallagher says:

    I think Christian is right. I don’t think same-sex marriage can just be a small add on to the “integrative model.” It implies that family process, not family structure, underlies our thinking on marriage.

    Stability is better than instability. Commitment may be better that uncommitment. But the structure of the family is not our aspirational goal with marriage.

    I know David B. and others struggle with this, and bless them. But I find it hard to see who has made an answer to this argument. I suspect there is none in theory and therefore we are waiting to see if practice can trump theory.

  7. maggie gallagher says:

    Sorry, Christine is right.