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.