What is Parenthood? Naomi Cahn and June Carbone

03.22.2013, 10:00 AM

Naomi CahnNaomi Cahn, Harold H. Green Professor of Law at George Washington University

June CarboneJune Carbone, Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair in Law, the Constitution, Society and Professor of Law at University of Missouri-Kansas City

Responsible Parenthood

At the core of the discussion between those who would continue to privilege two-parent biological, marital families, and those of us who seek responsible parenthood irrespective of family form is disagreement on how to get to a society that provides greater support for all our families. We believe that the one prescription likely to have the greatest impact on family health would be a laser-like focus on employment: Provide better jobs for blue collar men at the losing end of the economic transformations and for single mothers struggling to get by and the family will take care of itself. The question of why more people do not create two-parent married families – and why American marriages and cohabitations are more likely to dissolve than those abroad – is not about morality. It is, instead, about the relationship between the family and the larger society.

The family is not an unchanging monolith that has taken the same form in every era and in every country. Evil stepparents are a staple of grim fairy tales for a reason, as death rather than divorce made historical marriages no more likely to last than today’s fragile unions. Societies have, in fact, always varied widely in how they channel resources to the next generation, and even within nuclear families, the organization of roles has changed in response to economic conditions. What once made marriage close to universal was socialization into a system that provided jobs that paid a family wage, did so only for men, and simultaneously restricted women’s economic and reproductive autonomy. Today, that system is, thankfully, no longer in place, and what prevents its resurrection is less the commitment to the equality of women than a new economy that no longer rewards male brawn over other skills.

In our contribution to this volume, we view changes in the family largely as an incomplete response to the needs of a new, technologically driven economy. That economy rewards education and investment in the market potential of both men and women. Realizing the benefits of that investment, however, delays readiness for family life into the mid-to-late twenties, if not later. The most stable families have been those that embraced the change, promoting education for both men and women, and postponing childbearing until the adults have reached a measure of financial independence and emotional maturity. These families have adopted more flexible attitudes toward gender and a commitment to manage reproduction. The new system respects the life and reproductive choices of the mature and the independent; single parenthood for a professional at thirty is a different matter than it is for anyone at seventeen. Yet, for those who succeed, two-parent families largely follow as a matter of course.

The challenge for any model, however, is growing inequality in the society as a whole. This greater inequality makes the search for the right partner more perilous. In another era, an executive might have married his secretary. Today, he is much more likely to marry a fellow executive, and, indeed, college graduate men have become much more likely to marry college graduate women than a generation ago. At the same time, the new economy effectively writes off a high percentage of low-income men as unmarriageable due to high rates of chronic unemployment, imprisonment, violence and substance abuse.

The changing fortunes at the top and the bottom are not just a matter of short-term adjustments to employment prospects. They create self-reinforcing patterns of behavior. At the top, the search for the right partner is as important as entrance into the right college, and both men and women both understand that continued education and a steady job is the ticket not just to greater income, but better family prospects. For others, neither the good job nor the stable relationship may be attainable. The effect of writing off such a high percentage of men as disposable has been to create a gender mismatch. The women, who increasingly outnumber the marriageable men, come to the conclusion that in a world in which men have less to offer in terms of either reliable income or trustworthy behavior the only security comes from investing in themselves and their children. The better off men in these communities find that they can play the field, and the women, after too many disappointments, see the men as a threat, not an advantage, to their ability to raise their children.

We believe that it critical to assess the links between inequality, employment, and the family and, at a minimum, to consider measures that provide greater family security at a time of greater employment instability. Consequently, until the study of the family is reintegrated into a larger discussion of social and economic forces, true understanding of the changing nature of family structure is impossible.


3 Responses to “What is Parenthood? Naomi Cahn and June Carbone”

  1. Diane M says:

    “until the study of the family is reintegrated into a larger discussion of social and economic forces, true understanding of the changing nature of family structure is impossible.”

    Absolutely.

    “This greater inequality makes the search for the right partner more perilous. In another era, an executive might have married his secretary. Today, he is much more likely to marry a fellow executive…”

    I don’t think this is about salaries. In another era, a male executive could not have married a female executive because she didn’t exist. His secretary, however, might have been a smart woman from his own class background. In fact, maybe he didn’t have college either.

    The increase in college grads marrying college grads might be partly a reflection of the fact that there are women in college. College is often where you meet someone.

    “That economy rewards education and investment in the market potential of both men and women.”

    Okay, so how do you provide jobs for people who don’t have education? or for people who aren’t good at school (who are often men)?

    One of the frustrations of this discussion is that family scholars can point to the problem, but you need economists to talk about solutions.

    “The most stable families have been those that embraced the change, promoting education for both men and women, and postponing childbearing until the adults have reached a measure of financial independence and emotional maturity.”

    Well, they are also the families of wealthier people with more stable wealthy extended families. And I don’t think anyone has rejected education.

    So one question is why not put postponing childbearing into the mix?

    Also, really, people in the educated class don’t just postpone childbearing until they are financially independent. They postpone it until they are married.

    The college-educated class has a funny split on this – we want to accept and praise all forms of families, but we only choose one. I think there’s a strange form of hypocrisy there where you don’t admit that you think having children inside marriage is a better way to do it.

    I also wonder if one reason college-educated people are more tolerant of the idea of other forms of families is that we aren’t really in contact with them as much.

  2. Diane M says:

    “At the core of the discussion between those who would continue to privilege two-parent biological, marital families, and those of us who seek responsible parenthood irrespective of family form”

    So I keep coming back to – why can’t we favor two-parent, biological, marital families and still support responsible parenthood no matter what the family form?

    And given the research showing that two-parent, married, biological families are better for kids, why wouldn’t we try to encourage those families over other forms?

    Isn’t it only fair to children to try to ensure that they are born to two parents who are committed to each other and the children and have therefore gotten married?

    Or that the children are not taken from their biological parents without good reason and that they can have a connection to their biological parents later on if they are adopted?

    We know that there will still be children being raised by just one parent or divorced parents or blended families. So we should support them when it happens, even if we encourage parents to aim for lasting marriages.

    In fact, there may be times when trying to argue that all families are equally good hurts the children whose parents are divorced or never married. Children may need someone to acknowledge their loss and help them grieve. They may need social programs set up for them.

  3. intheagora says:

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