Post-Gender Families: New Perspectives on Parenthood

Photo: Harris Ananiadis / CC

There are many myths surrounding the notion of family and parenting. Some of them can be  dismantled with a feminist insight – ranging from critical to radical [1]; others – with a sober rationality and an insistent honesty, however  a substantial contribution to a critical examination of the topic can also be acquired by adopting the perspective offered by LGBT families. That can be especially helpful to deconstruct the essentialist family paradigm in order to foster more egalitarian and fulfilling models of parenting. 

So, what does the essential family model look like?

Basically, it is a married union formed by a heterosexual couple and their biological children. It is also assumed that biological sex differences construct specific gender differences in parenting, thus both parents are irreplaceable. The biological experience of pregnancy and lactation is believed to generate a strong, instinctual drive in women to nurture; therefore their gender role is to provide emotional nourishment, security and care-taking. Since men do not have this drive, their interest in the childcare is believed to rest on paternity assumption and in the “civilizing” effect of the marriage, since apparently men – according to the theory of evolutionary psychology – are only interested in maximizing their evolutionary fitness by impregnating as many females as possible. The gendered role of the father is to ensure discipline, be a problem-solver and playmate.

In fact it is believed (which is rather paradoxical) that the presence of father in a family is in some sense even more crucial than that of the mother. I suspect one of the reasons why this assumption is so widespread is the need to grant men power and ensure their dominance in a family even though the essentialist model seems to admit that fathers are not that good parents since they lack the experience of pregnancy, birth and lactation. However the importance of the father seems to reappear once again in the idea of him being the male role model crucial for boys to develop healthy (and in many cases that implies heterosexual) gender identity, while for girls they provide a future relationship model and foster femininity.

In addition, a considerable number of studies seem to prove that children who grow up without a father are highly likely to develop social and behavioural problems (for example, child poverty, violence, teenage pregnancy, poor school performance, alcohol and drug abuse, and welfare dependency and urban decay). It is important to stress out that the consequences of the essentialist family model not only enhance traditional gender roles and parenting stereotypes, but are an obvious backlash against LGBT community rights and feminist movements, discriminating against single parents, divorced or unmarried parents and same-sex couples.

Rasa Jansone’s painting “This is happiness”, 2013

How come so many studies have “proved” the negative effects of fatherlessness?

Recent critical research into such studies highlights a categorical mistake in their premises, according to which the number of parents, their relationship status, sexuality, and especially economic and social conditions have been repeatedly conflated with their gender.[2] So, it is not exactly that the union of a biological father and mother is so important, rather – the number of responsible caregivers. And marriage is not per se the safe and the virtuous space for parenting, rather the legal benefits it provides. Heterosexual orientation of parents implies easier access to reproduction but does not ensure a deep and loving relationship with their offspring. A remarkable amount of studies have showed [3] that both parents are capable to develop equally responsible and skilful parenting skills as far as the social situation allows and the person in question is amenable to this. Finally, the social and economic circumstances of divorce entail stress and are often emotionally severe for children, because their entire life circumstances and attachments are disrupted together with separation from the family home and neighbourhood. The loss of the father in a traditional family structure means the loss of the male income, and I would just like to remind you that in Latvia single mothers are among the poorest part of the population. All the aforementioned factors should be considered when examining the lives of the “fatherless” children (even though some variations can occur regarding if they have no contact at all, occasional or regular meetings).

Doing away with the essentialist paradigm is the first step in acknowledging different family units and studying their strengths and deficiencies. For instance, the  critical investigations done by Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey “How Does the Gender of Parent Matter?” first of all claim the need to define more precise criteria for collecting and interpreting empirical data, also including single parent (both mothers and fathers) and same sex couples, with variable sexual identities and parenting biological or adopted children. Their analysis not only refutes some popular stereotypes about “what is best for children”, but also provides some insight into the advantages of same sex parenting.  

First of all, let’s face the reality of a heterosexual family.

During the new-born period there are no differences in parenting behaviour, however after a year mothers usually have developed their skills to a much greater degree than fathers, just because they invested much more time into learning how to mother. When fathers assume the primary caretaking role, they are as competent and “sensitive” as mothers, but this usually does not happen, because most married wives exceed their husbands in terms of time spent engaged in child care and domestic work, as well as in most types of interaction with their children. Married fathers are the breadwinners; they spend more time with their sons than daughters and express greater interest in children’s  conformity with gender roles(which is not surprising, since men also want to ensure their privileges in coming generations).

Despite stereotypes about fathers as disciplinarians, mothers physically punish children more often (because they spend more time together, I guess). However, fathers commit more physical and sexual abuse.[4]

Egalitarian parenting and work responsibilities are more desired by women than men, however the possibilities to achieve this state are limited. Married heterosexual fathers typically score lowest on parental involvement and skills, but they improve notably when faced with single parenthood. Then they start to do housework and enjoy a warmer relationship with their children. It seems that men’s parenting capacities remain latent when women are around.    

What does it look like when two women parent?

This family structure seems to confirm the gender stereotype of mothering and provides a double dose of “feminine” parenting, namely, both parents are interested in developing care-taking skills and a warm and communicative relationships with their children.  Two mothers tend to play with their children more and are less likely to employ corporal punishment, set strict limits or evoke gender or social conformity.

 

In addition, this union seems to be more egalitarian that a heterosexual one, enjoy greater equality, compatibility and satisfaction with their partners than their heterosexual counterparts. However, there is also a negative effect: the double dose of maternal investment can foster jealousy and competition between co-mothers. In addition, their relationships prove less durable. One of the reasons could be that these couples lack access to legal marriage and receive less familial, cultural and institutional support. It is also worth noting that the comparatively high standards lesbians bring to their private relationships correlate with higher dissolution rates. The same risks face married heterosexual couples with egalitarian orientation.   

To conclude – two women parenting without the benefits of marriage score higher on several measures than married heterosexual, genetic parents. Women parenting without men (without the essential father) score higher on warmth and quality of interactions with their children. This is true not only for a lesbian couple, but also for single mothers, both homo- or heterosexual. [5]

The body of research on gay male co-parents is very slim; however the data available suggests these couples do not provide a double dose of masculinity. On the contrary, they also appear to adopt a more “feminine” parenting style. They parent more equally and compatibly and are less inclined to promote conformity with gender roles in children than heterosexual couples (but still more than lesbians do). Most gay men who choose to parent (like heterosexual fathers who win custody after divorce) are taking the responsibility of parenting, developing an emotionally connected relationship with their children and taking part in kids’ activities, namely, they engage in what conventionally been understood as mothering.

One father from the study put it this way: “As a gay dad, sometimes I think I have more in common with moms than I do with straight dads. The straight dads I know are essentially weekend dads, they don’t parent with the same intensity that I do or that their wives do. I am a dad, but I am like a mom too”. [6]

One of the reasons why there is such a striking difference in parenting styles of heterosexual and homosexual fathers could be that the paths to parenthood available to gay men demand far greater motivation. A second reason could be that they simply don’t have wives who would “naturally” take up the responsibility of child rearing. Interestingly, however, gay parents also tend to earn more and to remain committed to full-time employment, thus preserving some traces of traditional “fathering”. However, in conclusion, we have to admit that gay male parents challenge the dominant practices of masculinity, fatherhood and motherhood more than lesbian co-mothers depart from normative femininity.

The popular belief that children from fatherless or same-sex families face difficulties in developing a heterosexual identity or even suffer a crisis of identity also turns out to be gender biased and lacks any substantial evidence.

On the contrary, the studies have shown these children demonstrate a higher degree of gender flexibility (less likely to submit to gender constrains) and a lower degree of gender chauvinism (less likely to assume boys are better than girls or vice versa). The only negative effect these children experienced was teasing at school and other forms of social pressure and discrimination due to the homophobic sentiments prevailing in the society.

To conclude the critical examination of parenthood, one must admit that two emotionally available and committed parents are better than one, and the data we have today suggests that two women parent better on average than a woman and a man with a traditional division of labour, despite the fact that lesbian co-parents are denied the privilege of marriage. [7] Gay-male parent families remain under-researched, while married heterosexual couples enjoy a vast amount of cultural and social support, but rank lower on the parental involvement scale. There are plenty of variables that may affect family life and the well-being of children, however, when it comes to gender of the parent, very little about it seems to be really important since most of parental skills are not dependent on gender at all.

The article is based on the paper presented in the conference Queer Narratives in European Cultures 2018. Subjectivity, Memory, Nation that took place in Riga on June 7–8, 2018.

[1] This was my main goal while writing the book “Lovely Mothers. Women, Body, Subjectivity”, that was published 2016.

[2] Biblarz T., Stacey J. How Does the Gender of Parents Matter? / Journal of Marriage and Family, No. 72 (February 2010), pp. 3–22. Available here.

[3] Silverstein Louis B., Auerbach Carl F. Deconstructing the Essential Father. American Psychologist, 54 (6), 1999, pp. 397–407.

[4] Biblarz T., Stacey J. How Does the Gender of Parents Matter? p. 4.

[5] Biblarz T., Stacey J. How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?  p. 11

[6] Biblarz T., Stacey J. How Does the Gender of Parents Matter? p.12.

[7] An inspiring insight into lesbian family has been provided by Anna-Stina Treumund in her video Mothers (“Emad”) from 2010.

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