A few weeks ago, I read through the 2011 report One Parent or Five: A Global Look at Today’s New Intentional Families (Elizabeth Marquardt, Principal Investigator) published by the Institute for American Values’ Commission on Parenthood’s Future.
For those of you unfamiliar with the IAV, it is the thinktank founded and still presided over by David Blankenhorn, the prominent opponent of same-sex marriage who recently (kinda sorta) reversed his position. Marquardt is a staff member there and also blogs regularly at the Family Scholars Blog.
Why did I bother to read a 72-page report coming out of the IAV, you might ask? Well, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Too, I always think it’s worth trying to understand the worldview of people who are afraid of and/or opposed to the life choices and broader social changes which give me a deep sense of inspiration and hope for the future of humanity. In this case, intentionally non-normative family structures.
It’s tempting — but ultimately won’t be very helpful in effecting social change — to dismiss anti-gay-marriage sentiment as simply bigoted and wingnutty. It may well be these things, on some fundamental level, but that’s rather immaterial when it comes to trying to help people be less frightened of social change. Calling them homophobic bigots is about as helpful as calling someone who says something racist or sexist a racist or a sexist. While satisfying in the moment, it’s not the best way to get your opponents to listen to your point of view.
So. What’s the deal about my upcoming marriage? Why does it make certain people so uncomfortable? Inquiring minds want to know!
In One Parent or Five? Marquardt’s argument is clear. She (along with many of her colleagues at the IAV) believe that sociological evidence shows that stable two-parent households in which both parents are the child’s biological parent are the best type of environment in which to nurture children. Full stop. If you get nothing else from One Parent or Five? the takeaway would be that for Marquardt family structure is the factor to trump almost all other factors in terms of child well-being — and that the two-parent bio-family unit is the best of all possible family structures. The ideal to which we should all yearn toward or strive.
Why she believes this is never fully explained. She begins the report with a romantic description of hetero couples who successfully conceive children within wedlock:
When at all possible, the married mother and father usually opt to conceive children the old-fashioned way, through sexual intercourse (or what our parents’ generation quaintly called ‘making love’). The married mother and father can be found pretty much everywhere, from the parks of San Francisco and Seattle to the streets of the edgiest neighborhoods of New York. Diverse and resilient, the married mother and father has for millennia put down roots everywhere in the world. Generally thriving wherever planted, the fruit this family produces — children– is among the hardiest and healthiest in the world (8).
I would argue that there are two unexamined assumptions in this paragraph that weaken Marquardt’s position: 1) her belief that the married hetero couple with children has been the norm for “millennia,”* and 2) that the welfare of children is the primary function of marriage.
Is it really sociologically-sound (or possible?) to compare even an early-American married couple with children to a late-twentieth-century one and argue the marriage itself was the source of individual children “thriving”? We could look at the married couple in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s study A Midwife’s Tale, for example, and see how a husband and wife parented their family in rural Maine in the 1790s in ways that Marquardt would find objectionable (fostering out children to relatives, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an absent father away on business, etc.) and yet — look! They’re married!
Yet this assumption that marriage itself, specifically the marriage of a child’s biological parents, is the source of better outcomes for children pervades the report. There is nothing wrong with forcefully arguing your case, certainly. The problem is that Marquardt et. al. fail to make a strong case for marriage and blood relations per se being responsible for a difference in outcomes (even if they could persuade us that such differences exist). In many of the studies Marquardt cites, hetero marriage of biological parents could be said to stand in for a whole host of other factors — not the least of which is structural and cultural support for that form of family life — which could account for the difference in outcomes, rather than the fact that the parents remained married and/or had bio children instead of adopting or seeking out sperm/egg donation and/or surrogacy.
There is a stark dichotomy created here between these two parent bio-families (viewed through gentle rose-colored glasses, their faults all blurred around the edges and explained away in favor of “generally thriving”) and all other family forms, from single parents to co-parenting arrangements of three or more, which are viewed as recent innovations worthy of suspicion until they prove their worth (and it’s clear Marquardt is highly dubious of positive outcomes here).
It’s worth noting that what was, thirty years ago, taken as read (that a heterosexual, married parent was always going to trump a single parent or sexual minority) now requires seventy-two pages of justification with “science” in order to gain very narrow ground: that “studies have shown” that children from two-parent bio-family households out-perform all other populations in a variety of measures. Admitting that the social support for this particular family model (and the discrimination suffered by all other family forms) may contribute to these uneven outcomes, Marquardt is left with the modest argument that before whole-heartedly endorsing new family forms we should wait to see what grown children have to say about their experience.**
Let’s assume for a moment that Marquardt’s skepticism toward all family forms but those families that consist of hetero married couples with bio children is justified, and that this nuclear family unit is somehow proven to be the most ideal family form for child well-being.
My question is then what’s actionable in this picture? Even if this model were ideal it will never be achievable in reality.
Because some people aren’t heterosexual. Some people get married with the best of intentions and then are so miserable that getting divorced is the best of all available options. People die, so there are widows and widowers. Infertility happens, so adoption and infertility treatments come into the picture. Some people have the strong inclination to parent, yet know themselves well enough to know they would not do well in a marriage relationship (or simply haven’t found the right person yet, but don’t want to wait to have kids). Sometimes parents, bio or otherwise, are incapable of parenting for one reason or another and grandparents, aunts and uncles, adoptive parents, teachers, social workers, the church — any and/or all of these folks hopefully step in to provide the child with unconditional love and acceptance, and the material support they need until such time as they can maintain a household of their own.
So even if you believe that two hetero, bio parents are the absolute surest way to a happy childhood and well-adjusted adulthood, I’d venture to say that from the dawn of the human race to the present day, world-inclusive, maybe 5% of children have grown from birth to adulthood in such an environment.
So realistically-speaking, rather than spend your time angsting about how children aren’t getting that environment, if our concern is that actual children who are alive today are getting what they need to grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults, shouldn’t we be asking how to get them what they need where they are at rather than waste time trying to control what will never be a controllable situation?***
I’ve also been thinking about how this way of conceptualizing “family” — as primarily a unit organized around the raising of dependent children — leaves out the well-being of the parents and other adults. I believe that families are for children, yes, but I also believe they are for grown-ups. Families are for people, full stop. And all of the people in a given family unit have needs and desires that should be on the table and actively attended to in order for the family to thrive.
In Marquardt’s version of family, adults seem to exist primarily to perform functional roles, slotted into “mother” and “father” positions, and — in her ideal world — remaining there, fulfilling certain very specific functions — until the children are capable of adult self-care. The personhood of parents is obscured, even erased. All of the case-studies Marquardt invokes of alternative arrangements highlight adult selfishness or short-sightedness. Women who pursue parenthood while single are referred to as “choice moms” (“choice dads” also get a brief look-in); gay and lesbian couples are maligned for depriving children the presence of one or more biologically-related parents, and same-sex couples looking to maintain close ties with such third-party parents are derided for confusing their children with too many parents.
Um … is it really possible to have “too many” caring adults in your life?
While I absolutely agree with Marquardt that children’s voices should count when it comes to evaluating where and how they thrive, I’m skeptical that Marquardt herself is a valid conduit. Too often she slips from acknowledging how little-studied non-normative families are to imagining how horrible these arrangements must be for the kids in question. Furthermore, she chides professional organizations such as the American Academic of Pediatricians and the American Psychological Association for affirming the ability of queer parents to care for their children, instead arguing that:
I would rather that we wait and let a generation of young people raised by gay dads and lesbian moms grow up and tell social science researchers — and all of us — how they feel about mothers and fathers … I would prefer to let them tell us if anti-gay stigma was their only problem or if they faced other problems as well (32).
It’s unclear to me what we gain in continuing to stigmatize non-traditional family forms (and thus increase the difficulties for folks of all ages within them) while we wait for a generation of children to grow up to tell us how such marginalization injured them — when we could, in fact, treat them with support and respect (as we do hetero-headed families) and then study the outcomes.
Finally, this is where my desire to understand the opposition with a certain amount of empathy beings to falter. Because while I’m not standing in my (non-normative) corner arguing we should uphold laws and policies already on the books which discriminate against hetero two-parent, bio-related families, Marquardt and those who agree with her are doing exactly that about my family and circle of friends from their corner: Arguing for institutional and cultural discrimination to continue against non-normative families (including the children who are a part of them!) because they believe these families are not the best of all possible situations.
I simply don’t believe that Marquardt (or I! or you! or anyone!) is in a position to know what is the best possible situation for everyone — let alone legislate or create policy as if they can know those things. And I cannot get passed the fact that Marquardt is advocating for policies that make the lives of people like myself — and the children of people like me — more precarious and vulnerable in the name of building a better world for kids.
Some of whom will grow into people like me.
*Not to mention “globally,” as the report claims. Those interested in a brief glimpse of the true diversity of family organization around the globe would do better to check out Unhitched by Judith Stacey. Marquardt’s “global” examples are ad hoc and hardly a valid cross-section of family life around the world
**Why a certain segment of the population (for example, myself and my fiancee) should be expected to wait patiently for our constitutional right to freedom of religion (1st amendment) and equal protection under the law (14th amendment) while the rest of the world gnaws at their cuticles and waits for our children to come of age is unclear to me.
***I was struck by the parallels between the vision of an ideal childhood as one of total biological continuity and marital harmony and the rhetoric of the purity movement that encourages young people not to have sex until married. Both of these narratives seem organized around the notion that we can somehow protect people, perhaps eternally, from imperfection and heartbreak, from loss and sadness and grief. While I don’t believe “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” there is simply no way that we can escape negative experiences. Avoidance of those experiences is less important to well-being than learning skills to help yourself recover.