THE PREGNANCY of the vice president's daughter is not usually political news -- except when same-sex marriage is a divisive social issue, and the vice president's daughter plans to raise her child with her longtime female partner.
The news of Mary Cheney's impending motherhood has caused a heated controversy on the right. Some social conservatives have unabashedly blasted Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, as destroyers of traditional values. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America called their decision to have a child "unconscionable"; anti-gay crusader Robert Knight asserted that the baby was conceived "with the express purpose of denying it a father."
As blogger Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the cruelty of this rhetoric is especially
evident when directed at an actual, flesh-and-blood loving couple. And yet are there legitimate, non-bigoted reasons to worry about fatherless parenting?
The absence of fathers has been a growing trend in America in recent decades -- ironically, parallel to the trend of fathers in two-parent families being more directly involved in child-rearing. More children are also being raised by single fathers and gay couples, but their numbers are dwarfed by the increase in children without fathers.
Lesbian parenting is, of course, a tiny part of this trend, which is driven primarily by out-of-wedlock births and divorce among heterosexuals. (When some champions of "the family" focus obsessively on gays, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that their true motive is bigotry.) While there is much talk of irresponsible men, it is usually mothers who initiate divorces, and more and more women embrace unwed motherhood by choice -- often through artificial insemination.
Is this a bad trend? Some arguments for the importance of fathers rest on rigid gender stereotypes -- e.g., dads push toward achievement and growth, moms give unconditional love and comfort -- that often don't match the individuality of actual men and women.
Still, a male presence contributes something unique to a child's world, and a single mother's support network can rarely replace a father. Most research shows that, all else being equal, children with two parents tend to fare better in everything from academic achievement to psychological well-being. (Comparisons of child-rearing by heterosexual and same-sex couples remain inconclusive.)
Of course, a child's well-being is a product of many complicated factors. But there is another issue here: Single parenthood by choice almost inherently reinforces gender inequality: because of biology, it is far less available to men. (Partly for the same reason, gay male couples are far less likely to raise children than lesbian couples.) Celebrated by some as an expression of female autonomy, solo motherhood actually enshrines the sexist stereotype of child-rearing and family as a female domain -- a modernized version of Victorian "separate spheres." It also radically alienates men from the family.
Where does the Cheney-Poe household fit into this debate? In a way, the two women are upholding the ideal of the two-parent family. From a moral standpoint, I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. But if the cultural link between parenting and procreation is weakened, who's to say that a two-parent family shouldn't consist of two female relatives or best friends raising children together without fathers?
Similar questions are raised by a trend described recently in the New York Times Magazine: lesbian couples having children fathered by gay male friends who have some involvement in the children's lives, so that a child has two mothers and a father who is more like an uncle. What effect will such arrangements have on the children? Will they, as same-sex marriage foe Stanley Kurtz warns, lead to a push for legalizing some form of multi partner marriage? No one can say; social history is full of unforeseen consequences.
Sullivan notes that most people who condemn Cheney and Poe for "denying their child a father" would not advocate taking away the children of single mothers. Even legislative attempts to bar unmarried women from seeking artificial insemination have been quickly abandoned. True enough: Americans have an instinctive respect for individual freedom and privacy, and the majority will readily agree that discrimination and coercion are wrong. But, while respecting choices, can we also agree that some choices are less beneficial than others -- and that liberation often has its costs, some of them still unknown?
Andrew Sullivan's take on the issue is the cover story in the latest New Republic. (Free registration required.) I agree with much of what Andrew has to say -- for instance, about the absurdity of the myth, still enduring on the hard right, that homosexuality a freely chosen "perversion" rather than an innate sexual orientation. He also rightly skewers the moderate conservatives (such as the folks over at NRO's The Corner) who shrink from attacks on a lesbian mother who is one of their own, while either endorsing or condoning legislation that strips Mary Cheney's family of all legal protections. (The Virginia state marriage amendment bans not only same-sex marriage but the recognition of any legal partnership or status designed to approximate marriage.)
However, on the issue of fatherhood, I think Andrew ducks the tough questions a bit. For instance, in this post, which I referenced in my column, he writes:
If the argument is made that all kids should have biological mothers and fathers, adoptions would cease. If the argument is made that kids should always have a father and mother in the household, then single mothers would have their kids removed from them in order to give them to adoptive couples. Neither argument applies because we have a modicum of respect for mothers, and their right to bring up their own child as they see fit, as long as it is with care and love.
Of course single mothers don't have their children taken away; nor are unmarried mothers and out-of-wedlock children (thank God) relegated to pariah or second-class status the way they were once. Nonetheless, some social stigma surely remains attached to single motherhood, particularly single motherhood by choice and design; and few people (except for ultra-radical feminists who see any talk of the importance of fathers as a "patriarchal" mentality) would equate disapproval of single motherhood with bigotry. So it's somewhat odd to see Andrew invoke single mothers as a model of respect for gay parents -- particularly since conservative advocates of same-sex marriage, among whom I believe Andrew counts himself, have argued in the past that gay marriage would boost and even revive a pro-marriage culture that, among other things, stigmatizes single parenthood. (Indeed, in his seminal 1996 essay on gay marriage, Jonathan Rauch argues that singleness as such should be subject to some social stigma -- a position I personally find a little too extreme.) So I am genuinely curious to know whether Andrew Sullivan agrees that single motherhood by choice is a legitimate cause for concern or critique. And yes, I am fully aware that it is very difficult to criticize a social trend without appearing mean-spirited or callous toward individuals.
Again, my issue is not with gay couples raising children. It's with the widespread attitude that it's perfectly fine for a woman to raise a child without a second parent. I have been asked by quite a few people, now that I'm near the end of my fertile years and still have not met the proverbial Mr. Right, why I don't simply have a child on my own. And I have to say that I find such casual acceptance disturbing (as I do the sexist presumption that every woman craves babies). Of course a lot of father absence is due to paternal abandonment, not maternal choice; but if many women endorse the view that fathers are unnecessary, that's not exactly a good incentive to men to be responsible fathers.
I do think that gay and lesbian parenting presents an interesting conundrum (and to say this is in no way to question the love of devotion of gay parents to their children). Couples like Mary Cheney and Heather Poe are widely accepted because they essentially replicate the traditional heterosexual family model: you form a union with the person you love and raise children with them. In this model, the fact that the two partners cannot, biologically, reproduce together is of no more significance than it some heterosexual unions, one spouse is infertile.
And yet the inescapable fact is that traditionally, the reason child-rearing is associated with a martial (sexual) union is that sexual unions produce children. Without that, is there a rational basis for thinking that the best person with whom to raise children is your sexual and romantic partner? Why shouldn't two female friends pool their resources to raise a child together? Or, to keep men in the equation: why shouldn't two close opposite-sex friends who (whatever their sexual orientation) do not desire a sexual or romantic relationship have a child together, live together and raise that child while dating other people? Such partnerships might, in fact, be a lot more stable than many marriages based on romantic love. And what about the three-parent situations of two lesbian mothers and a gay dad described in that New York Times Magazine article? (In his response to Stanley Kurtz on this issue on November 20, Andrew zeroes in on the marginal issue of whether the idea of same-sex marriage originated with radical activists but does not address the more basic questions.)
Perhaps one reason many people are wary of redefining marriage is that, in an age when sex is separated from childbearing and the nuclear family from the extended family, marriage itself -- particularly modern marriage which attempts to fuse the very different goals of child-rearing and romantic fulfilment -- is in some sense an irrational institution which endures mainly out of habit. Pull out some of the bricks and encourage people to inspect the foundation, and the entire edifice just might collapse. At the very least, traditional monogamous marriage (heterosexual or same-sex) could come to be seen as just one of many equally desirable arrangements people could devise for caretaking and child-rearing.
A part of me, actually, thinks that maybe that would be just fine, given how many mutations the family has survived over the course of civilization. A "traditional marriage" the way it existed in many cultures -- one man with several wives and concubines -- was surely no more different from the modern two-parent family than a two-mother, one-father household, or a household composed of two companions and partners in child-rearing who do not have sex with each other and date other people. The other part of me thinks that giving up on the nuclear family as the cultural ideal would be a highly damaging social experiment with the potential to leave a lot of damaged children in its wake.