“I don’t have a daddy, I have two moms”; “My family is just me and my mum”. While these sentences might have resulted in total confusion only a while ago, more and more people are increasingly showing complex understandings of parenthood and familial structures.
Although dominant cultural narratives about parenting (and motherhood in particular) persist, we know homosexual, trans, inter and non-binary parents, as well as forms of single or polyamorous parenthood, exist today. They even have entered pop culture – hello there, Modern Family! The image of the bourgeois nuclear family consisting of a married heterosexual couple with biological children being the epitome of “good and genuine parenting” seems to have had its day. Nevertheless, this diversification of parenthood spreads slowly. Although media representations of queer parenting exist and are on the rise, they are rare and far too often lack complexity, at times reproducing stereotypical portrayals of queer individuals. Diversity does not equal real and accurate representation.
Before delving into the gender component of parenting, it is important to place these questions in a broader economic context: parental care comprises a large part of unpaid labour. The artificial capitalist division between paid productive work and unpaid reproductive work at times impedes the relationship between family and career, between parenthood and care work. In this way, the notion of parenting has to be read bearing in mind questions such as who is the breadwinner for the family and why, on whose shoulders rests parental responsibilities and care work, or what is considered to be a good parent.
That having been said and despite all contemporary changes in the notion of the family, parenthood (which should be gender-neutral) still seems to be considered synonymous with motherhood. More precisely, current representations of parenting still tend to equate an emotionally intimate mother-child relationship as the one true embodiment of parenting. While this association is problematic in its own right, it becomes even more dangerous once one realises that motherhood has been constructed as a central dimension of womanhood. This seemingly inseparable link between these two social constructs naturalises a certain gender hierarchy as well as the artificial division of labour between individuals with far-reaching (gendered) consequences.
First, women are still expected to find fulfilment in their role as mothers, which is seen as a natural and inherent quality of women. This dominant role expectation restricts women to the private realm and impedes their access to the public sphere. In this way, some women may run the risk of being perceived as “bad mothers” if they were to put their careers above their parental responsibilities. Yet, at the same time, their work as mothers is often invisible and not recognised as such even if working mothers ultimately end up working a double-shift. This double burden faced by working mums in a relationship or a single-parent household leads to increased risks of economic precariousness because of parenthood’s expectations. Paradoxically, we can observe the opposite in the case of fatherhood where it’s a win-win situation. Fathers are not only rarely punished when they ambitiously pursue their careers but also praised if they perform more care work since it is seen as breaking away from traditional gender expectations.
Furthermore, the dominance of natural motherhood as the epitome of good parenting also invisibilises queer forms of parenting. Notions of queer parenthood transcend biological understandings of parenting because they challenge heteronormative assumptions of the family unit and the heterosexual monopoly of reproduction, and parenthood. This inherent tension results in overt and subtle discrimination against queer parents as well as creates a reality where they constantly have to prove themselves as fit for parenting in a heteronormative world. The inquiry of who is the mother/father in the case of same-sex families, the exclusion of nonbirth parents during the process of pregnancy, or the deprivation of their status as a full parent, etc., all contribute to a recurrent questioning of queer parental identities affecting the mental health of the individuals concerned.
We need a holistic approach where reflections on the deconstruction of gender hierarchies, heteronormative lifestyles and the reconciliation of family and work go hand-in-hand. Parenting, at its very core, is about taking care of one’s children – whether they are born of blood, adopted, or otherwise. It goes beyond one’s gender, sexuality, or other chosen identities.