The “one mother, one father” family model

by look i have opinions

It’s bizarre how our culture assumes that being raised by one mother and one father is “normal.” Actually, scratch that, it’s bizarre how our culture assumes that being raised by two parents is normal.

For the vast majority of human history, people lived in small bands (and a few still do). Different bands had and have idiosyncratic family arrangements, including on-demand divorce, polygamy, kids being raised jointly by their mothers and maternal uncles, and plenty of less savory practices. I submit that, if the ideal childrearing strategy were one mother + one father, we would see that strategy enforced by cultural norms all over the planet. Why deviate from a practice that works better than any of the alternatives?

If the Apache and the indigenous people of Palau seem too remote, let’s take a look at some of our closer cultural relatives. We see women hiring wetnurses, nannies, and governesses to do the “motherly” work of childcare, while their husbands aren’t expected to contribute much more than money. We see kids getting shipped off to boarding school as soon as they’re old enough, returning home only for summers and holidays. And these aren’t acts of desperation—these are the practices of the richest families, the ones that have the widest range of options. These wealthy kids are raised by half a dozen different adults, of whom their “real” parents are perhaps not even the most important in their lives. The less wealthy kids, even if they live with their “real” parents, are often raised in a large part by relatives, neighbors, babysitters, daycare workers, and schoolteachers.

At this point, I’m sure some of you are quibbling over the word “raised.” When we talk about a child having two parents, we don’t mean that those two are the only adults in the child’s life. We don’t even mean that the two parents spend more time with the child than, say, the teacher who supervises them between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. every day. We mean they have a sort of stable connection with the child, a loving and intimate connection, a bond that is implicitly (and often explicitly) guaranteed never to break.

All right then, but why does that love and stability have to come from parents specifically? And if parents are needed, why two? I’ll grant you it’s best to have a backup in case one dies, but why not three or four? And why one male and one female? Love and stability aren’t gender-based, as far as I can tell.

But, you protest, being a parent means more than just love. A parent of the same gender as the child is a gender role model: daughters follow their mothers’ lead, sons follow their fathers’. Being a parent also means being a model for all the child’s future interactions with men and women. Or something like that.

This is where the whole argument gets a bit murky for me. If a child is raised by two men and a woman, will she have a wider emotional capacity when relating to men than when relating to women? Or will she feel confused from an early age about how to interact with men, since her male parents are two entirely different people? Will she have difficulty deciding which parent to treat as her own gender role model, since she has one “extra” to pick from? Does a child raised by a single parent have an easier time in that regard?

And the most pertinent question: is there any solid data on this, or are we just making it up as we go along? I contend that almost all of us, myself included, are making it up as we go along.