osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

The changing nature of family

Ruth Marcus' Washington Post editorial on the Cheney Child http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/07/AR2006120701440.html
got me thinking on the nature of family and how it will change with the rise of same sex parents.

As a matter of tactics, same sex marriage proponents have argued that all a child needs is two loving parents of any variety. That's fine for politics. Now lets talk reality for a moment.

Changes in family structure inevitably produce new issues in child rearing. Please note I don't say better or worse. Nor do I counsel trying to freeze marriage and family life in its present form (which has undergone continuous non-stop evolution since human civilazation began). Nor do I know precisely what the changes will be. But, as a betting man, I would bet that a same sex couple raising children and the children themselves will face a different set of challenges than those raised in hetero couplings.

Of course, we should distinguish between first generation challenges and challenges that will emerge when the social pattern becomes more acceptable. For an example, let us consider the outcomes of the last "assault" on "traditional marriage": the no fault divorce.

Until about 40 years ago, divorce in the U.S. was difficult to obtain and carried considerable social stigma. No surprise, this produced considerable social welfare cost. Unhappy families, abused spouses, abused children, etc. Demand for divorce increased, but law and society were slow to catch up. The legal system and the social system got dangerously out of whack. Many states technically granted divorce only for "cause." Nevada, very famously, had no fault divorce. This led to all sorts of legal fictions where either parties alleged some sort of legally acceptable fault that everyone knew was a sham (one study showed that the vast majority of NYC claims of adultery named the same "Jane Doe" as the supposed partner of the husband for adultery purposes) or sham resdence in Nevada.

Meanwhile, because divorce was hard to get and only for cause in most places, it still carried considerable stigma for both the divorced spouse (especially the woman) and the children. While growing acceptability of the legal shams made divorce somewhat more common and less stigmatizing, it still artificially increased the social cost.

So states began to change the law to move to "no fault" divorce. Defenders of "traditional marriage" fiercly resisted, arguing that "divorce on demand" would wreak havoc on children's lives. Proponents countered that children would be much better off in loving single-parent homes than in loveless, possibly abusive homes and catagorically resisted the allegation that divorce would of necessity impose any burden on children.

Over the years, studies have shown that children of divorce do, in fact, have a set of issues and emotional stresses that are different from those of children in marriages that do not end in divorce. This is not an issue of comparatives or an argument against no fault divorce. But it is a reality and reognizing the reality provdes a way to address the challenges. We can identify issues that may emerge (stress, separation anxiety, verious kinds of standard and non-standard reactions, relearning what is expected of them) and counsel parents and children on how to try to minimize the stresses and make positive adjustments.

Mind, the stresses were very different for children when divorce was much less common and still carreid social stigma. Those stresses faded. But other stresses still remain.

Again, children in families that do not end in divorce also have stresses and issues, but they are different. And pretending that a child that has undergone a parental divorce is not facing a different set of issues than a child that has not undergone a parental divorce is enormously counterproductive.

We have never had a human society in which there are a significant number os same sex couples raising children. This will once again shift what it means to be family. Industrialization, urbanization changed family patterns, mass education, the emergence of the two career family and the single parent family as normal social patterns, have all impacted what we mean by family. And we adjust as human beings, because human beings and human society are extremely adaptable and responsive to a host of environmental (used broadly) stimuli.

But our latest change in the evoltion of human society should not blind us to the fact that we should expect changes to produce new impacts and new issues. I do not know what the nature of those changes will be. I expect it will not be until 30 or so years from now that we have tracking studies of children raised by same sex couples where such a pattern is broadly (if not universally) considered unexceptional and appropriate that have a large enough sample size for us to answer the question "how do I and my same sex partner raise the happiest, healthiest most succesful child possible and how these challenges will differ from those of the hetero family next door."

It is foolish of those who believe that any change in an institution that has seen radical change over the last hundred years is of necessity change for the worse and must be stopped. The world will go as it will. Once homosexuality shifted from "the love that dare not speak its name" to socially acceptable (if not universally, than broadly), it was inevitable that same sex marriage would eventually happen. By it is equally foolish (even if politically necessary) to claim that there will be NO difference between hetero families and same sex families. We simply have no data on which to base such a conclusion.

I suggest that, instead of predeciding the issue and making value judgements in advance, we simply bring law and reality into alignment as we did with no fault divorce by making same sex marriage legal. Then lets settle down and wait for the data to emerge. Gay marriage may be the latest change for defning families, but the fact of change is probably only about five minutes younger than the institution itself.

"There are things that make a person say 'Behold, this is new'; but it is has existed through the ages that came before us."
--Eccl. 1:10

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