Since we voted for marriage equality, I've been thinking about the impact this might have on the traditional family ideal. I decided to take this opportunity to think out loud. No matter which side of the marriage equality debate I sit, the legislation has changed. Our culture and our world has shifted.
I wanted to consider what impact this had on my perception of the traditional family ideal.
My ideas have been grounded in my baby-booming generation and reinforced by immersion in Christianity. Having stepped away from that religion a long time ago, I now look for new modes of thinking. I embrace ideas that encourage me to poke my head above the 'norms' of our times. Ideas that enable me to see myself, my culture and my nationality, from new perspectives, captivate me. Marriage equality seems to provide one of those opportunities to look at tradition from a new perspective.
What is the traditional family ideal?
The family ideal from my generation, in its simplest form consists: father, mother, children.
A father and mother take a life-long commitment to love, cherish and support each other 'until death us do part'. The children are raised to reach their full potential in a loving supportive environment.
Mother and father stereotypes have been intrinsic to this ideal:
- the father as the head of the household, traditionally the breadwinner;
- the mother taking the caring nurturing role, traditionally carrying most of the domestic duties.
The mother/father stereotypes provide role-models for the children. As they emerge into adults to take their place in society, there was an expectation that they will emulate the model.
The traditional family ideal propagated itself by nature.
Evolutionists argue that these stereotypes were the result of our physiological evolution, emerging due to the human need to survive in a hostile environment. Feminist theory posits that differences between male / female role-models are purely socially constructed. I maintain an open curiosity to these polar positions.
What's good about the family ideal?
A long-term functional committed relationship provides: emotional security, support, shared-decision making, shared-financial and other resources, shared-history, an environment for children to safely grow and develop. There is much more that could be added to this list.
Inherent to the family ideal is the family home: a hub of activity, a place of peace, hospitality, security, respite from the world … a safe place.
Children are raised together and sibling rivalry plays an important developmental role. It provides opportunity to learn how to socialise and how to adjust 'needs and wants' in the face of other's 'needs and wants'.
The traditional family ideal has given us powerful language: mother, father, brother, sister, home, family. This language is fundamental to our culture and encompasses powerful archetypes that inspire and motivate us.
In what ways has the traditional family failed?
It only takes a moment to think of families that have failed: couples that have broken apart; couples who continue to live together albeit in dysfunction; brothers and sisters who hate each other; family members who don't talk to each other.
Living the traditional ideal has its challenges.
The privacy and secrecy of the home environment, provides a perfect incubation for abuse. Dominant personalities can control, coerce, manipulate and abuse - and no one sees, no one knows.
But are these the failings of the ideal or the failings of those who subscribe to its tenets but do not succeed in actualising them? I would argue that the ideal has not failed us, that the family unit breaks down due to human failings.
What is the impact of marriage equality on the family ideal?
It seems easy to argue that the success of any partnership (whatever orientation) must be predicated on the ability of the actors to fulfil the tenants of a meaningful relationship.
But in thinking about this more deeply, I saw two interesting discussion points that seemed to jump out and grab my attention.
Raising non Biological children
As in many species on the planet, human males and females join together to propagate. This has been the physical reality of our humanity.
But my mind goes immediately to my own family situation. I grew up in a blended family. My step-sister and step-brother were both adopted. My sister is my sister in every sense of the word, even though we share no DNA.
I remember when my niece (adopted by my brother) found her biological father, she had a profound experience. She realised she already had a father … my brother. Her biological father was not her 'father', despite the genealogical connection.
Adoption is an age-old tradition and stands on its own as an example of a successful, non-biological parenting model. Isn't it more about the appropriate support of a caring family unit? Though I also recognise first-hand the deep passion individuals have to understand their biological roots … to understand 'where they came from'. Raising non-biological children is not without issues.
Raising non-biological children becomes even more interesting when you consider today's technologies for conception: In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF), donor sperm, donor eggs, surrogacy. The biological boundaries to creating children are being stretched and pushed in many directions ... regardless of marriage equality.
As a society, we've already moved well beyond the simplicity of two people having sex to produce offspring. We all know someone who's gratefully taken advantage of using these technologies.
There are many facets for interesting discussion in this debate. These few thoughts are merely scratching the surface.
The other critical conversation point in this debate that jumped out at me, is around changing stereotypes. These seemed cornerstone to the traditional family ideal. What if there are two-male parents or two-female parents … what stereotypes do they provide for children they might raise? What will happen (has happened) to our traditional stereotypes? What principles and values are shaping and moulding these new stereotypes?
I don't have the answers. But I did think that if we could put traditional stereotypical mother / father roles aside for a moment and consider values of: dependability, trust, commitment, encouragement, support ... love. These seem critical values required to make a family unit work and function according to our long traditions.
Aren't these values human values ... above individual roles of sex or gender? Isn't a functional family dependent upon loving supporting actors?
Stereotypes are changing. The traditional male/female divide is blurring. The roles and responsibilities in the household are more commonly being shared: financial contributions, domestic duties, the self-sacrifice essential to child-rearing. There is already less delineation between roles, a blurring of lines. I've seen it in my generation compared to my parents and even more changes in my children's relationships.
Yes, they're changing and I have to admit I'm glad they've changed. I believe I've benefited personally from these changes and I believe my children's generation have as well.
This gives me a hope and an optimistic outlook.
In the end, for me, it's about looking inside myself and trying to be the best person I can, to love and support those who are close to me. I believe this to be the heart of the family ideal.