For quite a while now I’ve been mulling over a more thorough discussion of the role of nature in arguments about parenthood. I’ve touched on this topic before–here, for example. (I’m going to make a tag for “nature” and I’ll try to go back and tag some of the older entries, but that is for the future.) “Nature” is frequently in discussions about who is or is not, or who should be and who should not be a parent.
You can start with the phrase “natural parent.” I think to most people the woman who gives birth to a child she is genetically related to is a natural parent of the child, while the natural father would be the man who provided the sperm. (Unless of course he was a sperm donor, in which case you are in the realm of ART, where the “A” used to stand for “artificial” as distinguished from “natural.”) I think the idea here is really to distinguish a natural parent from an adoptive parent, who is a parent by action of law rather than by action of nature. The parental status of the former is simply in the nature of things–it owes nothing to culture or civilization or law. (Law does, however, generally confirm the parental status of natural parents.)
Next come the arguments that particular family forms are superior because they are natural. It is said to be natural (and hence good) for a child to have a mother and a father. From this it follows that if instead you have only one parent (mother or father) or you have two parents of the same-sex, it is unnatural, which must also be bad.
Then yesterday I happened to be on a whale watch where the naturalist discussed the roles of the male and the female humpback whale in raising a humpback calf. The female is an attentive parent, keeping the calf with her for many months. (She was referred to as “the mother.”) The male, however, is entirely uninvolved. (And perhaps correspondingly, he was not referred to as a father, but simply as “the male.”) Some naturalists theorize that the male whales have time to develop more sophisticated feeding techniques than female whales, because they have no child-care obligations. All of this is, of course, quite natural.
I’m not going to suggest that whale society should be model for human society. But this certainly seems like a model from which one could argue that having two involved parents is unnatural. At least, unnatural for a whale calf, though not necessarily bad.
Really though what I want to develop is a different argument about the problem of invoking nature in this context. It’s not at all clear to me that being a good parent is something that comes naturally. Certainly it does not come naturally to all of us. There are countless stories in the media of parents who clearly damage their children, often through ignorance or out of fear/frustration/despair. You might well be the natural mother of a child when you are fifteen, but there’s no reason you would naturally know what to do to care for the child.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is an evil wrought by modern civilization which has destroyed our natural instincts towards parenthood. Caring for an infant isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. It is, I think, a mistake to believe that it will just come “naturally” rather than as a result of time and effort, of teaching and learning. Invoking nature as somehow defining parenthood obscures the extent to which parenting a human child is a tremendously demanding and challenging task.