Back to Nature?

This article is from the Sunday New York Times Magazine that will appear April 4.   It’s an extended discussion about recent findings about same-sex pairings in the animal world.   It’s recurrent focus happens to be female-female pairs of albatross who appear to 1) mate for life and 2) manage to raise chicks.  

I’ve written before about the ways in which people invoke nature when discussing parenthood.   Indeed, some would argue that parent is first and foremost a natural category.  What I mean is that parents are defined by nature and not by law or by cultural practice.   I think this view lies behind the assertion that a genetic connection is what should define us as parents:   “Natural parents” generally is understood to mean those with a genetic connection.  

The article discusses the different ways in which what is natural can be used in discussions of political or cultural questions.   Some will say that perhaps it is okay to be lesbian/gay because it is natural.  (This is the flip side of the argument that lesbians and gay men should be condemned because they engage in unnatural acts or commit crimes against nature.)   

Alternatively, others might say that animal nature is something we as civilized entities rise above.   Hence, the fact that animals may engage in same-sex sexual activities demonstrates the base nature of these activities.   Just as we transcend our violent animal impulses we must transcend these.  

I think the article nicely outlines both usages of nature.   And thus, it ties in with my earlier discussions of nature.   Beyond that, and more specifically focused on my topics here, it is interesting to think about human parenting and what we might learn about it from animal parenting.   I’m rather inclined to say the answer is “not much.”  

It seems obvious to me that parenting behaviors are deeply shaped by culture.   One has only look to changes in child-rearing practices over time to see that.   Where once it was seen as quite reasonable to send a 13-year-old out to work, now we think 13-year-olds should mostly be in school.

It also seems pretty clear to me that parenting is something we learn to do, although some may begin with a greater inclination than others.   I say this thinking particularly of two things. 

First, newborn humans are incredibly helpless and need a great deal of care.   First-time parents who have not had previous infant-raising experience are pretty routinely overwhelmed.   It takes time to learn the routines.   The second child, by contrast, is so much easier.  I think that must be because you learn so much the first time round.  And the operative word for me there is “learn.”  You don’t just know this stuff.

Second, there are way too many cases of parents who, for a variety of reasons, horribly mistreat their children.     I don’t mean parents who have a child-rearing philosophy I might disagree with.  I mean parents who act in ways that are undeniably abusive.  

Much as I regret that behavior, I fear it is often a natural (and I use the word deliberately) response to the situations in which people find themselves.   I don’t by any means want to suggest that because it is a natural response it is a good response.    To the contrary, because it is (in my view) both a natural response and a bad response, it is something we need to teach people to resist.   It’s natural to want to hurl something against the wall when it’s making you crazy, but you need to learn not to do that  

Maybe the most important point I take from the article is that there’s incredible complexity and variation in the world, and we’re probably a part of that.


9 responses to “Back to Nature?

  1. These albatrosbians apparently quickly copulate with a male and then rear with the lesbian partner. If one is to apply most state law because of the copulation, the lesbian partner is not the legal parent, but if applying Julie’s rule that the act of conception does not matter but rather the practice test of who is acting as a parent, then the lesbian partner albatross is the legal parent.

  2. I think many people use the word “unnatural” to mean “rare”, not “wrong”. In Canada where same-sex marriage is legal, they do official statistics on same-sex couples. Only 0.6% of all couples living together are same-sex couples, 9% of them live in a home with children (16% of the women, 3% of the men). Same-sex marriage was introduced 5 years ago, but only 16% of all same-sex couples have used their right to marry. This has surprised many people.

    • Interesting statistics from Canada. Of course, you cannot find comparable statistics on marriage among same-sex couples here, since only five (I think) states permit it. There’s a big push within the gay/lesbian community to try to get couples to check the boxes on the Census (and today is Census Day here, by the way) to generate a better count of the number of lesbian/gay couples.

      Beyond counting couples here, a muich higher percentage of lesbian/gay couples have children here in the US, which is striking. (I cannot lay hands on the statistics right now–I’ll see if I can dig them out later.)

      Finally, you might be right that many people use the word unnatural to mean rare, but I also think it is also true that many use it to mean something much closer to “wrong.”

  3. They are natural parents to their own chicks and step parents to eachother’s chicks. The step parent is not the natural parent despite the fact that the relationship with a same sex partner is very natural and despite the fact that their love and devotion to eachothers children also comes very naturally. The male parent is an absentee father/dead beat dad. He does however remain one of only two parents.
    When someone says “Natural Parent” or “Real Parent” they are having to resort to those terms because they are groping for words to distinguish a childs progenators from all the people who think they deserve the title of Parent because they held the kid out as their own or whatever.

    Nothing is more irritating to people who want to find their genetic families than a bunch of guardians whining about how their names need to be on birth certificates and how they need to be given the title of parent to do things like enroll the child in school. Malarkey. A legal guardian has the same rights and responsibilities as the real deal. The only reason to call a guardian a parent is to feed the ego of the guardian and their desire to get as many people as possible thinking they are raising their own offspring. They get their way and they get to be called parent by virtue of adoption but they get bent out of shape if anyone brings the “adopted part up” . They argue that they are “real natural parents” because their “love is real” They want genetics completely erased from the definition of parenthood so that “only those that do are” . If you follow that line of logic then the people that conceived the child are worthy of being called parents at all, thats just how many guardians would like it to be.

    The phrase “parent or legal guardian” pretty much sums it up; you are a parent if you raise your own offspring, your a guardian if you raise someone elses offspring.

    A step parent’s relationship to their spouse’s children is very natural but claiming to be the parent the parent of those step children is not.

    • I’m not sure where you stop talking about albatrosses and shift to people, but I’m also not sure it matters.

      I know you’ve raised the terminology point repeatedly and I agree with much of what you say. The labels have real power which is why people might insist on being called one thing or another.

      I think you and I agree on the categories (if not the terms) up to a point. But I wonder if you and I disagree on a basic point about management of the categorizations as well as the terms for people in the categories.

      I’d say there are progenitors–those whose genetic materials is used to create the child. And then there are people I’m going to call “child-rearers” for the moment.

      I think some child-rearers are progenitors and some progenitors are child-rearers. Neither category entirely includes the other. (It’s your classic interlocking circle Venn diagram.)

      So far I think we might agree? Here’s where I think we might part company. I would call all child-rearers just that–child-rearers, whether they were progenitors or not. I would not make legal distinctions among subcategories of child-rearers. To distinguish among them would, I fear, create risks of hierarchies–of some people being “real” child-rearers and other therefore less real.

      The other place we disagree is that I’m perfectly content to use the term “parent” instead of child-rearer. But I’m not willing to use it as you do in the comment below–where it says you are a parent whether or not you raise your own offspring. I’d say whoever is raising that off-spring is the parent, and you are a progenitor whether or not you are raising your own offspring.

      • Julie

        “I’m not sure where you stop talking about albatrosses and shift to people, but I’m also not sure it matters. ”

        I’m sorry if I was all over the place in my writing.

        If the two female Albatros were two female humans in a married or otherwise long-term committed relationship, then they would not be parents to one anothers children but step-parents (or quasi-step parents) if not legally married. The female albatros are step-parents to chicks that their lifelong same-sex companions conceived with male albatros. Mother Father and Step-Parent.

  4. Marilynn Huff

    I meant to say you are a parent regardless of whether or not you raise your own offspring and you are a guardian if you raise someone elses offspring.

  5. marilynn huff, your post reminded me about an incidence in my own childhood. I lost my mother when I was a half years old. I don’t remember her, but she was always present in my mind as a “virtual mother”. I even used to “talk” to her. Later I have learned from science that this is quite normal. According to Psychological theory we all have a virtual father or mother in our minds, even if we have never known them. When I was six years old I got a stepmother who insisted that I called her “Mom”. I couldn’t, and even when she punished me, I still couldn’t. In later years I have wondered how a child at six, facing punishment, could be so stubborn as not to be willing to say just one word. Reading the statements of donor children has helped me to understand what went on in my own mind.

  6. marilynn huff

    And I’m sure your mother is very proud to have created such strong and confident daughter. I’d like to believe my own child would have the presense of mind to honor my memory with such conviction in as many years after my death. I really like your story.

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