I missed this report from the Pew Center when it was issued, but this morning this media follow-up caught my eye. For me the take away here is that two parent families–and specifically gay and lesbian couple families–are far more socially accepted than single mother families. (They didn’t ask about single parent families, only single mother families.)
The study surveyed people about various non-traditional family forms. In presenting the results, the authors clustered respondents into three groups: Accepters (who generally accept the non-traditional forms and make up 31% of respondents), Rejecters (who reject non-traditional forms and make up 32%), and Skeptics (who generally sharing tolerant views but concerned–and make up 37%).
The striking divergence between Accepters and Skeptics arises when you look at the findings with respect to single mother families. Here’s a lengthy quote:
Perhaps the most striking difference occurs in attitudes toward single motherhood between the two more tolerant groups. Virtually all Skeptics (99%) say the increase single in [sic] motherhood is bad for society. In contrast, nearly nine-in-ten Accepters say the increase in single women having children has made no difference (74%) or is “a good thing for society” (13%).
So sizable is the difference between Accepters and Skeptics on this single trend that the division of the Accepters and Skeptics is driven primarily—though though not solely—by views on single motherhood. In fact, these two generally similar groups would merge into a single cluster if the question about single motherhood were removed from the analysis.
Of particular note, the survey also asked about two same sex parent households and there a substantial majority of both Skeptics and Accepters thought the trend was either positive or made no difference. ( You can find the results in the study, but the numbers come out to 81 % of Accepters and 67% of Skeptics in the positive/no difference camps. For Rejecters the same number is 10% and they are all in the “no difference” camp. No Rejecters think gay and lesbian couples raising kids is a positive trend.)
This divergence–the relatively wide acceptance of lesbian/gay couples raising kids and the relatively wide rejection of single mothers–is striking and (to me anyway) somewhat surprising. I’ve written about single mothers with some frequency in a variety of contexts. (Because that’s a pretty varied list, I’ll link to one specific post as well.) I’ve also written about the way in which the debates around access to marriage for same-sex couples have reinforced the two-parent model.
You might think that the lesbian/gay parent family would be the more socially contentious. After all, the past decade has seen numerous efforts to bar same-sex couples from adopting children. By contrast, no one challenges the ability of single women (or single men, for that matter) to adopt.
But really we should all have seen this coming. Increasingly initiatives and legislation aimed at barring lesbian and gay couples from adopting have failed, which is why more recent efforts focus on barring all unmarried couples from adopting. (Doubtless it is just a coincidence that in states that have considered/adopted such bans, there is no possibility of lesbian/gay couples being married.) As lesbian and gay families have gained acceptance, the specter of the unmarried parent (and particularly the unmarried mother) remains.
For reasons unconnected to this story I’ve been thinking recently about our deep attachment to the notion that two is the right number of parents. It’s not that you cannot see where we got such an idea–it’s all about biology. But if you don’t buy the idea that parenthood is fundamentally biological–determined by DNA–then why the persistent attachment to two parents?
I don’t accept the genetic definition of parenthood and I don’t have a good answer to the “why two parents?” question. But it seems to me that this study shows that our attachment to two parents is deeper than our attachment to a gendered notion of parenthood.
That makes a certain amount of sense, really. We all know enough men and women to know that men can be caring and nurturing and women can be disciplinarians. Thus, we can imagine the two-parent family with two women or two men without really having to break the mold. It’s the one-parent family that is the greater challenge to our model family. All of which makes me want to think more about why we so readily accept that the right number of parents is two.