The family is changing rapidly and enormously. One recent press article introduced three adults and a child whose relationship would have been unimaginable in the 1960s, or even in the 1990s.
The mother was without a partner but was anxious to have a child. She met a gay man on an online fertility forum. They liked each other but there was no sexual attraction. He was in a long-term relationship. She was not.
The man thought that because of his sexual orientation he was unlikely to have children, despite “adoring” them. They agreed to seek to have a child. It took six years before conception was successfully achieved through IVF. In the meantime, the woman had entered a relationship with another woman. The father, however, has a continuing, active role in the raising of the child.
They are what Helen Croydon described, in the Telegraph article, as “one of the growing number of couples in so-called ‘co-parenting’ relationships – biological parents who have a close but platonic relationship and both contribute to child-rearing. Co-parenting isn’t just for the gay community. Straight men and women are choosing to put romance aside in the name of reproduction.”
This child may be one of the lucky ones. It may grow to maturity with three loving, caring parents when countless contemporary children have just one – or, even worse – one mother plus a series of constantly changing “fathers”. Nor is the issue the parents’ sexuality. It is that last statement – choosing to put romance aside in the name of reproduction – which should stimulate serious ethical debate.
The urge to procreate is one of the most basic biological instincts, yet human history has constantly and continually sought to restrain that urge. The Judaeo-Christian tradition has placed particular, often unhealthy, taboos on sex. Almost always these have reinforced patriarchy and male hegemony. Occasionally they have also protected women.
Cutty stool confessions in Scottish kirks may have titillated the prurient and justified “the unco guid”, but were also a partially effective means of bringing errant, irresponsible fathers to justice and responsibility. These taboos created a context where, in many cases at least, adults raised children in relationships of commitment and warmth. At its best, the family obviated the brutality of the natural reproductive and survival cycles. At its worst, of course, it provided a cover for brutality and exploitation, whether of wives or of children.
The issue which might usefully be addressed is whether there is (or should be) a relationship between love and parenting. This child will, we trust, be reared in a loving, affectionate household where its mother and her partner (supported on his weekly visit by the father) offer a model of emotional warmth and stability. That, however, is coincidence. The mother’s initial desperation was that she was single, had no child, wanted one and was content to have one with a man who would have but a fleeting relationship with her. It was an odd form of hedonism.
On the same day, another headline revealed how the world has changed, with the story of a 29-year-old grandfather. His 14-year-old daughter had newly given birth. Before rushing to judgement, it is worth noting, firstly, that as best can be judged from a brief article, these are caring young parents and caring young grandparents.
It is also worth remembering that, until 1929, the minimum age for marriage in Scotland was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. This tale simply illustrates that as well as a separation of the assumed normal connection between genetic parenthood and practical parenthood, another cultural link has been severed, that between economic autonomy and starting a family.
There is a certain irony in the coincidence of two seemingly opposite, but likely complementary, trends: the lengthening period during which young people remain dependent on their parents and the earlier age at which many young people start the reproductive cycle. Having witnessed the historical withering of the extended family, it seems that its re-emergence may be essential to support young people whose unrestrained reproductive instincts are given increasingly free rein.
The traditional model of the family has been shattered by scientific and social revolutions. If we wish to create a generation of secure, loving adults we require to offer them, as children, security and loving role models. If we abjure that ideal we are in danger of evolutionary regression. Somehow the modern world has to establish a new, kinder, but stable model of child-rearing where, by precept and example, children can see and aspire to friendship, love and security and to a proper sense of self-worth and the worth of others.
Child-bearing brings responsibility, a grave one. The prioritisation of reproduction and the deprioritisation of relationships is a perilous option. The tragedy is not that the old model of the family is increasingly problematic, but that, so far, nothing better has evolved.