Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Waiter, can of worms please. And make it snappy.

In today's Crikey Guy Rundle argues that adoption rights should not be extended to male homosexual couples. Rundle doesn't suggest that there would be something wrong about a two-father household as such, but that because as a species humans have

"an unusual degree of infant dependency [...] [i]t would be bloody unusual if an infant were not oriented to the female body in a pretty hard-wired and powerful way. It would be doubly unusual if the sustained existence of that bond did not lie at the root of psychic development.[...] It seems undeniable that a predisposition to seek, to hold, to cling to the specifically female body is part of our given nature.

So let's get that straight (as it were), shall we? Because babies were born to breastfeed, gay men shouldn't be allowed to adopt. Right.

The argument baffels me. It's brilliant, of course, and the the basic premise is true: babies were born to breastfeed, and as a result have a very close physical bond with their mothers. Breastfeeding does also contribute to both parties' physical and psychological well-being (as trying as the activity can be at times). Promoting and supporting breastfeeding is a worthy cause, and anyone who wants to know more could do much worse than start with this post about the benefits of breastfeeding.

But Rundle is not talking about the bond that forms between breastfed babies and their mothers, but babies and women generally, as if by virtue of biology women were better carers for babies -  not just their own biological babies, either, but anyone's babies. It is of course possible for women to breastfeed an adopted child, but at no point does Rundle even mention this aspect of adoption, but simply asserts that babies (and people in general) are just drawn to women's bodies.

Now, breastfeeding is the only part of parenting that fathers cannot do, and even that's not strictly speaking true: it takes a lot more effort and is certaily not as socially accepted as when women do it, but men can breastfeed. For the sake of argument though, let's say breastfeding is something only women do. It takes practice. The only way to make it happen is to do it over and over again, as is the case with changing nappies, burping or calming a baby, playing with or bathing one and so on. None of these skills is in-built in women, but will be learned by whoever does them. Sure, it's generally the mother who does those tasks more often, but not necessarily. And it is increasingly common for young fathers to want to be involved, not as the occasional babysitter but as a hands-on, good-days-and-bad-days parent:  the one who washes the little bottoms and blows the raspberries and mashes up sweet potato and deliberates over childcare options and buys the first pair of sunglasses and wears the baby around the supermarket and so on, even when they are not officially the "primary caregiver".

There is no parenting advantage to being a woman. There is, however, a great parenting advantage in wanting to be a parent.

For an adoptive parent to breastfeed a child is definitely good, and will certainly contribute to the child's health and emotional stability. But unless the intent and willingness to breastfeed is made part of the criteria prospective adoptive parents have to fulfil (itself a moot point in the case of older children), there is no reason to exclude homosexual couples from the process.

I have to say, I feel a little uneasy at the thought that the supposed magical, mystical universal motherliness of women could be used as an argument against full and equal rights in society irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.

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