#guestpost: Heteronormativity and the family
By Elin Weiss
A while back I visited a friend who recently had a baby. During the visit we ended up talking a lot about expectations on mothers and fathers. The coupled that I visited, a man and a woman, did what worked best for them, and they were happy about how they divided chores and lived their lives together but were at the same time annoyed that other people felt the need to criticize their roles and labor division.
Parenting is one of those subjects that are often discussed and there are a lot of assumptions and norms concerning parenting and how a couple spends their time juggling work and providing for the family vs. taking care of the home and the child or children. I believe that parents should do whatever works for them, despite the fact that roles might be traditional or not, that is a choice that every parent needs to make on their own instead of adhering to norms that no longer apply to today’s diversity.
What I did notice when I looked through their baby book, was that the norms concerning the family, and what constitutes a family, were very obvious and strict. Their baby book was one of those mass published books that cover the baby´s first year. It was a pretty book but it was also incredibly heteronormative. The norms concerning family were so obvious and there was no room for other family constellations other than the heterosexual family with a mother and a father. The whole book referred to the family as the mother and the father, not as the parents. The assumption was that there was one mother and one father, the possibility to be a single parent or a family with more than two parents was not an option. The book offered no space for gay couples or any other variation of what a family can look like. There was space for the mother to write about how she met the father and for the father to describe how he met the mother. There was also space to describe the baby´s first meal and to answers questions about whether or not the baby´s first meal was from the mother´s breast or not. The assumption here was that there must be a mother involved and not for example two fathers.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture that discussed how to work with exposing norms and what is considered normative behavior in preschools. The lecturer spoke about heteronormativity and norms concerning gender, power, age, and much more. She mentioned research that her and her colleagues had carried out on school text books. Some of the findings concerned heteronormativity and the family in which portrayals of the family were very stereotypical and traditional. Basically all portrayals showed a father (taller than the mother), a mother, and two children, a boy and a girl. In chapters where the family´s economy was discussed, the father worked full-time and had a higher wage than the mother who often worked part-time. Again, there was no variation in what a family can look like.
I recently read a book where the authors attempted to provide examples of variation in family constellation but still fell short. The authors provided the example of a couple in which the woman made more money, a couple in which the man did more chores and so on but the portrayals were still heteronormative and with little nuance. There are so many variations out there that need to be highlighted and also given the status of “family”. There are single parents who have adopted, single parents with biological children, gay couples who have adopted, and gay couples who have biological children with other gay couples or with another man/woman. There are couples who had children together and now live apart where they have met other partners, straight or gay. There is a mix of ethnicities among parents or among children. A family could be a transsexual couple with children or a couple who had children and one parent underwent changes to become a transman or a transwoman. To limit the family to just mom and dad is simply no longer viable.
Elin Weiss has a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from University College Dublin. Some of her previous work can be found online at: The F-Word, XY-online, Sex Roles and Metapsychology Online Reviews.