Cade Richmond: First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, and Then Comes Discrimination

A cartoon depicting the stereotypical nuclear family. It is interesting to think not only about the nuclear family's patriarchal roots, but also its discriminatory racialized origins.

Webster’s dictionary defines the term “family” as “a group of people who are related to each other” and the term “kinship” as “the state of being related to the people in your family.” This dictionary continues to say that kinship involves “a feeling of being close or connected to other people.” Kinship and family appear to have similar definitions. But which one matters? Are these terms separate or intertwined? What definitions relations and is it a choice? Some may not have a family connected through birth, but they may have one in which they find individuals that they feel an intimate connection to call kin, as in the case of children rejected by their birth family or those in foster homes. However, the state does not use these parameters to define one’s family. The law recognizes parentage, marriage, and adoption.  The US census bureau defines “family” as “a group of two people or more (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.”

Source: The Heritage Foundation’s report “War on Poverty After 50 Years: Conditions of the Poor in America” (2014). More and more parents have children outside the confines of marriage.

The family does not appear fluid in the law and binds people to their birth kinship networks regardless of individual preference. Furthermore, restrictive state definitions around kinship have large impacts on one’s ability to receive legal recognition or governmental assistance. Legalese around marriage and divorce has historically had a large impact on family formation. For example, stepfamilies were not an actual family formation in nineteenth-century America because of legal constraints and social stigma surrounding divorce. Only with a growing acceptance of divorce, and in part the introduction of no-fault divorce, have stepfamilies had the opportunity to receive legal definitions.

With the landmark case, Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, same-sex couples were allowed to form families within the state’s parameters. Nevertheless, same-sex couples continue to face obstacles in forming families. These individuals must seek costly reproductive assistance, go through expansive and discriminatory adoptive procedures, or find alternative methods to have children. Same-sex couples’ persistence in the struggle to have children despite the obstacles leads one to question childrearing’s cultural significance and a child’s role in making a family. Many ideas exist about why people want to have children, but that proves a research paper on its own. Why childrearing is important to this paper is that people want to have children, regardless of the reason. The United States reproductive ideology leads to discriminatory legal policy around adoption and legal parentage that harms the unmarried, the same-sex, and the infertile parents who want to experience raising a child.

A cartoon depicting the stereotypical nuclear family. It is interesting to think not only about the nuclear family’s patriarchal roots but also its discriminatory racialized origins.

One might also consider how legal definitions serve to incentivize and to privilege a specific family structure. Legalizing same-sex marriage does little to disassemble the nuclear family, meaning a household composed of a heterosexual couple with their blood-related offspring. Allowing same-sex couples to marry did not lessen the various incentives the state offers to push people into marital unions. Nor did Obergefell v. Hodges introduce protections for single-parent households or those who chose to remain single. Permitting same-sex unions was a necessary step towards equality and denying same-sex couples the right to marry was a gross injustice of the state. Nevertheless, how long will citizens allow the state to privilege the married? Why do marriage and the nuclear family deserve such a coveted spot in our society? Is a nuclear really the end-all be-all? Or does the state’s incentives and discrimination against the uncoupled work push people towards traditional kinship, legal kinship networks? It is the purpose of this research paper to examine the various ways in which the state’s privileging of specific family structures leads to the detriment of others.

Source: The Heritage Foundation’s report “War on Poverty After 50 Years: Conditions of the Poor in America” (2014). More and more single parents have children.

Research thus far has looked into the various ways that the law defines the family and the legal obstacles that families face. Come historical research shown how legal, economic, and social factors have shaped family formation. More research needs to be done on how having a family allows one to greater welfare rewards, and how the nuclear family model perpetuates negative patriarchal ideals particularly in the context of policies that harm single female-headed households. There is also research underway about the struggles of immigrant families.