Father sleeps with infant; “Untitled” by PublicDomainPictures Licensed by Pixaby

Many of the issues facing families today touch on parental gender: high childhood poverty rates, mass incarceration, battles over same-sex marriage, transgender rights, assisted reproductive technologies, and access to abortion. Due to these issues and more, questions of parental gender remain at the forefront of cultural commentary and political debates in the United States. Do kids “need” a mother and a father, or are two parents of any gender sufficient? Do fathers contribute something unique, just for being men? Are there contributions to families that mothers provide that fathers cannot possibly replicate (and vice versa)? What do kids lose–resources, opportunities, crucial socialization, social acceptance–when they don’t have both a mother and a father?    

Social science has established a consensus on these questions, indicating that parental gender is not important for children’s development and success. Instead, economic resources and social factors, like positive parent-child interactions, are stronger predictors of children’s well-being. Despite the evidence suggesting parental gender is not essential for children’s development, we continue to see these “parental essentialist” ideologies–ideas that parental gender offers unique qualities to childrearing–permeate the public sphere. Parental essentialism is especially salient in the panic over same-sex families, as well as manufactured crises of “fatherlessness.”

We are two sociologists who conducted separate studies on fatherhood that provide unique insight into questions about parental essentialism from the perspectives of two groups of fathers with specific stakes in these debates: poor men of color at the center of controversies over children without residential dads and gay men raising children without women. Through this work (recently published in Men & Masculinities), we found patterns that help explain the persistence–as well as the harms–of parental essentialist discourse. 

Jennifer Randles spent two years studying “responsible fatherhood” policy and programs by doing ethnography and interviews with very low-income fathers of color enrolled in a fathering program intended to help marginalized dads improve their job prospects, co-parenting relationships, and fathering skills. Megan Carroll did an ethnography of gay fatherhood groups, interviewing gay men raising children, most of whom were white and economically advantaged. In comparing our findings about these two socially dissimilar groups of fathers, we noticed that the men we studied had very different responses to parental essentialist ideas. 

For poor fathers of color, Randles found, parental essentialism was valorizing. Many of these fathers did not have a diploma, were unemployed, had a criminal record or incarceration history, or were not with children’s mothers. Yet the idea that they could still contribute something unique and valuable to childrearing by virtue of being men made marginalized fathers feel as though they were essential for their kids and their social and economic opportunities. As one dad said, “I teach [my kids] responsibility and give them motivation and the confidence they need to survive in school. It’s something about being a man. It’s in our DNA, I guess.”  

On the other hand, as Carroll discovered, for mostly white, wealthy gay fathers, parental essentialism was marginalizing. The idea that their children were deprived of something by not having a mother was threaded through their lives in ways that limited their access to parental opportunities and legitimacy. One married gay father in Texas, for example, expressed frustration with parental essentialism, arguing that parents of any gender play a mixture of masculine and feminine roles: “The thing that really gets me sometimes, this assumption that kids have to have a mom and a dad, and if they don’t … you’re somehow depriving them. … If you’re only thinking that you’re gonna be maternal and you’re never gonna have to do something that is dad-like, it’s ridiculous. Same goes for dads. That day has come and gone.”

Understood collectively, we realized that fathers’ social positions at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality fundamentally shaped how they responded to parental essentialist ideas. Studying these two differentially situated groups of fathers in tandem taught us valuable lessons about the persistent salience and harms of parental essentialism. The idea that fathering is essential – as in, important, unique, and innate – is especially powerful in the absence of viable economic and social support for disadvantaged families and especially for marginalized men still beholden to white middle-class norms of “responsible” fatherhood. On the other hand, the notion that families are somehow incomplete without mothers perpetuates dangerous and demoralizing views of gay fathers raising children as essentially lacking.  

Understood as both valorizing and stigmatizing, men’s views of parental essentialism urge us to consider other crucial questions in social and political debates over why parents’ gender matters and how. Why do essentialist views of fathering persist and influence men’s identities and experiences of fatherhood? How does social position shape how fathers grapple with and make sense of ideas that they are both necessary and insufficient for children’s well-being? What can and should we do to promote ideas that fathers matter because they love and care for their children, not because they are men? These are the questions that get us closer to sustaining families and understanding how parents of all genders and sexual orientations can make essential – rather than essentialist – contributions to children.  

Jennifer Randles (she/her) is Professor of Sociology and interim Associate Dean in the College of Social Sciences at California State University, Fresno. A scholar of families, policy, and gender/race/class inequalities, she is the author of Proposing Prosperity and Essential Dads. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Council on Contemporary Families. Her social media handle is @jrandles3. 

Megan Carroll (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. She is a queer families scholar who founded the Ace/Aro Scholar Support Network. Her research on gay fatherhood can be found here and here, and her research on asexualities can be found here and here. Her social media handle is @MCsociology.