Sexuality, parenthood and population
Sexuality, parenthood and population

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Sexuality, parenthood and population

1.2 Defining parenthood

As a starting point, we need to distinguish parenthood from parenting. Parenthood is more about the role, social status and meanings associated with being a parent, of bringing children into the world and having children to look after. Parenting, on the other hand, is associated with the activities of looking after children and raising them to adulthood. Parenting can be undertaken by a range of people: a man, a woman, a relative or an unrelated carer. It implies a sustained process of care for children, but not necessarily a permanent relationship. Parenthood is closely associated with responsibilities for offspring with whom someone has what is often called a ‘blood tie’. In defining parenthood in a legal context, Andrew Bainham (1999) identifies it as the status held by a child's genetic father and mother. There are important prefixes which can be attached to parenthood – step-parent, adopted parent, foster parent – indicating that these statuses and roles are not exactly equivalent to parenthood on its own and accordingly that there are significant differences between the meanings attached to social and genetic parenthood. Furthermore, the degree to which genetic parenthood is considered to be a fundamental element of parenting has varied according to class, ethnicity and other social differences (Ribbens McCarthy et al., 2000). Although parenthood and parenting are closely interrelated, in this course we will not be attempting to explore how people did their parenting or what it meant to them; rather we look at how the role and status of parenthood were perceived and experienced.

Just as sexuality is a fundamentally gendered concept, parenthood is not gender neutral. If we think about the difference between the meanings of ‘to mother’ a child and ‘to father’ one, we can see that there are crucial gender differences between the meanings of motherhood and fatherhood (Holden, 1996). These differences can be hidden when ‘parenthood’ is invoked in an uncritical way. We will explore some of these gender differences in the following section.


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