When people permanently and reliably take responsibility for each other, that is family.

Professor Christine Wimbauer conducts research in her department of sociology at the Humboldt University in Berlin on topics including couple relationships, work, love, family and social policy, and also gender inequalities. Her book, Co-Parenting and the Future of Love, is about post-romantic parenting. Familyship now had the opportunity to talk to her about the state of love and family and also take a look into the future.

Photo: Copyright Prof. Wimbauer (private)

Prof. Wimbauer, in your book “Co-Parenting and the Future of Love” you write about post-romantic parenting. Therefore, allow me to begin by asking you about the actual state of love

The idea of romantic love is charged with a very great promise of happiness. Socially, for example in institutions, the media, and in discourse, the message is conveyed: For a happy life, one must be a lover, have a partner. Many people have internalized this. If they are single, they ardently desire a love relationship. If they have one, but not an all-around happy one, they doubt themselves or the loved one. Romantic love, however, is often fleeting, and keeping all the promises of love and the demands on each other is a bit like squaring the circle. Listening well, being sexy and witty, fixing the car and putting dinner on the table, being a great family man and stealing horses together: that’s quite a lot for the other person to accomplish. If this doesn’t all work out, many think they are not good enough, have a deficit – often women, because the gendering of care means that they are expected to do particularly much and contradictory things. But it is not an individual failure, but it is structurally very preconditional to lead a happy love relationship permanently.

And right after that, the question of the definition of family.

What is considered “family” can vary depending on society and time. In Germany and the global North, the idea of the gender-equal bourgeois nuclear family of the 1960s is still widespread: Father (employed), mother (unpaid responsible for house and children), preferably married, and their biological children.
However, the lived reality has long been much more colorful. Think, for example, of single parents, patchwork families with multiple social and birth parents, same-sex families with two mothers or fathers, friendship-centered living arrangements, elective kinships, co-parenting in pairs or threes or more.
Families are diverse, by the way, they were before. Family is also not something you “have” but something you do. One can always speak of a family when people take on responsibility for each other in a lasting and reliable way. No matter what their gender or sexual orientation, whether they love each other romantically or not, and whether there are two or more.

Then do parenthood and love go together at all?

This is definitely possible: two adults can love each other romantically, and at the same time love and take good care of their children. But it is not necessary to have both at the same time. The logics even contradict each other: according to the concept of romantic love, the two lovers are supposed to be the whole world, the be-all and end-all, exclusively for each other, while according to the concept of parental love and so-called mother love, they are supposed to love their children above all else at the same time – this can collide.
And, of course, parents individually or together can love their children and care for them very well, even if they don’t love each other romantically (anymore). A possibly more pragmatic, child-oriented parenting relationship can certainly offer advantages compared to, say, a conflict-ridden parent-couple relationship.

What happens to love when parenthood is lived independently?

All hopes and expectations are then no longer directed at the romantically loved other person, but are perhaps more realistically distributed among different people. Between the parents then also possible disappointments and injuries by the (no longer) beloved other person and couple conflicts fall away. Parenthood can then be lived more easily in a child-oriented way than, for example, in a couple relationship with a lot of potential for conflict. In short, there is room for a so-called “love realism” and for pragmatic parental relationships. And love still exists – but not necessarily in the form of romantic and exclusive love for two, but as parental love, which also includes several children, or as a strong feeling for friends or as a comprehensive love for the whole world and environment.

What do you think is the most sustainable family form in our society right now?

I do not want to make any family form better or worse per se, no one should be prescribed (s)a desired way of life. Nevertheless, the family breadwinner model, with a male sole or main breadwinner and a (married) woman responsible for housework and childrearing, is full of inequalities, fragile, and often detrimental to one or both parties in the long run. After a separation, women often suffer great economic losses, professional disadvantages and few pension entitlements. But even without separation, a strict division of labor can be dangerous, for example in the event of serious illness or misfortune. Who is supposed to take care of the children, who is supposed to secure the economic existence, if the person in charge is no longer able to do so? When everyone involved is doing care work and (can) earn money, satisfaction is often greater. Precarious situations such as unemployment or illness can be absorbed together. Also the children have more contact persons, more role models and can get more time and attention.

What structural barriers exist that make individual parenting difficult?

What exactly do you mean by individual parenting? Structural hurdles abound, and I’ll mention just two: First, parenthood beyond the two-parent, two-sex family encounters legal limits and hurdles, as only two parents are legally provided for. In the case of co-parenting with, say, a father and a lesbian couple, that is, two mothers (one biological and one social), one of the three persons must remain without parental rights. This can have very negative consequences for the children and families, especially in the case of death, but also already during a hospital stay. It is also troublesome and uncertain in everyday life. After all, legal improvements for multi-parent families or families with two mothers are planned here soon. Second, within families, whether with two or more parents, inequalities are often found to the disadvantage of women, because – also due to social structures, norms and the social division of labor – they still perform more care and housework and have a higher “mental load”.

If you could take a look into a crystal ball, where will parenting and love evolve in the next ten years?

With parenthood, forecasting is easier. Family continues to be lived in many forms and even more so. Also, legally, multi-parent families and same-sex two-mother or two-father families will most likely soon be better recognized. With love, the development is not quite so simple … I suspect romantic love remains high on the agenda. In addition, however, other forms of love, affection and assumption of responsibility for one another could also gain more social visibility and legitimacy – be it in elective relationships, close friendships, in constellations with more than two people. The Corona pandemic in particular shows that taking responsibility for each other is socially necessary even beyond marriage.

Is there anything you would like to add in conclusion?

The decisive factor is not so much the form of family, but the quality of the relationship. Is there reliability, permanence, acceptance of responsibility? Then these family relationships should also be appropriately legally secured and socially recognized. Whether that’s just two, three or four parents and whether they love each other or not. With regard to the law, we can look forward to the announced reforms.


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