Unsex Mothering Responses: Suzanne A. Kim


Heterosexed Parenting

A Response to Darren Rosenblum’s Unsex Mothering: Toward a Culture of New Parenting

By Suzanne A. Kim[1]

I wholly agree with Darren Rosenblum that we must “unwind” the vexing knot of parenting and biological sex to achieve greater equality in the realms of work and family.[2]  This approach comports with the laudable push toward functionalism that characterizes many areas of contemporary family law.  I urge, however, that Unsex Mothering undervalues a key component in the sexing of parenting—sexuality.  More importantly but relatedly, in continuing to deploy the categories of “mother” and “father,” the article overvalues the importance of “sex role differentiation,” thus threatening the goal of unsexing.

While I am convinced that norms of parenting proceed from an assumed relationship between the categories of mother and father with biosex (as in biologically female and male), this account is only partial.  The problematic coil of biosex and parenting draws strength also from norms of sexuality.  Unsex Mothering briefly nods toward sexuality’s role by stating that “unsexed parenting” is not an argument for “sexless” parenting, an ideal of parenthood that I have elsewhere identified as the phenomenon of the “neutered parent.”[3]  But sexuality does not merely factor into what shape the solution of unsexed parenting should or should not take.  It also plays a crucial role in analyzing how sexed parenting works.  In other words, societal and legal conceptions of parental sexuality are a critical part of the problem of sexed parenting. 

Dominant ideals of sexuality have been integral in constituting the status of motherhood and fatherhood.  Law and society have constructed “mother” and “father” through the prism of heterosexual, marital sex.[4]  A key to protecting maternal status is not only biological sex but also who does what sexually with whom.  In other words, as the law of custody and visitation has taught us over time, “mother” has been constructed as someone who should have sex with a husband.  “Father,” on the other hand, does not necessarily have to have sex with just a wife, but he should not have sex with men.  The difference in treatment of straight father’s sex and straight mother’s sex instructs as to the ways that sexuality constitutes parental status differently based on biological sex.  The norm of maternal sexual fealty that has pervaded ideals of parenting neutralizes all that comports with this standard and renders outcast, or “salient,” departures from this supposedly neutral norm.[5]  This includes lesbian mothers, straight mothers engaging in extramarital or non-marital sex, and gay fathers.  Because the marital, heteronormative structure of parental evaluations has been so entrenched, even under more modern standards, sexually nonconforming parents register as pervasively sexual when conforming parents are viewed as just good parents.[6]  The consequence of being made sexually salient is the devaluation of one’s status as parent.  By following heterosexual, marriage–based sexual dictates, biological women and men prove their parental bona fides or risk damage to their parental status.  Sexuality thus plays a key role in maintaining the sexed nature of mothering, fathering, and parenting overall.

The role of sexuality highlights the ways in which sexed parenting is, more broadly, a project in heterosexed parenting.  Given the stated goal of unsexed parenting, I find Unsex Mothering’s continued reliance on the terms “mother” and “father”—forged in marital, heterosexual norms—unsatisfying.  Rosenblum raises the provocative point that a biological man can and should be able to mother and a biological woman can and should be able to father.  He also makes a less controversial point that will resonate with many people—that a single parent is both the mother and the father.  But what does this mean?  What should “mothering” and “fathering” mean, in the unsexed ideal?  Rosenblum asserts that “unsexed mothering is relational, not biological, and it is an act, not a fixed identity.”[7]  But of what does this relationship entail?  Of what acts?  Is it nurturing?  Fretting?  Scheduling?  Feeding?  Bandaging?  Admonishing?  And what does unsexed fathering look like?  Is it breadwinning?  Horsing around?  Playing sports?  Advising?  In an unsexed culture of parenting, what kind of biologically female father am I?

Perhaps, as Rosenblum suggests, unsexing mothering will catalyze the movement toward truly unsexed parenting.  But how do we know it will?  There’s at least an equal chance that continued use of these categories, with all their baggage, will perpetuate the “sexedness” of parenting.  While calling a biological man a mother and a biological woman a father unsexes in a formal sense, it does not necessarily unsettle the substantive connotations of “mother” and “father” that evolved from distinct social and legal attitudes about women’s and men’s differing strengths and capabilities.

I question whether the hedonic value that Rosenblum ascribes to a “mother”–“father” paradigm is sufficient to outweigh these concerns.  In eschewing “universal androgyny” in parenting, Rosenblum relies on the notion that there’s value in the form of “playfulness and even electricity in sex role differentiation.”[8]  This suggests that the categories of “mother” and “father” are meant, in the unsexed world, to retain some of their sexedness.  The question is how much and why?  It’s hard to have it both ways—to unsex and sex-differentiate.  In my view, a fully robust unsexed parenting would decouple parenting from biosex but also degender the various acts and traits traditionally thought to constitute mothering and fathering.  As long as children receive love, nurture, guidance, instruction, and care, it should not matter whether we’re called mom, dad, or Elmo.

The categories “mother” and “father” translate most clearly as applied to parents who specialize across the work-family spectrum.  The article’s focus on unsexing family leadership, decision making power, and primary caregiving suggest a zero sum quality to parenting—with distinct leaders and followers.  I resist this family leadership model with its mothers and/or fathers, however unsexed, because it perpetuates a structure of parenting rooted in arbitrary sex difference. 

Rosenblum’s theory powerfully resists exclusivity.  But unsexed parenting, as now articulated, misses the opportunity to interrogate dominant norms in how parenting gets done.  I am left wondering what unsexed parenting looks like in a context of partnership or co-parenting.  Switching defaults in parenting is liberating, but rethinking the context in which those defaults occur can be truly transformative.

[1] Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers University School of Law-Newark.


[2] Darren Rosenblum, Unsex Mothering: Toward a New Culture of Parenting, 35 Harv. J.L. & Gender 57 (2012). 


[3] Suzanne A. Kim, The Neutered Parent, 24 Yale L.J. Feminism ___ (forthcoming 2012) (manuscript on file with author).


[4] See id.


[5] Id.


[6] See id.


[7] Rosenblum, supra note 2, at 79.


[8] Id. at 80.



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