Making Parents: Reproductive Technologies and Parenting Culture Across Borders

By Dr Charlotte Faircloth, University of Roehampton and Dr Zeynep Gurtin, University of Cambridge

It is no secret that the last 40 years have witnessed monumental changes in the way we, as a society, have and raise our children. The birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first IVF baby in 1978 is often cited as the advent of a “brave new” era of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), enabling the creation of families that could not have existed in earlier times. Indeed, over 5 million “miracle babies” later, we now know that the global spread of ARTs has not only revolutionised the treatment of infertility, but has altered the landscape of reproduction. These shifts have enabled myriad “choreographies” – including the use of donor eggs, donor sperm and surrogates – by which not only heterosexual couples but also same-sex couples, and single women and men, can make babies and become parents.

Alongside these technological changes around conception, there have also been landmark developments in the legal frameworks and social conventions that govern parenting. And alongside these, a phenomenal expansion in the various markets of reproduction and parenting, including, for example, pre-conception nutritionists, pregnancy yoga courses, partner-preparedness birthing classes, lactation consultants, sleep specialists, baby wearing workshops, children’s fashion ranges, and child self-esteem workshops – not to mention an array of books, TV and online sources on how to parent. All of these products and services are geared towards optimising the development and outcome of children – a subject (would be) parents are increasingly required to think about at ever earlier points in the lives of their (future) children.

These social and technological changes have, of course, not been missed by social scientists. Quite the contrary. Two fields of scholarship in particular, ‘Parenting Culture Studies’ and ‘Studies of Assisted Reproductive Technologies’ (or ‘Reproductive Studies’) have emerged to document precisely how, and why, such developments have occurred and the impact this has on our lives in the 21st Century. Scholars of Parenting Culture have been trying to elucidate the observed ‘intensification’ of parenting, examining the shift of the word ‘parent’ from a noun (something one is) to a verb (something one does), as well as the identity politics that shape the choices of contemporary parents. In turn, scholars engaged with Reproductive Studies have analysed the social changes brought about by the growth and spread of technologies that transform reproductive possibilities, creating not only new parents but also novel relations of reproductive exchange and markets of reproductive labour.  

Despite their common interests and central foci on wanting, conceiving, having and raising children, and, in particular, the changes that have taken place over the past generation, these two bodies of scholarship have hitherto remained separate from each other.  A recent article in Sociology entitled ‘Fertile Connections’ and special section of Sociological Research Online entitled ‘Making Parents’ attempts to generate a conversation and foster a dialogue between these two bodies of work, with the belief that both stand to benefit. The argument is that a more holistic approach to reproduction and parenting will allow us to see more clearly the characteristics of our contemporary experiences.

The findings are both surprising and familiar. In particular, the comparison brought out four specific themes. The first is reflexivity; that is, that the availability of both ARTs and increased (and increasingly diverse) parenting options has created a requirement for couples (and individuals) to reflect on, justify and ‘account’ for their reproductive and parenting decisions. As many others have pointed out, this has increasingly impacted the lives and life course expectations not only of heterosexual couples, but also of non-heteronormative persons. The second is gender, drawing attention to the long line of research which examines ‘his’ and ‘her’ experience of reproduction and parenting: the technologies and discourses may be ‘new’ but the division of reproductive and parenting labour remains very old.  Thirdly; expertise: drawing attention to the huge proliferation of sources of advice about conception and parenting. To say that there is now a ‘baby business’ is no overstatement. Finally; stratification. A close look at the literatures around parenting and reproduction reveals globalised fault lines in the economy of kinship, something which is only being heightened in an online era. This last theme is particularly explored in the SRO special section which looks at the making of parents ‘across borders’, drawing attention to these wider socio-cultural contexts involved in the creation of today’s families.

One important outcome of this project has been to highlight the unrealistic, and counterproductive, expectations currently placed on parents and intending parents as they go about raising the next generation. We welcome contact from others interested in pursuing this line of research.

Dr Charlotte Faircloth, University of Roehampton
Dr Zeynep Gurtin, University of Cambridge