I was recently contacted by a lawyer, on behalf of an old friend who is locked in a bitter custody battle for her 7-year old daughter, and asked to make a statement verifying, and validating, my friend’s status as “mother” of this child. Long story short, this friend, along with her girlfriend at the time, had worked together (via artificial insemination) to have a child. The girlfriend was inseminated, carried the pregnancy and gave birth, and my friend served as loyal caregiver, as well as parent to this child for the first few years of the girl’s life.
As they sometimes do, the relationship deteriorated over time, and the child’s biological mother now rejects the notion of her former girlfriend being a “parent” of her daughter, and has refused visitation rights. Needless to say, this has been a very ugly and arduous battle for joint-custody, as well as parental rights at a time when same-sex parenting, as well as the definition of parent has been called into question. Who gets to be a “parent” and who doesn’t?
Drake Bennett of The Boston Globe took a hard look at this question of parenthood, and what it means in contemporary society in his recent investigative article, “Johnny Has Two Mommies — and Four Dads.” The basic question of the piece is, can a child have more than two parents, and if so, what are the ramifications (both moral and legal) of such an expanded notion of parenthood? Even in this era of relative open-mindedness on the subject of parenting, the legal and social definition of a family still has certain rules — a family can be run by a single mom or a single dad and, increasingly, by two moms or two dads, but it can’t have three parents, or four.
Bennett’s piece brings to light the contrary opinion of a few family-law scholars, who have begun to argue that there is nothing special about the number two — if three or four or five adults have a parental relationship with a child, the law should recognize them all as parents. Moving beyond the accepted notion of only two parents, these scholars argue having more than two parents “would better reflect the dynamics of the modern family, and also protect the children in such families. It would ensure that, even in the event of a split or major disagreement between the adults in question, the children would not be deprived of the affection, care and financial resources of any of the people they have grown up regarding as their mothers and fathers.”
Of course, there are ardent detractors and critics of this notion that firmly believe the concept of parenthood should be limited to two individuals, and that a certain tinkering or reinterpretation of the definition of parenthood threatens to dilute the sense of obligation that being a parent has always carried, and will likely arise in more litigation and conflict when multi-parental disputes arise. “The law needs to adapt to the reality of children’s lives, and if children are being raised by three parents, the law should not arbitrarily select two of them and say these are the legal parents, this other person is a stranger,” says Nancy Polikoff, a family-law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
The notion of multiple parents is not all that new and novel – ask anyone who was raised with stepparents. And history, as well as literature (read the Red Tent for an interesting take on communal mothering) has revealed that multiple parenting has been done with varying success. Still, with all of the changes in family structure, gender roles, and the expansion of the definition of parenting, is the prospect of moving parenting beyond its traditional duo role such a bad one? Will this provide additional support and community for these children, or just contribute to needless confusion and uncertainty? Should there be a limit to how many people can claim parental rights over one child? What is family for, and as the culture evolves, will our concept of family evolve as well?