Polyamory and the Number of Parents

Dedicated readers will notice that I’ve removed my “summer time” post.  Home again.   But all the attendant travel and such has really disrupted my posting.  Sorry about that.  I’m going to try to pick it up again starting now.

There was recently (last week maybe?)an article in Newsweek on polyamory.  Perhaps for the mainstream media, polypeople are the new lesbians and gay men–the new cutting-edge-of-the-family.   Anyway, in the past I’ve discussed the number of parents problem a couple of times.   Polyamorous families or clusters obviously present at least the potential for this problem.  

Typically the law prefers to find two and only two parents, and in the historical ideal, that would be one female (the mother) and one male (the father).   It’s pretty clear that in the social world, the two parent model, while common, is hardly the only configuration.   

Most obviously, there are many single-parent families.  Probably the most commonly imagined and discussed is the single-motherfamily, but there are plenty of single-father families as well.  While some single-parent families are the result of family break-ups or death, many are planned to be single parent families.   

Single-parent families are readily recognized in law (although public policy may often be premised on the problematic assumption that these families need to be made into two-parent families.)  More challenging to law are three or more parent families.  Yet these, too, commonly exist.  

Consider a two parent family where the two parents separate.   Imagine then that the children of those parents spend most of their time in one of the households, while maintaining strong contact with the other.  (Not only is this common, many would say it is desireable.)  Suppose both parents re-partner.  It’s fairly common for the new person in the household where the kids spend a lot of time to take a parental role in the lives of the kids.  That makes three parents.  And you can easily see the potential for four.  

We even sort of recognize these folks as parents–after all we call them “step-parents.”   But the law is reluctant to recognize one of the new folks as a parent unless one of the two original parents is willing to step away from that privileged role.   The failure of the law to recognize the reality of these families can be very problematic. 

While that might be the most obvious (and perhaps the most common) way to arrive that three parents, there are other routes to the same outcome.   A lesbian couple might include a known donor as a parent, for instance.  And then there are the households of the polyamorous.  It isn’t necessary that all the people present be parents (and certainly the people from outside the household that parents are dating should not be considered as parents) but it is possible that children in these households do, in fact, have more than two parents. 

The attachment to two as the right number of parents, and the assumption that the two should be one male and one female, is often justified by reference to nature.  I’ve talked about nature before.  Tempting though it is, I think appealing to nature as a way to shape the law of parenthood is unproductive and perhaps even dangerous. 

It is true that every child has DNA that has been contributed to by two people, one male and one female.   I suppose I would be willing to say that this much is natural.  (Even there, I am hesitant, since the egg and sperm and their DNA might have been brought together in ART, which I think many might say is unnatural.) 

But apart from the egg/sperm requirement, I’m not sure much else about parenthood is natural.  Some people with a genetic link to a child are excellent parents.  Some are abysmal. Some elect not to parent at all.   Some people with no genetic link are tremendous parents.  Some are not.   And so on.   

Polyfamilies (if they are called that) give us yet another opportunity to challenge unthinking appeals to nature and think about what might actually work for people.

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4 responses to “Polyamory and the Number of Parents

  1. Thanks for the very rational blog post. I think an extension of this discussion could go to the even more traditional outlook on family structures before the 1940s of group households. Children lived in homes with parents, grandparents, sometimes uncles/aunts, and cousins. This was common. The concept of the “nuclear” family is relatively modern and not at all justifiably “better.”

    I grew up with four parents. Two biological ones and two step parents. All four of them loved me, educated me, raised me, and taught me various things. I look back on my childhood with fondness, and I keep in contact with all of them (even after my mother divorced my step-father).

    Again, thanks. I’ll pass this along.

  2. I’m a strong believer that only genetic progenitors should be considered parents except when the court orders otherwise. As a consequence I believe that the use of third party gametes should only be allowed via court order and the order should declare who is/are to be the legal parents of the child that results.

    • It’s a bright line to draw–limiting parenthood to genetic progenitors. I grant that this is an appealing feature. But is there a better reason to do it? And do you mean to suggest that we should do that in all settings. I think there are any number of instances in which fairness and the well-being of children would argue for recognizing people as parents who do not share the DNA of the child.

  3. I’ve actually wavered on whether such a bright line can or should be drawn, but ultimately I much prefer definitive rules because they make life more comprehensible and predictable. Until relatively recently we had only two types of parents, genetic or adoptive. I’m arguing for a third type of parent, ‘court affirmed’ and as with adoption unless a child has a court affirmed parent then its parents by default are its two genetic parents.

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