Here’s a long story from the Boston Globe about the increasing interest in the possibility of more-than-two-parent families. As the article notes, there’s growing advocacy for legal recognition of more than two parents. (This is something that’s been discussed occasionally here.) In addition to what is discussed in the article, a legislative proposal to recognize more than two parents is being contemplated in British Columbia.
I suspect that many people raise an eyebrow (to say the least) at the idea of three or more parents. But if you think about it, many of us know kids who in fact (if not in law) have three parents. Often the third adult is what we call a step-parent, but that label doesn’t tell you much about the nature and the quality of the relationship between that adult and the child.
Obviously a step-parent/child relationship varies with specific circumstances, but equally obviously a step-parent can be as much (or more) of a parent as either or both of the original two parents. If that adult’s relationship with the child (and the child’s reciprocal relationship with that adult) are not afforded legal recognition and protection, then they can readily be severed by the actions of the legal parents of the child. If you continue to consider a case where the adult/child relationship has all the depth and texture we expect of parent/child relationships, it’s clear that the sudden termination of the step-parent/child relationship can cause serious harm to the child.
The harm to a child here can be just as real as that suffered by children of lesbian couples where one mother characterizes the other as a legal non-parent and hence forces her from the child’s life. (Many such cases have been chronicled here, though I’ve only linked to one. ) Just as a number of courts have recognized and protected the relationship with both mothers, so there is a need to recognize and protect the relationship with a third parent.
As the ever-admirable Professor Nancy Polikoff comments:
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”
As the article makes clear, it isn’t just separation and recoupling that creates three or more parent families. Some families are deliberately structured that way from the outset. Thus Sharon Tannenbaum, Matty Person and Bill Hirsh formed a three-parent family for their son Jesse. Legal recognition of all three adults as Jesse’s legal parents is simply recognition of Jesse’s reality.
I’m sure life is more complicated for families with three legal parents, just as life is more complicated for children who share their time among several households. It’s not for everybody, and it ought to be considered carefully. But then, parenthood itself isn’t for everyone and ought to be (but is not always) considered carefully. Ultimately we ought to recognize that our world–and the worlds of many children today– is complicated and denying reality won’t make it any simpler.