The Rise of the 3+ Parent Family

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.


3 responses to “The Rise of the 3+ Parent Family

  1. There may be some exceptions to the rule but in general I think three’s a crowd when it comes to parenting. One of the three is likely to end up in an outsider role anyway.
    The most likely one is the one the child doesn’t live with.
    This is a complaint felt by many divorced parents, when one has residential custody, the other sometimes ends up feeling like a third wheel, even with visitation rights and all.
    Step parent relationships can work out well, but I think an important factor is the step parent’s acknowledging her limited rights vis a vis the biological parent (if she is still alive and in the picture in a postive way). That reduces loyalty conflicts and competition and jealousy.
    And starting off with the idea that 3 parties will live happily together ever after in one unified household is highly optimistic, when two can hardly make it these days.

  2. However, I do think that the law should be structured so as to prevent a parent from totally cutting off another person who has been in a parental role. Does that mean they must be recognized as parents?

    I would include grandparents, and long term foster parents if the child’s connection to them has been a positive one.

  3. I agree with Kisarita, clearly if someone has performed parental duties for a significant period of time at the request of and with the permission of the child’s real parent(s) a bond between the child and the unrelated person is likely to be formed. I think if if the relationship between the parent and the unrelated person who performed parental duties breaks up, the unrelated person should ask the parent if its ok to continue to see the child and be involved in the child’s life, especially if the child feels strongly about the person. I think a reasonable parent should allow them to maintain their relationship for as long as the child wishes so long as that relationship does not make the parent uncomfortable.

    When the parent breaks off their relationship with a spouse or significant other, they need to be able to decide what level of contact is comfortable for them, even if the child does not want to be separated from that other person. If I were a judge I’d consider ordering visitation for someone’s x if the non-parent had been involved for most of the child’s life and the child was adament about seeing that person. What concerns me is, as Julie has said many times before, parents have a certain amount of control over their child and over eachother that can be trying even under the best of circumstances – parents should not have to worry that someone could be treated like they have the rights of an adopted parent when nobody agreed to give them that parental power permanently. Many people will allow someone the latitude to make decisions on behalf of the child when they are all under one roof together and will give them the respect of saying they are just like a parent to the child, but really those privileges are granted by the parent as a benefit of the romantic relationship they’re having with that person so the benefits end when the relationship ends unless that person is them self related to that child.
    I think the partner of a parent who dies should absolutely be allowed to make their case to keep the child with them rather than having the child move to the deceased parent’s home, if of course the relationship is well established and the child is older. Julie you put a lot of stock into the pregnancy and birth experience, and then occasionally you will dismiss it and say once its over both partners are equally situated. Do you really mean to say that anyone could ever have as much right to raise that child as the woman that gave birth (who in my little scenario also conceived the baby) barring abuse of course.

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