Today is Father’s Day. (In some houses that would be “Fathers’ Day.) Perhaps it is a sort of ironic nod to the holiday that the New York Times has this story of an unconventional two-household modern family consisting of mom, sperm donor, sperm donor’s domestic partner and child. (The story is identified as being the first of an occasional series. It is also accompanied by several graphic presentations (which don’t really work on my computer) interpreting census data on family forms.)
Carol Einhorn is, no matter how you figure it, the mother. Griffin (who I assume has his mother’s last name) is almost three years old. George Russell is a good friend of Einhorn’s who agreed to be a sperm donor but not a father. David Nimmons is Russell’s domestic partner. Russell stays in Einhorn’s apartment four nights a week and lives with Nimmons the remainder of the time. Everyone tries to have dinner together on Sundays.
Now about Russell’s status here: I realize that those who consider DNA to be defining would say he is the father, but he does not consider himself to be a father, nor do Einhorn and Griffin. (Griffin calls him “Uncle George.”) And he doesn’t play the social role of father, either. To me, this is one of those times where I’m not sure what interests it serves to insist that he be called the father of Griffin.
It’s clear that managing this unconventional family form isn’t easy. There are lots of stresses and strains. It’s hard to say whether there are necessarily more of them than there would be in a more conventional family, of course.
On the one hand, this group of people is pretty much finding their own way. There’s no well-trodden path to follow. That means there are bound to be more questions and perhaps more false starts down little trails that just peter out. But plenty of conventional families suffer from stresses and strains and the well-trodden paths don’t suit everyone equally well anyway.
One thing striking to me is that there isn’t much of anything about legal (as opposed to social) relationships in the story. Of course, I’m curious about where legal parentage lies. In some ways my fondest hope would be that law doesn’t get in the way–that it supports rather than obstructs the growth of this child in this family. But it’s hard for me to see how law will do that, given current configurations.
Remember that for the most part being a legal parent is an all in/all out proposition. What I mean is that either you are a legal parent–with all attendant rights and obligations–or you are not a legal parent, and you have no rights and no obligations. Since Russell doesn’t function as a parent in this family and isn’t thought of that way by anyone, I rather hope he isn’t a legal parent. But if he isn’t a legal parent then he very likely has no rights and no obligations, and that doesn’t seem quite right either. It’s just law doesn’t accommodate that sort of part-way status. Perhaps that is a shortcoming of law as we know it, perhaps it is just the way things have to be. I do wonder.
It’s an interesting choice to run the story of Father’s Day. Does this child have a father? Doesn’t seem so. Does this child need one? I’d say not. He’s got a loving network of adults to care for him. What is the NYT trying to say to me–apart from that the world is a vastly more complicated place than we sometimes realize?