Why Are There All These Categories of Parents?

The last post about step-parents (which lead to lengthy discussions of genetic parents, psychological parents and legal parents) raises some important questions about why we (or I?) need all these different categories.   What’s wrong with the unmodified “parent?”   Why spend so much time working out what we (mutually or individually) mean by step-parent?  Some of this may be a bit of a recap, but I find that I refine/change views over time and so perhaps it’s useful even if you’ve been reading for a while.

It should be most obvious that for purposes of this blog “legal parent” is the all important central organizing category.     My whole point here is to explore the ways in which the law operates to recognize/create legal parents.   And it should be clear that legal parents are at the very least recognized by law–but I think they’re actually created.  Until you have laws there are no legal parents.  Law calls them into being, as it were–it makes them.   

For instance , a woman may give birth to a child she has conceived through intercourse.  The child is genetically related to her–it is her genetic offspring.   The law recognizes her as a legal parent and thus, on top of all those things, she can claim legal rights.  If the law didn’t recognize her as a legal parent, then she wouldn’t be one–all those other indicia not withstanding.   Now one might be very unhappy about a legal system that did not recognize her as a legal parent, but that wouldn’t make her into a legal parent.  That’s just a critique of the law.

Anyway, perhaps that is all obvious.  And to return to the point, the question for me is who gets to be in that category–legal parent.

The rest of the categories are invoked, I think, as ways of organizing groups of people, perhaps with an eye towards drawing lines, but not always.   And to some extent the problem is that we use these other categorical terms quite a bit in speech, but sometimes not very precisely or not, perhaps with perfect agreement.

Take step-parent.  This all came up because in the comments on an earlier post, someone labeled Jonathan Sporn a step-parent.   Sporn and his girlfriend used ART with sperm from an anonymous donor so that she could get pregnant and give birth to the child with the plan that they would both raise the child.  (I think this is a fair summary of the facts as reported.)  They were not married.

Under these circumstances I wouldn’t call Sporn a step-parent but some people do call him that–which means we are operating with different definitions.  It’s not so much that one of us must be right and the other wrong–I’m not sure there is right and wrong here.   It’s more that meaningful communications can break down–because one of us will say something about step-parents and the other will interpret it as being something other than what was meant.   There are two ways forward–agree on a single definition or go forward with multiple (ideally only two, but who can say?) definitions and be clear about what the differences are.   Which means you end up spending a bunch of time talking about what categories me.

You also need to talk about why–and you can see that I talked about the rationale behind my definition of step-parent.   That’s important because it’s allows others to apply my definition to new cases that come up that aren’t quite like the ones we already talked about–and there seem to be an endless supply of those.

Finally, there’s the question of how the categories relate to each other.   So for example, some people would like a rule that all genetic parents are necessarily recognized as legal parents.   (Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that all legal parents are genetic parents–you can still have adoptive parents, who are also legal parents even though they aren’t genetic parents.)   I would not pick to have such a rule.   Instead I’d say that some genetic parents are legal parent and other genetic parents are not legal parents and knowing that a person is a genetic parent doesn’t tell you anything about whether they are also a legal parent.

Maybe there is a way to do this without all the category names and the accompanying confusion, but I’m not sure what it is.    I know it is tedious and I’m not even sure where we end up–we don’t, in the end, have an agreed upon definition of step-parent.  But perhaps we know a little bit more about what we mean.

There’s one very specific reason why I in particular need to have that idea of step-parent, I think.  I will try to write about this next time (which shouldn’t be too long from now.)   Basically the de facto parent rule I have in mind works okay for step-parents, I think–at least the way I’d apply it.  But it has some problems in those instances where there is a second original parent–a person like Sporn, in fact.   So I need to separate out those cases when I think about them.

More to follow.


19 responses to “Why Are There All These Categories of Parents?

  1. I tend to think of a step-parent as someone who is in a long term relationship with a person who has a legal child, but who has no legal relationship with the child on their own. I do think sometimes these terms are just used to convey information – for example if the fact that someone was adopted was relevant to the conversation, they might mention “my/his/her adoptive parent.”

    • I think you are right that we are inconsistent sometimes in how we use the titles–depending on context and relevance. Sometimes this simplifies things, but sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, my then-partner gave birth to both of my children. We were together for years before she got pregnant and throughout the pregnancies. I was there when both children were born and did all that ritual stuff. Then, to ensure I had a legal relationship with the children, I adopted both of them. What am I?
      I would not describe myself as a step-parent because I was here from the beginning–and that, as I’ve expiained, is how I use the term. But I think you would describe me as a step-parent right up until I adopted the child. Does this make me, in your termininology, both an adopted parent and a step-parent or does the step-parent status end? Whether it ends for you or not, I think for some other people–thinking of the definitions here–I am always going to be a step-parent, whether a step-parent who completed an adoption or no. (I will tell you that I would correct someone who called me a step-parent because it doesn’t fit what I use.)
      I am doubtless an adoptive parent, but I have little in common with what many think of as the classic adopted parent. And my adopted children do not have the same experience that many adopted children might have. I don’t know if they think of themselves as adopted or if they identify strongly with friends they have who are adopted.

      SO there’s a lot of confusion in terminology even when we do our very best to be clear. I am afraid it just works out that way.

      • I’d consider you an adoptive mother because you adopted them. Were you ever a legal step parent such that you would have been able to put them on your medical insurance at work or claim them on your taxes. Were you married in the eyes of the law and if not then its not really a step parent adoption is it?
        Step parent adoptions short cut a lot of red tape because the rearing mother or father is married to them and they are vouching for their character.,

        Can you tell me a bit about how that works for lesbian mothers who are not married due to laws preventing it, it must not be called a step parent adoption so what is it called when only one unmarried person adopts and one unmarried parent remains in the picture.

        What you ideally want with the mother getting to approve someone else to be named as a parent is essentially step parenthood because it is one step from parenthood they don’t have their own connection to the child to assert that they have obligations. There is an imballance with parents and step parents you are correct. But I don’t think it is necessarily wrong

        • I would have said that you started off as a step parent, or perhaps a prospwctive adoptI’ve parent.

          • now suppose you had never completed the adoption, or not had adoption available to you: as a step parent your parental role is subject to the discretion of the legal parent. (I guess thats what I mean when I say a legal step parent).
            In such a case, say the legal parent wanted you to stop functioning as a parent, should your relationship with the children be entitled to any protection by the law against her will? This is a sticky question for someone who believes that following the proper legal procedures is important in parenthood, but who also believes that existing relationships should be protected. I personally lean on the side of the law.
            Nevertheless, if we were talking about a two week old baby, I wouldn’t see any question at all. Their is no established relationship to protect and the would-be parent has no other claim to parenthood other than her plans. Planning doesn’t cut it in my book. Did you notice my question about the 2 week old baby in the last post?

            • Had adoption not been possible or not been done, then I would have been a legal stranger to the child–unless I could invoke a doctrine like de facto parentage–which recognizes the fact of parenthood in the absence of legal formality. And for de facto to work, you do need the passage of time, as you suggest. This is a problem for the theoretical framework I’m trying to evolve–one that I think about a lot (and I didn’t see that you raised it before–sorry–but it is what I will get to in a post later this afternoon, I think.) If a state has a doctrine like de facto parent then someone qualifying as a de facto parent is a full legal parent–just like an adoptive parent etc. But if not, then you indeed have no rights.

          • Which does demonstrate that we use “step=parent” quite differently. I never identified myself as a step-parent nor did anyone else identify me that way (to my knowledge, anyway). I’m not saying that self-identification is necessarily conclusive but we have paid it some mind here. Further, while it was technically true to say I was a prospective adoptive parent, I don’t think anyone would have described me that way. I was, in all the practical sense of the word, an operational parent, and so I was treated. (In this I was lucky.) I don’t consider that anything except legal status changed when I completed the adoption. I don’t mean to sneeze at that–legal status is important, obviously. But it did not change the living relationship between me and my children–just the formalities.

            On the one hand, this is all neither here nor there–it is just one person’s story. On the other, I think it does rather strikingly show the gap in how we use language. And for what it is worth, I know a number of people who would take deep offense were you to deploy the language you use to describe them.

        • You are free to consider me an adoptive mother and surely in a technical legal sense I am one. But I’m not in the same position as many other adoptive mother’s I know. I was part of the planning for conception of this child (something not the case for many adoptive mothers). I was there for the pregnancy and birth (something sometimes true for adoptive mothers) and I planned to and, for as long as possible, did raise the child as a coparent with the woman who gave birth to the child–not something true for most adoptive mothers.

          Whether you call me an adoptive mother might depend on why the category matters. If the question is “how did you establish your legal right to parentage” then surely I am an adoptive mother. But for other purposes–like when there’s an adopted kids affinity group at my daughter’s school (which there is)–I don’t count. Just as I do not have the experience that most adoptive mothers have, she doesn’t have the experience that binds together the kids in the children of adoption affinity group.

          I imagine we can agree that it is complicated.

          • Sure she does. She is not the offspring of one of the people raising her, which means that she absolutely is the offspring of at least one person who is not raising her. The fact that you are a legal parent rather than a step parent indicates the complete and total loss of the biological parent’s physical and financial support. Being a step parent tells the casual onlooker that she has not lost legal position as a member of the absent parent’s family. She’d have other things in common with adopted people like not knowing or being known to multitudes of relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, nieces nephews, etc. That is of course unless her biological father has always been part of her life and she is fully integrated into his family socially, even though he is not meeting any parental obligations. Still social integration into the absent parent’s family is useless the law recognizes those relationships. Open Donor offspring have that in common with open adopted people. Loss of legal rights.

            People often forget that adoption is a REACTION to separated families, whereas donor reproduction is a means of CAUSING families to be separated.

            There are lots of causes behind separated families, Sometimes it’s failed birth control. Sometimes its lack of adequate resources. Sometimes its performance of duties required by private gamete donation or surrogacy contracts for possession of and parental title over their offspring. Sometimes it’s because the child has special needs. Sometimes its because of abuse or neglect or paternity fraud or paternity collusion or parental death. Sometimes its a hybred of one or more factors contributing to the child’s separation from their family.

            Adoption reacts by granting people the authority to raise offspring of parents who failed to meet their obligations for whatever reason.

            So the fact that there is room for an adoptive parent guarantees that somewhere out there is a parent who failed to take care of their own offspring. Certainly there are plenty of things donor offspring and adopted people have in common to commiserate over. And that’s just for the ones who are not legally adopted!
            It is a mistake to think adopted people don’t have incredibly varried reasons for having been adopted. Look no further than your own home and know there are lots more adopted people that don’t fit the preconception. No pun initially intended.

  2. British Columbia’s new Family Law Act (in force in mid March 2013) will make a distinction between those who are “parents” and those who have legal rights to guardianship (which include decision-making, parenting time etc).

    When assisted reproduction is not used, the ‘parents’ are the birth mother and the biological father. s. 26
    But, as a rule, a parent will only be a ‘guardian’ if the child’s parents lived together. s. 39

    There are more complicated provisions for assisted reproduction, and donors are not ‘parents’ by reason only of their donation. s. 24

    • It sounds like the bulk of what we think of as parental rights are actually assigned to the guardian. What are the rights/obligations of the “parents?” I’m intrigued by a system that assigns separate roles these way–something we have been loath to do in the US.

  3. You believe that people should have only one legal parent at birth, the woman who was pregnant and delivered them. You also believe that whoever was her romantic partner and was planning to raise the child with her while she was pregnant should be the child’s other legal parent.

    My questions to you are:
    What happens if the mother does not want that romantic partner to be the child’s other parent? If the mother objects to the naming of that person as the other parent can the partner or ex partner appeal can the government overrule her could the government overrule her? Is the bestowing of secondary parenthood then a private contractual matter that the government then is bound to recognize and honor?

    What about all the people who were gestated and delivered by women who were not romantically involved with anyone while pregnant? They would only get the one legal parent…is that right?

    • This is actually the subject of the post I am presently working on. It’s not quite accurate as to my views. I do think that the woman who gives birth is necessarily a legal parent. That gives all children at least one legal parent at birth. The question of a second legal parent at birth is harder for me (and is what I’m writing to post later.) IT’s not as simple as that the romatic partner gets to be the child’s legal parent and it is something I struggle with. I will try to answer your question in the new post because I think I’ll have the context more developed there.

  4. For someone so aware of the power one parent can have over the others ability to freely move and whatnot you are quite hasty to name an unrelated partner or spouse as second parent.

    One problem with your theory is that being pro-choice you simply cannot say that the time put in being pregnant counts as parental care giving because there is no child yet. Nobody is any kind of a mother until a child is born – they are expectant parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Your assertion that the woman who gives birth is better predicated on some kind of possession is 9/10 of the law thing where clearly at the halfway in and half way out point of giving birth nobody but her possesses that born individual. Provided they are born head first. She’s the first one to have possession of the minor and therefore the care of that dependent individual is her responsibility, at least for the moment until things get straighten out anyway. I’d even have to acknowledge that to be true of a woman delivering another woman’s offspring – there is a certain duty of care that she’d have to look after the born child that no other stranger would have given the fact that she’s the first to have physical custody of the born person at that half in half out stage when I’d say the kid was born and still attached at the cord. Where if she gave birth in the woods she’d be responsible for the kid at least until she could get it back to the mother.

    • I don’t think it is hasty at all. To my mind, a person cannot form the requisite parent/child relationship without at least the tacit support/consent of the existing legal parents. It takes too much time and too much engagment. In other words, a legal parent can readily prevent anyone else from becoming a legal parent via the de facto route simply by supervising how the child spends her/his time.

      You’re right–or at least half-right–about the problem with pregnancy. I don’t have a problem with the woman who is pregnant. There may not be a child before birth but nevertheless the woman who gives birth stands in a unique relationship with the child she gives birth to. The problem is getting a second original parent. And maybe the answer is that you don’t start with two–you only start with one. (I’ve written an essay on just this point.)

  5. There is something very disturbing very off putting about the concept of earning the right to possession of and title over another human being. You can work for anything you can buy and anything that can be bought or worked for can also be traded or given as a gift. Many people defend this earn-a-baby logic by saying that they’d rather be raised by unrelated people who wanted them than by related people who did not. I say that’s mixing apples and oranges. If you are the offspring of the people raising you then at least your parents have not violated the law by trying to sell you and their parental title to some stranger. It does not mean that they will be great or even adequate parents in any other way but it does mean that your identity and medical records have not been tampered with and that at the very least your existence is accurately documented and your not being concealed from your other relatives and nobody is hiding from you.

    • There’s no possession or title. The relationship between the two people (child and parent) is protected. It cannot be disrupted or severed lightly. And with the relationship come the rights/obligations of parentage–how late the child stays up, who the child spends time with, whether the child goes to this or that school, etc. this isn’t possession or ownnership.

  6. Back in the days of illegitimacy, the mother was the only legal parent, correct? Did the man who claimed to be the father have any rights if he didn’t marry the mother?

    • Actually, if you go back far enough, the illegitimate child was a child of no one and had neither legal mother nor legal father. At some point that changed and illegitimate children had legal mothers but no legal fathers. It wasn’t so much a question of a man claiming rights as of a man (or any parent) being assigned obligations or perhaps the child claiming rights–and here I think specifically of inheritance rights. I actually don’t think people thought in terms of parenthood conferring rights–rather it conferred obligations–and probably most importantly the obligation to support.

      At various times and in various places there were ways that a man might legitimate an otherwise illegitimate child. This might make the child an heir. So perhaps, in answer to your question, this means that there were at least sometimes some ways in which a man who claimed to be the father could claim rights.

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