Defining Who is a Parent

I was recently contacted by a lawyer, on behalf of an old friend who is locked in a bitter custody battle for her 7-year old daughter, and asked to make a statement verifying, and validating, my friends status as “mother” of this child. Long story short, this friend, along with her girlfriend at the time, had worked together (via artificial insemination) to have a child. The girlfriend was inseminated, carried the pregnancy and gave birth, and my friend served as loyal caregiver, as well as parent to this child for the first few years of the girl’s life.

As they sometimes do, the relationship deteriorated over time, and the child’s biological mother now rejects the notion of her former girlfriend being a “parent” of her daughter, and has refused visitation rights. Needless to say, this has been a very ugly and arduous battle for joint-custody, as well as parental rights at a time when same-sex parenting, as well as the definition of parent has been called into question. Who gets to be a “parent” and who doesn’t?

Drake Bennett of The Boston Globe took a hard look at this question of parenthood, and what it means in contemporary society in his recent investigative article, “Johnny Has Two Mommies — and Four Dads.” The basic question of the piece is, can a child have more than two parents, and if so, what are the ramifications (both moral and legal) of such an expanded notion of parenthood?

Even in this era of relative open-mindedness on the subject of parenting, the legal and social definition of a family still has certain rules — a family can be run by a single mom or a single dad and, increasingly, by two moms or two dads, but it can’t have three parents, or four. Bennett’s piece brings to light the contrary opinion of a few family-law scholars, who have begun to argue that there is nothing special about the number two — if three or four or five adults have a parental relationship with a child, the law should recognize them all as parents.

Moving beyond the accepted notion of only two parents, these scholars argue, “would better reflect the dynamics of the modern family, and also protect the children in such families. It would ensure that, even in the event of a split or major disagreement between the adults in question, the children would not be deprived of the affection, care and financial resources of any of the people they have grown up regarding as their mothers and fathers.”

Of course, there are ardent detractors and critics of this notion that firmly believe the concept of parenthood should be limited to two individuals, and that a certain tinkering or reinterpretation of the definition of parenthood threatens to dilute the sense of obligation that being a parent has always carried, and will likely arise in more litigation and conflict when multi-parental disputes arise. “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,” says Nancy Polikoff, a family-law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.

The notion of multiple parents is not all that new and novel – ask anyone who was raised with stepparents. And history, as well as literature (read the Red Tent for an interesting take on communal mothering) has revealed that multiple parenting has been done with varying success. Still, with all of the changes in family structure, gender roles, and the expansion of the definition of parenting, is the prospect of moving parenting beyond its traditional duo role such a bad one? Will this provide additional support and community for these children, or just contribute to needless confusion and uncertainty? Should there be a limit to how many people can claim parental rights over one child? What is family for, and as the culture evolves, will our concept of family evolve as well?

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Joanna Mechlinski
Joanna M.3 years ago

Personally, I don't think ANY child can have too many adults in his or her life who care, love and support -- denying involvement to the bio mom's former partner is a mistake indeed.

Terry Vanderbush
Terry V.3 years ago


Bon L.
Bon L.4 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Cassandra Holly
Casian Holly4 years ago

I've spent more of my life with four parents than I did with two. Were one of my parents and step parents to split, the step parent would still be my parent. I don't care if they have no legal rights, that is someone I spent my childhood looking to in that role.
Further, I think almost all parents who would try to keep a child from one of their parents using the fact that their DNA did not contribute, is not looking out for their child's best interest. They're only trying to hurt their ex-partner and are likely hurting the children in the process (the exception of course being abusive parents.)
Plenty of people are the legal parent to a child that is not genetically their own. I know a woman whose eggs were damaged and was able to be impregnated with donor eggs. Those eggs came from people she barely knows who live across the country and she has no genetic tie to children she bore for 9 months and is now raising. Would you argue her children aren't hers because of the DNA? And what of adoptive parents?
DNA means very, very little in parenting. Taking this 7 year old child away from a mother she's known her whole life, who has spent 7 years raising her, is just cruel. The biological mother ought to be ashamed of herself for ignoring her own child's best interests in an attempt to hurt her ex.

Barbara Erdman
Barbara Erdman4 years ago

That is debateable, there can be many :-)

Debra Holliday
Debra Holliday4 years ago

I believe in every child should have both a mother and a father for guidance from each side of the biological human equation. If that is not possible, such as in this case, I think the biological mother has every right to keep the child -- the proof is in the DNA.

Megan K.
Megan K.4 years ago


jane richmond
jane richmond5 years ago

Very interesting

Jane C.
Jane C.5 years ago

Something to ponder on. Thanks

Justine Schulz
Justine Schulz5 years ago

Very interesting article. I agree with Olivia's comment.