What Are Parents Anyway?

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 friend’s 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 having more than two parents “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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Danial W.
Past Member 4 years ago

after reading your article I doubt

Tim Cheung
Tim C6 years ago


Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

I'm going through a similar situation. My son's biological father is a dud. My new husband is a father. Yet my ex wants to fight for more and more rights, and never could feed him or spend any real time with him. And a liar to boot...

Giovanna M.
Giovanna M6 years ago

The whole matter is very complicated, starting by the fact that it will deeply depend/vary on the specifics of each situation.
Maybe the biologist in me plays its role, but I think one of the problems is that we mix the emotional with the biological term. Even in animals where the young are raised by the pack in more or less degree, the parents are the biological individuals. That does not imply that the biological parents (especially males in many cases) play any tutoring or close related role with their offspring.
Maybe if we, as humans, managed to (at least legally) assume that biological parenthood is not necesarily related with what our society morally considers "parental duties" things would be easier.
IMHO biological parents may have some rights as long as their rights don't go against the kids'. But it's the tutor/protector/caretaker/provider, whatever you want to call the person who supports the child emotionally and economically, who cares and is there for him/her who should have more claims, and this person is not necesarily the biological parent. If not, where does that leave adopted kids' parents even in traditional couples?

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

My boyfriend is more of a dad to my son than his dad ever was.. even when we were married! Luckily that gives him a great role model. His dad occasionally attempts to be in his life, but is inconsistent and rarely follows through. In time my son will be old enough to form is own opinions, but until then we continue to remind him that yes, his father loves him even when he is absent, and no, it is not his fault when his dad fails to show up

Chad A.
Chad Anderson6 years ago

The law needs to catch up with society and changing tradtion, not try to force people into idealized visions that may not always work out for real people.

Nina Anghel
Nina Anghel6 years ago

Thanks for posting.

jenny H.
jenny H6 years ago

Blood-relatedness does not make (or break) a parent. We tend to be so caught up in the religious model of what makes a relationship (a man and a woman) and what makes a family (two (opposite gender) parents and two kids) that we forget that what really matters is love. If a child is fortunate enough to have one, two or twenty loving parents/carers or significant people in its life, then it is fortunate, whoever those people may be.

Andrea A.
Andrea A6 years ago


Kristina C.
Kristina C6 years ago

I agree witht he research, and that our society has changed, accordingly we need to change the laws to protect our children. It appears that we in the U.S. are a bit slow to do just that - and there have been allot of unjust rulings about custody.
I strongly believe that the gender and marital status, blood-relationa nd what not has nothing to do who is a true parent and who is not. Just like financial contributions does not make one a parent.
Same-sex partners that cared for a child are parents, just like unmarried heterosexual couples or partners that take care of children. And if there are more than 2 parties - than by all means, it is only just to rule in the best interest of the child.