Three’s Company: How Many Parents Make a Family?

Photo credit: Hamner Fotos

A Florida judge has allowed three people—two lesbian moms and the man they asked to be their sperm donor—to be listed on the birth certificate of their toddler. And the Dutch justice ministry is about to commission a report examining the possibility of recognizing three parents or more for one child. For some of the parents involved, this expanded recognition is good news; for others, not. But although three-parent recognition may seem newfangled, it has been around for longer than you might think.

In the Florida case, reports the Miami Herald, the women asked the man to waive all his rights to the child. He then sued for parental rights and visitation. The judge ruled that he should be on the child’s birth certificate and recognized as her father, but the non-bio mom could do a second-parent adoption. The man would have certain visitation rights, but the mothers will be responsible for child support and have “all decision-making responsibilities.”

AFP reports on the situation in the Netherlands, and profiles a two-mom, two-dad family that is amicably co-parenting, but want additional legal recognition for their parental status. The article also quotes a Dutch lawmaker who notes that legal recognition of more than two parents will benefit not only gay and lesbian families, “but also divorced parents who marry someone who takes on the role of parent.”

And even though California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last October that would have recognized more than two people as parents of a child, legal three-parent families—gay and straightare not unheard of in the U.S., as Nancy Polikoff noted at her blog last July. The first such case dates from the 1980s, in Louisiana.

For another good exploration of the idea of more than two parents, have a read of this 2010 Boston Globe piece by Drake Bennett. Key quotes:

Whether or not multiple parentage gains wider legal and social acceptance, the fact that it’s being debated—and, in a few cases, allowed—suggests the flexibility that the concept of parenthood has taken on today, not only among scholars, but among adults doing the work of actually raising children in sometimes unorthodox situations. It’s part of a broader reexamination of what it means to have a family, a conversation that is itself only a chapter in a story that has unfolded over hundreds of years. . . .

Some of those changes remain deeply controversial, of course. And yet there are other aspects of the contemporary family that, while they would strike people of an earlier era as deeply unnatural, today go all but unremarked: the fact, for example, that it’s common for grandparents to live not with their children and grandchildren but instead hundreds of miles away. The family of the future may look similarly unfamiliar to us, and in ways we’re only beginning to discern.

I generally agree—although given the diversity of family forms that already exist but may not have legal protections, I wonder whether it is the families of the future that will look unfamiliar, or just the recognition we accord them.