Why Every Kid Needs At Least 3 Parents
Rather than struggling to rebalance the division of labor between breadwinning and caregiving, why not spread the roles out more broadly among a greater number of committed adults?
It was probably my fault for marrying a Bulgarian in the first place, but my ex-husband permanently returned to his native country when we divorced in 2005. Our daughter was 4 years old. Although he remained present in her life, seeing her for a few weeks each year, the overwhelming responsibilities of parenting fell on my shoulders. I became, like my own mother and grandmother before me, a single mom.
Because of my tenure-track position at a prestigious liberal arts college (the Holy Grail of the academic job market for a freshly minted Ph.D.), we’d moved to Maine after our daughter’s birth. Although I had no family and few friends in the state, I loved my students and colleagues and decided to prioritize my career after the debacle of my divorce. I had no time for dating, nor was I interested in finding a new partner. I spent two full years laser-focused on preschools, play dates, and producing the scholarly publications necessary to earn a permanent position. But after my promotion, I let my guard down. I met and fell in love with someone who eventually became what scholars call an “alloparent” to my daughter, a caring adult who shares the responsibilities of parenthood with the legal parents.
We became a team, and from that moment on, my daughter had three real parents.
I won’t lie. It was awkward at first when my ex-husband flew in for birthday parties or important holidays. Once, he, my new partner, and I hung out together all evening, side-by-side on the couch, watching In Bruges on DVD, and sharing popcorn out of a common bowl while our 8-year-old daughter had a sleepover with her third-grade friends upstairs. The next morning, they each tried to avoid each other by escaping to the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where they met and had no choice but to share a coffee together without me. A year later, when an MRI discovered a large mass on my daughter’s pineal gland, and the doctors feared brain cancer, we all came together to discuss options for her care in a worst-case scenario. We became a team, and from that moment on, my daughter had three real parents.
This did not bother her at all. She called my ex-husband her “Daddy,” and my new partner her “Fatherlet,” addressing him by his first name. It was her Fatherlet who read all seven Harry Potter novels aloud to her before bedtime, and held her hand in the hospital during her spinal tap. He helped with her homework and came to parent-teacher meetings when necessary. My new partner referred to her as his “Daughterlet,” to distinguish her from his own daughter from a previous marriage.
As two financially independent divorcees with deep critiques of the institution of marriage, my new partner and I deliberately chose to keep the state out of our romance and maintained our separate households. This meant there was no real way to formalize our alloparenting relationship. My daughter could only acquire another legal parent if her biological father gave up his rights. None of us wanted him to do that.
All of this changed when the state passed the Maine Parentage Act, which went into effect on July 1, 2016. Under this new law, adults who maintain a consistent presence in a child’s life, developing a “bonded and dependent relationship,” can petition for “de facto parent” status. This could be a grandparent, a stepparent, a surrogate, an egg or sperm donor, or just a close family friend, as long as the “continuing relationship between the person and the child is in the best interest of the child.”
As late as 1960, 73% of all children in the United States were raised in a household with two heterosexual, opposite-sex parents in their first marriage, per the Pew Research Center. By 2013, this percentage had dropped to less than half (46%). This means that between 1960 and 2013, the percentage of children raised by single parents grew by 20 percentage points — from 14% to 34%.
If two parents are better than one, perhaps three would be even better than two? Or even four?
I agree that children are generally better off when there are two loving adults present in their lives. I also know how hard it is to raise a child on your own while holding down a full-time job, scrambling to find child care, and worrying that you won’t be there when they need you most. So why link our parenting arrangements to old-fashioned ideas about first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage? If two parents are better than one, perhaps three would be even better than two? Or even four?
In a world where it is now medically possible for a baby to have the DNA of two mothers and a father, our idea of the family needs to evolve to include more alloparents. A recent New York Times article discussed the rise of “Mommunes,” groups of single mothers who buy a house and raise their children in common. Platonic parents, or people in non-romantic relationships that decide to raise children together, might also choose to parent in numbers greater than the traditional pair. In the LGBTQIA+ community, chosen families of all different forms might want to share the joys and responsibilities of parenthood. There is a multiplicity of possible models for alloparenting.
In 2018, the American Bar Association reflected on the importance of establishing laws for de facto parentage: “By recognizing functional parental relationships as legal parental relationships, states not only protect children from the trauma of losing a parent, they also ensure that children will be entitled to access the critical financial benefits that flow from and through legally recognized parents.”
Maine is not alone in allowing for multi-parent adoptions. Other states such as California, Delaware, Vermont, Washington, and Connecticut have enacted laws like the Maine Parentage Act, expanding the number of possible legal parents to better reflect the social, emotional, and biological diversity of American families.
In 2017, a New York judge made a historic ruling that granted “tri-custody” to two moms and one dad after their polyamorous trio broke up. In his 2021 book, Three Dads and a Baby, Ian Jenkins detailed his own legal battles to win parental recognition for three fathers. He and his two partners fought for the right to all be listed on the birth certificates of their two children, brought into the world with the help of one egg donor and two surrogate mothers.
“Given all of the physical, financial, mental, and emotional labors of raising children,” a college professor colleague of mine explained to me, “why wouldn’t you want to spread that around?” He spent over a decade as one of three legal parents to his now adult twins, and although he believes the arrangement worked out well for everyone involved, he preferred to remain anonymous because formal tri-parenting is still so rare.
More important, multi-parenting might provide more stability for children. Adults will choose additional co-parents more rationally than they choose their romantic partners, protecting children from the negative fallouts of divorce once a romance fails or if one partner decides to move across an ocean. And if one parent leaves, dies, or is otherwise incapable of caring for a child, there are still other parents left.
Rather than struggling to rebalance the division of labor between breadwinning and caregiving, why not spread the necessary roles out more broadly among a greater number of committed adults?
Recognizing de facto parents also protects children from being placed in foster care if a primary parent dies. Too many loving grandparents, godparents, and stepparents have been deprived of their parental roles by courts that refuse to consider the importance of non-biological parents in the lives of children.
Finally, as increasing numbers of millennials and members of Generation Z decide to forgo childbearing in protest against climate change, the housing crisis, or the growing precarity of their financial futures in a brutal gig economy, the growing acceptance of alloparenting might offer unique opportunities for them to experience parenthood. Rather than struggling to rebalance the division of labor between breadwinning and caregiving, why not spread the necessary roles out more broadly among a greater number of committed adults?
My daughter never enjoyed a formal legal relationship with all of the people in her life that loved and cared for her because our three-parent arrangement had already been in place for almost a decade before the courts could sanction it. By 2016, she was already old enough to make decisions about her own life if something had happened to me. It never became a necessity. Her worrisome brain mass turned out to be a benign pineal cyst and she survived her childhood without any major medical mishaps. Today, she remains as close to her “Daddy” as she is to her “Fatherlet.” As she enters young adulthood and contemplates starting her own family someday, I believe the best protection against her becoming a fourth-generation single mom is to have more than one other legal parent with whom to share her parental responsibilities. And maybe not marrying a Bulgarian.
Kristen R. Ghodsee is professor and chair of Russian and East European Studies and a member of the Graduate Group in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the critically acclaimed author of 12 books, which have been translated into 18 languages. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Jacobin, among other outlets, and she’s appeared on PBS NewsHour and France 24 as well as on dozens of podcasts, including NPR’s Throughline, New York magazine’s The Cut, and the Ezra Klein Show of The New York Times. Her latest book is: Everyday Utopia: What 2000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life.