Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.
posted in Mom Stories
Here’s a story that caught my interest: Hanna Rosin’s discussion of a proposed California law permitting a child to have three or more legal parents – if it’s determined that having an extra parent would be in the child’s best interests.
For example, a child of divorce might have her stepfather adopt her – giving her three legal parents altogether.
My immediate reaction? What kid wouldn’t benefit from having three parents?
Oh, I know. Everybody’s situation is different and some kids might do better with fewer parents. Moreover, it depends on who the parents are. A child doesn’t need a third bad parent. And three parents isn’t a good thing if it means children caught in the middle of wrenching custody battles.
But the point of this idea is, in part, to prevent wrenching custody battles. Like the California case of a lesbian couple and the biological father of their child. When one mother was hospitalized and the other went to jail, the biological father wanted to take the child in. But the court ruled against him on the grounds that current statutes don’t permit legal recognition of a third parent.
The girl went into foster care.
References to lesbian parenting give this story a very modern-sounding twist. But the situation is as old as time. Whether due to hardship, disease, or death, children have always been at risk of losing their parents. And never mind waiting for tragedy to strike. Many of us could use some extra parents right now.
Not surprisingly, there are objections. The very idea of a law permitting three parents has been denounced by some political conservatives. One analyst claims that such a law is “fundamentally contrary to the laws of nature, science and tradition.”
But the socially-isolated nuclear family is hardly a human universal. In the past, extended families were the rule, and parents got help. In some places, like the Amazon, mothers routinely lined up more than one “father” for their children. Having multiple fathers meant kids were more likely to get fed and protected in an uncertain world.
And what about godparents? They’ve got no legal responsibilities nowadays — not in places like the United States. But in the past, things were different.
So having “extra” parents isn’t an unnatural, new-fangled concept. And as Rosin notes,
“… [A]n excess of adults wanting to take care of them is not what ails America’s children today. What they have now is very much the opposite problem.”
I don’t know the text of this particular bill. Perhaps there is something about it that should give us pause. But whatever becomes of this controversy, one thing is sure. Children can and do form secure attachments to multiple caregivers, and everybody benefits from strong social support. Having a de facto third parent can be a wonderful thing. It is terrible to think that some kids might lose all three of their parents because the law can’t cope.
If the prospect of more than two parents intrigues you, check out my post, “One mom, multiple dads?” as well as my Parenting Science article about the ways that psychologists have traditionally assessed attachment — and have missed, along the way, the importance of “extra” caregivers.
For a discussion of the evidence that humans evolved as cooperative breeders, see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s excellent book, Mother Nature, and my post entitled “Mothers have always needed childcare help.”
image by Kahanna / wikimedia commons
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