Monday, May 16, 2011

When there are more than two: polyamory and polyparenting

Victorians celebrated a few years ago when it became legal to put two female parents on a child’s birth certificate. Finally, the state had come to recognise that family relationships come in diverse forms. The catch of course in this is that it only allowed a little bit of diversity. A dad and a mum is great, a mum and a mum is okay, but we still say no to two dads and certainly no to more than two parents.

This excludes a growing number of families in the LGBT community who are raising children as part of co-parenting arrangements – a lesbian couple co-parenting with a gay couple, a single woman co-parenting with gay dads, a lesbian couple co-parenting with a single man. In any of these situations there are more than two adults who play an active, parental role in their child’s life and who have responsibility – emotionally, practically, financially – for that child’s wellbeing. But the idea of more than two parents challenges the fundamental ideal of the nuclear family.

Arguably, the world has come a long way towards accepting complex parental arrangements as separation, divorce and re-partnering have made step and blended families increasingly common. It is not unusual for children of heterosexual parents to have more than two parents – mum and dad with a couple of step-parents in the mix. Society has legal and policy structures in place to accommodate the negotiation of these complex family relationships, and there is a growing body of research that acknowledges not only the difficulties that come with living in these families, but also the potential benefits. Judith Stacey, for example, is an American sociologist who talks about the ways in which ‘post-divorce extended families’ (the ones that manage to function with minimal conflict at least) can create extended avenues of support and care for both parents and children.