The XX Factor

Heather Has Three Parents 

Should this father-daughter image include one more father?

Photograph by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images.

One game conservatives love to play is what I think of as the human version of zoomorphs, that toy where you snap together different animal body parts until you have the weirdest looking creature possible. They generally play this game whenever news reveals that some bill or court or legislator somewhere in the United States (or possibly Europe or Canada) has changed or threatened to change the “nuclear family.” This week, for example, a California legislator proposed a bill to allow three and possibly more adults to be recognized as legal parents when such an arrangement is in a child’s best interest. Benjamin Lopez of the Traditional Values Coalition told the Sacramento Bee that the change would allow us to “revamp” and  “redefine” the American family. “Revamp” was the word that triggered the Zoomorph Family Challenge. Immediately conservatives were pointing to “research” showing that sanctioning such a child rearing arrangement would lead to “unintended consequences” and bizarre and unheard of domestic arrangements: polygamous couples and maybe even “group marriage.” Rush Limbaugh, as always, won the prize, musing on his blog, “What if somebody wants to marry their pet dog?”

Alas, it was not the pro-bestiality lobby secretly backing the bill. California State Senator Mark Leno introduced the bill after hearing about a maddening 2011 state appellate court case. A young girl was being raised by two mothers. When one of them went to jail and the other was hospitalized, the girl’s biological father asked to have custody. But the court ruled against him because of a state law limiting custody to two parents. The girl ended up in foster care.

Sure, having three parents can lead to unusual domestic tableaux and new complications—a sperm donor father shows up and wants custody, a surrogate mother changes her mind, members of a group house decide three parents is more economical than one. But in fact an 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. As the New York Times recently reported, we have just passed the milestone where more babies are born to single mothers under 30 than to married parents. Again, not maybe as fascinating as contemplating what it would be like to marry your pet dog, but the mundane reality of so many American children.

Being raised by a single mother may be a fine and possibly stellar arrangement under the right circumstances. But if you are the sort of person who is agonized over the loss of the “traditional nuclear family” then this increasingly common arrangment is what should be keeping you up nights. Not pets, or polygamy or gay marriage. And a bill like Mark Leno’s will only help matters, not make them worse. Because while the headline grabbing cases will involve gay couples or more uncommon arrangements the vast majority of cases where such a scenario might arise will involve a mother and stepfather or boyfriend who might want to take care of a child but has no legal custody.

In its analysis of the bill the Sacramento Bee listed three scenarios such a bill might affect:

  • A family in which a man began dating a woman while she was pregnant, then raised that child with her for seven years. The youth also had a parental relationship with the biological father.
  • A same-sex couple who asked a close male friend to help them conceive, then decided that all three would raise the child.
  • A divorce in which a woman and her second husband were the legal parents of a child, but the biological father maintained close ties as well.

Of those, numbers one and three are vastly more common than No. 2. If there’s a crisis for American families today, it has nothing to do with revamping of definitions. (Gay marriage for example has had no effect on marriage or divorce rates.) Families—and particularly children—are in trouble largely because men don’t stick around to pitch in. This is especially true among the majority of Americans who don’t have a college degree. If we want to fix that then we have to give adults any incentive to stay. In much of Europe a cohabiting couple with a child counts as a family. In the United States, they count on the census and in the eyes of social services as three strangers, so eventually many of them behave that way. Given that reality, a single guy who is fighting for custody of his young kid should count as some kind of hero. Ditto for the stepfather who wants to make it official.