Heather Has Two Mommies & Two Daddies: Time for the Law to Evolve
Sharon Tanenbaum and Matty Person wanted to have a family. So, as many lesbian couples do, they turned to an old friend to make that happen. Bill Hirsch was an old friend of Sharon's and was happy to help. After Jesse was born, Bill stayed involved in his life, spending one day a week with Bill and his same sex partner. The entire extended family also had dinner together once a week.
In the eyes of the law, Sharon and Bill are Jesse's parents. As the law stands now, Jesse can only have two legal parents. But clearly, Jesse has more than the usual matched set of loving parents. Matty and Jesse were in a precarious position. If something happened to Sharon, Matty could be separated from her son and Jesse from one of his mothers. We all like to think that something like that could never happen, but it does.
To rectify the situation, Matty and Sharon filed for a third-parent adoption in San Francisco Superior Court. This move gave Jesse three legal parents, with all the rights and responsibilities involved in parenthood.
This week, Motherlode, the New York Times parenting blog, wrote about the Tanenbaum/Person/Hirsch family and asked “How many parents is too many?” In the comments, there are a range of views, but one comment, from an attorney in Houston, struck me because he/she focused on the problems rather than the possibilities:
I am pretty liberal and open minded but this is just ridiculous and confusing for the child(ren). Frankly, having more than two parents is not only confusing for the child but a legal nightmare as well. If the parents divorce or have a falling out who gets custody? Who pays child support? Who has visitation rights? Divorce is traumatizing enough for children as it is, shuttling between two homes is overwhelming enough. Do we really want children to have three homes? Or four? Having more people with rights is not a good thing. As an attorney I can tell you that it's difficult enough to make two people act in the best interest of a child when things go south. I can't even imagine the nightmare of mediating between three or four or more people.
Frankly, the whole issue smacks of selfishness on the part of the parents. Where do we draw the line? What if ten people want rights? And for those of you who say "no, there would never be a reason for 10 people to have rights", remember that not too long ago, there would never have been a reason for more than 2 people to have rights.
~ LK, Houston, TX
I'm also an attorney, and I have to say that I don't agree with LK from Houston. Extending parental privileges to third parties can be a good thing. Of course, with the privileges of parenthood come the responsibilities, including financial responsibilities. But I think that having more people financially and emotionally responsible for the well being of a child could be a wonderful thing.
I need to add some caveats to this idea of extended parental rights. The right granted to a third or fourth parent must be voluntarily given by the biological parents. Can you imagine the nightmare that would result if any step-parent could apply for, and be granted, parental rights? Coordinating visitation and support between two parents can be complicated and tension fraught enough without adding in a third wheel that isn't wanted by one parent. But, making this a voluntarily granted right, memorialized in court documents, can handle potential problems easily.
Extending parental privileges beyond the biological or adoptive parents could also complicate the law when it comes to extended family members, including grandparents. Although there have long been advocates for grandparent rights, we shouldn't usurp the rights of the parents themselves without good cause. But again, making this a voluntarily granted right, rather than a common law or legislated right, solves this problem and keeps the fate of a child within the determination of the parents.
Times are changing. Our families are changing. It's time for the law everywhere to catch up. Who cares if Heather has two mommies and two daddies? More love for Heather, or Jesse, has to be a good thing.
Stephanie is an attorney and social media consultant. She blathers on about her kids, bodily functions, politics and other stuff on her blog Lawyer Mama and is a contributing writer for the political blog, MOMocrats.