When I divorced the first time, in my 20s, there were a few people who were upset — my former husband and me, naturally, as well as our parents. Beyond that? Nope.
How different a reality than when I divorced the second time. Was it because I was then middle-aged, and people worried about what fate awaited a middle-aged woman who attempted to re-enter the work or dating world?
Nope. It was because we had two child-
ren, then 9 and 12, when we divor-
ced, and the big concern was not so much about me or my former husband, but about what would happen to the kids.
Clearly, all the talk nowadays about the retreat from marriage or building stronger marriages is less about marriage per se than it is about children.
In other words, few people care about childfree couples who split, just the couples who have kids together — married or not.
Perhaps we’re doing it all wrong. Lovers and spouses may come and go, but once you have children with someone, you are forever connected to him or her through your children. Should the law recognize that and hold you accountable for that connection?
Yes, according to Merle Weiner, a law professor at the University of Oregon, who proposes that rather than focus on marriage, the state should create a parent-partner status that would legally bind parents — married, cohabiting, living apart, romantic partners or not — with certain mandatory obligations in order to give their children what they need to thrive.
Given the cultural hand-wringing over decreasing marital rates, divorce and stepparenting, and the rise in non-nuclear families and non-marital births, her proposal to create a legal status seems to make a lot of sense; family law has not kept up with the vast changes in the marital landscape. But even within some marriages and in many divorces, she notes, “too many children grow up without parents who work as a team for the benefit of their children” — they are just not good co-parents. And given that love-based marriage creates all sorts of problems for children, it just may be time to rethink what we’re doing.
Like a parenting marriage — sorta
When I first heard of Weiner‘s proposal, which she details exhaustively in her book, A Parent-Partner Status for American Family Law, I thought it sounded a lot like The New I Do‘s parenting marriage. And in many ways, it does; both proposals ask those wanting to be parents to be much more deliberate about that giant step.
And why shouldn’t they? Parenting is about the biggest change in a person’s life, a lifelong change, affecting how we see ourselves and how others see us, and all the legal, financial, physical and emotional realities that come along with having a baby. Few of us are truly prepared for that. Yet, some try.
One person I spoke to, Rami Aizic, a Los Angeles therapist, spent months getting to know his parenting partner and detailing their parenting philosophies, and even went to therapy together, before he was convinced he’d found the perfect woman to be the mother of his child. Aizic, who is gay, and his parenting partner, a female friend, live apart but created a framework for how they were going to raise their daughter.
How often does that happen? Sadly, not enough.
In The New I Do, we call a parenting marriage the ultimate form of planned parenthood because we ask a couple who want children to figure out a lot of things first, and then make a contract spelling it all out with the goal of staying together for 18 years, at which point their child will be old enough to handle a parental breakup should they decide to go their separate ways.
Weiner’s proposal is in many ways similar and in some important ways different.
What a parent-partnership looks like
There isn’t nearly enough space here to delve into Weiner’s proposal (it fills 660 pages after all), but here’s what she suggests are the five obligations co-parents, married or not, should be able to promise each other: provide aid to each other; not abuse each other; do relationship work at the time the couple enters parenthood and if the romantic relationship ends; to treat each other fairly when contracting about the family relationship; and to share childcare equally and/or pay for it.
Weiner, the married mom of two, 16 and 19, and I spoke at length about what got her thinking about the parent-partner relationship and why it needs to be legally defined. While she’s in a romantic relationship with her husband, she told me that even if that part of their relationship ended, she and he agreed that their relationship as co-parents would not end.
Because it doesn’t; once you have kids together you will forever be connected. She wants the law to recognize that.
What has held us back from seeing the parenting partnership as something that needs to have its own legal definition? In part, she say, the institution of marriage itself, which historically has been about property and heirs (aka children). As she writes:
The importance of marriage today as a social and legal construct for adult relationships has produced entrenched categories that define who we are and limit our imagination. We can be single, married, or divorced. These categories give us our identities as others label us, but they do so without language that reflects the experience or concept of parent-partners. … Legal change has been constrained because marriage serves as the yardstick by which law reformers measure other adult relationships as worthy of mutual rights and obligations in the family arena. Policy makers use marriage to define the necessary prerequisites for other legal statuses that might regulate adults. With marriage as the yardstick, the relationship between parents with a child in common does not seem worthy of a legal status. After all, the parents’ relationship may lack certain features associated with marriage, such as cohabitation and monogamy, thereby making it seem devoid of commitment. … The pervasive emphasis on marriage as the only committed relationship crowds out the possibility of a different framework for commitment based on parenthood. tweet
Yes! I am in agreement with her when it comes to how society wrongly sees marriage as the only legitimate intimate relationship. It’s not, and it certainly matters less and less when it comes to children, especially since 52 percent of Millennials say being a good parent is “one of the most important things” in life while a mere 30 percent say the same about having a successful marriage. If we are going to continue on the path that we seem destined to continue, births outside or before marriage, many of which are unplanned, then should we provide support for those co-parents?
More conscious parenting
In our conversation, Weiner raised concern that “sometimes people aren’t deliberate enough about with whom they’re having children … ‘I won’t marry this person but I’ll have a child with this person.'” Weiner believes that if we had a societal expectation and a legal framework detailing how a person would be obligated once he or she became a parent “people would be more deliberate … about with whom they’re having children.” Then, that would help change their behavior so they’d become more supportive of each other (which she describes as fondness, flexibility, acceptance, togetherness and empathy) even if they split, which is when many parents no longer treat each other kindly — even though that is harmful to their children.
In some ways, it reminds me of some recent writings by the Brookings Institution’s Isabel V. Sawhill, who notes that “the conversation has focused so heavily on marriage, we have lost sight of the fact that it is the quality of parenting that really matters, not just the structure of the family.”
Sawhill also calls for “a new ethic of responsible parenthood. That means not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.”
What about love?
One of the interesting aspects of Weiner’s proposal is rethinking how love factors into our choice of romantic partners. The traits that make one a desirable spouse may not be the same traits that would make him or her a desirable parent-partner. As we note in the parenting marriage chapter in The New I Do, rather than pick a “soul mate” or “The One,” prospective parents would chose the person who’d be the best parent for his or her child, which in many ways would free people from some of the strict and artificial rules we set for ourselves while dating (“He’s too short,” “She’s too tall,” etc.)
Numerous studies have shown that women choose different men for short-term mating and long-term mating. Would having a parent-partner status change our idea of who’s marriageable and who isn’t? Maybe, but what may be more important, she suggests, is that it may change whom we decide to have unprotected sex with.
I’m sad that the book’s $150 price tag makes it outside the reach of many people who might be interested in exploring her ideas further. She talks about the parent-partner status in the video below; you can also go to her website to learn more.
While I have some concern about some of Weiner’s parenting-partnership proposal, including mandating relationship work, how it might impact the socioeconomically disadvantaged and how it might impact men who are tricked into becoming dads (yes, that happens), there are some things I like. Still, I think the broader discussion we need to be having is about caregiving, which almost all of us — parents or not — will likely face at some point in our lives. Marriage leaves a lot of caregiving unprotected, and so would a parent-partner status.