Three (Parents) Can Be A Crowd, But For Some It's A Family Maisie and Ella have two moms and a dad. The father was a sperm donor for the female couple, and state law allowed him to be a third parent. As families change, laws in some places are changing, too.
NPR logo

Three (Parents) Can Be A Crowd, But For Some It's A Family

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/296851662/296863479" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Three (Parents) Can Be A Crowd, But For Some It's A Family

Three (Parents) Can Be A Crowd, But For Some It's A Family

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/296851662/296863479" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

The American family is changing - more single-parent families, more same-sex marriages; all kinds of new arrangements. A growing number of states are allowing children to now have three legal parents, or even more. California recently joined the pack.

NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel reports.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: It's early Sunday morning at Howard Forman's home in Connecticut, and I'm getting the grand tour.

HOWARD FORMAN: Maisie, show her your bedroom.

EMANUEL: Oh, it's pink!

The walls are pink, the bedspread is pink. And this morning, Maisie, who's 7, made her own bed.

MAISIE: Hey, look how good I can make my bed.

FORMAN: You did a beautiful job on the bed. In the middle of the night when I came in here to check on you...

EMANUEL: This could be an early morning scene in any household. But look at the family photo hanging above Maisie's bed. It's a little different.

FORMAN: Me, Kim, Kristin, Maisie and Ella - or do I have it backwards? I can't even see. Yeah.

EMANUEL: Ella is Maisie's older sister. She's 10. And from her perch on the bed, she explains what's unique about the photo.

ELLA: I have three parents, and a little sister named Maisie.

EMANUEL: It wasn't always clear the family photo would look like this. Initially, Forman was just friends with the couple, Kristin Mattocks and Kim Callicoatte. Then he agreed to be their sperm donor. Once Ella arrived, he became the babysitter. Next, more like an uncle. And when Ella was about 1...

FORMAN: Her grandmother, Kristin's mother, had taught Ella to say Daddy. We had never even talked about it up until that point. And so I would pull up in my car, and Ella would be screaming Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! So I became Daddy, which was the best feeling in the world.

EMANUEL: The girls knew what to call him, but the law wasn't sure. In most states, children can have only two legal parents, but this leaves some kids in limbo.

JOYCE KAUFFMAN: The reality is, many children are being raised by more than two adults, and the courts do not have a remedy.

EMANUEL: That's Joyce Kauffman, in Boston. She's a family lawyer who's worked on several of these cases. Forman hired her to make his family photo possible, but there was a problem. Connecticut is one of those states without a three-parent option. Only a handful of places have allowed three-parent families: Louisiana, Delaware, Pennsylvania, D.C.

KAUFFMAN: Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts and Alaska.

EMANUEL: And now, California. The governor signed a law allowing it at the end of last year. Some states have done it through the legislature; others, through the courts and adoption proceedings. Experts like Kauffman aren't sure exactly how many states allow three or more parents, but they estimate it's as many as 10. Because of privacy concerns and adoption law, there's a lot of legal gray area. So why is it important? Why turn a parental figure into a legal parent? Here's one big reason.

KAUFFMAN: If you're not a legal parent, you face the very real risk of losing all contact with the child that you have been raising.

EMANUEL: There are other benefits, too: Social Security, inheritance, the authority to make medical decisions and, of course, financial responsibilities. In fact, those monetary issues prompted some of the first cases. Thirty years ago in Louisiana, it wasn't about same-sex couples or even step-parents. It was about a married woman having an affair and getting pregnant. So when that happens, who's the dad - the husband or the biological father? Typically, it's the husband. But if the mother wants child support from the biological father, Louisiana can declare them both dads. Kauffman says the financial issues are important.

KAUFFMAN: But really, it's the relationship that's crucial for a child.

KIM CALLICOATTE: For the girls, it makes it, you know, seem solid, and it is just like everyone else. So that's the benefit.

EMANUEL: That's Kim Callicoatte, one of Maisie's moms. In Connecticut, it wasn't possible to have three legal parents. But in 2009, the couple and the two girls moved to Massachusetts. That allowed them to legally make Forman the dad.

FORMAN: I didn't think it was going to be so clarifying, but having the acknowledgment of the state government has made us much more trusting of each other.

EMANUEL: But not everyone thinks three-parent families are a good idea. There are religious groups that disapprove. They believe that parenting, like marriage, should be between a man and a woman. And there are other skeptics, too. Bradford Wilcox is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he directs the National Marriage Project. He says this is uncharted territory.

BRADFORD WILCOX: I think the concern here is that three parents will have more difficulty giving their children the kind of consistency and stability that they need to thrive as children, and as young adults as well.

EMANUEL: It's often a matter of practicalities.

WILCOX: Co-parenting is often a challenging enterprise. It's obviously challenging for many married parents, navigating that shared undertaking. And you add one more person to the mix and it can become, I think, perhaps even more difficult.

EMANUEL: Wilcox does acknowledge that legal protection could give children more stability. Forman believes his three-parent arrangement is a lot better than some marriages. And he says the kids know it.

FORMAN: They've seen divorced parents where the mother and father are angry with each other. We're not. We get along. We do the swim meets together, we enjoy each other's company.

EMANUEL: They're proud of their two children, but this mom and dad and mom are also proud of each other.

Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.