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Married, Single, Divorced or Parent?

Do we need a separate legal status for parent-partners?

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.

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: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels’ 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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