Not too long ago, many of the big, important components of a life were all rolled into the package of marriage. To get those things—or at least to get them without stigma or shame—you had to marry. Those components included living together, having sex, raising children, and having a loving committed romantic relationship.
Over time, the components of marriage and family have been disassembled, and put together in new ways. Each time a big chunk was pulled out of the marital package, shock and outrage ensued. For a long time, sex outside of marriage was stigmatized—especially for women. Now, not so much. Single parenting still carries some stigma but not nearly as much as it once did. When couples first began living together without getting married first, the practice was described, in all seriousness, as “living in sin.” Now cohabitation is utterly ordinary and elicits little moral condemnation.
In a fairly new rearrangement of the pieces of marital package, some married couples (and committed couples who are not married) are choosing not to live together. They want places of their own not because that would make it easier to cheat and get away with it, but because they value having the solitude and privacy and autonomy that comes with having separate homes. Some of these couples who are “living apart together” believe that their relationship would never survive if they could not have places of their own.
I knew about all these examples of the reconfiguring of the components of a life before I started researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. There was one new variation, though, that I knew nothing about at the outset. It startled me when I first learned about it. Now I’m impressed.
The new family form begins with single people who very much want to have children, but do not want to be single parents. Some wanted to find a romantic partner, but got tired of waiting. Others never were interested in being part of a romantic couple. Either way, these single people take a bold new step: They look for someone to commit to parenting with them, for at least as long as it takes for their children to reach adulthood. A romantic relationship is not part of the package.
The relationship is often called a “parenting partnership.” Sometimes it is called co-parenting but that term is also used for something else entirely—couples who share in parenting after they divorce.
To have children with a person who is not a romantic partner, IVF is often used. Some parenting partners have children the old-fashioned way. Adoption is another option. In still other instances, one of the two partners already has children, and looks for another partner to be a coparent.
Before about a decade ago, single people searching for a parenting partner were on their own. Now, though, there are online platforms to help partners find each other and navigate the process. Tens of thousands of people are registered. They include, for example, Family by Design, Modamily, and Coparents.
In How We Live Now, I told the stories of several parenting partnerships. Here’s an excerpt about one of them:
In 2011, “Dawn Pieke was a forty-one-year-old in Omaha, Nebraska, who had just ended a decade-long relationship. She wanted a baby, and she wanted that baby to have a father who would be involved in the baby’s life. Fabian Blue was a gay man living in Melbourne, Australia, who had wanted to be a father for years. He had met some women from parenting websites, but none seemed right.
“With Dawn, it was different. They communicated intensively, on Facebook and then on Skype. They probably discussed a greater variety of matters, both trivial and profound, than most dating couples ever do. Parenting philosophies, family backgrounds, religious beliefs, and much more were all on the table. They even did background checks on each other and went through medical screenings.
“After about five months, Fabian left Melbourne and moved into a separate room in Dawn’s Omaha home. A month later, Dawn said, ‘He handed me a semen sample, we hugged, and I went into my bedroom and inseminated myself.’ Their daughter, Indigo, was born in October of 2012. Dawn now introduces Fabian to others as her coparent.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that when I first learned about parenting partnerships, I wondered about something: What would happen if one or both partners got romantically involved with someone else? It was as if, in my mind, married people never got involved with anyone other than their spouse. Of course they do. The difference is that in marriages, spouses try to hide their romantic involvements with other people. In parenting partnerships, all that is out in the open.
[Note. A major cable network is looking for parenting partners for their new documentary series. Click here for more information.]
DePaulo, Bella (2015). How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. New York: Beyond Words.