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Multi-parenting: what would it take for it to work?

Earlier this year I published a short article arguing that multi-parenting can provide a solution to a contemporary conundrum: on the one hand, many people are increasingly worried about climate change and environmental destruction. They know that having fewer children is, for a majority of people, the most effective individual action they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Some women go on “birth strikes” – they decide not to bring children into the world. On the other hand, life without children can be terribly impoverished. Parenting may be the most important – and creative! – act one can engage in, a non-substitutable occasion for personal growth and, for many, the central source of meaning in life. (Which is not to deny that, for many other people, a childless life is perfectly fine.)

Multi-parenting, I argue there, is an answer to this conundrum: if several adults – four, five, maybe six – were to bring up children together, it would be possible to downscale population without asking some to be involuntarily childless. Or, depending on how numbers turn out, it would be possible to downscale population without having single children become the norm. Crucially, however, there are other reasons why I think multi-parenting would be a good idea – given that some basic conditions are met. It seems obviously in children’s interest to have several parental figures, as long as these aren’t so numerous as to make sustained intimate relationships impossible. (If we favour two-parents families over single parenthood, why not favour multi-parenting over both models?) I also believe that avoiding monopolies of care over children would make childrearing more respectful, and less dominating. And it would surely involve some benefits for adults too – more time for themselves, more autonomy overall.

Be this as it may, the claim that multi-parenting would be good for children and adults depends on the above-mentioned conditions being in place. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect a bit on what it would take for multi-parenting to work well, and on whether it makes sense to contemplate it given the serious social and personal transformation required for generalised multi-parenting.

Marginal instances of multi-parenting are already a thing, which has recently gained legal recognition in some countries (Canada, some states in the US, etc.) and gained philosophers’ attention (here and here). And, on one sense of the term, it has always existed: Most children in history have been raised by groups of adults comprising more than one parent or the procreative couple. Extended families have often provided more than two parents to children, if by “parent” we mean a person who has a long-term, close and nurturing relationship with the child, sees herself as responsible for the wellbeing and development of the child and acts the part. Some sociobiologists, like Sarah Hrdy, see one kind of multi-parenting – allomothering – as a key to human beings’ evolutionary success: we are a successful species partly because we have long childhoods and invest a lot of resources in our children, including love and attention. In the urban parts of contemporary societies, at least in those that are economically developed, we lost the conditions conductive to life in extended families; our lives (still) are too geographically mobile for this.

However, in liberal societies there is a range of motivations to move towards living in extended families of choice. For one thing, more and more people now feel free to deviate from the social norm of living in heterosexual couples, or monogamous couples, or both. In the case of gay people, the two procreative parents are usually not the same as the social parents, and often both procreative parents and their partners want to participate in raising the children. Sometimes, of course, there are more than two procreative parents since technology makes it now possible for a child to have a genetic mother distinct from the gestational mother. Moreover, in some social circles there are economic reasons, or a shift towards more communitarian values (or both) that make extended families of choice desirable. I think that child-rearing in such extended families – whether given or chosen – or in other configurations in which multiple parents don’t necessarily all share their each other’s lives so closely – is a very promising theoretical solution for downsizing population without asking some people to forego parenthood.

It’s promising because it is voluntary on the side of adults. For this to work well as far as children are concerned, the challenge is to create sufficient stability in the lives of the children in spite of the occasional fall-outs of adults. Such fall-outs, I assume, are unavoidable. It may take more emotional maturity to raise children well together with other three or four adults than to do it alone or with one partner. On the optimistic side, though, a group of emotionally mature parents may be able to ensure that fall-outs between them take a lighter toll on children than divorce does in nuclear families.

Other conditions necessary for the flourishing of multi-parenting are ideological and material. Large-scale multi-parenting cannot exist without first contemplating them as a real possibility; only by doing so will it be possible for more adults to consider it and try it out. Some required reforms are not down to individuals’ imagination and will, but to collective action. We’d have to build homes in a different way to allow for communal living, and it would take coordinated action to make such houses affordable to many people. Even more complicated, stable multi-parenting doesn’t seem compatible with very high levels of geographical mobility, or indeed with a generalised presumption on the part of employers that their employees are geographically mobile.

Do I think that individuals will rush to live in multi-parenting families, or that it’s politically feasible for governments to re-design cities and economies to be multi-parenting-friendly? Unfortunately not. Is there, then, any value in dreaming about institutions that are unlikely to be built in the short or medium term? Or is this just some garden variety of day-dreaming – Bovarism for political philosophers, an idle exercise?

This question worries me. In my work as a political philosopher, I don’t think it’s idle to reflect on the fundamental principles and values that ought to guide our practices, even while believing they never will. Just like it’s not idle to do fundamental research in mathematics, even if this knowledge will never be of practical relevance (see Adam Swift on this). Knowledge has non-instrumental value. But it’s not clear to me that, in general, there is any value in imagining institutions that are not likely to exist merely because they would be better – amongst other things, more just – than existing ones. However, multi-parenting is a special case. Even if it cannot materialise in the short or medium term, it is good to be aware of its theoretical possibility. This lets us appreciate how we don’t necessarily have to choose between environmentally unsustainable populations and involuntary childlessness. That choice, which I think involves the frustration of very weighty interests and, like others, I see as tragic, can still be avoided. And then, there’s the long – maybe not so long – term. Climate (or other) disasters may mean that we’ll have to change our lifestyle drastically anyway: to share accommodation with more adults that we can now comfortably imagine living with, to cut back drastically in geographical mobility, to depend for raising our children on a handful of adults that are our flatmates or direct neighbours, people we won’t be able to pay for their help, or to exclude from our children’s lives.

Necessity alone never made virtue, yet there is some distinctive virtue in these potential features of our future sociality.

I work on various issues concerning justice. I am particularly interested in the relevance of personal relationships to moral and political philosophy. I published papers about gender justice, parental rights and duties, the nature and value of childhood, the goods of work and the ideal-non-ideal theory debate.



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  1. Julia Hermann

    Thank you very much for this very interesting, thought-provoking post, Anca! I think that there definitely is value in reflecting on this theoretical possibility. As you rightly point out, climate change requires drastic systemic changes.
    When I try to imagine what multi-parenting would be like, I wonder in particular about the distribution of roles and the capacity for bonding. In particular, what would the role of the biological mother be in relation to the other parents involved? This of course depends on the context.
    The way you describe the idea of multi-parenting, it looks a bit like the traditional extended family in a new robe. Additional parents could be seen as playing the role that for instance grandparents living in the same house as the nuclear family used to play. However, being a grandparent does not provide meaning to one’s life in the same way as being a parent does. Moreover, grandparents are of course also parents. Therefore, it seems as if, at least in certain contexts, being one of multiple parents and not the biological parent may not be equivalent to being a parent in the traditional sense in terms of meaningfulness and personal growth.

    • Anca Gheaus

      Julia, thanks! I doubt that raising children is less meaningful for grandparents than it is for parents. In fact, I have some anecdotal evidence that often grandparents derive *more* meaning from bringing up children than parents. (And there’s a joke about how it’s a pity that one can’t become a grandparent without being a parent first…)
      But this being said, I agree with you that multi-parenting would be a different experience from parenting as we have it, and in some senses less satisfactory for parents. In particular, I don’t deny that being a biological parent can have special value. The claim is not that multi-parenting is/would be superior to parenting in every respect, but that it may be the only fair way of giving people/letting people have due opportunities to parent.

    • Anca Gheaus

      P.S. Julia, sorry, I notice that I haven’t answered your first question which, in a sense, is for me the most philosophically interesting – the one about the gestational mother. In my view, the relationship between the newborn and the gestational parent deserves moral protection (with qualification: that is, if the gestational mother does not fall behind a threshold of competence which is non-comparative). Whether or not the gestational mother is also a the kind of parent who may control the child’s life – that is, make major decisions about the child – depends, in my view, on who else is around who’s ready to take over that role. (I think this role ought to be played by the person who would mostly benefit the child.) This is mostly work in progress but I’ve also published a few things such as:

  2. Liam

    Nice post Anca. I’ll have to read the paper soon and think more about this.

    One of the worries people have about multi-parenting is that the more parents involved the less intimacy and therefore familial goods for each. At some point there will be too many parents involved. I’ve read some stuff that rejects, quite convincingly, the idea that more than two parents is too many. But I notice that the more parents there are the more extended family there are too, grandparents and uncles and aunties and family friends. So every time you add one more parent you add very many (sometimes) others who will seek and perhaps have an interest in or opportunities to form rights-grounding relationships with, the child. Does that worry you?

    • Anca Gheaus

      Liam, thanks! This is very interesting, I never thought about multi-parenting plus extended familiy/ies. Yes, this sounds like a lot of people. I don’t really worry about this – perhaps because of some (empirical) picture of the world I assume. I tend to think that, when children are surrounded by lots of adults who take an interest in them and who are consistently around for them, what happens is not confusion but some more or less spontaneous selection of closer relationships with some of these adults, based on affinities. Like in a not-too-large, close-knit village, perhaps? Do you think this is plausible? The other side of the coin, of course, is that as an aunt or grandfather you may find yourself sidelined in favour of other aunts or grandfathers (or, indeed, non-relatives). I am ok with this – I don’t believe adults have special claims to close relationships with their children’s, or their siblings’.

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