One of the authors of this post remembers her mother telling her, many years ago, that people spend too much time fretting about who to marry and not enough about who they want to co-parent with, since it is that relationship which lasts for life. And we could not agree with her more. (Spoiler alert: this author’s parents have since divorced. But they are still her parents.) In a new paper, we discuss co-parenting as a moral relationship in its own right, and we explore the duties that it generates between co-parents.
Marriage and co-parenthood
There are many possible explanations for the lingering focus on marriage over co-parenthood. For a long time in the Western world, marriage was an important institution that allowed women to achieve economic security and social acceptance (seeing as they were not allowed many opportunities to do so independently of a man) and provided a framework for ‘legitimate’ births (seeing as children’s ‘worth’ was dependent upon the circumstances of their birth). Exit from marriage was difficult or impossible, and societal and even legal expectations around it were overwhelming. Against this background, to separate these relationships – marital and co-parental – was an unfortunate or a controversial development. One could stand to lose one’s livelihood, one’s children, or one’s very place in the community, should one fail to marry appropriately, or to stay married.
Still today, for many people, marriage and co-parenting are closely linked. However, today almost as many children in Europe are born out-of-wedlock as to married parents (in some countries, more than half). Some parents divorce, even while their children are small. Some women delay motherhood – and some consequently miss out on their chance to become parents – because they do not have a romantic partner with whom to parent. And the only way for a man to become a father ‘automatically’ is by being married to a child’s birth mother.
A conceptual separation between marriage and co-parenthood helps disentangle their respective implications. Besides the times when things do not fall into place in familiar patterns (marriage followed happily by co-parenthood), there are more reasons why marriage and parenthood should be seen as morally distinct relationships. The qualities that we seek in a romantic partner may not coincide with those that would make someone a good co-parent. The reckless adventurer who you fall in love with might not be your best choice as a co-parent, on account of those exact traits that attracted you towards them in the first place. As children are increasingly recognized as adults’ moral equals, it may no longer be acceptable that relationships with them be subsumed to other kinds of relationships between adults. While we do not suggest that romantic partnering and co-parenthood should be split in practice (though maybe they should be), their conceptual separation is necessary, and would have a number of benefits.
How is co-parenthood a moral relationship in its own right? As social expectations around marriage relax, those around co-parenthood have become stronger. It is increasingly expected of parents, as well as by the parents themselves, to continue parenting after the dissolution of the marital relationship between them. Throughout the Western world, it is no longer acceptable that, upon divorce, a parent is separated – or simply walks away – from their children. The co-parenting relationship has very high stakes: higher than marriage. Co-parents are vulnerable to each other’s decision making. One will be limited in where one can relocate to by a co-parent’s location, even after a separation or divorce. One may find oneself having to accept a former partner’s new partner(s) in the life of one’s child. One will have to collaborate closely with the child’s other parent even when that other parent may have become the last person one would want to have to collaborate with.
Co-parenthood’s moral demands
On these bases, in our paper, we argue that prospective co-parents, including those who are married to each other, should reflect explicitly on their co-parenting relationship, and anticipate possible areas of conflict. As (future) co-parents, they should sit down and face some hard questions together, such as how they’d continue co-parenting in the event of big changes in their lives and how they will distribute care work. We think that it would be highly beneficial if everyone did this, but we also argue that everyone is morally obligated to do this, given the risks involved.
As people and circumstances change over time, co-parents should be open to re-negotiating their arrangements. For example, the distribution of care work may shift over time, depending on the co-parents’ respective competing commitments (such as employment situation or need to care for other family members) or other developments (such as illness or disability). However, some moral duties that co-parents owe each other are non-negotiable. They should not alienate the child from the other parent. They should not trap the other parent in a vulnerable situation (any more so than is required by the parenting project itself). And decisions about the care of the children must be taken together rather than unilaterally.
With our paper, we hope to stimulate discussion on the moral duties of co-parents. There are many potentially contentious questions here. For example, the distribution of care work between co-parents has proven overwhelmingly unbalanced during the ongoing pandemic, with women shouldering most of the burdens, regardless of working situations or educational backgrounds. We are not so naïve as to think that this would have been prevented if only the parents had talked about the distribution of care work beforehand – complete with anticipating a pandemic. But an explicit conceptual separation of the two kinds of relationships, marital and co-parental, and their respective implications, could have better informed them of each other’s views, plans and expectations, which arguably would have helped them adjust their own expectations: or, in some cases, choose a better co-parent!