Turn on literally any TV show and you’ll see how families are depicted on screen. Most queer families in media are typically shown with any number of kids parented by two partners in a loving relationship with each other. Exactly as it sounds, partner parenting is what it’s called when two (or more) people who are in a romantic partnership decide to raise a child together. But as children of divorced parents can attest, that’s not the only parenting option available. That’s we’ve put together this explainer on queer family building and the option of co-parenting. To learn more about co-parenting, including exactly how it can play out from real co-parents, read on.
Ask a traditional dictionary what ‘parent’ means and you’ll get served a half-baked definition of someone who identifies as a mother or father. But these definitions don't do justice to either the breadth of genders who can be parents or the depth of care required to parent well. A better, more expansive definition comes Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. “A parent is anyone who is involved in raising and caring for a child.”
The key phrase in this new definition? Caring for. A word that suggests active loving participation in a relationship. The idea that a parent must care for another individual challenges the narrative that a parent is simply someone who donated genetic material to make that child.
To that point, let it be known that a parent does not have to be genetically connected with you, says mental health expert Dr. Kryss Shane, L.S.W., L.M.S.W., and author of The Educator's Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion. Parent is a catch-all term for any kind of parent-child relationship, whether they are connected via blood, adoption, fostering, intention, or something else, she says.
What Is Co-Parenting, Exactly?
“Co-parenting refers to the phenomenon of two (or more) people sharing the responsibilities of raising and caring for a child,” explains Kahn. While the people who co-parent together could be romantically and/or sexually involved— or could have been at one point—but the key is that romantic and/or sexual entanglement is not implied in the definition.
So co-parents could be in a triad or polyamorous quad or co-parents could be individuals with any other kind of connection, too. Two best friends, for example, might make the decision to raise children together (this is something known as platonic parenting).
Co-parents could also have one biological parent and a set of grandparents who have agreed to help in the parenting responsibilities. Co-parents could even be a lesbian couple and gay couple who have teamed up to become a co-parenting unit of four together. These are some of the countless examples of the types of family and parenting set-ups that are possible outside of partner-parenting. The concept of queer family building gives us a beautiful gift—new endless ways to reimagine the meaning of family and being a parent.
Wait, How Is Co-Parenting Different From Partner-Parenting?
The main difference is that while partner-parents are currently in romantic partnership, co-parents are not. Or, at least, are not currently.
The phrase partner-parenting usually implies that the parenting responsibilities are split—more or less—even-steven, according to Shane. But that is not necessarily the case for co-parents. Some co-parents don’t intend to split the parenting responsibilities evenly, she says. For instance, a lesbian couple may team up with a gay couple and come to the decision to co-parent as a unit of four, but plan for the child to live with just one of the couples while the other set of parents visits on weekends or holidays.
All that said, “partner-parenting isn’t usually that different from co-parenting,” according to Shane. “The [main difference is that partner]-parents are just also romantic and/or sexual relationship partners with one another, so they have multiple relationship dynamics to navigate simultaneously.”
What Does Co-Parenting Look Like IRL?
Brandi Andrews, a lesbian woman, co-parents with her gay best friend Lawrence Carroll. “We were both working at the Abbey in our mid-twenties. I had just gotten out of another dead-end relationship and Lawarence was talking about becoming a parent with another one of his friends,” shares Andrews. One day after work, the friends were talking about their individual desires to become parents when a mutual friend suggested that they have a baby together. 3 years, hours of conversation, a car accident, a recovery, and one insemination kit later, they did!
“The plan was for us to share a home for the first few years and then to eventually have separate households,” she explains. These days, they live separately but still share the parenting responsibilities. “I live in the apartment right next to Lawrence with my girlfriend, which allows our son (who is now four years old) to come and go between the two homes freely.”
Laura Boyle's co-parenting situation is pretty different from Andrew’s. Boyle co-parents alongside Megan and Brian, who she was previously in a cohabiting V-shape relationship — that’s a relationship made up of three people where two of the people are dating the same third person, but not each other. The three began their co-parenting journey when they were all living together and had two kids together.
“The V-relationship ended (due to reasons unrelated to the parenting), so I moved out and now our family looks similar to any divorced parent situation,” Boyle explains. “The kids split their time evenly between the two houses, but the three of us still raise our kids as co-parents,” she says.
The Benefits Of Co-Parenting
The main benefit of co-parenting is that their kids are loved and loved well by multiple people.
“In general, it’s good for kids to have people in their lives who love and support them, and my kids have many of those people [as a result of our parenting structure],” says Boyle. Indeed, because Boyle and her co-parents are polyamorous, the kids have access not only to them, but to other adults committed to their growth and care, too. “Our kids have two homes and the additional support system is extended family or members of the polycule, who are very loving,” she says.
Andrew agrees that the amount of adult love available to her son. He gets access to two co-parents and a bonus parent (her girlfriend) who loves him so, she says. *Wipes happy tear*.
For some co-parenting units, there may be a financial benefit. “Kids are expensive, and those expenses are still going to be there if the kid has multiple loving adults in their life,” says Andrew. But, co-parenting families with multiple income-generating adults may experience some relief due to the fact that the financial burden is being shared by multiple people.
How To Figure Out If Co-Parenting Makes Sense For You
First, you have to figure out if you want to be a parent at all! And that process obviously requires some introspection.
Some questions to ask yourself before becoming a parent include:
- Do I want to become a parent?
- Why or why not?
- Is there another role I could take in a child’s life that would feel equally fulfilling?
- How long have I felt this way?
Let’s assume your answers to the above questions lead you to the verdict that you do want to be a parent. Congratulations! That’s a B-I-G decision you just came, too! But it’s far from the only one decision you need to make.
Next, you’ll need to figure out if you want to embark on that journey solo or with another person (or group of people!). If you want to include other people in your parenting journey, you’ll have to figure out who.
These are some questions can help you think through who you might parent with:
- Am I open to parenting on my own?
- Is there currently anyone in my life I could see myself parenting with now, and also 20 years from now?
- How would choosing to become a parent impact my current romantic and/or sexual partnerships?
- What support system(s) do I have in place to support me on my parenting journey?
- Can I afford the fertility and/or adoption process? How are my personal finances, in general?
Conversations To Have With Potential Co-Parents
If you are going to parent with other people, then there are a number of conversations you need to have. “Have these conversations as early as possible before starting your parenting journey,” suggests Boyle, who says the things that she and her co-parents didn’t talk about are the things that ended up tripping them up.
“You want to make sure you understand one another’s religious, social, and political values, as all of these values will impact how you choose to raise children,” Shane says. Having shared values in common is important for co-parenting or partner-parenting because it allows parents to present a united message. If you are not perfectly aligned in these realms, that’s okay. But you will need to sit down and have more in-depth conversations about what values you’ll be working together to actively instill in your kids.
“It is also important for people to reflect on their own childhoods and share some of those experiences with their (potential) co-parents,” says Shane. This means thinking through what gender roles your own parents may have exhibited in your childhood, so you can determine what role gender will play in your parenting (if any). It also means thinking through what other adults and belief systems you will want to invite into your family’s life regularly.
“It also means thinking about what childhood trauma might rear their dirty heads in your own parenting journey,” says Andrews. “You really want to think about your past traumas and your co-parents past traumas are going to interact, and how that could impact your child,” she says.
Therapy is an extraordinarily useful tool for this, notes Shane. “The more of our own internal work we have done to be as healthy as possible, the better each of us is as a parent and a co-parent,” she says.
Finally, you’ll need to consider what legal agreements you’re going to have made. The law isn’t built to support non-nuclear families, which means you need to be really intentional with what you want your parenting rights to be. Andrews and her co-parent, for example, have their own written parental agreement that is notarized by the court.
Where Can I Learn More About Queer Parenting?
This article is a good first step in thinking through what your queer parenting journey might look like. But chances are you still have questions!
Unfortunately, “there aren’t a ton of resources out there for co-parents, especially for queer co-parents,” says Andrews. But there are some resources available about queer parenting, including the following:
- Gayest Show On Birth Podcast
- If These Ovaries Could Talk Podcast
- The New Family Podcast
- Daddy Squared Podcast
- White Teeth: A Novel by Kristen Arnett
- Detransition, Baby: A Novel by Torrey Peters
- The Natural Mother of The Child by Krys Malcolm Blec
- Rad Families: A Celebration edited by Tomas Moniz
- The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
- Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight: Confessions of a Gay Dad by Dan Bucatinsky
- Who’s Your Daddy and Other Writings On Queer Parenting edited by Rachel Epstein
“What’s important to me is that people understand that co-parenting actually works,” says Boyle. And it doesn’t just work, it can work well!
Co-parenting might not be in the cards for you, that’s also okay. There are many, many different ways for LGBTQ+ people to raise children, so long as we allow ourselves to imagine beyond the parenting models most visible to us.
As Shane puts it, “When queer people allow themselves to expand the definition(s) of parenting, they’re able to embody their role(s) authentically, rather than trying to cram themselves into a box.” And while embracing co-parenting is one way to do just that, it’s not the only way.