Comment: Do alternative parenting arrangements work?

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Same-sex parenting and “alternative families” are currently being hotly debated following a widely publicised dispute between the two lesbian mothers and the gay father of a two-year old boy (the DN v MD and AR [2012] case). The lesbian mothers are said to feel “betrayed” by the gay father, who has reneged on his promise to have minimal involvement in the raising of his son.

This case follows hot on the heels of a decision made not long ago by a High Court judge, dealing with a long and bitter dispute about the role of gay donor dads to two children being raised by their lesbian mothers (the P & L (Minors) [2011] case).

The “novelty factor” of these cases clearly make them more newsworthy than those concerning the many traditional family set-ups that unfortunately fail on a regular basis. Arguably, such negative publicity is unhelpful in circumstances where LGBT people the world over are still battling for equality in rights that facilitate the creation of stable families – the obvious ones being marriage, adoption and general parental rights. However, these cases do raise important questions relating to children born into alternative families and beg the question: are alternative parenting arrangements more susceptible to failure?

The key issue in dispute in the DN v MD and AR [2012] case was the women’s desire to create “a two-parent lesbian nuclear family”. The biological mother claims that the father had initially agreed to forgo his paternal rights. However, when the baby was born, the father changed his mind and sought to have a paternal relationship with the child. The case illustrates that one can end up co-parenting, even if this was not the original intention. As Lady Black in the Court of Appeal eloquently stated: “No matter how detailed their agreement, no matter what formalities they adopt, this is not a dry legal contract. Biology, human nature and the hand of fate are liable to undermine it and to confound their expectations.”

Those in favour of a more traditional, or “nuclear” family set-ups, argue that co-parenting arrangements simply increase the scope for dispute. Raising children together is a challenging and tricky enterprise, and is made unnecessarily complicated by adding further parents into the mix. After all, two’s company, three’s a crowd, and four’s just . . . silly? Looking at it that way, it’s a wonder that anybody would agree to a co-parenting arrangement. However, such a view plainly ignores the fact that alternative parenting arrangements, by their very nature (and regardless of intentions) often involve more than two individuals. Moreover, human emotions evolve and are impossible to translate into a static agreement.

What then, is the key to a successful alternative parenting arrangement?

Natalie Gamble, founding partner of the specialist fertility and parenting law firm Natalie Gamble & Associates, has seen plenty of co-parenting arrangements both flourish and fail. In her view, ensuring plenty of discussion and forethought as well as tailored legal advice, before any children are conceived, goes a long way towards preventing major fall-outs between parents: “Having advised many same-sex parents (both at the planning stages and those who end up in dispute) we see some wonderfully successful co-parenting arrangements. But where they go wrong, they go horribly wrong. What is interesting, though, is that parents always seem to fall into one camp or the other. I can honestly say that none of the clients we have advised at the planning stage has ever come back for legal representation later. Equally, not one of the clients we have represented in disputes took legal advice at the outset.”

Many aspiring LGBT parents spend a significant amount of time trying to find a known donor, or someone with whom they can co-parent a child. So it is perhaps unsurprising that many reach for the turkey baster as soon as they have found someone with potential. However, the key to any successful parenting arrangement, whether traditional or alternative, is to spend time discussing each other’s intentions and views in relation to raising kids, and to come to a solid understanding of each other’s roles and involvement in the kids’ lives. It’s not just about finding someone with good genes, it’s about finding someone with who you “click” and fundamentally get on with. And if it turns out that you are not quite on the same parenting page, have the courage to walk away and keep searching.

Once you have carved out an understanding, it is worth getting your agreement on paper (this may sound like a contradiction to an earlier point, but bear with me). Although co-parenting and donor agreements are technically non-binding, they do go a long way towards showing what the parties’ intentions were, should the co-parenting arrangement ever go awry. As Mr Justice Hedley pointed out in the P & L (Minors) [2011] case: ” . . . the court will be bound to give careful consideration and weight to any such agreement.” But (and this is a big “but”), wisest is he or she, who retains a certain agility of mind is adaptable to changing circumstances and emotions, once children are in the picture. After all, such an agreement is not a commercial transaction – rather, it should reflect the changing realities of complex human relationships. It is therefore likely that any initial written agreement will need to be amended over time to reflect changes in such realities.

As “novel” as these cases may presently be regarded, alternative parenting arrangements are really not that unusual. A recent study undertaken by the Modern Family think tank suggests that only one in six people in Britain think they live as part of a traditional family. The findings indicate that family structures are becoming increasingly diverse. What isn’t quite so newsworthy is that there are innumerable gay and lesbian people out there who are peacefully raising happy, confident kids within successful (co-)parenting arrangements. These children were planned, are wanted and deeply loved by all of their parents, multiple sets of grandparents and extended families.

That said, although alternative parenting arrangements are definitely on the rise, they are still in the minority. Those in alternative family set-ups therefore will often feel isolated. Fortunately there are now online resources that not only provide relevant information, but also enable those in alternative families to find others like themselves, to share experiences and to support each other. A number of such online resources are listed below.

On balance, it would seem that, with thought and planning, alternative family structures can provide fantastically functional and loving environments for children. However, it is clear that for any family to work, prospective parents should ensure they are well informed and embark on the journey of parenthood with eyes wide open – this can potentially save a whole lot of contention and heartache later on.

Becky Downrose is a (non-family law) solicitor and founder of the website www.myalternativefamily.com.

Other resources: www.newfamilysocial.co.uk and www.lgroupfamilies.org.uk

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