On a Sunday morning, 7-year-old Maisie shows off her pink bedroom in her family’s Connecticut home. It could be an early morning scene in any household, until you look closely at the family photo above Maisie’s bed. Her older sister Ella explains.
“I have three parents and a little sister,” the 10-year-old says.
The man in the photo, Howard Forman, was the sperm donor for Ella’s two mothers, Kristin Mattocks and Kim Callicoatte.
The family’s arrangement isn’t informal, it’s legally recognized. As American families change and parental responsibilities move in new directions, a growing number of states are allowing children to have three or more legal parents.
It wasn’t always clear Maisie’s family photo would look like this. Initially, Forman was just friends with Mattocks and Callicoatte. Then he agreed to be their sperm donor. Once Ella arrived, he became the babysitter. Next, he was more like an uncle. And when Ella was about 1 year old, Ella’s grandmother taught her to say “daddy.”
“We had never even talked about it up until that point,” Forman says. “And so I would pull up in my car and Ella would be screaming, ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’ So I became Daddy, which was the best feeling in the world.”
The girls knew what to call him, but the law wasn’t sure.
In most states, children can have only two legal parents, and this leaves some families in limbo.
“The reality is many children are being raise by more than two adults, and the courts do not have a remedy,” says Joyce Kauffman, a family lawyer in Boston who has worked on several of these cases.
Forman hired her to help make his family photo possible, but there was a problem. Connecticut is one of those states without a three-parent option.
Only a handful of places have allowed three-parent families: Louisiana, Delaware, Pennsylvania, D.C., Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts and Alaska.
Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing multiple parents, adding his state to that list. Some states have done it through the legislature; others through the courts and adoption proceedings.
Experts like Kauffman aren’t sure exactly how many states allow three or more parents, but they estimate it is as many as 10. Because of privacy concerns in adoption law there is a lot of legal gray area.
Turning a parental figure into a legal parent has several significant effects.
“If you’re not a legal parent you face the very real risk of losing all contact with the child you have been raising,” Kauffman says.
Benefits of legal status include social security, inheritance and the authority to make medical decisions. Government-recognized parenthood also clarifies financial responsibilities.
In fact, those monetary issues prompted some of the first cases. Thirty years ago in Louisiana, it wasn’t about same-sex couples or even step-parents. It was about a married woman having an affair and getting pregnant. The question arose: Is the husband or the biological father the dad? Typically it’s the husband, but if the mother wants child support from the biological father, Louisiana can declare them both dads.
Kauffman says the financial issues are important, but really it’s the relationship that’s crucial for a child.
“For the girls, it makes it seem solid and it is like everyone else. So that’s the benefit,” says Kim Callicoatte, one of Maisie’s moms.
Her family was able to officially have three parents after the couple and their daughters moved to Massachusetts, where such an arrangement is legal, in 2009. (Forman still lives in Connecticut.)
“I didn’t think it was going to be so clarifying, but having the acknowledgement of the state government has made us much more trusting of each other,” Forman says.
Not everyone thinks three-parent families are a good idea. There are religious groups that disapprove, believing that parenting and marriage should be between a man and a woman. And there are other skeptics, too.
Bradford Wilcox, a professor at the University of Virginia and director of The National Marriage Project, says this is uncharted territory.
“I think the concern here is that three parents will have more difficulty giving their children the kind of consistency and stability that they need to thrive as children and as young adults as well,” Wilcox says.
It’s often a matter of practicalities as well, Wilcox says, and co-parenting is often a challenging enterprise.
“It’s obviously challenging for many married parents navigating that shared undertaking, and you add one more person to the mix and I think it can become more difficult,” he says.
Wilcox does acknowledge that legal protection could give children more stability.
Forman believes his three-parent arrangement is a lot better than some marriages, and he says the kids know it.
“They have seen divorced parents where the mother and father are angry with each other. We’re not,” he says. “We get along, we do the swim meets together [and] we enjoy each other’s company.”
They’re proud of their two children, but this mom, dad and mom are also proud of each other.