There are successful co-parent families in our community, but co-parenting does not fit any legal ‘box’, and can challenge mainstream notions of family. These issues make it even more critical to talk through the issues extensively, and to learn from the experiences of others, before attempting conception.
Co-parenting is a less commonly chosen option than parenting in a couple or as a sole parent with a known donor (and his partner, if he has one). There are certainly happy, successful families in our community with two, three, four or more co-parents. However, co-parenting challenges the very strong notions that mainstream Australian culture, at least, has about family. It is difficult enough, sometimes, to negotiate parenting in a couple, let alone with people with whom you are not in an intimate relationship.
A brief note on language: in this section we talk about mother/s and father/s, as those are usually the roles people have in co-parent families. However, ‘co-parent’ is a social term, not a legal one. Since the recent legal changes, a child’s legal parents (the only people who can legally be listed on the birth certificate) are the birth mother and her partner if she has one. Other adults with a parenting role can have that role legally recognised and protected with court parenting orders by consent. In addition, all children conceived through a treatment procedure, including home insemination, must have their biological origins registered at BDM (see above under ‘Legal parentage and other roles’).
Co-parenting is a lifelong connection and commitment to each other and your child/ren. Being co-parents requires a deep level of trust, respect and goodwill towards one another, and a commitment to shared values and maintaining your family relationships when times get tough, as they can do for every family.
When considering co-parenting, it is critical to be sure it is what everyone involved truly wants. The Options for gay men to have a baby without female co-parents are not easy; overseas surrogacy is prohibitively expensive, and altruistic surrogacy in Victoria requires men to find both a surrogate and an egg donor. One key question to discuss is whether your prospective male co-parent/s would choose co-parenting if they had an easy option to become parents on their own?
Be very clear that this is what you want too, whether you are single or a couple, before going too deeply into negotiations. Do you want to share every aspect of parenting, from daily life to the big decisions? Think about why you would choose co-parenting, rather than a known or clinic-recruited donor. In particular, remember that three decades of research clearly shows that children are not disadvantaged by being raised by two mum or two dads, and that the disadvantage children of single mothers experience is related to the poverty many are forced into, as well as conflict between their separated parents.
Co-parent families do not fit neatly into any available ‘box’, in terms of the law, social security, tax and so on. ‘Co-parent’ is not a legal term, although co-parents other than the legal parents (the birth mother and her partner, if she has one) can have their roles recognised through court parenting orders. We recommend that each of the ‘parties’ – mother/s and father/s – seek separate legal advice on what will work for you all before making any decisions or attempting conception. This advice can then inform your discussions, and any written agreement you make about your intentions.
Co-parenting means sharing all significant parenting responsibilities, such as living with and raising a child (in one household or two) and making all the significant and day-to-day decisions about their life. How will you share these responsibilities?
It is critical to be clear on what you want (including the non-birth mother, if you are coupled) before beginning negotiations with your prospective father/s. What is your ideal? What is negotiable, and what is not? Your ideas might change, but it is important to begin by clearly communicating what you think, so that your prospective co-parent/s can consider what, in your vision, will work for them. If you are all clear with each other, there is less likely to be confusion that can lead to conflict.
It is a good idea to make a written agreement, even though they are not legally binding. The most important part of your agreement will be agreeing a process (such as seeing a counsellor or mediator) for negotiating changes in life circumstances, and dealing with any conflict that may arise.
Many of the issues outlined above for families involving donors are also relevant for co-parent families to explore and agree on before they attempt conception. The answers to the questions are likely to be very different, because the relationship is different.
There are some additional issues to consider, including:
- Health issues, fertility and the logistics of conception. It can be harder to bring up issues like sperm counts and screening for sexually transmitted infections with prospective co-parents than with prospective donors, but it is equally important to do so, for your health and the baby’s.
- Everyone’s different roles and needs for support during the processes of attempting conception, pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding (if you choose to, and the birth mother can breastfeed) and early infancy. Talk about the values that might inform your choices during these early stages, for example with regard to birth, breastfeeding or sleeping. You will probably all need to research, think about and discuss these things much more deeply than most parents before your baby is born, to ensure that the choices you make work for all of you.
- Where a child will live, and how the arrangements will change over time. A child’s needs change enormously from birth to six months and beyond. What co-parenting looks like for a child under six months or a year may be very different from when they are 18 months old, four years old, and so on.
- Financial power and support. The reality is that the income and wealth gap between men and women is still very wide in Australia. If there is financial support involved, including sometimes the purchase of a home, it is particularly important to put all arrangements in writing, including what will to occur if you get into conflict. It is important to seek legal advice around these kinds of arrangements.
- The role of non-biological co-parents. Try to involve all parties in the discussions, for example the prospective birth and non-birth mothers, and the prospective biological and non-biological fathers. It is easy for non-biological co-parents to feel marginalised.
- If one or both co-parents are single. People’s lives can change in many ways. One of the biggest issues for co-parents can be if one or both later partner with someone they want to parent with; this can be very challenging for everyone involved, including the new partner.