What Makes a Real Parent?
By Janis Prince Inniss
The stepmothers in popular children’s stories Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Snow White were wicked enough to make “evil“ and “stepmother” seem naturally linked. When I married a man who had custody of his two children, I became a stepmother but did not morph into pure evil. But did I become a parent?
What makes a real parent? The answer may seem clear to you if you were raised by your (biological) parents. However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s records (4.4 million stepchildren in the U.S. in 2000) would suggest that it’s likely that many of you were at least partially raised by a stepparent. Who parented you?
Over the years, people have asked me when I am going to have children, even when they are aware that I’m a stepparent. By this, they mean, give birth to children or as they sometimes ask, “When are you going to have your own children?”
It’s a question that has led me to wonder how my life would differ if I parented children I birthed, rather than gained by marriage. Good parenting, from my experience, observation, and study, is in large measure service to one’s children—serving their needs, sometimes at the expense of your own. And since, alongside my husband, I have been doing this to the best of my abilities, what would be different when I gave birth to my “own children”?
Being a stepparent is a tough job, requiring heart, soul and mind, but we are not always recognized as parents. Parenting, particularly great parenting, is not universally recognized as the demanding job that it is, but at least biological parents are recognized as parents, often regardless of how they parent. This is not the case for stepparents, however. Although the word “stepparent” includes “parent”, it does not convey many of the essential qualities of parenthood. Upon learning that I have two stepchildren, people typically assume that they are occasional weekend visitors to our home. In fact, we all lived together, at least initially, and the children visited their biological mother’s home every other weekend, so they spent at least 85 percent of their time with my husband and me.
In that time I reviewed homework, provided counsel on a variety of subjects, read bedtime stories, cooked tasty, nutritious, varied meals with youth appeal, corrected grammar, dreamt up projects to capture the interests of a teenage boy, taught both children how to use a number of computer programs, darned torn clothing, watched television programs I would ordinarily abhor, cheered participation in just about every sport, including football (although I neither understand or enjoy the sport), repeatedly watched the movie Annie, and sewed curtains that matched the whims of a little girl. You get the picture.
So-called “traditional families” are based on marriage and biology, and the law and public attitudes have reflected this belief. But when stepparents (and other non-biologically related people) parent, what legal and social rights and responsibilities should they have? If my husband and I were to divorce when the children are still minors, what legal claim should I have had to visit them or to gain custody of them? As far as I know, only 18 states recognize de facto parents (someone who acts as an actual parent) and my state of residence, Florida, is not one of them. Although not a stepparent case, one recent ruling from the Washington State Supreme Court addresses the title question:
In 1989, after dating for several months, Page Britain and
Sue Ellen ("Mian") Carvin began living together as intimates. Five years
later, they decided to add a child to their relationship and together
artificially inseminated Britain with semen donated by a male friend. On
May 10, 1995, Britain gave birth to a baby girl, L.B., and the partners
began actively coparenting her, both taking a committed, active, and loving
role in her nurturing and upbringing. Then, when L.B. was six years old,
Britain and Carvin ended their relationship and an acrimonious spate of
litigation over access to L.B. ensued.
Washington’s highest court ruled that Carvin, the non-biological parent was a “de facto parent”.
(T)he court held that a common law claim of de facto or psychological parentage exists in Washington separate and distinct from the parameters of the UPA (Uniform Parentage Act) and that such a claim is not an unconstitutional infringement on the parental rights of fit biological parents. Id. at 485. The Court of Appeals held that a de facto parent may prove the existence of a parent-child relationship by presenting evidence sufficient to prove:
(1) the natural or legal parent consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship; (2) the petitioner and the child lived together in the same household; (3) the petitioner assumed obligations of parenthood without expectation of financial compensation; and (4) the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship parental in nature.
Further, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the case and block Carvin from seeking parental rights. Lawyers for the girl’s biological mother commented that this decision “pave(s) the way for children to have an unlimited and ever-changing number of parents.” Given that biological parents can have an unlimited and ever-changing number of partners and spouses some of whom parent, in that context, I guess the attorneys express a valid concern.
So what makes a real parent? For men, is donating sperm sufficient? In other words, is the biological contribution of sperm sufficient for a boy or man to be a parent, regardless of his role in the life of the resulting child? And does giving birth make a girl or woman a parent, regardless of whether she has parented the child? Not contributing DNA does not absolve stepparents—particularly those whose stepchildren live with them—of the demands that children make on resources such as love, attention, time, and money. I remember attending Parent Involvement Week and being introduced by the then nine-year old girl’s teacher to the class as her Mom. Then there is the night that I attended a special performance by the same tyke. Her father was in class, her brother had no interest in her choice of activity, and her mother was unavailable. I was the girl’s sole cheer-leader. At the end of the group’s spirited performance, the gymnastics coach approached me beaming. “You’re her Mom!” she gushed.
Due to my involvement with her, both the teacher and the coach saw me as the girl’s parent. Over the years, most teachers have chosen to continue referring to me as Mom (no step) or a parent (no step) even after learning that I am a stepparent. Their intention seems to be to say, “I see your role in this child’s life and step-parenting is not what I see you do. Parenting is what I see you do.”