More than my mother: how many parents do you have?

More than my mother: how many parents do you have?

Alison Koslowski

A few years ago when looking into Growing up in Scotland data, I discovered that some children were reporting having up to ten grandparents. My tidy conceptions of the standard package of four grandparents were easily pushed aside, as it was relatively straightforward to appreciate how parental and grandparental relationship changes might mean that a family arrives at such a number. Indeed, this is one of the enjoyable aspects to being a family researcher, that ‘common sense’ assumptions are frequently gently challenged. However, it has taken rather longer for me to consider that our conception of parenting is likewise fixed in a standard package, which is likely to be an inaccurate representation of family life for many. There is much emphasis on mothers: many Schools will consistently only contact that parent who is considered to be the main parent (frequently the mother), and our Paternity, Maternity and even the seemingly gender neutrally labelled Parental Leave policies are also constructed and implemented in such a way that reinforces a mother as the main parent. Whilst some children do of course rely very much on one parent alone, many rely very much on two parents, and perhaps more than two parents.

Shulamith Firestone (1970:1) noted a while ago that to challenge the supremacy of the mother as primary parental carer is likely to invoke the reaction “That? Why you can’t change that! You must be out of your mind!” For some, this is still seen as a “fundamental biological condition” and just how it is. For others, attitudes are changing and much research looks at the shifting perceptions and behaviours of fathers as carers for their children, so as to acknowledge that there may be two fully engaged parents in the equation. But, there may well be more than two! There are two main points presented in this article to hopefully provoke further discussion: 1) that the main parent model continues to dominate: the mother remains the key reference parent for the child, despite efforts to bring in fathers. 2) Even a dual parent model may fail to accurately represent the experience of many children.

The social organisation of parenting is one of the key mechanisms supporting enduring gender inequalities in our societies. An interest in understanding how to better support parents towards more equal parenting led me to join the International Network of Leave Policies and Research and to the co-editorship (with Sonja Blum and Peter Moss) of their annual review of Leave Policies in over 40 countries. This means that my Mastermind specialist subject would currently be Parental Leave polices: I have gained an unusually detailed overview of the range of ways different countries configure Parental Leave and other policies. Drawing also on my role as co-editor of Families, Relationships and Societies, I can see that much policy does not serve the diversity of families, in part due to the way in which it counts parents.

The social organisation of parenting is one of the key mechanisms supporting enduring gender inequalities in our societies; sometimes this is limited to heterosexual couples, sometimes it is extended to same sex couples. However, in all countries, even the fabled Nordic Leave policy paradise, there could still be argued to be a ‘primary carer’ or ‘main parent’ approach – the assumption is that one parent, nearly always the mother – will be spending more time on leave than the other parent. Sometimes, this is to an extreme degree, with the second parent being entitled to, for example, just a couple of days Paternity Leave; sometimes it is much more even, with the second parent taking perhaps three months leave in contrast to the six months leave taken by the (m)other.

The clues as to why we are in this situation are easy to spot when considering the history of Leave policies. Arguably, Maternity Leave first emerged as a public health initiative, to protect mothers and their infants from the hazards of the workplace. In many countries, this is still the main emphasis, to protect mothers and nursing infants. A more recent development for many countries has been to consider the role of leave legislation as a gender equality instrument. There has been a slow recognition that in addition to employment protection for (birth) mothers, for fundamental discriminations to shift, fathers or other co-parents need to also be involved with infant care, and with taking leave, to the same degree as mothers.

For a certain historical period, and on going in many countries, bringing in the father figure from the cold seemed radical enough, but there is also the question about the number of parents. First, there is the question of how many parents a child has, followed by the question of how many parents a given system, such as a Leave system, might be able to support. A recent paper in FRS tells how a community of gay parents in Belgium have been organising parenting; in particular, highlighting the number of co-parents a child may have (Herbrand, 2017). Depending on various factors, a child might find themselves with more than two parents. There may be a birth mother, a genetic mother – who may or may not be the same person: sometimes, a couple might choose for one of them to be the genetic mother and the other to be the birth mother. Then, one family form is to find the genetic father from the local gay community, who may go into parenting with his partner. So, we are already up to four co-parents.  This is perhaps not so new in so far as we have long understood that biological and social parents may or may not come in the same person.

Then, as with heterosexual couples, if you throw in relationship dissolution and re-partnering, followed by further births, the number of adults who might be ascribed a parental role for a chid can continue to increase. Step-parents can be key parents for a child. There are clearly multiple ways to become a parent including biologically, via-partnering, by adopting, via surrogacy and via artificial reproductive technologies. A simple definition of a parent that perhaps suffices here is someone whom a child refers to as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, but clearly, there is more discussion to be had over this definition.

Parental Leave systems do seem to have been set up with the assumption that one or two parents are to be supported in combining employment and parenting. A key learning from Leave policy research has been that individual entitlement is crucial for take up. Thus, if an individual is not entitled (but rather the ‘family’ should nominate a primary carer), they rarely become such a carer if they are not the birth mother. Perhaps there needs to be a discussion around whether it might be helpful to support a wider number of co-parents in a child’s life.

Despite many efforts to support more equal and shared parenting, mothers are still doing most of the care for infants, and still paying the related higher price in terms of the hit to their lifetime income. Also, even where there might be expected sites of new ‘radical’ parenting practices, such as same sex families, often, a ‘traditional’ primary carer model is assumed, with traditional consequences. How much of this enduring gendered experience is perpetuated by key social structures, including Leave policies, which assume that our mothers are our only ‘useful’ parent, is a question to keep asking ourselves. Perhaps a good place to start would be an expanded appreciation of how many parents some of us actually have.

Firestone, Shulamith (1970), The Dialectic of Sex: the case of feminist revolution, Morrow: New York.
Herbrand, C. (2017), Co-Parenting Arrangements in Lesbian and Gay Families: When the ‘mum and dad’ ideal generates innovative family forms.


Alison Kolowski is Professor of Social Policy and Research Methods at the University of Edinburgh. She is co-editor of Families, Relationships and Societies. For further information on leave arrangements, see: International Review of Leave Policies and Related Research 2017