Plural Parenting and Permission to be Imperfect

—Katie L. Acosta

How has writing this book changed how you approach parenting?

A colleague posed this question to me after reading a draft of Queer Stepfamilies: The Path to Social and Legal Recognition. I have revisited the question often since then. As this book neared completion, so did my decade long relationship with my daughter’s other parent. During this devastating time, I found myself repeatedly recalling the book respondents’ words. It was they who helped me envision what a healthy post-relationship parenting relationship can look like. I learned from their struggles but also, I followed their examples in setting goals for how I want us to plural parent our daughter. I coined the term plural parent in this book to describe what I observed the study families doing: parenting among three or more individuals of varying sexual and gender identities after a relationship dissolution.

In Queer Stepfamilies, I feature families formed after a relationship dissolution. Some families were formed after a heterosexual divorce, others after a same-sex divorce, and others after one person came to parenting as a single individual. Despite the varied ways they were formed, these families shared similar struggles in parenting their children. They endured social stigmatization and a lack of recognition as lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer parented families. They also endured legal ambiguities as they found themselves navigating their legal needs, while the United States battled the right for same sex couples to legally marry.

Parenting with this backdrop required these families to practice extreme flexibility, ingenuity, and resilience. These skills ultimately served them well in learning to plural parent. By interviewing the study families, I got a window into their plural parenting arrangements. Ultimately, my biggest take-away was that even at its messiest, plural parenting is inspiring.  The study families experienced varied levels of success in plural parenting: some parented relatively seamlessly as a team, others found the arrangement tolerable, and some just struggled.  

Hearing families describe how plural parenting arrangements worked in their homes resonated with me because this arrangement captured a village model of raising children.  I have always believed it takes a village and watching parents in the United States struggle to raise their children without outside support networks and with increasing work demands has always bewildered me. I was raised in a village, albeit different from the arrangements the study families described in this book. A village, nonetheless, complete with multiple adults who served as my go-to for all things financial, physical and emotional. My experience has always been that life is hard, parenting is harder, and we need each other to survive it! Queer Stepfamilies’ plural parenting arrangements functions as a kind of village. Most of the children were raised with three or more parents of various genders, sexualities and even different races. The kids in these families are growing up with a rich array of experiences that their peers in nuclear families will not have. Discussions in their homes about acceptance, inclusivity, and normativity are part and parcel of their daily lives.

How has writing this book changed my approach to parenting?

These families have gifted me a roadmap for how to plural parent. They are #goals not only when their arrangements were smoothest, but more so when they walked through the ugliness of their relationship dissolutions and subsequent custody disputes with grace.  I could never convey to these families how very much they sparked in me the belief that people can build plural parenting relationships after a relationship dissolution that is stronger than parenting in a two-parent intact family. 

In this book, I strive to offer readers an honest unsanitized glimpse into their parenting journeys. I aimed at every step to extend to lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer parented families the same privilege that heterosexual parents have: permission to be imperfect, to not always get it right, and to not have their parental fitness questioned on account of it. In the book’s pages, the reader will find families who navigate parenting without legal recognition, in mixed-race families, and in homes with both biological and adopted children. In these pages, the reader will find an account of what queer stepfamilies look like.

Katie L. Acosta is Associate Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University. She is the author of Queer Stepfamilies (NYU Press, 2021) and Amigas y Amantes: Sexually Nonconforming Latinas Negotiate Family (Rutgers University Press, 2014).

Image by Mario Renteria from Pixabay

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