Childless...with Children

Thanks to co-parenting, people who don't want kids of their own can still have kids in their lives.

| January/February 2001 Issue


Cynthia Scott and her partner, Cathy Hoffman, have attended two births. They’re not midwives, or mothers, or even doting aunts. They’re godmothers, but not in the traditional sense of the word. "I met Suzanne and Doug in 1985," recalls Scott, who lives in Minneapolis. "They had their first daughter, Hannah, in 1987. They asked Cathy and me to be godmothers before Hannah was even born. They also asked us to be present at her birth. At the time, they didn’t know exactly what the term godmother meant to them, except that they wanted us to be part of their future children’s lives. It wasn’t about teaching the rosary or taking them to Sunday school or anything like that. It was more like being a sset of parents."
Now That’s an Extended Family!
From an early age, Marian Turner knew she didn’t want to have children. So when she set out to find a job, what profession did she choose? She opened a child care business. Thirty years later, Turner and business partner Michael Kauper (also childless, he joined the program four years after its inception) consider the work they do to be a form of co-parenting. They are providing a nurturing place for children in Marian’s Minneapolis home while helping those children’s parents raise happy families and hold down jobs. And though they don’t have fat bank accounts, Turner and Kauper say their lives have been enriched by the time they’ve spent with the more than 200 kids who’ve been part of their program. "It’s not that I feel like they are my children," says Turner of her small charges, "but I do think of them as part of my extended family. It’s been a good job for me. I get to know these children, but it’s not a 24-hour-a-day commitment."
Hannah’s birth was followed three years later by the birth of her sister, Natalie, which Hoffman and Scott also attended. In the years since, they’ve become a presence in both girls’ lives, providing extra help for their exhausted parents when the girls were babies, hosting them for weekend overnights as they got older, and dispensing advice during difficult stages of their lives. Though there’s no formal arrangement to their godparent relationship, in many ways Scott and Hoffman are fulfilling the role of co-parents, a concept that’s been gaining popularity around the world. In a co-parenting arrangement, the biological parent or parents of a child ask close friends or relatives to assist in the care and nurturing of their children. It’s like the role of a favorite aunt or uncle, only slightly more formal and adapted to the complications of modern life.

In truth, co-parenting is an old concept with a new name. According to the London-based Institute for Social Inventions’ publication The Book of Visions, the tradition of asking close friends or family to play a key role in a child’s upbringing goes back to the fourth century. There are even words for people who play such a role, commater and compater, that can be traced to the end of the sixth century.

For couples like Hoffman and Scott who have chosen not to have children of their own, co-parenting is a way to welcome kids into their lives—without letting their lives be taken over by children.

"When they were little, we could take the girls for the weekend whenever we wanted a kid fix," Scott says. "They were always so much fun." But did building such a close relationship with two kids make Scott regret not having children of her own? "No," she answers, firmly. "In fact, it made me really happy with my decision not to be a parent. I saw firsthand how demanding it is to be a parent and how little I wanted that to be my full-time responsibility."

For single parents, two-career families, or couples living far away from their immediate families, co-parents can be a godsend. Holly Coughlin, a Minneapolis-based graphic designer, spends time each week with Chantz, the 9-year-old son of her ex-partner. Though she’s no longer in contact with Chantz’s father, Coughlin has remained friends with his ex-wife, and the two women continue to share time with the boy, attending his school conferences and getting together for dinner.

Chantz’s mother has not remarried, so Coughlin’s help is doubly appreciated. "Sometimes when she is going out of town she needs me to stay with him. I always tell her I’d do that in a minute," says Coughlin, who has no children of her own. "Chantz’s mother always tells him, ‘You can never have too many people who love you,’ and it’s true. I love him so much and I want him to know that."

When Coughlin, who is of Korean heritage, and Chantz, whose father is Filipino American, are out in public, people often mistake them for mother and son. "It’s silly," Coughlin says, "because if you really look at us we don’t look anything alike except for the color of our skin. In fact, Chantz looks just like his mother." Still, because the mistake is made so often, the pair have had to come up with a word to describe their relationship to others. Co-parent sounds too formal.

"So we use ate (pronounced AH-tay), the Filipino word for an older woman who is not related by blood but who cares for you," Coughlin explains. "I call him ading, which means a younger person who is not my son, but a younger close friend. If we want to keep the explanations short, we just say, ‘This is my friend,’ because we are friends—we just happen to be different ages."

Some suggest making the co-parent relationship more official, perhaps through a ceremony similar to the one held for godparents at baptisms. In The Book of Visions, Angela Murphy of London suggests that "parents . . . choose people with whom they [wish] to create a formal state of friendship (just as in rites of blood-brotherhood). Now that the extended family is stretched and scattered, it is even more important to confirm the bonds of friendship."

So maybe a ceremony is in order to invest the co-parenting relationship with its proper significance. Or maybe, as Scott and Hoffman can attest, a relationship that begins with a promise to a pair of expectant parents can, over the years, assume a life of its own.

"I’m really happy that we have the identity of godmothers," Scott says. "It elevates us one notch above friend of the family. For me there’s tremendous joy in having these kids in my life over the long haul. They know we’re here for them, and that makes me really happy."

Andy Steiner is a senior editor of Utne Reader.

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