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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