Co-parenting

How Do Gay Dads Navigate Compromises in Co-Parenting Arrangements?

With up to four parents involved with childrearing in an "intentional co-parenting" arrangement, how are decisions made? Bill Delany explains how it works in his arrangement.

One of the most common questions my husband and I get as co-parents of our two daughters – we raise them with their two moms – is how our decisions are made. It's assumed that because there are four of us it must be complicated and maybe even contentious. One thing I always stress when promoting co-parenting as an option for wannabe parents is that the personalities involved are the key to success. Control freaks or their opposites, doormats, will probably not work. Important personality traits to have? Patience, a willingness to listen and an openness to compromise; you shouldn't hold grudges or offend easily.

We spent a couple of years getting to know the moms, especially the birth mom, whom we got to know before she became part of a lesbian couple. It felt like we were dating her. Before making any babies, we wanted to determine that we had compatible temperaments. Over the almost 13 years we've all known each other, and 10 years since our older daughter was born, most of our decisions have been fairly easy to come to. (In an earlier post I explained how we determined our daughters' first and last names.) We've taken a lot of trips together, by road and by air, and there has never been any tension. Choosing activities for the kids has been a mostly smooth process. Choosing the kids' daycare and nursery schools was easy-peasy.

The Catholic School Compromise

Their current elementary school, however, was a slightly tougher compromise on my part. Well, not so much the school specifically as it is a bigger compromise around it. I'm atheist with little love for the Catholic Church, or organized religion in general. Biological mom is Catholic and wanted to raise her kids with a Catholic tradition. Honestly, back in the dating stages, if we didn't live in San Francisco, that could have been a deal breaker for me. But I know that our city's progressive values will protect the kids from the worst of the Church's teachings. Plus, my agnostic husband and I make our views known to the kids as well. We make it clear quite often that we don't buy into any of it, and have even challenged them to think about what they're being taught. And their mom is OK with our doing so. She herself is more a stereotypical leftwing San Franciscan than a stereotypical Catholic.


Her personal experience growing up attending Catholic schools was positive, and so she wanted the kids to go to one also. We looked at several, most of which were kind of meh. The one we settled on is wonderful. For starters, more than 50 percent of the student body isn't even Catholic, and there are atheist parents, so J.R. and I have plenty of kindred spirits at school functions. We get along great with the community of families, and have a lot of fun together. Amusingly, a couple of other parents have told us that our presence at parent orientation together made them decide to choose the school. They figured if gay parents felt comfortable being there, then it couldn't be too bad. And the school isn't bad at all; in fact, it's amazing. They are financially self-sufficient, so my mind is at ease that our tuition isn't going to the Church itself. And in their religion classes they teach the crunchy granola peace and love hippy version of Jesus, even including being responsible stewards of the environment.

So that's my one big compromise for the family. And it's one I can live with because minus all the religion mumbo-jumbo, the people in our daughters' school are wonderful and the academics excellent. And we live in San Francisco; it's not that the kids are at risk of becoming religious zealots.

The Legal Father Compromise

Another big compromise I can think of occurred right after our older daughter was born. Long story short, having kids was J.R.'s idea and initially he was going to father both kids. (We always intended to have two.) Later it was decided that we'd each father one. But when during the dating years we learned he can't have kids, we made the decision that I'd father both. It bothered me, though, that this was his dream, and now he wouldn't have a more concrete connection to the kids. One day it hit me: I'd give up my rights so he could adopt them. Then he'd have the legal designation of father and I'd have the biological. This came up not too long before the first one was born and we kind of threw the idea at the mom, and then moved on without much feedback from her. It didn't seem like that big a deal; just a win-win. Well, after the birth we revisited the topic and she let us know she had reservations about it. She was concerned that words and phrases like “adopt" and “giving up rights" might cause issues for our daughter; that she might not get that it's just about legalities and technicalities, and not about whether or not I loved her.

So now, if we couldn't convince her that that wouldn't be a problem, then we couldn't proceed with the adoption; the mother has to sign off on it. I rarely lose my temper, it's not my thing, but I was holding the baby and had to hand her to J.R. and leave the room because I was so pissed. During the whole journey I always deferred to J.R. and the mom. There hadn't been anything about the process that I felt so strongly about that it required that I stand my ground. Or at least there hadn't been until the idea came up to have J.R. adopt. I wanted this for him so intensely, and it just came up against a very significant obstacle.

We all had some deep heart-to-hearts and the mom agreed to discuss the matter with a therapist and a child counselor, who could offer insights into how a kid might react to our proposed legal arrangements. In the end she was assured enough to agree to go through with it. Now both of our daughters are J.R.'s legally, not mine. And they both already know about it and why it was done, and it's been a non-issue.

Aside: California has since passed a law that allows more than two legal parents, so it's now an option for me to regain my rights with a judge's ruling!

The Privacy Issue Compromise

Just thought of another big compromise. You'll notice that in this post and all others I write, the names of the moms or kids are never mentioned, nor are significant identifying details. J.R. and I live our lives like open books; we'll share almost anything about ourselves with anyone. The moms are 180 degrees from that: They are intensely private. The compromise is that I can share our stories through my writings or being interviewed by the media, but I have to keep the moms and kids as anonymous as possible. I've been mostly successful, primarily because most of the interviews I've done were for print media. But there was that one slip while being interviewed by a local TV station, and I'd absentmindedly included a family photo among a group of photos on the table next to me. The cameraman zoomed in on that one and sure enough, splashed it all over the screen. Moms were not happy about it. Oops. That was several years ago and Westboro Baptist hasn't shown up to picket our homes so we're probably in the clear.

But that's been it; the above has been the worst of it. There are traditional two-parented families that experience more conflict and disagreement than we do. Even with our differences, we four parents work very well together. There's no formula or checklist that will ensure successful co-parenting. The key is intangible; it's having temperaments and personalities that are in sync. Probably the only way to know if you have that is by taking the time to get to know each other, and by discussing children and parenthood from every possible angle, to find out in advance on what you are and are not willing to compromise.

  • Co-Parenting: It's Not Just for Divorced Couples Anymore
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