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Alt Parenting #4: CA Coparenting Law with Ora Prochovnick

Decades of supporting California's alternative families

I heard about Ora Prochovnick because she helped some friends in San Francisco work out their coparenting contract. Prochovnick has been working in alternative family law for years, and has applied it in her own life: this picture shows her with her partner, Rena, and their kids.

Photo: Ora Prochovnick (bottom right), her partner Rena (bottom left), and their two children.

I’m grateful to Prochovnick for agreeing to talk with me about California law as it applies to alternative parenting, and about changes she’s seen in the decades she’s been practicing. Some things I learned from the interview:

• California is now the very first state to allow more than one legal parent. In fact, there’s no legal limit on the number of parents one can have.

• Prochovnick is seeing more people in her law practice “who wouldn’t normally identify with alternative culture or alternative sexuality,” and she’s also “seeing more men outside of traditional heterosexual coupled relationships interested in parenting.”

• (Note: I also recently spoke to a lawyer in New York who specializes in alternative family law, so keep an eye out for that interview if you’re interested in what it’s like out in New York!)

Read on to learn more…

This interview is part of Lydia Laurenson’s Alternative Parenting Project.

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LYDIA: I found you because you helped some friends of mine write their coparenting contract. But I understand that you don’t just have legal experience — you also have personal experience with alternative parenting from the queer perspective. And you’re also on the board at Our Family Coalition, in San Francisco, and have a broader role in the community.

ORA PROCHOVNICK: Yes. I have been working to create and protect families as a lawyer for over 30 years, primarily with LGBTQ families, but also with a variety of other family constellations. I myself am a parent as well. Our kids are pretty old now — they're twenty-four and twenty-eight. My partner and I raised them in a collective household; we are the primary parents, and there were other members of our household involved in raising our kids.

Separate from my everyday legal work with families, I have a strong interest in housing law. I’m a property professor and I run a housing clinic.

Has all that been in San Francisco?

It has. Although… thirty years ago, I was not a parent, but I lived in a collective household in St. Louis, Missouri that had children. That was after I went through college. I still have a relationship with those kids! Some are now parents themselves.

Do you have a sense of whether alternative parenting is on an upward trend?

Anything I could say would be completely anecdotal, because it's not something I've done any research on. And I do think that the LGBTQ community has always been more creative than the mainstream, in defining what family is for us.

I can think of families I worked with, long ago — including one family I was just catching up with recently, whose child is now in her mid-thirties and has children of her own. Her parents were both lesbians, but they were not in a relationship with each other.

That’s been very common in the lesbian community, parenting outside the sexual relationship. There's an assumption that if you see two lesbian moms together, they're in a relationship, but that’s not always true.

What might be newer is that it’s moving more into the polyamory community. I would say, from my practice, that there are more populations exploring different ways to create family and be parents.

Sometimes I think the straight community is catching up! I’m seeing more people in my law practice who wouldn’t normally identify with alternative culture or alternative sexuality. People who otherwise would be perceived as straight, who are more open to a different understanding of family.

I'm also seeing more men outside of traditional heterosexual coupled relationships interested in parenting.

What did it look like when you started?

When I look back over the 30+ years I've been doing this, there was a time that it was either lesbian couples or heterosexual couples. Back then, there were also occasionally some who did it in less traditional constellations of three or four, maybe two women and a man, or two men and a woman. There were also much fewer legal protections back then.

How does polyamory and heterosexuality intersect with the people you're seeing today?

Some of the clients I work with in intentional families are doing it within polyamorous relationships. And some of my clients are completely divorcing their desire to parent from their sexuality. On that note, I've worked with people who define themselves as asexual.

I've also seen exes choose to be family together. I’ve seen that more often with queers, but also with straights.

One thing I’ve been curious about is how different racial minorities are engaging with alternative parenting. As I'm sure you know, it can be complicated to talk about sexuality in different racial groups.

A lot of the “standard” alternative lifestyles — by which I mean the “famous” sexuality-related subcultures, like polyamory or swinging — are largely white. That doesn't mean there aren’t people outside those cultures who engage in those practices, but a lot of the time, those folks aren’t part of those subcultures. A lot of the time, there’s different vocabulary and even different norms for people who do it outside the subcultures. So that can make it hard to track what’s happening in those groups.

Completely agree. For instance, in the African-American community, and in a lot of Native American communities, the whole concept of extended family has long been more present. It’s not, like, a new innovation, or pushback against the nuclear family. There’s more of a sense already that the whole community is involved in nurturing and loving a child. So, given that there’s already a more expanded definition of parenting, it feels more natural and therefore less countercultural.

But when white folks do it, it feels more like countercultural activity.

One thing I've observed in my community in San Francisco, among people who are interested in alternative parenting, is that a lot of the people drawn to these ideas grew up internationally. Maybe they grew up in Eastern Europe, maybe in India, but they’re saying things like, “I just can’t imagine doing this nuclear family thing the way Americans do it, it just seems so hard based on my experience from my birth culture.”

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen California coparents work through, in your legal work?

I would say one challenge is having the conversations at all, so they’re all on the same page. One of the things I do is help people create coparenting agreements, and I always tell them, “You know, you could pay me a bunch of money to write a contract, but it’s more meaningful if you create the agreement and I help you to turn it into legal form.” I encourage people to have a lot of “what if?” conversations with each other, to develop a shared vision and picture of what exactly they want to do together.

It's not like there are right or wrong ways to do this. But it's really important that all the participants have a shared understanding of what coparenting means to them. The most important thing is that they have a foundation of trust and understanding. That will then be layered with the legal relationships, or lack thereof.

There are some legal overlaps with that — as a society, we have very clear legal definitions of what it means to parent, the rights and obligations attached to a parent as opposed to a non-parent. So people who are defying those rules, and having non-parents take on some of those rights and responsibilities but not necessarily all of them, just need to figure out what they want from that package. There also might be legal differences of people's status that would cause power imbalances over time.

Alt Parenting #3: Poly Family Research with Dr. Eli Sheff

Decades of research into polyamorous families

I met Dr. Elisabeth Sheff earlier this year while attending a small conference at U.C. Berkeley called “Polyamory: Resilience in Families and Empirically-Informed Clinical Practices.” Sheff has been tracking polyamorous families for decades, and has written multiple books about polyamorous families. She generously agreed to a long interview so that I could ask her literally every question I could think of.

Some fascinating things I learned from the interview:

• Examples and stories of polyamorous families that have been together over the long haul… and one that broke up after having a child together

• Common patterns, structures, and negotiations in polyamorous families

• Fun fact: Everyone talks about poly triads that feature a man plus two women… but triads formed from a woman plus two men are far more common… especially over the long term! I was so surprised to learn that!

Read on to learn more…

Photo: Dr. Elisabeth Sheff

This interview is part of Lydia Laurenson’s Alternative Parenting Project.

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Housekeeping note: I’m experimenting with a new platform to host this newsletter. If you see any tech glitches or weird text problems or anything, please do email me and let me know: lydia dot laurenson at gmail dot com.

Anyway interview!

LYDIA: I'm really excited to talk to you because you are, as far as I know, the longest-term researcher on polyamorous families. Is that true?

DR. ELISABETH SHEFF: As far as I know, yes. I think I have the only longitudinal study of polyamorous families with children. The only other researcher I know that’s looked at poly families with children is Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, in Australia, who wrote a book on how they interacted at school.

In your research you must encounter definitional creep — the question of what counts as poly and what doesn't. Do you focus on poly families that live together?

It's broader than that. If someone considers themself a member of a polyamorous family that has children in it, then I consider them as well. They don't necessarily have to cohabitate with their partners or the children.

Generally, I've been looking at whoever is important in the children's lives — and the children interpret not only their parents' partners, but other people as important in their lives as well.

When I saw you speak at Berkeley, you mentioned that the children often seem totally cool with the poly arrangement, and there are lots of advantages for them. For example, the parents’ other partners are sometimes people that the children can get a lot out of, because the partners are trying to impress the kids’ parents.

Yes — the parents’ partners try to impress the children, or try to be friendly with the children, and simultaneously, they’re not invested in discipline. They generally leave that to the biological parents, and to be more fun and supportive of children. When the kids get a bad grade, they go to their regular parents and not their parents' partners or chosen family members.

Very interesting. So, the perspective from which I wanted to do this interview is one of curiosity about practice. My community in San Francisco wants to do outside-the-box stuff when it comes to becoming parents. This isn’t an academic interest for us, it’s personal. A lot of people ask me for best practices.

Who does this work for, and who doesn’t it work for? I remember you mentioning when you gave the talk that you don't know for sure how many polyamorous families don’t work well, because people drop out of the study and you don't know why. But do you have an instinct about who it works well for and who it doesn’t?

Poly families are much like other families — the way it works out depends almost completely on how people handle themselves. Polyamory seems best to me for people who are willing to put significant effort into learning how to negotiate, how to communicate, and how to improve their relationships with their family and themselves.

For some people, relationship maintenance is not something they are interested in, even if they know it’s necessary. So for folks who know they don't enjoy that kind of thing, I’d suggest they choose a more simple and straightforward relationship style.  

What sort of negotiations do you see coming up specifically in poly families with kids?

Having children at all! Are you going to have kids or not? If you are going to have kids, who are the biological parents? Who's going to be the social parent? Who’s going to make the money? Who's going to do which part of parenting?

Negotiating those things up-front can be incredibly useful. It’s already hard to parent with two people, given that two parents often have different ideas about what to do. Add more people in there, and it's incredibly complicated.

So when the child is quite small — both before you have the baby, and when the baby is small — I advise poly parents to talk a lot about who takes on which roles. For example, perhaps if there’s a stalemate over education, then you have someone who's the educational stalemate-breaker — a person in the family designated to be the educational specialist. If one of the adults is a teacher, then they might be suited to make final calls about education. Or if one of the adults in the family is a doctor or a nurse, then perhaps they should be the primary healthcare person. Distributing some responsibilities along skill guidelines seems to work pretty well.

Have you seen a lot of situations where the biological parent is separate from the social parent, or other roles that get split in unusual ways?

Definitely. I'm thinking of a specific quad I observed, where the social father made way less money than the biological father, so the social father tended to be around a lot more and did more childcare. The biological father had the primary wage-earning job for the whole family. All four of them had various ways to make money, and they did, but the biological father by far had the biggest income. So the non-bio-dad — he was a poet and a woodworker, not super highly paid positions — tended to be the social dad, especially when when the kid was small, through pre-school and elementary school.

In that example, the social dad was the primary caretaker because the social mom and the bio mom started a business together. That was super consuming for the moms. But things shifted over time. When the kid got a little bit older, then the social dad went back to school and the two moms' business had settled in a bit, so they could be around more and the kid could come there after school.

Is that family still together?

They divorced one of the dads, or he divorced them. So today, it's both moms and the bio dad still together, and the social dad is now semi-monogamous with his partner. (They are still poly in theory — they didn't decide to be monogamous — but they had partner attrition and haven't been looking for more partners. They're tired.)

So is the social dad still involved with the kids’ lives?

Oh, definitely! Quite a bit. In fact, after the divorce, and before the first kid could drive, the social dad and the bio dad put a lot of effort into hanging out every Saturday. They would get together and go out for lunch and talk about what had happened that week.

It’s interesting to pattern-match on stuff like this. One pattern I've observed with quads is that there are many situations where a situation starts out as a quad, and becomes a triad.

Poly people sometimes call that "two plus two equals three," or "a quad makes a great triad."

I haven't heard those sayings before! But yeah, it’s a pattern that’s come up frequently enough that I've noticed it.

Me too.

So... given that there are common patterns that end with people getting left out... I know you can’t predict the course of love, but I find myself with the urge to develop a better sense of what the likely modes are, or where things are likely to end up. For my future kids’ sake, if nothing else.

Alt Parenting #2: Systems Thinking and Principles

Elephants do communal child-rearing!

I heard that for elephants, entire groups bring up the tiniest members of the herd. And I found this photo on Flickr Creative Commons, posted by RayMorris1.

Alternative Parenting Newsletter #2: 

Systems Thinking and Principles

Originally sent July 8, 2018

In the month since I announced this newsletter, A LOT has happened! 

• I went to an academic conference about long-term resilience in polyamorous families. 
• I attended a mixer for queer people who want children and are seeking platonic co-parents. 
• I spoke on a panel about parenting in the kink/ leather/ BDSM community (I was representing the "prospective parent" category — everyone else on the panel already had kids). 
• I visited a plot of land whose owners plan to build a new giant long-term multi-house child-friendly co-housing community. 
• I began scheduling field trips to places where people have already built long-term child-friendly co-ops — some have been around for decades.  
• Two of my friends held an awesome "commitments festival" (i.e., an alternative wedding) — and in their vows, they promised to create a family-friendly community house together.  

I've also gotten connected with people who are doing alt parenting all over the country, and I've been touched by the stories I've seen and heard.  There's SO MUCH HAPPENING, seriously.  This is a burgeoning movement.  

So yes, there is a ton of information about how people are doing alt parenting -- and that information is totally scattered. My First Big Plan is to start getting all the alt parenting information in one place. 

But I'm starting to realize that this means more than just gathering stories.  We're also going to need systems thinking and solid principles -- principles both in the sense of "first principles" and best practices, and moral principles as well.  So my Second Big Plan is trying to understand the principles that can guide us.

You can subscribe to this newsletter for public updates — and/or, keep reading…

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Best Practices and Trend Lines

People have been asking me for systems.  I get these types of questions over and over: "What's the best way to do this?"  
• What are best practices for writing a platonic co-parenting contract?  
• What are best practices for finding or creating a child-friendly communal home, from choosing the right property to developing the bylaws?  
• What are best practices for parenting if you have a stigmatized sexual identity, especially non-monogamy (e.g. polyamory, swinging, etc)?  

I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that a lot of people have been doing alt parenting alone, or in small groups, and they've forged their own paths in the face of massive cultural resistance.  The good news is — a lot of people have been doing alt parenting. Some have been doing it for decades!  

And major trend lines are converging.  For one thing, there's more and more people interested in urban and suburban co-housing, for reasons of both loneliness and economics.  This trend is clear enough that startups have been rising and falling and rising again, hoping to meet the demand for urban co-housing.  A co-founder of one such startup, Starcity, has said he believes his company represents a “new American Dream.”

For another thing, alternative sexuality is less and less stigmatized.  This means people who are queer, poly, etc. are better able to organize and trade information about what their alternative families look like — and better able to get legal decisions recognizing their family status.  In Canada this year, three adult members of a polyamorous family got recognized as legal co-parents; a similar precedent got set in New York last year.  It used to be that if people knew you were alt-sexual, you were taking a huge risk that your kids could be taken away.  But that's less and less in liberal areas.  I'm even starting to meet lawyers who specialize in alternative family law!  

Simultaneously, divorce has now been commonplace for decades, so the idea that American adults take one romantic mate and stay with that person forever to raise kids has been shattered, even among the mainstream.  Then there's the fact that relevant technology is getting better and cheaper.  If it becomes easy to reproduce without having sex, then reproduction (which was already only tenuously connected to sex in my generation, especially for queer people) will be fully and radically decoupled from sex.  

This is why I'm spending hours tracking down case studies and talking to people who have done alt parenting — we need more information about how to do this, and the faster we can get a lot of information in one place, the faster we can start pattern-matching towards best practices.  But I feel cautious too, because...

The Legacy of “Free Love” and Social Atomization

The sixties are famous as Ground Zero of hippiedom, psychedelics, free love, sexual revolution, and all that jazz.  I've been reading up on the history lately, because the hippies were kind of forerunners for modern alternative culture: group houses, multiple sexual relationships, etc.  But one unavoidable conclusion from reading about that time is that while they did many interesting things, they had no social guardrails, and that made things remarkably unsafe.  

The idea of "free love" became attached to noncommittal casual sex, for example.  There weren't best practices for polyamory and setting sexual boundaries — not to mention, abortion was illegal, as was birth control for unmarried women.  The consequences of this were both predictable and awful: many people (mostly women) got pressured into sex they didn't want to have while attempting to freely explore their sexuality; and many contracted nasty infections or had to get dangerous abortions.  This shows how free love must be grounded in respect for our bodies, in respect for everyone's boundaries, and in a healthy regard for women’s empowerment.  (This isn't to say that those problems should be blamed on the hippies: they were operating in a social context where a lot of traditional structures were falling apart and society was becoming atomized, and it wasn't clear how to do things better.)  

These questions of safety, responsibility, and care are especially pressing as we consider establishing family-oriented parenting spaces that take cues from our counterculture legacy.  In doing this alt parenting thing, we must have an intellectual grounding in best practices — but more importantly, we must be morally, emotionally, and spiritually grounded too.

Principles to Underpin Alternative Parenting

What do these principles look like?  I'm still thinking about this (and I welcome feedback) but here's a first stab at them:

- Making commitments to take care of each other. 
Parenthood isn't meant to be a solo game played in isolation from community.  Alt parenting means developing solid ways to be there for each other as very open-minded yet emotionally caring people in a culture that provides little support for parents in general, and definitely fails to support non-nuclear families.  It means working together to create a strong and resilient social fabric so we can stay connected — so we don't feel like we're facing parenthood alone.

- Creating free, fulfilled, and loving lives together.
 Alt parenting means developing safe, respectful norms and communities that enable us to maintain our independence and optionality while maintaining responsibility for our kids.  

- Working to design the parenting approach that works best for us. 
My friend Crista recently sent me a list of "atoms," the base questions that must be answered when planning to take care of children.  I like this list because it's not dependent on stereotypes, assumptions, or heavy language that contains implied judgments. 

The First Alternative Parenting Email Newsletter Message

Penguins are alternative parents, right?

Photo of many penguin parents with many baby penguins, copyright 2007 by Martha de Jong-Lantink, found on Flickr Creative Commons

What Is Alternative Parenting?

Originally sent May 24, 2018

There's a movement blooming to rethink American parenting, to see it through a new lens — a lens shaped by recent economics, by queer families, by changes in women's roles at home, by new technologies like egg-freezing, and by a new generation's willingness to experiment.  

Here are some "alternative parenting" things I find fascinating:  

- Co-Housing With Kids - 

How intentional communities include children

- Platonic Co-Parenting - 

How people who are not romantically linked, or who are not biological parents, can parent together

- Polyamorous Parenting -

How people who are consensually non-monogamous raise children

- Genetic and Fertility Tech - 

How advances in technology are changing the process of having kids

This is an email newsletter about those topics, plus anything else I think is relevant.  This newsletter is 100% public, so please forward this to anyone you think might be interested!

Who Am I And Why Do I Care?

I'm Lydia, and the first question people ask me upon learning that I’m organizing resources around "alternative parenting" is, Why? What got me interested?  

I don't have kids — yet.  I want kids, and as I lay the groundwork, I've realized that I've gotta do this in an "alternative lifestyle" way.

Part of this is just a lifelong love affair with alternative lifestyles — I’ve spent most of my adult life living in co-ops, for example.  I’ve also spent tons of time being poly — indeed, I spent years writing and speaking about alt sexuality under the pseudonym Clarisse Thorn.  Plus, I’m fascinated by other cultures and their approach to parenting — I served in the Peace Corps, living in a small family compound in sub-Saharan Africa, with communal child-rearing in a central dirt courtyard surrounded by the parents’ huts.  

And yet for years I figured that once I became a parent, I would suddenly become a “normal American.”  Like I’d move to the suburbs and do the whole nuclear family thing and I guess I assumed I’d feel perfectly okay with that because, after all, how else would someone like me have children?  

I took my first unwitting step towards imagining a different reality when I met my friend Greg, who was using the name “FutureBestDad.”  

I met Greg after a breakup.  I was engaged in a normal Millennial post-breakup activity, i.e., I was browsing the dating site OkCupid with that unique mix of heartbreak and fixed determination.  And I was totally startled to come across a profile named “FutureBestDad.”  His profile started with these words: “Is it hopelessly improbable to find the mother of your children on OkCupid? We’ll see, won’t we.”  

In his profile, Greg went on to describe his history — which sounded just as “weird” and “alternative” as mine — and then he wrote very clearly about what he was looking for:

Message me if you're interested in alternative means of reproduction, and think we'd make a good set of parents together.
* Maybe you believe parents can be partners first, even if they are also lovers...
* Maybe you're half of a lesbian couple who don't like the idea of never meeting the donor...
* Maybe you're busy lady with a ticking clock who wants to swap some frozen gametes...
* Maybe you want to donate an egg to a good home (or act as a surrogate for one)...
* Maybe you've got great ideas around an out-of-the-box co-parenting situation...
* Partner in crime who lives next door and shares some kids and a nanny?
* Some sort of ethically non-monogamous, non-dyadic cohabitation, progressive child-rearing idea up your sleeve?
The possibilities seem endless. :)

So yeah, those were Greg’s words.  Long story short, I connected with Greg, and now I have some frozen eggs in storage.  Someday, I might use them or Greg might use them — the future is full with possibility.  And Greg has already donated sperm to someone else, so there's alternative parenting happening for Greg already!

Point being: Greg was a very concrete example of a man from my world, who I liked and respected, with values similar to mine, who wanted children and was open to a very alternative way of doing it.  

That got me thinking: What if I don’t have to do this in the way I always assumed I did?  What if I can have children, just like I’ve always wanted, and do it with the same outside-the-box care and art with which I try to approach the rest of my life?  

I — and many of my closest friends — do lots of things that "normal society" seems to think are impossible.  I'm proud to say that people in my Bay Area scene work on social issues that many consider intractable, have built successful companies from scratch, solve heretofore impossible technical problems over breakfast — and also live in co-ops and are non-monogamous, which is arguably harder!  So why wouldn’t we approach child-rearing with that same indomitable, independent spirit?  

In my life, I want to integrate my full self.  I want both work fulfillment and work-life balance, global life and community life, the sensual and the spiritual.  But how do I square all these circles and stay in touch with my values?  HOWWWW??  

That’s the real trick, and that’s the question I'll explore as I develop resources around alternative parenting.  I want to bring together stories and guidance for what alternative parenting looks like in modern American lives.  

I recently surveyed some Bay Area friends who are interested in this topic, asking why they're curious.  People wrote things like: 
• “How can we remain connected not isolated in parenthood?”  
• “How to explain to my family?”  
• “Need help formulating my words.”  
• “Share what works!”

I’ll close this with something I learned from my dear friend David Jay.  DJ is a leader in the asexual community, meaning that he does not experience sexuality and desire in the way that most people are used to.  And yet many asexual people still enjoy physical touch and physical intimacy, which can look different from physical relationships that are sexually driven.  So if an asexual person like DJ wants to have a physical relationship with a sexual person, then it falls upon them to try and explain what that might look like.  

DJ taught me a phrase for this: he calls it “holding the flashlight.”  Often, the idea of having a physical relationship with an asexual person will seem mysterious to a sexual person.  That space of mystery can seem like darkness, and it can be confusing and scary.  So a person who's familiar with that space can guide someone else, like a light. 

“Holding the flashlight” is a role that people can hold for each other while guiding them into a relationship that is taking a new and unfamiliar form.  

I don’t yet know how to hold the flashlight for the people who are seeking this.  However, at the risk of sounding smarmy and after-school-special, I think maybe we can start showing each other how we’re thinking about this and what we’ve already done, and figure out how to be amazing alternative parents together.  

What You Can Expect From This Newsletter

This newsletter will distribute resources and tell stories related to alternative parenting.  Topics will include cohousing with kids, poly parenting, platonic co-parenting, and genetic/fertility tech.  Plus, I'll add other interesting things at my whim.

I've already been circulating a list of Alternative Parenting Resources among my friends.  It's a collaborative Google Doc, and you can find it here.  If you've got recommendations, please add them!

If you want to send me your thoughts directly, you can do that by hitting reply or leaving a comment.  I'm excited to talk more about this,


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