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…

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. 

•  How were the children created? (e.g., was it a platonic co-parenting contract with technologically combined genetic material? a "normal" pregnancy after "normal" sex? something else?)
•  Who raises and cares for them?  (e.g., how many parents are there? are there non-parents who also share in the joys and responsibilities?)
•  Where do the children live?  (e.g., are they living with one parent full-time or multiple parents part-time?  with a group of parents?)
•  Where does the financial support come from?  (e.g., who takes financial responsibility for which elements of childcare, and what does that mean?)
•  What is the role of the biological parents?  (e.g., are the bio-parents also the primary parents, or not?  if they aren't, then what is their relationship to the child?)
•  What are the relationships between parental figures?  (e.g., are they married?  unmarried?  are they lovers?  are they avoiding a sexual relationship?)  
•  What are the legal status and relationships of the people involved?  What are the social status and relationships of the people involved?  (e.g., who's listed on any relevant legal paperwork?  who is related to the child in the eyes of the State?  in the eyes of the grandparents?  in the eyes of friends?)

What’s Next for This Newsletter

Now that I've explained at great length how I'm thinking about all of this, here are some ideas about where to take this next:

- If you know someone who's creating media or resources relevant to alternative parenting, please connect them to me!
 Let's get all this stuff in one place!!  

- Field Trip Notes:
I'm starting to take field trips to relevant places, and I'll send out notes if it seems worthwhile after the field trips. 

- Interviews with Alt Parenting Badasses: I'm starting to meet a lot of awesome people doing relevant work, and I'll be interviewing them to share more about the work they're doing.  For instance, I recently met Dr. Eli Sheff, who has spent decades studying poly families (therefore, she is also studying co-parenting and cohousing with kids, as a lot of long-term poly families have been engaging in that).  Similarly, I recently got connected to Andy Izenson, a lawyer with Diana Adams Law & Mediation out in NYC, who specializes in legal help for alternative families.  And I recently attended a co-parenting mixer with the Bay Area nonprofit Our Family Coalition, which has been advancing the interests of LGBTQ families for over two decades.  I will totally learn from all these folks, and tell you all about it.  

If you have thoughts, feedback, or ideas for me, please feel free to let me know — lydia dot laurenson at gmail dot com.  Until next time,