AMSTERDAM - We all know that families today are no longer only made up of Mom and Dad and the kids. This has led the Netherlands to work on legislation that would make it possible to have more than two people as parents. Take Susanne Supheert, 25 – she has four parents.
It was more than 11 years ago on a Tuesday in December that they dropped the bomb. Susanne was 13. She came home from school to find her Dad sitting in front of his computer, her Mom leaning against the sideboard. Her parents had been married 22 years. And now her father was announcing that he was gay.
The family changed after his announcement. Her parents got divorced; Susanne’s father moved out and remarried – this time, to a man. Her mother remarried too – also to a man. So now, 12 years later, Susanne has four parents.
Families are changing as fast as society is. Parents find new partners; children are adopted by gay or lesbian couples. The father-and-mother model has in many cases become obsolete. Discussions have been underway since last October in the Netherlands to make it legally possible for more than two people to be recognized as parents. But it’s not only a legal issue – what’s at stake is the definition of parenthood, and what and who parents are.
The fact that this issue is up for debate in the Netherlands is down to one woman – Liesbeth van Tongeren, a Green Member of Parliament from The Hague. “Until know, we’ve been acting as if patchwork families didn’t exist,” says van Tongeren. Politicians and lawmakers base themselves on a family model that has long been replaced by other models. So van Tongeren called for the Ministry of Justice to look into the legalities of having more than two parents. Children in the Netherlands, as in Germany, have only two parents because parenthood is based on the notion of blood relationship. “The mother of a child is the one who gave birth to it,” says Paragraph 1591 of the German Civil Code.
That a child could grow up with two mothers is not an eventuality dealt with in either German or Dutch law. And van Tongeren wants that to change; to her, it’s a question of equal rights for hetero and homosexual couples. Even more, it’s about simplifying family life. “For lesbian parents, for example, the problems already start with small daily things such as the fact that only one mother can sign a permission slip for their child to go on a school excursion.” From there the problems go on to include taxes, insurance, and inheritance.
Not just about gay parents
However, it is not only homosexual parents who are affected by the outdated family models. The issue is also of concern in families where there is a stepparent – stepparents have fewer rights. The Dutch call patchwork families Roze Gezinnen (pink families), and by van Tongeren’s estimation some 25,000 children grow up in one. “Laws have to be adjusted to match social changes and reality, not the other way around,” she says.
It is still unclear when the draft legislation will be completed. The conversation has just started and could last moths, even years, van Tongeren says: “The issue is as sensitive as gay marriage.” It’s taken a while to even get things to this point but van Tongeren sees no reason why the debate launched in her country can’t be taken up internationally. She says she’s been surprised by positive reactions to her initiative. Once, she tweeted, when she walked into a restaurant other diners broke out in spontaneous applause.
There have of course also been critics, who mostly use the argument that it is best for children to grow up with the traditional father and mother – a concept van Tongeren equates to “prejudice.” At the end of the day, it is not a person’s gender that makes them a good parent, and three parents or more can love children as much as two can. Another argument van Tongeren says she often hears is that it’s difficult enough for two parents to agree on a way forward when there are problems and that with three or more involved it would be impossible.
Susanne Supheert knows something about the negative aspects of having more than two parents. In her case, it was strongly tied at first to her father’s homosexuality. “I was going through puberty, and I really didn’t need something like that!" But she believes it should be possible to have more than two legal parents. "No child will be the worse for it" – even if it can sometimes be difficult “because somebody is always missing. However it can also strengthen your development; you learn a lot.” Tolerance, for example.
Today Susanne works for the municipal government in The Hague. All four parents live nearby and she sees them regularly. She wouldn’t want to be separated from any of them, she says: “We’re a family."
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