At Aeon, Laurie Shrage proposes legally enforceable contracts for parenting (“co-parenting,” as Ms. Shrage specifies):
Akin to a public marriage contract, we need an official ‘co-parenting agreement’ and associated civil status, which not only enshrines the rights and responsibilities of each parent in respect of their children, but also sets out the principles by which they relate to one another and make decisions.
Like marriage, entering and continuing a public, formal co-parenting agreement should be voluntary; parents should always be free to enter into private or informal arrangements, if they wish to do so. But without an institutionalised public option, we expose families to the risk of nightmarish conflict, especially when relationships break down.
I’m all in favor of this.1 Co-parenting agreements need not, and shouldn’t be expected to, micro-manage parenting decisions or the day-to-day division of parental labor; but they do need to recognize the responsibilities that parenthood entails.
Because marriage generally does not cover the terms of shared childrearing, public co-parenting contracts would offer a social insurance scheme for both ‘traditional’ and non-traditional families.2 An official contract would help to safeguard parents’ basic entitlements, such as the right to be involved in the lives of one’s children and to appropriate forms of child support from each co-parent. If and when cooperation among the co-parents breaks down, the existence of an agreement can guide courts or mediators in negotiating new agreements for shared parental responsibility.
I’d suggest that “the right to be involved” should be amended to “the right and responsibility to be involved”.
Ms. Shrage concludes:
The process of formalising one’s status as a parent would also encourage people to think through and communicate their expectations right from the start. When we cross the threshold to parenthood, surely it’s sensible for society to nudge parents to reflect on and discuss who will make career sacrifices to be at home with the children, how the children will divide their time if the parents have separate households, and how important decisions will be made that affect a child’s future.
We hear a lot of complaints about the supposed plague of “broken homes” and “dysfunctional families,” but we rarely hear any practical suggestions for dealing with it (aside from, “Honor your wedding vows and don’t get divorced,” which is the marital version of “Just say no” and equally ineffective). Laurie Shrage is to be commended for putting forth a practical, and practicable, idea, and I hope her idea gets wide circulation.
1 I also think that parenting classes should be mandatory for first-time parents, though I recognize the difficulty of enforcing such a mandate: Nope, you can’t take the baby home until you complete the class and pass the exam.
2 It’s certainly odd that, although traditionalists tell us that procreation is the true purpose of marriage, marriage vows traditionally don’t mention children at all.