by Jenna Brown
For most of human history, people have parented and raised their families collaboratively. It wasn’t until recently – the mid-19th century – that families started to be recognizable as what most westerners now think of as “normal.” That is to say, centered around a monogamous marriage, typically between a “mom” and a “dad,” who will usually raise children with little-to-no community support. This model works for some, mostly works for many, and doesn’t work at all for many more. Divorce rates are high, especially in the first few years after having a child. Many parents feel exhausted, depleted, and spread too thin. The demands of parenting – heck, the demands of being human – are unrealistic for most people to take on alone or with just one supporting partner. As people choose to shift away from this model, the visibility of families who take a different approach increases, and we see more people who decide to parent with multiple partners, co-parents, or in community with others. If you are ready and willing to welcome these families into your birth work practice, here are five places to start.
Check Your Assumptions
You may have moved past heteronormativity and cisnormativity, but what assumptions might you still make about the family structure and relationships of your clients’? The assumption that those building families are in monogamous relationships – and plan to parent in those dyads – is problematic for a number of reasons. It may lead to gaps in care around sexual health history. It does not leave space for single parents. And, it does not leave space for families with more than two co-parents. There are many reasons why someone you are serving may want more than one other co-parent involved in their care relationship with you, and so it is also important not to assume why that might be, should you find yourself working with a family that includes more than two parents. While polyamory or ethical non-monogamy may be a part of the picture for some clients with multiple partners, others may have platonic ties as co-parents. It is also crucial not to assume that any or all of your clients will disclose their relationships to you right away, or at all. So how do you navigate these waters as a birth worker?
Ask the Right Questions, and Leave Space for the Answers
Consider your process for capturing information about new clients. Think about what your first conversation or consultation is like. It may be that you don’t ask anything about partners or co-parents during an initial consult – I would strongly encourage you to do so. Not only, but especially for those making intentional and non-normative choices around partnership and/or parenthood, finding a provider who supports their entire family can be incredibly affirming. So then, how do you ask the “right” question about partnership(s)? Well, there is no one-size-fits all, but a good rule of thumb is to be direct, specific, and open-ended. “Who all, if anyone, will be parenting with you?” or, “Do you have any co-parents or partners who will be supporting you through pregnancy?” and explain why you are asking these kinds of questions, “in order to best support you and your family, it is helpful for me to have a clear picture of who is an important part of your life right now.” If you need to ask follow up questions, take the same approach – be direct and explain why you are asking. This also helps you hold yourself accountable for not asking questions simply out of curiosity. It is possible that your initial intake (or at least some of it) may be analog or digital, rather than verbal. Make sure that any forms you use have an open space for parents’ names, pronouns, and parental names, rather than listing parent 1/parent 2, or only having a space for “partner.” If you are limited by a form created by your electronic records management system, make sure that you provide supplementary space for people to adjust anything that the ERM may fall short on, including, but not limited to, information about parents and partners.
Have Open Conversation About Involvement
Ask your clients how much – and in what ways – they would like their co-parents or partners involved in their care. There may be some parents or partners who are most supportive in particular ways, or that have expectations when it comes to their inclusion at particular steps through the childbearing year. Some members of the family may not be involved much at all, or only involved once the baby arrives. You will not know unless you ask. It is likely that when you open up these conversations, you will learn more about your client, their family, their needs, and their values. If there are any limitations in your practice around the number of people you are comfortable having involved, be as transparent and upfront about those hesitations or boundaries as you can. As you explore these conversations, you and your client also have an opportunity to confirm whether you are a good fit to work together.
Be Aware of Barriers
There may be additional barriers for the families you serve with more than two co-parents. It is important that you familiarize yourself with what those barriers may be in your local area or larger region, not necessarily so that you can counsel your clients on them, but so that you are not ignorant to the potential additional stress that these barriers may cause. For instance, in many places it is not possible to list more than two people as parents on a birth certificate, and third(+) parent adoption may be difficult or impossible. Legal, government-recognized parenthood has significant benefits and implications for the overall security of a family and the children within that family. In addition to these kinds of legal barriers, cultural barriers and misunderstandings will confront families with more than two co-parents on a regular basis, until this family structure becomes normalized. As with any marginalized population, it is crucial to be mindful of the ways in which these parents and families may face discrimination, and adapt your care relationship accordingly.
Examine Your Own Bias
Take time to sit with and unpack your gut reactions to the idea of supporting a family with multiple co-parents – especially, but not only, if this situation arises in the context of polyamory or non-monogamy. These kinds of relationships are often misunderstood and fetishized. If your client has more than one partner supporting them as they move through pregnancy and into parenthood, it has nothing to do with their sex life. The conscious, intentional choice to co-parent is not sexual (even if the partnership involves physical intimacy), but rather, ethical. I see so much beauty in families like these, who often have agreed to make honesty and communication keystones of their relationships. They choose to co-parent in order to provide greater connection and support for their child or children. A greater number of co-parents serves the entire family by creating more shared responsibility and sustainability, which helps to effectively subvert the martyrdom and burnout of parenthood. It can significantly reduce financial strains. Whether their co-parenting relationships are romantic or platonic, the parents that you serve who have larger immediate family groups, are more likely to have their needs met, and thrive. Their children are going to have the opportunity to build trusting attachments with more loving caregivers, and grow up learning from and interacting with multiple adults in their immediate family, who are likely to instill in them values like honesty, communication, autonomy, and compersion. Instead of being judgemental of a family that may look different from what you are used to, think about the beauty that can come from subverting that norm.
Jenna Brown, founder of Love Over Fear Wellness and Birth, is a trans non-binary full-spectrum doula and educator, who sees their queer identity and its related experiences as strengths in their work, as they are practiced in transition, discomfort, self-awareness, and community-building. Their approach is to center the needs of each individual that they work with, and help them establish autonomy as their sense of self may shift through the full-spectrum of reproductive experiences. In addition to working with clients locally in Austin, Texas, and remotely online, Jenna has self-published Queer + Pregnant: A Pregnancy Journal, released an inclusive mindful movement video series called Breathe Easy, and runs a virtual support group for QT folks who are preconception, pregnant, or new parents. You can follow Jenna @loveoverfearwellness on Instagram, or visit loveoverfearwellness.com to learn more!