“The Kids Are All Right” and the Obligation of “Third-Party Parents”

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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20 Responses

  1. RTod says:

    It seems to me that the biological parent has no obligations down the road if that was the original arrangement. The family that raises the child are the “real” parents.

    The question for me, to what degree do I have this view because I read Horton Hatches An Egg so many times as a kid?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to RTod says:

      And if I clarified that I wasn’t talking about obligation in the sense of, “Raise and clothe,” or, “Pay for college,” but something a little more nebulous, that, at the very least, this stranger to the children should simply have a relationship to them that is, immediately, more than that of a stranger? Or, fine, on a contractual level he’s not obligated toward them, but is there any other (prior?) level on which he might be?

      In my notes from this morning, well before I wrote the post, I have “obligated toward” consistently rather than the “obligations” of the post — the former is what I meant, but the latter, while carrying a few more connotations I’d rather not be there, worked syntactically where I couldn’t get the other to do so. Again, not sure if this alters anything, but I felt like I should clarify it anyway.Report

      • RTod in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        This may well be a cop-out answer, but I think the movie as you describe it seems to get it right. The parties get to decide what obligations exist. If this is to become an emerging trend I think that I can easily see parties on different sides deciding a universal moral answer for this type of question, and that makes me uncomfortable.

        In this case the father was able to make his case for being included in the family, and the family decided that he simply was not part of their family. (The plot line you note, where the father attempts to gain entry to the family by breaking them up to allow space, makes this seem like the right decision.) That feels just about right to me, as it would have had the family made a different decision.Report

        • tom van dyke in reply to RTod says:

          It’s only a movie. That said, we have made a joke and an untangleable spaghetti of all this. Parenthood, like marriage, must be first seen as a legal convention. If there were no such thing as children, then the state would have no compelling interest in marriage.

          “Love and marriage,” eh. Add in the baby carriage and by convention, they are inseparable. The state’s only compelling interest in marriage is that one type of sex, sexual intercourse [and you know what is meant by that], makes babies. The state has a compelling interest to encourage and defend a non-state institution to raise the babies on its own and turn them into productive citizens and taxpayers with a minimum of state intervention.

          Biological fatherhood is only relevant outside the legal convention of marriage. Knock a single girl up, you’ve to pay.

          Otherwise, piss off. Yr DNA has no legal standing.

          And to those poor deceived legal fathers who try to slip the noose by arguing it ain’t their child—too fishing bad. You have legal standing. It’s your child, not “his.”

          Some say that males get a pass in this whole baby-making equation. I don’t think so!Report

          • RTod in reply to tom van dyke says:

            “Some say that males get a pass in this whole baby-making equation. I don’t think so!”

            Actually, I think most men are pretty on board with having a role on the baby-making part. It’s usually the baby-raising side where disagreements occur.Report

    • Jonathan in reply to RTod says:

      RTod, the biological parent made no arrangement with the children. I don’t think you can wave away the possible obligations between Paul and the kids by referencing a deal between Paul and the mothers (or two deals, one between Paul and the sperm bank and one between the mother and the sperm bank, or doctor, or whatever).Report

      • RTod in reply to Jonathan says:

        Oh, I don’t know that he doesn’t have some kind of obligation to the children – assuming that the children wish him to have one.

        My initial comment was more along the plot line of the movie described here (I have not seen it): Say my wife and I had adopted children, or for whatever reason had gotten a sperm donor, and that biological father appeared in our life a decade or two later with ideas of how he should be integrated into our family. There might be all kinds of reasons why he might choose to feel obligated to ask us to do so, but I would maintain that my wife, my family and I should have the ultimate say in whether or not he gets to, and if so to what extent.

        Again, I suspect this is somewhat influenced by Dr. Suess.Report

  2. Mike Schilling says:

    Haven’t seen it, but I’ll guarantee you it’s at most the second-best film of that name.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      The title is part of a undercurrent of musical references — my favorite, which will of course ruin it, is that at the dinner party at which the affair is exposed, Nic flips through Paul’s records, and discovers, in sequence, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS and BLUE. (She pulls the latter out to examine it.) At this point, I knew precisely what would be set in motion at dinner.Report

    • RTod in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Now that you mention it, I think the marketing people of the movie missed an opportunity: Having the movie poster be Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo sleeping against a wall covered in the Union Jack would have been genius.Report

  3. Boegiboe says:

    I agree pretty much with RTod on this one. The emotional navigation involved in adopting a child and personally knowing the biological, but no longer legal, parent is something with which Jason and I are well familiar.

    Our daughter’s biological mother did give her and us something that it would appear never occurred to Paul to give (though I didn’t see the movie–he might have and you didn’t mention it): A full and honest account of her health history. I reveal nothing about that particular history here in saying the knowledge has the potential to be quite helpful in raising our daughter and in her continuing management of her own health after she is grown.

    Paul was probably asked those sorts of questions when he donated his sperm, but an update to the kids’ parents would be helpful. To sum up: He donated his DNA, and the legal parents lacking a way of determining exactly what that DNA has done for him, he potentially has some small obligation to fill in whatever gaps in that knowledge that he can.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Boegiboe says:

      I’d second all of this, and add that I find straight people’s mystification of their DNA bizarre and embarrassing. If you do the work, you are the parent. If you don’t, you aren’t.Report

      • North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Thirded. The parent/s is/are the person/s who raised the kid.Report

      • RTod in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        “I find straight people’s mystification of their DNA bizarre and embarrassing.”

        Being a straight-y I find this really embarrassing, but I suspect the mystification of the DNA is just an attempt at “scientific” justification to keeping you guys out in the cold.

        Funny thing, but a lot people I see using this argument are the same ones that insist we shouldn’t teach the science that surrounds DNA in public schools. (Or if we do, we should make sure we teach the “controversy.”)Report

  4. Alanmt says:

    A tough question, and one that I am interested in, as boegi and jason are.

    Our daughter’s biomom and her husband and kids are close friends of our family, and we decided to informally adopt them. So biomom is aunty, her husband uncle, and their kids cousins. It’s early days, but for the first almost two years, it has worked great. This “third-party parent” gave us the greatest gift ever. As an accommodation and small gesture of gratitude, we have given her a nonparent way to channel love and guidance to our child, to see her grow and be a part of her life. But we don’t see her as having any sort of obligation, other than in providing medical history, to the raising of our daughter. She did pump breastmilk for us, which was great, but we didn’t consider it a duty owed.

    As to obligations running the other way, we will broach that someday. I think there is an obligation of gratitude from our daughter to her, at the very least. Their family was full; they intended to have no further children. But their gift to us was also a gift to our daughter, of life and being and, although it may not be humble to say it, of a pretty good life with a pretty good family. As we are blessed, so is our little one.Report

  5. Dan O. says:

    Hi, I’m late to this, but this seems to me a case of Bernard William’s idea of moral luck.

    Moral luck arises in cases where a person’s action is part of a necessary causal sequence to an event that has moral significance, where we would not consider that person to be morally responsible for the action.

    Consider driving in the dark along a car-lined street with limited visibility at low speed. Suppose a child runs out from between cars right in front of your car. Despite your 20 mph speed, you can not react, you hit the child who subsequently dies. (The possibility of this scenario actually haunts me as a Brooklyn driver and parent.) Here’s two conclusions we’d intuitively draw: (i) the driver is not responsible for the death, in any sense of moral responsibility, and (ii) were the driver not to show contrition, grief, and reach out to the family of the dead child, etc., we would find the driver somehow emotionally or morally defective. We have expectations for the driver’s behavior regardless of actual moral responsibility.

    The “father” in this case is causally necessary in a sequence that produced these children. It’s obvious he has no moral responsibility to provide or in any way have a relationship with his genetic descendants. It’s also obvious that we’d evaluate his response to his genetic descendants differently than a response from someone who had nothing at all to do with the children.

    Suppose the offspring have a legitimate need, and go to their genetic “father” for help. Assuming the request was well within his power to provide, were he to summarily rebuff them, we’d consider him somehow short of feeling or compassion. We would not judge a person who had no causal involvement similarly.

    Basically, I think we should try to separate out intuitions that relate to cases of moral luck generally from intuitions regarding what we owe to people with whom we have relationships.

    Our emotions, motivations, and compassion do not necessarily conform to reasonable judgments about moral responsibility and obligation. And one can’t expect that they will, even on reflection.

    Basically, we can’t take a feeling of obligation as solid evidence for the existence of actual moral obligation. What’s more interesting is why we tend to think that people who feel obligations, even when they don’t have any, are somehow responding appropriately.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Dan O. says:

      Interesting. I wasn’t familiar with the idea of a moral luck theory (though, I suppose, I was aware of scenarios like the one you outlined; my fear is less children than cyclists at night). I don’t know that I’m as ready to dismiss the validity of a “sensed” obligation as you are, but you’ve given me a line of thought I should look into, re: these questions.Report

  6. Dan O. says:

    When you said this:
    “And if I clarified that I wasn’t talking about obligation in the sense of, “Raise and clothe,” or, “Pay for college,” but something a little more nebulous, that, at the very least, this stranger to the children should simply have a relationship to them that is, immediately, more than that of a stranger? Or, fine, on a contractual level he’s not obligated toward them, but is there any other (prior?) level on which he might be?”

    I thought that sounded exactly like the kind of response I expect in a case of moral luck. We wouldn’t expect the driver to pay damages to the family. But we’d find it troubling were they to refuse to attend the funeral, or hear the parents’ grief. There’s something deeply human about that.

    Another way of saying this is that there’s (much) more to being human (and having human relationships) than merely being moral.Report

  7. Rufus F. says:

    It’s an interesting question. I’d have to say I don’t think the donor has an obligation in my opinion simply because I don’t think I’d begrudge a sperm/egg donor who didn’t want a relationship with his or her offspring.Report