Experiences building a family without your primary partner?
April 25, 2024 2:39 AM   Subscribe

Do you have experiences that you would care to share of creating a family where your romantic partner (or at least your primary partner) was not a co-parent, or at least not a major one? My partner and I disagree on the kids question, but we're curious about other models than the nuclear families we grew up in. Lots of details beyond the jump.

I am currently two years or so into the best relationship I've been in. I love my partner, and I have never felt so safe and comfortable in a relationship. I feel like we communicate very well, and do things to proactively encourage honest communication, like practice drawing boundaries and saying no. We share a lot of values, interests, and visions for how we want to live together (we are currently long distance, though we've had a long stretch of joyful cohabitation).

However, we are facing a pretty enormous hitch. I want to have kids, probably within the next five years or so, and told her that this was likely a necessity for me. I recently was lucky enough to finally get a job that I think will give me some of the resources I need (time, money, stability) to be parent. She was initially uncertain of her feelings around this, but earlier this week told me that she is probably a no, although she has since said she needs more time to think about it again. I'll include her thoughts here not because anyone needs a justification for being childfree, but just because it helps in thinking through what alternative outcomes might be good for us.

She has been waiting her whole life to have some time for herself, in which to try to find something in life that feels like her own pusuit - a career, or a passion - and feels like she is finally just beginning to get this time. She also does not want to undergo the life-overtaking amount of effort being a parent would entail, and is uncomfortable with the concept of nuclear families and the societal/gendered expectations around motherhood. She does enjoy being around children, and if she was around other people raising children would be pretty happy, and might even want to contribute herself, albeit on a smaller scale than the full "parenthood" as she conceives of it. She said her mind might change in a decade, but she has no way to know that now.

The question - we discussed another possibility, which is that we could have an alternative family structure. For example, I could find another person or people to be co-parents, either friends or other romantic partners (we are not poly, but have discussed the possibility of being so at some point). My partner and I are cautiously optimistic about this option. Another possibility was to live as part of a larger community of co-parents (my partner and I met in a co-operative community, so we have both some fondness for them and some awareness of how difficult they can be). I think we agree that any situation we would want to bring a child into would have to be a relatively stable one that we were both comfortable with - it would have to make sense in its own right.

My question is whether any of you folks have had experience with building non-traditional families in this way. My partner and I are both only children, who have pretty strained and physically distant relationships with our parents, so I'm especially interested in cases where people have built families with friends or other romantic partners as opposed to extended family - though I am interested in those cases as well. I'm also open to just general thoughts on our situation. Thank you for your thoughts, AskMeFis!
posted by nightcoast to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm stepdad to three awesome humans. They are all in their 20s now, and I arrived in this picture 17 years ago. Their biological parents (a woman and a man) were themselves married for a long time before their dad came out of the closet first came out to himself, then to me (another man), and then to the rest of the people in this scenario. As a consequence, and omitting a lot of subsequent procedural details, these kids grew up with four parents in two households (mom + stepdad; dad + stepdad). I only mention all this to give you context on my response.

Co-parenting is cool, but it is also almost impossible to imagine it as anything other than the primary sink of your time and resource (internal and external) for a very long time. Adult relationships can and do change, but the parent-child one is harder to experiment with. I don't just mean in terms of the white knuckled intensity and volume of the experience for everyone involved—the legal bounds are real and almost universally proscriptive on several fronts, primarily financial. It's important for you two to have the discussion at this practical level while you're thinking about it.

As I see it, you're either willing to take on a binding, long-term (financial) share in raising kids, or... you're not willing to do that. That latter category, then, is helpful and supportive but not quire what would be considered a legal parent or guardian. WHere on this spectrum do you and your partner want to be? Very few co-parenting scenarios are going to blend the two roles very much (because, I'd ventured, no one in a position of legal/financial stewardship is going to want to invite in another person to that legal/financial role who isn't aware of and interested in that legal/financial investment). So maybe what you're thinking about is how to support other friends with families by being more explicit about wanting to be something like a "godparent" or someone who is happy to socialize with them with their kids involved, or to be a reliable emergency carer or contact who wants to be a more literal support than most people want. That can be a bigger role than you might imagine (in real terms, going through the paperwork to be able to pick up another person's kid from their school, for instance, can involve a background check, paperwork, etc. depending on where you live).

It is harder to imagine a modern approach that keeps your adult relationship primary if you are intent on being a primary parent yourself (whether you want to have a child or adopt a child) and your partner wants to stay on the outside of that experience to some extent. That's not a revolutionary concept in need of defining. That's single parenting, with partners who can come and go. It's equally legitimate, and common, and doesn't require inventing a new family structure. No matter what layers of social integration you add to the mix, what it comes down to is one parent with legal guardianship and one parent without, regardless of how invovled or present they are in the life of the developing family.

In the four-parent situation I have been a part of, (mom + stepdad) never married and (dad + stepdad) did. Primary legal guardianship remained with the biological parents, and the two stepdads took on various types of establishing leegal rights to guardianship (i.e. making it possible for us to make decisions about medical care and so on if the biological parents were not able to be consulted for any reason). This included making provisions that legally established guardianship in the event the biological parents were to die while the kids were still minors. This process was a lot of work. Dealing with school personnel always sucked. There were scenarios along the way that no one ever imagined possible that created practical/emotional/legal/etc. nightmares that were expensive, time-consuming, and downright demoralizing to address. And yet, I cannot imagine how much worse ths stress would have been compounded by just winging it because, in any dispute that hasn't been handled through appropriate legal considerations will default to biological parents in almost any circumstances.

This is all a long-winded way of saying: consider the family law wherever you live. No matter how you informally decide to move forward, there will be a formal, binding legal interpretation that will collapse your approach to a predictable set of court-acknowledged family responsibility structures.

I wish you good luck. Having these kids in my life has been an amazing, indescribable source of fulfillment and challenge in my life. 10/10. Would do again.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:32 AM on April 25 [31 favorites]

Best answer: This is more for her to think through, but: how much of your focused attention does she like having? Would she be happy in a situation where [using the word relationship broadly] your primary relationship is your kids/parenting and she is more of a secondary?

I know people who really like having time to themselves for their own stuff and actively enjoy being a secondary romantic partner to someone even if they themselves don't have a primary romantic partner [maybe functionally their job or their kids are primary or they themselves are sort of their own primary]. I also know people for whom that is never going to feel good.

I had a friend in a different state who I often thought I'd want to date very seriously if we lived closer. This person had kids as a single parent. Then I spent several days with them, during which we hooked up, and it was really nice! But also, their kids were their primary focus and would have been even if we'd lived in the same town and been dating, and I realized that wouldn't work for me. In my case I think it might have worked if I had started dating this person before they had kids, if we'd had time to focus more on each other and then jointly turned our focus to parenting kids together, but that is not quite your partner's situation.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:01 AM on April 25 [4 favorites]

Mod note: One comment removed. Please kind in mind the question is about alternative family structures and not whether they should continue the relationship, so if you're wanting to help the OP, focus on what they asked for, thanks!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:02 AM on April 25 [3 favorites]

Best answer: One thing that worries me is right in the title of your question, "building a family without your primary partner," which to me suggests that your "primary partner" and your "family" are two separate entities, and that's at a minimum an incredibly difficult tightrope to walk.

In my observation, alternative family structures seem to work best when all the adults involved actively take on *more* responsibility. I personally know families where two sisters or friends are raising kids together and families where two same-sex couples are raising kids together. It does not seem to be sustainable to have one adult who "opts out" and another who promises not to bother them.

Would you really be OK with your partner not helping you out with childcare-related tasks and responsibilities and/or providing emotional and financial support that allows you to take care of your child(ren)? Would your partner really be OK with the demands on your time and attention that children (and any potential coparents) make, and would she still feel like your relationship with her is primary? Some of this is negotiable but you're talking about taking on a 20+ year project, and it's not realistic that you would be able to completely insulate your partner from the impact.

These are really hard decisions! For what it's worth, when I met my husband I (a cis woman) was 35 and wanted kids (although as I saw more of my friends and family struggling with parenting I was wavering), and he was open to having kids (almost certainly we would have had kids if I had pushed for it) but he was also super work-focused and had zero knowledge of kids or parenting. I decided I wanted to be with him but I didn't want to have kids with him, so we didn't have any kids. No regrets.
posted by mskyle at 5:27 AM on April 25 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Plenty of people have children and also partners who are not parents or step-parents, but in all the versions I can think of the children are a bit older (say at least 8) and the two adults do not live together. I think having an entirely separate space that the childfree person inhabits is probably important to making this work because children have a habit of taking over whichever spaces they have access to.

For that reason, I think the tricky bit is the first bit - say at least the first 5 years. But also because it's first, you can more easily guess how it might look in practice. How much childcare would you need to find so that your partner can actually have a relationship with you. And then where would that come from. If, for example you have serious amounts of money to throw at the problem, you could get a live-in nanny who would babysit for you 1 night a week. So you have date night, and then whatever time your partner is willing to spend with the child.
posted by plonkee at 8:04 AM on April 25 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Your headline was “Experiences building a family without your primary partner?”, so I’m answering this question. My daughter and I are a family, her father is now dead. I don’t have room in my life for another relationship.

My parents were disappointing grandparents and there are no cousins on my side, so his family became my family. Now that my daughter is older (17) I have the time for a relationship but I don’t want or need new in-laws. Do not underestimate the power of the extended family. If your prospective coparent has a large or involved family and you don’t, there will be a massive power imbalance. That family might host all of your major holidays and become the social fabric of your life, absent sufficient counter forces. Would your partner even be welcome?

I don’t have experience with intentional communities, so maybe this is a dynamic that can be engineered around. I will say that even if all participants in the co-parenting and partnering relationship are intentional, extended families and wider communities are not. It takes energy to swim upstream and do something new and different for family structure, and energy is in short supply in early childhood. I see a very real risk of relationships not surviving.
posted by shock muppet at 8:22 AM on April 25 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Look up living-apart-together relationships. If your partner is sure they do not want a baby interfering with their life, that's how you will want to arrange things. It's impossible to be cohabiting partners and yet keep one partner completely unaffected by the other partner's new baby - it just doesn't work that way. Your partner can't possibly share a bedroom with you and not be affected by the number of times you will need to get up at night to feed and change the baby, for example. Your partner is going to need their own separate home.

Once that's established, the central aspect to think through is how your relationship will be affected by pregnancy, childbirth, infant care, and toddler-care. For the first year or so, you will have *nothing* of yourself to give to your partner, because having a baby and keeping it alive through that first year is an utterly consuming task. And then for the next 3-4 years, until the child is about 4 or 5 years old, you will be preoccupied, exhausted, and quite unavailable to your partner unless they are willing to hang out with your child 95% of the time. Will your relationship survive four to five whole years of this? Will you be fine with living apart from your partner and still being romantically involved with them (.... sporadically) for all this time? Will your partner be okay with this arrangement? Does that lifestyle work for both of you? It might, if your partner is very independent and has very few needs, and if you too are very independent with few needs from your partner.

Otherwise your best case scenario is if you find a co-parent who shares custody of the child with you, leaving you free to live your life every other week or whatever - but that is quite an unlikely scenario, isn't it? To find someone who wants to co-parent with you but not share a life with you, to find someone whose values you align with closely enough that you're willing to trust them with half the raising of your child and yet to not even TRY being life partners... whew! Maybe that can work in cases where you're best friends with someone whose sexual orientation precludes them from being involved with you. But it will likely take you a long time to find someone and become such intimate best friends with them that you can both be co-parents. Do you possibly have someone in mind already? That might make this plan a lot more feasible...

Also, co-parenting with your BFF will be complicated even under the best of circumstances. You WILL need legal boundaries from the get-go (even if you are BFFs) and then you will need to work your butt off to maintain a deeply trusting, friendly, and logistically sound relationship for shared custody to work out. So you would need to be up to the task of trying to establish a super intimate and trusting yet intensely boundaried relationship with someone... a relationship that involves money and fair allocation thereof, mind... while also trying to maintain a close and flourishing living-together-apart relationship with your current partner. This endeavor will require a lot of thought and preparation and possibly ongoing coaching from someone like a family therapist to make it work.
posted by MiraK at 8:35 AM on April 25 [10 favorites]

Best answer: shock muppet is absolutely right. Unless your extended families are very unusual, they will want more involvement with a newly existing biological grandchild/niece/nephew/whatever. Even if you haven't talked to then in 10 years. Even if you think they won't. I drastically underestimated the extent to which in laws would meddle when they knew they had new kin. Legal relationships won't mean shit to some people over "blood." (Most people are like this, honestly.) I don't know if you are a man or a woman, but who the kid is biologically related to is shockingly important these days to society at large, extended families, CPS, etc. In fact I think we are moving away from a legal rights/adoption friendly world and are in peak "bio everything" world right now.

So whoever is biologically related to the kid will almost certainly meddle and almost certainly be encouraged by the entire world and legal system to meddle unless there are like iron-clad barriers in place to prevent that and/or they are truly, deeply estranged.
posted by stockpuppet at 10:29 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can offer an experience from the child’s perspective: my parents divorced, and my mother’s boyfriend moved in. He did not want to be a stepdad, and they took no steps to integrate him into my or my sister’s life, as a parent figure or anything else. In some ways, this was great - he would not have gotten the job based on his qualifications and attitude. But living 24/7 with a person that does not want any relationship with you as a kid, navigating feelings about a person who splits away your primary parent’s love and attention with no help from your parent or that person, was damaging in the extreme.

If you do have kids, your primary partner *will* have a relationship with them, because *you* have a relationship with your primary partner. I encourage you both to talk through what your kids’ relationship with your primary might look like in the different permutations you consider.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:30 AM on April 25 [38 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have experience with this and I'm just some spitballing internet rando so take what I say with a huge grain of salt.

If you want to have a kid, and she doesn't, here are some options:

Single parenthood:
-adopt a kid on your own

-find someone who wants to have a child with you platonically; live together or apart
-find a lesbian couple who wants a child and work out your co-parent relationship with them; live together or apart

-find someone to have a baby and romantic relationship with; live together or apart

In all cases you'll have to consider what happens to the relationship with your current partner and whether you'll live with her if you have a baby. Generally, what are the relationships to your potential co-parents, and the living arrangements for everyone involved? (You and kid, you and co-parents and kid, you and partner) Also think about what you want legally and whether your jurisdiction's laws allow that.

Here are a few stories about non-nuclear families. Notice the mention of the legal framework and how that changed.





One story also mentions Modamily and Family By Design - those are still active.
posted by foxjacket at 11:21 AM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Best answer: > Do not underestimate the power of the extended family. If your prospective coparent has a large or involved family and you don’t, there will be a massive power imbalance. That family might host all of your major holidays and become the social fabric of your life, absent sufficient counter forces.

> whoever is biologically related to the kid will almost certainly meddle and almost certainly be encouraged by the entire world and legal system to meddle unless there are like iron-clad barriers in place to prevent that

I want to highlight these concerns, and also offer a reframe without undercutting/contradicting them. Please read this as a both/and situation, I am not arguing against these folks but rather adding to their point.

The co-parent's extended family matters a lot, as they have said. What this means for you in the planning stages is that choosing a co-parent is that much more work. Now you not only have to evaluate the person who will be your coparent, but you also have to evaluate their family circumstances. However, I would caution you not to automatically balk at the existence of an interested extended family, not to view them with automatic suspicion because they will necessarily overpower your rights over your child, not to assume that they will meddle - and that this medding is to be feared.

Ideally you WANT to have extended family who are interested in your child. Family is important. Blood family is just as important as found family - and so to take a stance where you are automatically suspicious and wary of blood family is to throw away what is usually a gift to your child. Even when extended family are not exactly the people you'd pick as found family, even when they drive you up the wall with their meddlesome ways, they are usually a gift to your child. Weave your child into the fabric of kith and kin so that your child can be held tight.

So I'd urge you to keep in mind that this extended family business is going to be extra work for you - and yet it is also something to be approached with hope and openness... until and unless they prove to be dangerous assholes, it's best to think of them as wonderful sources of community for your child.
posted by MiraK at 12:10 PM on April 25 [1 favorite]

Best answer: living 24/7 with a person that does not want any relationship with you as a kid, navigating feelings about a person who splits away your primary parent’s love and attention with no help from your parent or that person, was damaging in the extreme.

So, I can come at this from two positions. I'm going to start with the hard and move to the hopeful. First, I am currently effectively a stepparent, which means I'm getting to have a lot of conversations with my stepkids about how they feel about things, and I have actually gotten to hear a lot of resentments against their dad's previous girlfriends who didn't take on parenting roles. Even when the living together wasn't 24/7 - essentially, any cohabitation while maintaining emotional or logistical distance triggered a lot of unhappiness and deep resentment that continued years after the relationship ended. They were less irritated with what they saw as more 'temporary' or 'unserious' relationships, because those weren't expected to involve them. But there was a lot of judgment and negativity about the partners of their dad who had not previously 'stepped up' to be a parent. I think, as a parent myself, that it would be really difficult not to let those impressions affect your perceptions if it was part of an ongoing relationship.

More hopefully, I was in a long distance longterm relationship that I was very happy with while a single parent of a young child who literally never even saw my partner due to the distance; it worked out pretty well and there was no resentment. The distance made it feel more okay to my kid that they weren't engaged with the partner - it didn't feel like a personal rejection, just kind of a 'well distance works that way' sort of thing. However, I only saw my partner about once every two months; I'm not sure if that is something you can be okay with for extended periods of time.

I don't actually think you can maintain a coparent relationship with someone else while still having this person as your primary partner; I think that places someone else too much at the center of your emotional life. However, I also wonder if you being a single parent for the first few years would 'set' you as the 'default parent' in such a way that some of the gendered expectations around childrearing would not kick in for your partner, and I would consider having a conversation about whether she thinks she would be willing to parent if she were coming to it late and explicitly not as the 'default parent'.
posted by corb at 2:40 AM on April 26

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the thoughtfulness of your responses, and for being willing to share your experiences and perspectives. After absorbing what you've said, it feels hard to imagine that I would be able to both be a new parent and an available and present primary partner to someone else. Caring for a child, especially a new one, is such an all-encompassing activity that the most significant relationship(s) I have, besides the one with child, will probably be with whoever else I am co-parenting with, at least initially.

I think needs more cowbell's question is therefore pretty important - would she be OK being a pretty secondary part of my life? And as rrrrrrrrrt and corb point out, wouldn't having someone who was around but did not want to parent be a pretty rough experience for the child? And even setting this aside, as MiraK points out, finding some sort of platonic co-parent who just happens to want this sort of arrangement and would be a good fit would be a big leap. I am moved by the examples from the first article in foxjacket (and will check out the Modamily app), but this is all making me wonder if it is in fact just too difficult (without even getting into the thorny legal issues late afternoon dreaming hotel brought up) to hold on to both of these things, the relationship and the goal of parenthood. I will think some more about this, but I feel more aware of just how small a needle I'm trying to thread here. In any case, thanks again.
posted by nightcoast at 3:19 PM on April 26 [4 favorites]

One other thing to consider is that if she wants to be around you and not the child, someone needs to be taking care of the child at those times, which means either someone else you really trust needs to love the child a lot and want to take on that labour - or you need to pay someone else to care for the child, which gets expensive. Would your partner agree to pay for that childcare, in order to be able to hang out with you, solo?

And then of course, as others have said, when your child gets older, they may start to wonder (and feel bad about) why this other person keeps taking you away and only wants to see you when the child isn't present. A child might infer from this setup that there's something undesirable about themself.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:46 AM on April 28

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