A Better Idea: the 3-Parent Family

May 03, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — For the past several years, I've stood here quietly, while an endless parade of Americans from every point on the political compass arrived at the same piece of common wisdom. A consensus has re-emerged -- if it ever disappeared -- that every child should be born and raised in a two-parent family.

Academics and think-tankers who normally volley and thunder have all declared themselves equally pro-family. Or at least pro the two-parent family. Any dissenters are left to mumble quietly to themselves.

Well, I am getting tired of this bit of recidivist nonsense. The two-parent family may have worked well for the Bradys and for the Fifties. But in the 1990s, the mom-and-pop child-raising business has become a dysfunctional relic.

I believe that we need a more realistic and updated solution to the problems of modern family life. So I would like to make another simple proposition: Every American child should be born and raised in a three-parent family.

Consider the advantages of the three-parent family. Today biology isn't destiny. The economy is. We all know that it takes two incomes to maintain one middle-class lifestyle. But in the collapsing, emerging, and abjectly terrifying economy, jobs are disappearing and being created with alarming speed.

The three-parent family would allow one parent to be ''between jobs'' at any time without forcing the entire family to face foreclosure or the scorn of a sales manager when their VISA card tops out.

More to the point, it would allow one of the trio to serve at any time as primary child-care giver.

The three-parent family has its own set of evolutionary or religious roots. After all, infant care is a 24-hour a day occupation. If God had meant babies to have only two parents, would He have made it a three-shift job?

Parenting is vastly more complicated now than in the old days when Adam and Eve took on the task, and look at the trouble they had raising Cain. The beauty of the three-parent family is that it would allow for the division of labor. This division goes beyond what we knew on the farm or what we see on housework lists that grace refrigerator doors.

Remember the dirty little secret of suburban parenting? The house and the yard come with a curse: the automobile. Transporting children across vast distances to school, soccer and assorted friendships is a job for someone with the skills of a chauffeur and the attitude of a teamster. With three parents, we have one Designated Driver.

Parents are also held responsible for every conceivable danger their children may encounter from asbestos in the school ceiling to drug abuse, depression and gang activity. It requires the paranoia of a censor and the intuition of a psychologist to monitor the messages on CDs, to pre-screen PG movies and to find out whether other homes in the neighborhood have MTV. In a trio, we can have one Designated Worrier.

More than anything else, what we need in family life is a resource for those moments when the system goes down, when a child gets sick or school gets canceled or when a major appliance has to be delivered. A third parent could be a Designated Emergency Back-up System.

There may be other ways to update and expand the two-parent family. But grandma and grandpa are in Florida playing golf and Mrs. Doubtfire has gone to another film.

The advantage of my proposal is that three parents can live as cheaply as two or more cheaply than two parents and one nanny. At least you don't have to pay Social Security taxes on a third parent. And a parental trio raises the likelihood that one adult will understand math homework.

Yes, I know, the two-parent family was based on the biology of reproduction. But, hey, this is the '90s. We have already divided parenthood into such new roles as sperm father and surrogate mother. Three can probably share the biological tasks. They may even offer another choice for cloning.

As for sex in a parental menage a trois, I haven't quite worked that out. But let's be honest. How many parents would give up a lover for a live-in helper? If there's trouble, we can always move to that next step on the evolutionary ladder -- the four-parent family.

In the meantime, let us not limit our imagination to the two-parent family. Remember, it's not just the quality of parents that count in family life. It's the quantity.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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