Recently The Wall Street Journal published an article about a new type of online matching site. It’s not for people interested in finding their future spouse, soul mate, or next hook up. It’s for people who want a coparent, someone they can conceive and perhaps raise a child with absent any romantic entanglements or expectations for marriage. Coparenting websites like Pollentree.com and Modamily.com promise that prospective parents can skip the dating and matrimony and go straight to what they really want: finding like-minded adults to share children now. Pitched primarily at affluent singles whose biological clocks are ticking after years spent investing in their careers, these sites claim to meet a growing family-formation need in an era when many don’t want or don’t have time for love and marriage before the baby carriage.
Critics claim that this “coparenting movement”—families that start with the primary intention to raise shared children—is an affront to marriage, denies children the benefits of having coupled parents, and ignores the vast research finding that kids do best when raised by a married mom and dad. If these critiques sound familiar, they are. They are the very same concerns raised about low-income families trying to forge cooperative coparenting relationships in the aftermath of breakups or unplanned pregnancies. Poverty, unemployment, low wages, racism, and other disadvantages make it less likely that low-income parents will follow the marriage before childbearing script. Children born into poverty are much less likely to be born to married parents and more likely to experience their parents’ breakup.
It could be argued that these families, not the relatively privileged ones able to afford online services seeking coparents, are at the forefront of our society’s real coparenting movement. Middle-class families tend to experience parenting as a “package deal,” a clearly defined script that links parenthood to marriage. Yet many mothers and fathers in poverty tend to experience relationships with their children’s other parents as secondary. Dads especially see connections with moms as conduits to primary relationships with their kids. U.S. family policy does not always reflect this reality.
Addressing coparenting challenges has been a primary aim of anti-poverty policies since the federal government first funded marriage education and “responsible” fatherhood initiatives—also known as “family strengthening” policies—over two decades ago. Targeting coparenting makes a lot of sense given that low-income dads cite strained relationships with the mothers of their children as one of the biggest barriers to their involvement. Research also shows that when dads are positively involved, children benefit academically, socially, emotionally, and economically. Simply put, when moms and dads get along, coupled or not, dads are more likely to stick around, and kids do better. Policy certainly has that much right. The problem is assuming that promoting marriage and two-parent homes is an effective way to strengthen families.
Based on my research with more than 60 poor fathers of color in a government-funded responsible fatherhood program I call “DADS”, presuming that moms and dads are together romantically and want to get married can be counterproductive. Only about a third of the fathers I studied were in romantic relationships with the mothers of their children, and many of these were unsure about the future of these partnerships. Most men were not in DADS to improve their couple relationships based on package deal views of committed coparenting as a route to greater father involvement. Half even described how focusing on their relationships with mothers distracted them from their children, especially when persistent conflict over couple issues threatened to derail otherwise cooperative coparenting. They were in DADS to learn how to navigate and negotiate complex coparenting relationships with no hope for romantic reconciliation or marriage. They needed a new script that reflected their family realities.
DADS offered paid job training, a high-school completion program, and fathering and relationship skills classes. These resources gave economically vulnerable men—most of whom were persistently unemployed and struggled with the stigma of criminality—opportunities to prove to themselves and their children’s mothers that they were committed to becoming better fathers. They learned to see their children’s other parents, not as adversarial exes or potential romantic or sexual interests with whom they might reconcile, but as supportive allies equally invested in the well-being of their shared children. “Ricky,” a 22-year-old Black single father of one, told me that he learned: “When it’s just about my son, [his mom] and I talk, and everything is really good. Like she told me, ‘We got to get rid of everything you and me.’ I’m single because I got to have it be all about my son.” Worrying about the likely fighting had they gotten back together would have been a diversion from his fathering.
Other fathers described to me how DADS helped them realize that breaking up was the best way to improve their coparenting relationships. “Jeremiah,” 24, Black, and a single father who shared three children with two women, confided: “We’re a lot better now as parents that we have space from each other. I don’t get how some people, they’re not with their mate, so they don’t be with their children. They’re with somebody else and not paying attention to the kids. I would never do that. I want to be with the baby’s mother, but it’s harder being without the baby.” Like Jeremiah, many men learned through DADS that their best hope for cooperative coparenting was disentangling their romantic attachments, especially any related jealousies and hostilities, from fathering. The classes they took taught them to empathize with mothers and prioritize their shared children’s welfare over anything else. Fathers realized that what they often saw as mothers’ “gatekeeping” were well-intentioned efforts to protect and provide for kids.
Fathers’ financial constraints contributed to their coparenting challenges as much as any interpersonal conflicts and romantic quarrels. This made the school and job components of DADS just as valuable for managing coparenting challenges. Housing and food insecurity, unreliable transportation, and struggles to provide financially all compromised fathers’ abilities to be and be seen by mothers as reliable, responsible coparents. As “Christopher,” a 22-year-old Black father of one, told me: “Me and his mom have separated many times. I absolutely love her. We spend a lot of time together, but I have to float around. I don’t have a place to live right now. You just work it out with what you’ve got going on the next day. If things are going well with her, I have a place to live that day, and I get to see my son. But one time they left me, and she would not deal with me until I tried to better myself. She wouldn’t talk to me, so I went back to the streets and went to jail. I was making more money, but I realized I want to be with this woman. I agreed with her, so I came here. It’s keeping me straight.” Christopher saw DADS as his only chance to make legal money, stay out of jail, afford stable housing, get his on-again-off-again girlfriend to commit, and therefore regularly see his son.
Ricky, Jeremiah, Christopher, and their classmates saw DADS as a rare opportunity to overcome how relational and financial barriers intersected to complicate coparenting. Few of them, however, discussed plans to marry their children’s mothers in the near future. They had much more pressing family goals, including providing for themselves and their children and managing the interrelated strains of poverty and family complexity. DADS may not have gotten them any closer to the altar, but it gave them a way to prove to themselves, mothers, and others that they were capable and dedicated parents. Given that mothers’ views of fathers’ parenting abilities is highly predictive of fathers’ engagement with children, this is a huge success for any policy focused on increasing fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives. Fathers who were married or desired marriage still found support for their family-formation goals. But the more explicit focus on couples working together for the sake of children resonated for everyone in the program.
What about those critiques that prioritizing coparenting over marriage ignores research and denies children the benefits of married parents? What the research really finds is that kids do best when raised by parents and caregivers who get along, cooperate in children’s best interests, and have the resources and support to provide for all their needs. More programs like DADS that reflect how many parents prioritize bonds with children over partner relationships will go a long way in meeting the needs of families as they really are. That means accepting that many families rightly choose to forgo romance and marriage for the sake of the baby carriage. Family strengthening policies will be more effective when they do, too.