Redefining the nuclear family

Redefining the nuclear family

Changes to Ontario law reflect our society’s evolving notion of parenthood

Editor's Letter: Sarah Fulford
Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Back in 2010, Jennifer Mathers McHenry had a health scare while giving birth to her first child. Her heart rate plummeted, and for a while it wasn’t clear if she was going to pull through. Her wife, Kirsti Mathers McHenry, at her side, was terrified. She was also struck by a distressing realization: if Jennifer had died in childbirth, Kirsti might not have been able to take their baby home. In the eyes of the law, she had no parental rights. The birth mother and the sperm donor could have been the only legal parents.

Jennifer survived, and their baby, a girl named Ruby, was born healthy. For Kirsti to be legally recognized as a parent, she had to hire a lawyer, get a court date and seek a declaration of parentage. When the couple had their second child, a boy named Cy, Kirsti took parental leave, but she couldn’t collect benefits until she went through a second declaration of parentage. The two applications were stressful and expensive, and felt totally unjust.

Jennifer and Kirsti are both lawyers with master’s degrees in constitutional and equality law; if anyone was equipped to change the system, it was them. As Jennifer wrote in Precedent magazine at the time: “Beware the lawyer moms when the law threatens our babies.” They enlisted the help of NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who introduced a private member’s bill called Cy and Ruby’s Act. The result of their efforts is Bill 28, the All Families Are Equal Act, which came into effect in January 2017. It was the first modification to Ontario’s parentage laws since 1978.

Kirsti and Jennifer Mathers McHenry with their kids Cy and Ruby. Photograph by Blair Francey

The changes reflect the evolution of our society’s notion of family: now, intended parents can register as legal parents before a baby is even conceived. The courts recognize “pre-conception agreements,” which means that parents—gay and straight alike—won’t have to go through the declaration process. Legal terms such as “mother” and “father” have been eliminated in favour of the gender-neutral “parent.” And significantly, the law allows for each child to have up to four legally recognized parents—regardless of how those parents are connected to each other. In other words, co-parents don’t need to be married or co-habitating or to have ever been romantically involved.

Single people who want to have kids can now connect with other prospective parents on social networks like ­Modamily and Family By Design. Lesbian couples can co-parent with the biological father of their child in a trio. Gay male couples can include the birth mom in a similar arrangement. Or three or four friends can simply decide to raise a kid together. What do some of these new arrangements look like in real life? We asked Christina ­Gonzales, a resourceful reporter and a skilled interviewer, to find out. In her piece, “Modern Family,” three families talk about how they decided to have babies together and how their lives work now. Erin Leydon, a talented photographer, vividly captured the intimacy of their domestic lives for the story.

Modern Family

One thing common to all three of the families featured: they asked each other tough questions about parenting before bringing a child into the world, and established practical and moral goals: how much they will contribute monthly to their children’s RESPs, whether the children will be raised religiously, where they plan to live. If only all parents had to have such frank conversations before procreating.

Sarah Fulford is the editor of Toronto Life. She can be found on Twitter @sarah_fulford.