The family in which I grew up was a classic. My parents were comforting and loving. My father provided for us; my mother made our meals and helped with homework; my brother and I, three years apart, were alternately competitive and affectionate. We were all clean, healthy, and industrious, and we looked cheerful and preppy in our Christmas photos. We all got along; though my mother is long gone, my father, my brother, and I remain close. We were in many ways a sliver of middle America in New York.
The family I have produced looks radical. My husband, John, whom I have been with for 15 years, married for almost 9, is the biological father of two children, Oliver and Lucy, now 15 and 12, with some lesbian friends in Minneapolis, Tammy and Laura. They live in Minneapolis, and though I have no legal connection to them, they call John and me Daddy and Papa. I have a daughter, little Blaine, now 8, with my best friend from college, likewise called Blaine; they live in Texas with big Blaine’s partner, Richard. John and I have a son, George, age 6-and-a-half, who is with us full-time in New York, of whom I am the biological father and John is the adoptive father. He was created with a donated egg; Laura served as our surrogate. That makes six parents of four children in three states. We all see one another regularly, though not always all at the same time; we go back and forth to Minnesota and Texas, and they come back and forth to New York. One way or another, we all see one another at least once every two months.
It doesn’t feel radical as we live it. We all get on, and the three romantic relationships (Tammy and Laura, Blaine and Richard, John and me) are deeply committed and loving. We all love the kids, and we all adore being parents. All six of us had parents who were steady in their affection for us and for each other (no divorces among the grandparents), and in many ways, we are similar to them. We volunteer at our children’s schools; we make them eat vegetables; we indulge in long bedtimes with many stories. Within our three households, we take them to the pediatrician; we practice spelling together; we worry about whether they are wearing scarves and gloves. We are the tooth fairy and Santa and the Easter Bunny. We get them help when we can’t help them ourselves. We hold their hands literally and metaphorically, and we try simultaneously to make them feel safe and to ready them for the toughness of the world.
Most of the time, our three households are treated like any other household. Yet there are people who think that our domestic arrangements spell the end of civilization. When we sent out birth announcements following George’s arrival, one of John’s cousins returned hers unopened with a note that began, “Your lifestyle is against our Christian values,” and ended with, “We wish to have no further contact.” I don’t mind these slings and arrows for myself; I’m 52 years old, and I’ve grown accustomed to retorts. But I hate them for our children. One of the obligations of parenthood is to protect your children, and I cannot always protect mine from the shaming they may experience because of who we are.
We volunteer at our children’s schools; we make them eat vegetables; we indulge in long bedtimes with many stories.
Parenthood is always a steep learning curve, and it was even steeper for us, given how many expectations we were defying. Still, this is the most joyful experience of my life. I’m sure I could have had a fulfilling life without children, but I couldn’t have had as good a life as I have with them. There is no equal rapture.
Here are seven things I’ve learned that have helped make it all work:
Love does not make a family. Making a family requires a lot of thought and hard work; it involves endless daily acts of caretaking; it entails reaching the point at which someone else’s interests take precedence over yours. It’s hard to do any of that without love, but love is the precondition of family, not the making of it. We have continued to focus on the question of how we ensure that our children receive all the emotional nutrition from far-flung and in some instances same-sex parents that they would have had if they had been born into so-called “normative” families.
The roles of father and mother are converging in our society at large. The mournful idea of the motherless child is being supplanted by the realization that what a child needs is at least one parent, and more often two, who focus on him or her above all. The gender of those parents is negotiable. As women work and men get more involved in childcare, some as stay-at-home dads, it becomes clear that any given aspect of parenting can be accomplished by either a man or a woman. When we once asked George whether he would prefer to have a mother and father, like most of the kids in his class, he said, “No! If my parents were a mother and a father, I wouldn’t have one of you — and that would make me so sad.”
Every parent conveys some privileges and some disadvantages. My children will have to deal with some jibes, though none so far to the best of my knowledge — but so do children of parents who are poor, who are cruel, who belong to racial minorities, who have disabilities, who are unintelligent, who are dishonest, who are inconsistent, who tend to be hypercritical, who are very religious, who are atheists. You can give to your children only what you have to give — but you can give them all of that. I sometimes feel that because my children are born to a family that is structurally different from others, we have to make particular efforts not to impose any additional challenges such as those listed above. That high-mindedness can be exhausting; more to the point, it is dishonest.
Acceptance in the larger society begins with self-acceptance. You can’t get the people around you to think your way of doing things is OK until you believe that yourself. We need to accept ourselves as gay parents and we need to teach our children self-acceptance as the children of gay parents. The friendliness of others depends on our self-esteem.
My pride shouldn’t be my children’s burden. I would love for them to be enthusiastic about how we’ve made a family, but they didn’t volunteer for this complicated arrangement. We need to be accepting of who they are, but they don’t need to validate our choices. They have not been born into a required activism.
Many hands make light work, but too many cooks can spoil the broth. It took us a while to figure out the lines of authority and decision-making. I sometimes disagree with what goes on in the other households of our setup and they doubtless disagree with some of what we do, but we have all learned when it’s important to speak up and when it’s important to defer. We place somewhat different weight on, for example, diet or schoolwork; we vary in our focus on conforming to dominant norms, on styles of dress, and on formal manners.
Things are easier when you have role models. Since we didn’t have any, we decided to become them. That has turned out to be a lot more fun than you’d think.