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Welcome to My Modern Family

An excerpt from Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon.

My mother didn’t want me to be gay because she thought it wouldn’t be the happiest course for me. When I was born in 1963, homosexual activity was a crime; during my childhood, it was a symptom of illness. In my adulthood, the tragic narrative my parents feared for me is no longer inevitable. I struggled for years with childlessness, and just when I reconciled myself to that sadness, I began to see its inverse hope and started to figure out how I could be fruitful and multiply. What I couldn’t know then was whether I truly wanted children, or whether I wanted to prove wrong everyone who had pitied my sexual orientation.

I had been unpopular as a child, and children continued to intimidate me. I was still afraid of being called gay by children; my secure identity resonated like an insult when spoken by a child. I was usually relieved to leave other people’s children after a few hours.

Would I feel otherwise if I had my own? My persistent dark fantasy was that I would have children and wouldn’t like them and would be stuck with them for the rest of my life.

My partner, John, already had a biological son when I met him. He and the child’s biological mother, Laura, had been colleagues, and Laura had observed him for years before she and her partner, Tammy, asked him to help them have a child. Though not especially close to them, he had agreed, and they signed legal documents in which he forswore paternal rights and they forswore claims to support. He had offered to be in the child’s life to the extent he was able, if the child and his mothers so wished, but in deference to Tammy’s position as adoptive mother, he had remained largely uninvolved. He did not immediately make a point of introducing me to Tammy and Laura, but a few months after our relationship began, we ran into them with their toddler, Oliver. Unable to comprehend “donor dad”, Oliver called John “donut dad”, which made everybody laugh. But then who was I? Eighteen months later, they asked John to be their donor again, and Laura subsequently gave birth to Lucy. I was wary of John’s connection to this family, and also fascinated. John had fathered children, and I looked at them for clues to who he really was.

I had been considering the possibility of having my own biological children for some years. In 1999, during a business trip to Texas, I attended a dinner that included my college friend Blaine. Blaine had always been magical to me: reflexively kind, with an acute intelligence that she never shows off, and possessed of timeless grace. I said, in a light-hearted way at a table full of other people, that I’d be game to be the father to her child. She countered, brightly, that she might just take me up on the offer. That she might actually want to have a child with me was unimaginable; I suggested it with the politesse with which I’d invited new acquaintances in remote countries to stop by for a drink if they ever found themselves in Greenwich Village. When I got home, however, I wrote her a letter and said I knew she’d probably been joking, but that I thought she would be the best mother in the world, and I hoped she’d have a child with someone.

Four years later, Blaine flew to New York in 2003 for my surprise 40th birthday party.

We went out to dinner the following night and realised that we both wanted to follow through with the baby project.

I had never been so honoured or so alarmed. Our arrangements would be similar to John’s with Tammy and Laura in some ways, but different in others; I would be the legal father of a child who would bear my last name. Though our child would live in Texas with Blaine, the relationship would be explicitly paternal.

I wasn’t ready to tell John right away, and when I did tell him, he exploded, as I had feared he might. He had been a sperm donor. I would be in an ongoing relationship with Blaine that he feared might lethally triangulate our own. So began the most difficult epoch of our relationship. We talked about it for months – John and I, Blaine and I – and the negotiations escalated to Balkan intensity. It took three years to iron out the details, but John finally relented, and Blaine and I created a pregnancy, working through an IVF clinic. Blaine, meanwhile, had met her partner, Richard, putting a reasonable if unusual balance in place.

The more curious our arrangements became, the more traditional they started to feel. John had previously proposed that we get married, and I decided to honour the idea. Marrying was in part my way to reassure John of his centrality as we moved forward with the Blaine plan, but it soon became a means for me to celebrate his handsomeness, wit and sense of moral purpose.

We tied the knot on June 30, 2007, at a wedding in the countryside, and I thought how if all my traumas had led me to this day, they were not so bad as they had seemed in the instant. In my wedding toast, I said, “The love that dared not speak its name is now broadcasting.” Tammy and Laura and their children came; Oliver served as John’s ringbearer. Blaine, four months pregnant with the child she and I had conceived, came with Richard, and John ventured that we’d had the first gay shotgun wedding.

In October, some complications in the pregnancy emerged, so John and I hurried to Fort Worth a month early for the delivery by Caesarean section on November 5, 2007. I watched the obstetrician pull little Blaine out of her mother’s swollen belly and was the first person to hold her. I kept trying on the idea that I was now a father, and I didn’t know what to do with it; it was as though I had suddenly been told that I was still myself and also a shooting star. I held the new baby; Blaine held her; Richard held her; John held her. Who were we all to this thrilling creature? Who was she to all of us? How did that alter who we were to one another? I scanned my daughter’s small face for clues as to who she was, and for hints of whom she would make me become.

John and I headed back to New York ten days later. When we got home, I was preoccupied with my new child. I did not want to be so attached to little Blaine that her living in Texas became intolerable; I did not want to be so unattached that she felt neglected. I was just self-aware enough to know that what I wanted of my emotions was irrelevant.

Getting married and having babies are both public events. Like many public things, they reify what they expose. I was grateful that our friends had celebrated our marriage; I was grateful that John welcomed the daughter he had dreaded; I was grateful, too, that John and Blaine had begun to trust each other. Blaine’s 86-year-old father, whose values I had thought might be challenged by our arrangements, was delighted, and my father was thrilled.

I soon realised that I wanted to bring up a child at home with John, to be a pledge between us. John’s original arrangement with Tammy and Laura had answered a question; the arrangement with Blaine was more intimate; and the prospect of having a child who would live full-time with the two of us was an explosion of everything we’d been taught to expect from life as gay men. Because John was less sure about wanting this child than I professed to be, I had to act as cheerleader for the enterprise. I was full of hopeful infatuation with a person who did not yet exist and sure that fatherhood would exalt everything I already cherished about John, but the conversation stalled there. I could not be the sole enthusiast in our decision. Then John gave me an antique cradle tied up with a bow for my birthday and said, “If it’s a boy, can we call him George, after my grandpa?”

A lawyer laid out the legal advantages of having one woman provide the egg and another the womb, so neither would have a full claim as mother. John had proposed that I be the biological father of this child and said that he might sire the next, if there were one. Like many middle-age couples with fertility issues, we began the blind-dating egg hunt. We flew to San Diego to ingratiate ourselves with our preferred donor agency. Joyful though our decision was, I felt sorry that I would never see what might come of mixing John’s genes with my own. I was thankful we could get an egg, regretful that neither of us could produce one; happy we could have a child at all, and sad about the aura of manufacturing that clung to the venture.

The catalogue of attractive attributes touting each donor made me feel as though we were choosing online a car we would be driving the rest of our lives. Sunroof? Good mileage? Red hair? High SAT scores? Grandparents who lived past 80? The whole quest was absurd, depressing, morally troubling. Yet, the care of choosing the egg donor seemed like one concrete gesture we could make in a time of petrifying abstraction.

We told Laura and Tammy about our plan, and Laura said to John, “We couldn’t have had Oliver and Lucy without you, and we’ll never be able to thank you enough for that, but I could be your surrogate to show how much you and Andrew mean to us.” It was a gesture of spectacular generosity, and we accepted it. There followed medical screenings of Laura, the egg donor and me; samples (the bright hospital room, the leatherette briefcase of dated girlie magazines provided by the staff); fertility treatments for Laura; embryo transfers; and ultrasounds.

Like many of the families I had met, mine was touched in equal measure by changes in social norms and changes in technology. Their fortunate concurrence was the precondition of our children. We got pregnant on our second IVF protocol.

We drew inexorably closer to Laura and to Tammy and the kids. Oliver and Lucy referred to the yet-to-come baby as their brother. I was shy of their enthusiasm at first, but John and I went to Minneapolis for the late stages of the pregnancy and ended up staying there for more than a month, seeing the four of them almost every day, which gave me a chance to observe how Oliver and Lucy echoed John’s wit and gentleness. When they learnt that little Blaine called us Daddy and Papa John, they told their mothers they wanted to call us Daddy and Papa, too.

I was not prepared for the idea that all of these children were in various degrees mine, but the sweetness with which John had come to celebrate the Blaines modelled a path to acceptance. Having set out to have two children, I was suddenly contemplating four, and I now believed that I could love them all profoundly, even if I loved them differently.

To bring us closer had been part of Laura’s purpose in helping us, and it worked. John’s insistence that we were all one family made it happen. Without my campaigning, we wouldn’t have had little Blaine, or this new child, but without John’s optimism, we’d have stayed compartmentalised. That would have been the easier path, and I mistook it for the better one. By little Blaine, by the imminent baby, by Oliver and Lucy, and by the extraordinary families I’d come to know, I had been changed, and children no longer made me sad.

The day of George’s birth – April 9, 2009 – was emotionally charged before it began. I had heard too many stories that started, “The pregnancy seemed to go so well, and then suddenly, when she went into labour …” I tried to quell my anxiety, but by the time George’s head showed, my palms were damp with fear. Laura had chosen to deliver without pain medication, and I found myself newly in awe.

For nine months, I had felt the favour she did us as though someone had offered to carry an increasingly heavy bag of groceries up an increasingly steep staircase, but suddenly I understood that she had made a life for us. Seeing her give birth, I witnessed the pain of the final dilation and felt the radical newness coming out of her. She pushed twice and out George popped, instantly proving the strength of his lungs with a good cry, and wiggling his arms and legs. The obstetrician pronounced him healthy. And then we noticed his umbilical cord, which was knotted.

George had come out at just the right time. If the labour had gone on longer or we had waited a few more days to induce, the knot might have tightened, depriving him of oxygen, destroying his brain and giving Laura a potentially fatal placental haemorrhage.

We went through all the semi-medicalised and personal rituals that follow a healthy birth. Many photos were taken, and we took off our shirts so he could be on our skin, and we watched him be weighed and measured, and we saw ointments put on his eyes, and we introduced him to Oliver and Lucy. We called my father and stepmother, my brother, Blaine and a few others who matter deeply to us.

John was instantly enraptured, as I knew he would be, because birth is so mysterious and so much weirder than sorcery or intergalactic warfare that it humbles you instantly. I had felt it with little Blaine and I felt it again here. This person hadn’t existed before, and now he did.

By the time John and I had settled in our hospital room and the nurse had given George his first bath, it was 2.30 in the morning, and we all fell blissfully into our beds. When I woke up, John had taken George into Laura’s room down the hall; Tammy and the kids were there, eating cinnamon rolls, and the air was festive. I sat there eating, helping Oliver and Lucy hold the baby safely, and then the paediatrician came in and said she was concerned.

George had not been drawing his legs up the way that babies are supposed to and was instead holding them out stiff and straight for up to three minutes at a time. She referred to this as “inappropriately high muscle tone” and said that it might reflect brain damage, and that she wanted to order a CAT scan. I asked whether this was unusual, and she said, simply, that it didn’t frequently occur at this stage. I felt the inside parts of my body that are usually warm go cold, while the parts exposed to the air suddenly seemed to be on fire.

I asked how soon the CAT scan could be done, and the paediatrician said she’d set it up as soon as possible. I looked at George and knew I loved him by how hard I suddenly tried not to love him. I remembered all the parents who had described spreading the news about their thriving baby and then picking up the phone a day or two later to report a different tale. A rational piece of me was trying to decide under what circumstances I would support whatever heroic measures might be called for. A terrified piece of me was contemplating giving him up into care. My strongest impulse was to hold him tight and not let him go for the tests at all.

Finally, the news came that we were set for the CAT scan. Alas, our nurse had cycled off, and we were now assigned a pretty young woman with the bedside manner of a flight attendant, her banal friendliness not quite masking an irritable boredom. I asked if she’d assisted at such a procedure before. “A CAT scan on a newborn?” she said. “No, I’ve never even heard of anyone doing one before.” I felt two conflicting guilts: first that I had produced a child who might suffer, and second that despite all the stories I’d heard from parents who found deep meaning in bringing up exceptional children, I didn’t want to join their number.

The imaging room was grim. We watched helplessly as George was positioned in the machine. He was more or less asleep and did not stir as his head was locked into place with straps fastened across his forehead. They let us stay, wearing big lead aprons, and we tried to comfort George, and I was suddenly aware of how uncomforting I was to someone who had not yet learned to turn to me for comfort.

Back in our room, so recently cosy, we waited. Then we waited some more. Finally, I fought my way past the nurses’ station and cornered a newly arrived on-call paediatrician, who told me that the results had been there for an hour. “I think we should talk about this with your husband,” he said gravely. We walked back to the room where John was waiting, and I blurted out sweatily, “Is there bleeding in his brain?” and the paediatrician said there was not. Then he launched into what they had been testing for and what each image showed, and he eventually revealed that the scan was completely clear. George was fine. The whole thing was over.

John and I became fathers when gay parenting was a thrillingly new advance. I understood the day George was declared well that hope is not a thing with feathers, but a squalling, pink thing newly arrived, that no other optimism is so great as having a child.

After George arrived, the question arose of how all these relationships might constellate. John and I have complete charge of George; Blaine and I had agreed in advance that we would make the major decisions about little Blaine together; Laura and Tammy have separate parental authority, and we do not set the course for Oliver and Lucy, nor Laura and Tammy for George. The three arrangements are different, and in the same ways most parents try to suppress sibling rivalry, we struggle to avoid situational comparisons. Occasional frictions are sparked by conflicting priorities and boundaries, disparate resources, myriad parenting styles – but they are dwarfed by the reality that it all somehow functions. We have fought hard for the familial relationships into which others stumble, and there is a veteran’s peace in our mutual devotion.

It must be easier to lead a life in which you are not constantly inventing all the roles, in which there is a script to follow. Most people expect to have children, and certain susceptibilities are attached to that; I had expected not to have children, and the reversal contains stranger ones. Like other parents, I simply lived my life from day to day, until the unusual became quotidian. John and I sent out birth announcements that included a picture of us with George. One of John’s cousins returned her copy with a terse note that began, “Your lifestyle is against our Christian values,” and ended, “We wish to have no further contact.” Some people scorn the idea of calling five primary parents and four children in three states a family, or fear that the existence of our family somehow undermines theirs. An old friend said to me over lunch one day, “Isn’t it wonderful how your father accepts your children?” I pointed out that my children were his grandchildren, and she said, “Yes, but even so.” I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, because when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. The affection my family have found in one another is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less travelled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.

One resolves cognitive dissonance by assimilating what it is too late to change, and in that spirit I wonder whether I would have found as much joy in marriage and children if they had come easily – if I had been straight or had grown up 30 years later in a somewhat more welcoming society. Perhaps I would; perhaps all the complex imagining I’ve had to do could have been applied to broader endeavours. I believe, however, that the struggle has given me a vision as a parent that I would not have had without it. So much of me had been consecrated to loneliness, and now I am not lonely any more. Now, children make me happy. A generation ago, this love would have stayed dormant and unrealised.

Excerpted from Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.