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Meet My Real Modern Family

Children used to make me sad. With the happy children in my adult life, I felt guilty, even mean, about being sad. The origin of that sadness was opaque, but I think it came most from how the absence of children in the lives of gay people had been repeatedly held up as my tragedy. When I came out, the prevailing view was that I was shortsightedly choosing sexual fantasies over producing a family. I was encouraged by my parents and the world to marry a woman and procreate. I spent years drifting between relationships with men and with women; I was mildly bisexual in a fluid era, but if children hadn’t been part of the equation, I wouldn’t have bothered with the other half. Even though I was in love with some of the women I dated, I felt mildly fraudulent in those intimacies. While I was becoming true to myself, the world changed. What I couldn’t know then was whether I truly wanted children, or whether I just wanted to prove wrong everyone who had pitied me.

Shortly after I met John, who is now my husband, we ran into his friends Laura and Tammy and their toddler, Oliver, at the 2001 Minnesota State Fair. John and Laura had been co-workers, and Laura had observed him for years before she and Tammy had asked him to be their child’s biological father. Though not especially close to them, he had agreed, signing legal documents in which he foreswore paternal rights and they foreswore claims to support. He had offered to be in the child’s life to the extent he was able, if the child so wished, but in deference to Tammy’s position as adoptive mother, he had so far remained uninvolved. Nevertheless, the women asked him to be a sperm donor again, and Lucy was born in 2004, by which time John was living with me in Manhattan.

The question of having biological children in unorthodox ways was familiar to me. A few years before I met John, during a trip to Texas, I attended a dinner that included my college friend Blaine. I had adored her for more than 20 years, but then, everyone adores Blaine; she is serenely beautiful and poised, and I had never felt indispensable to her as I do with more difficult friends. Blaine had divorced and shortly thereafter lost her mother, and she alluded to her yearning to become a mother herself. I said I’d be thrilled to father her child. The idea that she might actually want to have a baby with me was unimaginable; I suggested it with the rhetorical 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, saying that I thought she would be a glorious mother, and that if she didn’t have a child with me, I hoped she’d have one with someone.

When Blaine came to my 40th birthday party in New York three years later, in 2003, we realized that we both wanted to have that child together. I wasn’t ready to tell John, who was still living in Minneapolis. When I did tell him, he exploded. He had been a sperm donor, he argued; I would have a child who would bear my last name. I would be involved in an ongoing, profound relationship with Blaine that he feared would lethally triangulate our own. I did not know how hard it is to reinvent family, and he could not envision how fulfilling this particular reinvention might be. I nearly backed out but felt I couldn’t renege on my word, based on a wish I could likewise not forsake. John, whose benevolence invariably triumphs, finally relented, and Blaine and I conceived through IVF. Blaine, meanwhile, had met her partner, Richard, putting a reasonable if unusual balance in place.

Falling in love with John had meant not only the discovery of great happiness, but also the elimination of great unhappiness. Marrying him was my way of acknowledging our love as more a presence than an absence, which was especially urgent as we moved forward with the Blaine plan. I am a dual national, and Britain had recently passed an encompassing civil-partnership law, so we had a June ceremony in the English countryside, presided over by a registrar, a minister, and a rabbi. In my wedding toast, I said, “The love that dared not speak its name is now broadcasting.” If all my gay childhood traumas had led me to this day, I thought, maybe they were not so bad as they had seemed. Oliver, then 7, served as John’s ring bearer. Blaine, four months pregnant with our child, came with Richard, and John ventured that we’d had the first gay shotgun wedding.

John and I headed to Texas for little Blaine’s delivery, by Caesarean section, on Nov. 5, 2007. I watched the obstetrician pull my child out of her mother, and was the first person to hold her, and was as shocked as I was elated. I had to affirm paternity before my name went on the birth certificate; the hospital clerk advised me, as an unmarried father, to ask for genetic testing, referring knowingly to the “love child.” I spared him the details.

Little Blaine was to live in Texas with her mother, and we were to visit each other often. I was grateful that John welcomed the daughter he had dreaded—grateful, too, that he and Blaine had come to cherish each other. Blaine’s 86-year-old father, whose values I had thought this might challenge, accepted me as a son; my father was overjoyed by his granddaughter. My pleasure in fatherhood aligned with the satisfaction of giving scope to Blaine’s genius for motherhood. Blaine had my own mother’s elegance of thought and appearance, echoed her ability to find hilarity in the dailiness of life, demonstrated the same madcap imagination largely hidden by discretion and obdurate reserve, and shared her gene for intelligent empathy tinged with sadness.

Still, I wanted a child in my own house with John. It’s good news that being gay is no longer crazy (removed from the DSM, psychiatry’s bible, in 1973) or illegal (fully decriminalized in 2003), but we carry the legacy of its being both, and couldn’t have children to assert progress, social or personal. John had wanted to marry; I hadn’t, particularly; and then the reality had entranced me. I exacted a child as fair trade, believing John, too, would end up entranced. John said, “How much happier do you need to be?” I said, “If we don’t have a child because you’ve vetoed the idea, it will infect the rest of our marriage.” The conversation stalled there, but John’s compassion ultimately carried the day. For my birthday six months later, in October 2007, he gave me a carved antique cradle tied up with a bow, and said, “If it’s a boy, can we call him George, after my grandpa?”

A lawyer laid out the advantages of having one woman provide the egg and another the womb, so that neither would have full claim as mother, and we began the blind-dating egg hunt. Our first choice was a charming woman who, several months into preparations, tested positive for cocaine. Even as I championed another prospect, whose egg we finally used, 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, but sad that neither of us could produce one; glad we could have a child at all, and regretful about the aura of manufacturing that clung to the venture. Children are always products of emotion and biology, but it’s disorienting when those elements become asynchronous.

John had proposed that I be biological father of this child and said that he might sire the next, if there were one. When we told Laura and Tammy our plan, Laura said, “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 mean to us.” 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. Children had been a buffer for Laura against pain and fear, giving purpose to her calm authority; now, she bravely converted that vulnerability into generosity.

We got pregnant on our second IVF protocol. Pregnancy supersedes irony; you never know anyone as admiringly as you do when she is carrying your child, and I marveled at the way Laura wove the life she was building for us into the life she had built for herself. Through the proceeding, we drew inexorably closer to Laura and Tammy and the kids. Oliver and Lucy referred to the expected baby as their brother, and I was shy of their enthusiasm. However, I liked Oliver’s zaniness and Lucy’s exuberance, and I loved how John’s wit and gentleness echoed in them. We went to Minneapolis for the late stages of the pregnancy and ended up staying a month, seeing them every day. When Oliver and Lucy learned that little Blaine called us Daddy and Papa John, they said 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 generosity with which John had come to embrace an inclusive notion of family and celebrate the Blaines modeled my path to acceptance. Having set out to have two children, I was suddenly contemplating four. To bring us closer had been part of Laura’s purpose in helping us, and it worked. By little Blaine, by the imminent George, by Oliver and Lucy, I had been changed, and children made me happy.

On April 9, 2009, at 9:45 p.m., at Abbott-Northwestern Hospital in downtown Minneapolis, we got a view of George’s pate, and then Laura pushed six times, and out he popped, into John’s arms. I cut the cord. We summoned Oliver and Lucy from the waiting room; we called Blaine and my father. John was instantly enraptured, as I knew he would be. For nine months, we’d felt the favor Laura did us almost as though someone had offered to carry an increasingly heavy bag of groceries up an increasingly steep staircase, but that day we understood that she had made a life for us. We saw clearly for the first time something wild and heroic in her, an acreage of heart and valor beyond anything our male experience had taught us.

Planning to have a baby had been my department; caring for one was John’s. I had taught him about determination, about doing things instead of simply imagining them; now he taught me about experiencing those things. We had been advised that if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed, we should have a marriage legally recognized where we live, so we had a second wedding in Connecticut, two years after our English one. We incorporated a naming ceremony for George, appointing godparents and honorary aunts. It was momentous to hear the Danbury city clerk declare us “husband and husband” and just as consequential to have all four children together for the first time. I keep on my iPhone a portrait from that day, a visual aid for elucidating how we are all related. I wrote this story to usurp that image.

When John and I were invited to the White House Easter Egg Roll last spring, we explained that we were an extended nuclear family, and the whole lot of us went. When my stepsister got married in October, all four children were pages or bridesmaids. We spent most of December together in the candyland of a New York Christmas, and it was revisionist Rockwell, the four kids around the tree at my father’s house. Loving John had helped me to become whole, and loving these children rooted me in that wholeness. I had feared ahead of time that I might not love my children enough; now I am enthralled by George’s fascination with the moon; by little Blaine announcing, when she saw that I had cut my finger, “You need a mommy,” and fetching a Band-Aid; by Oliver and Lucy debating whether to leave a ginger cookie for Santa or give it to John and me.

Little Blaine has learned to say, soulfully, “I miss you, Daddy,” even when we are together, which used to break my heart. During a vacation in June, I took her for a walk, leaving Blaine and Richard in a restaurant with John and George. As I was pointing out sights, she said, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so happy,” and when I picked her up, she leaned her head on my collarbone and said, “I miss you.” The next morning, out on a boat, she threw her arms around her mother, and said, “I miss you,” and I realized that for her, “miss” and “love” meant one idea. I have come to use the words interchangeably myself. I miss my children even when I’m beside them, and acknowledging that ache seems the best way to contain it. Although he would never forsake the kids we have, John maintains that he could have been happy without children, but now that I know this joy, I feel I could not. I dwell too much in abstraction and the future, and parenting has taught me the present time that children require, where contentment, even rapture, reside.

All happy families are the same, and yet, when my brother says he loves his wife and children, everyone is delighted; when I speak of loving my family, people are often shocked and occasionally disgusted. Our affection becomes political—thrilling in a way, but I’d prefer to have intimacy untainted by purpose. That photo on the iPhone often seems euphemistic, because what it shows looks easy. It is exhilarating to be Christopher Columbus landing on the wilder shores of love, but sometimes one would prefer to live where the luxury hotels have already been built and Internet access is wireless. Most people expect to have children, and there are susceptibilities attached to that; I had expected not to have children, and the reversal contains stranger ones. I have had to separate the relief of escaping that tragic childlessness to which my parents gave so much airtime and the reality of human beings for whom I am variously responsible. It must be easier when there is a script.

Once George arrived, the urgent 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 as most parents suppress sibling rivalry, we struggle to avoid situational comparison. I would not obscure the frictions sparked by conflicting priorities and boundaries, disparate resources, myriad parenting styles -— but they are dwarfed by the fact that it all somehow functions. We have earned the familial relationships into which others stumble, and there is a veteran’s peace in our mutual devotion.

John and I sent out birth announcements that included a picture of us with George. One of John’s cousins returned it with a note that said, “Your lifestyle is against our Christian values. We wish to have no further contact.” Some people scorn the idea of calling five adults and four children in three states a family, or believe that the existence of our family undermines theirs. I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, and would propose that when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. I would never want to be smug about the affection we all found in one another. It is not a better love than others, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness.

Even the most liberal courts note, apparently in approval, that gay people do not make their children gay. If one suggests that black people should be able to reproduce so long as the kids are white, one sees how much prejudice is enmeshed in even ostensibly pro-gay arguments about family. It’s disorienting to recognize that the more conventional our choices are, the more radical we are, that my days of party hopping and sexual adventuring were tolerable, but that our arguing about how much to babyproof, thinking about preschools, buying a swing set, and joining a church constitute an assault on family values. There’s a bizarre and hateful inversion in this. American modernity is built on our liberation from a pernicious 1950s model of the nuclear family that was never true in the first place, and those who attempt to preserve that model are not conservatives, but regressives.

The change has already happened; it’s only the law that lags. The road less traveled, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.