When Beth Niernberg began to search for a mohel to perform her second son’s bris, she braced herself for a strange reaction. The Jewish circumcision ceremony has to be performed eight days after birth, so she didn’t have time to track down someone who had dealt with gay and lesbian families before. The mohel she found was “not exactly young and hip,” she says. But when she explained to him that her son Nicholas would live in a household with Beth, a Jewish lesbian, his two non-Jewish gay dads, and their other son Zander, the old mohel didn’t skip a beat. “Great,” he said. “I can add this to my résumé. Co-parenting. Is there a hyphen in that?”
In her late twenties, Beth decided she was ready to have kids. She met Phillip Hernandez and discovered that he and his partner, James Slayton, longed to have children, too. They joked about doing it together, and one day the conversation turned serious. The three drew up a formal agreement that was not legally binding but would serve as a framework for this family for the next 18-plus years. They now have two sons, 3 1/2-year-old Zander and 17-month-old Nicholas, and another son on the way. The boys are each biologically related to one of their dads, but Beth thinks the distinction isn’t important and balks when people ask her to clarify.
Part of their agreement was that the three would live together and find a house with enough space to accommodate a future partner for Beth. She would stay home and take care of the children while Phil and Jim, both psychiatrists, would continue to work, providing most of the financial support. “The idea of finishing a master’s, working full-time, and having a baby did not exactly appeal to me,” says Beth. They didn’t want a day care baby. “So it made sense for me to stay home and for us to find a way to live together.”
Parents who are not lovers often raise their kids together, but it’s rare to find them doing it in the same household and even rarer for this kind of living situation to be planned before a baby is conceived. While it’s easy to describe a child as a son or a daughter, no language exists to explain the relationships between Beth and her sons’ fathers. She is not a surrogate; they are not sperm donors. They are a family, and their relationship lies at the intersection of friendship, kinship, and partnership.
“In our community now, what is conventional is a two-parent, same-sex household. That’s two parents who’ve been really busy over the last decade or so talking about how we’re just like everyone else,” says Terry Boggis, director of Center Kids, the family arm of New York’s LGBT community center.”But there are other kinds of households being put together that are very pioneering.”
Co-parenting while cohabiting may be the exception to the rule in the LGBT community. It took me months to find just three of these families. But the men and women I spoke to said there were innumerable benefits to this kind of living arrangement. Sharing a household can create more financial resources and give children more time with adults who are deeply invested in their well-being. It also creates a unique bond between gay men and lesbians who, because of their kids, make a long-term commitment to one another. “They’re not people I have intimate relationships with,” Beth says of Phil and Jim. “But my relationship with them is as intimate as anyone with a significant other who is raising children together. I absolutely consider them family.”
It’s not as if gay men and lesbians have never lived together or had children together, but their reasons in the past may have been very different from today. “They did it because they had to put on a public face,” says Rich Wandel, the historian at the National Archive of Lesbian and Gay History in Manhattan. During times when it was far more difficult than today for gay people to live openly, a traditional domestic arrangement offered social acceptance. Though this type of closeted family no doubt still exists, the families I spoke to were of a new type. They are openly gay, living together—sometimes along with partners of their own—so they can be full-time parents without having to go it alone.
These families are also emblematic of the ongoing development of family planning within the LGBT community. “Instead of saying ‘I’m just going to grab this sperm and deal with this guy later,’ ” says Boggis, “I think people are really saying, ‘Am I temperamentally right for this?’ I see people really being much more aware about what they need to get down on paper, what they need to anticipate and talk about beforehand.”
Creating a partnership between two or more people who are not in love can be tricky, says April Martin, a family therapist and author of The Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook. “When you have parents who lack a primary partnership they want to protect, it’s a loaded situation. You can’t make love to ease tension, and there’s going to be a lot of tension in negotiating over the most important thing you have in common: the kid.” Tensions can come from many sources ranging from financial disagreements and disputes over the chores to legal challenges and homophobia. “It requires negotiation 24-7 to be in a relationship with three people,” says Beth. “It requires an understanding of which issues are important and when to just let things go.”
While none of the families I spoke to have been involved in a legal squabble, their structure remains legally fragile. In New York State, second-parent adoption by a same-sex partner is possible but complicated. A non-biological parent in a three- or four-adult family would experience difficulty if his or her relationship to the child were challenged.
It can also be difficult to find romance when a family waits at home. Co-parents may have difficulty explaining their family lives to potential partners. And figuring out how to incorporate new lovers can get complicated. “You need to have your family defined,” says Martin. “Just because any of these adults is sleeping with someone doesn’t make that partner a family member.”
When I arrived at the home of Julie Friesen and Jake Stevens last December, Jake was straightening up the living room. “I guess he’s too young to expect him to pick up after himself,” he said, rescuing a miniature sock hidden in the folds of the couch. Julie arrived from downstairs carrying six-month-old Dashiell. His blond hair, rosy cheeks, and big blue eyes could easily land him a role as one of the Charmin angels. When he spat up in Julie’s lap, he looked down curiously at the mess and then beamed at his parents with a two-toothed grin.
The family had recently moved into a brick house in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. Julie stayed home from her government job for the first six months after Dashiell’s birth. Then Jake, a Bronx public defender, took an indefinite leave of absence to stay home with him. Like so many New York parents, they already worry about finding a good public school.
Dashiell is their biological son, but Jake and Julie have never been a romantic couple. They conceived their child through artificial insemination. “Whatever it looks like on the outside, this is a queer family,” says Jake.
They met about four years ago through a mutual friend. Both were single. Julie knew she didn’t want to have a child alone, but felt she’d soon be too old to have one. “My dream was to do it the old-fashioned lesbian way, but my clock was ticking,” she says. Jake longed to be a full-time dad. “I wanted to be a father,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a donor.”
Julie and Jake got to know each other while discussing the logistics of this major life decision. They liken the process to a bizarre kind of courtship. “When you begin to talk about these things, you set yourself up for rejection,” says Jake. “It means negotiating dependence and independence, but between two people who are not romantically involved.”
Finally the two settled on their current arrangement. Jake lives on the second floor of their two-family house and Julie lives below. Both have recently entered into what they hope are long-term relationships (just recently Jake’s partner, Kevin, moved in), but Julie and Jake intend to function always as Dashiell’s primary parents.
Terry McKeon, Anne Quinn, and Joyce Weeg have co-parented in the same household for a long time. Emma is 13, and the twins, Jordan and Kate, are 11. When Anne and Terry decided to have children together in 1989, they hadn’t planned on living with one another. But when Anne got pregnant, Terry realized he was scared to be a single parent—and Anne decided she wanted to have a full-time presence in the life of her children. So they moved in together. Now they share a house in Montclair, New Jersey.
A man and a woman living in the suburbs with three kids had all the trimmings of a straight, traditional family. Terry and Anne were often assigned the roles of husband and wife by their families and friends. “My family looked at Anne as the savior. I think they thought that the gay issue would just go away,” says Terry. On the other hand, he faced harsh reactions from other gay men. “My friends would say, ‘Gay men don’t do this.’ They would question whether or not I was really gay.” There was some tension as he and Anne negotiated their roles. “I felt like a husband. And I didn’t want to be a husband,” he says.
To complicate things further, Anne met Joyce, who was painting her sister’s house down the street. The two fell in love and Joyce moved in. Though this could have been a difficult transition, it wasn’t. Terry, Joyce, and the kids got along well, and Joyce easily took on the role of parent. The straight facade was gone, but they had no problems with their neighbors. “At first it was hard for people to figure out what to do with me,” says Joyce. “But there are so many unusual families in Montclair that we don’t really stick out.” Terry adds, “There’s a wonderful practical side to all of this. We’ve had a lot of people say to us, ‘God, I’d give anything to have a third parent.’ ”
Surprisingly, none of these families have suffered ostracism in their communities. Most reactions echo the old mohel‘s. And their rituals are more familiar than foreign. “This is my home. This is my family. And we have to work things out,” says Terry, who regularly shuttles his three kids between friends’ houses, school, church, doctor’s appointments, and softball practice. “But mostly, life just takes over.”
In Brooklyn, Dashiell’s smiles begin to disappear around 8 p.m, and whimpers turn into tired howls. “Do you want to put him to bed?” asks Jake. “I mean, you don’t need to put him to bed. I could put him to bed.”
“It’s OK. I’ll do it,” Julie replies, carrying the cranky baby downstairs. He quickly falls asleep.
“He makes it easy to be a parent,” Jake crows. “He’s a gorgeous kid.”