We Need New Definitions of Family – A Personal Story
Written by Liz Neerland
Given the proposed constitutional amendment in MN, I really feel the need to tell a story…
It’s a story that a lot of you have heard, but a lot of you haven’t. It is something that we haven’t hidden, but also have been fairly politic about who we tell it to.
The more I hear about the gay marriage debate, and more I hear about people who seek to impose a narrow definition of “family” upon the rest of us, the more I feel the need to shout our story from the rooftops.
It should not be a secret. It is a beautiful story about how four people came together to create one amazing family…
Josh and I were married on Midsummer in 2008. We honeymooned in Spain, and not long after we returned home, we got a call from our friends Molly and Emer inviting us to dinner. I had gone to college with Emer, though I graduated the year before Molly started at Grinnell. They were good friends who we enjoyed spending time with, when time allowed.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner on Molly and Emer’s porch, telling tales of our travels in Spain and generally catching up. After we had finished eating, Emer topped off our wine glasses, and gave Molly a significant look.
“There’s something we’d like to ask you.” Emer said.
Molly and Emer began to talk about their desire to start a family, and how they had been approaching that challenge as a lesbian couple. They were really hoping that they could find a donor that they knew, so they would not have to go through the overly-medicalized process of using a sperm bank.
Then, they nervously got to the point: Would we, Josh specifically, be willing to father their child?
This request was not a total surprise – I had known that Molly and Emer were hoping to start a family soon, and I had once, a few months ago, casually mentioned the idea to Josh. At the time I had no idea they were considering asking us. I knew that they were starting the process of looking for donors, and they were hoping to find someone they knew. I thought that since Josh and I did not want to have children of our own, maybe we would be able to help someone else become parents. I remember mentioning it to Josh as an aside one night – “Hey, I know Molly and Emer are starting to think about having kids, do you think that is something you might be interested in helping them out with someday?” I hadn’t thought about it since then.
That night at dinner, Molly and Emer told us about their hopes for their future family. Josh considered it, and told them that he needed some time to think about it.
For the next few weeks, I tried really hard not to push Josh about it. I knew that as his spouse it was a significant decision that involved both of us, but in reality the decision had to be his. I was all for it, but I knew that he had to reach his own decision. This was something that would happen to us as a couple, but really I was just a bystander, a supportive person in something very significant that wasn’t actually happening to me.
After some time thinking it through, Josh reached his decision: Yes. Yes we would help Molly and Emer start the family they so desperately desired.
We started talking about logistics. We wanted to keep things friendly, and not too awkward, but we also realized that we were starting down a path that held a lot of huge unknowns. The four of us sat down one night and drew up a contract. Molly and Emer wanted to make sure that no matter what, the child would be fully theirs, and that neither Josh nor I had any legal claim to him. Josh and I wanted to make sure that we could not be held liable for any medical complications or outcomes related to the pregnancy. Really, we came up with a lot of legal-sounding stuff that covered what we considered to be all the eventualities of pregnancy, labor, birth, and child-rearing. We all wanted to make sure we considered every possibility – what happens if Molly miscarries? If she develops complications in the pregnancy? What if something should happen to either of the child’s mothers – at any point in his life? Do Josh and I have any say in how they raise him? In how they educate him? What if they decide to move to another state? What if, god forbid, both Molly and Emer are killed? Are Josh and I considered guardians? Can we have any claim to anything that happens in the life of the child? Can Molly and Emer blame us if anything goes wrong?
Looking back now, the detail of our contract seems a bit excessive, but I’m glad we went through with it. We had no idea what this experience would be like, and we were smart enough to know that there were a lot of unknowns that we might have to deal with. We had a lawyer friend look over our contract, we all signed it, and we were ready to go.
This was the point when all attempts to pretend it wasn’t awkward went out the window. When your husband is trying to impregnate another woman, you kind of just have to embrace the awkward. We did decide to do the whole process ourselves, with no formal medical intervention. Molly charted, and Josh showed up at their house on the appropriate days. A receptacle was left in the bathroom. You all can imagine the rest.
After a couple of months, Molly was getting tired of tracking her cycles so closely, and we were all starting to get burned out. She decided to not do all the tests, to take it easy, and just use basic female intuition to guess when she was ovulating. Of course, that was the month that worked.
Molly was pregnant.
We were thrilled. We were overjoyed. We started trying to figure out how to navigate this new phase – how to be happy for our friends, and involved in the process, but not too overbearing. This was the point where it became Molly and Emer’s pregnancy, but it was still ours, too.
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Josh so out of sorts – those of you who know him know he is a person who is very sure of himself, but this was something totally new for him. He was so worried that something would go wrong – not that it would be his fault, but that this thing we had decided to do would result in harm to people we loved. It was a new kind of stress.
The months went by. We helped host a shower, we did what we could. Finally the day came when Molly went into labor. It was a long one. No complications beyond time, which took the birth from home to the hospital after over 48 hours. On July 26, Jasper was born.
And so a new family was started. We visited Jasper and his happy, excited, tired moms the day after he was born. He was a very big baby, which must have been Josh’s fault because Molly is a very small woman. Everyone at the hospital was awesome, and no one flinched at having two moms in the delivery room, or not putting a father’s name on the birth certificate.
Of course, the actual birth of Jasper brought us into the next step of our journey – Josh was absolved of certain legal responsibilities because his name wasn’t on the birth certificate, but one of Jasper’s actual parents had no legal rights regarding him. We knew this would be part of the process, but it was still frustrating to have to deal with.
As the non-biological same-sex parent of the child, Emer would have to apply to adopt her own son. This required court filings, and affidavits and witness statements testifying to her fitness as a parent. Josh went to the family court hearing for the adoption to witness on Emer, Molly, and Jasper’s behalf. He came home later that day telling how awesome the judge was – as a family court judge, she usually had to deal with custody disputes and other nasty things that happen to families, and had been genuinely happy to have a case where two people so obviously deserved to get what they were asking for. For the judge, it was a welcome change to not be facilitating pulling families apart, but to be knitting one together.
At some point not long after Jasper was born, Emer’s dad sent us a card. He thanked us for helping all of them redefine what “family” meant. Reading that card still brings tears to my eyes.
We had no idea what we were getting into when we decided to do this, but I can truly say it is one of the best things I have ever done. It strikes an especially meaningful chord for me, because I myself was adopted as a baby. I really know nothing about my biological parents, but I do know that the people who raised me are all the family I have, and I am one of them. My parents are devout Catholics who chose adoption when having children of their own wasn’t an option. My mother is a woman who attended the wedding of my brother’s college roommate, (who was marrying his longtime partner,) in a wheelchair. Nathan’s parents wouldn’t come, and my mother declared that – despite the fact that she had just had a hip replacement a few weeks before – she would be there, because every groom needs a mother at his wedding. My parents taught me that family is what you make it, not what you are given, or what the bible or the government tells you it should be.
Jasper just turned three. He loves trucks of all kinds, is a voracious reader, and is one of the cutest damn kids I’ve ever known. He has my husband’s nose, and his mother’s eyes. We are hoping to give him a sibling someday. Molly and Emer are amazing parents, and I am so proud that I was able to help them build their family.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this – Molly and Emer have just as much right to decide TO have children as Josh and I have NOT to. Their family is amazing, and watching them raise their child is inspiring. They are a family, and it is right. Jasper is growing up in a world where some of his friends have one mom, or one dad, or a mom and dad, or two of both. He has no idea that any of those combinations might be wrong, because they aren’t. All he knows is that he loves his Mamma Molly, and he loves his Mama Emer, but he also loves it when Uncle Josh comes over. Because Uncle Josh never gets tired of playing trucks with him.
And that’s alright.
This post was originally published by the Internal Ledger and is republished with permission.