Our son Wilder will be starting kindergarten in the fall and we recently toured his classroom. As we gathered in the back of the room with other parents, the teacher went around with a list of children’s names introducing herself. When she called Wilder’s name, four of us approached. She stood there silently puzzled for a moment before asking “Which of you are Wilder’s parents?” I answered first, as I often do, “All of us.”
Our son just happens to have one mother and three fathers.
In early 2013, I lost my father to congenital heart disease and rapid onset dementia. He was the last living member of my nuclear family, as I had lost both my brother and mother before him. No longer the caretaker for my sick father, I began to imagine myself as the caretaker of a child.
At the time of my father’s death, my partner Andy and I had been together for over a decade and he had chosen to have a vasectomy early in our relationship. Andy was raised by adoptive parents, and he had no desire to biologically father a child.
When I realized I wanted to become a mother, Andy was supportive, but his vasectomy first caused me to consider donor sperm. As I browsed the online catalogs of donor descriptions, I was struck with the thought that I could never know if these men were kind, or if they laughed a lot. Sure, good SAT scores and model features might be desirable, but I wanted a deeper knowledge of my future child’s father.
After reading about some serious fertility clinic mistakes that happened here in New Orleans, I decided to make a baby the old fashioned way: by approaching a man in a bar.
The man that I approached happened to be a friend of ours, named Lee. One night after a (not-so-funny) comedy show, I walked up to him at the bar and sheepishly asked, “This may sound very strange, but would you ever consider co-parenting with me?” Over the sound of a scratchy mic and a chorus of hecklers, I heard him say, “Yes.”
Lee and I set a date to have a discussion to solidify our plan. We met at our favorite cafe, and as we talked about what our perceived parenting situation might look like, time stretched over a full meal and several cups of coffee. We compared notes on what we then considered to be some of the major issues: vaccinations, circumcision, parenting styles, school choices and financial responsibilities. The people at the tables surrounding us couldn’t help but eavesdrop on our unusual conversation.
A few weeks later at a haphazard dinner party where I mistakenly cooked steak for Lee’s partner Clint, who is a vegetarian, we pitched our proposal. The news went over as well as the menu.
“Do you have any idea how demanding it is to raise a child?” Andy questioned as Clint solemnly ate a plate of side dishes.
“Yes, but it must be somewhat easier with four parents!” I retorted.
I was left with a refrigerator full of meat and no real resolution at the end of the night. While the dinner party was far from successful, it did provide a catalyst for further discussions. After many conversations that opened up several of our (sometimes unexpected) fears and vulnerabilities, the four of us ultimately reached a consensus to try to conceive.
Lee and I began what we thought would be at least a six-month-to-a-year journey. In an extraordinary twist of fate, I became pregnant the first time we tried; at home with only a specimen cup, a needle-less syringe and a wealth of knowledge from lesbian pregnancy blogs on the internet.
The moment I became pregnant, we began to grow into the family we are today. Wilder arrived a month early via emergency cesarean, catapulting me into a struggle with breastfeeding and postpartum anxiety.
During the arduous adjustment period into new motherhood, I was offered understanding and support from the three fathers. Although my anxiety made it hard for me to fully trust in their respective abilities to handle a newborn, I was eventually assured by how quickly they took to the responsibility. Witnessing their commitment to cultivating my sense of safety gave me the strength to begin to heal.
My inability to breastfeed, even after taking the prescription drug domperidone in an attempt to induce my milk production, allowed all of us to equally share in the responsibility of feeding our son. We never stopped to consider that particular tasks should belong to certain parents; we tackled things as a team ― whether they be laundry, doctor’s appointments or simply the overwhelming costs of a new baby.
Our early entry into parenthood shaped our on-going relationships, and Wilder’s time was easily divided between our two households. We developed a family schedule, which has grown more complex over the years ― it now includes after-school activities and never-ending invitations to children’s birthday parties.
We’ve found that most other parents are incredibly welcoming toward our unique family situation and more often than not they express that they wished they had more family, especially to share the burdens of parenthood.
While we generally have specific days each week designated to each household, we are very accommodating and flexible. The fathers’ extended families visit often and shower Wilder with love and attention. It has given me great joy to see our son cultivate relationships with his many grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, since I could not offer him these things.
Wilder is now five years old and while he understands that Lee and I are his birth parents, he doesn’t differentiate between the four of us as his caregivers. Our households are less than a mile from each other, and Wilder divides his time with all of us. In between pre-k drop off and pick-up schedules, dance parties, park play dates, bath time giggle fits and the dreaded fight over an appropriate bedtime, you can find each of us living our own lives.
In dealing with the hectic schedule that accompanies parenthood, we’ve found that our time with Wilder and our personal time are equally important. Raising our son as a four-person team has given us our respective freedoms to pursue our own varied interests outside of parenthood, providing Wilder with a richer sense of possibility to draw upon.
When each of us is with Wilder we do our best to be active listeners, thoughtfully engaged and supportive of his different stages of development. I find that I am much less driven to check my email, fret over housework or lose my patience over minor annoyances because I am able to make space for these matters in my personal time.
Because we are all equal parents, no specific roles limit our caregiving. The fathers do just as much cooking, cleaning and scheduling as I do, and if any of us begin to feel overwhelmed, we try to speak to each other with an open heart. We have certainly had our struggles (imagine choosing a name with four different inputs), but none that surpass those of our parenting contemporaries in conventional relationships.
Seeing me being treated respectfully and equally as a parent by Wilder’s fathers is something that I know has impacted Wilder’s understanding of caregiving. Every night at our house Wilder requests that Andy sing to him at bedtime and wake him in the morning. Wilder reminds me that Lee makes the most delicious pie and has the skills to build a house. He loves geography as much as Clint, and delights in Clint’s ability to speak several languages. When Wilder is scared he always wants my company, because he says that I am the bravest.
In a country that has held on tightly ― disastrously so ― to the notion that mothers should be able to do everything without asking for others’ help, the four of us have gratefully shared the duties of parenthood with the understanding of how it benefits us all. This is not to say that our co-parenting has not come without its challenges, but it has given us the gift of introspection. As we each become better versions of ourselves and continue to greet our challenges together, we’re teaching our son the endless possibilities of who he can become.