It’s Saturday morning. Janice and Sheri are out for breakfast with their two kids, three-year-old Carly and baby David, at the old-world Motorama diner in Toronto’s Greektown. A little while later, Adrian and Bruce wander in. Carly jumps out of her chair and runs over to them, shrieking, “Daddy! Dadda!”
This is my sister’s family. Two gay women, two gay men, two kids. The children go back and forth between two houses. In one house, they live with Mommy and Mama. In the other, with Daddy and Dadda.
According to the 2006 census, there were more than 45,000 lesbian or gay couples living together in Canada, up 32 percent from 2001. Almost one in 10 — or 4,000 of them — were living with children.
Demographers have yet to track all the different types of gay families — two parents, three parents or, in the case of my sister’s family, four parents. Imagine that: two mothers, two fathers. What a tangle of logistics and temperaments. What a potential minefield. But somehow this unusual, adventurous foursome have pulled it off. It hasn’t been easy and, like almost everything in life, it didn’t go quite the way everybody thought it would.
By the time Janice started dating Sheri in 2000, she was in her late 30s. Sheri had her own doubts about having a baby. She’d grown up the daughter of a Mennonite preacher in a small town. For her parents to accept the reality that their daughter was gay was hard enough. Sheri was loath to cause them more pain by having a child out of wedlock — and with a woman, to boot.
Still, the couple decided they wanted to have a baby, but they didn’t want an anonymous donor. They wanted a man in the child’s life, a real father.
Then one night at a dinner party, Janice and Sheri were chatting with a friend who said she knew a couple — her brother and his boyfriend — who might be interested. A few days later, Janice picked up the phone and made the call. The first meeting took place in a coffee shop. It wasn’t an easy conversation.
“It was like a blind date, but worse,” says Bruce. “Each of us, with our own histories, our own ideas about kids, couldn’t imagine what the other couple would be like as parents.”
The initial meeting went well enough to encourage a second one. Over the next year, the foursome met for lunch, went to each couple’s house, even took a day trip together to see a play in Stratford, Ont.
The conversations between the four potential parents remained vague. Bruce, who had grown up in a happy three-kid household in suburban Toronto, had always imagined a traditional family for himself — until he was a teenager and discovered he was gay. His boyfriend, Adrian, was an athletic, independent Vancouver kid. He was out of the house by his early 20s, and never gave having children a second thought. But after a decade with Bruce and his tight-knit clan — parents, sisters, nieces, nephews — he started to come around.
The group began to map out, hypothetically, how things might work. The child would live at the mothers’ house (so would the snowsuits, the report cards and the immunization records), but sleep over at the dads’ once a week. At the beginning of every month, the guys would drop off a cheque.
In the fall of 2002, still undecided, Bruce and Adrian took off on a vacation to Australia. They promised an answer on their return, but they had lingering worries: Bruce felt he didn’t know the women well enough. Adrian, who’s used to being in charge, had to get accustomed to the idea of letting someone else steer the ship. But they both wanted a child and they suspected this would be their only chance. When they got home, they said yes.
Both couples went to see lawyers. They drafted a legal agreement that covered when each couple got the child, how much money would change hands, even how disputes would be worked out.
Then the actual business of getting pregnant began. Each month, for a few nights in a row, either Adrian or Bruce knocked on Janice and Sheri’s turquoise front door and handed over a small paper bag; inside was a specimen bottle.
After almost a year of this routine, Janice conceived and, at 42, she gave birth to Carly. With her blond curls and chubby cheeks, the child was a miniature Janice. Since both men brought over their specimens, they don’t know who the biological dad is. They haven’t done genetic testing because they don’t want to know, at least for now.
In those early months, Janice and Sheri did most of the baby work. Adrian and Bruce came by a lot, but the visits were oddly tense. Carly shrieked when anyone other than Janice or Sheri got close to her. Every time Carly cried, Janice bristled with discomfort.
One Wednesday after work, a regular visit night, Adrian and Bruce rang the mothers’ doorbell. “Just the sound of the bell set me off. Everything felt like a threat,” Janice says now. “I kept wanting to say: ‘Get away from my baby!’ I began to wonder if the price of giving Carly a father — two fathers, really — was too high. In darker moments, I even wondered if I’d made a huge life mistake.”
Adrian and Bruce weren’t happy either. “Every visit was loaded with emotional freight,” recalls Adrian. “Bruce and I went home shaking our heads, asking ourselves what had happened to all those conversations we’d had before Carly was born.”
One day, when the five of them were in the park, Adrian asked to take Carly for a first sleepover. There was a granite silence. Everyone could feel the tension coming off Janice’s body. “Tell them she’s never sleeping over,” Janice said to Sheri that same night. “Tell them Carly can sleep there when she says she wants to.”
“I was stuck in a role — the family mediator — I never wanted,” says Sheri. “I ended up being the one with the unpleasant chore of trying to keep everyone happy in a not-so-happy situation.”
The difficulties continued. In that first summer, the family took a trip together to visit Adrian’s parents in Vancouver. Bruce, a good-sized man, took 6½-pound Carly through the security gate.
“I heard this urgent voice barking at me, ‘Two hands on the baby!’” says Bruce. “I sighed and thought to myself, I’d put two hands on her, Janice, if I could find room on her body!”
Janice now acknowledges she overreacted. “It was typical of me and my anxiety at the time. Of course he could hold a baby with one hand.”
But among the tensions and prickliness, the sheer newness of things, there were lots of lovely moments that reminded everyone of why they had wanted a baby in the first place. The dads hummed lullabies over the phone while their ecstatic 16-month-old danced and spun in circles, the receiver pressed to her ear.
Little by little, Janice relaxed.
At Christmas, when Carly was 1½, the family went to Collingwood, Ont., to visit Bruce’s parents. At six o’clock each morning, Sheri popped a stirring baby into the dads’ bed and snuck away for a few more hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep.
“When we were in the same house as the boys, I didn’t worry so much,” says Janice. “I could actually see what they were like with her, how kind they were to her. For the first time, we could feel the relief of having someone else look after the baby.”
The dads started to take Carly out alone. They would go to the park as the sun set, the two dads pushing their daughter back and forth on the swings among the other young families.
And one Friday afternoon, when Carly was getting over an ear infection, Adrian’s phone rang at work. It was Sheri telling him that their daughter had been calling for Daddy and Dadda all day.
Now this is progress, he thought.
Soon there was talk of having a second child. All the parents came from good-sized families; they wanted a sibling for Carly. “And besides,” says Bruce, “with four queer parents, she’ll need someone to turn to!”
When Carly was two, Sheri gave birth to David, a healthy, strapping boy. But things didn’t go well for Sheri. She had a long labour, an emergency C-section, trouble nursing and excruciating pain in her kidney.
When Sheri came home from the hospital with the baby, she felt terrible. Her kidney got worse. One morning, the new baby only a week old, she complained to Janice that she couldn’t breathe. By the time the ambulance arrived, she couldn’t get out of bed.
Janice followed the ambulance to the hospital with baby David strapped in the back seat of her car. She called the dads.
Bruce went to the hospital for a crash course in feeding formula through a tube. Adrian picked Carly up from daycare and took her back to his house. “Everything changed overnight,” says Adrian now. “Suddenly the four of us were in something together. For the first time, Bruce and I felt truly needed.”
The doctors never really figured out what was wrong with Sheri, but after a week in hospital she felt well enough to go home.
On the last night with both kids, Bruce stood by little David, watching him sleep. “I felt so sad that he was leaving. I reached into his bassinet, picked him up and put him to sleep on my chest.”
At three years old, Carly thinks having two moms and two dads is normal. When she sees pictures of animal families in books — lambs or bears or birds — she always points to the mommy and mama. But the parents do fret about what it’s going to be like for their kids later on.
“It’s not about whether there are two of us or four of us. It’s the fact that we’re gay,” says Adrian. “That’s going to be tough. I just hope we can help them to be strong, to tell other kids that they have it wrong.”
They also worry about what would happen if either couple were to break up. They agreed early on that no matter what, the kids would live in two homes. But which two?
If she had to start her family over again, would Janice still choose to have it with a father she knew? Would she advise another lesbian couple to do the same thing she did?
“Only if they were extremely careful. It’s wonderful: Sheri and I got blessed with Adrian and Bruce, but it is definitely, definitely not something to be entered into lightly.”
Which brings us back to that Saturday-morning breakfast in the diner. The eggs are all finished now, the check’s been paid, and the family of six walks over to the park. They play for a while, then Janice and Sheri say goodbye, and Adrian and Bruce walk away with the kids.
They go to the petting zoo. David (known as Bam Bam) is mesmerized by the spotted cows and billy goats. Daddy and Dadda make up stories about flying rabbits and talking geese for Carly.
“It’s a strange feeling, watching them go off together,” says Sheri. “Carly is always chitter-chattering and giving them kisses. But we feel a little envious. She’s so good with her fathers. She doesn’t give them a hard time like she gives us.”
All of us make plans for our lives. That said,?it’s a safe bet to assume that none of these parents, when they were teenagers, imagined things were going to turn out quite like this. It’s a strange brew, with bumps and hurdles and occasional bruises. But it’s an arrangement that works for now — and sometimes now is all you can ask for.