Family life

The perks of having an unconventional family

Susan Goldberg reflects on the perks of having an unconventional family.

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Rowan and Isaac say goodbye to Rob at the airport. Photo: Susan Goldberg

Thunder Bay, Ont. writer Susan Goldberg is a transplanted Torontonian and one of two mothers to two boys. Follow along as she shares her family’s experiences.

Rob just left.

Rachel and the boys drove him to the airport after a too-short Thanksgiving weekend visit, and now we are once again a family of four: me and Rachel and our two boys. (“And the cats!” Rowan and Isaac would say. Yes, six if you count the cats.)

And, mostly, being a family of four (six) is just fine. We stumble through the daily rhythms of life — always too much to do, never quite enough time to get it all done, scrambling to get out the door, get fed, get dressed, get the garbage to the curb, get to bed. Some days we do it with more grace and good humour than others.

And then, every couple months or so, Rob arrives for a few days or a week, and we morph temporarily into a family of five (seven). Rob is — and all these terms don’t quite do him justice — our friend, our sperm donor, our kids’ dad (a role he never assumed but that has slowly grown into). The shortest, and most accurate, descriptor for him is that he’s part of our family.

Read more: Why I am the “Other Mother” >

When Rob arrives, things suddenly get easier. On the surface, it would be so tempting to chalk that up to an extra set of hands, someone else with a driver’s license who’s old enough to babysit — for free. And it’s true, Rachel and I get a certain break with another adult in the house. This weekend, for example, Rachel child-wrangled while Rob held the ladder so that I could clean out our eavestroughs, a job that was long overdue. Rob drove Rowan to soccer practice while I squeezed in a workout. He did loads of dishes and played rounds of Pokémon and soccer while Rachel and I cooked Thanksgiving dinner. He took each of the boys on outings for some one-on-one time. On Saturday night, he stayed with the kids while Rachel and I went out to a movie.

That, alone, is plenty. That, alone, is what my friends without access to the occasional third parent envy.

Read more: Why parents deserve a pat on the back more often >

But that alone isn’t really the point. The point is that, in Rob, Rowan and Isaac have access to another adult in their lives who knows them, gets them, is deeply invested and interested in them, who loves them hard and unconditionally.

And in Rob, Rachel and I get more insight into our boys, into ourselves as parents. We get the perspectives and the empathy from somebody who knows the intimate details of our family life but who, at the same time, is removed enough to have at least some objectivity. He’s a safety valve, someone who can listen and understand when we vent about the difficulties of parenting, and whose reserve store of patience for all things child-related isn’t quite as depleted as our own.

We were lucky enough to all live in the same city for a year — the year that Rowan was two and the year that Isaac was conceived. Since then, work has called Rob a way to different cities, and now we rely on visits and Skype and phone calls to get by. We all wish — and the older they get, the more the boys wish — that Rob lived closer, lived in the same city as us, that we could be more often a family of five (seven).

And sometimes, I’ll admit that I wish for what Rob has: the ability to be a parent but also have a break from it all, the privilege of having the unconditional love of two small boys and yet being able to live much of life in a world that doesn’t prioritize their every need.

In the end, though, it’s a sweet deal for all of us. He has the luxury of leaving, but we have the luxury of him coming back, again, and again.