My Path To Becoming A Third Parent
We define the values that we will hold as a family.
Zeke and I count slowly from zero to 10, our deep voices matched in a kind of harmony, while Avary’s face is locked in concentration. He is closer to her, playing the role of the partner, while I am bracing her leg against my shoulder. Ten counts, a deep breath, and 10 more. Three sets of 10, then a few seconds rest, during which Zeke looks Avary in the eyes and says “You’ve got this.”
The phrase becomes a sort of mantra, one that she repeats to baby Octavia hours later as she flails looking for a latch and again over the coming days as she struggles with alien sensations of water and sound. My instinct tells me that it’s not a phrase I should use, that there should remain a small handful of things that are sacred between the three of them, and that this is one of them. I am not short on sacred things.
Earlier, years earlier, Avary, Zeke, and I are walking the hills of San Francisco and the topic of babies comes up. They have been dating for about two years, enough time for safe imagining, and Avary says “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could someday raise kids together?” I’d heard this fantasy before and had my heart broken by it. Growing up asexual I learned that friends who profess fantasies of committed, long term intimacy will often abandon those fantasies when a romantic partner or job offer comes along. To hear these fantasies without the commitment to preserve them has become a painful kind of tease. I say “Yes, it would, but please don’t joke about that. Being a third parent with a couple I deeply love and trust is a very real dream of mine. I’d like to request that we only talk about that possibility if we’re ready to talk about it seriously.” We don’t discuss it again for three years.
I am not short on sacred things.
We have spent that intervening time building trust, not with a goal in mind but certainly with a possibility. I serve as a counselor leading up to their wedding, helping them reflect on their commitments to one another. They support me through jobs and a new partnership, a move to New York with frequent visits back to stay on their couch. It is during one of these visits, a few months after the wedding, that the topic comes up again. This time they trade off the sentences. Avary starts: “We’ve been talking about family, we know we want to have a kid, and we know that raising our child in community is important to us.” Now Zeke chimes in, “We’re talking with several friends about the role that they might play in our child’s life, and we wanted to have that discussion most deeply with you.”
How, exactly, to have that discussion is still a mystery to all of us, but we start to stumble our way through. I draw a line in the air. “On this end,” I say, “the baby starts crying and I give her back.” I move my hand two arm lengths over. “And on this end we are equal coparents. I live with you, we equally share expenses, I’m bottle feeding at 4 a.m. Show me the range that you’re interested in discussing.” Fantasies are good, but possibilities are better. We begin to play with different scenarios, with me moving back from New York, with my partner, who is extremely supportive but does not want kids, eventually moving to join us. What if one of us gets a life-changing job opportunity in another city? What if our child becomes seriously disabled? What if one of us does? Over the course of a year we begin to mark the shape of what, exactly, we are signing up for. But it’s pretty clear that we’re signing up.
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If the fantasy was about exploring what I want, the commitment was about knowing that all other wants for the rest of my life would be experienced through the lens of this one. I have wanted a child since, at the age of two, I memorized Mary Poppins so I could read it to my baby sister. Over the years I have been steadily reminded of the power that children have to capture my attention and awaken my compassion, and have struggled to imagine myself aging as anything other than a parent. I’m deeply wired for parenting, and the process of committing to being one has made me respect all of the reasons that others may not be. My partner lives an incredibly full and active life that makes her happy, and it would be unfair to both her and a child to push that life aside for one that she knows would leave her feeling less fulfilled. For her, my coparenting means that she can keep her relationship with me and form a relationship with a child that balances her other passions.
We work out the logistics. During the second trimester I will move from the Brooklyn apartment that my partner and I share with several friends into Avary and Zeke’s house in San Francisco. About two months before Avary and Zeke start trying, we block out a full weekend to discuss our families of origin. We name the things that we want to reproduce from our childhoods, the things that we vehemently do not, and things that we wish we had. We do our best to map out the undercurrents of the strong emotions that exist around the decisions of parenting, and we make room for those of us who process out loud and those who need quiet time to write and reflect. We define the values that we will hold as a family. We proactively seek mediation and counseling.
Fantasies are good, but possibilities are better.
In the state of California, third parent adoption has recently been made legal, the result of decades of fights by queer couples whose sperm and egg donors wanted to contribute more than genetics. We are, as far as we know, the first set of parents to take advantage of this law which includes a straight couple, and definitely the first to include an asexual, but we know that what we are doing is not without legacy. We researched the Lesbian Mother’s National Defense Fund, which has been fighting custody battles for families who don’t fit the norm since the days when it was commonplace for lesbian moms to have their kids taken away. We lay the groundwork for our court case and we talk to queerspawn, adults raised in queer family, to get a sense of what our child might experience. We wait.
Avary and Zeke learn that they are pregnant on the morning of December 31, 2016, and call me immediately. I am on a snowy farm in the Catskills with my partner, reflecting on the coming year. It will still be a few months before we announce this news to the world, so I have time to work my head around the semantics. Is Avary pregnant? Are Avary and Zeke pregnant? Are “we” pregnant? That inclusive pronoun still feels more theoretical than real, like publicly declaring that the guy you’ve gone on two dates with is your boyfriend. I try it on. I start referring to Zeke as my baby daddy. I start packing.
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I land in San Francisco on May 1, four months before our August 31 due date. Four months to figure out how to share chores, and how I could integrate into their marriage while still giving it space to breathe. As an asexual I obviously wasn’t sleeping with either of them, but there are many other forms of intimacy to navigate. Which moments of bonding are important for us to share as a family, and which are needed for them as a couple? As Avary requires more support throughout the third trimester, the patterns become clearer, and a camaraderie develops between Zeke and I as we trade off housework, build furniture, and research the ins and outs of labor and infant care.
During these months we also seek to solidify the bonds that tie us together. Zeke and Avary have their wedding vows, and it seems like we should create some other encapsulation of the commitment uniting the three of us and the being that, at that point, we’re calling Thumper. On a long car ride to visit her soon-to-be Grannie, we draft up a document that reads a little like a prenup. We list our agreements around financial contribution, accepting or rejecting job opportunities, decision making, and separation with the feel of friends packing food for a disaster kit. We don’t know what’s coming, we can’t know what’s coming, but it is pleasant to imagine ourselves resilient when we get there.
Octavia is born on August 26, 2017, at 8:18 p.m. Since Avary is the last to carry her family name, the last name goes to her, while the two middle names are given to Zeke and me. She passes from mother to father to father in her first hours of life, learning the scent of our skin and the tone of our voices. That first night in the hospital we take shifts, Zeke until 3 a.m., me for the rest of the night working to make sure that Avary can breastfeed while getting as much sleep as possible. The next day we both get to experience something that few new fathers do: our child’s first day of life with the presence and awareness of a night of rest. Even Avary, still exhausted and recovering, is feeling more rested than she otherwise may have. Like Octavia, our existence together as parents is tasting reality for the first time and, miraculously, showing a spark of life.
As I write this piece Octavia is three weeks old. Baby and mom are both healthy, our nightly shifts are allowing Zeke and I to get a decent amount of sleep and we look forward to extending the privilege to Avary once Octavia starts bottle feeding. We are scheduling an appointment with a social worker, one of the first steps in pursuing third parent adoption, and are juggling the three sets of grandparents eager to fly in for a visit. There is a great deal to be excited about and a great deal more that remains uncertain, but for the time being we are low on regrets. My partner in Brooklyn sometimes says that when scuba diving or climbing a mountain there is a thrill in moments of jaw-dropping beauty and different kind of thrill in checking one’s gear. Our family, it seems, has an appetite for both.