The Messy Magic of Creating a (Queer) Family: My Journey Into Parenthood
Falling in love and starting a family requires taking a leap, trusting intuition, and there is no doubt in my mind that the process is spiritual. It is magic. Here is my story. (And yes, I did do a tarot reading before taking a pregnancy test which told me I would get a positive test in a few days.)
How I met my wife
Marlo and I met at the right time. Both of us had gotten to a place of inner harmony with ourselves, and then ended up dancing at the same gay bar one night. We had come with different people, but those people knew each other. It was out of character for me to pursue someone and to ask for her number, but the moment I saw her there, I knew I could not let her go. I danced near her all night until finally she danced with me. We exchanged numbers. The next day she texted to invite me to a local festival — our first date. We connected so well and had so much to talk about that Marlo was late for meeting a friend that evening. We both knew this was something special, and it was. It feels to me like we are cosmically connected. It makes me believe in magic. We’ve now been together for almost nine years. We had a marriage ceremony with family in October, 2011, and then legalized our marriage in Iowa on our anniversary in 2013.
The Decision to Start a Family and Our Journey to Parenthood
In 2014/15, a little while after Marlo and I had bought our first home and I had started teaching full time (high school English), we brought up the subject of starting a family more seriously. We decided that we each wanted to carry one child, and that Marlo should try first since she is a couple of years older than I. When Marlo felt ready, we began the process of finding a donor. A lot of thought went into choosing. We wanted someone with talents and interests in areas that both of us do, and we wanted someone who was not White.
It is still hard for me to articulate why we wanted children of multiple races, but here’s an attempt (informed by bell hook's thoughts in Teaching to Transgress): Marlo and I, identifying as lesbian, are part of an outsider culture, and the difficulties we’ve faced because of this (which are truly minor compared to what other LGBTQ people and people of color have faced, but still powerful for us) have made us stronger, more empathetic, and more likely to question the norms around us. While our children would automatically have an outsider aspect to their lives through the fact that they have two moms, we still wanted there to be something inherent in their identities that would allow them the same opportunity that we had to become better people than we believe we would have had we not been given the gift/challenge of our marginalized perspective. This also means that we have a tremendous responsibility to our children in terms of making them aware of the privileges they do have by mostly appearing White, and in educating them about the Afghan and Persian cultures to which they are genetically linked. I am still working on figuring out what this looks like in our lives.
We further narrowed our search for donors based on blood type and CMV status, something you’d probably never know about yourself if you were not seeking “fertility” treatment, and found our final matches based on intuitive flashes when seeing their childhood photos. We originally wanted to have the same donor for each of our children, but because Jorah’s donor was unavailable when it was my turn to be pregnant, we realized it didn’t matter — they would be loving siblings no matter what their genetics said, and I have always believed that the universe plays a role in these things and that I need to trust it.
Marlo and I were very lucky. Each of us had only one IUI procedure (intrauterine insemination), and we each got pregnant on the first try, with no complications during our pregnancies.
Our daughter Jorah (carried by Marlo) was born almost two weeks late — on New Year’s Eve, 2015. Marlo went in to be induced because there was a little too much amniotic fluid around Jorah. We got to eat, pack up, and settle in to the hospital to (try to) sleep for a while. The medical staff started with the lowest level of induction, and a couple of hours later, Marlo’s water broke. After that, the birth was entirely natural, and Marlo amazed me with her strength and the way she surrendered to her body. She was also really entertaining during labor, saying things like “SCIENCE!” when changing positions so that gravity would do some of the work. We had hired a doula, Miranda, (who has since become a very good friend), to support us through the birth, and it was an excellent decision. Miranda kept us calm and made sure our needs were met — including reminding me to eat! After Jorah’s birth, Marlo was over the moon and extremely loopy on a hormone high, whereas I was weepy, exhausted, and couldn’t explain why I just needed to stand in the shower and cry for a while. Miranda and the labor & delivery nurses completely understood where each of us was coming from, and reminded me that birth partners experience PTSD levels of stress without the benefit of happy hormones to help them cope. When it was my turn to give birth and Marlo’s turn to support, our reactions were the same — I was so happy! And Marlo needed to cry in the shower. In discussing it all afterward, we agreed that while labor and delivery is indeed hard and painful, we believe that it is harder to be the birth partner.
My birth story is similar, but a little different (as all births are). Marlo had to be out in California for work for about a week when I was 38 weeks pregnant. I was understandably super nervous about not having her here, and I couldn’t imagine going through my delivery without her. After some thought, I decided the best alternative to have with me in the delivery room would be my youngest sister, Whitney, who agreed to come stay with me during the week Marlo would be gone (all of us hoping that Whitney wouldn’t need to actually be my birth partner). During that week, I was supposed to still be at work; however, my body was telling me that I really couldn’t be there anymore. Teaching is exhausting work, and I’m so glad that my long-term sub was available to come in early. I ended up only working the first day of that week, and started early labor on Sunday night, the day that my sister left to return home to Minnesota. I feel like my body knew that when Marlo returned, it was time to have the baby. My labor lasted 2.5 days until I was far enough along to be admitted to the hospital, and for 2 of those days, it was at the level of intensity at which you’re supposed to go in (contractions that you can’t talk or walk through, less than five minutes apart). Luckily, once I did get into a delivery room, though I started at only 3 cm, the labor progressed very quickly, and our son Sabre was born just a few hours later … on my birthday! Sabre’s birth was completely natural, without medication of any kind and with an extremely hands-off medical team. The staff truly trusted Marlo, Miranda, and me to do the work well. When doctors come in at the end of labor to deliver a baby, I’ve since been told that they usually raise the bed and add a lot of lighting, often making you change positions, and they start physically intervening to help the baby out while they direct your pushing. None of this happened for me. I continued to push in a hands-and-knees position with relatively low lighting with no one touching me except Marlo, and no one telling me how or when to push, but letting me listen to my body and use my contractions when they came. My doctor crawled onto the floor to catch Sabre and guide him onto the bed beneath me. Then she told me I could scoop him up. It was amazing, and made me feel the strongest I have ever felt. The pain was hard, but I would honestly do it all again. Marlo was balling for the last 5 minutes at least.
Nursing is such an exquisite, personal time between mother and baby, and can also honestly be quite isolating. I could write about what Marlo has told me of her nursing and pumping experiences, but it wouldn’t quite be authentic to her true experience. So I will mostly talk about mine. For Marlo & Jorah, I will just say that there were really only problems once Marlo returned to work and had to pump. Though her employer had a dedicated pumping space, moms had to reserve it ahead of time, and scheduling for this became quite difficult. Her male supervisor at the time was not understanding of the need to pump. The pumping space did not feel private enough, and Marlo said she felt rushed. Her supply began to dwindle, and so Jorah was breastfed for six months. Right after Jorah’s birth, I considered trying to induce lactation, but decided to instead just offer my breast for comfort nursing. I found I quite enjoyed comfort nursing and getting my chance for bonding time with my daughter. However, Jorah sometimes just needed her mama (Marlo goes by mama, I go by mom), and I, as I suspect many fathers or non-birth parents do, felt quite sad about not being able to give her what she needed.
Sabre was able to latch on and start nursing within an hour of his birth, and has always been a good eater. His weight was lower than it should have been for his gestational age, according to the doctor and nurses, and so they had to check his blood sugar every three hours to make sure we didn’t need to supplement feed him. Miranda assured me that if that were the case, and I was unable to express enough extra colostrum for that purpose, she would get us some donor breast milk. Sabre didn’t need it — his blood sugar remained in a good zone, and my body produced colostrum, and then milk, very well. A little too well, as it turned out — partly because of an oversupply of milk, I came down with mastitis five times during Sabre’s first four months. I believe the other reason for my getting mastitis so many times was that I was trying to push myself and my body too far. Although I did not return to work for the end of the school year, the work of having a baby, raising the baby, and raising a toddler — Jorah was then two — is crazy hard. When I took time for myself to go to belly dance practice (something I’ve been doing for a few years), I would miss a feeding and use a little more physical energy than I actually had, and then I’d start feeling pain in my breast(s) and the dizzy, horrible achiness of an oncoming high fever. It was terribly frustrating. I think we are now in a good rhythm, and I have hopefully had my last bout of mastitis. I’ve even been able to donate my milk to the Mothers Milk Alliance.
In general, I love nursing. I cherish the connection with my baby. I swoon over his sweet, sleeping face pressed against me. It is not painful, and I don’t worry that he isn’t getting enough milk. AND it is also still hard. The isolation comes in the middle of the night when I am awake with him and nursing has gone fine, but I am having a lot of trouble getting him back to sleep, or he has woken to feed so many times that I never reach a deep sleep. Or when I’m nursing in public, and, although after giving birth I find I’m not bothered much by exposing my breasts, I catch strange looks or people moving away from me. Nursing in public is also difficult because Sabre wants to look around him and can be distracted by sights and sounds, so the closeness with him is not there, and I can feel like there’s still an uncomfortable amount of milk left when he’s done feeding. I also feel isolated around some visitors to our home who, so excited by the presence of Sabre and in love with holding him, say things like “Oh, lunch is here!” when I walk into the room, handing him to me for long enough to feed him or stop him crying, and then demanding him back. That makes me feel disconnected from my baby because I want to linger after nursing, snuggling him, and I also feel disconnected from those visitors who don’t act like they see me as a real person anymore.
I am so so so grateful that I was able to extend my maternity leave because arranging times to pump as a teacher is extremely difficult. I did not know this beforehand, but public school districts are not under the same obligations to provide a time/place to pump as most other employers are. And if they were, it would still be mostly impossible to pump as often as is needed without hiring subs for lactating teachers to cover parts of classes. I have heard that teacher moms experience plummeting milk supply after returning to work — not just because of the lack of time to pump, but also because of the high stress and long hours of the job.
I am lucky enough to have many new and/or experienced moms/parents among my friends and family — and it doesn’t hurt that my wife also has experienced breastfeeding. In addition, our doula Miranda recently created a queer parents group that meets once a month. This meeting partially conflicts with my belly dance practice, so I haven’t gotten to go as often as I’d like, but it does truly feel like a haven. LGBTQ+ families face legal and situational issues that other families do not, and it is healing to be in a space of people that understand where you’re coming from, that you don’t have to explain things to as fully, and that can give you a particular kind of guidance. Our city is also a pretty progressive and humanitarian place, and most places I go, I find people who are supportive of parents and of breastfeeding more often than not. Marlo and I are also fortunate in having a very supportive family, many members of which are able to come right over to play with a toddler, bounce a baby, help prepare dinner, or lend us their lawnmower.
Thank you for reading. Tell us about your parenting journey in the comments below!