Adventures in Alternative Parenting
“Picture time,” Michael said. The five of us had just tumbled out of the car after a few hours in traffic on our way from Boston to Provincetown, the famously gay tip of Cape Cod.
We stood in line outside of a French bistro, waiting to order lunch. I smiled when he pointed his phone at me and took a picture. He took separate pictures of all of us then said, “I’ll make a collage of the five of us for a family photo.” Jerel laughed and said, “make one like the Brady Bunch.” Michael used one of his iPhone apps to create a Brady Bunch-esque collage of all our faces, Li in the middle surrounded by her four parents.
It was our first vacation to Family Week in Provincetown. Our family consisted of me, my girlfriend, her ex-husband, his boyfriend, and our beautiful little girl (the spawn of my girlfriend and her ex-husband.) We are two autonomous, monogamous couples who share equal custody of our child. But unlike other autonomous, monogamous couples who share custody of a child, we are both same sex couples who enjoy a friendship. We spend time together regularly, usually in the form of a “family dinner” once each week.
I was a bit nervous for the trip because we were spending our first vacation as a group in a two-room cottage. We drove from Boston to Provincetown together, packed into my girlfriend Lucy’s car. When we stopped for lunch, our smiling faces in adjacent Brady Bunch boxes confirmed: we were off to a happy start.
We arrived at the cottage. It was quaint but tiny. Our ten shoes kicked off inside the door seemed to take up a quarter of the total space. The bedroom had a queen-sized bed and the living room, a full-sized futon.
“Li should sleep in the bed,” Michael said. We all nodded. We looked around silently: a vaulted ceiling, the gray futon, a rocking chair, a little card table with chairs. The futon looked uncomfortable; it was one of those cheap, thin mattresses that feel like a slab of concrete. I’m sure they were thinking what I was thinking: which couple would sleep in the bed with Li?
“Why don’t we take the bed with Li tonight since you two have your date,” Lucy said. We decided to alternate date nights and then we’d spend the third and final night all together. “You can take it tomorrow night when we have our date.” It was a good plan.
That night, Michael and Jerel went out for their date and Lucy, Li, and I stayed in. The next morning, we all went to a pool together and enjoyed an afternoon of swimming. Li loved having us all there, playing games in the pool and lounging around in reclining chairs in the sun.
On our date night, Lucy and I went to dinner and walked down Commercial Street enjoying a cool, seaside night with tons of other same-sex couples with kids swirling around us. It was so apparent to me especially that night: We—the four adults in the family—have a lot of flexibility and freedom that two-parent families just can’t enjoy. All kids should have four parents!
Group night began with all of us meeting friends of mine for dinner. My friend from work and her wife were there for the week with their small daughter. Although my friend knew about our alternative family, apparently she hadn’t told her wife. We arrived for dinner and, as the others introduced themselves, I overheard my friend’s wife asking Michael how he knew us.
“I’m Li’s father,” he said and smiled. The confusion was plain on her face but she didn’t ask any other questions. I realized then that I recognized her confused expression. It was similar to those I’d seen on the faces of other customers at the French bistro while the five of us waited in line together, passing around our gay Brady Bunch collage. I knew there was an intimate energy about the five of us that revealed we weren’t merely two couples, a pair of us with a kid.
That night at dinner, we chatted over Mexican food while my friend and her wife took turns chasing their toddler around the restaurant. Eventually, through interrupted conversation, the story of who we were to each other came out. But the details didn’t clear up the confusion. A divorced heterosexual couple with a child, not only on vacation together but also re-partnered in same gender couples and welcoming their new partners to be a part of the happy family, too? It didn’t compute. Lingering confusion clouded my friend’s expression when she looked at all of us together.
Maybe that’s because of the assumptions and generalizations that are made about “heterosexual” married couples. In this case, neither Lucy nor Michael has ever been heterosexual. They’ve both identified as either queer or bisexual, even while they were married. I was tempted to reveal this hidden piece of the puzzle to my friend and her wife, but decided not to.
After dinner, we walked to get ice cream. On the way, Li played among us, swinging from our hands and running around, laughing, declaring how excited she was to have ice cream. Watching her, my friend’s wife said, “she’s having fun with her four parents.”
I know it was a simple observation, but it seemed to me a very important one. In that moment, I saw Li and all of us through the eyes of this woman, and it was like seeing us through an omniscient, time-transcendent lens: Li is 10 and playing favorites; she’s 12 and playing us against each other; she’s 14 and wondering which of us to talk to about her first kiss; she’s 16 and has great stretches of time when she’s terribly, terribly busy, much too busy to spend time with parents; she’s a young woman and tasting her first bitter loss, grateful to have four pairs of arms to console her.
I saw it so clearly: our time together was sweet, all honeymoon, as we built our system of trust and interdependence. In years to come, if we are all together, we will each benefit in so many ways from that interdependence.
The queen bed was even harder than the concrete slab of a futon, and sleeping with Li was hazardous. She’s an active sleeper, which means you’re likely to get a tiny elbow to the eye or a good kick to the groin trying to sleep next to her. Jerel learned this the hard way on their night in the bed with Li, so on the final night, we switched again.
The boys dragged the futon mattress on the floor because they’re both too tall for it. We stayed up late just talking and in the morning we walked to breakfast. Our first family vacation was a success. The four of us adults proved to be a well-oiled machine of childcare, not the awkward and bumbling confusion cloud I’d feared. Even in cramped quarters, we didn’t want to leave. But, inevitably, we had to. We left with heavy, grateful hearts, collectively looking forward to the next family dinner.