Published on June 20th, 2014 | by Elizabeth Earley3
Elizabeth Earley’s UNCOMMON FAMILY
Just before I depressed the plunger of the syringe, I looked out the skylight window that framed thin tree branches and noticed how elegant they looked against a soft gray sky. I was on my back on the floor, inseminating myself with sperm. The sperm belonged to my girlfriend’s ex-husband’s boyfriend. The combination of amused awkwardness, gratitude, and reverence I felt had become familiar by then—our fifth attempt. I closed my eyes and finished up.
When I opened my eyes, there they were: a family of birds perched in the previously empty branches. They were blackbirds, their wings tinged with red.
My spontaneous response was to smile, then to count the birds. Six of them. Then, when I dared to wonder if their appearance above me in that precise moment might be a sign of success at last, I dismissed such silliness. For the four consecutive cycles prior, I had looked for signs only to be disappointed. And it wasn’t just me that was disappointed; it was three other people too.
By then, I was skilled at inseminating myself, both in practice and in mindset. It’s important, said the authoritative Internet articled I’d read, to have peace of mind and a sense of enjoyment, to not feel stressed or nervous. I fell into a meditative state, relaxing my body and making sure, each time, that I was feeling pleasure. Sometimes I visualized the collision of sperm and egg. Sometimes I emptied my mind and just stayed present.
It was May 2012, when they said yes to our uncommon proposal. My partner Lucy and I share custody of her four-year-old daughter with Michael and Jerel, Lucy’s ex-husband and his partner. It had been this way for two years. I had long wanted to have a child of my own. Inspired by how well our four-parent team approach worked, and how much I admired Michael and Jerel as fathers (attentive, affectionate, nurturing), I discussed the idea with Lucy of asking Jerel to father our second child. She agreed immediately. After a few months of talking and planning and deliberating, they invited us over for dinner to give us their answer.
As soon as I walked in the door, Jerel gave me a wrapped gift with a card. I sat down on the couch and opened it. My eyes blurred with tears reading his letter, right in the middle of which was a big “YES.” He had knitted a small scarf for the future baby, sea-foam green, his favorite color. I stood up and hugged him fiercely. I smelled the cleanness of his shirt and felt his chest shake with loud, hearty laughter that comes from all the way down. I hugged Lucy and Michael too, all of us smiling and wiping our eyes. We decided to start trying in September, following a summer of planning and spending time together as a family.
Four months later, after a group vacation and many picnics and the drafting and signing of a co-parenting agreement, we gave it our first try. That first time, Lucy and I waited in the car outside their house for them to come out with the goods. It was dark, and we felt like people waiting to engage in some illegal transaction. We got the text, coming down, and I went to the door. Michael appeared in his pajamas. I handed him a plastic bag of specimen cups, he handed me a brown paper bag. We both giggled and Michael shook his head and smiled. No words were exchanged, just a quick hug, then I rushed home with Lucy to our house a half mile away.
Over four months, I inseminated myself fifteen or so times with Jerel’s semen and did not get pregnant. We tried different syringes, different specimen cups. A few times, Lucy did it for me. Every time, she played some crucial role, like picking it up and bringing it to me or watching our daughter while I went to their house and did it. I tried many other things to help make it happen—gave up caffeine (that was huge), exercised a lot, refrained from exercise, ate goji berries, ate pineapple cores, took Chinese herbs, received many acupuncture treatments, meditated, recited affirmations. All to no avail. Never in my life had I been so acutely aware of how autonomous a system my body is. What it does and how—circulating blood, healing itself, digesting food, ovulating, shedding the uterine lining—was absolutely none of my business.
I read that my chance of conceiving each cycle was about 10 percent. And what is that 10 percent based on? History. Data. Equations. Calculations. Science. But these are imprecise, all. They don’t account for the real ingredient at work behind these events: Magic.
On December 14, our fifth cycle attempting to conceive, that family of six birds arrived in the very moment of insemination and I tried not to see it as a sign. I didn’t want to cling to false hope. About two weeks later, I woke up one morning and peed on a stick. I set the pregnancy test aside while I brushed my teeth. A few minutes later, I took a deep breath and looked at the result. There they were: two dark blue lines side by side. I was pregnant.
I ran back into my bedroom and jumped into bed beside Lucy.
“Look!” I handed it to her. She took it, rolled over, turned on her bedside light, and studied it.
“Oh my god,” she said.
Lucy got up on her knees and hugged herself like she does when she’s happy. I reached up, tackled her, and we rolled around in the bed squealing and laughing. Then we lay in silent awe, our hands touching under the covers.
She suggested I take another pregnancy test to confirm. I did, this time with a different brand of pregnancy test. The confirmation was there in bold, blue, unambiguous language: “Pregnant.”
We wanted to tell Jerel and Michael in person, so we invited them over to our house under false pretense. Unfortunately, Michael got stuck at work late, so Jerel came alone. I had placed a gift ribbon on the positive pregnancy test and hid it behind my back. As soon as he walked through the door, I could barely wait for him to take his shoes off before I thrust it in his face. He was confused at first, then his eyes registered what it was and his mouth dropped open.
“We’re pregnant.” I said and did a little dance. He looked at me, wide-eyed, slapped a hand over his mouth and screamed, then jumped up and down and cried. I looked at Lucy behind me on the couch, hugging herself and smiling with gleaming wet eyes. Later that evening when Michael got home from work, he and Jerel video-called to congratulate us all again. There were their two bright faces, their familiar kitchen stretched out in the background. Michael held up the positive pregnancy test to the camera, shaking his head, his smile was so big it practically consumed his face.
Months later, I was in the car listening to NPR when I heard a piece about the new science of three-parent babies, whereby scientists can now mix DNA from three people—two women and one man—to produce one healthy baby. A man called in to express his outrage. “This will end up being a way to create designer babies, or god forbid, give lesbians the chance to have a baby that looks like both of them!” What’s to stop people, he asked, from making babies with a dozen parents? More?
I turned off the radio. I imagined our two children years from now, sitting down for their millionth storybook or movie that features families with one mom and one dad. They will be used to never seeing their family reflected in media. They will look out upon the larger world—the socially acceptable norm, the legally sanctioned norm—and find themselves excluded. What if, when they’re older and we show them their birth certificates, they ask us why all four of their parents aren’t listed there? And if we tell them the truth, that it’s not legal for a child to have more than two official parents, how will this make them feel about themselves? About us?
There is an important consideration that this caller and people who share his views are missing: The children that exist in these multi-parent families today.
We can only legally legitimize our family to the extent that we can get married, me to Lucy and Jerel to Michael. And even that is very newly sanctioned by the powers that be. Even that is still being fought against. We can know that our children will be loved more fully than if it were just two of us raising them. We can hope they will find peers in our community who can relate to their family structure. But we can’t hope for all four of our names listed as parents on both their birth certificates. And we can’t hope for a mainstream media that celebrates many different kinds of families, including a family like ours.
But tremendous things (like social change of that magnitude) do happen in spite of my fear and worry. They happen quietly among individuals and, one by one, they add up.
Walking our daughter to preschool this morning at sunrise, I rest a hand on my growing bump and bite the inside of my lip. My mind is on the day ahead, everything I have to accomplish, and as I work out a mental strategy to achieve it all, my daughter yells, “look!” She’s pointing at the sky. Her face is as ecstatic as mine was on the morning that I peed on a stick and saw two dark lines instead of one. My gaze follows hers and there it is: pink and lavender with streaks of orange edging gray. “It’s so beautiful,” she says. “It’s tremendous,” I say.