I am in the process of interviewing Bay Area families for a series of writing projects on stay-at-home fathers and non-traditional families, collected as the "21st Century Family Project." For the next year or so, I will periodically post sketches of the families based on the interviews, as a kind of public notebook of the work I am doing. What follows is the story of Jackie and Jessica, who live in San Francisco's Noe Valley.
Jackie and Jessica met ten years ago. “I think we were destined to be parents,” says Jackie. “We would stay home, we would watch movies, then we moved in together. It was always about creating this home. We always talked about having a kid.”
Of course, a lesbian couple cannot simply stop using birth control in order to get pregnant.
“We decided to put the word out that we were looking for a donor,” says Jackie. “When we met Dave, we knew immediately that this was going to work. He didn’t want to have any fathering responsibilities, but he just thought it would be a great idea and he wanted to help us.”
After work, Dave would drop by the couple’s apartment, where he found a discrete glass of wine, a tube of lube, a stack of porn videos, and a small jar waiting for him in the living room. It didn’t take long for Jackie to get pregnant.
After a 28-hour labor, Eli (“the only name we could agree on”) was born.
“I don’t think I slept for literally a month after he was born,” recalls Jackie. “I was pretty messed up for that first month of his life. Jessica needed to work, she only got two weeks off, and she slept in the living room so she could actually sleep and function at work. I remember just being with him 24-7 and I don’t remember sleeping, and he would just sit there awake or I would be awake while he was sleeping, and I remember actually hitting my head against the wall at one point, because I just couldn’t control it at all. I couldn’t go away from it, I knew needed to be there, and it was so much, so crazy. It was such an intense beginning, that it just kind of broke me. There is just something that you have to succumb to, in order to maintain your sanity.”
Meanwhile, Jessica’s life and self-image were being turned inside-out. Though she had read dozens of books on birth, nothing prepared her for the brute reality of the labor—or the demands her new role as breadwinning, non-biological parent placed on her. “I remember during the labor just feeling really useless,” she says. “After we got home, we had this situation where she was in bed with him and I was on the couch. I was just like, ‘Are you OK, can I get you anything?’ That surprised me. Because I think culturally we’re trained to assume that that’s what the father does. In the movies, the mother does stuff and the father runs around looking silly and saying, ‘Are you OK?’”
“I did feel silly,” says Jessica, “but I definitely didn’t feel like a father, because I’d grown up learning to be a mother. Growing up and in our relationship, it was always my intention to have a baby. I think anyone who gives birth has this very instinctual knowledge of what that baby needs, but I didn’t know how to make myself a part of the nourishing of this little person. We had both grown up believing that this is the mother’s role, and she was doing the mother’s role, but I wasn’t going to do the father’s role. To call myself the father felt like that was a further step away from being the parent, from being the mother.”
“When I’m not at work or not here at home, then I feel very guilty,” continues Jessica. “I don’t have a lot of time to myself. I feel like I have a job that I’ve had for eight years and I guess that makes a career, but I could just as easily have a different job. I grew up with a father who said, you don’t take a job unless there are benefits and health care. He taught me first you get the things you need, then you get the things you want.”
Both moms say that parenthood has invested their lives with a meaning that they’d never had before. “Before I was a parent,” says Jackie, “I’d be running these errands and doing grocery shopping, and it just felt so meaningless to me. I feel like with Eli there’s more meaning now, with the cooking and dish-washing. Everything is so structured. When am I going to have that moment when I scream, ‘I just can’t do this anymore!”? I’m waiting for myself to go crazy and just let everything go, and then I’ll have one of those houses that everyone is really scared to come to, but it hasn’t happened yet. Right now I just live moment to moment.”
Though he now lives in Hawaii, the donor, Dave, is close to the family. “We had a hard time with that in the beginning,” reports Jackie. “I was very, very possessive, and I didn’t want Jessica to lose that feeling of being a parent, because people are so focused on that question of who’s the father. But Dave is just such a love, there’s such an honesty to him, that it makes me want to open up more and allow this extended family to work out. Today, he’s more than an uncle, he’s closer than that.”
Jackie and Jessica have also found a wide circle of parents, straight and queer, who share their values and accept them as part of the community. “The companionships that we have developed over the past year or so have felt genuine and that has meant the world to me,” says Jackie. “Respect plays the main role in my day-to-day existence. When I see other parents respecting other parenting styles that are unlike their own, I take note and appreciate their ability to be open and accepting. I find myself instantly drawn to them and I, who used to be an extremely shy person, am sparking up a conversation and making a new friend. Parenthood has definitely turned me into an open person. Something I thought I would never be.”
Jessica agrees. “We are finding that because Jackie took Eli to the playground so often, and we go to the farmers’ market together, we have started to find a legitimate community of people we like. [Now] hanging out with Eli and other kids and their parents is essentially my only social interaction with adults. Outside of work, play dates are my social life...and it’s pretty nice.”
“When Eli was born,” says Jackie, “we felt like he was the missing piece of the puzzle, for some reason. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to being just Jackie.”