My Baby Has 3 Fathers -- Because Parenting Is More Than a 2-Person Job

I recently completed my second play by escaping to a quiet area outside of the city for a few days. On Instagram, I snapped a picture of myself soaking in some sunshine alongside my laptop. Unbeknownst to me, this photograph caused a stir between a friend and her fellow parents. They piled on judgments about how much free time I have and how I choose to spend it. Why were these people so opinionated? Because I am also a mother -- and my son happens to have three fathers.

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In 2012, I started thinking about having a family and asked several parents what they considered to be their biggest challenge. One answer stood out: "I don’t have time for myself anymore."

I pride myself on my independence, so this observation was daunting. At that point, I had been in a relationship for more than a decade and had chosen to live separately from my partner the entire time. How was I supposed to find the energy to have a career, pursue my passions, and raise a child with the help of only one other person? It's a pressing question for all working moms in the 21st century. Then, I had a thought. What if my child had more than two parents?

A year later our son, Wilder, was born. He has three dads. My partner Andy, who had a vasectomy early in our relationship, and I moved into one household. Wilder's biological father, Lee, and his partner, Clint, live less than a mile away. Wilder shares his time with all of us.

When I made the decision to co-parent with another couple, I received both praise and consternation -- mostly from other women. Women without children often told me that the way I challenged the fundamental two-parent family model was revolutionary. Some mothers joked that they wished they had thought of the idea, while others remarked that they would never be able to give up being with their "baby" at all times.

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The idea of relying on a community to share the responsibility of caretaking has long been considered radical in America. In 1928, the young Columbia University student Margaret Mead became one of the most famous anthropologists in the world when she published Coming of Age in Samoa about a dramatically different family structure on the Island of Ta'u in the Samoan Islands. From the moment a baby was born, he or she was given to relatives while the mother recuperated from birth. Even young children chose which household they wanted to live in, moving frequently between different homes.

This was the first of many books written by Mead that would challenge American gender roles. After studying other cultures, she wrote in her column for Redbook magazine:

Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve been put in an impossible situation.

The proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" has long resonated with me. The exact origins are unclear, but in some parts of the Congo, Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania they have a similar saying. Basically, couples, let alone single mothers, shouldn't be expected to do it alone.

Co-parenting has not come without challenges. Wilder's three dads and I have all thought at one point or another, "What did I get myself into?" Decision-making with two people can be trying, so just imagine adding two more to that equation. Names, circumcision, vaccines, antibiotic use, school choices, parenting styles -- all things you don't fully understand the importance of until you have a child.

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Wilder continues to amaze us with his response to all the different environments he's exposed to. He shows no issue with sharing his time between our households. He acknowledges us as one big family.

While I am the only person he calls "Mommy," the role of mother is filled by his fathers too. Lee, known to Wilder as "Daddy," is an ace at baking and sewing. At times, he is the quintessential housewife -- making fresh pies and the majority of Wilder's clothes from scratch.

Andy, known to Wilder as "Poppa," brings Wilder to hang out with him at the neighborhood bar and restaurant he owns. In his first year of life, Wilder spent just as much time at Andy's place in the French Quarter as he did at home. I believe this strongly influenced Wilder's personality -- he is inquisitive, social, and thoughtful.

Clint, whom Wilder calls by name, is a beacon of patience with a penchant for film appreciation. He has taken Wilder to countless special screenings, with Wilder becoming one of the youngest honorary members of the New Orleans Film Society. When Wilder is with me, we are usually reading, drawing, or dancing. Very rarely do a few hours pass without Wilder's saying, "Mommy, play Beyonce," which means any female vocalist.

While my double-parent family is mostly championed in my community in New Orleans, some people still see it as taboo -- especially other mothers. There is an absurd notion in America that mothers should be able to do everything without asking for others' help. I think this harks back to the American ideal of rugged individualism (that is, we should all be able to succeed on our own, without the help of others). But how does this play out in the role of motherhood? It can create isolation in a time when connection to others is paramount.

Lee and Clint have Wilder three nights a week. We also have flexibility in our schedules, which allows for travel or last-minute obligations. It is deeply understood by every member of the family that our time with Wilder and our personal time are equally important. This is instrumental in preventing feelings of exhaustion or resentment.

Here in America, many women find themselves overworked and tired by the time they begin to acclimate to the role of mother. According to a report released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the US was ranked 20th out of 21 high-income-economy countries on parental leave policies. The report said the average American mom gets 14 weeks off from work to take care of her newborn, whereas in most of the other countries the average mom gets from three months to several years for maternity leave. The US is also one of only two countries (including Australia) that offer no paid family leave. I had to return to work a mere four weeks after Wilder was born.

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The first year of parenthood was challenging as I tried to balance my personal identity with that of becoming Wilder's mother. I had too many expectations of how my life as a mother would be, down to a detailed birth plan. I learned how foolhardy this was when he arrived a month early via an emergency Cesarean section. I had planned a natural childbirth followed by breastfeeding and cloth diapers. I was unable to breastfeed, going so far as to take the prescription drug domperidone in an attempt to induce my milk production. I gave up on cloth diapers after a day when Wilder was riddled with diarrhea. I struggled because I felt I couldn’t live up to the projected ideal of a "good" mother. I had guilt over going back to work, although I knew it was necessary.

During this adjustment period, Wilder's three fathers reminded me that while they couldn't give birth or breastfeed, it didn't make them any less of parents. As I went through the immense body changes and emotional upsets that accompany pregnancy and childbirth, their willingness to listen and offer me support, and provide loving care for Wilder, was immeasurably helpful for my well-being.

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Often at the park, over tepid cups of crappy coffee, I listen as morose mothers talk about all the things they wish they had time to do. Wilder's three fathers and I have all been able to continue cultivating our passions, whether that is writing, comedy, fabric art, or home renovations. There are even times when we employ a babysitter and enjoy a night out together.

When I am with Wilder, I work to be present; when he is with his other parents I have the freedom to focus on myself. I will continue to stand up and rebuke the notion that such an approach to life makes me a bad mother, because I've learned that in order to be the best parent I can be, I have to first be the best person I can be.

 

This essay originally appeared on Prime Mind.

Images via Lori Tipton

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