It is Sunday morning in Greenwich Village, and, as they do almost every Sunday, Viva and Felix wake up in their bunk beds in Mommy’s one-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of their solid red brick building. The 3-year-old twins play together for a while, have some breakfast and a bath, and then, as it nears noon, it’s time to walk to the two-bedroom apartment right next door.
“Papi!” Viva yells happily when her father meets her in the hallway. She jumps on his back for a ride into the room she and her brother share here in this adjoining but separate half of their home.
“Daddy!” Felix shouts, giving his other father a morning hug, then sprinting to join his sister as they revisit the toys they haven’t seen since the day before.
“How’s his ear?” the man they call Daddy asks the woman they call Mommy.
“Better. The medicine seems to have worked,” she says. “I left it in your kitchen. He gets another dose tonight.”
The mommy in this family scene is Kirsten Johnson, the daddy is Ira Sachs and Papi is Boris Torres. Together they are raising Viva and Felix Torres, and they are all navigating the very modern and deeply ancient questions of what it means to be a family.
“You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives,” the saying goes. And yet throughout the United States, clusters of people who consider themselves families are determined to prove otherwise. “You can’t choose” is one of those things that used to be true — like the fact that a child can only have two biological or legal parents, that a woman can’t give birth after menopause, that a marriage is between a man and a woman — but are now being challenged by law, custom and technology.
“We allow people to change so many of their core identities, so many things that once were absolutes,” says Andrew Solomon, author of the bestseller “Far From the Tree” and himself a member of a family that includes five parents of four children living in three states.
“People can change genders, they live on a spectrum of sexuality, they divorce and remarry, they immigrate and become Americans, convert and change religions,” Solomon says. “Against this backdrop, the idea of controlling what constitutes a family becomes regressive.”
So what then is a family? And, more importantly, who gets to decide?
“You can’t choose your family” is one of those things that used to be true but is being challenged by law, custom and technology.
In answering those questions — and raising many others — families around the country are stretching the definitions and the rules, challenging conventions that were not necessarily true in the first place, and hinting that there are few limits on where human relationships might go. They are also facing complications and obstacles that reflect just how hard it can be to buck long-accepted norms.
“Change has been happening for a long time, with divorce and mobility and people choosing single parenthood,” says Joshua Gamson, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco and the author of “Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship.” “Same-sex parenting is maybe the most visible, definitive crack in a crumbling definition.”
On a late spring evening in Portland, Ore., Lake Cooper Harbaugh was using the new couch as a trampoline. His bouncing occasionally landed him on Bacon, the household’s 10-year-old pug, who is as phlegmatic as 2-year-old Lake is exuberant.
“Be gentle,” called his mama, Jennefer White, from the kitchen, where she was setting the table for dinner for Lake and his four parents in their family home.
The first one in the door that particular evening, back from his job as a claims administrator for the city of Portland, was Jennefer’s partner, Gaius Harbaugh. Lake calls him “Baba,” which is the Bosnian word for grandma, though no one in this family is actually Bosnian and Gaius, at 28, is nobody’s grandmother. Still, the name fits, he believes, especially during his transition from female (his primary identity when Lake was born) to male (his primary identity now). “My gender has always been fluid,” Gaius says, “and ‘grandma’ is gender-neutral. It’s a loving abstract, an idea.”
Next home was April Cooper, 42, Lake’s biological mother, an office manager at a nonprofit for homeless families. Lake calls her “Amma,” which April chose because it means “earth mother.” The little boy, who looks just like her, followed her into her bedroom for the one-on-one time he has come to expect every evening while Baba goes off to decompress after work and Mama continues to focus on dinner. But when Chris Miller, Lake’s biological father and April’s fiancé, walked in, still in his uniform from the package delivery service where he loads trucks all day, Lake’s attentions shifted. “Daddy!” Lake shouted, and pounced on Chris as he had been pouncing on Bacon.
These four adults met as friends in Humboldt, Calif., about a decade ago. They were all in other relationships and marriages at first, then gradually coupled up over the years. By the fall of 2012, Jennefer was living with Gaius (who was using the birth name Jillian) and April was with Chris. The main thread between the two couples was the one connecting Jennefer and April. Never romantically attached, the women described themselves as “platonic life partners” — close friends fiercely committed to each other.
Which meant Jennefer knew how thrilled April was at the time to be starting a new chapter in life. April had been a teenage mother who raised a son and daughter mostly on her own, and now that they were grown, she was “looking at being a free adult for the first time in my life,” she says. “Chris was all scheduled to have a vasectomy and we were going to enjoy life, just us together.”
“As soon as April said she wanted to have that kind of a relationship [with the baby], I said, ‘OK, this baby has four parents.’” – Gaius Harbaugh, Lake’s “Baba”
April, in turn, knew how hard Jennefer was trying to have a baby. “It’s all I ever wanted, since I was 5 and would carry my little sister around like a doll,” Jennefer says. She failed to get pregnant during her first two marriages, both to men. Then she and Gaius used “every method we could think of,” she says, including mail-order sperm donation and “having sex with a married man for nine months.” Finally, when a doctor diagnosed the problem as blocked fallopian tubes, Jennefer vowed to embrace life without children, and made plans to move to Portland to start anew.
“We would be DINKs,” Jennefer says, using the acronym for Dual Income, No Kids. “I was all ready to start a business making baby food to sell at farmers’ markets. We rented a beautiful studio apartment on the 22nd floor of a building downtown. We were on our way.”
At a going-away party for the couple in December 2012, everyone’s plans changed. April, usually the first to leave any gathering because she suffers from fibromyalgia and tires easily, stayed till the very end. When it was just the four of them, April and Chris shared their news with Jennefer and Gaius: April was pregnant. In the weeks since she’d found out, April had considered all her options, and decided several contradictory things with certainty: She didn’t want to raise another child, she didn’t want to have an abortion and she didn’t think she could give a child away to a stranger.
What she did want was to share this child with Jennefer, and that first, tentative conversation is what led to this house, this dinnertime tableau.
April had relied often on her own sister while raising her now grown children, and this time she hoped to duplicate that relationship, but from the other side. “My sister was like a ‘co-parent,’ and I told Jen I wanted that with this baby, I wanted to be part of his life in a way that I can feel and show my mama-love for him,” April says.
Gaius was the one who first saw them all under one roof. “That is the kind of setup that has always been in my head even before I met all these people,” he says now. “I had always envisioned a village. As soon as April said she wanted to have that kind of a relationship [with the baby], I said, ‘OK, this baby has four parents.’”
Those four were all present for Lake’s birth in Humboldt on April 20, 2013. Per adoption law, April and Chris signed away their parental rights, and Jennefer and Gaius each separately adopted the boy, because while they consider themselves life partners, they are not legally married because Jen is deeply in debt and doesn’t want to saddle Gaius with her financial obligations. Then April and newborn Lake moved with Jennefer and Gaius into their tiny Portland apartment while Chris stayed behind, continuing to work in Humboldt for a while.
It took months for April to find work as an administrator at a nonprofit, and even longer for Chris to secure a job in Oregon. But once they did, with Jennefer staying home to raise Lake, the four adults were ready to move under one roof with their son.
Their pooled income pays the $1,700 rent on the house where they were making dinner on this summer night. It met all their requirements — two bedrooms in separate areas of the house so each couple would have some privacy; a quiet street where Lake could one day learn to ride a bike; a backyard with room for Jennefer to grow vegetables, a front yard where April could grow flowers and a kitchen large enough that they could all cook, and eat, together.
“Multiplying the number of parents means multiplying the number of relationships that need care.” – April Cooper, Lake’s “Amma”
And so they were on this night, about two months after they’d moved in, explaining to this reporter that things were a little tense in the house at the moment. April and Jennefer had exploded at each other a few days earlier, ostensibly over the family chore chart Jen had found online and presented to the others as what April saw as a fait accompli.
But even as they argued over who would sweep the kitchen, they knew the root of their anger was far deeper. April was feeling more pain than she’d expected watching Lake love Jennefer the most. Jennefer was feeling guilt, not wanting to cause her friend more pain, but also resentment over feeling she could not express either her joy about Lake or her frustration with full-time motherhood aloud.
“We don’t have a map for this, so we are figuring it out as we go,” Gaius explained.
“Multiplying the number of parents means multiplying the number of relationships that need care,” April says. “Maybe the lesson is that all families take work.”
Kirsten Johnson had met Ira Sachs only once, and had not met Boris Torres at all, when she first considered joining together as a family and becoming pregnant with their children.
Ira and Kirsten are both independent filmmakers. She travels to destinations like Yemen, Bosnia and Darfur, shooting with documentary directors like Laura Poitras. He directs fiction features, including last year’s “Love Is Strange,” with Alfred Molina and John Lithgow. Both of them have new films they’re premiering at Sundance in January.
It makes sense, then, that Ira and Kirsten met through film. They were first introduced at the Venice Film Festival in 2006, where they were for the screening of a mutual friend’s film. When Kirsten missed the last vaporetto water bus, Ira invited her to see a rough cut of his next film, “Married Life,” and to sleep in the second bed in his hotel room.
They didn’t meet again for years. During that time, Ira decided he wanted to be a father, tried to become one with a lesbian couple who lived across the country, broke up with a boyfriend who disapproved of those efforts, and then abandoned the plan when the women did not get pregnant. Soon afterward he met Boris, a painter originally from Ecuador, and the two began to discuss having children.
Kirsten, meanwhile, who had spent her entire adult life certain she would never be a parent, because she couldn’t reconcile that with work that regularly took her to disaster sites and war zones, had an epiphany while watching her mother fade away from Alzheimer’s.
“On the day she died I realized, with complete knowledge, that I would have children, that I must have children,” she says. As a result, she ended a long-term relationship of her own (with a man who felt betrayed by her change of plan), considered adoption (which she realized was not an option because of her age and her “freelancer’s roller-coaster finances”), was turned down by a gay best friend (who did not want to be a parent) and rejected the idea of an anonymous sperm donor (because she “didn’t want the child to not know” his or her father).
She was telling all this to a friend at a benefit for the Sundance Institute at the Roseland Ballroom in October 2008 when Ira overheard and said something like, “I didn’t know you wanted to have kids. My partner and I want to have kids. Do you want to talk about it?”
They did, the next morning, at a small round table at a café near Union Square, “the perfect size, with just the right amount of room, and the three chairs equally spaced,” Boris says. It felt like an apt metaphor.
Unlike Lake’s four parents in Portland, who knew each other intimately and built a family out of existing circumstances, the trio in New York were relative strangers who deliberately crafted a family from scratch. From that first meeting (and later with a couples' therapist who specializes in, ironically, mediating divorces), they tackled the subjects some long-term couples never address: philosophy of life, importance of religion, relationship with money, and how their theoretical child would be educated and disciplined. They talked about their dreams, their disappointments, their values and how they would or would not want to pass those along to a son or daughter.
“There was an immediate intimacy,” Boris says. “She’s such an open person, and she had the exact same values and intuitions that Ira and I had about raising children. That sealed the deal from the first meeting.”
Says Kirsten: “I felt confident with them as parents right away. I was in from the jump. So happy about the idea of there not only being one father, but there being two fathers. I just thought this was the greatest idea ever.”
Most nontraditional families stress that theirs is not a compromise, but a goal — an evolution of the more familiar paradigm. They are not living this way because someone has to bring the sperm and someone else has to contribute the egg so they might as well all share responsibility for the result, they say. Instead, they see this as an improvement on the norm, one that is better for children and their parents.
For Kirsten, for instance, this new model meant she could be both a mother and an artist; when work takes her away for stretches, she knows that her children are home with two parents. For Ira and Boris, it meant that they could have time as a family but also as a couple, that their children could have the love of a father and also a mother.
These parents also believe — though they all understand there is not enough data to provide evidence for their theory — that this is better for children. “More parents, more love, more family, more of all the things that children crave and need,” is how Gaius describes it.
There is a distance between concept and construct. Just as it took years for the Portland family members to get themselves under a single roof, it took almost as long for the three in Greenwich Village to get themselves pregnant. At Kirsten’s first doctor’s visit, she learned she had a fibroid, requiring surgery early in December 2008. That was followed by an IVF attempt in Iceland (where such procedures are far less expensive than in the U.S.), and seven insemination attempts, all with Ira as the sperm donor. Kirsten was 43 years old by then, and she says she always knew the odds were against her being a biological parent at that age (one doctor calculated those odds at 0.17 percent). But she would have continued trying if Ira had not stepped in to lobby for using an egg donor.
Most nontraditional families stress that theirs is not a
compromise, but a
goal — an evolution
of the more familiar
“I was devastated,” she says of her first reaction. She thought that Ira and Boris would change their vision once they did not require her genes, but they reassured her. “Ira said, ‘I want you to be the mother of my children. I just want to find another way to do it,’” Kirsten recalls. “He made it clear they would value me as a parent even though I wasn’t contributing the genetics.”
Through an agency in Santa Barbara, Calif., they found an egg donor, a student at the University of Chicago whom they came to know both through her extensive profile and then by meeting her in person. In June 2011, two embryos — conceived from the donor’s eggs and Ira’s sperm — were transferred to Kirsten’s uterus. The egg donor signed away her parental rights, but the twins can contact her if they wish when they turn 18.
Kirsten describes having a “euphoric” pregnancy. The only small wrinkle was when she had to back out of a project she had been working on — a film that would go on to become “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras’ documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA spying scandal.
On Jan. 6, 2012, Ira and Boris got married at City Hall, and one week later, Viva and Felix were born. Because Ira had legal standing as the biological father and Kirsten had legal standing as the gestational mother, the children were given Boris’ last name to keep things (at least emotionally) even.
The babies, born early, were in the ICU for several weeks. For part of that time, Kirsten visited them alone because Ira and Boris flew out to Sundance, where one of Ira’s films was being shown. Soon afterward, the new family of five nested in Ira’s two-bedroom apartment near Washington Square Park.
Kirsten loved that first year under one roof, where she could be a new mother with two extra hearts and four extra hands. Ira found it stressful, but saw the periodic blow-ups and bickering as “us getting to know each other as a family in an actual way rather than an abstract way.” Boris, though, felt like an outsider. “I had no autonomy with the kids,” he says. “I didn’t feel like a parent. I resented Kirsten, her physical relationship with the kids, which was necessary but made me feel like a third wheel.”
Like the group in Portland, they tried to talk through the tensions. Unlike Portland, there was no chore chart. Instead, they began to have parenting meetings every Sunday night at which they worked on everything from the logistics of who would be home which nights and who would pay which child-related bills, to the hurt feelings caused when Ira didn’t invite Kirsten to a family Seder, or the babies cried for Mama instead of Papi.
Most importantly, they talked through what to do next when, after a year under the same roof, the one-bedroom apartment next door became available. At first Kirsten lobbied for a door between the two, but Ira and Boris persuaded her that that would blur the intent. “We weren’t trying to become a communal family,” Ira says. “We were trying to become a shared family.”
“What surprised us wasn’t how different all this was, but how completely normal it felt. Yes, we’re figuring things out as we go along, but doesn’t every family do that?” – Kirsten Johnson,
Viva and Felix’s mommy
So Kirsten moved next door, and the twins are there with her from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights. They are with their fathers from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights. For Sunday nights, they alternate every other week. Weekdays from 9 to 5 are spent with their nanny, though Kirsten, the only one who doesn’t work full time, usually joins them for some part of the day. Saturdays are mostly with their dads; Sundays are mostly with Mama. When someone has to travel or has an evening obligation, they trade nights or hire a babysitter.
Their goal as a family is to be normal — even boring. They eat breakfast together every school day morning, for instance, because Ira did that with his mother and “it’s what you do to be a good parent, you give your kids a nice breakfast.” And they will keep doing this, they say, even though, “like families everywhere, the kids are grumpy and mostly refuse to eat.”
Says Kirsten, “What surprised us wasn’t how different all this was but how completely normal it felt. Yes, we’re figuring things out as we go along, but doesn’t every family do that?”
We call these “nontraditional” families, which raises a question: What exactly is a traditional one?
Mom, Dad and 2.5 children has become our default norm, our assumption and sometimes even our aspiration — despite the fact that this version existed only for a sliver of human history, if at all. The nuclear family is a creation of Western industrial society, when factories replaced farms as the dominant means of employment and young couples left their extended families and moved to cities, where they raised their children without the traditional network of relatives and neighbors.
The idea that this was what families “should” be became part of popular culture only during the second half of the last century, explains Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of numerous books about the state of American marriage and family. Even then, she says, the dream was rarely the reality. Hence the title of her 1992 book, “The Way We Never Were,” in which she uses reams of data to conclude that “‘Leave It to Beaver’ was not a documentary.”
More importantly, whatever the typical family might have been in the past, it certainly is not “two heterosexual married parents and their two children” today. More than 40 percent of births are now to women who are not married to their baby’s father. Divorce rates are falling, in part because many parents never marry in the first place. Those who do divorce are more likely to share custody, and a small but growing percentage might even remain in the same home for economic reasons. Technology allows for children to be conceived and delivered with the participation of up to five people. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide.
Add all these together and it makes sense that this is a moment for experimentation and expanding the definition of family.
“It is a marked shift,” agrees Susan Pease Gadoua, a Marin County, Calif., therapist and co-author of “The New I Do.” “The net of what is acceptable has gotten much wider as far as how we describe the family.”
It is not lost on those who are re-creating family that much of this reinvention is also a return. A woman giving her baby to others to raise, as April did? Happened all the time in the olden days when a friend or relative became pregnant out of wedlock. Children going back and forth between two households, as Viva and Felix do? Talk to any child of divorce.
“I had a completely different life in each home,” Ira says of growing up with his mother and sisters and visiting his father. “When people say, ‘Wow, that’s so cool that you’re doing that, that’s so unique,’ I say, ‘No, it’s not. So many people grew up in some version of a two-home family.’”
And the idea of lots of relatives under one roof, with children feeling loved and raised by many adults? “In Ecuador, people do that sort of thing all the time,” Boris says of his childhood, when he lived with his grandmother, his mother and several aunts, uncles and cousins in a big house. “Americans think they created everything, but it’s the way I grew up.”
Sociologists call this “fictive kin,” Coontz says, and “it is found throughout familial history.” In African and African-American communities, she says, it is called “going for sisters” when you include a friend in your life as though she were a relative, she says. In Hawaii, where Coontz lives much of the year, there is what is called a “hanai” relationship, a kind of kinship that “is idealized because it was a voluntary choice.”
“There are precedents in other cultures and other times,” she says. “It’s not that nobody has tried these things before; it’s that we are trying them in different ways.”
Whatever the typical family might have been in the past, it certainly is not a “two heterosexual married parents and their two children” today.
What is unclear, these experts say, is the effect on children raised under these expanded familial roofs. As long as all goes well, Gadoua says, those children may well thrive, as psychologists have long concluded that children respond to love and stability far more than specific family construct. But what if things don’t go well? “Disruption of parental ties” can be devastating for children, she says, adding, “When there are more parental ties, there is increased potential for pain if things fall apart.”
Ask Milo Rozza about his family and he will quickly tell you he has one sister and one brother. This makes his parents, Dave and Laura Rozza, smile, because while the 8-year-old technically is an only child, he does share a house with Tessa Rosenfield, who is 10, and Elijah Rosenfield, who is 5. Tessa and Elijah’s parents, Julia Rosenblatt and Josh Blanchfield, live in the house, too. So do Maureen Welch and her fiancé, Simon DeSantis. And two single adults fill the last two bedrooms — Hannah Simms and Kevin Lamkins.
Together they are the Scarborough 11 — a nickname given to the group by the local newspaper in Hartford, Conn., where they have made news because their city wants to kick them out of the home they own.
While the nine-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot mansion is more than big enough, the Hartford zoning board says its occupants are in violation of the single-family zoning designation because they are not all related by blood, adoption, civil union or marriage. In a set of lawsuits making their way through state and federal courts, the group has argued that theirs is a single family. “A chosen, intentional one,” says their lawyer, Peter Goselin. “A family of choice.”
Changes in law always lag behind shifts in culture (see no-fault divorce or same-sex marriage), and creating a nontraditional family often means devising workarounds. In families founded essentially for raising children, the complications are mostly about those children, and center on the fact that in every state (except, very recently, California) the law never recognizes more than two legal parents for any child.
“The law of two has been true forever,” says Joanna Grossman, a professor of family law at Hofstra University who specializes on the regulation of marriage. “That’s because until very recently, it wasn’t possible to have children that were biologically connected to more than two adults.”
But now you can have donors of egg, sperm and womb, along with the partners of those donors and any potential adoptive parents, and the law has not sorted out the ramifications of all the possible combinations, she says.
This has led to a growing number of lawsuits, like one that made the New York tabloids recently, still unresolved, in which a gay couple and a lesbian couple created a baby with the sperm of one of the men and the egg of one of the women. They bought two apartments with the same layout, decorated them identically, and planned to regularly “rotate” the baby between them. When the relationships collapsed, all four claimed parental rights.
Because the law has not caught up, multiparent families need to spend far more time talking with lawyers than the average prospective parents. In the Torres-Sachs-Johnson family in Greenwich Village, for instance, the three have legal documents that lay out their plan to share custody should Boris and Ira divorce. Still, Boris feels vulnerable, he says, knowing his legal standing is that of a stepfather, while Ira and Kirsten are full parents under the law.
In Portland, April feels even more tenuous. There are no documents of any kind that protect her relationship with Lake should Jennefer and Gaius split up or change their minds about April’s role. Like more than half of all Americans, neither of the couples in this house has a will, meaning they have not legally expressed their wishes that Lake’s biological parents be granted custody should his adoptive parents die.
But what of the nontraditional families not built around children? Are there fewer barriers? Not in the case of the Scarborough 11.
Most of the adults in the group have known each other for nearly 15 years, and first met while living in a Hartford complex called ArtSpace, where tenants have separate apartments but share living and collaborative space.
“When [Laura and I] began talking about the idea of having kids, we knew there was no way we wanted to do it alone if we didn’t have to,” says Dave Rozza, who is a stay-at-home father to Milo and, informally, to Tessa and Elijah as well. “To have all these other amazing adults around to help with raising our child is just a gift.”
Adds Hannah, a director at HartBeat Ensemble, which was founded by housemate Julia Rosenblatt: “As an adult who does not have kids, it’s so special to have these day-to-day relationships with kids. And as somebody who wants to be a parent someday, to get to be around awesome parenting all the time and really understand how that works, it’s amazing.”
In 2008, a subset of the group found a house for rent in a far less swanky neighborhood of Hartford than this one, and took the communal vibe of their apartment complex a step further. They cooked together, hung out after dinner together, ran errands for each other, and watched the children when parents needed time or space. One of the members of that first house was a 50-something actor and director named Greg Tate, Julia’s co-founder at HartBeat Ensemble, who became a surrogate grandfather, playing with Tessa, Milo and Elijah in the mornings so their parents could all get a little extra sleep.
In 2012, Tate was diagnosed with lung cancer. Over the next five months, his family of housemates joined together, first to take care of him and then to mourn his death. “That’s what this community is for,” says Julia.
Tate’s death left a void. About a year later, when their lease was up on the house he’d shared, the surviving members joined with several others from the original ArtSpace group, and set out to buy a home.
Changes in law always lag behind shifts in culture (see no-fault divorce or same-sex marriage), and creating a nontraditional family often means devising workarounds.
The one they found had been empty for four years, and its price had fallen to $450,000 from $800,000 because the recession had taken a particularly heavy toll on the Hartford housing market. It was built in 1912, at a time when servants would have occupied the third floor and run the household. (The call-bell system is still in place.) None of the couples and individuals could have afforded it on their own, but together they made a down payment and were granted a mortgage for the home that they call the “Tate Estate.”
Just as only two can be parents in most states, banks frown on putting more than two borrowers’ names on a mortgage. So technically, the loan for 68 Scarborough Street is in the names of the adults in the group with the best credit — Laura Rozza, who works as assistant grants administrator for the town of East Hartford, and Simon DeSantis, who teaches Latin at the Classical Magnet School down the block from the house.
Those two can’t just up and sell the house, however. All the financials of the house are contained in a partnership agreement drawn up with their lawyer, which names all the adults as owners. They each have different percentage stakes, depending on their contributions to the down payment for, upkeep of and capital improvements to the house. No one can cash out until the house is sold.
Through the long process of finding the house, getting a mortgage and drawing up the agreements, the group members never hid their intention to live as they do. So they were surprised when, a few months after their August 2014 move-in, they were served with a summons saying they were in violation of Hartford’s city code, with its requirements of blood, adoption, civil union or marriage.
Such codes are historically designed to prevent everything from fraternities to flophouses to brothels, and they vary from one municipality to the next. In East Hartford, for instance, the definition of a family is “individuals living together as a single, nonprofit housekeeping unit occupying a dwelling that has complete housekeeping facilities.”
But this house is in Hartford, not East Hartford, so a flurry of paperwork followed, with the city suing the two named in the mortgage in Connecticut Superior Court, and the occupants countersuing in federal court for violation of their 14th Amendment right to personal autonomy and privacy.
The resulting publicity led to a hashtag (#Scarborough11), a supportive online petition that has reached 2,517 signatures, and a total of $6,078 in contributions to an Indiegogo legal fund. None of that has swayed the group’s Scarborough neighbors, 17 of whom have joined with the city in asking the court to enforce the restrictions.
“We really want to preserve this wonderful, single-family residential area,” Michael O’Connell, one of those neighbors, told Connecticut Magazine. “On one level, we feel very sorry for this problem created for this group of people who have moved in and tried to do work on that house. But … if we feel sorry for somebody and … let the zoning rule be totally ignored, that’s a problem.”
The Scarborough 11 say that’s nonsense, and their presence is a boost to the neighborhood, not a detraction. “This house was empty for four years before we bought it,” Hannah says. “I think that’s far more of a hit on property values.”
“When [Laura and I] began talking about the idea of having kids, we knew there was no way we wanted to do it alone if we didn’t have to.” – Dave Rozza,
one of the
They see this as a fight about more than just their lifestyle. “These laws are designed to keep people out and put them in their place,” says Maureen, a therapist at a community clinic, who says that many of her public assistance patients are living with broadly defined families mostly for economic reasons.
“We need to need this so that it can never be used against people who don’t have the resources to fight it,” agrees Laura. “If you are allowed to define family only as blood relatives, then this could be used when it was needed to get somebody out of somewhere again.”
While the case makes its way through the courts, the group has decided to plow ahead as if they will be there for the long haul. In the past 16 months, they have replaced all 40 electrical outlets in the house, because none of the originals could handle the three-pronged plugs that come with all their electronic devices. Dave, the handiest, also replaced all the circuit breakers.
When they moved in, only one shower actually worked (the other washrooms had clawfoot tubs) and most of the plumbing leaked. So they patched and repaired, one bathroom at a time. They have invested upwards of $40,000 so far, with a long list of future projects scribbled on the chalkboard off the kitchen: “kitchen lights, poly floors, front steps, front door screen, tree trimming, hang pictures, refinish attic.”
When they are not repairing, they are doing what families do. Laura, the “super-organized” one, made a chore wheel — far more artsy, elaborate and colorful than the one that caused a meltdown in Portland — and they rotate responsibility every month for keeping different areas of the house clean. They rotate cooking duties, too. Two adults each take one night a week, and on weekends they order in. Sunday night it’s almost always Chinese food. There are usually four or five different jars of peanut butter in the pantry — chunky, smooth, honey roast, organic — to account for everyone’s tastes.
Like the trio in Greenwich Village, they have family meetings every other week so that there is a forum for issues to be aired. The rest of the time, they chat via an email thread, in which Simon, because he is a Latin teacher, addresses the others as his “contubernales,” which was what ancient Roman soldiers who shared a tent called each other. When one died in battle, the others would all “chip in and get him a gravestone,” he says.
In their free time, they play board games, hold dance contests or watch the kids perform talent shows. Hannah teaches the children crafting and gardening. Kevin teaches them hockey. Dave and Simon are the best at helping with math homework.
And every once in a while, they get an update from their lawyer. Just this week the news was good – Hartford’s planning and zoning commission unanimously voted new regulations designed to “reflect the city’s current vision and today’s best practices.” That does not conclusively end their fight, but it seems to make it more likely that they might win.
Victory would be a relief, they say, in part because they have all their money tied up in this house — one that they are unlikely to be able to sell in the current market — and they don’t want to lose everything.
But victory would also be vindication and recognition.
“We’ll go down swinging if we go down, because this is something that isn’t casual to us,” Laura says. “This is inherent to who I am and what I want in my life. Everybody deserves the right to be able to choose their family.”
While writing this article, I received an email from April. “Sadly I am writing to tell you that our experiment has failed,” it read. “I’m incredibly sorry this isn’t the story you thought you were getting.”
After months of tiptoeing around their pain, April told me, she and Jennefer had another “falling out.” In the hours of deep sharing that followed, they realized that their arrangement doesn’t allow April to openly grieve her lost role or Jennefer to openly relish her new one.
So the foursome redesigned their family. Chris and April found a small apartment 10 minutes away, in a development with a duck pond and a playground. Lake is scheduled to have a sleepover every weekend. And when he wakes up in the night, April says, he has stopped asking for the parents who aren’t there and looks to “Daddy and Amma” for comfort.
They still consider themselves to be “family,” she says, though things are still tense between April and Jennefer, so much so that they spent Thanksgiving and Christmas apart.
But they are working to see this as a natural part of becoming a family. “My therapist helped me see that we’re actually in a normal process as an intimate relationship,” April says. “We fell in love as we embraced the adoption, we had a honeymoon phase for the first months of living together, and then we started triggering each other’s deepest family-emotional stuff because that’s what happens.”
“Now,” she continues, “we have to work to find compassion for each other’s experience — because we don’t have the option of breaking up.”
When she first wrote to update me, April said she feared she was letting down the others I was writing about — those in Greenwich Village, those in Hartford, others I’ve spoken to but couldn’t include in this article because there is only so much space, even on the Internet. She had heard their stories from me over the months and felt a kinship of purpose.
“We have to work to find compassion for each other’s experience — because we don’t have the option of breaking up.” – April Cooper
She asked me to apologize to them, and tell them they were “all deeply courageous, generous and loving for having tried something that most people imagine to be impossible.”
When I passed that along, the other families shared their belief that revising the details did not negate the fact that Lake still has four parents — his is still a chosen family. They also said they understand that the way they live today is likely not the way they will live forever — the twins will outgrow their shared bedrooms, the Scarborough singles might meet partners who don’t want to live communally — but that doesn’t mean that the bonds won’t continue.
“All of us are adapting along the way,” Kirsten says. “Families change. That is not failure. Maybe that’s the most radical part of this whole idea.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect a vote by the Hartford planning and zoning commission that took place late in the evening of January 13, 2016. The commission unanimously approved new regulations that make it much more likely the Scarborough 11 will be able to continue living together in their home.