Our Nontraditional Family Shows the Benefits of Community Care

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On the short biography required for apartment applications, we were careful not to lie. We let the imaginations of landlords reading our application fill in the gaps. With the sparse details we provided, we were the paragon of stability: two new parents with a cute baby beginning our careers in a new city. Never mind that we were looking for three-bedroom apartments, or that we didn’t have rings, or that we referred to each other by name instead of husband, wife, fiancé, or partner.

Maybe they figured it was just a new-age parenting thing. We eventually secured an apartment, each set up our own bedrooms, and then decorated our daughter’s nook. Now, when new parent friends come over, we shut the bedroom doors, lest the multiple adult bedrooms invite questions.

And in this way, we live a sort of double consciousness, weighing the costs and benefits of telling each new acquaintance that we are not romantic partners. On the one hand, does it really matter if our co-workers or neighbors know that we are living together and raising our daughter as co-parents instead of romantic partners? Does it change anything if they know? If it doesn’t matter, then why not just tell them?

“We still struggle with if and when to tell people that we’re not, in fact, together.”

This is a dance we have done again and again, and while it’s not the biggest challenge of raising our daughter together, the discomfort we feel is a potent reminder that what we’re doing isn’t typical. Maybe it’s not even describable with our current vocabulary. “Co-parenting” feels stuffy and formalistic, like how the word “colleague” doesn’t quite capture your closest work friend. “Partner” doesn’t either, as it implies we’re romantically involved beyond the emotional closeness that raising our child has fostered. “The parent of my child” is a mouthful, but more problematically, it implies that the connection we share is born only of our shared offspring, a connotation that may have been true at one point but is no longer. Usually we settle for simply using each other’s names.

When we found out we were pregnant with our daughter, we didn’t know what life would look like in a month, much less a year. But we set to work building a foundation, first by reaching out to a coach to help us talk through all the emotions and practical considerations of having an unplanned child. We began drafting a co-parenting agreement, a process that was, in retrospect, as valuable for making us practice negotiation and conflict resolution as it was for the substance of the agreement.

Through the drafting of this non-legal agreement, we realized that we were, in large part, beginning from a blank slate. Unlike a marriage or a more traditional relationship between parents of a child, there were few norms to guide our decisions. This was a blessing and a curse. We could design the environment we wanted for our daughter free of internal and external norms. But these structures also serve a purpose; they provide a model that is intelligible, and more importantly familiar, to others. They tell you how to act, and they tell others how to act around you and your child. They inform the questions people feel comfortable asking and the help they’re willing to offer.

For us, it felt more like we were building the plane as it was beginning its acceleration down the runway. By the time our daughter was born, we had an agreement – but little idea what our day-to-day would look like. We moved in together after her birth because we both wanted to share in those early, liminal months. And family and friends around us responded in kind, enveloping us in the community we needed to get through the chaos of those early days. Sometimes it was difficult to explain to people, even loved ones, how to approach the situation, both because we lacked language to describe it and because we ourselves didn’t entirely know. But the early days of a new child’s life don’t leave much time for reflection, and those around us mostly just followed our lead. They dropped off home-cooked meals, often lingering to spend time with our newborn daughter. Friends and family members made overtures to each other, seeking to strengthen the fabric of support that we had begun weaving.

“Our daughter is raised by a much broader array of people than had we been a more traditional couple.”

Most importantly, people around us helped us grapple with new questions, big and small, as they arose. Do we list each other as emergency contacts? Do we spend holidays together? Unlike more traditional relationships between parents, we never built a cocoon around our nascent family, and others didn’t assume that one existed. In its place was a permeable fiber that others could pass through with their actions, their questions, and their love.

This permeable fiber remains intact to this day, now anchored by more time and more practice working through new questions. More than a year on, we continue to live together. Neither of us is dating right now, and although we’ve agreed it’s not prohibited, we’ve also discussed certain parameters if it arises in the future. Our daughter is raised by a much broader array of people than had we been a more traditional couple, and we feel much more comfortable asking for help. For instance, other parents at our daughter’s daycare describe how no one besides family met their kid for many months; when our daughter was two months old, a friend cared for her in what turned out to be something of a first date for him and his eventual girlfriend. In this way, friends and family have little concern about intruding upon the sacred space of the nuclear family. And our daughter gets to reap the rewards as well: she knows we are her parents and primary caregivers, but she also benefits from the love and care of so many others. Hopefully, as she grows up, her fabric of care will feel much richer and more textured, albeit perhaps less traditional.

We still don’t have the language to describe what we are, and we still struggle with if and when to tell people that we’re not, in fact, together. But we have settled into a comfortable understanding between ourselves, and like so many aspects of parenting, it feels impossible until you do it, and then it’s just hard.

This writer is remaining anonymous to protect the privacy of his family.

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