What we consider ‘normal’ is always evolving, as a culturally and temporally subjective concept. Even some of the most innocuous of family units in the western world today were once labelled unconventional. In the 1950s, a family with a single mom might have been contrary to the norm. In the 70s and 80s, families with two moms or two dads were frowned upon by many. Even mixed-race parents were once viewed as at least quirky. Depending on where you live today, some of these family units may still be derogated – but in most of the western world, none of these familial groupings are considered exceptional.
So what does it take these days to turn heads? Which family units might still surprise even the most open minded among us? Some of the following families might raise a few eyebrows around town, or even in the big city. Being unconventional or unusual, as the constantly changing tide of ‘normal’ throughout history reminds us, says nothing about whether the set up is right or wrong. After all, the following five families, breaking taboos and forging unusual family dynamics, are atypical now – but they might well be an uncontroversial option in a decade or two.
5. Mom, sperm donor, and child: New York, USA
This set up may well become entirely normalised sooner rather than later, with women increasingly remaining single until later in life. Carol Einhorn is a busy professional, raising funds for a non-profit in New York City. Approaching the ‘now or never’ moment with regards to having a child, she wanted to be a mother but had no partner. Luckily for her, she has a very good friend who was happy to contribute his genetics. George Russell, a chiropractor, is in a committed relationship with his partner, David. His sperm gave Carol a son, Griffin, who lives with Carol year round.
George, who admits he does not feel particularly paternal towards his biological offspring, says he finds it amazing to look at Griffin and see a younger replica of himself. He spends four nights per week in a spare room of Einhorn’s apartment to spend time with his son and his friend, and the rest of the time lives in his own apartment with his partner. On Sundays, the four usually have supper together. Four-year-old Griffin has a mom who really wanted him and a friend who is his biological father and remains a part of his life. As with many, more traditional families, there’s also a furry, lovable dog in the midst of it all.
4. Four’s company: New York, USA
Two couples who are friends, or four friends who happen to comprise two couples, decide to live together. Not particularly controversial, and that’s what Ari Weisbard and his fiancee Rebecca did – except that the couples were married, and wanted a more permanent setup like this. They had spent their adult lives living with roommates. When they decided to marry, they both agreed that to them the idea of the nuclear family was lonely and possibly claustrophobic. They spoke with married friends and the four decided to buy a house together. With legal agreements for contingencies: What if one person dies, one couple wants to move out, or a couple breaks up? The legal obstacles have been covered – two of the four are lawyers.
Weisbard, who wrote a piece about the living arrangement in The Atlantic last month, explains that they each have different cleaning chores they like or dread. With four people it’s easier to assign all the tasks. With increased numbers it’s also more likely to come home to a cooked dinner, and grocery shopping is a shared task. They share all expenses and the home is not divided. They do not “switch” off between couples, but do live together as a family, including planning to share future child care of any children equally. As it’s reciprocal, this makes things easier on tired parents – surely a good thing? Right after they bought the house, the other couple discovered they were pregnant!
3. When Mom is Dad and Dad is Mom: Kentucky, USA
Nick and Bianca Bowser have been in the news quite a bit, and even featured on Ricki Lake. Nick was born Nicole and Bianca was born Jason. Both grew up feeling out of sorts with their genders, and by the time they met, Bianca was already identifying as a male. The two fell in love before Nick – then Nicole – had started living as a man. Like many couples, the husband and wife decided to have children. They have not yet been able to afford sex-reassignment operations, and the one with the working parts to carry children was Nick.
Though Nick identifies as a male, the couple felt strongly about expanding their family, so they got pregnant the old-fashioned way and Nick carried their two sons, Kai (3) and Pax (1). He describes the experience of having been pregnant as, “absolutely horrible” – understandable, as we can only imagine how most husbands would cope if faced with pregnancy. The end result was worth it, however, and the couple agrees that the kids come first — any sex-change operations will have to wait until they can afford it. In the meantime, they welcome media coverage to show people they’re not so different. What defines their family, as with any strong family unit, is love and commitment.
2. Dad and Mom and Mom make three: Ontario, Canada
Nekky Jamal and his wives Sarah and Catherine have, between them, three children. Nekky and Sarah are legally married, and their daughters were aged 5 and 3 when Catherine moved in with them. The deal’s a pretty good one for everyone, it seems. Nekky and Sarah are both working professionals, so the family has two incomes, and Catherine stays home with the children and takes care of the house. All bases are covered, likely without as much financial strain and stress as in the more common nuclear family.
A year and a half ago, Catherine had a son, and all three adults are parents to all three kids. The girls, they say, have fully accepted the arrangement and by all accounts are happy with their lives and their family. Sarah and Catherine have their own rooms and Nekky moves between them. He says he gets teased about this at work, as it seems like he’s having a bit too much fun, but he always emphasizes that two women means handling the emotional issues of two relationships as well. Communication is important in all relationships, and with three people, it is possibly even more so. They admit a therapist helped ease the transition, but in the end, the Jamal family of Ontario, Canada, seems happy with their choice.
1. Sibling rivalry, or revelry?
Maura’s and James’ real names, or even where they live, can’t be disclosed. What we can tell you is their incredibly unusual and difficult tale, not quite out of a V.C. Andrews book, although there are thorns. James’s father “Tom” met James’s mother one night over 32 years ago, somewhere in Ireland. Tom and “Carmen” dated for only five weeks. When she discovered she was pregnant, Carmen did not tell Tom, who was no longer in her life. Instead, she quickly married another man and put his name on James’s birth certificate. Tom, too, moved on, marrying and having kids.
Skip forward 20 years. James and Maura met at a bar, as many couples do, in a town where neither grew up. They felt an instant connection, and within weeks feel it is destiny. The two date and then live together for eight years, even having a child, before James gets back in touch with his mother, from whom he’d been estranged. Carmen is horrified when James describes Maura’s father Tom, quickly putting together that Maura’s dad is also her son’s. Nothing would ever be the same for the young couple. The knowledge was heartbreaking, but after eight years as lovers, they could not alter their feelings. Maura got pregnant again unexpectedly, and the couple decided to marry and emigrate as Irish towns are small and they worried their secret would get out. They had a small, civil wedding, found jobs in a new homeland, and are now living somewhere in the world where no one knows their story. Their father has promised to visit.