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As little as a decade ago, unconventional families—those that deliberately diverged from the norm of mom, dad and the kids—existed in a kind of social netherworld: tolerated perhaps, but not truly accepted. But with breakthroughs in reproductive science, and despite the objections of the most moralistically strident critics, they have begun to emerge from the shadows. Even single celebs who would once have risked their careers had they acknowledged being gay or having children out of wedlock are finding ways to build families. Singer Melissa Etheridge recently revealed that David Crosby, one of the fathers of '60s rock, also sired the two children she is raising with her partner, Julie Cypher. Jodie Foster made headlines two years ago when she gave birth to baby Charles without revealing how she got pregnant. And Rosie O'Donnell caused a stir when she chose to go it alone in adopting Barker, now 4, Chelsea, 2, and Blake, 5 months. "You really can't do it wrong," Rosie once said of parenting, "as long as you do it with love."
Just how many people are breaking the mold is unclear. No statistics are available, but there is no doubting the trend. "There have been cultural changes that emphasize individualism," says Andrew Cherlin, 51, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. "You can live your life the way you want and, by extension, have children the way you want." In fact, author and gay parent Dan Savage, 35, predicts that alternative families will soon be fitting in seamlessly. "Ten years from now, all those kids that are now possible for gays and lesbians are going to be in school," says Savage. "And all it's going to prove is that gay people are just as predictable and boring as straight people. We'll make the cupcakes for the birthday parties too."
PEOPLE met recently with several unconventional parents to see how they realized their dreams of forming a family and how they've handled all that has come since. Here are their stories.
Yours, Mine and Ours
Reed Gaines couldn't sit still on the morning of his 9th birthday party on Jan. 8. Downstairs in the kitchen of their Madison, Wis., home, his parents fussed over his chocolate-frosted birthday cake before the whole family raced out to meet Reed's pals at an indoor rock-climbing club. Later, with his sister Grace, 6, looking on, Reed blew out the candles in one breath as his proud parents snapped photos and marveled at how their little boy had grown.
At first glance this would appear to be the quintessential Kodak family moment. But the Gaines-Mooneys aren't exactly the Cleavers. Between them, Reed and Grace call six different grown-ups "Mom" and "Dad"—and those aren't just terms of endearment. Conceived by artificial insemination, the children are being raised by their lesbian mothers, Meg Gaines, 44, and Margaret Mooney, 40. Gaines is Reed's biological mother; his biological father, Mark Evans, 49, is gay and lives in San Francisco with his partner, Charley Brown, 54. Grace was conceived by Mooney using sperm donated by David Creswell, 50, a friend who lives nearby with his wife, Lori, 47, and their children Caleb, 17, and Erica, 13. Confused? Grace isn't. "I love my three moms," she says,"and my three dads too."
Mooney and Gaines were eager to start a family when they grew close in 1989. "I always assumed I'd have a life like my mom's, with six kids," says Mooney, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. women were acutely aware of the difficulties a child of lesbian parents might face. Raised Catholic in Saginaw, Mich., by James Mooney, a urologist who died in 1972, and his wife, Grace, a nurse, Mooney didn't come out to her family until she was 30. "I was afraid I would be rejected," she explains. "My mom said she had known but wanted to play ostrich. Four of my sibs were great, but one never wrote back." Gaines, raised in Cincinnati, waited years before telling her parents, George, now 70 and an owner of a dude ranch in California, and his wife, Mary Moore Gaines, 69, an Episcopal minister. "Discrimination," she says, "creates a chilling effect."
Which was foremost in George Gaines's mind when his daughter announced her intention to have a baby. Although he was supportive, as were all the grandparents, "to say there wasn't dismay and confusion would be dishonest," he says. "When the proposal came up, I thought, 'Have you lost your mind?' " But the risk of discrimination wasn't enough to discourage the would-be mothers. Nor was the absence of a man about the house. In the fall of 1989, Gaines, determined that her child should know its father, wrote to her friends Evans and Brown and asked if either would donate his sperm. "I explained they'd have no legal or financial responsibilities," she says. Commercial artists, and partners since 1978, Evans and Brown were surprised by the proposal. "But once I recovered from the shock," says Evans, "my instincts were that this was a great opportunity. Neither of us ever thought we'd be a father." After mulling it over for a month, they agreed to proceed; ultimately, with Evans as the donor, both would take on the role of dad. In April 1990, on their second try, Gaines conceived.
Pregnancy was a revelation—and not only to Gaines. "We took Lamaze classes and we were the only lesbian couple," she recalls. "Everyone was nice, but they didn't quite know what to do with us." Although Reed's fathers weren't at the birth, they flew in three weeks later. "It was primal and magical watching this child," says Evans. "We could stare at him for hours."
Mooney too was thrilled with Reed. Yet she yearned to give birth herself. This time around, finding a father wasn't so easy: One candidate, an old college friend, had undergone a vasectomy, and another got cold feet at the last minute. Mooney was about to despair when a friend, Leah Creswell, mentioned her predicament to her brother David, who offered to help. "It was a rare opportunity to help someone so deeply," says David. Lori, his wife, agreed: "I felt proud of Dave for coming up with such a generous idea." For her part, Mooney found David "smart, healthy and kind" and saw the fact that he already had children as a plus. "I didn't want anyone else to want to be the primary parent," she says. Indeed, when Grace was born, Creswell says, "I felt the same excitement as when a good friend has a baby."
At home, Mooney and Gaines, who are the legal guardians of both children, divide parenting duties like any other couple. Mooney cooks, plans meals and supervises teeth brushing and piano practice, while Gaines, an attorney, helps with homework. "I do more of the disciplining," says Mooney, "but Meg will stay on an issue and discuss it."
Evans and Brown, who are socking away college money for both kids, visit at least five times a year for weeklong stretches. The Creswells, who live just seven miles away, see the children at least once a month for sleep-overs, school events or soccer matches. And Erica Creswell occasionally babysits—though, at 13, she is wary of cruel remarks from her classmates about her unusual family. "They can get kind of mean, so I don't tell them much," she says. Third grader Reed has had no trouble so far. "I never try to hide it," he says, "and I have never been made fun of in my life."
When questions arise—as when a classmate told Reed that "girls can't marry girls"—Gaines and Mooney are ready with an explanation. "We've always made clear," says Gaines, "that the kids' options are wide open as to whom they choose to love." Still, George Gaines, for one, worries about what may lie ahead for his grandchildren. "I'm crazy about the kids, but I wonder when all those ripples are going to hit the shore," he says. "It's a brave new world, they say. Well, it's certainly new—and I hope it's brave."
Adopting a New Way of Life
At 35, Laura Cecere was a rising star at a top Manhattan law firm, earning a six-figure salary and impressing colleagues with her skills as a high-stakes litigator. She was also single, overworked and miserable. "It became clear that all I was doing was helping corporations make money," says the Queens native. Though she had no burning desire to experience pregnancy, Cecere did yearn for a relationship, she says, "into which I could pour my heart and soul and produce a fulfilling result: a well-raised child."
After a brief attempt to adopt in the U.S., Cecere concluded that domestic agencies favored couples over single mothers and decided to look abroad. China was just beginning to accept adoptions by foreigners in 1992 when she boarded a plane, armed with a three-week supply of diapers. "I arrived completely alone, with no facilitator, no translator," she says. But through a contact in the Chinese Ministry-of Justice whom she had met on a business trip, Cecere made her way to a crowded orphanage in Nanjing, where the 13-month-old she would name Natalie seemed to select her. "She was climbing out of the crib," Cecere recalls, "like she was saying, 'I have got to get out and see the world.' "
Back home, Cecere reduced her workload to three days a week and hired a nanny but still wound up pulling overnighters at the firm, occasionally bringing Natalie's crib into her office. Friend Susan Bahn, 42, recalls dining in with Cecere one night when a partner called from the firm demanding a brief by 9 a.m. "I said, 'Go to work. I'll spend the night,' " she says. "But it was a horrible way to live." Cecere thought so too, and in 1995 she quit and moved to Cambridge, Mass., where she studied international law at Harvard and stayed on as a visiting scholar and, later, an administrator.
As Natalie grew, she started asking for a daddy and a sister. Though Cecere occasionally dated, no "daddy" was on the horizon. But she did want a second child. By 1996 she had begun helping others to adopt on a voluntary basis and heard from a social worker of an American couple who had adopted a baby from China but had since decided they didn't want to be parents. She eventually adopted 18-month-old Amelia, now a bubbly 3-year-old.
To supplement her Harvard job, Cecere wrote a guide to adopting in China and works as an adoption consultant from the toy-cluttered two-bedroom apartment she shares with the girls, whom she ferries to school and daycare in a 10-year-old station wagon. It's a world away from her life in Manhattan, and she often wonders how she'll be able to afford college for her kids. But Cecere, 44, has no regrets. "Wherever we end up," she says of her little family, "we're on this roller coaster together."
With Time Closing in, a Forced Choice
Asked what the coolest thing is about his mother, 8-year-old Sam has a ready reply: "She lets me do a lot of things. Like bungee-jumping." Maybe that's because Susan Hollander, 52, a Denver psychotherapist, has already taken one of life's great flying leaps. Childless when her eight-year marriage ended in 1980, the Baltimore-born daughter of Jewish immigrant parents came face-to-face with her biological clock. "Around my 42nd birthday I got fairly sad," she says. "Then it clicked: 'If you're going to do something, you've got to do it now.' "
That something was artificial insemination by an anonymous donor through a program run by a Miami infertility specialist. "I would have much rather done this the traditional way, but I wasn't seriously involved with anybody," says Hollander, who sifted through hundreds of donor profiles and medical histories before selecting a man she describes only as "a clear choice who felt real to me on paper." After a problem-free pregnancy, on Dec. 24, 1991, Hollander went into labor; 24 hours later, on Christmas Day, with her friend and Lamaze coach, psychotherapist Niki Fiedler, at her side, she gave birth to her 5-lb. 6-oz. son. "He was," she says, "my gift."
At first, Hollander found parenthood a struggle. "I had been living by myself for a long time and had never changed a diaper before I had Sam," she says. "It was quite an adjustment." One month after his birth, she returned to work and hired a nanny to care for him when she was at the office. "I try not to focus on the things I can't change," she says. "I had to go back to work. It was hard, but it's a big part of what women—married or not—do in our culture today."
To help others in her situation, Hollander three years ago founded the Alliance for Donor Insemination Families Inc., the country's first and only such nonprofit group, which offers support and referrals to some 100 members. Today, as young as he is, Sam, who has announced plans to be either an obstetrician or a policeman, has a rudimentary understanding of the circumstances of his birth. "He says, 'The good part is I get to have my mom all to myself,' " reports Hollander. " 'And the bad part is that if she gets sick, I don't have a dad to take care of me.' " Her own feelings are unequivocal. "There is not a day that goes by," she says, "that I don't feel in awe of being Sam's mother."
A Single Father Through Surrogacy
After a brief marriage and years of struggling to accept his homosexuality, Doug Henderson suffered one overriding regret—that he might never become a parent. "You have to pretty much decide, 'This is it: I'm gay, I'm never going to have kids,' " says Henderson, now 40. "And that's not very pleasant."
But in 1998 he spotted an ad for Surrogate Mothers Inc. The Monrovia, Ind., business provides services from egg donation to artificial insemination for would-be parents for an average of $40,000—$13,000 of which goes to the mother, the rest to legal and medical fees. But that was only the first hurdle. Half the agency's surrogates refused to work with a single man, and two doctors also backed out of performing the in vitro fertilization because they opposed single men having kids. But in November 1998 the agency called Henderson, who then lived in Phoenix, with a promising candidate: a woman in her mid-30s with children of her own. On Sept. 9, 1999, he was in the delivery room when healthy 8-lb. 2-oz. Rebecca Jean Henderson was born. "What surprised me was that it was so intense," he says of the experience. "And I was absolutely excited to find out she was a little girl."
Today, Henderson, who took a month's paternity leave and has since moved to Denver to be close to his family, is enjoying fatherhood so much that he is mulling the idea of a new brother or sister for Becky. "Doug's been on cloud nine since he had her," says his sister Sarah, 21. "It's not going to be easy on her growing up, but he's going to give her everything she needs."