We are Family
Story by Laura Gossett, Photos by Wendy McAlpine
“Everybody has basically the same family – it’s just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next.”
- Douglas Coupland, Canadian Author
Modern Family, the American mockumentary that follows the lives of a large, whacky clan, provides an honest, often hilarious, perspective of family life. But perhaps that depiction is closer to reality than one might think.
Family relationships are becoming increasingly diverse. With so many blended, single parent, extended and co-habiting arrangements, it seems the era of the traditional family has declined to the point of no return - displaced by a whole grab bag of family structures. All these different families are typical, because there is no typical. We’re celebrating just that!
In this summer issue, three same–sex couples talk candidly to Okanagan Woman about living, loving and forming two-mother families in the Okanagan.
CYDNEY MCDONALD & LISA VON PANDER:
At the tender age of twenty, Cydney McDonald became pregnant and married Paul, the father of her daughter. They went on to have two more children.
“Paul and I lived together on and off for nine years, then ended up separating about five years ago,” Cydney explains. “We’re still very close…and while I loved him, I wasn’t in love with him.”
Two years later, Lisa von Pander
came into her life. They both worked as health care-aides at Kelowna General Hospital and one day their shifts collided. “I had never been in a same-sex relationship before. I invited her over for pot-stickers and a bottle of wine, and she never left,” Cydney jokes, adding, “We fell in love… Lisa was the first and only person I exposed my kids to after separating from their father.”
While Cydney, thirty-three, describes herself as bi-sexual, her 26-year old partner, Lisa, says, “I’m the rainbow sheep of my family. I always knew I was different and, by high school, I recognized I was gay. When I met Cydney, I was reluctant to get serious. When you’re a lesbian, a bisexual woman can leave you - not only for another woman - but also for a man… I was wary.”
Even so, the plot of their love story moved swiftly and soon Lisa, who doesn’t want biological children of her own, became a second mom to Cydney’s family.
“The children live with us, but they see their dad whenever they like,” Cydney explains. “Paul appreciates everything Lisa does for the kids. He often says he wishes he could have made me this happy.” The couple consider theirs one big, inclusive family, with Paul coming over for special occasions, holidays and even some Sunday dinners. But it wasn’t always easy.
“Poor Cydney,” Lisa laughs. “When she came out, she had to tell her parents she was bi, in a relationship and that we’d moved in together - all at the same time.” But Cydney’s extended family has since embraced the couple’s union, becoming an integral part of their extended family.
The children each adjusted differently to Lisa’s presence in their lives. “For thirteen-year old Abigail, our eldest … it was difficult,” Cydney recalls. “Not surprisingly, she fantasized about her mom and dad re-uniting and living happily ever after. It took some time for her to realize that was not going to happen. Chloe-Celeste, our six-year old, has a very close connection to Lisa. She is constantly saying, ‘I’m so lucky! I have two moms and a dad.’ And our only boy, twelve-year old Alexander, complains about being surrounded by women - sisters, moms, even the cats are girls.”
Heading to Mexico this year for a family vacation, the couple is excited. “Our kids really have it all,” Cydney says, smiling. “We are happy…our house is full of love.”
CHELSEY & NATAZHA NIELSEN:
Three months after they met online in 2009, Chelsey (now twenty-eight) and Natazha (now thirty-four) got married on a Kelowna beach before a marriage commissioner, with six friends as witnesses. No one else knew.
“We were terrified our families would not be good with it, so we didn’t tell anyone,” Chelsey explains. But when a letter inadvertently arrived at her mom’s home, addressed to Chelsey Nielsen – her new married sir name– their secret was out.
Both extended families were shocked and disappointed not to be included in the wedding. So to make amends, one year later, the couple renewed their vows in front of them and 150 guests. They knew then they wanted to have a child, announcing it at the celebration and requesting cash in lieu of wedding gifts to offset the cost of the expensive procedure. “Then we got scared and bought a TV with the money - our first flat screen. We still have it.” Natazha laughs. “We just needed more time.”
When Chelsey’s grandmother passed away in 2014, her dad gave the couple some of the inheritance to fund Chelsey’s pregnancy. They were ready.
Chelsey and Natazha didn’t have to wait as long, nor spend nearly as much, as Heidi and Kari. After only the second intrauterine insemination, Chelsey became pregnant. If everything goes as planned, when this summer issue hits newsstands, a baby boy named Daxon will be about two months old.
“We’re super excited,” a very pregnant Chelsey gushes. “And so are our families. It is the only grandchild they are going to have on both sides. For two years, we have had a nursery filled with a crib, change table and rocking chair, but no baby. It’s time there was baby in there.”
HEIDI STARR & KARI CROSBY:
Almost from the beginning of their six-year relationship, Heidi wanted to have a child. “Not having a baby was a deal breaker for me. But Kari loves and supports me completely.”
The couple chose an anonymous sperm donor from a catalogue at a fertility clinic in Kelowna, basing their choice on the donor’s profile and genetic/medical history. That was the easy part.
What ensued was a long and pricey path to parenthood. Heidi had medical issues that made becoming and staying pregnant difficult. First she had a miscarriage, then an abnormal fertilization causing a condition that required surgery, which was followed by a nine-month break to allow Heidi’s body time to recover.
“We had decided if the next procedure didn’t work, we were going to pack it in, perhaps look into adoption,” Forty-five year old Kari says. “We were running out of money, Heidi was physically ravaged, we were both tired and very discouraged…but that last insemination – that twelfth vial of semen – it worked!”
After three years of trying – and tens of thousands of dollars later - they welcomed into their home Winter, a beautiful, blond, baby girl. “She was the most wanted child ever to be born in the Okanagan,” Heidi chuckles, as her lively little toddler, now twenty-one months old, clambers onto her knee. “We’re open, bold and unapologetic about who we are. But honestly, we’re a pretty normal family. I drive Kari a little nutty sometimes, but I make killer Swedish pancakes and that makes up for it.”
When asked to compare their relationship to their earlier mixed-gender marriages, Kari says, “We each give equally… trading-off household tasks and sharing Winter’s care.” Heidi chimes in, grinning, “There is no man in this relationship. There will be two brides walking down the aisle when we get married in March, 2016.”