2 Dads, 2 Daughters, 1 Big Day

July 20, 2011 – New York Times – By FRANK BRUNI

Even in a city as diverse as New York and a neighborhood as progressive as the West Village, a little kid knows that having two dads is different. Eight-year-old Maeve certainly did.

She knew, too, that the world didn’t see her family exactly the way it saw others. Her dads, Jonathan Mintz and John Feinblatt, could tell.

“She understood that there was something, for lack of a better word, second-class about her family,” Mintz said.

And, as she wrestled with that, her frustration was distilled in a question that she and then her sister, Georgia, 6, began to ask more and more often.

Why aren’t you two married like our friends’ parents?

For a long time Mintz and Feinblatt avoided an answer because, while they didn’t want to lie, they also didn’t want to focus their daughters’ attention on the blunt truth: that New York, like most states, forbade it. So they perfected stalling tactics, asking Maeve and Georgia if they thought a wedding would be fun and whether they envisioned being flower girls and on and on. Anything to keep the conversation happy and the girls from feeling left out.

On Sunday, their family will be at center stage. The first same-sex weddings will take place in New York, and Mintz and Feinblatt are saying their vows at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime friend, will officiate.

And while the two men are thrilled for themselves, it’s on behalf of their daughters, who will indeed carry bouquets and stand with them and the mayor, that they’re positively ecstatic. The men care deeply that the girls feel fully integrated into society and see it as just. Sunday’s ceremony goes a long way toward that.

Outside New York there’s less cause for celebration: Twenty-nine states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and plenty of people who interpret a formal validation of same-sex relationships as an assault on “family values.”

So I invite you to look at the values of the Mintz-Feinblatt family. They do, too. That’s why they let me drop in on them twice this week and will have reporters at their wedding.

Feinblatt, 60, who is Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, and Mintz, 47, the city’s commissioner of consumer affairs, have lived together for more than 13 years, the last eight in a West Village townhouse.

To go that distance, adjustments were necessary. Feinblatt, the less orderly one, learned to accept that no matter where he dropped his suitcase, it would “be moved to a ‘better’ place,” he said.

“A much better place,” Mintz added.

They put enormous thought into having children. They had to. They found a surrogate willing to work with them twice; Maeve and Georgia have that extra connection. And to avoid any sense that either girl belonged more to one father, or vice versa, the couple asked a doctor to make sure that each of them sired a child but not to tell them whose was biologically whose, unless medically necessary.

They have suspicions, but don’t try for anything firmer.

Both girls are Feinblatts. Mintz said he “horse-traded” his surname in return for getting “Daddy.” Feinblatt took “Dad.”

Adoring relatives surround the girls. An aunt and uncle on Feinblatt’s side live in an apartment in their townhouse. Feinblatt’s stepmother visits so regularly from Baltimore that she got an apartment across the street.

As for their grandparents, aunts, uncles and seven cousins on Mintz’s side, all of them, along with the two girls and their dads, gather at a resort in Baja California for a week every February. The girls chatter about it all year long.

They have three dogs, one a recent surprise birthday gift for Georgia. Maeve says she predicted it. She mischievously maintains she sees portents in the sky.

“We’re trying to dissuade her,” Mintz said. “We’re concerned there’s no scholarship in psychic cloud reading.”

Since 2004, Massachusetts has allowed same-sex marriages, but Mintz and Feinblatt are committed New Yorkers, and their daughters weren’t fixated on weddings at first.

Then the questioning increased. Sidestepping it finally became impossible. In late May, the couple took Maeve to hear a speech Bloomberg gave in support of same-sex marriage. She cried, they said, as she was hit full force with her family’s lesser place, at least then.

The girls have invited 15 friends to Sunday’s reception and picked the frosting colors for the different flavored cupcakes: purple for chocolate, yellow for banana, pink for red velvet.

On Tuesday, just after day camp, they accompanied their dads to the caterer’s for a final tasting. They fidgeted through the Portobello mushroom sliders and tuna ceviche, awaiting dessert.

When it arrived, they pounced, and their dads, beaming, didn’t hold them back. This wasn’t a moment for limits.

Who’s on the Family Tree? Now It’s Complicated

July 4, 2011 – New York Times –
By LAURA M. HOLSON

Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams are sisters. After that, their relationship becomes more complex.

When Ms. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned a few years ago that they could not conceive a child, Ms. Williams stepped in and offered to become pregnant with a donor’s sperm on behalf of the couple, and give birth to the child. The baby, Mallory, was born in September 2007 and adopted by Ms. Ashmore and her husband.

Then the sisters began to ponder: where would the little girl sit on the family tree?

“For medical purposes I am her mother,” Ms. Williams said. “But I am also her aunt.”

Many families are grappling with similar questions as a family tree today is beginning to look more like a tangled forest. Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

Adriana Murphy, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at the Green Acres School in Rockville, Md., said she asked students to write a story about an aspect of their family history instead. At Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, KC Cohen, a counselor, said the family tree had been mostly relegated to foreign language class, where students can practice saying “brother” or “sister” in French and Spanish.

“You have to be ready to have that conversation about surrogates, sperm donors and same-sex parents if you are going to teach the family tree in the classroom,” Ms. Cohen said.

For the last six years, according to United States census data, there have been more unmarried households than married ones. And more same-sex couples are having children using surrogates or sperm donors or by adoption. The California Cryobank, one of the nation’s largest sperm banks, said that about one-third of its clients in 2009 were lesbian couples, compared with 7 percent a decade earlier. Even birth certificate reporting is catching up. New questions are being phased in nationally on the standard birth certificate questionnaire about whether, and what type of, reproductive technology was used, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tracing a family tree, though, is more than just an intellectual exercise. There are medical and legal implications, particularly when it comes to death and inheritance. Families, said Melinde Lutz Byrne, president of the American Society of Genealogists, are mostly concerned with who inherits property when a biological relative dies.

Ms. Williams and her sister, though, had other issues to resolve. Ms. Williams, who has a lesbian partner, had a biological child, Jamison, 6, who was conceived through a sperm donor, too. And the sisters wondered how to describe the relationship between Mallory and Jamison, who are not only biological half-siblings, but also cousins. And where did the sperm donors fit in?

After months of discussion, they came to a resolution: “Mallory is my daughter and Jennifer is her aunt,” said Ms. Ashmore, 38, who lives close to her sister near Minneapolis. At home, Jamison sometimes refers to Mallory as his sister. But at school, said Ms. Williams, 40, “she’s his cousin.” The sperm donors, they agreed, had no place on the family tree.

For some children, having to explain their family tree can be alienating.

“It can cause kids pain in unexpected ways,” said Peggy Gillespie, a founder of Family Diversity Projects, a family education advisory group.

At Green Acres last year, Ms. Murphy said, two kindergartners were playing outside when a boy, the son of a single mother, told a classmate that he had an older sister. “You can’t have an older sister; you don’t have a dad,” Ms. Murphy recalled the girl saying. The boy protested; he said he knew his sperm donor, who had a daughter of his own.

Sue Stuever Battel and Bob Battel of Cass City, Mich., will soon have four children. The oldest, Addy, 8, was conceived naturally; Dori, 5, was conceived via a sperm donor. They are adopting two toddler boys. “All four of our kids are 100 percent in our family tree,” Ms. Battel said. “The genetic connection has never mattered.”

But the Battels understand that their children may have questions. So they have prepared two sets of baby books: one outlining life with the Battels, the other about each child’s birth parents. The children can choose which details they want to share.

Ms. Battel and her husband also debated whether to include other children born using their donor’s sperm. After all, those children would be biological half-siblings to Dori. Their verdict: “We decided they are not half-siblings, but donor siblings,” Ms. Battel said. “We honor them, but they are not part of the family.”

Jeannette Lofas, founder of Stepfamily Foundation, a family counseling service based in New York City, eschews the traditional family tree for a network of circles (females) and squares (males), with dotted and straight lines to connect married and blood relatives. A live-in lover or nanny can be included, too, though with no connecting lines.

“That is how complex we have to think,” Ms. Lofas said.

Rob Okun, a 61-year-old magazine editor from Massachusetts, agreed to donate his sperm to a lesbian couple 16 years ago. Mr. Okun already had two biological children with a longtime female partner and two stepchildren with his current wife. He wanted no role in parenting the children born with his donated sperm, but did want them to know who he was.

The couple, Patricia Kogut and Lynne Dahlborg, agreed, and Ms. Kogut gave birth to Lucyna and Nathaniel. Ms. Dahlborg then adopted both children.

“There is the family tree and there is the day-to-day structure of the family,” Ms. Kogut said.

She described the family as having a “triple family tree” that included her, Ms. Dahlborg and Mr. Okun.

For a long time, though, Mr. Okun was uncomfortable with the connection, largely because his mother disapproved. It wasn’t until after her death in 2004 that he considered including the children in his tree. Now, he said, “I make no distinction between my biological and stepchildren.”

For now, Ms. Williams and her sister said they were happy that Mallory and Jamison shared a special bond. But what if one day the two children want to place themselves as brother and sister on their family tree?

“I think I’m fine,” Ms. Ashmore said, tentatively.

Then she added, “But we’ll have to think about it.”