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from the June 2017 issue

Rainbow Families: Four Parents and Two Children

In this chapter from Polish journalist Karolina Domagalska's I Won't Apologize for Giving Birth: Stories of IVF Families, the author meets a Tel Aviv family of six: Dana and her girlfriend, Dafi; their two daughters; and the children's fathers, Ronen and Yanai, a gay male couple who have just broken up after seventeen years.

 

“Hey, Dana, I just wanted to ask which shoes Abigail's wearing today. The pink Crocs? Right, I'll pop over to your place before preschool and take the sandals. See you then, bye.” Yanai puts down the phone and sighs.

It's Thursday, Abigail is spending the night at his place. They will visit the grandparents: Yanai's brother has had a baby and they are throwing a small party. He really dislikes Crocs. But what can you do, Dana has never paid attention to clothes or colors. Just in case, he checks Abigail's room, looks under the bed, the desk with the old computer, the chest of drawers. But the silver sandals that would go with his daughter's dress are not there. He glances at the floor of the slightly messy living room combined with the open-plan kitchen, peeks into the recess with its desk and work computer. Well, such are the charms of having two homes.

Yanai takes the keys and the phone from a tall table separating the kitchen from the hall and leaves. Outside there is heat, noise, and the postindustrial landscape. He passes a freight elevator and a garage on the way to his car. He is the only resident in the area.

The preschool and Dana's place are fifteen minutes away. Yanai opens the gate, crosses the yard with its huge inflatable pool, and jogs up the stairs to the house. Dana's living room and kitchen also form one space, but they gleam with white and pale wood. A side wall is covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. In passing, Yanai greets Dafi, who has just gone to the glassed-in veranda for a smoke. He quickly locates the silver sandals and walks to the preschool, only two blocks away. Initially Yanai also lived in this leafy district, perfect for young families. But after a year he and Ronen broke up and he moved to the loft.

 

“That was a shock to us,” recalls Dana, a slim forty-year-old with strands of gray hair and a keen gaze. “At that point Yanai and Ronen had been together for seventeen years, and that was what attracted us to them. When my girlfriend and I met, I was twenty-six and Dafi twenty-nine. We always knew we wanted to have a family and we wanted the children to have fathers. Do you mind if I start making lunch?” she asks and stands behind the kitchen island with the sink and cupboards. I can hear splashing from the bathroom: after a few hours in the pool the girls are taking a warm bath.

"Why did you want fathers for the children?” I ask.

"Dafi had a very strong relationship with her dad, who's dead now. In her opinion a father is very important for the child. Besides, when she wanted to have kids, I was busy writing my thesis, I knew I wouldn't be able to combine that with parenthood. I thought that we didn't have to build a family like straight people do. I told Dafi: 'Go and find a father for your child.' And so she did.”

Dana opens one of the white cupboards on the wall, takes out pasta and tomato sauce, reaches for fresh vegetables from the fridge. Chopping the tomatoes, garlic, and onion, she tells me how Dafi went to the Center for New Families, which arranged dates for her with three gay men, but she didn't take a liking to any of them. The breakthrough came at their friend's fortieth.

"Would you happen to know a gay man who'd like to be a father?” Dafi asked an acquaintance. "Just a minute ago one asked me if we knew a lesbian who wants to become a mother,” was the answer. This is how Dafi met Ronen and a two-year-long period of dating began. All four of them—Ronen, his boyfriend, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana—had lunches together, partied, went away together for the summer, and even traveled to Lesbos. During all this time Dafi and Ronen kept discussing their expectations, and eventually, after two years, signed a contract. Before long Dafi and Ronen started the home insemination attempts but were only successful after a visit to the hospital.

 

"Daughter of Ehud Olmert Has Baby with Longtime Girlfriend,” the papers reported in September 2007. Dana is the daughter of Israel's ex-prime minister, member of the centrist Kadima party.

When Amalia was two, Dana decided it was time for her and Yanai. They signed the same contract, with small changes, and were successful with their first attempt at home insemination. Amalia felt threatened, rejected Dafi, wanted to be only with Dana. This first-born of four parents was now supposed to make space for her sister, and she didn't like it one bit.

"When somebody asks how many children you have, what do you say?” I ask while Dana picks fresh leaves from a basil plant in a pot.

"I say two. I was with Dafi during labor, not Ronen. He was waiting in the corridor. And I was the first one to hold Amalia. I consider her my first first child, and Abigail my second first child. Amalia showed me that it's possible, it's thanks to her that Abigail was born. Still, at first I didn't want Amalia to call me 'Mom.' I thought it's strange and confusing for a child to have two moms. It's interesting that she has no name for me. I'm a parent, but not a mom or a dad.”

 

Dana and Dafi are not legally married. Amalia is Dafi and Ronen's daughter, Abigail Dana and Yanai's.

"In the families of my lesbian friends who've used a sperm donor, the nonbiological mom would adopt the child and officially become the other parent. I am Amalia's parent, but the law doesn't recognize this. That's why we're thinking of changing our last names. All six of us will be called 'Alvi,' which means 'my heart' in Arabic and is a combination of our initials. It will be a long process, but we want to do it to emphasize that they're sisters, even though they're not biologically related. I don't want anyone—not the school, the world or society—to tell them one day that they're not sisters because they don't share a last name.”

 

It is hard to believe that as recently as twenty-six years ago homosexual relationships were a crime in Israel. Today, Tel Aviv is considered a paradise for gay men and lesbians, especially those who want to start a family. Nobody is surprised to see two men or two women laden with children and their odds and ends. That such families are commonplace here is evident in preschools and schools during the annual Family Day in February. All kinds of celebrations take place on that day and children draw portraits of their families. On those, the so-called new families appear alongside more conventional ones. Two moms, two dads, two moms and a dad, two dads and a mom. Amalia drew herself and Abigail, and four parents too—Ronen, Yanai, Dafi, and Dana.

And now for some facts: since 1994, gay couples have been eligible for marital benefits and the full extent of tax and inheritance law if they decide to formalize their relationship. In 2006, Israel started recognizing same-sex marriages solemnized abroad. In that same year, it became possible for gay couples to adopt a biological child of one of the partners, and two years later to adopt a child that was not biologically related to them.

In terms of reproductive medicine, it's easier for lesbians: they can use donor sperm, and the state—just as in the case of straight couples—finances all their attempts up until the birth of their second child. Surrogacy, however, was only available to straight couples until 2014, which resulted in medical tourism of gay men to the USA, India, Thailand, Mexico. Since 2010, the state has been granting Israeli citizenship to children born abroad to surrogate mothers.

“Encouraging people to have children and funding medical procedures are all part of the state demographic policy. Jews should be the majority in Israel, the demographic contest with the Arabs is still on. So whether you're straight, gay, or trans, you have the right to start a family. This, of course, is beneficial to the gay community,” explains Dana.

 

Anthropologist Susan Kahn's research shows that families that had been unable to accept their children's homosexuality change their attitude when a grandchild appears. This was also the case for Dana's parents.

Her parents, Ehud and Aliza Olmert, stand in the middle. On the left—two daughters and a brother with their families, on the right—Dafi, Ronen holding Amalia's arm, Dana with Abigail on her hip, and Yanai. In the family photo, Dana and her family unit take up the whole wing.

“My dad is very pragmatic,” says Dana. “He said: 'I won't make myself miserable because of the decisions you make.' When Amalia was born, he got that this was serious. Before then he thought something might change, that maybe I'm doing this to prove something to him. When I started a family, he understood this had nothing to do with him. It's not like my parents have suddenly become rainbow-flag-waving activists, but they have definitely come to accept my choices. The fact that the girls have fathers helps them—it's a bit like when a straight couple gets divorced. Actually, Mom sometimes calls Yanai my husband. She'll ask: 'Is your husband coming?' She calls Dafi 'wife,' loves her and treats her 100 percent like family.”

The girls have a huge family: lots of cousins, aunts, uncles, and four sets of grandparents. Dafi and Ronen's parents are as close to them as Dana's. They see the girls at least once a week. Yanai's family is the exception; he is reluctant to speak about them.

“My parents are from Yemen, they're very conservative. Instead of telling them I'm gay, I moved to Tel Aviv and kept my distance. When Dana got pregnant, I decided I needed to come out. My father wanted to kill himself, but in the end he got over it somehow. I still don't go there often, though. They don't understand, I can't explain to them what it means to be gay. Only Abigail and I exist to them, they don't want to know the others.”

 

The mom's house is the child's main abode.

Initially the child lives only with her. After a year she spends a night at the dad's. Ultimately, two nights and one weekend day (no overnight stay) at dad's.

Financial split: dad bears sixty percent of the costs, mom forty.

If one of the parents dies, the child stays with the other mom and her sister.

If one of the parents moves abroad permanently, they lose custody rights.

In the case of a temporary move abroad, the parent undertakes to finance visits from the other parent and the child three times a year.

In the case of a move outside of Tel Aviv, the parent who moves is obliged to provide the child with transport.

A parent who converts to ultra-Orthodox Judaism loses custody rights.

Those are some of the stipulations of the contract. Nobody has looked at it since it was signed. Yanai doesn't even know where he put it. The process of arriving at it was crucial; through it, all four of them got to know each other, their motivations and needs. Of course not everything can be regulated in advance. Because how can you maintain harmony in a four-parent family when, say, one couple separates? One home automatically breaks up into two. Initially Yanai and Ronen wouldn't see each other, so how to sustain contact between the nonbiological parent and the nonbiological daughter? Can the sisters sleep together at one of the fathers' houses? It was the overnight stays that sparked the conflict. According to Dana, Abigail should not sleep at Ronen's with Amalia, because she should have two homes, not three. Yanai, however, thinks that it would not hurt Abigail to spend the night with her sister at the home of her other dad, whom she loves.

“I'm the evil one in the family,” comments Yanai. “I don't want to move to Bicaron, I'm fine in my ruin of a house, I have lots of space and freedom here. I also don't let the moms interfere in how I spend my free time. It was hard right after the break-up, but I'm still friends with Ronen, we see each other at least twice a week, he brings Amalia over for dinner. Sometimes I feel like Dana wants to have me at her disposal. When Abigail is ill or something else comes up, immediately there's pressure for me to mind her. I'm also often reproached that I don't spend enough time at their place. But the truth is that although Dana and I argue, I wouldn't want to have a child with anyone else.”

           

Another issue that is difficult to regulate in a contract: new partners. How do you introduce them into the lives of the children and the whole family? What if one of the parents wants to have a child with the new partner too?

“It turned out that Amalia, who never said anything about our break-up, was very affected by it. At some point she said to Mom: 'I think Yanai left Dad because I cried too much.' We were all shocked. So when I met Aviel, my new boyfriend, I was very careful with the girls at the start, I didn't introduce them until six months later. They liked each other a lot, but unfortunately our relationship ended after two years. It's hard, but you can't worry about it too much either. Arab families used to live together, like tribes, and bring the children up together. People come and go in the kids' lives. For example, Amalia was recently transferred to another preschool and missed her old teacher a lot. It's natural.”

 

Bathtime over, Dana dries Amalia's dark blonde wavy hair and the mop of Abigail's dark curls (she takes after Dad: Yanai has curly hair too, hates it and keeps it very short). Amalia has unbelievably blue eyes—emphasized by dark eyebrows and lashes—and a melancholy look; Abigail has a jolly round face and eyes like chocolate. The elder goes to play with a friend in her room. The younger wants to play a game on an iPad, sits next to me on the couch. Dana throws pasta into boiling water.

“I used to like advising other couples, I even gave lectures at a center for gays and lesbians. Now I'm a bit more careful; this path is full of challenges. Negotiating the contract isn't enough, a crisis can happen. We talk a lot, we shout a lot. Like in a marriage. I am Dafi's wife, but Yanai's too. Dafi is my wife, but also Ronen's. Those relations are a little complicated. For example, Yanai frequently clams up in a conflict, doesn't want to talk. I can't do that. He sulked for a month once. When you have a child with someone you don't love romantically, you have to understand that they won't change for you, you can't expect them to. Now I know that.”

“Maybe an anonymous donor would've been better?”

“No, I'm very glad that Abigail has a father who loves her, that she knows who he is. I don't think biology is that important, it's more important who takes care of you. But I think it's vital to know who your father is. And besides, this way we have two evenings a week just for each other. I don't know how other parents manage. Abigail is going to be seven soon and I can say with a clear conscience that our arrangement works.”

 

From Nie przeproszę, że urodziłam. Historie rodzin z in vitro. Published 2015 by Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec. © 2015 by Karolina Domagalska. By arrangement with the Andrew Nurnburg Agency. Translation © 2017 by Marta Dziurosz. All rights reserved. 

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