All in the family

Those girls next door are having kids—together

Fernandes and Kamrar have been together for 15 years. Fernandes, who works at the university, is also a lay minister at the Church of Religious Science, and Kamrar is a stay-at-home mom.

Fernandes and Kamrar have been together for 15 years. Fernandes, who works at the university, is also a lay minister at the Church of Religious Science, and Kamrar is a stay-at-home mom.

Photo by Tom Angel

Like all stay-at-home moms, Sue Kamrar is a very busy woman. She’s got two kids to raise, a mortgage to pay, errands to run and laundry to do. There’s homework to supervise, dinner to cook and housework. She has a checkbook to balance, shopping to do and toilets to clean. With her small frame, short blond hair and glasses, she looks just like the schoolteacher she used to be.

Kamrar really is, in short, an all-American mom.

And while she’s virtually identical to millions of moms all around the world, there is one trait that makes Kamrar a little different. It is this: She is a lesbian, and part of a growing trend of gay couples—and even singles—who are creating what has been widely termed a “gayby boom.”

But sitting with Kamrar and her partner, Kathy Fernandes, in their comfortable Chico home, you forget all that nationwide-trend stuff. This is, in the end, just about a family. Their sunny house is filled with family pictures and plants, and there are signs of children everywhere—from the wall clock stuck with yellow Post-It notes indicating the time in simple numerals, to the stacks of children’s books piled high by the fireplace.

Their conversations are peppered with bursts of laughter, and they are as pleasant and easygoing with their kids as they are with each other. It is readily apparent that this is a stable and loving home, and 6-year-old Corrine and 8-year-old David Kamrar seem lucky to part of it.

It has taken a long time to get there, though, and it hasn’t been easy.

It all started about 15 years ago, when Fernandes and Kamrar met through mutual friends in the Bay Area. They were both about 24, and they quickly fell in love. After about three years, they started thinking about buying a home. However, the high cost of homes in the Bay Area priced them right out of the market, so they started looking elsewhere. Soon after, they landed in Chico.

Life, they say, was pretty good. Fernandes got a job working in the Department of Academic Technology at the university, and Kamrar started teaching school. They were active in the Church of Religious Science and had plenty of friends.

But something was missing. Kamrar was about 31 when she started hearing the persistent tick tick tick of her biological clock.

“It was such a strong urge [to have kids],” she said. “My body was telling me, ‘OK, it’s time.'”

Kamrar was sure she wanted a baby right away, but it took about a year for Fernandes to warm up to the idea. She was afraid, she says now, of the responsibility and the huge undertaking that parenthood is. Once she decided that she wanted to become a mother, though, she was all for it.

She surprised Kamrar about her change of heart with a card one day.

“I cut out a little baby face from the paper and pasted on a card,” Fernandes said. “And then I wrote something like, ‘Are you ready for this?’ in it.”

Kamrar blushed as she remembered it.

“I was so excited,” she said, laughing. “But let’s put it this way: I knew I wasn’t going to get pregnant that night.”

Indeed. It took almost a year of research into sperm donation options before the couple agreed to allow Kamrar to become part of a fertility research project at UC Davis. Her donor was one of six graduate students managing the study, but that is all Kamrar and Fernandes know about Corinne’s father.

And really, that’s all Corinne, now 6 years old, wants to know. When asked about her father, she rolls her eyes and giggles.

“I don’t have a dad,” she says, nestling into Kamrar. “I have two moms. … I like it that way.”

Kamrar had a happy and uneventful pregnancy until she was about eight months along, when her sister was killed in a car accident. Fernandes and Kamrar took temporary custody of the sister’s son, David, and are now wading through the complicated legal process to adopt him.

That their kids have male role models is “an issue” for Fernandes and Kamrar, but they say it’s not a concern. They call their male friends and in-laws role models and point out that thousands of children grow up happy and healthy in single-parent households, the vast majority of which are headed by women.

“I don’t think you have to have a man living in the house to be a role model for the kids,” Fernandes said. “They see men all the time and have relationships with them. It’s not like they never leave the house.”

Kathy Fernandes (bottom left) and Sue Kamrar (top left) enrolled in a fertility research program at UC Davis, where Kamrar conceived Corrine, who’s 6. They’re in the process of adopting their nephew, David, whose mother was killed in an accident.

Photo by Tom Angel

Sitting around their living room in yellow pools of light, they look like the happy family they are. Kamrar, a former teacher, home schools the kids, and Fernandes works full time at the university. They’re planning a camping trip to the redwoods later this month, and Kamrar and Fernandes lament that they never seem to have enough time for each other. Which is, they acknowledge, a pickle so many parents find themselves in.

“See how boring we are?” they say with a laugh. “We’re no different than any other parents. … We just happen to be women.”

That balancing act of family quality time and couple’s quality time is a tightrope that Sandy Parsons and Holly Hunt tiptoe across, too. They’re the parents of Emily, a robust 3-year-old who calls them “Momma” and “Mommy.”

Sitting in their toy-scattered living room, they talk above the considerable din of a Disney musical CD playing and Emily happily hollering as she toddles around the house. Theirs is a bustling, noisy household decorated with a San Francisco 49ers print above the fireplace and a framed 49ers jersey, along with the more conventional family pictures and prints.

The eclectic décor, laughs Parsons, was a “major compromise”

“That’s one of the many compromises we’ve had in our marriage,” Parsons says, shaking her head. “I never would have them on the wall if it wasn’t for her.”

Parsons, 37, and Hunt, 34, are the first gay couple in Butte County allowed to have both women’s names on their daughter’s birth certificate. Most of the time, gay parents who want their partners to be legally tied to their kids have the partners listed as stepparents. And while Parsons and Hunts’ struggle both to be named on Emily’s birth certificate was inherently political, they say now they didn’t do it to make a political statement.

“We are so not political people,” Hunt said. “We’re not activists and we never have been, and we don’t want to be. We did it for our daughter, so she would be protected by both of us legally.”

The couple is unique in another way, too. Emily’s father plays an active role in her life, although Parsons and Hunt have made it clear to him that they are her parents. Emily sees him regularly and calls him “Daddy.”

“She knows that’s her daddy,” Parsons said. “We think daddies are important, and we don’t want to take him away from her or her away from him.”

Parsons, a counseling supervisor, was dating Emily’s father when she met Hunt 11 years ago. They were working in the same counseling office and fell in love almost immediately.

“I told [Emily’s father], ‘Look, I have to leave, but you can help us have kids,'” Parsons said.

He took the breakup surprisingly well, Parsons said, because seven years later he agreed to donate the sperm necessary for the women to become parents. It was Parsons, who was 34 at the time, who wanted most to be pregnant, so they planned to inseminate her. Hunt, an avid sports fan, had never wanted to be pregnant. “It just was never something I felt like doing,” she said. But two weeks before the insemination, Hunt changed her mind.

“We were all set up for her to inseminate me,” Parsons said, waving her long pink fingernails around. “And then she said, ‘I want to try too.’ It was so weird, because if you want to stereotype us, she’s the butchy one. I’m the total girl.”

As it turned out, Hunt got pregnant on the first try.

“Everyone who knows us was so surprised that I was the one having the baby,” Hunt said. “Some of them still think it was Sandy who had her.”

Emily is a happy little girl who plays with dolls, paints her nails and loves to curl her hair. She is, Parsons said, “such a little mother.”

“It’s really interesting, because when she’s playing with the dollhouse, sometimes there’s two moms, sometimes a mom and a dad, sometimes two dads,” Parsons said. “She seems to think it’s all fine.”

Emily has yet to be teased by her peers about her two mommies, although the women are already bracing themselves for the possibility that it could happen as she gets older.

“It scares me a lot that she could be teased because of us,” Hunt said. “But she’s a very confident kid, and that’s going to matter a lot.”

Although parenthood has made Parsons and Hunt more open about their relationship, it can have the exact opposite effect. It’s ironic, say another lesbian couple, Ellen and Allison, that having a daughter has more or less pushed them slowly back into the closet they worked so hard to come out of.

Together for 15 years, they moved to Chico about two years ago to raise their daughter, Katrina. They’d lived and worked in the Castro District of San Francisco, that world-famous gay mecca, for more than 10 years. They were vocal and “out” to everyone they met.

Gayle Olsen is the single lesbian mother of Chad and Courtney, twins who are nearly 5 years old. She’s a graduate of San Jose State University and a former volleyball player.

Photo by Tom Angel

But motherhood has changed them.

“We worry about our daughter,” they said. “There’s a lot of weirdoes out there, and this is still a hostile climate for gay people … so we’re far more careful now than we used to be.”

While they’re passionate about gay parents’ rights and worthiness, they asked that their real names be left out of this article for fear of retribution.

But they’re quick to point out that their hesitation to be public about their family isn’t because they’re ashamed of it. They’re thoroughly likable and friendly women and proudly describe themselves as “average, average, average,” right down to the minivan they drive.

“I really don’t think there’s much of a difference between our family and a straight family,” Ellen said. “We have the same problems with bedtime and housework and all that.”

It wasn’t always that way. Ellen was dating men when she met Allison. They were both in their early 20s and working in a San Francisco financial-planning company. It was, as the saying goes, love at first sight.

“I went to my mom and said, ‘Guess what, I’m in love and I’m happy and I’m gay,'” Ellen said. “ … She took it pretty hard, but she’s great about it now.”

From there, their lives practically mirror many straight couples'. They bought a house together and exchanged wedding rings, went to work and struggled to pay their bills. About five years into their relationship, they started talking about having kids.

For both women, having a baby seemed like the natural next step.

“I always knew that somehow I wanted kids,” Allison said. “It was always in the back of my mind that I’d have a baby. It was never really a question.”

But actually getting pregnant proved to be much more difficult than simply deciding to have a baby. They had a comfortable home, well-paying jobs, a supportive extended family and plenty of love. But it wasn’t enough. What they needed, of course, was sperm.

They turned to a longtime friend for that.

“I think we were in Safeway when we actually asked him,” Ellen said. “We’d talked about it before with him. … He said ‘yes’ right away. It was totally natural.”

After he agreed to be the donor, the couple consulted a lawyer, who drew up paperwork binding him to the donation. He formally gave up his parenting rights and gave them to the women.

They agreed that Allison would be the one to carry the baby, and Ellen inseminated her at home. A first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, but Allison got pregnant again quickly. By the time Katrina was born, they’d been planning motherhood for six years.

“We were so excited when she was born,” Allison said. “We fell in love with her right off the bat. … We were so glad we’d finally done it.”

The cost of living in San Francisco living being what it is, both women had to go back to work to support their new family. They hired a nanny at a cost of $400 a week and tried to make the best of it.

It was a hard row to hoe, they say now.

For one, while the Castro District might be a terrific place to live for the young-and-single set, it’s not, they say, family oriented. When Allison and Ellen would go out to eat in the neighborhood, they had trouble finding restaurants that provided high chairs, for instance. And they were hard up to find anywhere convenient to buy diapers.

“You go to the Walgreen’s in the Castro, and you’ll find some interesting items, but diapers are not one of them,” Ellen said wryly.

To make matters worse, they were working long hours and didn’t see Katrina as much as they wanted to. The final straw came when they noticed that Katrina was developing an Irish brogue from her Irish nanny.

“We just said, ‘This is it,'” Ellen said. “We didn’t have a baby to have her be raised by someone else.”

Kamrar, a former teacher, home schools the kids. It’s an arrangement they love, since it gives them plenty of freedom in their education. “With home schooling, it’s not ‘This is what you’re going to learn today,'” Kamrar says. “It’s more like, ‘What do you want to learn today?'”

Photo by Tom Angel

So they sold their San Francisco home and moved to Chico, where Allison went to college. Now, Ellen stays home with Katrina and Allison works as a sales representative for a major coffee chain. Life in Chico, they both say, has been sweet. They’re hooked up with a group of lesbian and gay parents that’s facilitated through the Stonewall Alliance Center and have yet to experience any blatant discrimination.

They admit, though, that there are challenges they face that straight couples don’t have. While Katrina has yet to ask about the whereabouts of her father, they acknowledge that “it’s just a matter of time” before she does. Their response is something they think about “all the time.”

“We want to be honest with her and for her not to be ashamed of who she is and where she came from,” they say together. “We want her to understand that even though she doesn’t have a dad, she has two parents who love her unconditionally.”

Exactly how to explain that to a little girl, though, remains undecided.

Ellen and Allison also acknowledge that they want to provide their daughter with male role models. “It’s important,” Ellen said. “And we want to make it clear that we don’t hate men. … We love the company of men.” Their male friends provide the male role modeling that Katie’s home life lacks, they said.

“We don’t live in a girl vacuum,” they said, laughing.

They’re also trying to get pregnant again, with the help of the donor who fathered Katrina. If all goes well, Ellen will carry their next child.

The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in the number of lesbians and gay men having kids. Researchers estimate that the total number of American children living with at least one gay parent to be between six and 14 million, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gayle Olsen is another one of those parents. She’s a special-education teacher for the Chico Unified School District and the single lesbian mother of 4 1/2-year-old twins named Courtney and Chad.

It is, she said, a very busy life. She’s rarely home from work before 7 p.m. after picking her kids up at day care, and she’s taking college classes to supplement her teaching credential.

“I’ve always got somewhere to be,” she said. “It’s go to work, pick them up, do dinner. … It never ends.”

Olsen, 38, looks like the college volleyball player she used to be. She’s tall—very tall—with striking eyes and short dark hair. Her rented duplex is clean and comfortable, and there’s a “Teaching Tolerance” poster on the kitchen wall. Her twins share a Lego-scattered room with bunk beds, and she’s saving to buy her own home.

Olsen was living with a woman named Nancy in San Jose when she decided to have kids. She was 31 years old and her biological clock had been ticking for several years, but she’d been unable to convince Nancy to help her have kids. Olsen ended up going to a small sperm bank by herself to be inseminated.

“I just told her, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do, and I hope you can support me in it,'” Olsen said.

Olsen was ecstatic when the twins were born, but their birth furthered fractured a relationship that was already faltering. When they were about 2 1/2, Olsen moved out. It was an amiable break, though, and the women remained friends.

“What it boils down to is she wasn’t doing her share of the work, wasn’t contributing financially, I was the one getting up in the middle of the night,” Olsen said. “It just wasn’t working anymore.”

After a brief stint living with her mother in the Mojave Desert, Olsen got a job teaching in Chico and moved her family here. Soon after, Nancy was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Nancy, now confined to a wheelchair and nearly bald, visited Olsen. The kids remain fond of her, and it’s been tough to explain her illness to the kids.

“I just say that there’s something growing in Nancy’s brain and the doctors are trying to make it better,” Olsen said quietly. “It’s really a shame. They don’t really understand it.”

About two years ago, the twins—especially Courtney—started getting very curious about who their father was, Olsen said. They made up stories about who he might be and finally decided, as toddlers have a way of doing, that he was dead.

It was a theory Olsen knew she had to nip in the bud. It was difficult, though, because she had to explain their origins in a language they could understand.

“Finally, I just said, ‘Well, when you were born, you had a mommy and a Nancy,'” Olsen said.

Courtney, Olsen said, responded by saying, “So Nancy was like my daddy?”

“Kind of,” Olsen replied.

Like millions of lesbian and gay parents, she has the unenviable task of explaining a concept to toddlers in language that she herself isn’t yet fluent in.