The Sunday Magazine

The Mamas and the Papas: How two Ottawa couples became co-parents

Ontario law passed in 2016 gave equal rights to same-sex parents and multi-parent families.

The Ontario law passed in 2016 gave equal rights to same-sex parents and multi-parent families. That's us.

The four co-parents in August 2016, when Karin was pregnant with Zora, their first child. Their second was born last winter. (Matthew Pearson/CBC)

Originally published on January 23, 2019. Shortly after we first broadcast this documentary, the Mamas and the Papas welcomed a new baby, Zelie Frida, into their family.

In the fall of 2016, I sat in the visitor's gallery at Queen's Park and witnessed the introduction of the All Families Are Equal Act.

The bill was enacted to enshrine in law the basic premise that all parents in Ontario deserve equal rights, regardless of the route they took to become a parent.

Four people — two queer couples — joined forces with the intention of raising children together.- Matthew Pearson

It gave same-sex parents who aren't biologically related to their children — such as those who use sperm donors and other reproductive technologies — the same legal rights as heterosexual parents. Before the law was passed, same-sex couples often had to spend thousands of dollars on legal fees to adopt their own children.

The new law also cleared a path for multi-parent families, allowing up to four parents to be listed on a child's birth certificate. It was a game-changer for families like mine, which is comprised of four people — two queer couples — who joined forces with the intention of raising children together.

'Could I raise a child with this person?'

I always wanted to be a dad, but I was focused on finding a partner first. Didn't I need to be with someone before I — or we — could decide to even have children?

That changed when my friend Karin, who, like me, was single, in her late 30s and identified as queer, asked me if I'd consider having a child with her.

Unbeknownst to me, a comment I'd made at some point about hypothetically having a child with a woman with whom I had a platonic relationship struck a chord with Karin. She had begun to envision a similar fate and was inviting me to join her on this different path, one in which we could set the rules and define family on our own terms.

The family took a trip to Sweden and Copenhagen in the summer of 2017. (Matthew Pearson/CBC)

We started spending more time together and we talked about the kind of things you talk about with someone you might spend your life with — values, beliefs, despair, dreams. We peeked into every corner of each other's life in an attempt to answer a singular question: Could I raise a child with this person?

As the answer became clear, something rather unexpected happened — we fell in love — with other people.

No roadmap for this

Karin met Janette at a mutual friend's wedding and I later met Alain through mutual friends. By a stroke of magic — and some serious heart-to-heart talks with these new partners — they both decided to take the plunge and join Karin and me on our co-parenting adventure.

The four of us spent hours talking about how the arrangement would work. We drafted and signed a parenting agreement — a contract outlining our expectations, responsibilities and values. It established how we would split our time with our child, including holidays, and how we would make decisions about the child's health and education. It also included a process for resolving conflicts.

"Whoever did it, did it right" was going to be our motto, a nod to a shared commitment not to micromanage each other.

There was no roadmap for this kind of family, so we created our own.

In this together

Our abstract ideas of co-parenting suddenly became concrete a few weeks after my visit to Queen's Park when Karin gave birth to a baby girl, whom we named Zora.

Negotiating with one other person is likely hard enough, but we have four people. Four opinions, perspectives and desires, which sometimes vary. Four sets of arms wanting to hold and cuddle one little baby.

We had to learn to communicate clearly, to compromise, and to trust that we were in this together. We were family now.

On Family Day in 2018, the five visited the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (Matthew Pearson/CBC)

Lines still got crossed sometimes. This is inevitable. And when that happens, we talk about it.

"I don't think we've gotten to a place where we have a fundamental disagreement about what we think is best for Zora," Karin said recently. "I'm sure that will arise one day, but it hasn't happened to us yet and I think that's because we did so much work before Zora was born, talking about shared values and shared understandings around the way we would like her to be raised."

An upside of co-parenting? Downtime

One of the upsides of co-parenting with three other people is the downtime — something all parents of young children could probably use more of.

I'm thinking of a photo Karin posted to Instagram. It's a selfie she took with Janette while out for a cross-country ski on a wintry afternoon two months after Zora was born.

Karin Galldin and Janette Meyrick skiing in December 2016, along the Ottawa River. (Submitted by Karin Galldin)

"So grateful to two beautiful papas who make moments like this possible for mothers," the caption says. 

I feel the same every time Alain and I slip off to Montreal for a weekend of careless fun.

Official recognition

A few months after Zora was born, her birth certificate arrived in the mail. It listed all four of us as her parents.

Light as that piece of paper was, it was heavy with meaning. It was an affirmation that our family existed; that some space had been made somewhere in Canada for families that looked like ours.

I felt such immense gratitude for the queer individuals and families whose courage and perseverance — not to mention a constitutional challenge of parentage laws filed by Toronto family lawyer Joanna Radbord — prompted the government act.

'She has special relationships with each of us'

It seems like ancient history now, but I still remember when Zora was born and I worried about whether I would find my place as a parent. I don't worry much about that much anymore.

As Karin says: "She knows who her Dada is, she knows who her Papa is, she knows who her Mum is, she knows who her Mama is and she has special relationships with each one of us."

Zora turned two years old a few months ago. We think she's a sweet and clever toddler.

Karin will soon give birth to our family's second child, which will thrust all of us back into the bleary world of parenting a newborn.

Baby number two, due in February 2019, is seen in an ultrasound image. (Matthew Pearson/CBC)

Meanwhile, Alain and I just bought a house a stone's throw from Karin and Janette's, which will soon free us from cross-town commutes.

In the beginning, we were two — Karin and me. Then we were four with Janette and Alain. Zora's birth made us five. And soon we'll be six. Two moms, two dads, two children.

One family.

Click 'listen' above to hear Matthew Pearson's documentary, The Mamas and the Papas.