32 | From Single to Step-Parent

Meet the Guests

Hilary and Katie have been married for 6 years. They have two children: A teenage son, Josiah, (age 18) and a 3-year-old daughter. When they first met, Katie was raising her then ten-year-old son from a previous relationship. Katie is a Georgia State University professor and Hilary is an operations manager for a nonprofit law firm. They married in New York City in December of 2012 because at the time marriage was not legal in their state of residence. Their marriage was not recognized in their state of residence for another three years, at which time Katie was already pregnant with their daughter. Katie became pregnant via reciprocal IVF after Hilary had tried to conceive for two years. Hilary went through 8 IUIs and one unsuccessful IVF transfer. After Hilary’s unsuccessful IVF procedure, they decided that Katie would try to get pregnant with the last remaining frozen embryos. Two frozen embryos were transferred into Katie’s uterus and one finally took! They obtained a pre-birth order from Fulton county which granted them both legal parental rights over their soon-to-be-born daughter. Hilary was legally recognized as their teenager’s stepparent in 2015 after same sex marriages were recognized in Georgia. They are an interracial and bilingual family.

Josiah Acosta-Ballard was born in New York City and is a senior in high school in Decatur, Georgia. He lives with his two moms, Katie and Hilary, and his 3 year old sister Juniper. Katie is Josiah’s bio-mom who married Hilary when Josiah was 12 years old. Josiah loves music, theatre, and gaming. He is the sound technician for his high school’s musicals and plays. Josiah is also interested in graphic art and digital design.  

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Episode Transcript

Emily: Being LGBTQ can be hard. Dating can be hard. Combining all three is a whole other thing entirely. Being a parent can make LGBTQ people feel isolated from the broader queer community. So what happens when you add on trying to date and navigate being a single parent, even when co-parenting. My own memories of my parents separating and dating when I was young are pretty fuzzy. So with me today to talk about the experiences from all sides is the wonderful Acosta family. Hilary and Katie have been married for six years. They have two children, Josiah who was 18 and a three year old daughter. When they first met, Katie was raising her then 10 year old son from a previous relationship. Katie is a Georgia State University professor and Hilary is an operations manager for a nonprofit law firm.

Emily: We know a little bit about the answer to this first question, but I would love for you to tell us a little bit more. As I ask everyone – who is in your family and how was it formed?

Katie: So there are four members. We have two kids with a pretty big age gap, our 18-year-old Josiah and our 3-year-old Juniper. So we’re a family of four and raising two kids. It’s kind of weird because they’re in such different places in their lives that it kind of feels like two totally different tracks.

Emily: Would you just share a little bit more about how Josiah and Juniper came into your family?

Katie: I had Josiah as a single parent when I was in college. I was 19 and I raised him on my own until Hilary and I got together. A lot happened in those first 10 years of Josiah’s life, I went to graduate school and there was just lots of ups and downs I think during those years. And then when I started a relationship, we moved pretty quickly into wanting to get married and wanting to have more kids. Even though it took us a little while, we eventually were able to have juniper with assisted reproductive technology.

Katie: Katie, you mentioned this already, but what was dating as a single parent really like for you?

Katie: It’s weird because I didn’t ever actively seek out dating. I was really kind of, you know, in graduate school and living away from home and parenting a small child. I just never really felt like I had the time. I know a lot of people who are single these days use dating apps and online dating and stuff like that. I never really did anything like that. I just remember always feeling like I was really afraid to be in any kind of long term serious relationship because I didn’t want to confuse Josiah. He and I were a team that was pretty much us and we kind of did our own thing. I was a little bit nervous that dating would complicate that. And that it would change my relationship with him.

Katie: So that was a little bit hard when I actually started dating a little bit more actively. I remember when Hilary and I got together, one of the things that worked for us was that we didn’t really have to give Josiah an explanation because we were in a position where we could just say, well, this is my friend Hilary. And we didn’t really have to discuss it beyond that. I think that when I was at a point where Hilary and I were really serious, then I wanted to sit down with him and have a different kind of conversation. But up until then I was able to spend time with Hilary and Josiah at the same time without having to overly explain the situation because we could just be friends and Josiah wasn’t curious enough to need more of an explanation. And I appreciated that. It gave me a buffer, if you will.

Emily: That’s just so different from my own experience with my mom. I had two moms who were together when I was born and then they separated when I was around four years old. When my mom, Cathy, then started dating, the person she was dating could not meet me for a very long time. And she really kept that separate. I would go to her previous partner Grace’s house every other weekend and that’s when she could have dates. That’s really how she kept it separate for a while. Hilary, what was that like for you getting to know Josiah, as your own relationship then was developing? Did you keep those things separate as well?

Hilary: It was sort of like two tracks of dating at the same time. There were the times when we would just date by ourselves and we were getting to know each other and then there were the times when Josiah was around as well. It was interesting to get to spend time with him because obviously I knew that he was a part of Katie’s life that was coming with her wherever she went. And so I thought it was really important to get to know him, but I also understood that at the beginning we just wanted to introduce me into his life so that he could get to know me as a person. And so I was sort of seeing it as the same for me. I wanted to get to know him as a person.

Emily: My mom and Nancy met when I was around five and Nancy, later second parent adopted me and is another parent. When they started dating, the family story is that Nancy knew that Cathy had a daughter. Similarly, she was aware that this person she was going to going on a date with had a kid. But she was so excited about that, that on the first date the trunk of her car was full of coloring books and art supplies because she just was so excited about it. So Cathy was the one who had to say, Whoa, that’s great you’re excited, but let’s go on our first date. I didn’t meet Nancy until a little while later. But clearly in that act, Nancy had made it clear that she was aware that Cathy had a daughter and she was on board and ready to learn. Hilary, knowing that Katie was a parent, did that impact how you went about dating or even in the choice in dating, knowing that this is someone who was going to come as a package deal with Josiah?

Hilary: Yeah. Katie and I really did start out as friends. So I met Josiah in brief spurts early on and having met Katie before we started dating. So I definitely knew that she came as a package deal as you say. I think it was something that I considered a lot before we started dating. Was this a relationship that I wanted to jump into as opposed to the friendship that we had had and enjoyed before we started dating? And, for me, I was very lucky to get to know Josiah as we were dating as well, it all felt right to me. I think that I spent a lot of time getting to know both of them separately and together to be able to see that I got a lot of enrichment in my life from both of them. And so it was something that I was really lucky to get to be able to be a part of.

Emily: Josiah, do you remember meeting Hilary?

Josiah: I don’t recall meeting Hillary for the first time. I do recall finding out they were dating. I don’t really understand what happened to me in that moment because I started crying, but I didn’t quite understand. I really didn’t understand what I was being told, but I felt sad anyways. Maybe it was the atmosphere or maybe it was me. I’m not entirely certain why I felt so sad in the moment.

Emily: But well, it certainly, at least for me, it meant a change in that routine. It definitely means change. Sometimes that can feel sad when you don’t know what that change will necessarily mean.

Josiah: Never been a big fan of change either.

Emily: Yeah. Do, do you remember Hilary moving in?

Josiah: I remember her moving in and I remember not really understanding, but I was kinda chill with it because we had people who lived in our house before as well, and we split the rent or whatever, but I just figured she was the next person to do that for a bit. I didn’t really quite understand.

Emily: I was like probably six at the time, but I do remember those early days. Nancy was this new person and I liked her, but apparently I was still harboring some sort of feelings about something because one time I picked up the house phone when someone called and my mom Cathy was downstairs and so we both picked up. I stayed silent as she started to speak and I was in the same room as Nancy and Nancy was like, Oh, you gotta hang up, you shouldn’t listen in on a conversation. And I turned to her and I covered the receiver and said, she’s talking to a boy! Trying to make her jealous or something. Nancy was like, I really doubt it.

Emily: So I don’t know. I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish with that. As a six-year-old, but clearly something. Did you do anything quite as inexplicable?

Josiah: I recall some salty remarks from me, just over general things like put down the video games and get ready for dinner. It was like a hard one for me when I was younger.

Emily: And Hilary, as a new parent to an older child, it’s certainly a unique experience. Hilary and Katie, did you experience some of that?

Hilary: I definitely did. I remember being shocked what hour we ate at. When Katie and I started dating, I was living on my own and eating at 8:00 PM and all the things that you do as a single girl in your twenties. It definitely changed every aspect of life. It definitely felt strange at first to give directions or to tell Josiah what to do. For a little while I felt sort of like it wasn’t my place to do it. But the more time we spent around each other, the more comfortable we got with each other and the easier it got for me to be able to help guide him in the day to day sort of things that a parent does that someone doesn’t necessarily do for children that they’re not parenting

Emily: Katie, this must have been a transition for you as well. To really share the parenting roles. Did you experience your own sort of growing pains?

Katie: Yeah. That I think was the biggest source of tension in that first year and a half between Hilary and I. Because I was very used to being the one who made decisions. The one in charge I think really. I wasn’t at all used to consulting anyone about what to do. And Hillary really wanted to be part of the conversations and she wanted to participate in making decisions and she wanted to be a very involved. And in theory I wanted her to be a very involved parent too, but I had no idea how to parent with a very involved parent in that way at all. And so I felt like we really had a hard time just be like inter-personally. She and I really had to work out what the roles were going to look like and I think we stumbled over that for a while. So I really had to learn how to listen more and how to really let her in.

Emily: Josiah, do you have any memories of when you started seeing Hilary as a parent,? Was there a sense of when your relationship changed at all?

Josiah: To be honest, I don’t think I ever really saw Hilary as my parent until we moved to Georgia. Before then, I always saw her as someone that I respected. I mean, not always, but as time grew I respected her and I listened to her. But I never saw her as my mom until we moved to Georgia. It was mainly because we were in a new environment and a new home and everything was new for me, but the things that had stayed the same, were Hilary and Katie. So it felt like it was the next step and it felt like it was easy to understand at that point. I understood a lot more as I got older and that helped me accept her a lot more and she was always there for me. She always helped me out whether I was appreciative or not and it kind of made me see things a little differently.

Emily: Katie, you’re now working on a book project on LGBTQ step-parent families. Can you talk about that research and what you’re seeing?

Katie: Yeah, so I should probably say that I decided I wanted to write this book because when Hilary and I got married and I was like, oh my goodness. How is no one writing about this? This is so hard. The backstory is I’m a sociologist, I study queer families for a living and always have, even before my relationship with Hilary. And so this was the next project that made sense to me. So I started conducting interviews with lesbian, bisexual, and queer women who were parenting children from previous relationships in same-sex households. What I have come across throughout the five years that I’ve spent collecting the data and now writing the book is that there are some very clear differences in people’s experiences in part based on the origin relationship. So whether or not the children originated from a same-sex relationship or whether or not the children were from a heterosexual relationship made a big difference. I find that having a prior heterosexual relationship and moving into a same-sex relationship while parenting children creates its own unique set of complications in terms of legal issues, issues with extended family. They definitely experience more problems with homophobia in all of these cases, even from extended family and biological fathers. Same-sex couples that were raising kids together that were originally from previous same-sex couples seem to bypass some of that. They still had some issues, but overall they actually were doing much better than the other families.

Emily: It’s so frustrating to hear that about the courts. That even today being in a same-sex relationship can still be used negatively for against them.

Katie: It’s one of things that I found most surprising because back in the nineties and the eighties, there was a bunch of research that showed us that the courts have serious issues with homophobia and were taking people’s kids away from them because they didn’t want these kids to be raised by a gay parent, and awarding full custody of these children to a biological parent who was heterosexual or in a heterosexual relationship. I think people presumed that it was no longer happening and that is absolutely not what I found. Some courts are doing a fantastic job and I’ve also found that families are still losing their kids in court because the former spouses or ex-partners are using that against them.

Emily: I didn’t meet anybody else who had LGBTQ parents until I was 13 and it was at Family Week in Provincetown, MA. Family Week is the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ families in the world. At the time I went, it’s not as big as it is today by any means. But when I started going in 2003, I was 13 and in the teen group. During one workshop we separated into families that had been formed through assisted reproductive technologies (donor sperm or surrogacy), adoption and foster care, and then the third group was families that have been formed through a previous different-sex relationship. The biggest group of those three was the different-sex relationship one. And then the assisted reproductive technologies and foster care and adoption were pretty even, but definitely smaller. And it was a really different experience for the teens who were dealing with divorce. Divorce is difficult for any family to go through and then their parents coming out and then how their extended families and community was reacting was all really hard.

Katie: I don’t know if Josiah remembers, but I very clearly remember him struggling with how other people reacted to the fact that I had a woman living with us in our home as my romantic partner. I remember that he had this super awkward period of just like not knowing what to share with his friends sometimes. I remember one time when he had a friend come over to our house, and he kept pretending that Hilary wasn’t there. He didn’t want to have to talk about it without knowing how his friend would react. I think that that experience of him knowing that there’s certain stigmatizations associated two women being parents together that he struggled with, even if he may not have felt it himself, but he struggled with other people not being accepting.

Hilary: That’s funny. I hadn’t thought about that in ages. The thing that first came to my mind when you started talking, Katie, was the time when Josiah had just started going to school where I taught at in New Orleans. I remember I was trying to pick him up at the end of the day and he was still talking to a few new friends and the kids had realized that I was standing there watching them. And so one of the little boys asked Josiah, who’s that watching us? And he goes, that’s my… And you could hear him pause and he goes, that’s my Hil. I think maybe he didn’t really know what to say. And then I was his and that I found really, really sweet. Do you remember?

Josiah: I don’t actually. I don’t remember most of this.

Katie: Do you remember ignoring Hilary?

Josiah: No.

Katie: We do, we definitely do. I mean it makes total sense obviously. Like nobody was terribly surprised. We get it. Who wants to be different in fifth grade?

Emily: Yeah, I’m just backing up your research Katie. We moved to the new town and I remember there were some really close friends that I made right on our street. And one of my friends who had a step-parent and who he lived with, so he was familiar with different types of families. We talked about how I had two moms and he knew that and he still came over. Months and months after spending all of our time together playing, he came over and he asked where does Nancy sleep? I was like, well, in my moms’ – plural – room. He was like, okay, but like where? So I mentioned it to my moms and I walked him into my parents’ room, which was usually off limits when friends came over. I had to show it, it’s just like your house. They’re both in here. Thankfully his parents were super cool and they were like, good, why didn’t he get that? My parents told them, by the way we had to explain this again. I was like, he needs a tour, we’re doing this again, he didn’t get it the first time.

Emily: I never had a uniquely parent name for my mom, Nan. I always called her by her first name. Now that Juniper is getting older, Josiah, are you finding yourself using some of her names for your moms?

Josiah: Definitely Juniper calls Katie, Mama and calls Hillary Mommy. And I find myself doing that more and more just because that’s what she does and adopting language around me is kind of what I do.

Emily: And how has becoming a big brother changed your relationships with your parents?

Josiah: I’m not entirely certain. I’ve always wanted a sibling and that’s something I always said when I was really young. I didn’t quite understand how mom couldn’t do that and I would ask and ask and cry and stuff. And then when it kind of rolled around, I’m like, this is crazy. And now it’s here. It’s fun to be a part of. It’s enjoyable.

Emily: What’s one of the best things about being a big brother?

Josiah: Showing off my sister to friends. People love her. She’s adorable.

Emily: Yeah. That’s fun. Katie and Hillary, what was your process like to decide to grow your family? If you know Josiah was giving you pressure, you knew he was on board.

Katie: Yes, Josiah was putting all sorts pressure on us that he wanted siblings and it was really hard because, I’m sure he didn’t realize that he was doing this, but he was very much like I want a sibling, I want a little sister, it would be so great. And at the same time we had already decided that we wanted to have another child but we were having an extremely hard time getting pregnant. And so it was like a knife in the gut every time he would say I really want a sibling. It was such a hard time getting there. It was like, okay, do we really have to do this again? So that was tough. You know, I had always envisioned that I was done. That Josiah was going to be my only. And then I met Hilary and I entertained for the first time the prospect of having another child because she really wanted that. And I was like, well, let’s think about it. And I even surprised myself because I thought that was a nonstarter for me. And I met Hilary and fell in love with Hilary and then realized that maybe it didn’t have to be a nonstarter.

Emily: Any final thoughts or advice for any single parents, step parents and youth in blended families?

Hilary: One of the important things to remember is that for a lot of people in the LGBTQ community, our definition a family is one you put together and that you choose. And in a lot of ways, that’s the same thing for us. We all chose each other. I think that that’s one of the most beautiful things about our family. And so, we may not have all come into the family at the same time, but at this point we’re here and we’re supportive of each other and we love each other. And I think that’s what really makes a family.

Katie: The one thing that I would say is I tend to have this very Utopian idea about family. So I definitely see families as something you choose and build for yourself. I always raised Josiah to believe that. I remember teaching him that when he was really young. I think that helped us. I think it helped Josiah see Hilary and I as ‘us’. One of the things that I learned from five years of research for the book that I’m writing is that many families include more than two parents and that’s awesome and that people can make that work. And that can be super beneficial for kids. And so I had that Utopian vision of the world. Step-families come together usually because there was a breakup prior. That’s usually how step-families are formed. From that, you can actually build strong and stable networks for kids and that’s a good thing.

Emily: Josiah, anything you would tell your younger self.

Josiah: I’d tell myself that things are hard, but they get better.