38 | Co-Parenting Alternative Families

Meet the Guests

Mayeti Gametchu works in the Boston office of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission as Assistant Regional Director for the SEC’s National Exam Program. The Boston-based exam staff is responsible for overseeing regulatory compliance of about 1800 investment advisory firms, as well as investment companies, managing or advising approximately $10 trillion in assets. Prior to her present role, Ms. Gametchu served as Senior Enforcement Counsel in the SEC’s Asset Management Unit. Prior to joining the SEC, Ms. Gametchu co-founded a trial boutique firm and served as a litigation partner in several other business law firms. Ms. Gametchu began her legal career as an associate with Skadden Arps, and graduated from Harvard Law School and Williams College. Ms. Gametchu also has served on the board of a group of high-performing, urban charter schools that consistently succeed in closing the achievement gap traditionally suffered by economically-disadvantaged children. Most important, Ms. Gametchu is a proud mother of two wonderful daughters, who she raises with her devoted co-parent, Jeff Walker, and the support of her daughters’ godfather, Jose (Titi) Pascual.

Jeff Walker is the Director of Communications for a large Boston non-profit organization providing affordable housing for low-income elders and disabled adults. Jeff previously served as the Chief of Staff to Mayor E. Denise Simmons of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the first African-American lesbian Mayor of the nation. There he was responsible for managing and overseeing the daily operations and all policy functions related to City Council and School Committee. Jeff is the founder and co-chair of the Cambridge LGBTQ Commission – a 16 person Cambridge Commission recommending policy to the City leaders, representing LGBTQ people who work and live in the city by overseeing the implementation of GOAL and diversity training programs for City staff and the entire Cambridge Police Force, Fire Department, and EMTs; securing funding and providing support for LGBT in the public schools; and developing LGBTQ Friendly elder housing. Jeff is a published poet, artist, and the proud father of two daughters whom he co-parents with Mayeti Gametchu.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: Hopefully something that this podcast has made clear is that LGBTQ+ families are so much more than two moms and two dads. The first year I went to Family Week in Provincetown, the largest annual gathering of LGBTQ+ families the world, was the first event ever I went to and met other LGBTQ+ families, period. I remember at the first activity I attended, the youth participants were broken out into groups. I circled up with the other teens and we went around saying who was in our family and it was so exciting to just be in that circle of people and get to say my own family structure. And it’d be like: great! That’s lovely, next? It was just so normal. That meant so much. I remember on one particular person’s turn, he said he had two moms and four dads and everybody was so impressed. We were all like, oh my gosh, that’s so awesome. I wish I had that many! And I think that’s a beautiful, unique response that is so special to queer communities. That in queerspawn community our families are all so different. For someone to have six parents was a beautiful thing to be celebrated. I’m really excited to continue to talk about the challenges, the complexities and then the beauty of LGBTQ+ families that are alternative families or intentional families, families with parents who are from the get go – however that family is formed- intentionally co-parenting together. I have with me Jeff and Mayeti who are co-parents and they are going to share a little bit about their experience. I’m really excited to have you. Welcome to Jeff and Mayeti! So the question that I like to ask all my guests as we get started, and you can both answer since you share the family, is who is in your family and how was it formed?

Mayeti: So our immediate family is Jeff, my kids’ father, and we have two daughters, Abeba, we call her Abby who is ten, Alice, her younger sister who is seven, and Jose Was called our family work. Jess, you’re a dear friend of mine. He’s the kids’ Godfather. He’s a member of the family and at times a primary care caregiver.

Jeff: Yeah. And in addition, I have four sisters, so the girls both have multitude of Godparents, which we’re blessed with. There are folks who have been there in official and unofficial capacities from day one or who we’ve accumulated along the way It’s very much been a village participating and raising these beautiful kids.

Emily: That’s great. And what are your favorite things to do as a family?

Jeff: The, the way our family is structured is that we co parent the kids who are equally with us each half of the time. On holidays and certain celebrations we’ll share and/or divide and sometimes have parts of the day that we share. Independently we have very unique households and unique ways in which we parent. The things that we do and ways that we celebrate our kids I think are both very meaningful to the kids and to each of us. For me and the kids, one of the things that we do is we spend a lot of time in Provincetown in the summer. From where we are in Boston area it’s a very easy journey and it’s also an incredibly supportive and diverse environment for the kids to grow up around. That kind of diversity has been really meaningful to them.

Emily: Mayeti what are some of your favorite things to do as a family?

Mayeti: In the non-summer months we love to just snuggle and hang out together. Just lots of physical affection is my favorite thing, snuggling up with the kids and taking a nap with them. I think because we are co-parenting and I have them half the time we have at least two, often three adults in the mix. So I really want to make the time I have with them quality. I work to figure out what we might want to do for fun. I see as a little bit of a luxury the breaks of a co-parenting schedule. It means I’m ready for them when they’re with me, to just play with them. I think that’s a great advantage to the way we’re doing it even though it does mean you get less time. So that’s winter. It’s a lot of cuddling, playing inside and then in summer we really enjoy being outside.

Jeff: I was just going to say; I think that’s a great point. When I am independent, like when the kids are with Mayeti and I’m on my own, I use a lot of that time for self-care: I go to the gym, I do things that I need to get done, I can get laundry done, grocery shopping, and things that allow to really just be with the kids when I am with them. That time provided a lot more freedom for us to just have fun and do stuff. It’s really one of the benefits. It’s tough sometimes. I think for each of us as single parents shares the responsibilities between when we are able to take on more.

Mayeti: I just wanted to add one thing. I say to my married friends often; you guys don’t always have to do everything together. You can give each other breaks. I recognize that if you’re married you might want to spend time with your partner, I’ve noticed a lot of times married folks, are under a lot of pressure to all of their parenting together, whereas we can give each other breaks and be a little less stressed. There are challenges that Jeff and I have the theory people don’t have but there are also challenges that married people have that we don’t have.

Emily: Yeah. Could you talk a little bit more about how you came to form your family and why you decided to form your family in the way that you did?

Jeff: We started having conversations very casually, but we both noticed when developing our friendship was that we were two people who really felt strongly about wanting to have children someday. And that relationship did not necessarily need be dictated by a romantic partnership. In the event that I don’t get married and settle down, does that preclude me from having kids? I don’t think it has to. So we started sort of talking about that as expressions of our selves. It developed wondering what it would look like, wondering what were some of the alternatives to becoming a parent? And we talked and talked, you know, about how we might do this. After a long time kind of came to the realization that it resembled what half of the country is more or less experiencing. Two parents who are raising kids in what used to be a marriage or a partnership that has dissolved. They’re trying to figure out how to share the responsibility of raising their children. We were deciding all of these things about the responsibility of children in advance. It’s sort of like the divorce model but minus the divorce and with very intentional decision making around protecting kids from the dismantling of a partnership which can be a struggle. We came to the realization that maybe this is the opportunity to do what a lot of people are already doing but do it a little bit differently and a little bit more fairly toward the children.

Emily: When you were having these conversations how long had you known each other? How long did it take to move from that point to thinking maybe you could do this together.

Mayeti: We became fast friends. We met through some friends and became really good friends within months. We probably started having discussions within a year. It started exactly the way Jeff described. Thinking, how is this working? We spent a summer daydreaming and we add really, I think you thought she might be a boy. But we were really, really, really that serious about it. That fall we decided to go for it. Yup.

Jeff: I hadn’t spoken to a lot of the people closest to me about it. I had these very meaningful, intense and very private conversations on the beach, in the cottage, out in the streets just between my Eddie and I. After we decided we made somewhat of a pre-announcement to just to a couple of friends saying, what we had decided to do. They were very excited for us but surprised as well. It was really just a leap of faith and we leapt.

Emily: What words do you use to describe your family? I know that other folks have used terms like co-parent, intentional family, alternative family. Do you have particular terms that you use when talking about or describing your family to others?

Mayeti: I just use co-parent really naturally. That is the way I refer to myself. I guess maybe alternative as well.

Jeff: I feel as though I present as a gay man. And so it’s surprising to me when people make the assumption that we’re a heterosexual, married couple. Even in this day and age, people jump right to that. At the doctor’s office when we were pregnant or any other point throughout our relationship people will always refer to Mayeti as my wife. I’ll say, no, no, actually we are friends who decided to create a family together and co-parent. The kids are with each of us half time. That’s my 32nd elevator speech for when I need to give it to people in a nutshell. I’m often surprised at the assumptions people make so quickly. ‘Oh two, I like man and woman with kids. So it must be this model because I’m only comfortable thinking that way.’

Mayeti: I have a couple thoughts. One, I personally find people to really press me about my sexuality. I’m bisexual, but I don’t naturally have a label for my sexuality. What often will happen when I describe my family is that I say what Jeff says and if it’s appropriate, I’ll say, oh, he’s gay. I often just leave it there. And I realized that I’m explaining his sexuality but not my own because I don’t have words for it. I’m starting to try to be more intentional about that.

Jeff: When I mention to people that I’m a single gay dad which is a truth of our family partnership, people will assume that I have adopted. When I explain the context of my family and how my children came to be is not just a way of celebrating our decisions and including Mayeti, without whom this could not be possible with whom it all continues to be so wonderful, it’s to clarify for them. It’s interesting that for all the acceptance perceived intelligence of a progressive community, I’m very often asked ignorant questions about our family, even from very smart people. That always is interesting and surprising to me.

Emily: How have your co-parenting responsibilities and the way that you structure your family and your time changed now that your girls are older? Is that something that looked one way when they were young and looks different now?

Mayeti: The basic structure of our time with the kids and when and where they are has not changed in years. We basically defined the week as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, so there’s six nights. The kids are with Jeffrey for three of them. We just use a schedule that makes sense to us. We basically know a year out, maybe even longer, where the kids are going to be and then if something comes up we have flexibility in the schedule. It’s totally normal for them. They’re equally settled in both homes.

Jeff: When we talked about this at the very beginning during what I refer to as our ‘summit weekends’ when we would get together and go to the beach and we’d play a racket game on the beach and we’d work ourselves exhausted. Then we’d sit down and talk children and agree on all these things. When we decided to really move forward, we met with a family lawyer and found that we had already thought through a great number of the things that she wanted us to think through. One of the first things we did was put together what a schedule would look like for shared custody just off the top of our heads. We were like, ‘wow, you know, Monday, Tuesday would work for me, etc. Okay, Wednesday, Thursday would work for me.’ That schedule has interestingly never changed. It’s always worked for us and it works for the kids. We just built our routines around that. We’re in two different city towns side by side and we’re just a couple miles apart. It’s very easy to move back and forth between two communities. The kids have activities in both communities, gymnastics in one, ballet in another, basketball, etc. I think it feels like one big family, home, and township to them. We have this solid but flexible schedule. It lets us plan travel and plan different things. When things come up at our big, crazy, wonderful family, like so-and-sos getting married or a cousin’s coming to town, it’s really nice, flexible and really inclusive. It is inclusive and gives lots of opportunities for me to join Mayeti’s family and for her to join mine. So it works out really well.

Emily: You had these, these summits; I love that term. What were some of those topics you covered? What, what did you really need to sort of discuss or hash out as you were just deciding to do this? If other folks are considering the same thing, what did you find important to discuss first?

Jeff: I think we talked about everything, but some of the things that had become evident through our friendship was about how we are both spiritual people, and where we sort of fell with religion. Mayeti has more of a formal practice while mine is more of a casual practice. A lot of the things that I wanted to foresee before raising children together were already made clear by our friendship. Those topics did come up with the lawyer, I think more important was the understanding that even the most likeminded, well intended people will come to conflict. And how, how would you like to handle conflict when you move forward? We built in a lot of discussion around mediation if we needed to resolve something. It is a child-centric and protective way to think about decision making.

Mayeti: So one of the things that really sticks out for me is that I’m originally from Ethiopia and I grew up in the United States but mostly my family did not. I did not have a ton of faith that my family was going to be really supportive. They’ve actually, for the most part, surprised me which I didn’t expect when Jeff and I were planning this. The only people I’m going to let her near our kids are people who are on board. If they’re not on board they will not have a place in our lives. Jeff is much more forgiving about that. So that sticks out in my mind. When it comes to things Jeff and I talked about, I think the year or so of discussions that Jeff and I had was for the most part us supporting each other. It was a heady thing. As much as I wanted to be a mom and knew that I was going to be a mom someday, a lot of those discussions from you were just like, who we are? Can we do this? So many versions of that until we got to the point when we thought: yes! We are going to do this.

Emily: How have other your other identities factored into your family decisions? So how do faith and ethical, moral, stances, race, socio economic status, and all of the different pieces like that form your identities impact your decisions? How have those intersected with your family and how does your family then exist in this wider community that perceives different identities and in complicated ways?

Mayeti: That’s a great question. I think the kids are starting now to think about identity, Alice asked the other day, mom is everyone in this car an African American? It’s really neat to see them begin to think and understand about how their mom and dad have different histories and identities from each other. The main thing that I have noticed is that difference rarely alarms people We don’t have a ton of conflict over how to raise the kids. We also rarely have to have this kind of conversation about it that it feels like on the bi things we are naturally on the same page.

Jeff: It’s interesting because a lot of the things that that come up for us in parenting are, I hate to use the word normal, but are things that a lot of parents experience. Alice, our youngest, who’s seven, has lately been talking about death, asking questions, making comments and because her understanding of the world is has changed and is different lately. And so she is processing it. We had a conversation a few days ago where we discuss the normal things that parents go through. It’s nice to be able to reflect on the experience with somebody else. It’s helpfully. I have noticed that because we’re a biracial family, there’s sexuality stuff in there, we live in different communities, there’s all these ways in which outsiders could sort of look at our family as different. And yet they really don’t. They’re very matter of fact. The kids were at work with me today, for school vacation for part of the day. I said something to one of my colleagues, a woman, like, oh I just really love you. Both kids were like: dad, you’re gay.

Emily: Sometimes you might forget and need the reminder!

Jeff: We are so at home with who our family is who and we are. Our older daughter at 10 is starting to really enjoy and explore her biracial identity. She really identify strongly with our Ethiopian nudes and talks a lot about it and gets excited about it. It’s great. They really are wired the way they are when they come into the world, to my great surprise. We don’t get to turn them into whoever we want! They’re just going to be themselves, just like I was, and mom was.

Emily: Jeff, how did you prepare yourself to be a white parent of biracial children?

Jeff: The big surprise for me is that I feel like their physical look changes all the time and it’s very varied. Often as a single parent with them moving through the world as mostly when they are with me people are not seeing their mom, people make the assumption that they’re adopted. The great surprise for me was just how the world would perceive us and, allow myself to very openly respond to that. I actually had, and this happened in Provincetown, I had a woman say to me, Oh my God, your daughters, they look so much alike. How did, how did you get them to look so much at alike? To which I politely responded. I said, did you really just ask me that in front of my children?

Emily: Good for you. Wow.

Jeff: Yeah, I guess I’m happy that people are intrigued enough to ask and be open minded and they want to know more about that, but I don’t always appreciate the ways in which they go about it.

Emily: Totally. So, what can others learn or maybe what have you learned from co-parenting or from alternative families?

Mayeti: So if you’re in the same household and especially if you are married to your partner there’s a lot of cultural pressure to just do everything together. So start having that permission to disengage, like my partner and/or my co-parent has it. They have the kids. They have this, and I can go and do other things. I don’t think you need to be in separate households to adopt that mentality. I think that that mindset, um, probably surprises folks. Certainly when I am talking with my colleagues at work that I’m close with and when we have hung out as a family over the years they have seemed to start thinking, you know, ‘oh that’s not so tragic.’ I think when we first met they were really feeling sorry for me that I didn’t see my kids every night. And, as we’ve gotten to know me how this works that you think Jim’s exception to that?

Jeff: I’ve said this often. I feel as though the most important people in this family are our children and so our being healthy adults who take care of ourselves is critical to that equation. It’s really all about them. They didn’t have a choice. We did. We brought them into this world. And too often kids are victims of dismantling partnerships. So it should almost be the law that says you agree to these things before you bring them into the world or you agree to them as they’re coming into the world. So that way, unless there’s extenuating circumstances, you know, these things are in place and you have agreed. You want to take care of them equally and really care for them.

Emily: That open openness, that honesty and having some of those conversations early, definitely seems really important for folks who are intentionally going to be co-parenting in some way. There’s a thought process and preparation that goes into it. Communication seems really important and you talked about being really flexible, talking through things and not having conflict. That communication sounds like another really important piece of a co-parenting family.

Mayeti: Absolutely, I also think the fact that Jeff and I, at no point did we think that I was going to have the kids 80% of the time, he was going to have 20% of the time It was always understood that however we ended up living, wherever we ended up living, they would be spending equal time with us. I think that has reduced the potential for conflict between us tremendously. I remember early on one of my lawyer friends asked how we were going to figure out custody And I said we’re going to each have the kids half the time. She said it was very generous of me . There’s a bias that the mother is going to have some outside amount of time and I think that that would have set us up for a lot of problems.

Jeff: Yeah. Also, I always felt from the beginning even as we were discussing these things we were not always in complete agreement, we agreed that we could just make it work in very comfortable ways. And so I always felt like there was no setup for that fall. Like, well, what if someday we don’t agree. I was like, I’m sure we’re not going to always agree and that’s, that’s absolutely okay. But I think we can disagree in really positive ways and be open about that. We’ve had really good conversations that resulted in either one of us changing our mind or neither of us changing our mind, but you know, it’s co-parenting. We don’t have the same set of rules in both houses and that’s okay. The kids are very resilient, they understand. The basic things like how to be good citizens and good people in the world are core to how we both raise them. It works.

Emily: We’re almost at the end. Do you have any final thoughts? Anything that sparks interest that I didn’t ask you about already? Any final thoughts for any other co parents or future co-parents out there?

Mayeti: The early years were so busy with just raising tiny little kids that I didn’t reflect as much, but now, the older they get, the more I’m just in awe. I still can’t believe it. We have a 10 year old and a seven year old. I can’t believe we did it.

Jeff: I keep meaning to have conversations about like, can you believe we are doing this? Can you believe we have done this? Or we’re still doing it and we’re in the throes of it. Every day is a different learning opportunity and I think a great part of sharing this is that we both remain teachable. We’re taught by our kids we’re taught by our experiences in the world and we’re taught by each other. And so really like those opportunities we have to share like, oh my God, did you observe it? We spend a lot of time like connecting through text and phone and facetime. We have these moments and we share them. They far outweigh the worry and the fear at least at these young ages.

Emily: Fabulous. Well, thank you both so much for sharing your time and sharing your story and your beautiful family.