42 | Changed by Family Week

Meet the Guests

Rashomon is a podcast with one family telling every side of the same story. It is produced and hosted by Hillary Rea. Music in this episode is by Ben Chace and Paul Defiglia.

Listen to all of Season two of Rashomon at https://www.rashomonpodcast.com/, iTunes, or wherever you listen to Outspoken Voices.

Further Reading/Listening

Recent Blog Posts

Episode Transcript

Emily: If you’ve been listening for a while, you’ve heard me share about having lesbian moms, a sperm donor I contacted at 18, and several donor siblings. Well, we all recorded parts of our stories and shared them on the excellent Rashomon Podcast, a show where one family tells every side of the same story. So today on Outspoken Voices, we’re playing my family’s episode from Rashomon. Enjoy.

Hillary: For this season of Rashomon, I was super curious about the definition of family and how it can mean different things to different people. And so I put out a call for families and I heard back from Emily McGranachan. Emily is also a podcaster. She is the host of Outspoken Voices, a podcast by and for LGBTQ parents, people with LGBTQ parents and grandparents and everyone else who is part of their family journeys. Emily was interested in sharing her family’s story. So I went to her home in Salem, Massachusetts to interview her.

Emily: Yeah, so I grew up in Massachusetts with lesbian moms. I had two moms, Cathy and Grace.

Hillary: Cathy and Grace were together until Emily was four and then they separated and there was a buddy year when it was just Cathy and I and I would see grace, you know, once a week, every other weekend, like very traditional, you know, what you would expect from a divorced family. And then Cathy started dating Nancy. I met Nancy then a little bit while after they had been dating, they got a house, they all moved in together. And then Nancy second parent adopted me legally when I was 11

Nancy: in 1994 I was recently single and I met Emily’s gestational mom, Cathy, and just was blown away by her and the fact that like she wanted to have a kid and she just went right out and did it. We began dating and that eventually led to my becoming a co-parent to Emily when she was about six years old and then legally adopting her when she was 11, which for me is just the greatest joy and privilege of my life.

Hillary: Nancy and Cathy didn’t stay together, but Nancy remains Emily’s adoptive parent. And looking back, Nancy never pictured herself as one,

Nancy: You know, coming out in the 1970s and I loved children, but I just did not see myself becoming a parent. I thought, you know, bringing a kid into all the prejudice and such that we faced at that time just wouldn’t be the right thing to do. The children would probably hate us. So it just didn’t seem like something that was going to happen in my life.

Hillary: When Emily’s other mom, Cathy was growing up, she had a much different vision for her future.

Cathy: I think I knew all my life that I desperately wanted children. And when I was 10 my mom had my sister and I thought my mother had her for me because she just knew how desperate I was to have a baby.

Hillary: And as Cathy grew older…

Cathy: I got to a point in my life when I realized, Oh my God, this is just not going to happen. I got to find a way to do this or I’m going to miss out on this big important part of my life. And it was like the fear, like, oh my God, what am I going to do? I may not ever have kids. I have to take some something here. And it was just this clenching in my stomach, you know, I have to find some way to do this. So in the beginning it was really hard. I had no idea where to look or who to ask. I was trying to see if I knew any friends that had brothers or somebody who would donate sperm. And it was really too complicated for everybody to get involved. It was very emotional.

Hillary: There wasn’t a lot of information about how to go about getting pregnant as a single gay person. And Cathy felt really in the dark. Plus she was out in her personal life but not in her professional life as a teacher.

Cathy: Because at work, I mean teachers would say really negative things about gay people. Parents who loved me, requested me to be their multiple children’s teacher, would say things like when on the Ellen Show she made that comment and they were like, oh my God, I can’t let my children watch TV anymore. They said the word lesbian and went on and I was like, I’m sitting there like, makes you feel like crap, you know, because you know these people respect you and like you, but you know the minute they feel that the whole view of you is going to be so different and so you have to protect yourself.

Hillary: In addition to keeping her private life private at school, Cathy knew that once she really looked into having a kid, keeping her role as a special ed teacher was going to be difficult. She had longer hours than most teachers.

Cathy: And I knew I would need a more regular schedule, with daycare and things. So I was trying to see if I could get into regular ed. I also asked, could they fire me if I’m a single woman and I’m pregnant? And they said, he told me no.

Hillary: Cathy started doing more research and found Fenway Health Center in Boston. They’re still around and on their current website their mission statement says that they are here to enhance the well-being of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and all people in our neighborhoods and beyond through access to the highest quality health care, education, research and advocacy. Now, Cathy finds Fenway health in the late 1980s and she calls them up to get more information on her options for having a child.

Cathy: I remember being kind of horrified at this statement. Someone said on the phone,

Cathy: Cathy said, it sounded like the person on the other end of the phone had put the receiver and was shouting to someone else in the office…

Cathy: This lady is looking for cheap sperm or something like that. I was like, what? You know, I mean, I felt really terrible about this. Like when I heard that from there I was like, whoa. They’re supposed to be like a very sympathetic to me organization that should have been out to support me and that was a little horrifying.

Hillary: Eventually Cathy found a clinic in Cambridge that would do donor insemination and she was told that it would be with an anonymous donor. She liked the idea that she wouldn’t know who he was because it would keep her safe and protected from someone taking her child away. But there was still a lot of stress and nerves around this big decision. She was concerned about her family and her relatives and how they were going to take it. And then there was the anxiety of being a single woman and her hidden personal life as a teacher and the stress of planning out and timing the insemination process.

Cathy: I would have to predict a month ahead what day I was going to ovulate the next month. So you know, hit a miss.

Hillary: When the timing was right, she would drive to Cambridge and go to the clinic. But once she arrived in the clinic, she was worried about how things were being run there. She would hear the midwife running back and forth between rooms convinced that the sperm was being split up for more than one insemination.

Cathy: It was tough. And then you’d lay there and there was a poster across the entire wall of like thousands of beautiful babies. One of those posters with all these cute little babies. I’d be like, oh please!

Hillary: After each visit Cathy would then have to wait a month to see if she was pregnant and when she wasn’t pregnant she would go in again. She doesn’t remember ever seeing the doctor at the clinic, just the midwife, the woman that Cathy remembers being in charge of everything.

Cathy: My understanding was she was sort of the one who kind of managed this whole insemination process. She would organize the dates and getting stuff delivered. And I remember one thing someone saying about holding something close to your body to keep it warm, the sperm or something. And I don’t know what kind of container it was. I don’t know, I just kind of blocked all that. I just wanted to have a child. I didn’t really want to know that was happening. So it was a lot of highs and lows, hopes and disappointments. It took me about a year and a half I think finally to get pregnant. We couldn’t believe it when I finally got pregnant and it was like a perfect pregnancy. It was beautiful. It was very easy.

Hillary: When she got pregnant, a lot if not all of Cathy’s worries went away and she felt like her pregnancy was text book, perfectly timed out.

Cathy: I felt healthy and wonderful the whole time. And people were great. I was just so thrilled. My parents, my aunts and uncles, no one was negative about it to me. People at school, I don’t know if they thought I was married, but once I was pregnant I didn’t care. That was it. This is what I wanted my whole life now I was having and I knew that I would be protected legally from my work and I could see my parents and family being thrilled for me and accepting, I mean it was much, much better than I thought it was going to be.

Hillary: Even knowing that the donor was going to be anonymous, Cathy remembers asking the midwife for a little bit of information.

Cathy: At one point, somehow I asked her something about the donor. My memory is that she said he was German, he was a runner and I think she said he was tall and I think she said brown eyes. I mean those are my memories of what she told me and I think those were what I told Emily, I wanted her to know anything I knew.

Hillary: After getting that little nugget of information, Cathy doesn’t remember ever dwelling on all of the possibilities of who this donor could be.

Cathy: Did I wonder a lot about him? I mean, probably occasionally health wise or you know, whatever, but I kind of felt like he was screened and that was it. I just didn’t want to think about that.

Hillary: Once Cathy was pregnant, she went elsewhere for her prenatal care and during her prenatal visits, she doesn’t remember anyone asking where she got pregnant or how that place kept track of everything. She doesn’t even ever remember telling the midwife at the clinic that she got pregnant.

Cathy: That’s also weird to me. I think I saw the woman once, the midwife, a couple of years later at a grocery store and I said something, I had a beautiful little girl. I don’t think that she should have known that. You know, maybe they should’ve been keeping track. I don’t really know. Maybe they did and I just blocked, I don’t know how, that piece of it.

Hillary: Cathy may have blocked some of it out, but growing up Emily remembers stories of her mom going to the clinic and how things operated over there.

Emily: I don’t know if I placed this in my head or someone else placed this in my head, but that he would like donate at home like into a cup and then put it in a taxi and taxi the sperm to the place, which of course isn’t possible, but I really thought that was the case for way too long. Then it would be in my head, I’m like that poor taxi driver must’ve been weirded out.

Hillary: The other stories were around her donor’s appearance and whether the midwife had shared any other information with her mom.

Emily: I remember her telling me was that he was athletic, he was a runner, he had blonde hair and blue eyes. And I knew that I didn’t have a dad growing up. Like that was very obvious to me.

Hillary: But what was less obvious was why she didn’t know her donor. Cathy explained it was to keep Emily safe so he couldn’t get custody of her…

Emily: Which then really made it seem kind of scary. Like the reason is to keep me safe because he’s going to try to take me away. That was upsetting to think about as a small child.

Hillary: Of course with adult perspective, Emily knows that Cathy explained the situation in an honest way, the scariness of it all was in Emily’s imagination and was part of the story she was creating for herself.

Emily: I would dream up stories in my head because I was a creative kid and I had a whole lot of adults who loved me and I was an only child so I got a lot of adult attention. So you know, I wanted to create drama in my head and in my life and would dream he just wanted to pass letters to me, but he can’t, he’s a prince somewhere. He was always incredibly wealthy in my dreams. He was famous, he was a prince, something like that was of course going to be the case.

Nancy: Nancy recalls meeting Emily when she was five and hearing these fairytales,

Nancy: She always wanted to meet her dad and she had a backstory for it that she had kind of fantasize that her dad just might be a prince. He always had a very special necklace for her. She’s definitely not into like tons of jewelry now, but when she was five years old, she just loved that backstory.

Hillary: Fantasy story aside young. Emily’s sort of understood what a sperm donor was.

Emily: I had a sense of how babies are made pretty young, in part because once I hit school, I was getting asked by the other kids, you know, where’s your dad? What’s your dad do? I don’t have a dad. You have to have a dad. Everybody has to have a dad.

Cathy: I don’t know when it was, but she was very young. We would be in one of those little clothing, toys store, whatever at two when kids would walk right up to her and say, where’s your daddy? I’d be like, what? I mean everybody’s here with their mothers at the clothing store, why are they asking her anything. I had to kind of really talk to her right away that she didn’t have a daddy. She had a Diddi, that’s the name she called her other mom, my partner at the time.

Hillary: and when these bizarre moments were happening at such a young age, Cathy and her partner at the time, Grace, told Emily about the sperm donation. They said she was born in a special way and that she had a donor because they needed sperm for their eggs and so on.

Cathy: I can’t remember exactly how we talked about it, but she was very comfortable with it and she would tell everybody and she would out me more than anybody. I mean when she was a little kid, we thought that was really important. We had to make her be comfortable with it so that she couldn’t be teased because what’s there to tease her about, she’s really comfortable with it. So she was more of an advocate than I was.

Emily: Around second or third grade, I knew enough at that point that when kids would ask me, I had been trained, kind of coached at home that I could answer like, nope, don’t have a dad. You have to have a dad. I don’t have a dad. I have a sperm donor. So I knew the word and that’s what I told kids. And when they would look at me with wide eyes and say, what’s a sperm donor? I was not allowed to elaborate. My parents had made that very clear and I had to say, you have to ask your parents. I’m not allowed to tell you – big mystery around me. Like I can’t tell you it’s a secret. No, I would just say they have to ask your parents and kids would and that would kind of be it. And that was it for the most part. And I must have been telling it pretty far and wide because I have also memories being in fourth grade, so around 10 years old, and some kids trying to tease me, do you ever think about how you were made? And I was like, my mom went to the doctor, do you think about how you were made? And that ended that because my mom went to the doctor, done.

Hillary: From the time Emily was aware of having a sperm donor, she remembers learning about the contract that her mom had signed at the clinic saying that the donor could not be contacted and that he would remain anonymous.

Emily: And that was just, that was the document that they had all signed. And when I was around eight or so, eight or nine, the clinic just contacted us and said that things had changed.

Cathy: We were not supposed to ever know. And so then I got a letter from the clinic saying several moms had gotten together and were asking was there any way there could be information about who the donors were.

Hillary: Cathy remembers the letters saying that the children of the other moms were asking questions. They were concerned and wanted more information,

Cathy: So there was going to be something where we could all give money. It would go to some lawyer who would then get the information from any donor that was willing to share it or whatever and he would hold onto it until the children were 18 and they could then request themselves for the information, if the donor agreed to it too.

Hillary: Cathy knew it would be important to Emily,

Cathy: So I thought I’ll definitely, I’m in.

Hillary: But then Cathy got another letter saying that it all fell through.

Cathy: But then I think, I don’t know if it was a call from the clinic or a letter saying that the donor or the donors are some have agreed and were willing to share information and I guess they were going to hold it without a lawyer. I don’t know how, but someone was going to keep that information, but we no longer had to pay for it. I don’t know how that happened. There’s like, oh, even better.

Hillary: And as Emily got older, she knew that she wanted to contact her donor.

Emily: I was also very fortunate because both my moms, Cathy and Nancy, let me decide. They didn’t make it feel like I was hurting them by wanting to contact my donor. It’s such an understandable fear, if your child wants to contact their donor. Is that a reflection on my parenting? Is that reflection on what society tells everybody – that two parent household of different genders is the way to do it, and if you don’t do it that way, you’re doing it wrong.

Hillary: Now Emily’s in middle school and she knew she still had years to go before she could actually reach out to her donor and until that day she fantasized that he would secretly send her clues about who he was.

Emily: And even in thinking that, it wasn’t like I painted my parents as people keeping us apart. It was just for the drama of a dramatic little kid. I loved this idea.

Hillary: Emily remembers one of her moms giving her a necklace.

Emily: A blue stone pendant necklace. So in my head then that was actually necklace he had sent her to give to me. And so I used to pretend that that was a necklace that he had then sent it to me.

Hillary: As a preteen, Emily’s donor daydreams turned from princes and faraway lands to celebrities. And she would have conversations with her friends about all of these new theories.

Emily: You know, this famous person or what if he’s this famous person. And then they’re like, oh, but you don’t, this is again middle school, 2003 ish. You know, they’re like, oh Emily, what if he’s George Bush? And I was like, Ooh, I dunno.

Hillary: Emily also remembers watching VH1’s Behind the Music and then seeing one that was about an artist…

Emily: Whose father they didn’t really know growing up. He had left her mother and was distant and then they reformed a relationship when she was an adult. And I was like, oh, well that’s kinda like me. And so I was like, oh, okay. Like I see myself a little bit reflected in that.

Hillary: And then she would see or read stories about people contacting their birth families after they had been adopted and think,

Emily: okay, that’s kind of like me. And so I would just sometimes describe myself as like half adopted, all of which is not true. I just didn’t have any real models or people to talk with about it growing up.

Hillary: None of Emily’s parents’ friends had kids and all of her peers had parents who were married when they were conceived. She had nobody else to compare her family situation to. But that was about to change.

Emily: And it really wasn’t until I was 13 and I went to Family Week in Provincetown for the first time.

Hillary: Family Week is the largest gathering of LGBTQ families in the world.

Emily: And I had no idea what to expect going into it. And all of a sudden I went from never having met a single other person who had gay parents to being completely surrounded by them in Provincetown, Mass. And it was amazing.

Cathy: Yeah. I think was Nancy that found Family Week online and said, you know, we should do this. We should bring her down. We went the first year and it was like, what have we been missing? What has she been missing? I mean it was really for her.

Hillary: Nancy also felt that going to Family Week was mostly for Emily to have a special experience.

Nancy: You know when I came out and I went to gay pride and I saw these thousands of people in the street that were like me, it was such an empowering feeling. It just made things come together for you. You didn’t feel so all alone and I wanted her to experience that.

Hillary: Nancy had watched a program on PBS about Family Week in Provincetown. They interviewed kids who had felt awkward with having friends over because they didn’t want to explain their family structure.

Nancy: And then coming back from Family Week and flat out telling everybody your parents were gay and being proud of it. So I really wanted Emily to have that experience.

Hillary: So Cathy, Nancy and Emily headed to Family Week. Emily even got to bring a friend from school, an SPK – a term coined at Family Week that stood for ‘Straight-Parented-Kid’.

Nancy: I remember when we finally got there, we went downtown, it was sign up day and really nothing is going on. You go to town hall and they were just people selling some merchandise and you sign up and you get your little sticker that says you’re part of Family Week. And we walked in and it wasn’t really that crowded, we went early and Emily just looked around at all of the posters and the shirts and she’s like, oh my God, we’re coming back every year.

Emily: So I first went to Family Week at 13 and I hadn’t met anybody else who had gay parents before then.

Cathy: It was nice for the parents too because the parents got together. You felt like you were part of this whole group, you were not so different, your families with the same, it was just such a comfortable free, no walls, just relaxed kind of a feeling. And the kids were having a blast and it makes a mom happy when their children are just so excited and so happy. So she was making friends, she was getting to go out at night. I just felt really safe there.

Emily: One of the first events that used to kick off the week was a parade through town. So I went from not knowing another soul and being ‘the’ kid in town who had gay parents to marching through the main street of Provincetown and just getting to the top of a little bit of a hill and as far as we can see in front of us and as far as we could see behind us was just other queer families.

Cathy: It was just so freeing. And then when they had the parade, just walking up that street and turn it around, look at like hundreds and hundreds of parents and children all like thrilled and waving banners and banging drums and it was just, it was just so freeing and so accepting. And so you felt normal, not like, you know, it was just really, really nice. Then I could see how much it meant to her and how much it meant to us. I mean I think all of us just turned around and started crying. It was such an emotional experience. I think that’s what it was. It was so emotional.

Emily: And so the three of us needed to step to the sidewalk and just like cried together for a little while cause it was very overwhelming and then got back into the parade and finished the little parade route there.

Hillary: From that summer onward, Emily and her moms attended Family Week and in between, Emily stayed in touch with all of her new friends.

Cathy: They had countdowns as each family was driving from DC or Philadelphia or wherever. They were all phone in each other. Here’s where I am. We’re almost there. You could just see how much it meant to them. It was like you could never deny her that after that, after she had that.

Emily: I had been proud and out about my family in my little town. My friends knew, our neighbors knew, teachers knew, everybody knew. And I was happy to talk about it with anybody, but at the same time I felt alone in it. And so all of a sudden I was around other people. I was having conversations that I wasn’t able to have with anybody else about the challenges, so that while I wasn’t ever harassed about it at school, it was weird, you know, it was something weird about me or it was an interesting fact about me. And I know at Family Week having two moms and really three moms, I was the least exciting person there. I mean, I’ve got a friend Avi who’s got I think four lesbian moms, four gay dads and I’m like, well Geez, I can’t compete with that. We were all jealous. Like, he’s got gay dads and lesbian moms? Oh, what a lucky kid!

Hillary: When Emily returned from that first Family Week, she was much more comfortable speaking up for herself and for her family.

Emily: Even though I had been loud about it before, I just got louder. And my first year that I went there was 2003 and by 2004, after my second year of Family Week is around the time that in Massachusetts marriage equality was decided by the courts.

Hillary: And then shortly after marriage equality was challenged by Massachusetts state legislator. They wanted to make a ballot referendum that people could vote for about whether or not to keep it.

Emily: My family was being debated constantly. That’s all I heard. It was in the news, it was on the radio. My peers were finally talking about gay people in very ignorant ways for the most part, other than my friends who stood up for my family. I had the tools then to be more vocal. So I talked to my local representative and I told her that I appreciated her vote for my family and was able to do that.

Hillary: And Emily felt like she was able to do that because of Family Week and the community that she had found there.

Emily: That was my introduction to this whole world of building confidence and feeling pride in my identity.

Nancy: One of the things they sell in Provincetown at Family Week by COLAGE were t-shirts that said queerspawn, which Emily just relates to that term so much. She loves it.

Emily: And it was the first time that I heard the term queerspawn.

Hillary: Emily learned that this term queerspawn was coined by one of the founders of Family Week.

Emily: To have a term of our own for people with LGBTQ parents and I loved it. I got a t-shirt that said queerspawn on it. I remember wearing it to a school dance.

Nancy: So she went to her junior high dance with a queerspawn t-shirt on and people actually liked it. They wanted to know where she got it.

Emily: And the other kids being like, that’s cool. Like I want a shirt like that. And I was like, you can’t have one. It means I have gay parents. They thought it was like a cool band and I thought it was just awesome.

Hillary: Emily had a term and she had a space within the LGBTQ community.

Emily: I wasn’t just a ‘child of’, I wasn’t an ally, because this was my family, this was my life, this was the culture I grew up in.

Nancy: She found that coming out empowered her enough to not just be out and hope nobody’s going to give her a hard time, she was just in your face with it and it really, it caught on.

Hillary: As Emily’s 18th birthday got closer and closer, one of the other really valuable things that she got out of Family Week was finally getting to talk to other teens who had a sperm donor and connecting over what they were thinking about and expecting from a possible relationship with their donor.

Emily: And then really talking about it with other people and we’re like, no, I mean this was a contract and two adults who knew what they were going into and he couldn’t contact me for legal reasons and so the more I talked about it, I was like, oh, that’s very true. Like, this is somebody who was doing a kind thing for someone who wanted to have a child and was just missing that one biological piece that he could provide. And it helped me temper some of my expectations or my hopes for what it could be. So it’s not a prince who’s just desperately trying to reach me and instead it was somebody who had done a really kind thing, a really generous thing to help people form a family.

Cathy: The best thing I ever did in my life was take the risk of being ostracized or whatever and having her. Going against my Roman Catholic upbringing, I went to parochial school, I went to a Catholic Jesuit college. And to say, this is more important than that. And then it turned out so well. I mean, I just feel so lucky.

Hillary: Flash forward and Emily is just about to turn 18 and she could go ahead with contacting her donor.

Emily: The ball was always in my court, which I really appreciated. And also is not often depicted in like films and movies that show donor contacting.

Hillary: Emily got all of the paperwork together before her 18th birthday. She wrote a letter, got it notarized and sent it away on her birthday without too many expectations of what might come back.

Emily: My biggest hope is just, can I know some medical information about you? That’s really what I wanted, baseline and anything else was just cherry on top. Like that’d be great.

Hillary: Of course Nancy supported Emily’s decision, but she really didn’t know what to expect.

Nancy: We didn’t know if this was going to be just a letter with some medical information and maybe he didn’t want to meet directly or maybe it’s just one quick meeting, but you could tell Emily wanted it to be a little more than that. She wanted to get to know this person and have this person, maybe not take over her life by any stretch, but to be a part of her life. So it was a lot of anxieties when we heading towards that.

Hillary: At this point, Nancy had been co-parenting Emily for about 13 years.

Nancy: You love your kid and you don’t want to see them disappointed. So for her, I’m sure she’s going through the same thing wondering about all of these things. And for me, I’m just hoping that this is a great guy that will actually take some time to get to know Emily and be kind to her. It’s just not a letter and you have nothing beyond that.

Hillary: And then a bunch of time passed, it’s Christmas Day…

Nancy: And that day the phone rings and it’s the doctor from the clinic and he asked to speak to Emily at read the most beautiful letter.

Emily: It was so unexpected to find out and get the confirmation that my donor was willing to be contacted and to get that on Christmas Day out of the blue. We got a phone call and of course we’re like, oh, it’s aunt so-and-so, maybe they’re running late to come over and just had no expectation. And when my mom passed me the phone, it was the doctor just saying that they finally got the confirmation from the donor and he was willing to be contacted.

Hillary: Nancy and Cathy were thrilled for Emily.

Nancy: I get teary thinking about it because it was just like, you don’t want to see your kid hurt. And it was just beautiful. It was like the best Christmas present she could get.

Emily: I hope you enjoyed the episode. I highly recommend listening to the whole second season with all of my families, my big extended families episodes. Rashomon is produced and hosted by Hillary Ray and music and the episode was by Ben Chase and Paul Defiglia. You can listen to all of Rashomon on your favorite podcast app or at rashomonpodcast.com