Coming out as gay, Nathan Toovey simply accepted he would not have children. He’s now one of not two but four loving parents to 1-year-old Olive.
“I’ve always wanted to have kids. And I guess, you know, coming out, you go, ‘Oh that’s just not going to happen for me,’” Nathan says. The 34-year-old digital product designer lives in Melbourne, Australia, where commercial surrogacy is illegal — and surrogacy abroad seemed prohibitively expensive.
When he met youth worker Michael Coate, now his partner of six and a half years, Nathan learned Michael also wanted to be a father. Unlike Nathan, though, Michael hadn’t given up on the notion.
Michael, also 34, and his lesbian sister, Alison Coate-Kibeiks, 38, hatched a plan years ago that he would father a child with Alison’s partner of 13 years, Bianca Prziovska-Kibeiks, 34. Alison and Bianca live in Warrnambool, a three-hour drive from Melbourne. The brother and sister envisioned their two families raising the child together.
Alison says the idea came when a stranger she met while traveling overseas pointed out she’d be biologically related to the child if her brother were the father. Nathan learned of the siblings’ plan early on in his relationship with Michael and was always on board. It would be a few years before the women, both avid travelers, felt ready to settle down with a child. Two years ago, they called the guys for a serious sit-down.
“We just decided okay, let’s go. Let’s do this. We’ve done the things we wanted to do; it’s family time,” Alison says.
The first point of order was how, exactly, this process would be undertaken. It was settled that the women would drive to Melbourne once a month when Bianca was most fertile and they’d employ at-home artificial insemination.
Alison had her doubts. The medical advice she’d found online claimed this method rarely worked. Yet, they would save thousands in medical bills if it did work, so the couples decided to try for a year before seeking medical assistance.
“It was a bit of a comedy of errors for a couple of times,” Nathan says. “We were really lucky. It worked after three times.” It came as a surprise to both couples that Bianca became pregnant so quickly. Olive Coate-Kibeiks, who will have Michael, Alison and Bianca’s family names, was born a year after the couples’ decision to make one big family.
Michael and Nathan spent the first few weeks of Olive’s life in Warrnambool and the next few months driving back and forth nearly every weekend. Now they see Alison, Bianca and Olive about once every two weeks.
“We came into it knowing that we’re not the primary care-givers,” Nathan says. “She will always be welcome to stay with us, but her house is with her moms.”
Bianca has taken an extended maternity leave from teaching to stay home with Olive while Alison continues to work as a teacher. They keep in close contact with the dads by sending photos and connecting via iPhone’s FaceTime video feature often.
The four parents talk over decisions about Olive’s care together. They haven’t written down any rules, trusting that they can work through individual issues as they arise.
"As a foursome, our values are very similar. We're a very close unit anyway and we spend a lot of time with each other. As things come up, we'll go from there," Alison says. She predicts Olive will prefer to spend time with her dads in Melbourne — where there are more lattes and fewer kangaroos — when she’s a teenager.
There's one firm exception to the lax arrangement: The daddies are in charge of wardrobe.
"We are not allowed to pick out the clothes," Alison says with a laugh. "We can dress her, but it has to be approved."
They've all decided on calling the moms "Mum" and "Mama," but haven't come up with a satisfactory alternative to calling both dads "Daddy."
"I am aiming to teach Olive to call Michael 'Papa,'" Nathan says. "But he's not a fan as he thinks it makes him sound old."
The first bit of tension came when Alison proposed she and Bianca take Olive on an upcoming five-week European vacation.
"It did shock them a little bit," she says, but they agreed after taking some time to think about it. As their next parenting challenge, the guys will have Olive stay overnight on her own at their house — a big step for the breastfeeding infant.
Nathan and Michael may not be with Olive during the week, but their lives are now centered around being her dads.
"People have kids and their lives completely change," Nathan says. "Our lives have changed not because the baby is with us all the time and we aren't getting any sleep, but because we're kind of arranging our lives so that we can go and see her."
Alison had worried she and Nathan would struggle to bond with a child that was not biologically theirs. That, like her worries about their home conception, proved to be unfounded.
"Every one of the four of us feel this amazing connection with Olive," she says. She becomes emotional reflecting on Nathan's unexpected knack for parenting.
"Nathan has been just the best father. He feels so connected to her." she says. "It makes you think: What is fatherhood? What is motherhood? What are genes and blood when connection can be made in other ways?"
Being apart from Olive more often than not can be trying for Nathan and Michael despite having known from the start it would be that way.
“Having a kid who doesn’t live with you — it's hard. It's emotionally hard to not be able to see her whenever you want," Nathan says. “There are moments and times when you’re just, like, 'Ah, I wish I could see her now!' — and I guess that's the unique challenge of this arrangement."
For him, having a child outweighs the struggle. “This situation coming along is just so amazing because it’s something I never thought I'd be able to do — to be able to become a dad."
Alison and Michael, the siblings, have been close since childhood. Their father left the family when they were young and they leaned on each other for support. Four years ago, their father emailed to tell them he had no biological connection to them — that they had been conceived using donor sperm. The event again brought them closer.
“The three of us – my mum, Michael and me – we’ve been really close as a family going through all those things,” Alison says. "And it really tore a hole in all of our hearts."
She now sees the incident in light of the kind of parent she aspires to be.
"I never want to lie to a child. I know you’ve got Santa Claus and everything, but with those big lies, it really confirmed to me that it’s really important to be honest – and that's how Michael, myself, Nathan and Bianca have always been."
The couples are open about their non-traditional family.
"Personally I had real hesitations about telling my parents, as to how would they react and whether they would take it seriously," Nathan says. "But I totally had no reason to worry at all."
The couples' families have supported their decision. "They all love the new addition to the family and are completely besotted by their first granddaughter, Olive, and spoil her rotten."
In Melbourne, Michael and Nathan’s community has been supportive of their new family — but naturally, people have questions. Nathan has changed jobs since having Olive and with each new acquaintance, felt trepidation about how they might react.
“It’s kind of that thing — you always have to come out every time you start a new job," he says. "I have to explain my story every time I meet new people."
Alison and Bianca’s small community embraces their family as well — a bit to their surprise. Alison was even interviewed by a local paper earlier this year about the community's attitudes toward their family and where the government still discriminates against same-sex parents.
"I work at a really small country school and all the kids know I'm a mum and I didn't give birth to the baby," Alison says. "I'm sure there might be some questions behind closed doors about it but otherwise it's just been really accepting."