Charles Montgomery is the author of the book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
I strode toward the foyer of BC Women’s Hospital on a perfect, bright spring morning. I carried a glass vase bursting with flowers. My heart was bursting, too. I had come to meet my son, who had been born the night before.
My path was blocked by a pair of scrubs-clad social workers.
“Sorry, sir. Nope. Uh-uh,” one said cheerily. “Only immediate family inside!”
It was March 17, 2020. The pandemic lockdown had begun in Vancouver. I retreated to sit on the curb, deflated.
Now, you might be wondering why a new parent would not be considered their son’s immediate family. Well, that’s a story. If you’ve found yourself torn between love and physical-distancing duties this past year, you might appreciate it. Here’s how it began.
A couple of years ago I was drinking free wine at a reception at a pretentious art gallery in Vancouver. I was surrounded by strangers. There must have been a hundred of us, all talking and touching and breathing on one another in the carefree way we used to do. A friendly-looking woman approached me to clink glasses. We got to chatting. Allison was her name. She pointed out her fiancé, Shawnessy, across the room.
Two women in love, I thought. I am not sure how long it took me to ask Allison the question. I tried to wait, so as not to seem too crazy. But I did feel a sense of urgency, because I had promised myself I was going to ask my question whenever there was the smallest chance of a connection.
“So are you two planning on making babies?” I blurted out.
“That’s quite the question,” she said, stepping back just a little.
“It’s just that, well, I’m looking. I’m available to help.”
“Right. I’ll keep that in mind.”
People tell me this was an inappropriate way to talk to a stranger. Perhaps it was. But I was sincere. I was a single gay man. I wanted to be a dad, and I did not want to raise a child on my own. What was I supposed to do? It’s not like you can jump on Tinder and find a procreation partner. I did join a co-parenting Meetup group. When that failed, I seized every opportunity to get the word out. Like this one.
The conversation with Allison fizzled. I finished my wine and wandered out into the drizzly night. As the months passed, as I turned 50, I stopped pitching strangers at parties. I quit my co-parenting group. I told myself I was fine, and I let my dream of fatherhood fade.
A kinship contract
More than a year had passed when I got the e-mail. It was Allison from the party. And Shawnessy, her now wife. Did I want to go for tea?
We met at a café on South Main. We laughed about the art gallery encounter. We talked about our values. We talked about their God. We talked about the kind of parents they wanted to be.
They told me they were looking for what they called a “known donor.” I said I was not interested in being a donor. I wanted to be on the team. I wanted to be a dad. That was a new idea for them. I could see the wheels turning in their minds.
For nearly a century, Western societies have portrayed the nuclear family – two parents with a couple of kids – as the natural kinship cluster, even as the model has left parents stressed, children starved of social time, and other potential caregivers sad and excluded. But the nuclear family is a recent aberration. Through history, most humans have lived among extended family groups, or in even more complex systems with aunts, uncles, cousins and unrelated individuals woven into webs of care. Wiser cultures still do. I lived among such people for months in villages in the South Pacific archipelago of Melanesia. The experience convinced me that Canadian life would be so much easier if we expanded our definition of family.
The moms warmed to the idea. We kept meeting and talking. If you were an anthropologist, you might say that we were inventing a new kinship structure for ourselves. After eight months, we had come up with a procreation agreement.
The deal was this:
We would try to make a baby together. If we succeeded, then I would be the child’s once-a-week dad.
But here is the tricky part: Family law doesn’t make room for nuanced ideas about kinship. In British Columbia, there’s room for only two parents on a child’s birth certificate. In our deal, the moms would be on the birth certificate. I would not. I would have no legal rights or responsibilities.
In other words, if I wanted to be part of this journey, I would have to trust these women, who had been strangers less than a year before. I had to trust that they would not push me away, or change their minds and relegate me to the status of sperm donor. The moms had to trust me, too.
Then there was the question of logistics. Straight people are constantly having kids by accident. Not us. Conception demanded co-operation and significant logistical challenges. Those are none of your business. But I did do my part. The women did theirs. After a few tries, nature did its part, too.
The absent father
Allison endured a long and exhausting labour, but Shawnessy was there to comfort and cheer her on. Our son was born on the evening of March 16, a little more than a week after Canada’s first COVID death. The next morning, after I was turned away from the hospital doors, Shawnessy came out and sat with me on the curb. We scrolled through the birth pictures on her phone. There he was, writhing and disoriented in the fluorescent light, our son. My mind reeled with joy.
But gradually the reality of the situation set in.
We were in a pandemic. B.C.’s Chief Medical Health Officer Bonnie Henry was literally crying during televised news conferences, imploring us to take care of each other. We all trusted that woman. We trusted her so much that, even without harsh lockdown measures, millions of British Columbians committed to making sacrifices to protect each other.
In this context came a horrible realization: The greatest threat to the health of Allison and our child was me. I lived in a shared house with three other adults. All three of my roomies had lovers. Some of those lovers lived in other shared homes. Our COVID bubble was more like a bubble bath, frothing over with exposure potential.
It felt like a nightmare materializing. We determined that I should not hold or touch or even breathe near my son. Despite the trust the new moms and I had forged, despite our agreements, the pandemic was pushing me out of the family bubble.
The situation felt desperate, so I did what every sensible gay man would do in a panic. I called my mom. We hatched a plan: I would quarantine in her basement long enough to make a visit to my son safe.
I rented a car, sterilized it, took the ferry to Vancouver Island, drove to the valley of my youth and, carefully avoiding my mother’s air space, installed myself in her basement. There, on the guest bed, she had placed my old teddy bear.
My mother was thrilled to have a kid in her domain again, but she was also 92 years old. Infection could be deadly for her. So we established a distance protocol. Three times a day, Mom would send meals down to me on her electric staircase elevator. The rest of the time, I listened to her movements through the thin basement ceiling. I could hear her creaking around, banging pots and pans, groaning with pain as she bent down to lift bags of potatoes, or yelling at Donald Trump on TV. She was so close, yet so far away. I should have been the one taking care of her.
For all the sickness and death it brought, the pandemic also had a way of breaking people down psychologically. Those weeks of isolation were my own low point. Just months before, I had been on stage on the other side of the world, lecturing people about the science of happiness. Now here I was, camped out in Mom’s basement. I was over 50. I was single. I had not touched another human in weeks. My friends were far away. I was an absentee father. I stopped showering. Why bother? There was zero risk of anyone witnessing my shambolic state.
My teenage fears bubbled up. At night I would gaze into the glassy eyes of that threadbare teddy bear and ask if this was it: Would I always be alone, and, worst of all, would this pandemic override my deal with the moms and steal my son from me?
I know now that this anguish – this “Have I screwed up my entire life?” feeling – was not unique. Almost everyone I know felt this way at some point during the pandemic. The constant hum of fear and uncertainty ramped up our baseline neuroses. But social isolation, that’s what hurt us the most. In the U.S., rates of reported depression symptoms tripled during the pandemic. In an online survey of 432 people in Hong Kong over the course of two months in 2020, nearly a quarter of respondents showed signs of psychosis risk. One of COVID’s cruellest effects was to tear us away from each others’ embrace. It stretched and snapped our kinship webs.
I tried to reach across the divide. I learned to strum a few Coldplay songs on my ukulele so I could send my awkward recordings to the moms, to play to our son.
“Nobody said it was easy. But no one ever said it would be this hard,” I wailed into my phone. Anything to maintain the bond. In return, the moms sent me pictures of our little guy, blinking at the bright world. But I couldn’t shake the doubt.
Into the bubble
On the 14th day of quarantine, I showered. I climbed the stairs to hug my mother. She handed me her car keys, and I was gone. I didn’t stop for gas. I didn’t step out of that car on the ferry or anywhere else. I drove straight to the moms’ apartment near the beach in Kitsilano.
I put on my mask. I sanitized my hands, twice. I knocked on the moms’ window. My heart was pounding again, like it was going to burst right through my chest.
I remember the door opening.
I remember seeing Allison in an easy chair, nursing a little bundle hidden in a blanket.
I remember the sweet baby smell.
I remember the ticking of the apartment radiator.
I remember someone telling me I could take my mask off, but WASH MY HANDS.
I remember Shawnessy saying, “Look who’s here!”
I remember thinking: Who is here? Good question. Who am I in this scene?
Weeks before, someone had called me the donor, and I almost vomited at the coldness of that word.
Shawnessy picked up the bundle of blankets and handed it to me. Poking from those blankets was a wrinkled, ancient, grumpy, squinting face.
I held him gingerly, the first human I had touched in close to a month. I looked into his eyes. We were both wide-eyed, astonished at the sight of each other. I absorbed his warmth against my chest. I breathed in his scent — that intoxicating, milk-puke oxytocin-laden fragrance — and I heard those words again.
“Look who’s here,” Shawnessy said, adding this time: “It’s Dad. Dad’s here!”
That was me.
I could not help myself. I cried for love. I cried for gratitude. Mostly I cried out of a sense of relief, of realization that indeed, I was in the circle. I was in the bubble. I was on the team. I was not a donor. I was Dad.
This spring, my son turned one. I’m still in his bubble. He and I spend a day together each week while his moms work or run errands. Sometimes the four of us all just hang out together, because we happen to like each other. We know we are in for a lifetime of negotiations as we tweak our new kinship arrangement. But in some ragged and wonderful way, we have become more than an experiment. We are more than a contract. We are a family.
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