This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
The idea of a "nuclear family"—white picket fence, a kid or two, friendly golden retriever—has been under siege for a while now. No longer do stories of step-parents or half-siblings shock us, and children being raised by parents of the same gender (so-called "pink families") are becoming increasingly common. Another new, lesser known family structure that has emerged is that of multi-parenting—or raising a child with more than two legal parents. For instance, a lesbian couple and a gay couple bringing up a child together as a single family, but in separate households.
That's more or less the family unit that two couples—Jaco and Sjoerd, and Daantje and Dewi—have decided upon. The four have known each other for ten years, and have been considering the possibility of having a child together for about six. That possibility is going to become a reality this week, when Daantje gives birth.
Both couples are married, but Jaco and Sjoerd's relationship also involves a third person: an Australian named Sean who's been their partner for the last three years. "Three and a half," Sean shouts from the kitchen when he hears me asking Sjoerd how long they have been together. Sean is such a big part of their relationship that he will play an equal role in raising the gang's future son.
"Jaco and I have been married for eight years now. Unfortunately we can't marry Sean as well, otherwise we'd have done it in a heartbeat," says Sjoerd.
"Five parents with equal rights and responsibilities, divided across two households—those are the terms of the agreement that we all signed and had notarized," says Dewi. They had to do this because, legally speaking, the Netherlands isn't quite ready for multi-parenthood just yet. A child can still only have a maximum of two legal parents and, in a marriage, those parents are usually the biological mother and her husband or wife. However, the biological mother is also allowed to appoint someone else as the second legal parent.
The laws surrounding parental rights have improved significantly for gay parents in the Netherlands over the past few years, but the issue of multi-parenthood is still a complicated one. In the case of this particular five-parent family, Jaco has taken on the role of legal parent number two—replacing Dewi, who initially held the position because of her marriage to Daantje.
"We wanted to make sure that there was one legal parent in both households, because we're splitting the upbringing equally," explains Dewi.
"The advantage of that is that us men can take our son on vacation without customs stopping us for traveling with a child that, legally speaking, isn't ours," agrees Sjoerd.
"If Daantje and I go traveling with our son, we will need an official permission slip from Jaco, because the baby will have his last name," continues Dewi.
"The laws weren't written for people like us, so we're constantly looking for ways to make things work for all five of us. Sometimes, that can make you a little opportunistic," Sjoerd told me. "I don't have any legal connection to my son, so I'm not entitled to any parental leave when he's born. But I want to be there, so now I have a statement from Daantje and the "father," that says I take care of "their" child, which will grant me the right to foster care-leave; even though I am not a foster parent. It's very complex for everyone involved and isn't ideal for any of us. I mean that legally because, in practice, I think our situation is ideal."
Basically, it worked like this: Daantje and Dewi were getting it on in one room, and we were in the other. At some point, Dewi yelled: 'Yes, we're ready!' and then we walked into their room with a jar of semen.
When I ask whether it was difficult to come up with a first name that they all liked, Dewi assures me that it wasn't but they'd rather keep the name to themselves. "We'd already settled on a name before we were even pregnant."
The legal aspects of multi-parenthood are complicated enough as it is, but what about the practical side? Who had to sleep with whom?
"Oh no, that wasn't something we wanted to do," Sjoerd tells me when I ask if Daantje had slept with the biological father (who'd prefer to remain anonymous). "So basically, it worked like this: Daantje and Dewi were getting it on in one room, and we were in the other. At some point, Dewi yelled: 'Yes, we're ready!' and then we walked into their room with a jar of semen."
Dewi explains: "We'd read somewhere that, because of the mucus and contraction of the cervix, sperm enters a woman more easily if she has an orgasm during the insemination. We actually used these basters that we'd been given on our wedding day, but those turned out to be way too big. There was a lot of air in them and the semen ended up in all sorts of places that it shouldn't have."
"That first time was more of a disaster than a success," laughs Sjoerd.
"During that first ovulation period, the guys would stop by and after every attempt, we'd have a cup of tea while Daantje sat on the couch with her legs up in the air. Thankfully, it only took two months for her to get pregnant, because I remember thinking, Imagine if we have to do this for a full year: all those jars of semen and basters and all that," elaborates Dewi.
"Ejaculation can become this very physical, practical thing," Sjoerd concurs. "I've heard from a lot of straight couples that sex just stops being fun whilst trying to conceive. I reckon they would be better off just trying to get pregnant like we did—at least that way sex just stays sex and doesn't become a chore."
The vast family (the baby will have five parents, 11 enthusiastic grandparents, and 21 aunts and uncles) seem to be ready for whatever issues that may arise while they're raising the child together. "We're ridiculously well-prepared," says Sjoerd. "We've already picked out schools. It's mainly people around us that expect problems, but that whole myth about the more people being involved with something the harder it being to come to a decision, isn't true. With us, there isn't a lot of room to be irrational—if it's just the two of you, you can easily get stuck in an emotional discussion which you both want to win. But when there's five of you, you're forced to reach a reasonable consensus."
Dewi tells us that she was surprised about the criticism they'd been getting from the LGBT community. "People say things to Daantje and I, like: 'You shouldn't get the men involved,' and to the boys: 'Be careful with those lesbians, they'll take your child away from you.' It is all about ownership, about fears, and ego."
"And about stereotypical views of what men and women are like—that us men will only be there for the good parts, the fun days out with daddy, and that Daantje and Dewi will be overflowing with hormones and turn into overprotective mama bears. I don't think that's how things will go," Sjoerd chimes in.
Another problem that their friends and family seem to worry about is the question of what will happen if Daantje and Jaco (the legal parents) die in a car accident. "But," argues Sjoerd, "If that were to happen, it would be less of a problem for us than for a traditional family. I wish everyone had a safety net like ours. If I suddenly lose my job, our son can still take violin lessons or whatever. I don't understand why more couples don't have children together. You see all these young parents barely surviving the first few years. They don't get any sleep and hardly see their friends. We'll still have enough energy to go out with our friends and talk about other things than babies a few days a week."
Their friends can definitely see the positive side of being able to get some sleep every now and then, as well the benefits of the different influences that five people will have on a child. "We've got yoga, acrobatics, music, politics, and education in our talent pool," says Sjoerd. "The five of us are very different, but that's our strength."
The baby is due this week and all parents plan to be present for the delivery—during the interview with Sjoerd and Dewi, Jaco and Sean had just come back from setting up the birth pool at Daantje and Dewi's house. Dewi says that it took Daantje a while to come around to the idea of everyone being there for the birth. "It was a process for her to open herself up to all of us in that way—it is her body after all. But she wants everyone to be there, and feels comfortable enough with everyone now to have all five of us around." Everyone has been assigned a task for the delivery: Sjoerd will take care of snacks and drinks, Sean and Jaco will give massages where necessary and Dewi will mostly be supporting her partner.
When I ask if they've read about attachment psychology in young children, Sjoerd tells me that a friend of his is writing a doctorate on the subject: "She says the main thing is consistency in the family, and that is something we can offer."
"The world of a baby gets bigger over time, but in the initial stages a baby can attach to about five people—so that works out perfectly for us," says Dewi.