When Elizabeth Earley fell in love with a woman who had a child, she didn’t expect to become one big happy family. But that’s exactly what happened.
On our first date, Lucy told me that she was attending couples counseling with her husband. They were separated, but when they were together their marriage had been open. Recently healed from a broken heart—another married woman who, in the end, did not leave her husband—I was turned off. Still, I thought perhaps we could be friends. Maybe we could even be friends who slept together without emotional attachment. Casual intimacy had been a goal of mine for many years. I pursued it without success, always either wanting more or nothing at all.
A friendly hug was what I offered Lucy when we parted after brunch, our first date. She said we should see each other again and I told her I was leaving town in a week and would be gone for nearly a month. Perhaps after I returned, I said. I arrived home to find an email she’d sent, asking if she might see me again before I left. She was inexplicably drawn to me, she’d written, and wanted to extend herself to tell me that and to ask for more time with me. It was brave and real. I said yes.
On our second date, she asked if I could be in an open relationship. When she talked about it, she made it sound progressive and appealing—thwarting the mainstream paradigm; love without possession. I considered, intrigued. Short of peeing on women to mark my territory, I’d done everything a jealous girlfriend does in my previous relationships and I wasn’t proud. My jealousy caused me enough suffering, I thought, and here I was with a clean slate and a new opportunity.
Could I fall in love with someone and keep only the lightest touch on her, not gripping or fearing loss? My jealously was something I wanted to change, I knew. And for a few seconds it seemed that being in an open relationship might help me finally overcome it. But there was something about the idea that felt unsafe in a primal way. I knew trying would only make my jealously problem worse. I told her no. What followed was an awkward silence. I asked if I should go.
“Don’t go! Why would you go?” Her surprise was genuine. I sat beside her on her couch, facing her. We hadn’t yet kissed. I thought she was expressing a precondition—a relationship with her had to be open or could not be at all. The question, it turned out, was hypothetical.
She said she didn’t actually want that either—that it’d been something she thought she wanted when she was younger but that it didn’t fit anymore. She said she could be monogamous. She had been in a monogamous relationship with a woman for almost 10 years prior to her marriage.
Two months later, we proved the lesbian U-Haul stereotype and moved in together. Circumstances in her life caused her to have to leave where she’d been living and she was either going to get an apartment on her own or move in with me. The swift and total way we fell in love wasn’t completely foreign to me—I’d been in love before and each time it happened, it happened fast. But that first time we kissed, on her couch after that conversation on our second date, I felt something significant and unprecedented. It was as if the immaterial essence of us had been combined in the primordial ooze, long before the existence of life on earth, long before earth, even. The progenitor of the big bang was in our kiss. She felt as old and familiar to me as the elements while simultaneously feeling new. With an experience of time and timelessness like that, what did it matter if it was two or two hundred months?
We each came thick with history into our cohabitation, but hers was a history that included a child. With her ex, she had made a little girl.
I love children and I had always wanted to have a child of my own, but when, a month after we moved in together, her 2-year-old daughter, C., joined us it was a profound and abrupt change. I was used to coming and going as I pleased, but before long, I was increasingly drawn to C. and wanting to spend more time with her. Gradually, she grew to know and trust me. We formed a bond. Lucy was encouraging but hands off, letting the relationship form organically.
C. loved pure and big, without hesitation or fear, in the way only a 2-year-old can. That combined with her playfulness and affinity for kindness made me love her in a beautiful, uncomplicated way. I could do nothing but love her with everything I had. It didn’t feel like a choice—it was something big and important that chose me. It didn’t feel like she was mine; I was hers.
Lucy and I are both strong women with strong preferences, so, in the beginning, we came to frequent impasses. Historically impulsive, I might have left if not for the primordial ooze connection and the anchor that was C. Lucy’s daughter kept me steady, rooting me in.
I simultaneously experienced this and observed it—amazed that I stayed even when it got hard. Each time, my work was rewarded—the friction carved new depths of intimacy between us.
But what surprised me most was the absence of my characteristic jealousy. C. often spoke the words “mom” and “dad,” the pronunciation of which made it clear they bore rich, intricate meaning. They bore the understanding that the future must always contain this man, my girlfriend’s ex-husband. But more than this, they carried the recognition of my capacity for the kind of maturity I had desperately wanted but never owned. Here was this baby girl, our shared love, and through her eyes I saw her father as not only good, but necessary. Without C., he would have been a threat to what I had with Lucy, but this little girl building castles in my heart betrayed my fear for what it really was—what it had always been—nothing but vapor.
And then something even more amazing happened.
When I looked at him, Michael—this man, this father, this ex-husband—and he smiled, I saw C.’s smile. And instantly, helplessly, I loved him. Soon after Lucy and C. moved in with me, he coupled and moved in with Jerel, his new boyfriend. Jerel was lovely, someone I would have chosen to be friends with outside of this scenario and I was thrilled to watch what happened to me happen to him just as swiftly—he fell head over heels for C.
Today the five of us regularly spend time together. At first, our gatherings felt obligatory and a bit forced. We were doing it for C.; we were her family for better or worse and we had to get along for her sake. But over time, and not too much time, we relaxed and discovered that we genuinely enjoy one another’s company. Michael and Jerel went from people with whom I am forced into a co-parenting situation to people I care about. People who feel more like brothers to me than mere friends.
Throughout my adult life, I have been in and out of romantic relationships. Because of this, when I heard or spoke the word “family,” I thought of my parents and my siblings—blood relatives. As each of my siblings settled into long-term marriages and had kids, I floated freely. My family was distant and scattered—theirs were gathered together under one roof. The traditional patriarchal model of family features the father as the source of each little solar system—his wife and children orbiting; the unit held together by a deep and powerful pull.
It turns out that for me and my new family C. is the sun—the center of our intricate system; the rest of us unwitting, complicated, beautiful planets. We circle her automatically and precisely, held together by the authority of forces we don’t understand and dare not question.
At the ripe age of 36, because of one little girl, now almost 4 years old, I find myself sewn together, one of four sometimes fearful and insecure adults, into a big, queer, happy family.
Elizabeth Earley holds a BA in Creative Writing and an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Time Out Magazine, The Chicago Reader, Geek Magazine, Outside Magazine, Gnome Magazine, and Hyper Text Magazine. Her debut novel, A MAP OF EVERYTHING, is forthcoming in the spring of 2014 from Jaded Ibis Press.