Toronto
5 min

Moms, dads & more

There's no hard formula for co-parenting

CENTRE OF A UNIVERSE. It takes a village to raise a child, but not necessarily a nuclear family as TJ Bryan and her daughter Tigana have learned. Credit: Xtra files

Kyle Mistysyn doesn’t have two mommies or two daddies. Kyle, who is five, has a mommy, a mama, a daddy and a pappy.



Kyle’s family is composed of two couples who are co-parenting him. Mommy Kimberly Mistysyn is his biological mother. She and her partner, Cynthia Redman, have full custody of Kyle. Kyle lives with Redman and Mistysyn during the week, and spends every other weekend with daddy David Grimbly, his biological father. Grimbly’s partner, Clarke Deller, who was known as pappy, died a couple of years ago.



Kyle is one of a growing number of children who are being raised in non-traditional family relationships. As having two lesbian mothers or two gay dads has become less an issue, parents are going even further in customizing the family unit to their needs and relationships. They’re opting to raise children with people with whom they may not be in a romantic relationship or with whom they may not be living. They may be including more than two parental figures in the family or experimenting with other arrangements, like raising a child solo with the help of friends, family and lovers.



And they’re not alone. Census data released by Statistics Canada last month show that only 44 percent of Canadian families in 2001 fit the mom-dad-and-kids model.



Rachel Epstein is seeing more and more families break the typical nuclear family mold. Epstein is the project coordinator of the new LGBT Parenting Network at David Kelley Services, which provides information and support to queer families. She says co-parenting should be recognized as just another type of creative family.



“I think it’s really important that that be encouraged, supported and recognized,” she says.



When choosing a co-parent, she says it’s important not to get mired in the details. It’s the big things that count.



“You want to find someone with similar values and similar ideas about how to raise kids,” says Epstein. Pragmatic items like the child’s name, school and where she will spend holidays, though important to work out, should come second.



Epstein says that a strength of co-parenting families is that because the parents are not necessarily lovers, they will not break up because of romantic difficulties – the bonds of mutual child-rearing are what hold things together.



Although some co-parenting families choose to live together, Epstein says that in families that don’t, the multiple residency isn’t a major problem. The children are accustomed to having parents in different houses, and unlike divorce, “it’s what the kid is born into.”



As same-sex couples are increasingly recognized, and the possibility of gay marriage seems near, Epstein hopes the changes won’t further marginalize families that do not have just two parents.



“We want to have a broader view of what makes a family,” she says.



In the case of Kyle, his mothers and fathers had been friends for years before Redman and Mistysyn decided they wanted to have a child with another couple. They picked co-parenting with people known to them rather than go the more expensive, although less legally complicated route of sperm donation. Grimbly and Deller were an obvious choice.



“We just seemed to click in where we were and what we wanted,” says Mistysyn.



Mistysyn and Redman hope to get married when federal law permits, but that doesn’t mean they’re aiming to have a mirror image of a heterosexual marriage. Mistysyn says she doesn’t subscribe to the idea of a traditional nuclear family and would not want to end their co-parenting scheme.



“I think it’s the best decision we could have made,” says Mistysyn.



The best part of co-parenting is being able to share the experience of raising a child and to round out the child’s life experiences.



“The male perspective… is something that I can’t imagine not having,” she says.



Grimbly is just as enthusiastic about being a father. “Nobody can tell you how wonderful it can be. It’s been a lot more than I could have dreamed.”



Before Kyle was conceived, the four parents drew up a document, agreeing that Grimbly would have to sign away his parental rights so that Redman could adopt the baby. Although the mothers would have full financial responsibility, they would consult with the fathers on many decisions.



Maintaining the family situation is a lot of work, says Mistysyn. Although coordinating plans for Kyle can be complicated, as plans are spread between two households and three adults, Mistysyn says raising a child always has its problems.



“It’s just another element in the whole parenting scheme of things.”



Of course, not everything goes according to plan. Grimbly points out that their parental group never took into account that Kyle would want a hand in making decisions.



“We all sort of forgot that he would want some input. If Kyle had his choice, I think he’d want all of us living together,” says Grimbly.



Epstein says the matter of who lives with whom is often the biggest obstacle co-parenting families face.



No matter how much parents plan beforehand, there are bound to be issues they haven’t considered and that could cause conflict.



“It’s not really predictable. People have unanticipated feelings,” she says.



She says that it’s important that the parents plan for how they will resolve these conflicts when they arise, and not plan too much in advance before the baby is born.



“It is important to find a balance between working out the things that you need to work out, but not getting bogged down in the details.”



Although not originally part of their child-raising plan, Kyle’s parents do spend lots of time together. Grimbly says he thinks that the best co-parenting arrangements are when all the parents are friendly and have some degree of involvement with the child.



“Anybody can parent,” he says. “The issue is, can you parent well?”



TJ Bryan has a network of close friends helping her to do just that. Her daughter, Tigana, who is 11 months old, was a welcome surprise. Bryan’s version of co-parenting involves a “chosen family” of friends who play the role of aunts and uncles. Bryan, who is queer and polyamorous, chose not to marry Tigana’s biological father, with whom she is still involved.



“I didn’t want to fall into a particular construction of family because I was pregnant,” says Bryan.



Bryan says her family doesn’t need a “patriarchal head of household.” She is Tigana’s primary caregiver, relying on her chosen family, of which her lover has become a member. Tigana’s father spends time with his daughter, and Bryan has meetings with members of her chosen family to make decisions about Tigana’s upbringing.



Part of Bryan’s need for this family stems from feeling isolated from both queers and hets. She says many people do not understand her lifestyle or her parenting methods, and do not agree with them, though she is working at putting together a group called Militant Mamas for mothers like herself who are politically involved.



She feels the need to create a safe environment for her daughter, which includes the possibility of home schooling.



Despite the adversity she has encountered, Bryan has parenting help from her chosen family, and a daughter who brings her a lot of joy. “She has become a part of my life and a part of my journey.”



* For more on parenting, see the previous item. Kimberly Mistysyn is part of a group for kids of queer parents called the Rainbow Club 4 Kids. For more information, visit www.msnusers.com/RainbowClub4Kids or e-mail rainbowclub4kids@sympatico.ca. For more information about the LGBT Parenting Network, check out http://familypride.uwo.ca or contact Rachel Epstein at (416) 595-0307, ext 270, or at rachelep@fsatoronto.com.