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The Child We Never Had

Co-parenting lets friends and community share the load and rewards of raising children.

Wendy Call family photo

All last year, our neighbor delivered his toddler daughter to our house several afternoons each week. My partner or I would knock off work early and settle in with Lesley, among piles of wooden blocks, picture books, and Lincoln Logs. Her father rushed off to his 10-hour shift shucking oysters, julienning carrots, and whipping custard at a downtown restaurant where a dinner costs more than he earns in a day.

For 15 hours each week, my partner Aram and I practiced parenting, adoring everything about Lesley’s two-year-old perfection. We loved feeding her crackers and sliced apples, building the 100th wood-block tower, encouraging each new word she spoke, accepting the diaper she would hand us when she needed to be changed, and laughing as she barked back at the neighbors’ dogs. In the evening, Lesley’s mother arrived on the bus from her job at a hotel, and carried that dear toddler home.

Aram and I recently celebrated 16 years of shared life. In all that time, we’ve never wished to be parents. We began our relationship the same month that four environmental scientists published “The Environmental Consequences of Having a Baby in the United States.” For us, that article closed the discussion. When Bill McKibben published Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families a few years later, we shook our heads and thought: “Well, how about none?” 

Co-parenting Lesley has only affirmed our decision not to have children. As much as we adore her, and as willingly as we'd take her in if necessary, we've never wished she were our child.

Many of our friends choose to become parents without ever having spent a whole day caring for a child. The choice seems particularly stark: become parents for every minute of every day, or not at all. Caring for children can be overwhelming, lonely, even frightening. Parents weren’t meant to go it alone. My partner and I are enormously lucky to parent without becoming parents.

More than a year before Lesley’s birth, her parents emigrated from Mexico and became our neighbors. Aram and I speak Spanish (and they spoke no English), so our friendship grew over shared dinners, garden harvests, and walks to the lake. Now, Lesley has caregivers from four different cultures. I grew up in a white, middle-class family on a half-dozen U.S. military bases; Aram, in a middle-class family in Tehran; Lesley’s mother, in a rural, peasant family; and Lesley’s father, in a working-class, single-parent household in the world’s largest city.

Our informal family structure—mother, father, godfather, godmother, daughter—is not some new alternative but an old tradition. When Lesley could speak just a handful of words, she called all four of us “ama.” It was some amalgam of papa and mama, with an added twist of meaning in Spanish: “she loves.” Aram and I are Lesley’s padrinos. The word translates as “godparents,” but the concept indicates something broader in Mexico. Padrinos are responsible for everything a child’s parents can’t provide, whether that is a well-rounded meal, new clothes, childcare, or a college education. Aram and I have started saving for that last one, though college is still distant. Lesley just started preschool.

Co-parenting Lesley has only affirmed our decision not to have children. As much as we adore her, and as willingly as we’d care for her full-time if necessary, we’ve never wished she were our child. While the arrangement feels natural to us, it often surprises others.

Lesley loves to visit our neighborhood children’s consignment store. Her mother and I both take her there regularly, to replace the clothes she seems to outgrow every six weeks. The owner watched Lesley develop from a smiling baby, riding in a stroller we bought from this shop, into an 18-month-old playing under the clothing racks and shouting “Ama?!” every time she lost track of my legs.

Now Lesley’s a preschooler, and she can jump high enough to see and greet the owner over the counter. On a recent visit, the owner waved back to her and said to me, “Your daughter is so charming!”

“Oh! She’s not my daughter,” I replied. The owner looked surprised. “You’ve met Lesley’s mother; she shops here, too,” I explained. I’ve had variations of this conversation many times—in cafés, at the playground, at the children’s museum. When Lesley’s mother and I are together with her, people often assume I adopted Lesley. They ask me where Lesley “came from,” expressing surprise when I explain she was born in Seattle, not Guatemala or Peru, and I’m her godmother, not her adoptive mother.

For now, some find it difficult to believe or understand that Lesley’s parents have chosen to share their daughter’s care (and love) with the couple down the street. When they asked Aram and me to be her padrinos, some of their friends—most of whom are Mexican—questioned their decision. How could they trust people so different from them? It’s a fair question. Co-parenting can be complicated.

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I’m the only one who refuses to ever slap Lesley on the wrist, though I also have the least patience with the relentless­ness of toddler chaos. Her parents expect her to sit still and silent during Mass. Aram and I expect her to play for hours without asking to watch television. Lesley usually meets all our expectations and knows what she can expect from each of us. A book read aloud for the tenth time? Madrina. Kick a ball for an hour? Padrino. A puzzle put together six times in a row? Papa. Quiet cuddling? Mama.

Our friends sometimes tell Aram and me that our co-parenting is “generous.” We don’t see it that way; we’re struck by her parents’ generosity. They trust us with their daughter—usually for five hours at a time but sometimes for five days. They have immigrated to a society that tends to trust institutions more than neighbors. Thousands of miles away from the aunts, uncles, and grandparents who would care for Lesley in Mexico, her parents have chosen to trust us, the people who happen to live down the street.

Co-parenting is an experiment, an endless improvisation, a frequent inconvenience, and an occasional tug of war. So far, our work-in-progress seems to be an unusually adaptable, content, and self-confident 3-year-old. 


Wendy Call wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Wendy is a writer, editor, and translator in Seattle. Her site is wendycall.com.

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