Life in a Four-Mom Family

The 1970s saw a blossoming of alternative queer households. But how did those experiments work out for the children they raised?

Brooklyn Joseph with her mothers in 2005
Brooklyn Joseph (center) with her mothers in 2005. Brooklyn Joseph

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

For the first few years of her life, Brooklyn Joseph assumed her family looked like any other. She had a warm home, parents who loved her, and a regular lineup of bonding activities that included attending Renaissance fairs. But when she got to the sixth grade, a homework assignment shook that understanding. The task was supposed to be easy: Fill out a family tree. Joseph’s teacher handed out a sheet with prelabeled sections for “Mother” and “Father,” and all students had to do was write in the names.

For Joseph, this homework posed several problems. First, she didn’t have a father—she was born in 1979 through artificial insemination. The sperm donor was a male friend of her biological mom, Lynn. And second, Joseph didn’t just have two parents—she had four.

When Joseph came home from school that night, she was close to tears. “You guys, what am I supposed to do with this? Do I scratch out ‘Dad’ and write out Donna?” she remembers saying. Donna—who Joseph calls “Mom No. 2”—was a close friend of Lynn’s, and although they weren’t dating, the two of them were Joseph’s primary caretakers. Lynn had always wanted a child, so they decided to raise one together.

And they weren’t the only two women in Joseph’s home in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco: The place was a crash-pad for a rotating cast of Bay Area lesbians, around four at a time, where they all convened for group dinners or went out to watch rugby matches. When a photographer from CoEvolution Quarterly visited in 1980, a year after Joseph’s birth, the counterculture magazine noted that the other women in the household “cavorted around behind the camera to help with this first portrait of a family made by amateur artificial insemination.”

By the time Joseph turned 6, Donna had found a long-term partner, who became Joseph’s Mom No. 3. The longtime girlfriend of Lynn, her biological mom, was Mom No. 4. All of them shared parenting responsibilities. “I usually describe my household as a gaggle of women,” says Joseph. “Even within the lesbian community, my family wasn’t super traditional.”

Households like Joseph’s numbered in the dozens in the 1970s, particularly among a bourgeoning community of lesbian feminists from Washington, D.C.; to New York City; to Ann Arbor, Michigan, who launched collective houses. Many of these homes had a similar goal: to reject the American hetero nuclear norm and redefine what “family” could mean from scratch.

That desire to liberate the family had been an early goal of the queer movement. In 1972, the group Gay Men’s Liberation laid out a vision for the future that included “free twenty-four hour child care centers […] where faggots and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing,” adding that “rearing children should be the common responsibility of the whole community.” Communes like Lavender Hill cropped up to bring community to queer people of all genders, some of whose biological parents had rejected them. At the same time, trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson launched the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization that provided mentorship and shelter for homeless trans kids. These frameworks created alternative family structures tailored to the specific needs of the communities in question.

But today, with the exception of a few remaining womyn’s lands (that, unlike Joseph’s family, generally pushed for total lesbian separatism), much of that energy has dissipated. During the Clinton era, gradual political gains encouraged members of the queer community to frame themselves as “normal”—and to exclude the queer and trans activists who got them there. In recent years, arguments in favor of same-sex marriage tended to conflate the notion of queer family with normative, two-adult households. In popular media, the default of image of queer people raising children has come to be almost indistinguishable from the straight nuclear family early liberationists sought to escape. That shift has worked to erase this vibrant history of nontraditional queer families.

But the fact that the movement has largely moved on does not mean the experiments were failures. In fact, if you ask the children of those families about growing up in alternative structures, they’ll tell you it worked beautifully.

One reason that Joseph took so long to understand her family was unique is that, in her slice of San Francisco, others like hers existed. As Chelsea Nicole Del Rio outlined in her dissertation on lesbian feminism in California, throughout the 1970s, Bay Area lesbians pioneered alternative family structures in Terrace House, Benvenue House, Addison House, and many others.

A 1979 book, Up Against the Clock, featured an interview with a 36-year-old lesbian, Margaret Donahue, who was co-parenting a 4-month-old boy alongside a group of ten lesbian friends. Donahue didn’t have a partner, but she had longed to have children of her own. When she heard about artificial insemination, she decided to do it. A gay male friend offered to donate sperm; other lesbians she knew said they would help with child care; a local women’s clinic provided the turkey baster.

Donahue described how, after she gave birth, her friends did her grocery shopping, washed her clothes, and volunteered to babysit. “In some ways the lesbian community provides a very good place to bring up kids,” Donahue told Marilyn Fabe and Norma Wikler, the authors of Up Against the Clock. “Many of us live communally and therefore we avoid the terrible isolation so many straight women experience who are stuck alone in their houses in the suburbs.”

A young Karina Assiter drawing on a piece of paper.
Karina Assiter during her time in the Bernal Heights house. Karina Assiter

Karina Assiter, now a computer science professor in Vermont, was born in 1965 to a mom and a dad. When her dad was deported to England on drug charges, she moved with her mother to the Bernal Heights House, a San Francisco feminist collective that flourished from 1970 to 1973. There, four women lived alongside one man—a boyfriend of one of the women—and two kids: Assiter and a boy a year younger than her.

At Bernal Heights, parental responsibilities were divided up. The idea was that each child would have five equal co-parents. Each member of the household was assigned two days per week to care for the children: Wake them up in the morning, feed them breakfast, get them to school, pick them up at the end of the day, cook them dinner, help them brush their teeth, and send them to bed.

In a 1972 edition of the collective’s newspaper Mother Lode, one resident, Sandy Boucher, described the situation like this: “Let’s say Ginny falls down and cuts her knee. She goes running to her mother, Alice. Alice then has to say, ‘Go to Sandy, it’s her day.’ ”

“At first there was a little bit of resistance,” Boucher tells me. When separated from their biological mothers, “the kids were like, ‘Wait, that’s not my mommy.’ But very soon they recognized it as an advantage. Instead of one mom who is tired, you had a new person every day, and each of these grown-ups brought a new perspective to the children.”

Each parent also had their own unique after-school activity with the kids. One was an artist and would teach them painting; another took them on hikes. “I remember the guy would make pancakes on the weekend mornings, and that was his thing,” says Assiter. “Sandy would do Saturday night Creature Features.”

Assiter looks back on these years fondly. “It was an ideal way to live,” she says. “I remember feeling like you’re free and to do and be who you are.” When she was in high school, her biological mother encouraged her to attend a group at a local LGBTQ center, where she met her first girlfriend. She never had to worry about how her family would react.

Now, decades later, she is eager for opportunities to discuss her childhood. “When people meet me, they don’t necessarily even know about my unusual upbringing,” she says. “I’m kind of quiet and I seem to be someone who ‘follows the rules.’ But when I talk about it, people are always kind of amazed.”

For Joseph, too, the benefits of communal living were myriad—though it wasn’t always easy. After her family tree saga, Donna (Mom No. 2) stormed the middle school. She pulled aside Joseph’s teacher and told her that the assignment had been exclusionary. “It was probably the first time that teacher realized that was insensitive,” Joseph says.

Despite Donna’s intervention, the incident left a mark: Afterward, Joseph never mentioned any parent beyond her one biological mom, Lynn. “Starting in middle school, I basically didn’t share anything about my family in school,” she says. “I was protective of my family, and I didn’t want people to say anything bad.”

But as acceptance of the queer community continues to radiate across the U.S., Joseph is open about her family again. She cites her childhood as a reason for her continued confidence. “Being one of the few children in the household meant I got tons of positive affirmation from all of these powerful and interesting women,” she says. “A lot of people say how did you become so self-assured, and I attribute that to my household.”

Joseph, who is now married to a man and has two kids of her own, says the lessons of her childhood home linger. Two months ago, she started a community dinner coop in her neighborhood, where each family is assigned one night each week to cook a massive group dinner. “That’s my version of trying to create something like what I grew up in, and have a community, and share tasks, and not want to be alone,” she says. And while Joseph’s biological mother, Lynn, died in 2014, she still regularly sees her other three mothers. This past year, her son spent the summer with Mom No. 4.