On a visit to Chicago in September 2006, Consuelo Allen helped a friend prepare a special dinner party – a sort of early Thanksgiving feast. The one-time actor who had spent a good part of her adult life living and working in the Windy City always enjoyed these visits, surrounded by friends, good food and the fast-paced culture of the big city. But in the back of Allen’s mind on this trip, indeed never far from her thoughts, was something very important.
At the party, she caught up with Ben Lenz, a longtime friend she hadn’t seen in a while. He asked her about her partner back home in Austin, Nancy Friedel, and the couple’s new modern home. When Lenz asked if she was involved in any projects, Allen replied matter-of-factly: “We want to have a child.”
A million things flashed through Allen’s mind that moment as she looked at Lenz, a man she had immense respect and admiration for. She weighed it carefully yet decisively, and then asked: “Ben would you be our donor?” Immediately, he responded, “Oh my God, yes!”
In the middle of the party, Allen called Friedel back home to tell her she’d found their donor. To say that her partner was surprised would be an understatement. Friedel recalls: “I had met Ben before, but I couldn’t quite remember what he looked like. I asked,
‘Which one was he again?’”
“Don’t worry,” Allen replied. “He’s Italian, Argentinean and German – and Catholic! He totally understands us!”
Making time for family
Allen and Friedel tell that bit of the story with a lot of humor. But in reality, having a child was something they had considered carefully in the preceding years. They knew they wanted a donor who was a friend – someone they knew and trusted who could also be a positive influence in their child’s life. And since nature required that it be Friedel who carried the baby, they had agreed that that person should be someone close to Allen.
For gays and lesbians who opt to become parents, the process can be complicated and often expensive, fraught with legal issues and sometimes even discrimination. Yet no matter their path to parenthood, these would-be parents are making the conscious decision to have kids. To put it another way, there are no accidents when it comes to gay parenting.
“It’s a planned pregnancy in the best possible form,” says Allen. “It’s not an arbitrary thing. We’ve chosen to have this huge change in our lives and be dedicated to that. That’s something that is sometimes lost when people think about gay parents.”
On a recent evening in their well-adorned home in East Austin, Friedel and Allen talk about their long history together and the year they’ve spent with their son. Vincent, who would celebrate his first birthday just days later, is fast asleep.
Things are busy these days in this house. Allen is just back from a work trip to Houston. Her job as a member of Whole Foods’ global food safety team takes her all over the Southeast, Midwest and Florida.
“I’ve worked 90 to 100 hours a week before, not a problem,” says Allen. “If you had told me I didn’t know what busy was before we had a child, I would have thought there was something wrong with you. Now I know what busy is, it’s a 24/7 thing taking care of another human being.”
Like it does for any other couple, having a child has taken its toll on their intimacy, and sleep has at times been a precious commodity. Yet listening to these two women talk about their child, their lives in the last year and their relationship with Lenz, it’s clear they wouldn’t change their decision for anything in the world.
Finding their Home
Allen was working for Whole Foods Market in Chicago in the late 1990s when her job brought her to the company’s headquarters here in Austin. After she moved, she got an offer to join a local catering company as the sales manager. That’s where Allen met Friedel, who was a partner in the business. The two worked with one another for eleven months, putting together everything from small corporate meetings to major nonprofit galas. “There was nothing going on romantically,” says Friedel.“But really it was the best way to get to know someone. I think at the end of that we knew more about each other than most people in relationships do that that point.”
About the time the two decided to depart the company, romance began to spark. “When we did get together, we already had a lot of the big stuff out of the way,” says Allen.
Both wanted kids as part of their relationship from the beginning. But with two busy schedules and work that often took Allen out of town, the timeline for parenthood seemed less clear.
While they weighed whether to start trying to have a baby or wait until they had a house, a good friend suggested they buy in a community that she was helping to develop called Agave. “Our house is my favorite place in Austin,” says Friedel. “Ten years ago, this was the middle of nowhere, with hundreds of trailer houses all the way up the hill. They’ve really created a beautiful neighborhood, and I love it.”
Their realtor friend generously lent them her tiny garage apartment while they waited for their home to become available. “We may never live in New York, but we’ve definitely had the Manhattan apartment experience,” says Allen. “I suggest anyone who has a problem getting rid of excess things put everything except the bare necessities in storage for nine months. After that, throw, sell or give away everything that you didn’t even think about or need during that period.”
Loss and new promise
Just a few months after Allen’s fateful trip to Chicago, Friedel’s father, who had been battling cancer, passed away. The youngest daughter of a close-knit family, Friedel had been especially close with her father and took the loss hard. While still committed to having a child, it would have to wait.
But on another trip to Chicago – this time together – Allen and Friedel had lunch with Lenz. Emotions still a bit raw from the loss of Friedel’s father, the couple wanted a frank discussion with the man who would be their future child’s biological father. “All the cards were on the table at that lunch,” says Friedel. “We wanted to know what his expectations were. We told him he wouldn’t have any legal responsibility, he’d have to sign a bunch of papers etcetera. We told him we wanted him to be part of [the baby’s life] but that he couldn’t be in and out.”
Lenz was on the same page. He himself had been fostering a child, and his partner, Eddie, was also a dad. “We knew this was someone who understands what parenting requires,” says Friedel.
“I’m in my mid-forties and I’ve got godchildren and kids I mentor all over the place, but I never thought I’d be father to a child that I helped create,” says Lenz, a graphic artist.
Though he had never discussed becoming a donor with Allen and Friedel, Lenz says that when asked, he had a gut feeling that this was right. “I had no hesitations.”
Friedel says she and Allen were fully prepared to adopt a child if she didn’t get pregnant. “We wanted to try to have a baby as close to natural as possible,” she says. “But we also know that too many kids need a home. We said, ‘We’ll try this three times, then we adopt.’”
For them, “as close to natural as possible” meant the couple didn’t want to get pregnant via a medical procedure. Indeed, for gay people the methods and pathways to parenthood are as diverse as the families they create. To feel right for Allen and Friedel, the process needed to happen at home. So at the appropriate time, Lenz traveled down to Austin to stay with the couple. Over the course of the weekend, they independently improvised as needed to get the job done.
“They tell you it never happens the first time,” says Friedel. “So when we were getting ready it was almost depressing because you’re thinking: ‘we’re going to have to do this so many times.’”
To everyone’s surprise and elation, Friedel got pregnant that first weekend. “I remember thinking ‘This is awesome!’ It could have been a lot more complicated,” says Friedel.
Nine months later, after a fairly easy pregnancy Vincent Allen-Friedel was born. His parents chose the name for one of their favorite religious figures, St. Vincent de Paul. “Every day with Vincent is a gift and a joy and a learning experience,” says Allen. “He’s just an amazing kid.”
Allen and Friedel struggled a bit with what Vincent would call each of them. In the case of two dads, the decision is typically a little easier: there’s “daddy” and “papa.” But choices are a bit more limiting when it comes to derivations of “mama.”
“One of our dear friends gave us a list of all the words for mom in different languages,” Allen recalls. “And of course when we got to Spanish, there was ‘mamacita.’ …So we decided Nancy will be ‘Mama’ and I will be ‘Cita.’”
Over the last couple years Allen and Friedel have watched their emerging neighborhood grow up around them, with many new families moving in. There’s a strong sense of community among the residents of Agave, and with about a dozen babies born there so far, there are a lot of dads who are ready to play catch. For Vincent, who Friedel says is “all boy” the male influences in his life, between family and close friends, will be numerous.
At the same time, Lenz and his partner come to Austin on a regular basis to see Vincent. “Ben has been great, both he and Eddie are so open to whatever needs to happen,” says Friedel. Lenz is a big part of their lives, and that’s something that won’t change, he says. “I’m sad each time our family get-togethers end, but I know that Vincent is in good hands, and that he’s totally surrounded by love.” Lenz adds that though he doesn’t share his son’s daily life, he feels absolutely comfortable about who’s in charge of him. “The clear, definite way that Consuelo and Nancy interact in the ir relationship as a couple is so similar to my own relationship with my partner that I feel our situation was almost des tiny. Our unique family’s creation was definitely in greater hands.”
Balancing one another
Allen says the way she and Friedel balance one another is the opposite of how most people perceive them. “I think the perception is that I have a very structured way that I like things to be, and in fact I’m just the opposite. I’m ‘we’ll see, how it goes,’ and she’s ‘we need a plan. …She’s definitely the one with her feet on the ground when it comes to being practical,” says Allen. “She got that from her dad. He could fix anything with his hands, and he always found a way to make things work.”
Friedel says that her practical side came from her mom. “I really admire the way she managed our family. She was married in 1962, but she was the one who took care of the finances. That was unusual back then. We have four siblings, nine nieces and nephews, and she still makes sure that we all remain very close. If problems come up, she makes us get it out on the table and deal with it.”
Whatever their own proclivities, both parents understand that children thrive on structure. “It’s been a period of adjustment with our friends who don’t have kids, says Allen.” “We don’t do dinner parties anymore. Our weekdays are a race to get home to spend time with Vincent before he goes to sleep.”
There is an evening routine that’s special to them both. Friedel will breast feed Vincent just before bed, spending that time bonding with him as Allen reads him a book. Allen will then rock him to sleep.
With two parents of the same sex, there aren’t those conventional delineations of what’s the mom’s role or the dad’s role. Instead it’s something that each couple has to negotiate for themselves.
Friedel who has worked as a food broker in recent years, is now a stay-at-home mom. It was a choice to leave the working world to make sure their son wasn’t being raised by a daycare. “It was important to me that I have more time with him,” she says.
Reflecting back, Friedel says she’s most proud of how she and Allen have relied on each other these last few years. “I know I’ve been insane at times. There’s a lot of stress raising a child. I don’t have a job right now. We have this great house. Of course it’s scary. But then Consuelo says it’s all going to be fine. I think we each have our freak out moments, but the other is always there to be the rock.”
Adds Allen: “We never take each other for granted. And that’s so important.”
Before the judge
After Vincent’s birth, many of their friends wanted to know if they would have any sort of ceremony to make their relationship official. Allen says she is adamantly against anything short of marriage. “We’d been together for seven years, and we had to legalize everything that we’ve done together- the house, the adoption,” she says. “My family has been in Texas for five generations. I’m going to hold out until gay and lesbian relationships are legal here. If it happens when I’m 95-years-old, then we’ll be the first ones in line to get married.”
And while it may be a while before the two are able to cement their union in their home state, the adoption process was a remarkable event for them both.
“It was a big deal to stand in front of a judge and have him say ‘I pronounce you Vincent’s second parent,’” Allen says, her eyes welling up with tears.
“It meant everything to me to be standing with my partner, holding Vincent and have it be acknowledged in a court that we are a unit. We are a family. And come what may, this is how it’s going to be.”
The couple had help with the legal process from local adoption attorney Suzanne Bryant who has helped well over 100 gay and lesbian families in Texas secure second-parent adoptions.
The friendly judge who granted the adoption offered in jest to Allen: “I just want you to know, we don’t take returns.”
While intended as a lighthearted comment, Allen found something profound in what the judge had said. “I thought it really encapsulated us as a gay community,” she says. “We’re not talking about returning a child. We take this on because we understand what family is. We don’t take returns. Once you’re taken into the gay community, you’re part of it. That’s the way it is.”