Two wives become pregnant at the same time by the same donor
Natalie Meisner strolled through the streets of her hometown with her wife Viviën Beerends. As they walked, hand-in-hand in Lockeport, N.S., they noticed a man who was blatantly staring. The usual assumption of someone staring would be because the two are a lesbian couple, but that wasn't it. They are a lesbian couple, who also happened to be "double pregnant."
Meisner recalls quipping, "Hey, haven't you seen a couple of pregnant lesbians before?!"
It turns out the man staring hadn't, and was merely curious about Meisner's unique situation.
"Our stereotype of small towns is that we think we're just going to be stared at and judged," she says.
It's moments like these that can be seen in Meisner's latest non-fiction book, Double Pregnant – Two Lesbians Make a Family, an honest recollection of the journey of she and Beerends embarked upon while being pregnant at the same time. Meisner is an author, playwright and professor who teaches drama and creative writing at MRU; her book is being published by Fernwood Publishing this Mother's Day, May 11.
"It was double happy," Meisner says with a smile when she and Beerends became pregnant together.
Growing up as a lesbian, Meisner says she didn't think having a family was possible, despite loving children and having a very large extended family. However, that changed one night when she went dancing with Vivian Beerends, Her then wife-to-be asked Meisner if they wanted to have children together.
"Somehow it just hadn't yet entered my consciousness," Meisner said. "But the minute she asked me, I knew it was a 100 per cent 'yes.' And as soon as she asked me I thought, 'There's no way back, because now I want this, now I want this really badly with you.'"
Meisner's literary life has its roots in N.S. Going through early schooling in a seaside-fishing town, the opportunities weren't ripe for Meisner's to translate the stories she accumulated into writing or art despite her mother surrounding her with books.
"My school itself did the bare bones, the basics," Meisner says. "But maybe for me that was lucky, because as soon as I got to university, I kind of went roaring toward theatre and artistic stuff, and really found myself in the first couple years that I was at university."
Meisner earned her first degree in English at King's College in Halifax, and later went to UBC for her Masters in Fine Arts, and finally moved to Calgary to obtain her PhD in creative writing at U of C.
Beyond the ability to dig into her creative side at university, it was also the first chance she had to properly express herself openly as a lesbian.
Growing up knowing she was a lesbian, Meisner used sports and the tomboy persona to coast through her early life.
"People kept asking me — as they would say back in the East — 'Oh, is there no man in the offing?'" ("In the offing," is a sailor's term for someone in the distance).
She recalls a particular instance in her coming-out process where she auditioned for a play at university, and the character was a lesbian.
"During the interview, I was all of 17 years old, and I had done the monologue, and they liked it, and they said, 'So, just so you know, if you get this part you'll have to kiss a woman, you wouldn't have a problem with that would you?'"
Meisner had no problem with that. "Actually I thought that would be pretty okay," she says with a hearty laugh.
"I found that playing this fictional lesbian, and having people talk about that, let me kind of come out," she says.
Meisner says that being so accepted by theatre folk is what eventually drew her towards writing for the genre in the first place. Her first two books are a collection of her plays.
"It turned out later that none of those people in the room who had auditioned with me were themselves gay, but it was just the ease in which they said, 'Oh you wouldn't have any problem with that, would you?' which set the bar for theatre people for acceptance and welcoming behaviour."
However Meisner's welcome from the theatre community was contrasted by her experience in sports. She played basketball and soccer at King's College.
"One of the women on my team told me, 'You have to watch out for the coaches, I think they're dykes,' without knowing," she says.
"I wasn't as out as I am now, and at that moment, I was in this highly charged space because we were both half-naked."
She adds the camaraderie she gained with her teammates during those years —particularly when she was searching for her identity — was interrupted by comments and cracks such as those, and says it's probably what turned her from jock to intellectual.
"It was tough," she says.
It was through sports, however, where Meisner met her wife when she represented Canada for basketball at the 2006 Gay Games in Montreal. Beerends played for the Dutch team.
Three years later, Meisner and Beerends married in Calgary in 2009. And now, their boys, Jasper and Ruben, will soon both be three years old.
Their sons came to them in an unusual twist, as Meisner and her wife became "double pregnant," solely based on a recommendation of their doctor. As they were at an "advanced-maternal age," it was best they both try for children.
But before they could start what Meisner calls "the biggest construction project ever," the couple needed something neither could naturally produce: sperm.
They went "speed dating for sperm," as in Canada, sperm sales are against the law.
Through "dating" potential donors in online forums or meeting in person, the couple had many close calls. Finally after two years of searching and planning, Meisner and her wife found a volunteering donor willing to offer his swimmers via artificial insemination.
"When we found Mr. Right it was amazing," Meisner says. "By that time we had been through about two years of planning, hoping and dreaming. Everything kind of fell into place as he told us his reasons for wanting to be a donor and we told him what we were looking for," Meisner says.
They traveled to B.C. to see the donor during their pregnancy and once after their children had been born in the start of fostering an open relationship between the children and the donor.
When it came down to trying to get pregnant, Meisner, in her late thirties at the time, was blessed on the first try, and then on second try for Beerends, then 40. They were both about to be mothers — through artificial insemination from the one donor — within two months of each other.
Meisner also recalls the different experiences between her and Beerends during their pregnancies, and says through that they had a better understanding of how each other felt during the combined 11 months.
“When we found Mr. Right it was amazing. By that time, we had been through about two years of planning, hoping and dreaming. Everything kind of fell into place.”
- Natalie Meisner, Author
"I think the thing that women say to their husbands in straight couples is 'you have no idea how it feels! You're never touching me again!'" she laughs. "And we couldn't really say that because we knew exactly how it felt."
For instance, Meisner experienced all-day morning sickness, and Beerends once fainted at the mention of needles and epidurals during a tour of the hospital in Lockeport, where they went to have their children.
For Meisner, recounting these experiences is her first crack at non-fiction work, a departure from her previous plays and poems, where she had characters and themes to filter her ideas through.
"The reason I decided to do this was that there were things that were happening to us that were so strange, that I could not make up," she says.
"At the point where life became stranger than fiction, I thought I had better write about this."
Between the couple and the donor — Meisner and Beerends asked that he have his privacy and did not want him interviewed for the article — they negotiated that the donor could have a relationship with the children, but only if he and the boys want it.
Meisner chimes, "It will be up to them and our donor as life moves forward to negotiate what kind of relationship they have, but they will both have the knowledge and can do with that what they want."
Beerends herself was adopted as a child, and had questions about her biological family hanging over her growing up. While she eventually connected with her biological roots, Beerends doesn't want that question passed on to her children.
Meisner thought the pair had a story she wanted to explore through her writing and bring to others. Her foray into the arts began early in her childhood, searching for narratives and taking in the stories of the people around her in her life growing up in Lockeport.
She recalls when she would follow her mother, Jolanda Meisner, to her many jobs, as Jolanda was a single-working mother. Natalie especially recalls her times at the senior's home, where she would play checkers and chess with the residents, cashing in on their wealth of stories and narratives.
These days, Natalie looks back on her early writing with a cringe. She laughs that she fell into the "typical angry woman," stereotype when pointing out societal flaws and inequalities. Her first work was even called Vicious Circle. She says that nowadays as a married mother with years of wisdom, she uses humour to approach her topics.
"Even if it's something really tough you have to get through, if I can spin that situation around and I can laugh at my own mistake, then I find strength and power there," she says. "Those same societal critiques are there, but I'm wanting to leave them, or lighten them with humour."
In Double Pregnant, Meisner details her family's unique family life. While Ruben is biologically Beerends,' Natalie feels Ruben is just as much hers as Jasper is. For example Ruben will come to her when he's hurt, Meisner says, and Jasper listens to her wife better.
Beerends describes the benefits of how close the boys are in age — 10 weeks.
"Usually children are more apart in age, but they'll be in the same class, they'll grow up together, they'll have the same interests," she says.
Out in public on campus, the playground or the gym, Meisner says her family has received both reactions: those interested in their narrative and wanting to know more, and the stone-faced, "You're going to Hell," responses to her unique family, or even the idea of same-sex marriage.
When Meisner encounters people like that, she does her best to be an educator, and draws upon the importance of equality. She recalls when Beerends had to have an emergency C-section, and how, in that moment, the doctors rushed in like a SWAT team to get to her wife.
"Are you married?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," Meisner fervently replied.
"The relief on her face when I said yes," Meisner says. "Because it was one less form; it was so huge and I thought, 'Wow, things are really shifting.'"
"And anyone who disagrees with marriage equality, for whatever their belief systems are, in the book I ask them to think about that moment, when someone's life hangs in the balance," she says.
She added that you wouldn't want just anybody making that decision, you would want your spouse.
Despite those occasional troubling reactions, Meisner says her different kind of family has received much more support than resistance, and her children's unique situation is what will always make her boys special.
"They'll have a difference, and the way I think about difference, whether it's your sexual identity or gender identity, who you love, whether it's the colour of your skin; I think that difference is a gift," she says.
"I like to think we'll be raising two of the coolest young men out there, and I think their story, their personal story, will help them."
Her mother Jolanda commends her daughter on how her and Beerends have chosen to raise the boys.
"She's such a ground breaker, the way she parents, the way Beerends parents; they're so calm," Jolanda says, drawing similarities between how she parented Natalie: less television, more books, a "Granola, hippie mom," style, as Jolanda calls it.
"The biggest compliment in the world is watching the similarity in how she parents as I parented her," she says.
And with their story, Meisner and her wife hope more families like theirs can be, and feel, included in what some might feel is a heteronormative institution, and notes a lack of resources on gay parenting.
"I'm more concerned with expanding the notion of family to include queer people, that those words should be available to everybody," she says. "We're kind of the walking poster child for the 21st century family," she jokes, but adds that in recent times there have been plenty of innovations to the traditional idea of family.
"It shows you how many ways people can make a family, and how far away we are from that 1950s or 1960s nuclear model."
Her former Mount Royal colleague Lee Easton, now the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Sheridan College, says that Meisner's book on her unique family can shine a light on their lifestyle and quell critics to bring them to more of an understanding.
"Despite the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians and our relationships, there's always a kind of unspoken question about what our relationships are 'really' like," Easton wrote in an email. "This book will show that there are some similarities with other traditional heterosexual relationships, but also highlight the challenges that non-traditional families face."
As her family continues to grow, Meisner says she won't let any discouraging reactions weigh down on her and Beerend's parenting.
She thinks to the man who stared at her and Beerends in Lockeport.
"And in that moment, I had to learn that people can just be curious," she says.