Jane Fenton (left) and Nancy Michael are photographed at Capitol Market. The couple are the parents of a 5-year-old son.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two people meet. They fall in love. They commit their lives to each other, and often the next step is becoming parents together. It's a common life journey for Dick and Jane; but what happens when you're Nancy and Jane?Nancy Michael and Jane Fenton glow when they are together. They finish each other's sentences and laugh at the shared memories of how they met, things they've done and people they care about. They are two women in love, and they are also each a parent to the same child, a 5-year-old freckle-faced boy named Drew.Nancy, 43, grew up in West Virginia and is a Marshall University graduate. She met Jane, 45, online in 1995. "We met on the Internet before it was scary or easy. We actually had to install software and type backslashes and such to communicate," said Jane. At the time, Jane was working at Oklahoma State University and taking computer classes. The two women liked each other right away."We actually met twice online," said Nancy. "The first time we met, Jane was coming out of a relationship, and the second time I was under a different screen name but we still recognized each other."Coincidentally, both Nancy and Jane were dating women from Huntsville, Ala.; all was well until Nancy inadvertently set them up on a date."I'm such a naive idiot," said Nancy. "I was like, 'You don't know anyone there and she doesn't know anyone there ... you both want to go to the Pride Festival, you should go together.'" Nancy and Jane's girlfriends took that advice, met up and went to the event together.They were gone for three days. It turned out they hit it off better than Nancy had intended.Nancy and Jane remained friends and eventually Nancy realized that she was growing very attached to her social chat room friend. "I thought we're typing an awful lot. An awful, awful lot. So maybe I need to go to Oklahoma. Five months later I went, and five months after that I moved there."That was 1998, and six years later the couple decided to make a five-year plan for their relationship. Central to that plan was having a child, but that decision precipitated several other serious decisions. Oklahoma was not a progressive place, and Jane was adamant that having a child would mean relocating their family to a more socially accepting community before their son or daughter started school.Like so many new parents, as they worked through their options, Nancy and Jane listed a support system for their family as a crucial element of successful parenting. In short order, they realized that their best option was to return to West Virginia, where Nancy's parents lived in St. Albans.
The third immutable piece of the five-year plan was transparency. While not actively hiding their relationship, both Nancy and Jane knew that many people simply assumed they were roommates."We decided we had to be open," said Jane. "Any child we had would be bullied if he didn't own the fact that he had two moms. We had to be OK with it if he was going to be OK with it. We had to say this is who we are and not apologize for it. We had to just expect people to treat us the same as anyone else."Expecting to be treated "the same as anyone else" did not always translate into that happening, however; the fertility clinics they approached in Oklahoma refused to help them on the grounds that they "did not treat single women."At one point, Nancy was told, "We don't treat those people" -- a phrase she believes meant homosexual people. "The clinics are run by the hospitals, and the hospitals were run by Catholic churches. I went to Dallas a couple of times a month," she said. In Dallas, the only requirement was that the couple pass a psychological screening, which they did.They cut their five-year plan short so that Nancy could deliver before she was 35. At age 35, a woman's risk for a range of birth defects in her child increases exponentially. They had the right time, the right home and the right plan. Now they needed the right sperm.
The couple chose a "double-blind anonymous donor" process; this meant that the donor would never receive any identifying information about Nancy and Jane, and they would never have any information about him either. Jane was clear about the scenario she wanted to avoid. "I don't want anyone later saying, 'I've got a kid out there, I'm going to find him.' Because you know, people make different decisions at different points in their lives. You're 50 and you're lonely and it suddenly occurs to you that you've got a child.""He can't come find us, and it also means our child can't go find him," said Nancy. "That was a hard decision to make, but we felt like we were protecting our child and our family by putting that in place and loving the heck out of him so that he wouldn't feel like anything was missing."Using online searches for sperm donors, Nancy and Jane found a clinic and initiated the process of finding the best father profile for their child. "We wanted someone with brown hair so we would have a child who looked like us, and not some blond Norwegian child," Jane said, laughing. "We wanted someone of average height, no one exceptionally tall or exceptionally short."While a physical resemblance to Jane and Nancy was important, so was a healthy baby. The couple paid to review the health histories of donors' maternal and paternal grandparents. "The more you pay, the more health history you get," said Jane. Of the three initial donor candidates, two were ruled out quickly -- one had a maternal grandfather with schizophrenia, and the other had, according to Jane, "boys that didn't swim well anymore."They went with the remaining donor, and his sperm fertilized Nancy's egg on the fourth attempt at artificial insemination. In 2007, Nancy gave birth to a healthy baby boy in Stillwater, Okla. His parents named him Andrew Stuart Michael, and Jane confessed, "He had a name back before the five-year plan." Three generations of Fenton men before Jane's son have had Stuart as a middle name.Now with a child and together more than 10 years, Nancy and Jane deal with the same issues as do many couples. There is homework and paying the bills, balancing child care with work schedules, planning birthday parties and volunteering at their child's school; but they also face serious challenges rarely considered by couples allowed to legally marry.
Jane said the paperwork required to give her power of attorney for Nancy during her hospitalization and to make her Drew's legal guardian was almost as expensive has having Drew in the first place."We had go to the lawyer and have all the paperwork drawn up, so that if something happens to me, my money goes to Nancy and Drew. When you get married, there are over 1,000 federal protections that just happen. We don't have those protections."Nancy was more blunt. "In fact, there is no paperwork that can be done that will give you those rights and responsibilities. If she gets run over by a bus, there is no Social Security benefit for me and Drew. We haven't had a civil ceremony because we just live our lives. It wouldn't gain us anything like Social Security benefits or survivorship. We've had to fill out forms to allow us to bury one another and to visit each other in the hospital."Despite the difficulty and stress sometimes associated with being different, Nancy, Jane and Drew experience a lot of acceptance and support too.Nancy described a man who is friends with her parents as conservative in some ways but surprisingly open in others. "He helped us move into a house in West Virginia. He supports the National Rifle Association and has voted for every Republican presidential candidate -- ever -- and he told us, 'All I've to say is, Drew's got two parents that love him, and that's all there is to it.'"Drew has a strong relationship with Nancy's father and, through his grandfather, enjoys many typically "boy" experiences such as working in a woodshop and riding in a race car. On a few occasions, Drew has asked why his family is different. In those instances, Nancy and Jane like to point out that all families are different. He has a friend, for example, whose father does not live with him because of a divorce. They talk about adoption, single parenthood, divorce and remarriage as common varieties of family structures.Nancy advocated this past legislative session for gay rights and improvements in state law to protect families like hers. In a conversation with a resistant legislator, she confidently told him that he was not as different from her as he might think. She also is quick to point out that same-sex families with children are never formed by accident. They are deliberate and deeply desired social units."We are in favor of traditional values, ours just look a little bit different," she said. "We are raising Drew a mile and half from the home that I grew up in. He has a two-parent family, he goes to the school that I went to as an elementary school student, and we go to the same pool in the summer. His life is not any different from my life when I was a kid. We live in a traditional neighborhood with traditional families, and I'm the president of the local school improvement council."Jane piped up, "And I'm the crossing guard! My child makes me step up and be a better person. I used to be pessimistic about societal change, but he makes me want to make the world a good place. He makes me want to go to his school and make sure those kids get across the road."Elizabeth Gaucher is a former staff writer for The Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail.