MARRIED WITH CHILDREN: Jennifer and Danielle Shull at home with their two kids//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
Someday, same-sex parenting may be so commonplace that it’s patently uninteresting. But it’s still a rarity in this region—and lots of people have opinions about it. Despite the fact that, in March 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex adoption legal in all 50 states, religious and political groups continue to rail against it.
All of that seems a world away from the quiet Boothwyn cul-de-sac where Danielle and Jennifer Shull live with their two kids. Theirs is a tastefully appointed home with modern, mismatched patterns, soaring ceilings, a designer kitchen and comfortably elegant furniture. The community’s well-designed playground is right next-door—and there’s even a white picket fence close by.
The Shulls have had to work at creating their family. There’s no such thing as an accidental pregnancy for same-sex couples. Jennifer and Danielle always wanted to have children, but neither was sure it would be possible.
Danielle, 46, says few lesbian women her age have children-—unless they were in relationships with men at some point. Danielle considered it, but the answer was no. “The question became: What’s the most important dream to me?” she says. “Is it possible for me to give up some part of myself so I can have something that’s really important to me, like motherhood?”
Her motherhood struggles were amplified when Danielle—then a police officer in Brookhaven—was involved in a severe traffic accident. She had spinal ligation to relieve compressed discs in her neck. While she was recovering from surgery, Danielle was in another collision, further damaging her neck and back, leaving her in chronic pain. Bearing a child was no longer a possibility.
Fortunately, Jennifer was the picture of health, and she also wanted to experience motherhood. It was one of the first things the couple discussed after they met in Rehoboth Beach in 2007.
Danielle saw Jennifer across a crowded bar and thought she was incredibly cute, but she couldn’t summon the nerve to speak to her. The next day, Jennifer appeared on the beach and set up her chair near Danielle’s. When Jennifer went into the ocean, Danielle left a note on her chair, and the two soon started texting and talking.
In 2008, Jennifer moved from Maryland to Boothwyn to be with Danielle. They were married in 2010 in Connecticut, where it’s legal. Their marriage was recognized in Pennsylvania in 2014.
Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
A hot-button issue in the same-sex debate is whether or not it’s psychologically harmful for children to be raised in such a household. Plenty of research exists to prove and disprove each theory.
Same-sex adoptions have been allowed in Pennsylvania for some time, but the Family Equality Council, a national group advocating for LGBTQ civil rights, rates our state as fair to middling on issues that would provide additional legal protections to same-sex parents. Indeed, the FEC’s fight is far from over.
Long before their marriage, the Shulls started talking about how to have kids. They asked around and were referred to Dr. Albert El-Roeiy of Crozer-Keystone’s HAN Fertility Center in Havertown. A specialist in the field, he’s helped thousands of patients have children.
El-Roeiy and his Crozer colleagues founded the LGBT Reproductive Center as an offshoot of HAN Fertility. The facility focuses on donor sperm selection and insemination and, if needed, ovulation induction and in vitro fertilization. It’s a judgment-free zone designed to make same sex partners feel comfortable.
Among the decisions facing same-sex couples are which partner should carry the fetus—generally the younger woman, according to El-Roeiy—and which donor to use. Patients are given online access to the directories of accredited sperm banks. They can select the characteristics important to them and whether it is a closed or open donation—meaning that, at age 18, the resulting child can find information about the donor.
Also key is how many donations are available. It can take several rounds of insemination to conceive. And couples planning on having multiple children will often want them to have the same biological father and be full siblings.
Can the sperm donor be a friend? That only happens in the movies, El-Roeiy says. The FDA requires that any sperm used for insemination or IVF be quarantined for six months to make sure it’s disease-free. Most people don’t want to wait that long, and they opt for donations that are already approved and immediately available.
It is possible for both women to be biologically part of the baby. One woman donates the egg, and the other carries the fetus. It’s called epigenetics. In this way, environment has an impact on the expression of genetic material.
“If genetically identical grape seeds are planted in Portugal, Spain and California, each will produce different wine,” says El-Roeiy. “Similarly, if you put the same embryo in six different women, the result will be six very different babies. The one carrying the embryo created from the egg of her partner is contributing to the final product.”
Danielle and Jennifer don’t need medical validation for what they know to be true: Both are mothers to their two kids, ages 5 and 3. Danielle is Momma; Jennifer is Mommy.
The Shulls have created a safe, loving environment for their kids, and they’ve take extra steps to ensure that family members, teachers and everyone else in their world supports them. Sometimes the family gets second glances at a store or restaurant, and they often have to correct strangers’ pronouns and titles. Most people blush or apologize for their heteronormative assumptions.
“In the majority of cases, people’s faces light up when I say ‘my wife,’” says Jennifer. “They want to be accepting and show us, with their facial expressions, that we are welcome.”
Their kids will have questions about how they were conceived. The couple has given a great deal of thought to how they will answer. In fact, their daughter has already come to them with an inquiry.
“I said that we decided to have children, and we needed a doctor to help us,” Danielle recalls. “She said the doctor needs God to help, too—God and the doctor put the baby in Mommy’s belly. For right now, we’re leaving it at that.”