Relationships change. Love evolves. In the case of Lauren and Shannon Sullivan you'd have to add "and how!"
Partners for 13 years, since they were both 21, Shannon and Lauren never anticipated the bumps, heartache and life-altering events that would come along in their time together.
In those 13 years, three close friends — young contemporaries — died. Shannon's father passed away unexpectedly. For two wearying years Lauren worked in California and commuted home to Chicago every weekend to be with Shannon.
With all that, their gut rehab of their house in Avondale seemed minor.
And nothing prepared them for this: In less than a year they went from zero kids to five.
"We've gone through a lot together," Lauren says.
"The way we created our family has been so intense and emotional, kind of bordering on dramatic, that it actually strengthened our emotional bond because we had to rely on each other," says Shannon, 35, executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance (illinoissafeschools.org), a nonprofit that works to prevent anti-gay bullying in schools.
"We get by on our senses of humor, believe me," Shannon says.
Early in their relationship, Lauren told Shannon she wanted to have kids. "I said, 'I haven't really thought about it, but I'm not really opposed to it,'" Shannon says. That turned out to be an understatement.
What evolved was a plan that Shannon would give birth to the children and that she'd take Lauren's last name, Sullivan, to solidify the family bond. Only part two happened.
The couple — they had an unofficial marriage ceremony in their Chicago home seven years ago — moved to a larger home in the South Side Oakland neighborhood anticipating starting a family. But the pregnancy plan got put on hold when Lauren, an information technology expert, took a consulting job at Stanford University.
Lauren, now 34, spent most of her time in California or on a red-eye flight. "I learned how to sleep holding my arms tucked into my armpits without my hands falling asleep," she says.
"We had a big house that I was living in with my cats," says Shannon. (The cats were the only thing about Chicago that Lauren didn't miss.)
When Lauren returned permanently to Chicago — she is director of IT business systems at Mt. Sinai Hospital — she and Shannon attended a fundraiser for an independent filmmaker friend. A gay couple was there with their two foster sons.
"It was one of those moments when I had a light go off in my head," says Lauren, and foster parenting seemed like an opportunity to help change a child's life.
In her work advocating for gay young people, Shannon was familiar with the foster program of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and was all for it.
"There were kids in need. We had the space and the love and had the resources," she says. Whether the placements were permanent or not, the couple hoped to improve the often bleak outlook of these children whose biological parents and family could not care for them.
"I remember having some conversations (that) we have to make some decisions about … what are our values about creating a family," says Shannon. "With me working on social justice issues, it made me think about how people create families. I had, unfortunately, seen families toss their kids away because they're gay or transgender. That is deeply impacting."
A month or so after qualifying to foster parent in their home, in late 2009 they got a call from DCFS and given one hour to decide whether they could care for a little girl.
Their foster daughter, 21 months old, arrived the day before Thanksgiving. (The children's names are being withheld to protect their privacy.)
"We had very little information," Shannon recalls. Bizarrely, "They told us she's a Pisces." But they weren't told until days later that she had a severe peanut allergy. Lauren and Shannon were clueless about the needs of the toddler.
"She was basically dropped down into our living room," Lauren says.
"It was kind of like, 'What does she eat?' We don't even know what time she goes to bed," says Shannon. "It's an insanely difficult thing to ask of anybody."
About three months later, Shannon got a call from a placement worker, saying, "I just have to put somebody's name here so I can process my paperwork." Shannon was listed as a "backup" in case a family member didn't step up to care for a 41/2-month-old baby boy, born drug exposed.
Shannon considered that prospect so remote — the infant had four siblings who had already gone to live with family — she didn't even mention it to Lauren.
"The caseworker called me later in the day and said, 'OK, placement got approved in court, and I got everything together to bring him by.' I was, 'Who?' I had to call Lauren and tell her we were having a baby."
Hard to believe, but having two foster kids, a toddler and an infant was the calm before the hurricane.
These big-hearted women couldn't say no when the little boy's aunt called and said she could no longer care for his three sisters — second-, fifth- and seventh-graders. graders.
"If someone asks you to help, and you're in a position to help, it was the right thing to do. It didn't seem that complicated," says Shannon.
Not everyone agreed. "Even my employees said, 'You're insane. You're going to quit your job. There is no way you can manage this,'" Shannon remembers.
"It's hard to describe what it was like in our house. Mass chaos is such a cliche," says Shannon, who didn't quit her job. She and Lauren handled parenting and their jobs with the help of their network of friends and family who tutored, cooked and stepped in.
Suddenly, very suddenly, the couple's parenting expanded into new territory. There were "three sets of homework, plus toddlers and thinking about lunches for the next day, and whose uniform needs ironing and who has gym tomorrow. 'You have to pack your gym clothes.' And, oh my God, we had to do three science fair projects," Shannon says.
"Usually you ease into this stuff."
After 10 months, the girls missed their family and after much conversation they went to live with an aunt. All the adults agreed it was best for the kids. Lauren and Shannon said they experienced grief as well as relief when the girls moved, but they remain in touch.
That left "just" two little ones, who are more than a handful.
Today, as the little boy watches on the basement flat screen, Lauren laughs that she can't get the theme song from "Thomas & Friends," a cartoon train TV show, out of her head. The 3-year-old is crazy for trains right now.
The girl, 41/2, her 13 colorful barrettes bobbing, is drawing letters and numbers on paper — and sometimes on a bright green chair.
Lauren and Shannon say the children — the couple is in the process of legally adopting both — strengthened their already strong relationship.
"As a couple, having kids really challenges you to figure out how you need to and want to exist in the world," says Lauren.
"It's been good for us. I don't think it's good for everybody because it's really hard," Shannon says. "It changes everything. It gives new perspective to those who think they're going to have kids to save their marriage. We get a good laugh out of that."
"If you don't give each other space … I don't see how you can survive. Sometimes it's actual space, but also room to grow, room to change," says Shannon. "It all comes back to working as a team," Lauren says.