Five Years of Love

Same-sex parents navigate ups and downs of making a family

RIDGEFIELD — Even before they wed, Kris and Jen Riley dreamed of having a child. So, while living in Arizona, they started the process of getting pregnant using an anonymous sperm donor.

In 2008, artificial insemination worked and Jen Riley became pregnant.
“With me!” said Savannah, who’s now 8. “I was supposed to be born in September, but I was born early.”

She came five weeks early, weighing 4 pounds, 15 ounces. She fit into Build-A-Bear clothes.

“We were very nervous first-time parents,” said Jen Riley, 43. “I’m getting better, but I was almost paranoid when she was born. … I didn’t know how in-depth love was and how special life was until she was born. My wife and I have a love, but you don’t realize how fragile it is until you have children.”

They installed baby gates, outlet plugs, door handle covers — anything and everything to protect their daughter. And, they felt the heavy weight of people watching how they, a same-gender couple, would navigate parenthood.


Jen Riley, from left, greets her daughter, Savannah, 8, with her wife, Kris, after school in Ridgefield.

Amanda Cowan/The Columbian

Kris Riley wasn’t initially considered Savannah’s parent in the eyes of the law. She didn’t have a biological tie. She couldn’t sign the hospital birth certificate.

So what she had to do — like so many others in same-sex relationships — was adopt her daughter. It’s a process called second parent adoption or step-parent adoption. She couldn’t legally do that in Arizona, so when Savannah was a few months old the Rileys moved to Washington and registered as domestic partners. Kris Riley went through background checks and screenings and invested about $4,000 to adopt Savannah.

“I had to have a social worker come out and interview me and check out my home,” said Riley, 43.

If same-sex marriage had been legal in Washington at the time, they wouldn’t have had to go through formal adoption proceedings. But, the Rileys didn’t want to wait around for people to be OK with gay marriage and gay parents.

“At some point we knew it was going to eventually happen,” Jen Riley said.

In fact, their wedding took place before Washington legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. At 22 months old, Savannah was the flower girl in their June 18, 2011 wedding. She wore a gown like Kris’ and later a tuxedo with tails like Jen’s. The ceremony at the Hostess House in Hazel Dell unfolded like a traditional wedding except for signing documents. Savannah came along on their honeymoon to Disneyland and, after the law changed, their domestic partnership converted to a marriage.

Finding acceptance

The Rileys have moved back and forth between Arizona and the Pacific Northwest. One time in Arizona, Savannah was sick while Jen was at work, so Kris took her to urgent care. The hospital staff she said needed to prove that Savannah was her daughter before they would treat her.

“That’s happened so many times with me trying to get her care,” Kris Riley said.

Since then, the couple has learned to be upfront about how their family came to be, whether it’s with health care providers or neighbors or staff at Savannah’s school. When they moved to Ridgefield this summer, they “came out right away,” Kris said.

They’ve received a warm reception in their neighborhood, which is full of families with children. Savannah has lots of friends.

“As you bring a child into the world your fear is something’s going to happen to your child because of who you are,” Jen Riley said. “When we moved up here there wasn’t so much of that.”

They ran into trouble when the grandmother of one of her friends didn’t want the child to play at the Rileys. Things are good now, having built a trusting relationship over time, but it’s bittersweet thinking about how rocky the relationship started.

“I hate having to try to explain it to Savannah. She’s like ‘Well, why can’t I play with so-and-so?’ ” Jen said. “ ‘Well, I’m sorry, honey, they’re just not comfortable. They’re just not comfortable with mom and I.’ ”

“It’s almost like you have go with her on the first day of school and let every child know: She’s got two moms. Get over it,” Kris said. “We have to always put it out there because there are still so many people who are scared of it.”
Some people have a warped perception of homosexuality, believing gay people are pedophiles or will harm children or convince them to be gay.

The Rileys often get asked if Savannah will be gay.

“It’s so bizarre,” Jen Riley said, because they both have straight parents and straight siblings. “She’s going to make her own choice in her own life. I want her to have a happy and healthy relationship. Whether it’s a male or female, that’s up to her.”

They tell her teachers to alert them to any issues that arise. They don’t want to see Savannah treated differently or lose friends because she has two moms. Jen Riley, who used to work for Portland Public Schools, said schools have gotten better about opening kids’ eyes to how diverse families can be.
“Kids don’t know bias; they’re taught it,” she said.


Kris Riley and her wife, Jen, look over schoolwork with their daughter, Savannah, 8, after school in Ridgefield.

Amanda Cowan/The Columbian

Acceptance, retaliation

When Savannah was a toddler, she went to day care at Clark College. Michelle Mallory, who’s a professor in Clark’s early childhood education and family life programs, got to know the Rileys and asked them to tell their story to her college students.

Every spring they candidly talk about what it’s like to be same-sex parents. They give these future educators some tips for making a classroom environment that’s welcoming to all families. School forms, for instance, should ask for signatures from parent and parent or guardian and guardian, not mother and father.

“I like to think that sometimes Jen and I can prove people’s perceptions wrong,” Kris Riley said.

They like to flip the questions on their generally heterosexual audience. Do you have to think about holding your partner’s hand? What’s your coming out story? How did you know you were straight?

After Jen Riley came out as a teenager, she put Gay Pride symbols on her pickup: a pink triangle, a rainbow and an upside-down triangle. In retaliation, her tires were slashed and the word “dyke” was smeared across the truck.

“A bunch of girls jumped me getting off the bus once; split my cheek with brass knuckles. It was pretty bad,” she said.
Kris Riley said that in her 20s she was sexually assaulted in a gay club by straight guys who worked there.

“That really put me in the closet again,” she said.

It’s difficult thinking back on those times and Kris still tenses up when Jen shows affection to her in public. There’s a balance between being out and making yourself a target, they said.

“I don’t hide myself either. You introduce yourself to me and I’m going to say ‘I’m married. I have a wife and a daughter.’ It is what it is,” Jen Riley said, adding that things have progressed. “It doesn’t feel like you’re under a microscope as much as time has went on.”


Savannah Riley, 8, kicks back at home in Ridgefield with a photo of her with her moms in the family's front room.

Savannah’s moms

Savannah is obsessed with gymnastics and recently learned to do a roundoff back handspring, which she’ll need to know as she starts competing. She likes to go to Big Al’s with her moms and “watch movies and snuggle up together and play Xbox 360 downstairs.”

While sitting down to dinner with her family, Savannah said her moms are “amazing.” However, when she started to say what classmates and friends think of her having two moms, the outgoing girl got quiet, and hid behind Jen.

“In a nice way they ask me ‘Why do you have two moms?’ ” Savannah said as she clung to her mother. “People laugh and sometimes I’m embarrassed ’cause other people don’t have two moms.”

Jen Riley said it’s good that children are asking questions because that means they’re trying to learn. At that age, children are determining what’s real and what’s fake, how things work, and why things are the way they are. There are so many different ways to make a family, her parents said. Some kids have one mom or one dad. Some live with their aunt and uncle or grandparents. Some kids are adopted. Some have two dads. And some, like Savannah, have two moms.

Kris Riley told Savannah that if her classmates didn’t like her, then they wouldn’t have showed up to her Halloween party.

Savannah nodded and sat upright. She said the kids are nice at Union Ridge Elementary School. “Maggie said ‘Well, I don’t care if you have two moms. I just like who you are.’ ”

Those are the kind of friends you want to keep, her moms said. And, they told her, just because she has two moms — rather than a mom and a dad — that doesn’t mean anything about who she is as a person. Jen Riley looked into her daughter’s eyes and said: “Your life can go anywhere it goes.”

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