Brenlee Coates wants to be honest with her daughter.
Honest about how she came into the world. Honest about how much she loves her.
When Coates and her wife Amanda Karpinsky brought their daughter Lark home from the hospital 10 months ago, the intense emotions of motherhood hit hard.
"I was a blubbering mess at the beginning," Coates says. "I know everybody feels differently about a newborn kid, but I really had that flood of emotions like I was falling in love for the first time."
Despite the lack of sleep and challenges of a new routine, she was also feeling creative. There were a lot of "not good" poems being written at four o’clock in the morning between feeding and soothing sessions.
"I woke up one morning and she was like, ‘I wrote a book,’" Karpinsky says with a laugh.
"I had really been thinking about how even though there’s technically not a biological connection to Lark, there’s such an emotional connection," Coates says. "I wanted to figure out how I would communicate to her our connection and just have that foundation of honesty between us."
The line "you didn’t come from my body, you came from my heart" summed up those feelings and captured the journey to parenthood for the two women. It also became the basis for Coates’ first self-published children’s book, You Came From My Heart, which will be available locally in November.
Coates and Karpinsky met dancing at a gay bar nine years ago and fell in love at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. They’ve been married for two years and have always wanted to grow their family. How they were going to do that was another conversation entirely.
"There are definitely barriers to most options," Coates says. "There are financial barriers to a sperm bank or going through a fertility clinic. There are legal (barriers) no matter what because if you do even a sperm donor agreement, you’re probably gonna get protection for everyone involved."
"And also the transparency," Karpinsky adds. "When you don’t know the donor… there’s a lot of unknowns and that was something that didn’t vibe with us."
They shared their struggles and concerns with friends and were surprised — at their wedding shower, no less — when a couple they had known for years offered to be their donor.
"They kind of stole the show," Coates says. "It’s a really wonderful gift that they gave us and it’s really nice for Lark to be able to ask questions and know them."
You Came From My Heart is Lark’s origin story, but it’s also an example for other families in the LGBTTQ+ community and beyond.
"How wonderful for Lark to have acceptance and love for her family," Coates says. "It would be even better if her classmates had acceptance of it, or if people… like us, with these types of families, can see themselves represented in the book."
At the moment, there are few kids’ books on the market that offer stories about anything other than the heteronormative family structure.
‘We have two books," says Karpinsky walking across the living room to a basket of colourful books. "And they’re just so basic… there’s not much from the perspective of a non-carrying parent or how you collaborate or that conception tale."
You Came From My Heart, which was illustrated by Winnipeg graphic designer Roberta Landreth, tells the story of same-sex conception in a kid-friendly way, but Coates made sure to include an Easter egg or two for parents. One page, for example, shows four hands pouring magical ingredients into a golden goblet, "But, like, in reality it’s a physical cup," Coates says laughing.
The book was illustrated by Winnipeg graphic designer Roberta Landreth. The pair met at a neighbourhood bus stop and struck up a friendship on their morning commutes to work in the Exchange District — Coates is a former journalist who now works in marketing.
As a new mom herself, Landreth connected with the story and was eager to help bring the book to life with colourful tableaus full of woodland creatures.
"We connect as humans through vulnerability and so to have this deeply personal story accessible to everybody… just normalizes it," Landreth says. "I think it’s really important to add to this canon of children’s literature that actually reflects reality."
Karpinsky is an elementary school teacher and has heard from many fellow educators who are looking forward to adding You Came From My Heart to their classroom libraries. The couple has also worked with teachers to create a discussion guide for the book.
Based on the positive reception so far, Coates is hoping to write more stories about diverse family units.
"I think there’s definitely more to come," she says.
You Came From My Heart is available for pre-order at youcamefrommyheart.com.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.