It’s 5:30 a.m. and the dawn’s early light has not yet warmed the eastern hilltops of Marin County. For new moms Shelley Friedman and Tania Lowenthal, it’s hard to tell if a new day has begun or the old one is still going.
But their newborn babies — all four of them — are crying, and there is nursing to be done.
It’s the first feeding of the morning and the start of another miraculous day in a Jewish home full of miracles.
Friedman gave birth to Nathan and Noa in late October, while her domestic partner, Lowenthal, delivered Elie and Emma about 10 days later. Though both endured difficult pregnancies, they carried to near-term two sets of twins, one set identical.
As a result a large community of friends, family and local Jewish institutions have come together to support the couple and their instantly large family.
Lowenthal is on leave from her job as admissions director for Brandeis Hillel Day School, while Friedman recently stepped down from her post as marketing director for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. But with a quartet of newborns to care for, they’re certainly not on vacation.
“We’re open 24/7,” says Lowenthal, 38, with Nathan suckling at her breast. Both women take turns nursing all four kids, sticking to a tight feeding schedule. “We don’t nap,” says Friedman, 44, who adds that most mornings “we’re desperate for coffee.”
Every day, volunteers from Brandeis Hillel drop by to bring home-cooked meals, usually with little notes of love and encouragement tucked in. Friedman’s friends from the JCC sent over two double-strollers as a gift. Yet another friend helped them snag a super deal on a new Toyota Sienna minivan, outfitted with four car seats.
Most remarkably, while both women were under strict doctor-ordered bed rest for many weeks during their pregnancies, friends packed up Friedman’s and Lowenthal’s former residences and moved them lock, stock and cappuccino-maker into a new five-bedroom San Rafael home.
If this new life sounds expensive, it is. There again, the couple has relied on more than a few angels in the outfield.
“Financially, we get help from our families,” says Friedman. “That has been very helpful. They have enabled us to start on a path of some sanity. But it is a big topic for us: How are we financially going to do this for 20 years?”
There is no firm answer to that question yet. But given the good fortune both have experienced so far, they might not need to worry.
Friedman and Lowenthal were in some respects an unlikely pair.
Growing up in a traditional Conservative family in Cali, Colombia, Lowenthal came to the United States to attend college. Living in Los Angeles, she worked in Hispanic-market advertising, later relocating to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree in Jewish studies from the Graduate Theological Union. From there, she joined Brandeis Hillel, which has campuses in San Francisco and San Rafael, where she has been ever since.
She is proud of her accomplishments there. “It has become my life’s work,” she says. “When I started, one of the goals was to increase diversity. Now we have 20 gay families, Latino families, 30 percent interfaith families. We are one of the top independent schools in the city.”
Her boss, Interim Head of School Chaim Heller, is quick to praise her. “Tania is one of the most capable and funny people I’ve ever met,” he says. “She has been instrumental not only in showing Brandeis to an ever-increasing number of prospective parents, she’s also helped create it as a warm and inclusive place.”
Friedman grew up in a liberal Reform household in Los Angeles. After attaining a degree in public policy at U.C. Berkeley, she embarked on a career in marketing, working for such varied clients as Working Assets and Euro-Disney.
She joined the JCCSF three years ago at the height of preparations for the opening of its new facility on California Street. “The JCC couldn’t have done it without her,” says JCCSF Executive Director Nate Levine. “More than anyone, she made the brand identity for the JCC.”
The two met 12 years ago through mutual friends and became instant best-buds, though at the time both were dating men.
Says Friedman, “Our coming together was a byproduct of finding the right partner. We shared the same values, the same dreams. Six years ago we realized we could be family. It was shocking to us.”
Once coupled up, the two longed to have children, but infertility problems plagued them for years. Between them, Friedman and Lowenthal endured several miscarriages, unsuccessful in vitro fertilization attempts and “heartbreak after heartbreak,” as Lowenthal puts it.
But they decided to try one more time. “To have both been pregnant at the same time was a last-ditch effort,” says Friedman.
The goal was to have just one healthy baby. But to increase the odds, multiple fertilized eggs were implanted in both women. They used eggs from Lowenthal, since she is the younger of the two, and an anonymous sperm donor. That makes the four children biological siblings.
To further hedge their bets, they asked retired Congregation Beth Sholom Rabbi Alan Lew to offer up a brachah on the in vitro procedure, and he happily obliged.
All four embryos took. The first trimester went smoothly, but the two women later developed complications; both were at risk of early delivery.
Their doctor ordered both to bed — Friedman for 33 days in the hospital, Lowenthal for seven weeks at home. “The doctors were hoping it would be OK,” recalls Lowenthal, “but nobody could be sure.”
Both continued working, even if that meant typing away on a propped-up laptop in bed. But the last six months of pregnancy were touch-and-go for the moms-to-be. “It should have been so easy,” says Friedman, “but it was incredibly difficult.”
Ending up with four healthy babies means the fears of yesterday are quickly fading. Says Lowenthal, “The birth of these children means there are no barriers. Our doctor was amazing with us. He was so willing to find a way to make this work.”
The same was true with the two extended families. Both Friedman and Lowenthal credit their relatives for wholly accepting their union and children.
“When our families saw how happy we were, both welcomed us,” recalls Friedman. That includes the babies’ five aunts, four uncles, seven cousins and four grandparents. In fact, Lowenthal’s mother traveled from Florida to spend the first weeks at home with the newborns.
Then there is all the Jewish-community support.
“It’s been a banner year for going forth and multiplying,” says Levine of his JCC staff, “though Shelley and Tania win the prize for being overachievers in that category. The whole organization was cheering them on through the trials and tribulations leading up to the birth, and we’ve tried to be supportive since.”
Though two-mom households are not uncommon in the Bay Area, both Friedman and Lowenthal realize their children could face some prejudice in the future. They hope to have the kids ready.
“Whether they like it or not, they are pioneers,” says Friedman. “We get scared when we come face to face with the potential climate and hear the hateful rhetoric the national media broadcasts. But we feel safe in our community. We want to live our lives proudly.”
Proud Jewish lives, according to Friedman and Lowenthal. So far the quads have gotten off to a good start on that front. Nathan’s bris and the girls’ baby naming was a well-attended affair that included five local rabbis and about 150 of the kids’ closest friends.
Both women do hope to return to work when they can, though Friedman is less certain of where her next job will be. But her devotion to the JCC remains ardent.
At a recent Chanukah party at the center, the two moms and four kids made a grand entrance, their first there since the births. “We had about 350 people here,” recalls Levine, “but the show came to a screeching halt when Shelley and Tania came in, entourage in tow with their JCC logo-wear. All the staff left their posts, dreidel games came to a halt, latke sales shut down. For many it was a real showstopper.”
Says Friedman, “I want my children to feel this is their JCC and that their mom was part of making it happen.”
Adds Lowenthal, “We’re proud of the Jewish lives we lead. So much of our daily lives involves Jewish life in the Bay Area, we hope it will be easy for our children to participate as Jews.”
Adding to the good vibes, Heller says, “I feel a sense of awe that it couldn’t happen to two nicer people or two people better equipped to deal with quads. They are universally loved throughout the community.”
Though already domestic partners, each woman plans to adopt the children borne by the other to guarantee permanent parental status.
As overwhelming as it is to care for the babies, and as conscious as they are of the burdens ahead, both Friedman and Lowenthal couldn’t be happier. They are confident their story will inspire others facing infertility problems.
“We chose the road of leading by example,” says Lowenthal.
Then, changing the first of what may seem like a thousand diapers that day, Lowenthal adds with a grin, “Four more Jewish kids in the world? We’ll take ’em.”