THE PARENTS: Heather Coutts, 44, and Simon Ruchti, 44, of West Chester
THE KIDS: Patrick Ross, 10; Marcella Priscilla Marie, born April 23, 2019
HER NAME: Marcella derives from a family name on Heather’s side, Priscilla is a relative she’s close to, and Marie is Simon’s mother’s middle name. “She’s named after very strong women we know,” says Heather.
Heather walked into the Good King Tavern and thought, “Oh, I’m in trouble.” She and Simon had already chatted through OkCupid — about her doctorate in human sexuality, about the gender studies classes he taught at West Chester University — and now, there he was, working on a manuscript at the bar.
“He was really butch, with nerdy black glasses and a really great haircut,” Heather recalls. “My package deal. We started talking about intersectional feminism. I was just hooked.”
It took Simon a few beats longer. Online, he’d thought Heather seemed smart and fun-loving. “And she wasn’t scared off by me having a 5-year-old kid,” a son whom Simon had given birth to in a previous relationship, before he transitioned.
At the time he and Heather met, Simon described himself as genderqueer; he used both “he” and “she” pronouns, and Patrick, his son, called him “Mom,” “Dad” or “MommyDa,” a hybrid of Patrick’s invention.
The couple planned to introduce Patrick to Heather gradually. But after Patrick and Simon borrowed her cat, Bast, for a few days, in order to give the child a trial run with a pet, and Patrick didn’t want Bast to go home again, they sped up their timetable. Seven months after they met, Heather moved into Simon’s West Chester home.
For her, that meant downsizing an extravagant collection of costumes, glitter and craft supplies; for him, it meant “being less of a neat freak and chilling out about my cleaning regimen.” And for both, cohabitation called for patient calibrating of their relationships with Patrick, who shuttled weekly between Simon and his ex.
“I definitely tried to maintain a balance of being an adult person in his life, but not stepping in as a parent,” Heather says.
She’d had years of practice as an aunt, both to biological nieces and nephews and to the children of friends, particularly one she met when the infant was just 3 days old and who is now 17. “I’ve always had kids in my life, and I always wanted to be a parent,” Heather says.
Meanwhile, Simon proposed — he hopped onstage one night in November 2015 when Heather was hosting a local cabaret show. “I gave her a ring and I mumbled that I loved her cat, which was a lie to get her to marry me,” he says.
“I’m not a big fan of the legal institution of marriage,” Simon adds. “But you’re not afforded a lot of protections in this country without it.” Besides, it was a way to secure legal status and a green card for Heather, who is Canadian.
They planned their August 2016 wedding in three weeks: a cake baked by Heather, a playlist curated by Simon. He blamed his tears on allergies. Heather recalls the moment when they leaned in to kiss and Patrick jumped between them.
They tried getting pregnant — five or six at-home inseminations using sperm donated by a friend. Then, in January 2018, a fertility specialist delivered sober news: Without spending a lot of money on assisted reproductive wizardry, they had about a 1 percent chance of conceiving.
“I resigned myself that we weren’t going to be getting pregnant,” Heather says. “That was a hard conversation for both of us. Simon knew how much I wanted this.” So last summer, when a different friend offered to donate sperm, they decided to give it one final try.
“I wasn’t tracking my cycle. I wasn’t taking my temperature,” Heather says. “We were away for the weekend. I was feeling weird, craving peanut butter and not wanting to drink anything and looking like I was gaining a little weight in my belly. We got home and I thought, ‘When was my last period?’”
When she showed Simon the positive pregnancy test, he thought it was a practical joke. “I was excited,” Heather recalls, “but also nervous about being almost 44 and what changes [a baby] would bring to our lives.”
The pregnancy was a fairly easy ride: heartburn and insomnia at night, but energy and equanimity during the day. They took some classes at Chester County Hospital, which were informative but exasperating. “They assumed that every husband there was the one who provided the sperm and that it happened through having sex,” Simon says.
Even acquaintances who know he gave birth to Patrick sometimes slipped into gender-bound comments about fathers, saying things like, “Oh, poor Heather is going to have to show Simon how to do everything.”
As the due date drew closer, “I couldn’t wait to meet Mars,” the gender-neutral nickname Patrick favored over the baby’s real name, Marcella.
She labored for 42 hours — at first, grooving to a playlist Simon had organized into chapters: “Kicking ass and birthing … dancing and birthing.” The last group of songs was headed, “Get this baby out of me,” apt for the period after ferocious Pitocin-fueled contractions and an infection that called for antibiotics and oxygen before she could push out the baby. Marcella was born with abundant hair and a resounding cry.
Heather’s long experience with children left her feeling well-equipped for parenthood. “I’ve loved every minute. When you’re intentional about being a parent, there’s a certain level of preparedness that you can do.”
The hardest part is countering people’s assumptions that they are a straight, cisgender couple. “I will often use both pronouns for Simon in the same sentence,” Heather says. “Or Simon will mention how he gave birth to Patrick, as if that is the most normal thing. There is a constant coming out.”