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.)