THE PARENTS: Michelle Bruhn, 34, and Lowell Brown, 45, of Germantown
THE KIDS: James Anthony, 16; Rhys Michael, 14; Alisha Mackenzie, 11; Violet Anne-Marie, 8
FORMED A FAMILY: Oct. 1, 2016
ONE OF THEIR FIRST MEMORIES OF EACH OTHER: During a meeting at Germantown Mennonite Church, where Michelle works, Lowell tried to retrieve a box of pretzels from a cupboard and spilled them in a shower of salt and crumbs all over the counter.
At 15, Lowell read an illustrated book describing the calamities -- climate change, water scarcity -- that would result from overpopulation. In a personal crusade to save the planet, he made two vows: He would not own a car, and he would never have children.
An adolescence bruised by schoolyard bullying just underscored his resolve. “Why would anybody want to make more of these creatures who are giving me such a hard time?” he thought. Later, he watched as friends became parents. “I saw their disposable income and free time evaporate. They gave me the impression that parenting was an odious chore that people got into because they were following some social script.”
Then Lowell said, “I do” to his first wife, and all the “I won’ts” unraveled. He drove to work and bought a house and tried to have a baby and grieved two miscarriages before a “breaking-point conversation” nearly two years into the marriage.
“I said, ‘I don’t think I can bring a child into this relationship right now.’ That was pretty devastating to her.” The couple divorced in 2013.
Michelle can’t recall a time when she wasn’t responsible for children: first, her three younger siblings, one of whom has cerebral palsy; then her son, Rhys, conceived when she was just 19.
Michelle was in community college at the time, living with her lapsed-Mennonite grandmother. “The idea of telling her was terrifying to me,” she recalls. “But she was really supportive. The first thing she said was, ‘Don’t get married.’ ”
But Michelle did -- not to Rhys' father, but to a man who already had a 5-year-old son and a toddler daughter. At 23, while still completing her undergraduate course work, writing a novel, and moving from Pennsylvania to Missouri to Oklahoma, Michelle was also enrolling one stepchild in kindergarten and potty-training another.
“My favorite time of the day was when everybody was asleep,” she recalls. “I’d be up until 3 in the morning, and it would be quiet.”
The family needed a bridge, Michelle thought -- a child who would be connected to all of them. “People thought I was crazy, but I thought, ‘What’s one more kid?’ ”
Pregnancy with Violet was an easy sail -- she was thrilled to be having a girl -- but the marriage foundered; Michelle and her husband divorced in early 2015.
And then the mother of four and the man who didn’t want kids crossed paths in one of the most contentious parts of the world. Lowell and Michelle were part of a 2015 interfaith delegation to Israel and Palestine, led by the pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church.
On van rides through the desert, they maneuvered to sit side by side, their knees barely grazing. “We were trying to be as unobvious as possible while making eyes at each other,” Michelle recalls. They tried to wrap their minds around the stunning landscape and fraught politics.
“One night, we were sleeping on a roof in Hebron,” Lowell says. “It was so beautiful: open air, the sun setting, a breeze blowing. Beautiful … except for the systematic oppression.”
Back home, their relationship moved at full throttle: A spurt of “literary flirting” as they emailed six-word stories back and forth. A Thanksgiving dinner with the whole family; Violet showed off her favorite YouTube cat videos, and Michelle was impressed by how Lowell treated the kids like people, never talking down to them. Soon, they were proposing to each other at El Poquito in Chestnut Hill.
When they told the kids they planned to marry, Rhys put down his phone long enough to flash a thumbs-up sign. Violet had two stipulations: that there be no congregational singing at the wedding, and that she would not get another father.
“That put words to what I was reading from the kids and feeling for myself,” Lowell says. “I wasn’t being asked to step into full-on parent role. I was going to be their Lowell. I was going to live in their house and have conversations with them and make them pick up their socks sometimes.”
Lowell’s parents were dubious. “They had heard from me for decades that I did not want to have children, and they had already witnessed one marriage going awry. They just thought I was leading Michelle and her brood into havoc.”
But the pair describe their relationship as both “imperative” and “easy.” At the couple's “pop-up” wedding in the Wissahickon Valley, Alisha and Violet handed out bright Gerbera daisies while the boys told guests where to stand. Now, chaos alternates with calm; every other weekend, the couple drive Rhys and Violet to join their siblings in Manheim, Pa.; in between, James and Alisha come to Philadelphia.
On those full-house weekends, Lowell says, it’s a struggle to find a quiet, uncluttered oasis. “When four kids are around, with two scooters and three pairs of shoes and school papers and coats and digital devices and food that hasn’t been put away, I feel like I need a break.”
For Michelle, almost always the first-responder parent, caring for four kids ranging from 8 to 16 means constant interruption and deft multitasking -- for instance, while waiting for a BalletX performance with one child who’s bored and two who are trying to drop Skittles into each other’s drinks. “I can be in the middle of a project and hear, ‘Mommy!’ ”
But then there are unbidden moments, against all odds: When they took the kids to New York over Christmas break and watched with covert pride as they ordered for themselves and remembered to say “please” and “thank you” to the servers.
On the chilliest, rainiest, gloomiest day of that trip, they boarded the ferry from lower Manhattan to see the Statue of Liberty. “Everybody could have been whiny and intolerable,” Lowell says. Instead, on the boat ride back, they bunched together to keep warm -- a giant, 12-armed hug. One of the boys started bouncing around, a goofy attempt to knock them all off-balance. But the huddle held.