It is 6:30 in the evening in the Dolby-Frist household, and twins Violet and Julia are getting ready for bed. In their matching blue and green pajamas, toddling next to their matching cribs, the girls seem uncharacteristically poised for 16 months – at least until Drew Frist explains that their crayons had recently been switched for Etch-a-Sketches. (“They wouldn’t stop trying to eat the crayons.”) More positively, Tom Dolby remarks that the girls are at a stage where they seem to really enjoy putting their toys away, which perhaps accounts for the room’s neatness. [See the slideshow of their home, to the left.]
The bedroom’s whimsy and sophistication speak to the creativity of their two dads. The intricately carved wooden animal heads and collection of books are a nod to the family’s literary inclinations and taste for travel. The group only recently returned from visiting Tom’s family in Germany. Tom proudly notes how incredibly well the girls held up – even over the long European dinners.
When not busy caring for their daughters, traveling and decorating their new Gramercy Park apartment, Tom and Drew are immersed in the world of writing and technology. Tom is author of the popular Secret Society series of books, something of a cross between Gossip Girl and A Secret History targeted towards a young adult audience. He also co-edited the anthology Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys that inspired the popular Sundance show of the same name. And he’s branching into film – his screenplay is being turned into a film called Last Weekend. Tom will co-direct with Tom Williams; filming is slated to begin this summer in California.
Drew is the founder of Electric Type, a platform for “innovative, imaginative, independent, and interactive digital books.” Their first digital offering was The Jungle Book, illustrated by Nigel Buchanan. While Violet and Julia are still a bit young, Drew thinks they’ll enjoy it in a few years, perhaps with their carved animal heads still beaming down on them as they thrill to Mowgli’s adventures at bedtime.
Currently, Tom and Drew are excited to be collaborating on a book, likely geared towards adults, about teen boys in Michigan who inhabit an entirely different world from the privileged Manhattan life of Tom’s Secret Society series. They laugh about background research that entails spending an inordinate amount of time on the Michigan DMV’s website, trying to figure out how driving restrictions and permits have changed since they were teenagers.
Given Manhattan’s dating trends and Drew’s tech savvy, it’s not surprising that the couple met through social media. The romance began on Friendster, when Drew sent Tom a smiley face. Drew recalls, “Internet dating had long been established, but it was still new to me, so I felt like sending a smiley face was a very appropriate thing to do. I didn’t know it was so passive!” (For the uninitiated, the social media “smile” or “poke” is the equivalent of looking at someone in a bar and then looking away as quickly as possible.)
While not exactly the bold move he thought, the approach had a happy outcome. Just two years later, in 2008, the couple became engaged at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. Drew had secretly brought a ring with him. Having heard security might be searching visitors, he was anxious he’d have had to propose right in front of the guards. That doubtless would have added excitement, but fortunately his plan went ahead uninterrupted. “It ended up being a super romantic day,” says Drew. “Since it was May Day, everyone was carrying lilies of the valley, and it felt like the whole city was in love.”
Tom’s mother was quick to celebrate, immediately informing the men that they could be married in California. But that November, California voters passed a ban on same-sex marriage. So the couple moved their wedding plans to Connecticut. “We’re still waiting on California,” Tom notes – and, for that matter, Indiana, Drew’s home state.
The girls arrived soon after. The couple always knew that they wanted to have children – though they never expected twins – and used a surrogate based in California. Her location meant a good deal of flying back and forth. As they were doing so, they put the time to good use; like all expectant parents they read baby books and considered names, looking for ones that sounded somewhat classic and that fit well together. Violet and Julia must have been anxious to meet their dads. “The girls came about a month early,” said Drew, “so we had to speed up all our plans and get out there for the birth.”
Now everyone is happily settled in Manhattan. The new apartment provides more room for child-rearing than the original West Village digs, as well as a bit of history: their residence is historic prewar condominium facing Gramercy Park. But while New York, unlike California, may embrace same-sex marriage, not every individual does. Tom and Drew hope that the world is evolving in a way that means that the girls will never see their family as anything but normal.
“Having the girls, we thought we’d be given strange looks or asked questions,” confides Tom. “If we are, it’s because they’re twins. It’s become one of these things where I think people don’t question. People don’t question children and their legitimacy, and there’s something really lovely about that . . . I think the world is changing. It’s changing slowly, but still changing.”
“For the girls, I hope that they feel the same way we do, that it never crosses their mind that we are any different from a traditional family,” continues Tom. “It’s only rarely that someone asks and I think ‘Oh, yeah, I guess we’re a little different.’ I think the girls will grow up with this seeming very normal, and having a very strong sense of family, they wouldn’t even understand why that question was being asked.”
But the issues that accompany nontraditional families are hardly the couple’s only challenge. The dilemma of how to fit everything into the day plagues every parent, of course, as does the struggle to maintain an adult identity – which includes keeping toys out of the gorgeously furnished living room.
“We like having adult spaces. We like, if someone comes over, not having all these toys around that we have to throw into a bin. The girls know they can come in here, but they have to understand that they have to be careful.” Which doesn’t stop them from occasionally trying to eat the chess pieces. Tom reports the two dads work really hard to hold the girls to a “no licking the furniture” rule.
“Kids fit into your life, not the other way around,” asserts Tom, “We’ve been here longer, and we have rules.”
To keep their apartment as adult as possible – especially important as both Drew and Tom work from home – they embrace a minimalist approach regarding the children’s trappings. “Kids don’t need all the toys they’re given. They’re happy with about five toys. If you have more than that, that’s icing on the cake,” remarks Tom.
We counted. There were more than five – but none spilling over distractingly into any spaces.
The couple plans ultimately to move to larger quarters in Park Slope, anticipating the need for more room as Violet and Julia get older. Not locked into Mommy and Me-style parenting groups, they enjoy taking advantage of Gramercy Park, which gives the twins a safe, confined area in which to run about, and regular jaunts to the Union Square playground.
They are try to teach the girls about foreign cultures. They’ve picked up some Spanish words, and a bit of German from Tom’s family. Tom and Drew enjoy hosting international cuisine nights, so Violet and Julia already display sophisticated palates – they’ll never be the kind of people who want to order only plain chicken. (But the two acknowledge it might have been a bit early to start the girls on sushi.)
The parents hope to maintain their low-key, loving and practical approach to childrearing during the inevitable ordeal of selecting schools. Tom and Drew say they strive to avoid becoming obsessive, a precarious task considering the competitive nature of school admissions in Manhattan. Tom frets that as the girls get older, the pair could turn into “the worst helicopter parents.”
Tom looks back fondly at his own boarding school days, but worries that being determined to get the twins into a specific school – and even worse, the danger the girls might feel they’ve let their parents down if they don’t – is a lot of pressure to put on a toddler. That pressure can be even more intense with twins involved, Drew points out, concerned about the consequences if one girl makes it into a school and the other doesn’t. But if one twin is selected at a school, and the other girl fits better somewhere else, they’ll be more than happy to make the trip across town.
For Drew and Tom, these concerns easily give way to the simple joys of having two healthy, lively little girls. Yes, there are unique challenges to raising twins – making sure there’s two of everything – but there are advantages, too. Drew finds a huge relief in having a “control group” anytime something goes wrong. When Violet gets sick – a situation that can provoke panic in any first-time parent – they can look at Julia, realize that she’s fine, and reassure themselves that they’re not accidentally killing the girls. Not, admittedly, that there seems any possibility of that, but it doesn’t hurt to be on the safe side. You never know what crayon ingestion can do to someone.
“Have twins, that’s my advice,” remarks Tom – though he still sometimes marvels that he’s a father to two children. But just then, Violet and Julie look so adorable in their matching pajamas that his recommendation is easy to understand.