Modern family: Chicago edition

ABC’s “Modern Family” may have won awards for being so cool, hip and funny, but the show’s families don’t have anything on Chicago’s modern families, who are so cool, hip—and very real.

Formed via all sorts of creative mixes and all fueled by love, these five families are among the many making up our great communities.

By Danielle Braff

Photography by Thomas Kubik

These families are making love and life work every day.

A happy trio (and growing?)

When Herb Lentz spotted Patrick Barnum on the dating site,, back in 2009, Lentz was drawn to him.

“We both said that we wanted to have families, which isn’t what you would see a lot online, especially with gay men,” Lentz says. Before long, they’d find they had much more in common than wanting a family.

Barnum proposed to Lentz on top of the Diamond Head state monument overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Both wanted to raise their family in Chicago, where Lentz is the office manager at an architecture firm and Barnum is the data government coordinator for a children’s hospital.

Their dream of a family came true when they adopted Miles through a private adoption, bringing him home in May 2014 when he was just three weeks old.

“He is whip smart and he’s been a delight,” Lentz says. “I think there’s more in our future.”

But being a gay family isn’t without its bumps.

“We rarely feel different or ‘other’ in this city. But on a micro level, it’s different. When I’m out with him, people say, ‘Oh, Mommy must be at home today.’ But Chicago is a good place for a same-sex couple to raise a child,” Lentz says.

Traditional and fun

After Mollie Fisher’s first date with Erron, whom she met on in 2004, she told her mom she had found the male version of herself.

Erron had messaged her on the dating site because of her profile name: “China Cat Sunflower” referenced the Grateful Dead song they both love.

Mollie thought Erron’s original message was funny, but she wasn’t convinced she should go out with him until she realized they already had a connection: Mollie went to high school with his cousin.

“She was a nice girl who I knew really well, so I figured he couldn’t be a mass murderer,” she says.

Add in one adorable dog, and Mollie decided that Erron was safe. Six months later, the pair moved in together and in 2007, they got married on a beach in Mexico.

On their honeymoon, Mollie got pregnant with their daughter, Dora, now 7. Their son, Oren, now 2, followed in 2013, and shortly after, the family moved from their two-bedroom condo downtown to a sprawling home in Long Grove.

“Life is very suburban now,” Mollie says.

“We spend a lot of time in our new home, by the campfire as a family,” she says. “We’re happy and cozy and we love it.”

An unlikely match

Monica Zanetti was looking for a couch when she found her true love. Yet the furniture salesman, Jeremy Reed, and Zanetti were total opposites.

“He’s from Portland and he’s a total little white boy, and I’m a Latin girl,” Zanetti says. “It’s been a lot of melting and trying to understand each other.”

The first hurdle: celebrations. Zanetti’s family celebrates everything—and they celebrate with big, loud parties with their big, loud extended families. Reed grew up with his mother and his brother, who prefer to celebrate quietly with a Scrabble game for entertainment.

The other hard part was figuring out responsibilities within their cultures. It’s very common, almost expected, to give back to relatives in the Latino culture, Zanetti explains. When Reed met her, she was helping a few family members go to school by sending them $200 a month.

But they’ve made it work while growing their family with two kids, Jackie and Nicholas, ages 7 and 8.

The most recent big adjustment came last fall when Zanetti’s 28-year-old son, Taylor—whom she had when she was 15 and gave up for adoption—moved in. Taylor lived with them until January, but they have an open door if he wants to return.

A rough start to love

Aisha Ellis moved to Chicago for a student teaching job with her fiancé and quickly became best friends with fellow student teacher, Lori Ellis.

“We were teaching on the west side of Chicago. We were all thrown into CPS at 21, with no prior experience, so we all bonded.”

However, when Aisha’s relationship with her husband-to-be quickly crumbled and ended, she confessed to Lori that she had feelings for her.

While Aisha’s family was supportive of her new relationship, Lori’s father disowned her.

Undeterred, they had a commitment ceremony in 2007.

Three years later, Aisha gave birth to the couple’s first child, Henry, now 5, and Lori told her parents, “If you don’t accept him as my child, then that will be it for us.’”

Lori’s parents soon realized they were going to have to love Aisha or lose their daughter and their grandchild.

“They met Henry, and that was the ice melting,” Aisha says.

Lori and Aisha got a state-recognized civil union in 2011. Two years later, Lori gave birth to the couple’s second child, Abram, 2.

More love to spread

After Jill and Ed Pawlinski married in 2002, they began trying for a baby to no avail. They delved into fertility treatments, but didn’t want to continue down that path without the promise of a baby at the end. So they decided to try adoption.

Two years after getting married, their first child, Nicholas, a 3-week-old baby born at 31 weeks, was placed with them.

“When we got the call for him, I was so nervous, but we took that leap of faith,” Jill says.

When Nicholas was 10 months old, they decided to do it again, and just months later, the couple adopted their second child, a baby girl, Natalie, now 10.

“When you’re going through adoption, it’s like hurry up and wait, and then you have to run and pick her up and do this and do that,” Jill says.

Then came Cameron, who was just 10 ½ months younger than the couple’s second baby, giving them a total of three babies in 25 months.

When the Pawlinskis offered their home to Safe Families for Children, an organization that provides homes for children if their parents need a safe place for them, they quickly added another baby to the family four years ago after Alex’s family put him up for adoption.

In between their permanent children, there have also been a handful of kids come and go through their home.

“I hope I’m making a difference,” Jill says. “It’s a natural thing for me to have more babies, and it’s busy, but even now, I find myself thinking, ‘Let’s help that child out.’ It’s not for everyone, but I enjoy it.”

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