Carnecia and Tyeka Gillard sit across from one another, feeding the twins, while Gabe watches cartoons, his attention split between a coloring book and what's on TV. He turns eight in September, and for the past three years Gabe's been a part of Carnecia and Tyeka's lives. At almost 11 weeks old, the twins, Landon and Jayla, are the newest additions to the family. The family dog impatiently paces at the back door as Gabe takes a break from doing a word search to practice holding Landon. In the mornings, he helps out by gathering bottles and pacifiers, while Carnecia gets the twins dressed and fed. Tyeka works nights. A contract truck driver for the Postal Service, her shift starts around 2 a.m. Carnecia is a social worker, but she's taking some time off to take care of the twins. Together, she says, they just make it work, like any other family. This is their story.
Tyeka grew up downtown. The second oldest with three sisters and a brother, she shared a lot of responsibility helping to raise her younger siblings. This is something she has in common with Carnecia, whose mother was a single parent who had her when she was 16, just like her mother before her. Living on Johns Island, Carnecia was the oldest of three siblings, each born exactly seven years apart. She says her mother and grandmother were on the strict side. They sheltered her, not wanting Carnecia to end up as a teenage mother. She remembers friends of hers getting pregnant in high school. Eventually, she hopes to work with teenage mothers.
When asked how they first met, Carnecia and Tyeka share a knowing look and laugh together. Enjoying the night out with a few friends, Carnecia found herself in a local gay nightclub. She was married at the time. Unexpectedly, Tyeka grabbed a seat next to Carnecia and wrapped her arm around her. Thinking back to that night, Carnecia remembers thinking, "I wish this young lady would find another place to sit."
"She said, 'I would never date you. You're not even my type,' recalls Tyeka. "I liked the challenge, so I looked her up on Facebook and started bothering her all the time."
With both of them in relationships, Carnecia and Tyeka started out as friends. But as they continued to talk and really got to know each other, the relationship grew.
"This may sound corny, but I think I connected to her more spiritually than anything else," says Tyeka. "It was like something spoke to me. Our spirits connected before anything else, and that's what did it for me. We knew that we could have been just really good friends, and I don't think I planned for anything more than that. We were both with somebody else. I just needed somebody I could talk to, share things with, and hang out with. It just turned into something else."
For Carnecia, the new relationship represented the biggest change. If she were to pursue something serious with Tyeka, it would require her to question everything she knew about herself. She already had the life she thought belonged to her. She had a husband. But sometimes it just takes a while to find out who you really are.
"I guess I was kind of ignorant. When I look back at it, I didn't really know what same-sex relationships looked like and didn't understand until I got to know her in person," she says. "It just blurred for me, and I thought, 'Wait a minute. She's a girl.' And I struggled with that, but she waited it out and made me love her."
Together the new couple wondered how they were going to start this new relationship without hurting everyone else in their lives. They look back on those trying times, still dealing with some parts of the past, and they feel good about making that decision almost seven years ago.
In May, they celebrated the second anniversary of their marriage. Same-sex marriages were still not recognized in South Carolina when they wed in 2014, so the two made a trip to Washington, D.C. They didn't tell anyone they were going except Tyeka's cousin who worked in the area and helped the couple make all the necessary arrangements. The cousin grabbed a coworker and stepped out on their lunch break to serve as witnesses for Tyeka and Carnecia. Returning to South Carolina, Carnecia faced the challenge of legally changing her last name.
"My social security card read Carnecia Gillard, but my driver's license still carried my maiden name. That's because the DMV is state and social security is federal. I had to go petition the court for a legal name change — not that I was married," she says. "It was granted. The judge was really nice. She asked why I wanted to change my last name. I told her I had gotten married, and she said that was fabulous."
Later that year, same-sex marriage would become legal in the state of South Carolina. Carnecia jokes that she wishes she would have known that was going to happen. It would have saved them a trip and the legal headache. But again, there are some things you can't plan for. You just have to keep moving forward because you never know what the next opportunity will be. That was the case with the twins. As certified foster parents, Carnecia and Tyeka have always been willing to accept children into their home, as was the case with Gabe, but it's still a challenge to go from caring for one seven-year-old to looking after a pair of newborns with only a few hours notice. When they first met Gabe, Carnecia says she panicked, worried that she couldn't be a parent. A family is something she's always wanted and that wish was about to come true. "My first child," she thought. Tyeka calmed her nerves and talked to Gabe one on one to make sure everyone was ready to become a family.
Three years later, Carnecia and Tyeka had begun planning for a biological child. After talking with doctors, they decided that Carnecia would be the one to carry the baby. Then, suddenly, things changed.
Carnecia was in Mt. Pleasant doing a bit of training for work. When she finally was able to check her phone, she saw all the missed calls. A pair of newborn twins were in need of a home, even if only for the weekend. She called Tyeka. They scrambled for supplies, and by that evening a baby boy by the name of Landon arrived at their home. His sister, still at the hospital, would come the next morning.
"It's funny how God works because we said we were ready to start our own journey to have our own kids," Tyeka says. "Then we had these two drop in our laps. It's been a tough sacrifice, but we're making it. We love these kids, and this is our passion. We all want the same thing."
With the twins, Tyeka and Carnecia face the same challenges as other parents raising newborns. The married life and romance takes a backseat to concentrating on the kids. If they're lucky, they can find a spare hour to themselves to watch TV. They're not sure what will ultimately happen with the twins, whether or not their biological parents will take them back. They have to be prepared for anything at this point. For now, life with Carnecia and Tyeka is all the twins know.
"People always ask us, 'How can you think of giving them back? I couldn't do it.' I look at it as somebody has to do it," says Carnecia. "Yes, it may be difficult, but they need someone during a crucial part of their lives. Whatever happens a year from now, you can't really concern yourself with that because you don't know what's going to happen from one minute to the next. I just think of it as an opportunity for us to share our love."
The couple is still planning on having a biological child. They're hoping to start the process this month. More than anything, Carnecia says she's worried about actually giving birth, which is understandable. She's hoping they'll have a girl. One that she can put in dresses and bows and everything else that goes along with having a daughter. Looking down at Jayla, Carnecia smiles as she watches her try unsuccessfully to fight off sleep.
"It's something I've always wanted to experience at least once," Carnecia says about having a child. "I wasn't going to be greedy. I wasn't going to ask God for a whole load of kids. Just let me have one. Let me have that experience. I've got my son. We've got these little ones. We've come this far and God hasn't left us. Obviously, he thinks we're doing a good job because he's blessed us with two more. I always wanted twins. I just never thought it would be a real thing. I never though it would really come to fruition, but here we are — with an abundance of joy."