The Right Move

Four non-traditional families share their real-life stories of moving to Madison, navigating a different life in a new city, and finding their place called home

PHOTO BY NOAH WILLMAN

Janet Lee and daughter Audrey left New York City three years ago to settle in the Midwest. “I loved New York,” Janet says, “but we were ready to move to a smaller city. Madison was always in the back of my mind.”

Their small family had become close friends with a couple in New York who had roots in Madison, so Janet and Audrey had been invited to visit several times over the years. They liked the city and found moving to Madison a surprisingly easy transition.

“There are lots of non-traditional families here, so we fit right in,” Janet says. “Everyone’s been very welcoming.”

Janet is Chinese and adopted Audrey from Guatemala as a single mother.

Her first impressions of Madison were the contrasts to a huge metropolis. She’s found Madison easy to get around and appreciates that the city is surrounded by amazing green spaces and affords easy access to a variety of activities.

Audrey agrees: “I like it because it has a lot of places I’ve never explored before. And it has wide-open fields.”

The eight-year-old is also a big fan of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, where she gets to “eat all the fresh food from the farmers’ gardens.” Janet adds that they like to go regularly during the summer to stock up on basil so they can have homemade pesto all year round.

The Ideal Family

Marilyn Harper grew up in rural, segregated Louisiana, moving to Wisconsin in the 1980s to work on her advanced degrees in education. While in Madison she left her studies to take a teaching position with Madison schools, and also met her husband, David Johnson. Immediately the couple knew they wanted to adopt, feeling that diversity would make for an ideal family.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE HARPER FAMILY

Marilyn Harper and David Johnson enjoy time with their four children (left to right) Emily, Kelly, Lizzie and Sam.

Working with several different agencies, Harper and Johnson adopted a Korean-American boy, a Guatemalan-American girl, a Russian girl and, most recently, a Caucasian girl who is just three years old. In addition, Harper says they’ve been foster parents for roughly one hundred children of all races.

Although there have been occasional mix-ups—strangers addressing Harper as the children’s nanny instead of their mother, or salespeople assuming her photo order wasn’t ready since the children pictured didn’t match her skin color, she’s always felt comfortable in Madison. Harper attributes much of that to the university, since it attracts students and professors from all over the world.

The family has also found common interest groups helpful in building a sense of community. The Korean Students Association at UW–Madison, adoptive support groups for inter- and trans-racial families, and even play groups where parents get together to talk about their unique challenges have been important.

“These experiences have really enriched the family and introduced us to people we wouldn’t have met otherwise,” says Harper.

For her family, diversity feels natural. In fact, one day when her son Sam had a friend over, the playmate wished aloud that she could also have a diverse family. Sam asked in disbelief, “You mean everyone in your family is the same color?”

Blending Cultures

An American living abroad, Elizabeth Strasma met Mehdi Golestani in his native Iran. They married there and had three children—Saeid, Simin and Sohrab.

“From the beginning, Mehdi and I have enjoyed blending our two cultures,” says Strasma. “We made sure our children grew up with both languages [English and Farsi], to ensure their ongoing access to both their heritages.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE STRASMA FAMILY

Mehdi Golestani, daughter Simin, son Sohrad and Elizabeth Strasma

After two decades in Iran, the family moved to the U.S. when the children were entering high school and contemplating going to college in the States. They chose the Madison area because Strasma had lived here as a small child when her father worked for the university. 

After more than twenty years away, she found Madison to be quite welcoming. “Our children were a little different-looking,” says Strasma, “between dark and fair—my daughter calls it being a ‘halfie’—but they felt comfortable here.”

The thing she appreciates most about Madison, having lived in Iran for so long, is its Midwestern setting. Each year when the family visited, Strasma remembers stepping off the plane, inhaling deeply and saying, “Ah, that smells like home.” The kids would say, “Mommy, it smells like airport!”

But it was the clean air she loved coming home to. Strasma explains, “Madison manages to combine the fresh air and green landscape of a more rural area with the excitement of a more cosmopolitan area.”

While the family enjoyed a number of local treasures when they relocated to Madison, the public library system topped the list. “At first when we moved here, we had no furniture, even, and certainly not a computer and internet connection,” Strasma recalls.

“Every Friday right after school, we’d all go to the library. Laptops weren’t common yet in 2001, so computer access was a real treat,” she continues. “The kids wrote essays, researched homework topics or played games. Mehdi and I used the internet to learn about so many things … and then of course we’d all check out piles of lovely books, to read and reread throughout the week until we came back. The libraries were so exciting, and such wonderful places to be in, as well as a great resource for us as we transitioned to living here.”

New Traditions

Elisa Welch, a Latina and mom to daughter Luciana with her co-parent and partner Carolyn Bell, who is white, has had mostly positive experiences since moving to Madison.

The couple was in love with the city long before deciding to settle here as a family. “Carolyn actually moved here first in 2002 after finishing grad school at Ball State University. We’ve been here ever since,” explains Welch.

PHOTO BY SARAH SMILEY

Elisa Welch and Carolyn Bell with daughter Luciana. 

Not only was Madison close to both of their families, but both women found great jobs here, in addition to a climate that’s been mostly welcoming to their non-traditional family.

“We were actually surprised the other night when a stranger made a negative comment toward us while eating at a restaurant,” says Welch. “That almost never happens to us. I would say it’s not just a Madison issue, it’s a general awareness problem based on assumptions. Many people still assume all families are traditional, with a mom and a dad.”

While undoubtedly disturbing, the incident was a reminder of how infrequently such interactions happen to the family here.

“Sometimes we get so comfortable with our community, we forget that not every-
where is as welcoming,” Welch admits. “In Madison we can go anywhere and feel comfortable—with being a family, with our daughter having two moms, with myself being Latina. That feels nice.”

She explains further, “It doesn’t really matter where we go in the city. People rarely look at us funny when we’re out with our daughter. If we’re at the doctor’s office, they treat us as equal. At Luciana’s preschool, they don’t bat an eye when we’re both at parent-teacher conferences and, even better, they have inclusive materials in the classroom for many different types of families. Madison makes us feel like we fit in.”

The family has made connections in the community by attending a variety of events in and around Madison, including PBS Kids Get Up and Go Days, activities at the Madison Children’s Museum and YMCA, and Madison Mallards baseball games. They also enjoy swimming at Goodman Pool and attending performances of Kids in the Rotunda at Overture Center.

“That’s one of the amazing things about Madison,” says Welch. “On any given weekend there are a variety of activities available for families. Carolyn works at the university, so we feel connected to that community as well.”

All in all, Welch and Bell can’t imagine raising Luciana anywhere else. “It’s a place where families can feel like they’re part of a whole,” Elisa says.

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