A version of this story was originally published January 24, 2019. It has been updated.
When we think about divorce and coparenting our minds don't always paint happy pictures. Some of us draw on our childhood memories, formed in an era when joint custody arrangements were often tense and confusing for kids. For those without personal experience, the mind's eye may replay the acrimonious custody hand-overs we've seen on reality TV.
But thanks to photos by photographer and mama Sara Mengon, a beautiful picture of co-parenting (and masculinity) is taking root in America's cultural consciousness.
Mengon captured a series of now-viral photos of her daughter Willow and her two dads, David Lewis and Dylan Lenox, taken moments before David and Willow headed into her Daddy-Daughter dance. Dressed in her princess best, 5-year-old Willow is framed by two men who have put away old-school ideas about how to be a man in order to be great co-parents.
Some would label these two as Willow's biological father and step-father, respectively, but the two guys tell Motherly they don't really like labels like co-parent or step-parent. They're just Willow's parents.
This is the story behind those beautiful photos.
The first time David Lewis met the man who would become his daughter's other dad, he admits it wasn't easy. "We shook hands, talked for maybe 2 or 3 minutes and I was on my way," David recalls in a phone interview with Motherly.
Willow was about 18 months old at the time, and David and Sarah had been through a lot in those 18 months. Twelve days after Willow was born, David (who was in the Army at the time) was in Afghanistan. When David returned from his deployment, he and Sarah divorced. It was as amicable a divorce as possible—there was no infidelity or some big disaster. As David tells it, he just knew Sarah deserved so much more than he was capable of giving back then.
Still, it hurt. Both Sarah and David admit that. "You just have to be strong and put your kid first," says Sarah, who reentered the dating world knowing that anyone who couldn't accept David wouldn't be worth pursuing. She kept David him in the loop as she moved on from their relationship, even when when he was working far away.
"I involved David as much as I could, still do throughout this entire journey," she tells Motherly.
David knew there would be another man in Sarah and Willow's lives one day, but that first meeting with Dylan didn't look like the happy family photos that made their way around the internet. It looked like heartbreak.
But in that moment and a million more that followed, David and Dylan made choices to cooperate instead of competing. To see each other not as the enemy, but as allies fighting for Willow's happiness. And those choices eventually made them friends and then family.
As David points out, the family's viral moment comes on the heels of the now infamous 2019 Gillette commercial and a national conversation about what it means to be masculine, and the response to Sarah's photos proves why that conversation is so important.
While the majority of internet commenters find the portraits to be an inspiring display of successful co-parenting, others have attacked David and Dylan's masculinity. Commenters have suggested that David is weak for allowing another man to "take" his family, or that Dylan's weak for allowing David to stay in his home when visiting Willow. Women have bragged that their own husbands would never allow this. Others have just made homophobic remarks.
David and Dylan get why this is happening. These two dads are what many would describe as "men's men." Dylan's a pipefitter. David did nine years in the Army. They have a deep understanding of what society expects from traditionally masculine men.
"But we also knew that we have a little girl to take care of and it's not a competition between he and I," David explains.
Dylan agrees. "Mine and David's job and Sarah's job is to protect and love Willow and teach her as much about this world as we can. And protect her from all the negativity that's possible."
Dylan has a son from a previous relationship, and he shares a daughter with Sarah.
"This whole situation has presented its own challenges but I think we've handled it the best we could with grace and dignity, and for the love of our kids. What's helped us out is since day one there's always been respect. I don't think I've done anything to disrespect David and his wishes and his role as a knowledgeable father."
This relationship didn't happen overnight. It happened because two tough guys decided to make tough choices every day. They may not be a traditional family, but they are Willow's family and they're redefining the traditional masculinity ideology for her generation.