December 08, 2003 12:00 PM

Eight-thirty p.m. on a school night at the Farrell house, and the parents are winning the battle to get the kids bedded down. Four-year-old Keyona is sacked out next to her big sister Joy, 8. Darlajia, 5, is tucked into her pink fleece footie pajamas while Autumn, 7, snuggles up with mom Beverly over a bedtime book. Then, without warning, Beverly and the two older girls get up, say good night and head home.

A sudden snit? Actually, the farthest thing from it. This particular Pittsburgh family—four biological sisters plus Barb Farrell, 43, and Beverly Brendle, 52—is as loving as any clan, even if it has no dads, divides itself between two houses a half mile apart and is headed by a pair of adoptive moms who are nothing more-or less-than plain old best friends. The lesson here, says Brendle, is that “you don’t have to be a perfect family to adopt,” a sentiment whole-heartedly shared by Farrell. “My kids are in the best possible environment,” she says with a wry smile. “But it’s different from how I grew up.”

No kidding. Just three years ago the lives of these mothers and their children had yet to intersect. Farrell, a former rape-crisis counselor, was thinking that the rambling Victorian house she had renovated in a racially mixed neighborhood would look better with a family in it. But after unsuccessful attempts at in vitro fertilization, the Pittsburgh native, who is gay and single, decided to become a foster parent. In June 2000 her caseworker called with a startling proposal. Three young daughters of a 20-year-old mother-who would eventually wind up in prison on drug charges-were in desperate need of a home. Could Farrell take all three?

The answer came quickly. “The minute I met those kids my heart melted,” says Farrell, who invited 20 friends and family to help welcome the girls to their new home. But things weren’t settled yet. A month later a relative who was caring for Joy, the girls’ oldest sibling, decided to reclaim Autumn—only to return the two to the foster system with-in a matter of months. Farrell, horrified, called her longtime friend Brendle, a psychiatric social worker who was divorced and childless, and laid out the situation. The two did some deep soul-searching. “We knew the girls needed a home and love, and that we each had love to give,” says Farrell. So, says Brendle, “we made a commitment to raise these kids together.”

In August 2001, Joy and Autumn moved into Brendle’s three-bedroom house, and one year later, each mom legally adopted a pair of the girls. At first, things weren’t easy. When they first came to their new home, the three youngest, all of whom had been neglected, were severely underweight and had ravenous appetites. Brendle followed advice from her sister, a former foster parent: “Let them eat all they want. Tell them not to worry, because there will always be enough. And after a while they’ll start believing you.” She was right. A few days after arriving Joy had drawn a picture of herself without hands—a common psychological indicator of her feelings of powerlessness. Three weeks later, spotting the drawing on the fridge, she suddenly grabbed a marker and scribbled the hands in.

Today each girl calls her own adoptive mother Mommy and her other parent Godmommy. Though living in separate houses, the girls see each other every day, both at Interplay Child Care, a nonprofit daycare center that Farrell opened almost two years ago, and at the Square Cafe, a restaurant that she owns. “We play games together,” says Joy. Adds Autumn: “Quiet ones too.”

For Brendle and Farrell, the single life of extra cash and vacations in Paris has been replaced by trips to Kmart in a mini-van with a Lizzie McGuire CD playing. They’ve also mastered the intricacies of what seems to outsiders like a complicated living arrangement. Finances are separate; discipline is not. “It’s a matter of being consistent,” says Farrell. “I correct her kids as much as she corrects mine. And they take it from both of us.”

So why not just all move in together? Farrell, a neat-nik, and Brendle, who has a boyfriend and is okay with dishes in the sink, laugh off the question. After all, a home, as they see it, isn’t something bounded by four walls. And the girls, meanwhile, say they are happy just where they are. “My favorite thing about living with Mommy is getting the dog and cat and watching TV,” says Joy.

“The dog slobbers,” says Autumn.

A trifling matter, insists her big sister. “We still get to do a lot more fun things than we did before.”

Susan Schindehette. Joanne Fowler in Pittsburgh

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