As anticipated, I had a very busy summer working on a professional project. But, we did find time to go to Orlando to celebrate the kids’ birthdays, and visit my sister and her family in New Orleans.
We had a near miss with Hurricane Dorian last month that is making us have second thoughts about scheduling AJ and JJ’s bar mitzvahs for Labor Day weekend 2020. The kids are now back to school in 1st and 7th grade and doing well.
I recently gave an interview to Gareth Johnson for the LGBT website meanshappy.com (get it?). I answered some frequently asked questions about being gay dads through surrogacy, but also delved a bit into politics. You can read the whole interview here.
Just in time for Pride Month and Father’s Day, I submitted a story to Love What Matters about our journey to fatherhood and marriage. It was adapted from my chapter in Eric Rosswood’s book published a few years back. Thanks to Becky at Love What Matters for publishing the piece. It was understandably edited down a bit due to length. I’m going to share the entire piece below. Someday, maybe I’ll expand our story further and write a book…
‘Our long journey to parenthood and marriage (in that order) took us across the country, took us around the globe, and took us 20 years.’
“In discussing how they became parents, gay people often couch it in terms of being on a ‘journey.’ This is an understandable metaphor because the process of becoming a parent as a gay person is often a long, complicated and uncertain undertaking with a highly desired outcome at the end. In our own situation, we have found the term to be literally appropriate as well, as our long ‘journey’ building our family has taken us across the country, and eventually to the other side of the globe.
Josh and I met in New York City and have been together since 1997. From the early days of our relationship, I recall that some of our most serious conversations about the future have been while traveling. We would escape the crowded city on weekend getaways and have earnest conversations in the car about our future while staring out on the open road in front of us. Josh comes from a large and close extended family, and he always wanted to have children. I agreed, but I was also reserved because I have always taught myself not to long too hard for something that is unlikely to come to fruition because of circumstance. It was the 1990s. Gay men having babies together was still exceedingly rare.
Josh moved to Florida in 1999 to help out with the family business, and I followed shortly thereafter as soon as I finished school. We found ourselves in a state that was rather hostile to gay people. Florida still had laws on the books dating back to the days of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant, such as one that specifically forbade adoption by gays. Circumstances did not appear favorable, but Josh was undeterred and did his own research about our options. I distinctly remember where I was sitting in our home in 2005 when Josh approached and said with excitement, ‘You need to look at this book.’
The book was about gay fathers and described the process of gestational surrogacy in California, where laws were more favorable to these arrangements and to same-sex parents. We learned that it was possible to work with a woman who would undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and carry a pregnancy for us. We would make the necessary genetic donation on our end, and the donated eggs would not come from the surrogate, but rather an anonymous donor. Prior to the birth, a family court judge would issue a judgment declaring us to be the intended parents, and instruct the county clerk to record the birth certificate with both our names. After a great deal of discussion, we made a trip out to California to visit an agency that arranged such surrogacy contracts, and my enthusiasm grew. Circumstances appeared to align perfectly, with the temporarily insane American housing market telling us our modest home purchased a few years earlier was worth twice that amount in 2006. We took out a home equity line of credit and set up a trust to fund the expensive process out in California. We were paying top dollar for a concierge-type service, and the agency in California carefully coordinated the process from the beginning to the end. They connected us with a prestigious IVF doctor in Beverly Hills, they had their lawyers prepare our case for the family court process, and they compiled a large database of potential egg donors for us to select from.
After our first trip out to California, we became very excited about surrogacy. We shared with family and friends about our plans. Only one childhood friend of mine reacted negatively to the news. Everyone else was very happy for us. Our own parents were especially intrigued by the prospect of having grandchildren they had years ago concluded would never happen. Naturally, there were many questions about the specifics of the procedure, and my parents were particularly curious about who would be making the genetic contribution on our end. We have happily answered all questions except this last one about genetics.
Because I am of Asian descent and Josh is Jewish, we always planned to have children who would be mixed race and hopefully reflect both our heritages. To this end, we sifted through the numerous Hollywood blonde headshots to find profiles of Jewish and Asian egg donors. We selected the egg donor that we felt had qualities we would value in our children, like a keen intellect and strong career aspirations. Then we made the complementary sperm donation from our side of the equation to make the embryos for implantation. We have always chosen to keep the exact genetics of our children confidential, because we both want to be treated equally as parents by our friends, our family, and society as a whole. Even though plenty of people have come to their own conclusions along the way about what happened, the fact that we have neither confirmed nor denied the specifics has introduced enough doubt to keep the speculators at bay. Besides, we have always felt that one of the first people to know about a child’s true genetic heritage should probably be the child him or herself, when the child is old enough to understand what it means.
Josh has always said that the part of the process the agency in California aced was matching us with our surrogate Marie. We filled out lengthy questionnaires and constructed an introductory profile of ourselves, describing our hopes and expectations. They searched their pool of carefully screened prospective surrogates for women with similar expectations, and presented our profile to make a match. Marie has told us that we were actually not the first profile sent her way, but we were the first she agreed to because we were relatively younger and seemed sturdy enough for the task of parenting. The agency arranged a meeting for us in October 2006. Before we met Marie for the first time, we had a consultation with the IVF doctor who had already examined Marie earlier. When we told him that we were meeting Marie later that day, the doctor started to gush about how lovely she was! He said, “You have to woo her and make sure she picks you guys!” On our way to meet Marie we dutifully picked up flowers and chocolate for this first ‘date’, and we hit it off immediately. Marie was a military wife raising two small children. She lived with her husband, who was stationed on a base outside of San Diego. We have joked that what followed was a typical whirlwind ‘military romance’ baby making, because Josh and I were parents by July 2007.
By coincidence, Marie was cycling in synchrony with our chosen egg donor, so egg retrieval, fertilization and embryo transfer were all scheduled within days after we accepted Marie as our surrogate. A month later, we were back on a plane out west. On the big day of embryo transfer, our IVF doctor told us that only a few embryos developed, but the ones that did were of good quality. This meant that we would not have enough left over to freeze and try for a second cycle if the first transfer did not take. Knowing we would probably have to start the egg donor selection all over if our first try did not work, we decided to take the “all in” approach and transfer the maximum number of embryos the doctor would allow — three. We made this decision with the knowledge that we felt capable of handling a single baby or twins, but would probably ask to reduce a triplet pregnancy down to twins because high-order pregnancies are risky, and we were not gambling with our own bodies, but Marie’s. Luckily, we did not have to make that hard decision, because we were blessed with the news over the holidays that we were pregnant with twins!
Over the course of the next several months, Josh and I took turns traveling from Florida to California monthly to attend medical visits and spend time with Marie and her family. We both attended an OB/GYN appointment in the early second trimester for a 3D ultrasound, and we learned that we were expecting two boys. Ironically, we took Marie to lunch afterward, and the shopping center included an American Girl store. We had never been in one before, and we strolled through wistfully. While Marie looked at stuff for her daughter, we now knew that our foreseeable futures would likely not include visits to American Girl. On the last weekend of June, Josh went out to California to attend the 32-week ultrasound, and things appeared to be going as planned. He finalized plans with a hotel to check in for one month two weeks later, and after a walk-through at the hospital maternity ward, he took a red-eye flight back to Florida on Sunday night. I picked him up at the airport early Monday morning so we could both go to work. By the time we were getting ready for dinner Monday night, we were receiving calls from California that something was amiss.
Marie had noticed a light sensation in her chest earlier in the day after doing some housework, but she attributed it to stress and fatigue from the activities of the preceding weekend (aside from Josh, she also had family in town). She went on about her day and drove herself to a scheduled OB/GYN visit, only for the doctor to discover that she was in ventricular tachycardia with a very rapid heartbeat. The doctor ordered her taken to the hospital immediately, and a team of doctors tried to decrease her heart rate to normal, but the medications they were using seemed to be having the side effect of inducing preterm labor at 32 weeks gestation. We received the phone calls in Florida feeling powerless, learning that an emergency c-section in California was becoming inevitable — and we were not going to be there.
Fraternal twin boys JJ and AJ were born and were transferred immediately to the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU). We booked the earliest flight we could and got on the very same plane Josh had just flown on 24 hours prior to go back to California early Tuesday morning. We rushed directly to the hospital and checked with Marie to see that she was recovering well before we went to meet our sons for the first time. Seeing these two 4 pound bundles in their incubators for the first time was very emotional, and one of the only times in my life I have seen Josh cry. We felt overwhelmed and terribly worried not knowing if AJ and JJ would be okay. Upon receipt of the legal paperwork from the agency, the hospital staff were very kind and treated us like any other parents visiting their children in the NICU. The NICU nurses took our picture and placed it in the incubators, so JJ and AJ could become familiar gazing at their new parents. They proceeded to give us a wonderful crash course in caring for a premature infant, including everything from feeding issues to tiny diaper changes. We spent the next five weeks camped out in an extended stay hotel close to the hospital visiting every few hours to participate in feeding and baby care. Marie had graciously agreed to pump breast milk to help the twins, so we also served as “the milk men” picking up frozen bottles from the military base and shuttling it to the NICU so we could thaw it and feed it to the boys.
The boys had a few typical preemie issues with feeding and breathing, so when they were finally discharged from the hospital in early August, they were sent home with apnea monitors strapped to their chest to ensure that their breathing remained regular. We were instructed to spike their bottles with pharmaceutical caffeine to ensure that they never fell into a deep enough sleep that they forgot to breathe. A week after being released from the hospital, the boys were cleared to fly. We said our goodbyes and left California to come back home to Florida. However, we remain in contact with Marie to this day. Whenever we post photos of the boys to Facebook, she is often the first to comment!
When AJ and JJ were 4 in early 2012, I clearly recall a moment on one of our frequent trips to nearby theme parks in Florida. I sat down to rest on a bench and watched the boys run off to play in the distance. They were becoming more and more independent. I felt a weariness in my bones, my subconscious calculations became conscious, and I mumbled out loud, ‘37 plus 18 is 55.’ On a weekend getaway to New York to celebrate our 15th anniversary a few weeks later, I told to Josh over a romantic dinner, ‘Ever since the boys were born, I have been constantly adding 18 to our ages. If we have another right now, how old will we be before all the children are grown?’ I confessed to Josh my yearning for another child on that trip. Josh was not as sure this time around, but decided that he was ready to go along for the ride. We began to plan for our next journey.
Times had changed, and the economy of 2012 was not nearly as conducive to baby making. We made furtive communication with the agency in California, only to find that financing an identical process five years later would be much more difficult. We had paid off the line of credit, and I had a job that paid more, but Josh’s business was not doing nearly as well as during the boom years and banks were not giving the type of credit that had been our ace in the hole back in 2006. However, Josh’s research saved the day yet again when he came across the concept of international surrogacy. Following the lead of agencies like the one in California, operations were springing up in Latin America and Asia, offering gestational surrogacy at much lower cost when compared to the U.S. We set about investigating our options. After briefly considering Latin America, we honed in on India, because it offered modern medicine on par with U.S. standards but at lower cost, as well as a relatively cosmopolitan setting to locate an egg donor of Caucasian or Asian descent.
In October 2012, my sister Annie and brother-in-law Rahul came to Florida to stay for 10 days, so they could take AJ and JJ to school and to trick-or-treat on Halloween, while Josh and I made our first trip to India. We were very quiet about our plans, and not many people knew we were even going to be away. We were secretive this time because we felt there was a lot of uncertainty pursuing international surrogacy. Once we met with the clinic director in Mumbai, India we felt comfortable enough to proceed. We got the sense that she genuinely cared for the welfare of these surrogates. We were introduced to our potential surrogate, Pavitra. Because of language and cultural barriers, we knew that our relationship with Pavitra would never be like our relationship with Marie. However, body language and a beaming smile on her face when she was told through a translator that we had selected her told us that she was very happy for this opportunity. Because of the different economies in the U.S. versus India, the fee we paid Marie was certainly nice, but nothing she couldn’t make working for several months at any number of jobs. Even though the absolute amount of money we gave to Pavitra was a fraction of that amount, in the Indian economy, this money was life changing for her family and could actually buy her family a house or put both of her own children through school. We dove into the IVF process again using an egg donor we had selected via e-mail correspondence prior to the trip. Before our return to the U.S., we politely asked that the number of embryos transferred on this first try be limited, because we were trying to aim for a singleton. Whereas our surrogacy process in California involved almost daily phone calls, communication from India was sparse. Josh and I were constantly checking for emails and I will never forget kneeling at Josh’s desk as he opened one such eagerly awaited email to be greeted with one line, ‘You have twins. Congrats.’ I looked at Josh’s face staring speechless at the computer screen and I asked, ‘Are you okay?’
We would be okay. We already had more than 5 years’ experience as twin parents, and had become quite good at juggling. I often think that I would have ended up a helicopter parent if being a parent of twins hadn’t forced me to multitask from day one. And besides, having twins again would double the chances of my dream to have a daughter.
Baby girl DJ and baby boy MJ were born in July 2013. They ended up being born, by coincidence, on the day before their older brothers’ birthday, but much closer to full term at 37 weeks. They did not have the prematurity issues that JJ and AJ had, so they were discharged uneventfully after three days in a regular hospital room, and we took them back to our hotel.
The phase of international surrogacy that we had anticipated to be most difficult was getting the paperwork necessary to bring our children home to the U.S. We spent a month in a hotel in India arranging for the foreign-born US birth certificates called CRBAs through the U.S. Consulate, and obtaining exit visas from the Indian government on the babies’ U.S. passports to allow them home.
Since then, the government of India has become hostile to surrogacy and has banned the practice for most everyone. We have also been dismayed to see recent news stories of our own U.S. government denying citizenship to babies of gay parents born abroad. We take solace in the fact that we have been able to have our younger kids before these legal barriers arose abroad, but are still very sad and angry for the many gay intended parents who have tried to come after us and have found these new roadblocks in the way.
Where some barriers have arisen for gay couples, other roads have opened up. We were overjoyed when marriage equality was recognized nationwide in the U.S. in 2015 and so many same-sex couples rushed to be married after waiting so long. Josh and I had been together for more than 18 years at that point, and we decided that we would wait for a date with special significance. In March 2017, on the exact date of our 20th anniversary, we held a wedding to be witnessed by almost 200 of our friends and family, but most importantly by our own four children. AJ, JJ, DJ and MJ were old enough to participate in and hopefully remember the ceremony that further solidified our family. DJ was the flower girl, MJ was the ring bearer, and the older boys AJ and JJ read poems before our vows.
I started my vows on that day with these words:
‘What a difference 20 years makes! When our relationship first began, I knew we were at the beginning of something big, but never could I have predicted how much the world would change, and how far our lives together would take us. Never could I have imagined that we would gather here 20 years later with so many friends and family to be formally and legally married. Over the years we have come to know each other so well that a lot between us has been understood but has gone unsaid. So, on this day, on this occasion, with our children, our extended family and our friends as witnesses, I will say out loud to you what you already know. I will say what I hold in my heart for you now and forever.
My New Year wish for 2016 would probably be for solidarity among LGBT moms and dads of different stripes.
Parents in general are probably familiar with a phenomenon I call “competitive parenting.” Because of their love for their children and a deep desire to do their best as parents, people often subscribe to different philosophies and methods: attachment parenting, free range kids, cloth diapers, etc. Furthermore, insecurities about whether they are actually making the best choices for their own children sometimes leads them to go from self-affirmation to putting down other parents in order to make themselves feel superior. This can be as subtle as singing the praises of a gluten-free kid diet in mixed company, and as extreme as telling formula-feeding moms that they are depriving their babies. I find this competitiveness to be the best mom or dad unnecessary. We are all in this together, we all love our children, we are all trying our best, and we really shouldn’t have to prove ourselves to anybody. We have more in common than there are differences to be found. Solidarity!
LGBT moms and dads in our unusual situation often struggle with even more insecurity because of feeling judged by society as a whole. In attempt to prove themselves just as good, competitive LGBT parents grapple with how we raise our kids, as well as the manner in which we built our family in the first place. Over the past few years, interacting with LGBT parents on social media, I have found some mutual support in these groups, but a lot of division as well. I can easily dismiss hateful comments from outsiders, who know nothing about my circumstance, as ignorant. When other gay dads talk about fostering and adoption as a more moral path to parenthood, or even suggest that commercial gestational surrogacy is selfish and exploits women, it really bothers me. I also dislike when I see other gay dads through surrogacy turn up their noses at the idea of fostering or adopting kids.
Rather than putting each other down, we should be lifting each other up together. We are all in this together, because society does not distinguish between gay dads through adoption, surrogacy, co-parenting and previous relationships. We’re just perceived as gay dads. We all love our children equally regardless of how they came to be in our care. We are all doing what we think is best for our own families, because the truth is that there are merits and drawbacks to any family-building approach. Josh and I have already discussed in previous posts how we carefully navigated surrogacy twice in effort to ensure, as much as possible, positive outcomes for all parties involved. We have complete respect for gay dads who foster and adopt. After considering that path ourselves, we decided to pursue surrogacy instead for very specific reasons. The best way to have and raise kids in one’s own case is not necessarily the best nor the most feasible path to parenthood for others. There should be more solidarity than divisiveness, because LGBT parents have more in common than differences.
MJ and DJ are our second set of twins born through surrogacy. A few years ago Josh and I started talking about the idea of having more children. We thought it would be nice to have a girl to break up all the testosterone in the house, and it would also be an opportunity for the non-donor partner from our last surrogacy experience to make a genetic contribution to our family. Because of the economy and our finances at the time, international surrogacy seemed the way to go this time around. We researched our options and decided to look into an agency and a clinic operating in India.
The next step in our plan was to travel to Mumbai, India to see for ourselves. We visited the clinic and were presented with some options for prospective surrogates. We personally met and chose to work with Pavitra because she was experienced having served as a surrogate previously. Regardless of language barrier, we knew that Pavitra understood exactly what kind of process she was getting involved with because she had done it once before. We knew that we would not have the close relationship with Pavitra like we did with our first surrogate, but the financial benefit for Pavitra and her family in India’s economy would be life changing. The beaming smile on Pavitra’s face when she learned we had chosen her told us everything we needed to know.
When we did IVF in India, we asked for the doctor to transfer two embryos instead of the standard three because we were trying to aim for a singleton. As fate would have it, two embryos implanted anyway and we had a second set of twins on our hands! Because of laws against sex selection in India, we did not know the if we had boys, girls or both until their birth. Baby girl DJ was delivered first via c-section and baby boy MJ arrived moments later. MJ and DJ were born during a period of change in the surrogacy industry of India, and this complicated and prolonged the process that ultimately allowed MJ and DJ to come home to the US one month after their birth. After we left, the door seems to have slammed shut for gay couples seeking surrogacy in India. Thailand and Nepal have followed suit in the years since, and we do not recommend international surrogacy at this time.
MJ has a name that is the masculinization of Josh’s grandmother that died a few years before. DJ is named after a pop culture icon. It is a name I have been saving for my daughter since before AJ and JJ were born! DJ is a bit of a fashionista. She insists on choosing her own outfits out of the closet proclaiming them to be “cute!” She is partial to clothes with her favorite characters Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty. MJ has a voice that carries and honestly was singing before he could talk. He started out with “ABC” and “Twinkle Twinkle” but has begun to branch out into singing along to pop tunes on the car radio.