Ten years ago in the United States, a couple of gay men hoping to become fathers may have considered their dream too outsized or even impossible. Until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act by 2015, many states did not recognize marriage between same-sex partners — levying a major strike against a couple of men seeking to adopt or match with a surrogate.
Now, they are on the cover of Parents Magazine. A recent report from ReWire.News suggests that becoming fathers is easier than it once was for gay men. But the evidence is largely anecdotal. There is no clearinghouse, for example, that reports on the clientele of private adoption and surrogacy agencies, heterosexual or otherwise, or how long couples wait to become parents. And there is still plenty of resistance to gay parents, as the petition by One Million Moms against the cover of Shaun T and husband Scott Blokker in Parents Magazine attests.
On Parenting spoke with four gay men who had all entered fatherhood in the past 10 years through different means. One adopted through foster care, and another had an open adoption through a private agency. Another worked with a surrogate in the United States, and one worked with a surrogate overseas. Their experiences and geographies were varied, but several themes emerged. The road toward fatherhood may be more smoothly paved than it was 10 years ago, but there are still significant challenges.
Money in the bank
Jared Gertner of Los Angeles said he often hears a particular encouragement to would-be parents: “Everyone tells you, ‘No one is ever ready to have a child, so just go for it!' But as a gay man, the opposite is true.”
For men who want to become fathers in the United States without a female sexual partner, there are options. They invariably require a lot of paperwork, and often a lot of money and a long time waiting.
This due process isn’t a bad thing, said Julian Chang of San Diego, who adopted his son four years ago with his husband, Wade Estey. “If everyone had to be fingerprinted and produce their tax records in order to become parents, there would be a lot more wanted children in this world,” Chang said.
With the exception of adoption through foster care, though, the financial costs are often tantamount to buying a car or even a house outright.
Gertner and his husband, Jeffrey Marshek, knew early in their relationship that they wanted children and that they wanted a biological connection to their child. “There wasn’t a lot of information about surrogacy when we were researching,” said Gertner, who married Marshek in 2010. The couple knew they would need to save significant money upfront. They worked with a surrogacy agency that was recommended to them.
Because they had financially prepared, when their surrogate unexpectedly delivered their son, Auggie, six weeks early, Gertner and Marshek were both able to take the time off work and accommodate the time their newborn son spent in the NICU.
Rob Depew of San Francisco experienced the NICU as a new father as well, but in India. Depew said when he and his co-parent David Augustine began researching surrogacy options in 2007, they learned the average budget for working with a surrogate in the United States was $150,000.
But then they heard about agencies in Mumbai and Delhi “that were actively advertising to gay couples in the U.S. and Europe. They were able to offer the matching processes and medical lab and fertility process" — and to do it at about a quarter of the cost of the U.S., Depew said. That would make it possible to both have a child and buy a house for their family in San Francisco.
The process was smooth, Depew said, until the surrogate delivered their daughter, Kimaya, at 32 weeks gestation in 2012. “Communicating with doctors in India with very different expectations of what you need to understand as a parent from 10,000 miles away — it was pretty stressful,” Depew said. Kimaya was diagnosed with cerebral palsy due to complications from birth and has significant mobility impairment, Depew said. “But it was a successful experience because we have a lovely, happy daughter,” he said.
Paternity leave issues
Maternity and paternity leave in the United States are far from ideal. For families with two dads, the decision to take paternity leave is often made more difficult by their unusual situation.
Depew brought his daughter home from India in 2012. He opted to use a mix of sick time and paid time off that his employer offered for new parents. “I took a full five months off and I remember my boss was shocked and unhappy. I definitely remember the expectation being that dads don’t actually take leave, whether they’re gay or straight,” he said.
For Angel Maldonado Lopez and Leonard Norton of Boston, who welcomed their then 7-year-old son Jesse home through foster care, paternity leave was not ideal, they said. Norton, who is self-employed, took the summer off to be with their new son. Lopez, who is the primary breadwinner, could only afford to take two weeks of paternity leave. “It was too short,” he said. “Jesse struggled to see me as the paternal figure — I was just the guy who went to work and came home from work later. That’s a struggle for most dads whether gay or straight — but I wish I had gotten more time just to bond with him.”
Emotional heavy lifting
All of the fathers interviewed mentioned the significant emotional work they had done to prepare to become fathers.
Lopez and Norton went to therapy for a year before adopting “to make sure we were on the same page,” Lopez said. He felt the therapy was helpful in shaping him and Norton as parents. Since they planned to adopt through the foster care system, they attended training and anticipated the child they would adopt would likely have experienced trauma. “We all need to be aware of our pasts. Everyone has their own trauma. We have to be very intentional to take the steps not to trigger things for all of us,” said Lopez.
“Intentional” is a word that emerged as a sort of motto for each couple interviewed.
“We don’t come to parenting by accident,” Chang said. “We come to it by way of a lot of money, and with great intentionality. That is the commonality among gay dads with children.”
Like others, Chang and Estey went to therapy in preparation for becoming fathers. “Therapy helped us clarify our thoughts, and any holdovers from our childhoods. It helped us to think about how we might navigate two busy careers, and the division of labor,” Chang said.
About the division of labor, Gertner sees a lot of positives for gay people. “You don’t really get caught up in gender roles when you’re working with two dads. Society doesn’t expect one of you to stay home or one to do the grocery shopping or anything like that.”
Dealing with strangers
The downside, said Gertner, are the assumptions made. “If I’m out shopping with my son without my husband, strangers will sometimes say, ‘Oh, are you giving Mommy a break?’ I know there are plenty of straight dads out there who find that patronizing, too.”
All four of the men interviewed have children in school, and all four said their schools, a mix of private and public, had been extremely supportive of their families. “The thing that has been the most difficult are strangers who don’t understand,” Gertner said. “They see us out with our son and we don’t fit into their little box of what a family looks like. I’ve been asked whether Jeffrey and I mixed our sperm together in a cup. And that’s rude, but as our son gets older, he is being shaped by a certain narrative about who he is.”
He said he doesn’t want to avoid the questions, but he wants to make it clear that some information is none of other people’s business. “We’re always asking ourselves, ‘What’s the company line?’ and we haven’t found it yet.”