Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Gay In More Than One Sense of the Word

Many of you might be aware of a New York Magazine cover story from last month entitled: “Are You a Miserable Parent?” The gist of the article was that parents are less happy than their childless peers. According to the article, study after study finds that parents are more depressed than non-parents and that children reduce marital satisfaction. The parents’ unhappiness is caused by such factors as the stress related to parents viewing their children as “projects to be perfected”; parents falling into the trap of constantly comparing themselves to other parents and thinking that they are not performing up to par; and, parents not having enough of a life outside of their kids.

While all of these factors apply to all parents – gay and straight -- thankfully for me there appear to be countervailing circumstances that boost the happiness quotient for gay parents specifically. The Rockaway Institute recently released a study that examined the experiences of 40 gay male partners who became fathers -- like Stewart and me -- via surrogacy. One of the notable findings was that having a child significantly improved the gay fathers’ self esteem. Nearly all (95 percent) said that having a child “makes me feel good about myself” and that their self-esteem had improved since being a parent. The study reported that many gay fathers become closer with their extended families due to parenthood, which further boosts their self-esteem because, previous to that, many gay men had strained family relationships due to their sexual orientation. Having kids is a common -- and communal -- experience that can bridge such familial differences.

There were other interesting findings from the Rockaway study. For example, gay fathers are more likely than heterosexual fathers to scale back their careers in order to care for their children. Also, although their reported spirituality had not changed significantly, parenthood made it more likely that they were attending religious services as a family than they had before they started one (an increase from 25 to 38 percent of respondents).

Summarizing their findings, the researchers concluded that the new fathers “felt extremely positive and proud about being parents… The narratives of the gay fathers in this study underscore how being a parent contributed to greater meaning in their lives… They derived pleasure and pride in taking care of their children, while they also received increasing validation from their families and their communities.”

The conclusion of the study makes a lot of sense. I think the sense of self esteem that gay parents feel is unmatched because many started with such low expectations. For instance, many were told when they came out that they would never be parents, or thought they could never be parents. Also, you can’t become a gay parent by accident -- you have to actively work at it, and to succeed at having a kid is a big accomplishment!

Stewart and I didn’t need a study to tell us that parenthood has positively transformed our lives. I am not going to state that I don’t have rough days taking care of Max or thinking what the hell did I do. But I will say that while we were very happy and content before Max, he has brought us such love and joy that we can no longer remotely fathom life without him.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Some Well Intentioned Advice -- Redux

The most popular post on my blog so far has been "Some Well Intentioned Advice," so I thought I'd share two other recent experiences that Stewart and I have had that fall under that description.  Since becoming a new parent I have heard horror stories about strangers butting in and yelling at new parents who are out and about for doing or not doing something with their infant. As a new parent, I am used to getting strong opinions from people we know, but I had not had that experience from strangers -- until a couple of weeks ago.

After eating lunch out with a friend on the Lower East Side, not too far from the apartment, I fed Max his own lunch out on Clinton Street. My plan was to take a short walk to Sugar Sweet Sunshine, a couple of blocks away, to get a cupcake and then to head back home to change Max’s diaper (a force of habit after he eats). On my way, Max started to get fussy and I could smell trouble – literally! I saw that he had a really big poop that needed to be changed immediately, as he had even crapped through his diaper! I was on Norfolk Street at the time, and fortunately there were virtually no people about. So I decided to change Max right in his stroller. As I was doing that, he started to flip out -- a rather rare but not unheard of experience! To prevent the squirming kid from getting poop everywhere, I picked him up and took him out of the stroller to finish putting him in a clean outfit. As I was doing this, all of the sudden I see a random lady run up to me and start touching Max, yelling that I was going to drop the baby!  I said very sternly to her: “thank you, I am not going to drop my kid.”  Her unwarranted hysteria was simply rude and unhelpful. She wandered off without another word, and I finished dressing Max and then went along my way. I could have said something slightly more choice to her at the time, but I knew it wasn’t worth it. I got Max fed, clean, re-dressed and happy, and that was proof enough that he’s got a pretty competent daddy, no matter what some stranger might have thought in her snap judgment.
Stewart also had a recent run-in with a nosy stranger. We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant called “Mary Ann’s” with my cousin Amy and her partner Victoria. Stewart was seated with Max dozing in his arms, his face nuzzling Stewart’s shoulder (like the photo below). All of a sudden the hostess came up to Stewart from across the restaurant and said something that the rest of us couldn’t make out through the din of the restaurant. Stewart said something brusquely back and the hostess backed off.  We asked him what was up, and he told us that she had literally told him that the baby wasn’t breathing!  It was such an absurd comment on its face that Stewart hadn’t even flinched, and simply told the hostess that Max was fine, in a tone that made it clear to her to back off. Presumably, Max burying his face in Stewart’s shoulder had concerned her – but don't you think that the person raising the baby, and holding the baby an inch from his ear, is a little more clued into the situation than a hostess from across a crowded restaurant? She could have scared us half to death! Needless to say, we didn’t linger at Mary Ann’s for very long afterward and will not be returning!


What do you think?  Are we being over sensitive?  Have you ever given a complete stranger unsolicited advice about their child?  Is it better to say something and risk offending the parent by being a busy-body, or to stay silent even though you're legitimately concerned for the child's well-being? Tough questions to be sure, but no one said being a parent is easy!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mr. Mom

The two month anniversary of Max’s birth had come and gone and we still had no birth certificate for our son.  We had been told by the hospital in Atlanta that we should expect his birth certificate within four weeks. We were starting to get a bit nervous. Was it held up in the system simply due to government bureaucracy? Had the hospital simply gotten the typical time-frame wrong? Or was something more sinister afoot -- was some renegade county clerk from the heart of Dixie refusing to process the birth certificate after seeing that Max’s parents were two men? Were we going to have to sue the state’s Attorney General to force him to issue Max his birth certificate?

Finally, to our immense relief, a couple of weeks ago an envelope arrived in the mail with the return address of Department of Community Health, Vital Records Branch, Atlanta, Georgia. Max’s birth certificate! The first thing we did was to check to make sure that both of our names were listed on it. We are believed to have made legal history in Georgia because we obtained a pre-birth order from a state court judge there stating that even though we are two men, and only one of us is a biological parent of Max, both of our names may still be listed on the birth certificate as Max’s parents. It took a lot of work to get that order! While we were pregnant, we met at our monthly Planning Biological Parenthood for Men group a couple who obtained a pre-birth order in North Carolina. And like Georgia, North Carolina was not known for actively processing pre-birth orders for gay men. The couple said that they thought they might have been the first gay male couple to obtain one in North Carolina. Well, I thought, if they could obtain one in North Carolina then we should at least try for one in Georgia, right?

Normally in Georgia, and in most other states (the exception being California and Arkansas), since I am the biological father my name alone would be listed on the birth certificate. We would have to apply for a second parent adoption for Stewart to be added to insure that he has the same parental rights that I do. But by making history in Georgia and getting a pre-birth order, Stewart’s name is on Max’s birth certificate from the start, so now he doesn’t have to worry about whether or not he will be perceived as a legal parent of Max. If Stewart is traveling alone with Max and for whatever reason he is questioned, all he has to do is show the birth certificate.

While the Vital Records Department made us very happy with the birth certificate, there was one big inaccuracy on it. While I am listed as Max’s “Father,” Stewart is not – he is listed as Max’s “Mother”! With all due respect to you mothers out there, Stewart was not pleased to be included among you! In fact, he had actually anticipated this possibility. While filling out the information for the birth certificate in the days after Max’s birth, we noticed that the paperwork only allowed for one parent to be listed as “mother” and one for “father.” Stewart decided to edit the form by hand to replace the listing for “mother” with “Father # 2.” As an additional attempt to sway Vital Records, we attached a letter to the application requesting that they list us on the birth certificate not as mother and father, but as “Father 1” and “Father 2” or – if that was too gay for them – as the more benign “Parent 1” and “Parent 2.”

When we opened up the envelope two months after Max’s birth we learned that our efforts had failed. Maybe it was political, or some clerk’s moral judgment, but more likely – in our minds --the Department of Vital Records didn’t want to bother to change around their template to accommodate the reality of our family structure. Of course the important thing is that the birth certificate proves that Stewart is Max’s legal parent, even if it isn’t so accurate in the particulars!

When I have shared this story with people, some have asked why Stewart wasn’t listed as “father” and me as “mother.” One friend pointed out that I am playing the more traditional mother role by staying at home with the kid. My sister pointed out that on a birth certificate it is usually definite that the mother is the biological parent and they are not always sure about the dad; in this case, since I am the one that has the definite biological connection, she argued, I should be listed under “mother.”

The reality though is much less philosophical.  The pre-birth court order we obtained had legally established me as Max’s biological father – so Vital Records was required by law to list me as the father on the birth certificate.  In other words, Stewart became "Mother" simply by process of elimination.  Stewart has been a good sport about the whole thing though.  He looks at the bright-side. Now he can ask for breakfast in bed on Mother's Day!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Apple of Our Eye

The other night I was on line at the Apple store on 5th Avenue and 59th Street. I had just gotten off the interminable waiting list for the new iPhone 4 (the home button on my old iPhone broke a couple of weeks ago) and I had exactly 24 hours to pick up the phone before being booted right back on to it. The line snaked around the store and was also incredibly slow, causing a customer four or five people behind me to become seriously disgruntled. The guy directly behind me and I started laughing about the whole situation. In our chat, I mentioned my family and he inquired about how we had conceived Max. He explained that he and his partner were about to sign with an agency to conceive a baby via surrogacy in India because they thought they couldn’t afford to do surrogacy here.

Naturally my eyes lit up at the opportunity to talk about surrogacy, even though standing in the middle of the Apple store was the last place where I thought I would be discussing it! Of course I advocated that he seriously consider independent traditional surrogacy, the route Stewart and I took. There are many amazing reasons for gay men to start their families through surrogacy generally, and through traditional surrogacy specifically, that are beyond the subject of this post. I will certainly be exploring those in the future, but this guy at the Apple store didn’t need that talk; he was already sold on surrogacy. His issue was cost, so that’s what we discussed.

You can do surrogacy here in this country, I told him, and it doesn’t have to break the bank (relatively speaking). Yes, if you plan on using an agency and conceiving a child via gestational surrogacy (in which you create an embryo through the use of an egg donor that is implanted into, and carried by, a different woman who has no biological connection to it) that could very well cost you a small fortune – that is, after adding up the fees for the agency, the egg donor, the carrier, one or more embryo transfers at a fertility clinic, the medical insurance for the carrier, the bank escrow fees, your lawyer, the carrier’s lawyer, and on and on. However, if you conceive a child through traditional surrogacy (where the egg donor is the same woman as the carrier) and do it independently, without agency involvement, you do not have to spend nearly as much (e.g. no fees for agency, egg donor, transfer, escrow, etc.). I have spoken with several people who felt that they couldn’t do surrogacy because of the costs, and once they found out that it can be done for much less than they thought it could, they were interested again.

I told him to check out the “Planning Biological Parenthood for Men” group that meets monthly at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center here in NYC, and to attend the Men Having Babies Seminar - Biological Parenting for Gay Men that takes place every September there.  I mentioned that on the Center’s site he could find a link to view the panel presentations from the 2009 seminar, which are actually contained on a YouTube page! I also referred him to surromomsonline.com. This website is an excellent resource for all things related to surrogacy, and it is where we met our surrogate. The aim of the site is to provide information for, and support to, individuals who are interested in pursuing a surrogacy journey – either as the hopeful intended parents or as the woman looking to be a surrogate to make those intended parents’ dream come true.

Stewart and I first considered surrogacy as an option for us after we attended the Men Having Babies seminar in 2008. At that seminar we heard from some representatives of the different surrogacy agencies, and were daunted by the cost and the complicated steps involved, as any sane person would be. But we also heard from a man named Jeff -- who has since become a good friend (“hi Jeff!”) -- who had a baby boy with his partner Chris via independent traditional surrogacy. He had used the surromoms website to find his surrogate, and that’s where we learned about it. A few months after the seminar, we started attending the monthly Biological Parenthood for Men meetings, and continued going to them in the months leading up to, and during, our surrogate’s pregnancy with Max. It is a great resource for information and support.

When we first heard Jeff talk, we said to ourselves that we could never do this whole process by ourselves like he seemed to. Let’s face it, Stewart and I can’t even change a light bulb (but we have gotten mighty good at changing diapers)! But by investing a lot of time and hard work, and importantly by finding our perfect surrogate who had the same heart and drive we did to make our journey a successful one, we ended up a year later with our dream boy. Hopefully the guy behind me in line at the Apple store will too!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Some Well-Intentioned Advice

Two guys with a newborn -- without a mom in sight -- definitely attracts notice, even in a city like New York, and particularly from women.  I don't think it's because we're gay, but because it is so culturally engrained that men are incompetent boobs when it comes to babies, and need a mom to swoop in and save the day.   That means we get a lot of unsolicited advice from woman about what we're supposedly doing wrong in caring for Max.  It is almost always well-intentioned -- and sometimes even right -- but it can still be annoying sometimes since we like to think we are getting down this baby-raising thing just fine! 

One example is Eli, who helps keep our apartment clean and organized every few weeks.  She is very well-meaning towards Max; for example, as a baby gift she very sweetly gave us a bottle-cleaning kit, and boy has that been put to good use! But sometimes she can be a little too well-meaning.

When she arrived at the apartment for the first time since Max was born, she found Stewart and me on the couch with Max sleeping on my chest in his diaper. Before saying even “hi” or “congratulations,” Eli hurried over to us saying “Oh no, Oh no! He needs to have clothes on!” Stewart started to put Max back into his pajamas, as we were about to anyway, but apparently he wasn’t doing it quickly enough for Eli’s liking. She said, “Here, let me do it” and started grabbing after Max. Stewart confidently said to her “I got it” and finished dressing him.

That was the first of Eli’s rather forthright opinions on how we should care for Max – but, needless to say, it was not the last. The next time Eli came over she told me that her sister-in-law, Clara, the woman who helps clean Stewart’s brother’s apartment, told her that our sister-in-law, who had a baby eight months before us, has “much much milk stored up” in her and that therefore instead of feeding Max formula I should start getting milk from our sister-in-law to feed him! I’m sure Stewart’s sister-in-law would be just thrilled to know that Clara is offering up her breast-milk for any takers! Then again . . . probably not.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

An Early Crisis

The first three weeks of Max’s life created surprisingly little stress. Stewart was home with Max and me and Max basically slept, ate and pooped. But anxiety did creep into our lives during that time in a rather surprising way. We were asked to speak about our surrogacy experience at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s monthly “Planning Biological Parenthood for Men” meeting that we attended in the months leading up to, and during, our surrogate’s pregnancy with Max. We embrace telling the story of our family’s creation and answering questions about our experiences. So what was stressful about attending the meeting? Was it speaking in front of a large group? Was it worrying over how Max would behave? No and no. The cause of the stress was over something much more important -- what was Max going to wear!

The only clothes we had for him at the time were layette clothes and ones that we got from the Carter’s, Oshkosh, and Children’s Place outlets in Georgia shortly before Max’s birth. Cute clothes and all, but even my sister Rebecca, who lives in the Boston suburbs, said that these mass-produced clothes weren’t going to cut it! So Stewart and I spent a whole day leading up to the meeting hitting downtown infant and toddler clothing stores to find the perfect too-cool-for-school baby outfit. We eventually purchased a $40, on sale, outfit from the boutique brand Milk and Honey with a Japanese surf print on the front. I’m not necessarily proud of it. I did the one thing I vowed not to do before Max was born, which was to buy over priced hipster clothes for my baby. That said, it actually was a totally cool outfit! All 3 times Max wore it he got compliments. Of course Max has grown like a weed since then -- doubling his weight and adding 4 inches to his height -- so now his ultra expensive and ultra trendy outfit is sitting in a hand-me-down bag dedicated to our friend Lisa who is having a baby in October.  So hopefully the outfit isn’t done glamorizing babies quite yet!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

1 Abba + 1 Papa = 2 Daddies

One of the first questions that everyone asked us when they found out that we were going to have a baby was what he or she is going to call us. At first we settled upon “Daddy” and “Papa”, as they seemed to be the conventional choice for gay parents and it made sense to us. We would both have a name of equal importance that distinguished us from one another and we had even been given a cute children’s book to read to the baby called “Daddy and Papa.” While we didn’t think too hard about it, there didn’t seem to be any good alternatives. For example:

Daddy 1 and Daddy 2 -- I would want to be called “Daddy 1” and Stewart wouldn’t appreciate being called “Daddy 2”!

Daddy Jacob and Daddy Stewart – The use of first names comes off as a little too hippy-dippy for us. For the first few years of our child’s life we want to at least think that we are his authority figures!

But our plans to be Daddy and Papa changed after Stewart woke up one morning from a bad dream. He had dreamt that he was at a playground with our baby at toddler age and a woman came up to them and innocently said to the toddler, “Are you enjoying your time with Daddy?” And the toddler responded: “That’s not Daddy!” (Because, in the child’s mind, only I am “Daddy” and Stewart is “Papa”). Upon hearing this, the woman freaked out and immediately called the police to have Stewart arrested, thinking that the toddler had been abducted by a strange man!

Of course it was a silly dream, but it made us realize how the word “daddy” in our society is ubiquitously associated with all things fatherhood, and that therefore it made sense for both of us to be the baby’s “daddy.” But we still needed different names for the baby to call us individually. One day Stewart came home from work and said: “I got it! You should be ‘Abba’ (which is Hebrew for ‘father’) and I will still be ‘Papa’.” I was surprised by Stewart’s suggestion. I don’t speak any Hebrew, or ever really refer to any Hebrew words. How the hell did this guy from a Waspy upbringing -- who didn’t even know what matzah ball soup or lox was before I started dating him -- know to suggest “Abba”? It turns out that he had been giving this topic a lot of thought after his dream, and had looked up on the internet the different names for “father” or “daddy” used throughout the world. “Abba” with “Papa” just sounded right, and seemed especially apropos since I am Jewish and we knew we were going to raise the baby Jewish. So if Max’s first word is “Abba” and not “Daddy” – now you know why!

My Big Gay Blog

Hi all, my name is Jacob! I live with my husband, Stewart, and our infant son Max in New York City in the East Village. The “About Me” window on the right tells a little bit about how we all became one big happy family, and that’s what this blog will be all about.

More specifically, I see this blog as a creative outlet for me to address how we created, and are raising, our family. I look forward to not only relating some amusing anecdotes -- hopefully not too many horrifying ones! -- about my daily experiences as a gay stay-at-home-dad, but also being informative about surrogacy and parenting issues. I would love this blog to be a dialogue not just a monologue. So I would love your feedback, suggestions and questions. I hope sharing my experiences will encourage you to share your experiences with me. I am always interested in talking with other parents, gay or straight, about parenting issues and advice. I am also very interested in talking with people about my surrogacy experience.