“I don’t know, Honey. Some people think there was a guy named God who made us.”
“But then who made God?”
“You’re very smart, you know.”
“Hmmm… let’s Google it.”
I’ve had a great response to Part 1 of my interview with Anne, a young woman born through surrogacy in 1993. The comments have been incredibly supportive, understanding and appreciative of her perspective. That’s been so gratifying to me, as a dad of two children born through surrogacy myself. Now that some of these kids are reaching adulthood and beyond, and now that surrogacy is becoming more and more common, it’s important to listen to the people who’ve lived through it.
I did only minor editing on Anne’s responses, because I wanted to make sure her view was as unfiltered as possible. She’s very well-adjusted and in touch with her origin story, as we call it here. Needless to say, though, there were things that were painful or difficult for her growing up. At the risk of stirring up the anti-surrogacy people, I’ve let Anne speak her mind. I’m hoping that doing so will help lots of parents like me understand our kids’ needs and do the best we can to help them grow up into people as awesome as Anne.
If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, you can find it here. Now, here’s the conclusion of my interview.
How many of your friends today know your origin story? How long do you usually know someone before you tell them, or is it even an issue at all? Do you feel like you constantly have to “come out” about your nontraditional family?
Honestly, I can’t think of any of my friends that don’t know. I tell people pretty quickly. It’s just easier to explain family dynamics and my upbringing that way because it has shaped me a good bit. I do feel like I have to come out, though, and there are times when it’s scary to “come out” about it. I think with coworkers that’s the only hesitancy I have because it’s a weirdly personal thing to bring up. I’ve only been in the “real world” for about a year but, from what I hear, talking about your dad’s sperm isn’t something that should be brought up often.
I spoke with my mom some about this, and she said that she’s never met someone who hasn’t thought it was cool/interesting/etc. and that she doesn’t plan on seeking those people out. I also think there’s an internal radar within each of us that knows when it’s safe to say certain things. In terms of coming out in my mind, it’s a bigger deal for me to tell someone I’m bisexual than it is for me to talk about my surrogacy, if that gives any perspective.
Do you look like your mom? What do you say if someone tells you that you look just like her (when you know you don’t actually share her DNA)? Or what if they say you look nothing like her?
Other than the blond hair, I don’t really. I’m going to have to use my mom’s response to the “you look just like her” or “I can see where she got her gorgeous hair”… She would just say something like “Yup, she definitely got it from her mom!” (emphasizing mom) and then wink at me. In terms of looking nothing like her, she’s a bit older that most moms but it’s never come up that I can remember. I also think I was quick to tell people throughout my life if I could so if someone said something about looking like my mom I would just tell them and it wouldn’t come up again. I also was and am in many ways still am a huge tomboy so it’s hard to know what someone looks like in an oversized hoodie and jeans to begin with. Combine all of this with her being 48 years older than me and I was more likely to have someone ask me if that was my grandmother than anything else.
What about the fact that your surrogate was paid to carry you? I used to worry that my kids would think they were the product of a business transaction rather than an act of love. Did you ever feel that way?
This is actually a question I get a good bit early into the conversation about my “origin story”. In college at one point, I sat down with a guy who was writing a paper on surrogacy. The question of cost came up, and I called my parents on the spot asking them how much they paid. I don’t even remember how much the ballpark estimate was, which is a testament to how much I don’t really think about it.
In fact, the reason my birth mom had me had to do with her having an abortion previously. She wanted a way to give back after doing so and decided to be a surrogate. For a while, I thought that maybe I was just a redo after a mistake. That thought process quickly dissipates though when you actually break down the facts of how much time goes into being a surrogate mother. It’s not just a transaction, especially when I hear how fond my parents are of my birth mom and vice versa.
The money aspect never really bothered me too much. I think one of the harder parts of being a surrogate though has to do with the fact that I have really no reason to be upset at my birth mom or to not know her. It’s almost the opposite reaction to the money question: “Wow, someone did this for x dollars?”. In many ways, my birth mom did an incredible thing for my parents and gave up a huge chunk of four years of her life basically to do so. If anything, the money aspect is secondary but the “what kind of awesome person would do this?!” comes to mind.
OK, every teenager goes through a phase when they’ll say whatever they can to hurt their parents’ feelings. Did you ever, in a fit of anger, say, “You’re not my real mom!” or, as Scott Evil says in Austin Powers, “I wish I was never artificially created in a lab!”? And if so, how did your parents handle it? I’m just trying to get a sense of what I’m in for with my kids when they get older, so I can start thinking of some snappy comebacks.
I never said it as a teenager but I do remember saying it as a very very very young child. I was upset about something and said “I want my real mom”. I don’t really remember what happened exactly but I do know my mom just hugged me anyway and asked if it was okay if she was there for me. I think the fact of the matter is that we (my mom and I) both are very aware we aren’t related. Saying “You aren’t my real mom” doesn’t take away from the fact that she helped me with homework assignments, changed my diaper, helped me apply to college, let me practice the same speech a thousand times to her, checked my papers for mistakes, etc. If I were you, I would say something like “I know I’m not but I am someone who loves you dearly and am doing everything I can to support you”.
I apologize if this is like one of those job interview questions where they try to throw a curveball at you, but what do you feel has been the best part of being a child of surrogacy? Is there anything it’s given you that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
I think it has made me incredibly self aware and curious about others. I’m not sure if I was just born that way or if it’s a result, but I definitely think just the complexity of my family has made me that way. Beyond that, I think having a broader definition of family has allowed me to have deeper relationships than most with my parents (with time) and friends. I’ve also learned purely as a result of my being here that there is an incredibly good and beautiful side to humanity. It’s taught me the importance of giving back and of doing things for others that they may not be able to do for themselves. Yes, me being born in an economic sense is nothing more than a transaction. The same is true from a legal standpoint: I’m a result of a legal contract. However, me being born in the anthropological sense shows an incredibly fascinating and wonderful next step for humans. Me being born in a sociological sense shows change in a variety of institutions (medical, legal, etc.), social opinion, and simply how people interact. I can ramble about this for a while but you get the point. Come to think of it, this may explain why I stuck to subjects like anthropology and sociology more than economics over the years :) It’s a more human explanation for a human situation.
I think being a surrogate baby has simply given me a perspective on the world that very few have. It’s given me a million reasons to understand myself better and to view things from a variety of perspectives (my parents, my technically half brother, my birthmom, my birthmom’s kids, etc.). It also let me blur the lines of family and let more people in as a result. I’m also very comfortable with the “messiness” of life and I think that’s been a huge asset for me.
Looking back, is there anything you wish your parents had handled differently in how they raised you? Anything having to do with when or how they discussed your origin story or the level of contact you had with your surrogate?
I wish my parents had acknowledged the differences between my brother and me a bit more. This may sound odd but I think they were so focused on trying to make sure we were treated equally that I sometimes didn’t get the help I needed. They tried to make things SO normal that there wasn’t a ton of time to talk about how I was different. I needed structured time to have a conversation about it whereas I think they waited for me to just bring it up. I was a very emotional kid and still am that way as an adult whereas my brother is extremely logical and quite void of intense emotions almost. While I think they wanted to make sure I had a normal existence and didn’t have to think/talk about my birth mom, I think I needed to more than we did. The one off remarks about her and, as you say, my origin story were reassuring but I never felt I had a complete understanding and always felt like I had to be the one to bring it up. I told them this about two years ago but I wish they had just asked me from time to time “How do you feel about being a surrogate baby? Do you like your relationship with your birthmom? Do you tell your friends about this?”. I just wish we had a bit of a deeper and more thorough dialogue beyond “She’s a great person! You look just like her!”.
Otherwise, I have zero complaints. My mom has handled everything with complete grace and they are ALWAYS open to talking about it honestly even if I have to start the conversations. I think for them the hard part of having kids was the not being able to have them. As a result, I don’t think they understand the perspective of it being hard for me. I don’t think it ever really crossed their mind which has been a positive in that it has made me secure about my family.
What’s the weirdest or most offensive thing anyone’s ever said to you about surrogacy and/or your origin story?
Before visiting my birth mom in college there was talk of my friend and I possibly staying with her to save money. My friend said something to the effect of “you don’t know her – she could be crazy. I don’t know if this is smart” and it really threw me for a loop. I was offended because it was technically my genetic mom and it made me feel like she thought I was crazy. I also was hurt because she was right – I don’t know her and I don’t know what she is like. I ended up calling my dad in a panic not knowing what to do or how to process it. He basically calmed me down and we ended the conversation laughing about the whole thing. Still though, it left me feeling pretty uneasy and weird for obvious reasons. Also, not the best thing to say to someone when they are just meeting their birth mom for the second time (if the first time even counted).
Would you ever consider being a surrogate yourself, and if so, under what circumstances? (For a friend/sibling? Traditional/gestational? “Hell to the no!”?)
I have very little desire to have kids right now so this is hard for me to answer. The idea of having a baby just reminds me of the Alien vs. Predator movie scene where the alien busts out of that person’s chest. Kidding aside, I’m reading a book right not called Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon that dives into the parent – child relationship in terms of how our identities are developed. I highly recommend reading it purely because it breaks apart the importance of correctly identifying illness (something that can be fixed) vs identity (something that needs be accepted) as well as offering a solid study into vertical (genetic/family) vs horizontal (social) identities. I want to study this more, meet more surrogates, meet more surrogate babies, and understand the parent-child relationships a bit better before diving into having kids of my own or kids for other people.
When my husband and I first met with our surrogacy agency, they told us we were “pioneers”, but your parents really earned that term much more than we did, given that you were born in 1993. Is there any advice you’d have for people considering surrogacy today?
I would say the best advice is to take a child development class and to meet other people who have gone through it. I took a child development class as part of my college education and, wow, everyone considering to be parents needs to take one (seriously). Beyond that, I would think long and hard about two questions:
1. Do you want to tell your child? Are you willing to deal with the consequences of telling them or not telling them?
2. What do you want your relationship and your child’s relationship to be like with the birthmom? The lack of research around surrogates in this case is what is mostly causing the problem. It’s a natural reaction to fear something you don’t understand, don’t hear about, and, for most people, don’t have a need for. It’s a different story when you are struggling with fertility issues. It’s ironic to me that they would be against surrogacy when it’s basically a hyper planned pregnancy with the sole goal of delivering a baby to two parents who really want the child.
My two cents: tell your kids and have an open relationship with the birthmom.
Are you aware of the anti-surrogacy movement? There are some people who don’t think surrogacy should be legal, because it exploits women and/or because it’s unfair to the kids who result from it. How would you respond to those people?
I am aware of the anti-surrogacy movement. I can see why it can be thought of that way from people who may not really understand how surrogacy is being used in the real world. The screening in place for surrogate mothers is intense, at least in the United States. I think that should be the case everywhere if it’s not already (I can’t speak with authority on that). Moreover, I think the screening for parents who want to use surrogacy should be just as intense and rigorous, which I currently think it is. My parents have spoken to me of strict standards even back at the very beginning of this so I can’t imagine they have fallen to the wayside now. By having these standards in place, I think you actually prevent many of the fears anti-surrogacy people have as you can weed out those who are doing it for the wrong reasons, which could potentially result in the exploitation of women and a level of unfairness to the kids. However, I think if you actually surveyed surrogates and surrogate babies, you would find a much different story.
For the last question, I want you to speak directly to my kids. Knowing that they were also conceived through surrogacy, what would you want to say to them?
Gah. I know there may be times when your identity feels pulled in a million directions and you’re not sure who you got your laugh or nose from but know that deep down inside you are so incredibly loved. Know that family goes much farther and deeper beyond blood and genetics. Know that it’s okay to talk about surrogacy and that you should never be ashamed of it. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions but recognize that everyone involved in your life is going through this for the first time too (give them and yourself a break). You can never have too many people who love you and want you to be here – you, like me, have one extra person from the very beginning loving you. See your origin story as something that gives you insight into yourself and those around you. Question yourself deeply – you have a rare perspective on the world. Talk to others – often the fears or concerns you might have about being a surrogate baby can come from not having a greater perspective about how you get here in the first place. Ultimately though, be kind – everyone has their own origin story in their own way and use yours to connect rather than to divide.
Is there anything else you want to add? If not, feel free to tell me how wonderful my questions were, because that would be a super ego boost for me.
I think for me I’m at a place now where I more so just want to understand the surrogate’s perspective. In many ways, the surrogate baby is “set up” to seek the birth mom whereas the birth mom is “set up” to let go of the child she gave birth to for someone else. That’s an oversimplification of course but I think I’m realizing after so many years I think I now have the emotional energy and confidence to dive into building a relationship with her rather than theorizing about how she might feel. You can really drive yourself nuts if you want to trying to understand surrogacy and I’ve found that simplifying it to the core of it being an act of altruism in many ways helps bring me peace.
One last ramble… being a surrogate baby is basically like half being adopted and half being a stepchild without any drama of a divorce. It leaves you in a weird place because you have some angst of “why did my mom give me up” but not nearly to the extent that you do if you were adopted. The angst that is there as a result often goes away when you release how selfless it was to do. However, you do feel a bit like a stepchild in that you aren’t fully related to one of your parents (at least for my kind of surrogacy). BUT you were so wanted by this parent that they planned for years to have you! As a result, it’s this weird mix of more common social norms in our society that leaves you feeling both like you have people who “get it” yet still a bit alone. I’ve balanced it by realizing as we all do that there will be very few if any people who totally get your story. There are some friends who I can talk to about my sexual identity but who may not understand the surrogacy/family side and vice versa. Fortunately, I have a variety of people who I can turn to for different things and, ultimately, as a collective group of people I have never felt alone in this.
I think my favorite part of what Anne said is this: “Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions but recognize that everyone involved in your life is going through this for the first time too (give them and yourself a break).” That’s such an incredibly empathetic, self-aware statement, and we’re definitely still in a world where that is true for most families undergoing surrogacy.
I’d like to point out, for the sake of clarity, that my kids were created through a different type of surrogacy than Anne was. Her parents underwent what’s commonly called “traditional surrogacy”, in which the surrogate carrier uses her own egg but does not retain custody of the child. (Thus, Anne’s use of the term “birth mom,” which we don’t use in our family.) Traditional surrogacy has become less common with the advances in IVF technology since the 90’s, although some intended parents still choose that route. My husband and I underwent “gestational surrogacy,” which is more common today. In gestational surrogacy, embryos are created in vitro using a donor’s eggs, and they’re then transfered to a surrogate who has no genetic link to the child.
Thanks again to Anne for her openness and honesty in responding to my incredibly direct and invasive questions. She is an inspiration to me, and I’m sure she will be to my kids as they get older. If you’d like to get to know Anne even better, you should follow her on Twitter @annezazu
Last month, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the first ever WordPress-sponsored Press Publish conference in Portland, Oregon. While I was there, I met tons of awesome people, but the one who probably sticks out the most to me was a young woman named Anne who spoke to me after my presentation. She wanted me to know that she was born through surrogacy herself. She was curious to meet my kids, because she’d never met anyone else who was born through surrogacy.
She was a wonderful person — smart, polite, down-to-Earth, and we had a very nice chat. I promised to put her in touch with some people who might be able to help her find other people her age born through surrogacy, and she gave me her card.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about her, because I often wonder how my kids will feel about their birth story as they get older. Will they be confused? Alienated? Bored to tears? Anne was so cool about where she came from, so I emailed and asked if I could interview her for this site.
Before I start, I want to say that Anne gave me permission to be totally blunt and intrusive and ask the kind of questions that would normally earn me a slap in the face. In return, I gave her permission to respond “You horrible bastard!” to any question that was particularly rude, and then just move on. I would not normally be this direct when talking to someone with a nontraditional birth story, nor would I recommend you be. But if you want to know how they might answer if you ever were so bold, here you go.
In order to avoid any confusion, I also want to point out that when I refer to Anne’s “mom” or “mother” in these questions, I mean the woman who raised her. If I’m talking about her surrogate, I’ll use the term “surrogate”.
* * *
Hi Anne! First of all, can you tell me about your family and about how you were conceived? It was through traditional surrogacy, right, meaning the surrogate used her own egg, along with your father’s sperm?
Yes, I am a result of a traditional surrogacy! My mom dealt with fertility issues, which led them to consider surrogacy. Through the Center for Surrogate Parenting, they met my birth mom. The first attempt ended in a miscarriage, and after that, it took them almost 4 years to have me.
Before my second question, I want to apologize for my first question, because no one should ever have to hear, say or think about a phrase like “your father’s sperm”. Most of us have the luxury of never having to ponder the specifics of how our parents created us — whether it was on their honeymoon, there was a broken condom or they were crazy drunk and our dad actually thought he was hooking up with our mom’s identical twin sister or something. I don’t know those things about myself, and I don’t want to. Do you ever get annoyed that people are so curious about the specifics of your birth story, or that you have to talk about it more than most people do?
Hahah oh my gosh. In some ways, I’m lucky my birth was SO planned. They REALLY wanted me, so much so that they went through this intense process to have me. Honestly, I get more annoyed with people who try to pretend like I didn’t just say anything about surrogacy when I mention it than those who see me as an interesting biology and social experiment. “That’s nice – what are you doing this weekend” feels a lot worse than “Wait – how long have you known?!”.
If I don’t want to talk about it I don’t have to. Either way, most of the time when I do bring it up or when family is brought up an interesting conversation results, which is always fun.
What kind of communication do you have with your surrogate, and what do you call her? Is she your “surrogate mother”, or do you avoid the “m” word, like we do in our family?
I call her by her first name actually. I had to take a second to think about that. If I’m describing her to other people, I’ll say birth mom like I am now. Otherwise though, I had major speech problems until I was about 9 and surrogate mother would have come out like “I haff a shuwoogathe mothwa” which sounds like it could be a disease.
I didn’t have much communication with her growing up. Looking back, that’s something I wish I had more of but she was living her life, most likely trying to give my parents distance to raise me. I remember getting cards on Christmas and for my birthday every once in a while.
When I was 12, I met her for the first time. Apparently, organizations associated with surrogacy think 12 is a good age. Real quick: think back to when you were 12 and imagine meeting your parent for the first time?! It threw me for a loop for sure. I think 12 was just too awkward and emotional of an age for that to happen. We only went out to dinner and my parents were there the entire time. I don’t remember saying much because what do you have to say when you’re 12?
After that, I remember reaching a point in my freshman or sophomore year where I hacked into my dad’s email looking for her email address. This was the beginning of social media and all that jazz so I was determined to see if I could find her. I found her email address, then found her on Facebook. Long story short, we became Facebook friends my junior year and basically liked each other’s posts for a while.
Midway through college, I realized I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something happened to my birth mom and I hadn’t met her as an adult. I decided to make the trip my junior year to visit her. I dragged one of my close friends along for the road trip and am so happy I did, as I definitely would’ve been too nervous to drive to dinner by myself. We met up with her and her husband and had dinner. Since then we’ve mostly kept up very randomly via texting but I’m planning on going to see her sometime in the next year again. My relationship with her is definitely something I want to develop as I do think I’m lucky to have such an open relationship with her.
When did your parents first tell you that you were conceived through surrogacy, and what was your initial reaction? Did you feel like a weirdo, some kind of superkid or somewhere in between?
This is a hard question to answer, because I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know. My family always talked about it, never in a way of “You’re different” but more of a “We’re so lucky to have you!”
In terms of how I felt, there were definitely times I felt a bit different. It was more centered on me not knowing my biological mom. I think it made me wonder if I was missing anything. I know that I felt a bit out of place within my family at times. I do remember daydreaming about meeting my birth mom and what I would say to her or what would happen if we didn’t get along. I think more than anything I just wondered if she was like me. I wrote about it a bit on an old private blog. Here are some excerpts:
“my half sister messaged me a bit ago about wanting to get together and go on vacation or at least meet up. isnt that strange? isnt that lovely? i love it. every bit of it. it’s weird that there is someone genetically related to me living their own life doing their own thing and i am only following from a distance on facebook. same with [my birth mom]. will i ever know her? know what her face looks like when shes mad or happy? know what her favorite song is. favorite candy. favorite meal. what time she goes to bed. how she cuts a steak. what her laugh sounds like. the little things.” – December 31, 2012
“i saw my birth mom almost two weeks ago. i am at work and can’t write too much about it but let’s just say that the connection was made. the synapse was complete. i can now think about my birth mom and there is a mental endpoint. there are less questions. there is more peace. it was amazing to see myself in her. to sit across from her and feel so calm. i wasnt worried about what i was saying or doing. i just was being. it was a lot less scary than i thought it would be and a lot more natural.” -November 5, 2013
Based on these two you can see a glimpse of how I felt before and how I feel now. When I think about her now there isn’t this nagging feeling that I need to see her. There’s a much broader sense of calm and peace about it.
Growing up, how many of your friends knew about your unique birth story? (Just to make you feel more like a superhero, we’ll call it your “origin story”.) Did other kids ever tease you about your family?
I don’t ever recall being teased but I do remember outing myself, so to speak, about being a surrogate baby when a friend of mine who was adopted was being picked on. I think the other kids were so shocked by what I said they just didn’t pick on her again! I have some memories in 1st – 5th grade of telling people, but it was always just passed over. My mom told me recently that she had some parents come up to her asking for the story so they could explain it a bit better to their kids. After 6th or 7th grade, I remember telling my close friends more often. It was one of those “secrets” that came out after a certain period of time. In college, I would say it casually if there were moments it came up in conversation about family life, etc. I mentioned it to a Lyft driver the other day after making a comment about being born where he was from but only living there for a week. If the opportunity comes up, I’ll say something but it’s definitely not a natural thing you throw into conversation.
Did you feel different from your friends with more traditional families, and did you ever wish you could just have a “normal” family like everyone else?
I do have some really funny memories from a doctor’s visit when I was probably 6 where I said some really insane stuff about not letting my mom’s blood go inside my body because we aren’t related. I definitely had moments where I felt like my brother was closer to my mom. My dad and I like the same candy, wake up early in the morning, have similar mannerisms, etc. I felt like I could feel the biological connection more than I could with my mom. How can you prove that? If I didn’t know I was a surrogate baby, would I even notice anything? I firmly believe I wouldn’t.
At some point when I was growing up, though, I realized that having blurred lines about what exactly family is allowed me to develop closer relationships with people. To explain a bit further, by expanding my definition of family, I was able to let more people in. I think this way of viewing things helped me not worry as much about what a “normal” family is. Plus, the second you really talk to anyone about family, you realize there is no normal :)
Tell me a bit about your brother. While your parents were struggling to conceive with the surrogate, they actually conceived naturally, and your brother was born. Is that right?
That’s correct! My brother was basically a miracle baby. My mom had stopped fertility treatments when she found out she was pregnant with him!
So if your parents’ goal was to have a baby, why did they continue to pursue surrogacy after they had a biological child of their own? I think that’s something that might confuse some people.
Simply put, they wanted two kids :) I think just having one kid would have been a miracle enough, but the chance to have two… they couldn’t pass it up. I think at that point they were already heavily invested in the idea of surrogacy and decided to go for it.
Did you ever feel different from your brother, like he had some connection to your mom that you lacked? Did you ever feel like your parents treated you differently? And be honest, because every kid in history who has siblings has at one point or another said, “You like him better than me!”
I am about as different from my brother as I can be. We butt heads, as I seem to have taken all the emotions between the two of us. I would say despite my parents’ best efforts, we were treated differently. I think having different genetics meant I needed to be treated differently. I’m much more emotional than my brother and needed different responses in certain situations. I spoke to my parents about this a couple of years ago and they said they just never thought of it that way but can see how they could have done things differently.
When you think about everything your parents went through to have you, do you ever wonder, “Why didn’t they just adopt?” Is that something other people have asked? (My husband and I get that sometimes when we mention we had a surrogate.)
For some reason, I think my parents would have had a harder time adopting than having a surrogate. I’m 22 and my mom just turned 70 about a week ago. My dad is 60.
I just called my mom and asked. Here’s a summary of her response:
“We tried everything. We started with adoption and it’s not that easy when you’re our age. Because at this day and age, birthmothers have a big say and I was probably older than most of their moms. The short answer is we tried, and when we had the funds to go for surrogacy we jumped for it. Having the possibility of surrogacy was a more attractive option because you would have more of a likelihood that you would have a baby and there would be a genetic connection. It was an evolution – it wasn’t an either/or.”
As a backstory, The generation gap is something that did cause issues but, now that I’m older and wiser myself, I’m SO happy to have had older parents as there was a maturity that I think made this entire process easier. In terms of other people asking about adoption, I’ve actually never been asked that!
Coming up in part two, I’ll ask Anne about how she deals with being a child of surrogacy now that she’s grown up. Does it still come up? Would she consider being a surrogate herself? What would she say to kids like mine who were also born through surrogacy, and to people who don’t think surrogacy should be legal?
Check back for the second part of my interview or subscribe to my blog to get it emailed to you as soon as it becomes available. And Happy Surrogate and Egg Donor Day!
This is a picture of my 5-year-old son Bennett wearing his favorite hoodie. It was a gift somebody bought for him, so I’m not sure where it came from, but it does appear to be an officially licensed product.
He loves this hoodie because it has the Minions on it, of course, and because of that, he doesn’t really care what the words say. If it said, “I love naps”, he would still wear it. Or “Feed the boy wearing this shirt broccoli”. Yup, he’d put that on, too, because it’s the Minions, and anything associated with them must automatically be cool.
But it doesn’t say those things. It says, “We’re here, we’re yellow, get used to it.” My 5-year-old son wears a shirt that features a rewriting of a chant used by so-called radical gay rights activists in the early 1990’s. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” In 2015, somebody thought the slogan was a) well-known enough and b) child-friendly enough to use on an article of children’s clothing.
Just think about that.
Queer Nation, the group that originated the slogan, was formed in 1990 in New York City. They were tired of gay bashings and of people ignoring AIDS because they thought it only affected some deviant subculture. There were no “straight allies” back then, no TV news coverage for gay rights. In those days, you could be a loveable mainstream person in the public eye and openly say things like, “Those people got that disease as a punishment from God.” Say that, and you’d still have a career. But if you said, simply, “I’m gay,” you were finished.
The people in Queer Nation weren’t just saying it, they were shouting it, and they were letting you know the problem was yours, not theirs.
In 1990, I was a college student in New York City, and I remember what it was like for battalions of angry gay men to march through the streets yelling, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” It scared the shit out of people.
Of course, my kid doesn’t know his shirt features an (admittedly not very clever) play on a confrontational gay chant. He just likes the colorful corporate property depicted in the graphic.
Last night, my daughter was reading the words on his shirt, over and over, and cracking herself up. “We’re here, we’re yellow, get used to it!” She thought it was hilarious, but I knew she didn’t really get the joke. And it’s not like I could explain it to her.
Then I thought about when one of their African-American friends came over for a playdate. I was going to turn the TV on for them, when this sweet little preschool-age girl informed me that she wasn’t allowed to watch a certain network because they don’t have any African-American characters on it. My kids didn’t know what she was talking about, so I explained it to them. “It just doesn’t seem fair that there are so many different kinds of people in the world, but they don’t always get shown on TV. We know lots of people who look different from us. Don’t you think there should be TV characters who look like them?” I kind of loved that this girl’s mom was so frank with her about racism even at her age, and that, as a result, my kids got a lesson in it, too.
So why not gay rights?
We’re gay dads, after all. It’s not like this issue isn’t going to come up at some point. I’ve resisted discussing homophobia with my kids for a while because, among other things, I didn’t think they would believe me. We really don’t get treated badly because our family is non-traditional, at least not that I think my kids would have noticed. Sure, sometimes, people are confused by our family. Kids tell them that two men can’t get married, and even grown-ups sometimes think my children are lying when they say they don’t have a mom. But as far as I know, they’ve never actually witnessed homophobia. Everyone we know and deal with regularly treats us just like every other family.
I also thought about something else my daughter had said at dinner. “A boy in my class today did this with his hand.” She held up her middle finger. Some kid in her kindergarten class had apparently flipped the teacher off. We had a talk about how that wasn’t a nice gesture to make, something she had already figured out when the boy got sent to the principal’s office. So my kid now knew how to flip the bird… and I was worried about her hearing the word “queer”?
Then I realized this didn’t need to be some big angry rant about The Man keeping us down. It could just be a history lesson. It’s a topic that’s all over TV. Why shouldn’t my children hear about it from their own parents?
“Do you know what Bennett’s shirt means?” I asked them at dinner. They shook their heads. “You know how some men are like me and Daddy and they fall in love with other men? And some women fall in love with other women? Well, there’s a word for that, ‘gay’. And some people don’t like that. They don’t think people should be gay. They think men should only marry women and women should only marry men. So they made up a mean word so they could be mean to people like us, and that word was ‘queer’. Well, a long time ago, some gay people got tired of people being mean to them, so they made up a chant that went, ‘We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!’ It was like saying, ‘If you want to call us names, go ahead, but we are who we are, and we’re not going to let you be mean to us anymore.'”
I think that’s about as far as I got before they started asking what was for dessert. I felt better, though, because, if nothing else, I had shared something truly amazing with my kids. In just 25 years, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” has gone from a defiant middle finger to the mainstream to something alluded to on a sweatshirt that a 5-year-old boy (a boy with two dads, no less) wears to kindergarten.
I can’t help thinking how many of the original Queer Nation activists didn’t survive the AIDS epidemic. They weren’t here for gay marriage, gay sitcoms and the Supreme Court striking down sodomy laws, for a time when an openly gay man can host the Oscars and an openly lesbian woman can have a beloved daytime talk show. When you can finally say “I’m gay” and still have a career, but if you say, “I wouldn’t go to my friend’s gay wedding,” then everyone thinks you’re a major weenieburger.
If I could show those fallen heroes one thing to illustrate how far we’ve come, though, it wouldn’t be any of those things.
It would be this picture, of my son in his favorite hoodie.
“Holy shit,” I imagine they’d reply. “They got used to it.”
* * * * *
Do you like the things that I say and the way that I say them? Did you know you can read a lot more from me in my book “Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad”? Do you have any idea how happy it would make me if you did?
And if you just like this post and have no interest whatsoever in anything else I’ve ever written, then why not share this post with all your social media friends by clicking on the share buttons below? Then, when they all start commenting with things like, “I love this!”, you can say, “Oh yeah, he wrote a book, too. I just ordered it.” And then you can order it. I won’t tell.
Twelve years ago today, I met Drew, and life as I now know it began. A little over a year ago, after much deliberation, we did something else which some people consider kind of a big deal. Life didn’t change much after that. It was already pretty much perfect. So when we had to decide which day we wanted to celebrate, it was no contest. Happy anniversary, Drew.
Here’s the story…
The only type of marriage I ever imagined myself having was a sham one. Two kids, a station wagon and a clueless, frustrated wife in denial about her husband’s sexuality. That’s the best image my teenage self could conjure up, so it’s no wonder I never had a romantic view of this staid legal institution. Once I came out of the closet, I never had to think about marriage again. This was the late 20th Century, when gay people were more miffed over Eminem’s lyrics than the fact that we couldn’t file taxes jointly.
Sure, there were gay people who got “married,” but always in quotation marks. It was easy enough to opt out of. When someone would ask a gay couple, “When are you going to get married?”, they could respond with nothing more than a chuckle and an eyeroll.
My straight friends were jealous. The lucky ones got to go through the endless Hell of wedding planning – picking out China, battling with in-laws and swimming in bills. The rest only dreamed of such a fate. Finally, a societal benefit to being gay.
When I fell in love, it was simple. We bought a condo, picked our sides of the bed and opened a joint checking account. I was a freelance writer, and Drew had a steady corporate job, so he put me on his health insurance. Without the grim specter of matrimony looming, we were free to define our relationship exactly as we wished – and to make our own choices about how we wanted things to progress.
When the California Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that same-sex couples had the right to marry, we didn’t rush to City Hall like so many of our neighbors. Nor did we sweat when Proposition 8 undid that ruling a few months later. Let the homophobes play the role of Grinch, thinking they can steal Christmas by absconding with some presents and roast beast. That was our attitude. Drew and I knew we’d still be singing just as happily, because they could never take from us the actual source of our joy.
We had other priorities anyway, like becoming dads. With the help of a surrogate, we became the parents of twins. I quit my job to be a stay-home father. We moved to New York to be closer to our siblings and their kids. We adjusted to every life change together, like committed couples do, only without the official commitment. It’s not that we never talked about marriage. It’s just that when the topic did come up, we always agreed that it wasn’t for us.
I cringed when I saw a viral video of a guy proposing to his boyfriend at Home Depot. Dozens of their friends and family members popped up from behind piles of lumber to perform a choreographed dance routine to the couple’s favorite song. Meanwhile, regular shoppers looked on, bemused or perhaps annoyed at the flash mob blocking access to the 2x4s. It seemed like everyone we knew shared the video and commented on how sweet it was. I responded with a blog post titled, “Why That Home Depot Marriage Proposal Video Makes Me Want to Hurl.”
Some of my friends called me a sourpuss, but Drew agreed with every word. Couldn’t those guys have found some way to celebrate their love without requiring all their friends to buy solid-color tank tops and strut around like morons in a Paula Abdul dance phalanx? Drew and I knew our love was every bit as strong as theirs. We just didn’t think our romance should require a location scout.
Never was our relationship more in the spotlight than at Drew’s brother’s wedding. It was a wonderful day, full of love and jubilation, and as relatives like to do, people speculated who might be next to walk down the aisle. We attempted to deflect attention with the usual chuckle and eyeroll, but laughing off the notion was no longer quite so easy.
“You live in New York! It’s legal there!” people prodded. As we looked around the reception, though, Drew and I knew nothing had changed. This was beautiful, but it wasn’t for us.
That was it. Case closed. Or so I thought.
Months went by, then one day, the phone rang. “Hey, yeah, so…,” Drew stammered. This was the smoothest-talking man I’d ever known. I had no idea what could have him so flustered, but surely it was something huge. Aliens making contact with Earth? He got a girl pregnant? Turns out he had an even bigger shock in store. “You wanna get married?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, suspicious. “Do I?”
It may not have mattered to Drew and me that we lived in a marriage equality state, but as it turned out, it mattered to Drew’s company. They had just informed him that they would no longer accept our joint checking account as sufficient evidence of a lifelong commitment. Unless we got hitched, I’d be kicked off Drew’s health plan.
We agreed to tie the knot, but with no more fanfare than we felt the occasion deserved. We made an appointment at City Hall at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, because Drew’s company had given us a deadline of 5pm that day to fax them the signed marriage certificate. We hardly told anyone it was happening. In the ultimate modern day non-acknowledgment, we even declined to Facebook it.
Our only guests would be our kids, who were now four years old. Our daughter was ecstatic about being a flower girl. We had to explain that there wouldn’t be any actual flower petals for her to spread delicately across the aisle. There probably wouldn’t even be an aisle. Our son wanted to know if there would be a party where he could dance to One Direction songs. No and no.
It was the first time I’d really thought about how this looked through our kids’ eyes. Drew and I had been perfectly satisfied, even pleased, with the relaxed nature of the proceedings, but what message was it sending to our son and daughter? That two men can get married… but they don’t get to make a big deal out of it?
Getting married would solve our problems. I’d be back on the insurance plan. Our friends would stop pestering us. But for the first time, it felt like maybe we deserved more.
During our brief engagement period, Drew had to take a trip to Los Angeles for work. I decided to tag along so I could see some friends. It was the first time we’d gone back together to the city where we’d met since we moved East two years earlier. We drove past our old condo building and stopped outside the restaurant where we had our first date.
“Come on,” Drew said. “Let’s go in.” He wanted to take a picture at the table where we met, something to show the kids. Unfortunately, someone was sitting there, and they didn’t look friendly.
He told me instead to take a seat on the bench in the waiting area.
“That isn’t a good spot for a picture,” I protested. “You can’t even tell where we are.”
“Just do it,” he insisted.
As I sat down, Drew reached into his coat pocket and got down on one knee. “I thought I should do this right,” he said. He flipped open a jewelry box and showed me a ring, then said the most romantic thing I’d never wanted to hear from him. “Will you marry me?”
It was so traditional, so not what the two of us were all about. And yet… so sweet. We were just a few feet from where we’d first laid eyes on each other, and in that moment, it felt like we were back at the beginning… of something.
Drew slipped the ring on my finger and walked me to the restaurant’s private room. As he peeled back a curtain, I saw the faces of twenty of our closest friends, champagne in their hands, ready to toast. There was a cake that said, “Congratulations Jerry & Drew!” A dozen iPhone cameras flashed at once.
There were people from every stage of our relationship, friends from before we’d met up through fellow parents from our kids’ gym class. I was overwhelmed to see them all together, and so grateful that they weren’t dancing in unison.
“Well,” one of them asked, nervously. “Did you say yes?”
“I don’t think I did,” I answered. “But yes!” It was all I could do not to chuckle and roll my eyes.
“I mean, duh.”
“Daddy, I know how to spell boo.”
“That’s close, but not quite. Try again.”
“Daddy, I’m right. Boo is B-I-I.”
“No, Honey. Boo is spelled B-O-O.”
* * * * *
Read my Biik.
2. Because you’re gay, and she’s afraid you’re never going to give her any grandkids.
3. Because she’s already laughed her ass off at Scary Mommy’s and Baby Sideburns’ books, and she wants to read something endorsed by both of those awesome ladies.
4. Because families are families, and if she loves her family, she’ll love reading about mine.
5. Because it has “Mommy” in the title, and that’s more thought than most people give to their Mother’s Day gifts.
Want to buy it? It’s not hard! “Mommy Man” is now back in stock on Amazon, as well as Barnes & Noble, IndieBound and pretty much everywhere. See more ordering options here. But hurry! Mother’s Day will be here soon!
* * * * *
If you don’t mind waiting until the very last minute, then join my Amazing Chart Twerk 2 by ordering or picking up a copy of “Mommy Man” on Thursday, May 8 as close to 12pm Eastern Time as you can.
* * * * *
Me: “That’s great. What kind of ride?”
Bennett: “It’ll be for babies.”
Me: “Good idea. They don’t have a lot of rides for babies. And what will it be?”
Bennett: “A Tower of Terror.”
Me: “Hmm… OK. Well, what are you going to call it?”
Bennett: “The Baby Tower of Terror.”
Me: “How is it going to be different from the regular Tower of Terror?”
Bennett: “It’s not.”
Me: “It’ll be just as tall?”
Me: “And just as dark?”
Me: “Don’t you think babies will be scared?”
Bennett: “Nope, because it’s for babies.”
Me: “What happens in your ride?”
Sutton: “You ride in a bow and you see all of Minnie’s bows and beautiful dresses.”
Me: “How long does this ride last?”
Sutton: “15 or 20 hours.”
The response to my Disney post has really blown me away. I’ve heard from so many cast members, many of whom have shared my post and all of whom have been astonishingly nice and complimentary. There have even been a few who remember my family from our trip! It’s never fun to come back from vacation, but all of you helped keep the magic going for a few more days, so thanks.
To everyone who read the post, I want to say a couple of things. One, many people wanted to make sure I know that Disney treats everyone as well as they treated my family. It’s their goal to make us all feel special. That couldn’t make me happier. I’d love to think that everyone who goes to Disney World has as wonderful a vacation as we did.
Two, the Fairy Godmother I wrote about is apparently well-known for being extra awesome. That makes me happy, too, because she definitely deserves the recognition. If you go to Orlando, make sure you pay her a visit.
Since people seemed to connect so well with that post, I figured I’d share a few more photos and anecdotes from our trip. Some of them have already appeared on my Facebook page, but I think they’re worth reposting here. Continue reading
The last time I’d been there, I was pretty much still a kid myself — 20 years old and just coming to terms with being gay. Everywhere I looked in Orlando, I saw dads. They were buckling their kids into the Dumbo ride and hoisting them onto their shoulders to watch the Main Street Electrical Parade. They all had big smiles on their faces, and they all had wives.
With that visit, Disney World became Exhibit A of what I was sacrificing by coming out of the closet.
Or so I thought.
I’ve written a whole book about how I got from that point to fatherhood, and I’m happy to say that twenty years in the future, life looks a lot better than I ever expected it would. As soon as Drew and I felt the kids were old enough to appreciate a Disney vacation, we booked our trip.
I had just a tinge of nerves as the four of us headed for the airport. We’re never more visible as a family than when we travel. Nothing says “We file taxes jointly” as clearly as sharing a Lion King suite in a Disney hotel. And I doubt any place in America draws such a cross-section of Americans as Orlando. I was sure we’d bump into some people who wouldn’t find our family… let’s say, family-friendly.
We’d barely stepped through the front door of our hotel when an eager employee — er, I mean cast member — strolled up to us and asked if we needed to check in.
“Well, I was told I’d get a text when our room was ready, and it hasn’t come yet,” I told him.
“Hmmm, let me see,” he said. He took down my name and disappeared behind the check-in desk.
A minute later, he was back. “You haven’t been assigned a room yet, but I’m going to talk to my manager and get that taken care of right away! Just sit tight!”
We watched him approach his manager, and Drew whispered to me. “I think we’re getting the family treatment, if you know what I mean.”
Of course I knew what he meant. The cast member who was helping us was gay (“family”) himself, so he was being extra nice to us. Moments later, we were upstairs in a fantastic room on the top floor.
Though I’d planned all our meal reservations months in advance (which you have to do if you want to eat at the good spots), I needed to make a change to one. I was not optimistic I’d be able to get what I wanted, but I picked up our hotel phone and dialed the reservation line.
“So this is for you and… Andrew?” the man on the other end asked, reading my information off his computer.
“And are you celebrating anything today?”
“Well, it’s our anniversary, actually.” (We hadn’t specifically planned to be at Disney World for the occasion, but a lot of big life events seem to end up happening on the same day Drew and I met 11 years ago.)
“Aw!” he said. I realized that once again, we were getting the family treatment. He fixed my reservation and waived the change fee.
It’s then that I realized something that would become even clearer to me throughout our vacation: a LOT of gay people work at Disney World. And as I’ve already learned, gay people love to see gay parents. Thanks to them and all the other wonderful people who work at the Magic Kingdom, I felt completely safe at Disney and never had any second thoughts about whether my family belonged there.
We spent our vacation like pretty much everyone else. We dined with everyone from Donald Duck to Tigger to Stitch to Sleeping Beauty. We stalked Mulan through Epcot’s China pavilion so the kids could get her autograph, camping out on a tip that she was going to make a surprise appearance. (Success!) We spent roughly half our kids’ college funds on Disney merchandise.
It was awesome.
Instead of feeling self-conscious about our family, we felt… well, special.
As we stood on Main Street waiting for a lunch reservation one day, a cast member approached us in character and said, “You have a beautiful family! The four of you, I love this.” She pointed at each of us, just so we knew for sure that she understood exactly what kind of family we had.
Our kids felt like celebrities, because everyone from the White Rabbit to Princess Tiana treated them rock stars. They got picked to take part in shows, Mike Wazowski read Bennett’s joke during the Monsters, Inc. show, and the characters at Disney restaurants didn’t want to leave our table. No one was more awesome than Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. We stood in line one day to get her autograph, and the next day, she spotted us during the park’s opening ceremony. “I remember you guys!” she called out to us. “Come see me later!”
Of course, we did, and she greeted us like old friends. This was a woman who probably spoke to hundreds of families a day, but precisely because we were a little bit different, she remembered us. It made me realize once again that it’s better to stand out than to blend in.
Any fears I had about people reacting negatively to our family were unfounded. As I’ve noted in other posts, the nice people we come into contact with tend to be extra-nice to us, and the homophobes are at least polite enough to stay out of our way.
There’s no way to say this without sounding cheesy or like some Disney shill (which I’m not — no one has paid me for this post!), but the best word I can think of to describe our trip was “magical.”
Becoming a dad was a major life victory for me, but it was hardly the last one. It’s been followed by innumerable others, the most recent of which came last week, when I took my family to Disney World, just like anyone else.
And it was even better than I’d imagined.
* * * * *
If you’re a regular reader, you may already know to skip the part after the asterisks, because you’ve probably already subscribed to my blog and followed me everywhere else, too — and geez, when’s he going to stop asking? Those of you who are still reading — what are you waiting for? Subscribe, like me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter — and hey, as long as I’m shamelessly groveling, why not mark my book as “to read” on GoodReads? That’d be swell.