We Were On “The Today Show”

I never planned to put my kids on camera.  I mean, my cameras, sure.  I have about 10 bajillion hours of video of them doing completely mundane things like drooling or singing that new Taylor Swift song, which in my son’s interpretation, goes like this:

“We are never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, never ever ever, NEVER EVER EVER, NEVER EVER EVER… WE ARE NEVER EVER EVER…”

That’s it, over and over.  It never ends.  Never ever ever.

You can see why I keep these things to myself.

On the other hand, I feel a kind of parental duty to educate people about my family, to make the world a better, more understanding place for my kids, and of course, other kids in nontraditional families.

So when my friend Robin Sindler, who’s smart and talented and amazing and just happens to be a producer for The Today Show, came to me and asked if she could shoot a segment on our family, I thought about it for a bit and then said yes.

Then Drew said no.

Then, Robin said she would fly Susie down for an interview, meaning we’d get to spend a few days with her and her daughter, Grace.

We talked about it a lot, and eventually Drew agreed that if we were ever going to do something like this, we’d want to do it with someone we trust, on a show we respect, so our lives don’t get Jerry Springer-ized or used as a jumping-off point for some loudmouthed debate.

The Susie visit was a bonus, and of course, no story about my family would be complete unless it adequately praised Susie for her gift to us.

A few days later, Robin arrived with a small (and terrific) crew, and Drew and I slogged through what was probably our worst day of parenting ever.  We said things like, “Careful with Daddy’s mic pack!”  “Stay on the swing and keep smiling!”  And, “If you can just make it through one more bit of b-roll, we’ll have McDonald’s for lunch.”  We made the kids sit in the basement watching Beauty & The Beast while we shot our interview.  When Grace started crying, we asked Susie to take her for a walk so it wouldn’t ruin our audio.

We filmed at our swim class.  Usually, Drew’s at work for swim class, and I’m forced to sit with the other parents in a galley area so I don’t distract the kids.  For the camera crew, they let us sit at the edge of the pool, with our feet in the water.  The kids got to swim up to us and show us their moves, while a camera pushed in on their dripping wet faces.  They felt like movie stars.

It reminded me of all the reasons I never wanted our kids to be child actors.  “This is just for one day,” I kept reminding Drew.

I knew it had made an impression a couple of weeks later when we were reading one of my kids’ books.  (I think it was a Curious George book, but I can’t seem to find it now.)  There was a picture of a camera crew, including a woman who was standing in the back, taking notes on a small pad.  Sutton pointed at her and said, “That’s the producer!”

We had no idea how the piece would turn out or how many months would elapse before it would air.  It turned out it was only about three weeks.

I was terrified to watch it.  I didn’t want the kids to see it.  Drew had it on in his office, and he promised to call me afterward with his assessment.

“Go turn it on now,” he demanded.  “Sit and watch it with the kids.  It’s beautiful.”

So we did.  I backed up my Tivo and sat with the kids on the couch.

They were most excited to see their cousin Grace.  “Oh, she’s so cute!” they squealed.  I think they’re so used to seeing videos of themselves that they didn’t see this as anything special.  When it was over, Sutton asked, “Now can we watch another show about us?”

I’ve heard from lots of people since this piece aired — friends who loved hearing the story for what was probably the millionth time, strangers who enjoyed hearing it for the first time.  Now that we’ve seen it, we have no regrets.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy it, too.  It may be the last time you see us on TV for a while.

Until I can figure out how to embed, you can click here to watch the segment.

8 Surprising Facts About Egg Donors

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), typical ...

One of the more neglected purposes of this blog is to share information (and dispel myths) about makin’ gaybies.  I want to educate people about my family – and at the same time help prospective parents, gay or straight, who might be exploring their own fertility options.

A while back, I posted about some common misperceptions of surrogacy and why Drew and I chose that path, and now I want to share some information about the other part of the equation: the egg donor.

Admittedly, our situation is somewhat unique.  Our egg donor was my partner’s sister, Susie.  (Yes, I contributed the sperm.)  But before Susie made her offer, we were planning to use an anonymous egg donor, which is what most gay dads pursuing gestational surrogacy do – and understandably so.  Not everyone has as wonderful a sister-in-law as Susie, and for various reasons, not everyone wants to have such close ties to their egg donor (ahem, Modern Family characters).

If your fertility plans involve an egg donor or if you’re just curious about the process, here are a few facts I learned while Drew and I were exploring our options:

1. Egg donors are young.

The ideal donor is in her late teens to mid-20s.  Yes, late teens.  (OK, very late teens – I never saw anyone younger than 19.)  It came as a bit of a shock to me and Drew that our child could be getting half of his or her DNA from Gossip Girl.  When we saw their pictures, it reminded us just how young 19 actually is.  They had acne and awkward grins, wore baggy college sweatshirts and put their hair in pigtails.  Susie was 28 when she donated.  Compared to the women in the database, she was practically over the hill.

2. Your children will most likely never meet their egg donor.

If you’re adopting a child, you have the option of an “open” adoption, where the birth mother maintains some form of mutually agreed-upon contact with the child throughout his or her life.  Dan Savage recounts his open adoption wonderfully in his book The Kid, a must-read for all prospective gay dads or anyone considering adoption.

I loved the idea of open adoption.  There’s no shame, no secrecy and the kid never has to go through that pain of feeling like they don’t know where they really came from.  When we started to lean toward surrogacy, I was hoping we could do some kind of “open” surrogacy.

We learned pretty quickly that there’s no such thing.  When we asked our agency if we could stay in touch with the egg donor, they seemed startled.  It wasn’t something anyone – intended parents or egg donors – ever requested, and they were pretty sure no donor would agree to it.

These were young women, after all, most of whom wanted to have their own kids someday.  They didn’t want someone else’s kids tracking them down and calling them “Mommy”.  In fact, just to become egg donors they had to divorce themselves of any feeling of kinship with their eggs.  It was like donating blood.  You’re happy to know it went to good use, but you don’t need details from the people who received it.

3. Unlike sperm, eggs are only donated “on demand”.

Sperm donors make their deposits (and get paid) not knowing if anyone will ever use their sperm.  That’s because sperm is plentiful, easy to produce (fun, too!), and cheap to store.  Eggs are none of those things.  If you become an egg donor, you go through testing (both medical and psychological) to make sure you’re equipped to donate.  Then… you wait.  Your name, photo and vital info goes into a database, and someday, if someone picks you, you get a call that it’s go time.

You could sign up to donate eggs and never actually get picked by any prospective parents (which means you never get paid).  Anonymous egg donation is definitely not for anyone who’s afraid of rejection.

4. Egg donation is a big time commitment.

A sperm donor can start and finish his job in pretty much the amount of time it takes him to open a Victoria’s Secret catalogue or press “PLAY” on a DVD.  But egg donors don’t have dozens of eggs on hand at any given time that they can just drop off at a fertility clinic on a whim.  They need to prepare themselves physically. That means about six weeks of medication.

First, there’s birth control to synch her cycle up to the surrogate’s.  The only way a pregnancy can occur is if the surrogate’s body is prepared to take over right where the egg donor’s left off.

Next, the egg donor is required to take hormones to stimulate egg development.  These need to be self-injected.  To someone as squeamish as me, that sounds excruciating, but our fertility doctor assured us that he’d never had a donor drop out because of the medication.  The side effects are usually mild – bloating, moodiness, that sort of thing.

Then, there’s the actual procedure, which you do in a doctor’s office and which takes about 10-15 minutes.  It’s not anything too horrible, but it’s not like retrieving sperm, for sure.

5. There’s generally less anonymity for egg donors than sperm donors.  

Once eggs are donated, they’re fertilized immediately (extras are frozen for later attempts) and transferred to a surrogate 3-5 days later.  Most sperm donors never encounter their intended parents first-hand, but egg donors don’t have that luxury.  You’ll probably be bumping into each other at the fertility clinic anyway, so many agencies will let you meet and interview prospective egg donors before making your decision.

Even if you don’t meet them in person, the database tends to give you their first name, an extensive bio, pictures and a video of them talking, all of which you can later pass on to your kids if you choose.

6. The standard rate for egg donors is $8,000. 

Egg donors earn a lot more than sperm donors, because of all the extra trouble they have to go through.  Their standard rate is $8,000 per “harvest”.  (The cost to the intended parents is greater, because they’re also paying for all the medical fees and medication.)

Still, $8,000 isn’t a fortune, and unlike sperm donors, egg donors are limited in how often they can donate.  The whole process can take six months, which means you’d be lucky to donate twice a year.  People don’t donate eggs to get rich.  They usually do it to pay for a couple of credits at college and to help infertile couples in the process.

7. The world of egg donors is the Wild West of the fertility landscape.

Well, OK, maybe a few women are making big bucks on their eggs.  That’s because egg donation is not currently regulated by the government.  The $8,000 fee, although fairly standard, is only a suggested retail price.  Individual agencies and donors are free to mark up as they see fit.  One agency I found online advertised “premium” egg donors – ones with Ivy League degrees, high IQs, athletic awards, etc.  A couple of them had donated their eggs more than ten times.  They also charged premium rates – some as much as $30,000 per harvest.

This represents a very small minority of egg donors, but it happens.

8. The pool is limited. 

Anyone who thinks the process of egg donation is akin to genetic engineering or eugenics is vastly overestimating the amount of choice available.  It’s more like trying to find your future wife in a bar and having only the patrons of that particular bar at that time available to you.

Given the commitment required of donors, it’s no surprise that relatively few women volunteer.   Our agency’s database had about 40-70 donors at any given time.  Not a ton – and even worse if you’re looking for a certain race or ethnicity.  Our agency had 1-2 African-Americans, 1-2 Asians.  Sure, there are dozens of other agencies you can locate with a quick Google search, but once you find someone you like, you have to make sure she’s available.  She could be “on hold” for another couple or in the process of donating to someone else.  That could lock her up for six months or longer.

Meanwhile, your surrogate may not be very patient while you wait for your dream donor to appear.  In fact, Drew and I were turned down by a potential surrogate who was uncomfortable with how long it was taking us to find a donor.  (This was part of what ultimately led us to Susie, so it ended up being a good thing.)

If you’re interested in helping infertile couples and non-traditional families like mine, egg donation is a wonderful gift you can give someone.

You’ll need to be interested in more than just making money, though.  The cash you do make, you really have to earn.  It won’t be enough to change your life, because part of the reward is knowing how much you’ve changed someone else’s.

modernfamily-featured

Modern Family Thinks My Family is “Creepy”

I guess there’s one episode of “Modern Family” I won’t be showing my kids after all.

In this week’s episode, Mitchell, Cam, Phil and Claire all got really drunk, and Claire came up with a crazy proposition.  What if she donated an egg, Cam fertilized it and a surrogate carried the baby?  Then her gay brother and his partner could have a child who was related to both of them.  It sounded so beautiful.

It was all very familiar to me, because my partner Drew and I had the exact same idea a few years ago.  We debated it and dismissed it, but then Drew’s sister Susie came to us independently with the same suggestion.  What if she gave us her eggs?  Hmm… what if?

On “Modern Family”, the notion didn’t seem so perfect once everyone had sobered up.  They decided not to go through with it.

As for Drew and me, our twins will be two and a half years old this Friday.  They were conceived using Susie’s eggs and my sperm and were carried by a surrogate.

I always knew the decision Drew and I made (not to mention Susie) wouldn’t be right for everyone.  So why, when it wasn’t right for a group of fake people on a TV show, did it feel like such a punch in the gut?

As the episode, titled “Aunt Mommy”, unfolded, the characters used words like “creepy”, “inbred” and “freak show”.  I turned to Drew and said, “They’re talking about us.”

It’s hard to accept that anyone might judge our family because of the way we created it.  Harder still to see that judgment coming from such a progressive, gay-positive TV show.

And it hurt.

We never get reactions like that when we tell people our story.  It doesn’t matter if they’re close friends or complete strangers.  They always remark about how wonderful it is, how moved they are by Susie’s gift and how lucky they think our kids are.  That’s what they say to our faces, at least.  Who knows how they really feel?

I will say that there was nothing that came up on “Modern Family” that we didn’t ponder ourselves before we decided to have kids in our nontraditional way.  And, given more than 22 minutes to ponder the topic, our soul-searching ran a lot deeper.  We went through all the same emotions and fears – Was this creepy?  Was it fair to Susie?  To Drew?  To the kids?  Drew’s own brother told us that having a baby with Susie’s eggs would be “effed up”.  That alone almost made us reconsider.

We kept talking about it, though.  We wrote Susie a heartfelt letter laying all our feelings bare.  We flew her out to LA to have therapy with us.  We obsessively dissected every angle of the scenario we were creating:

Would Drew feel like less of a dad because we used my sperm and not his?

Would Susie have trouble watching us raise a child she was biologically bonded to?

Would the kids feel that Susie was their mom and Drew their uncle, because that’s what biology seemed to suggest?

How would the world see us?  Would people be uncomfortable with our story or, worse, with our kids?

I wish I could say that talking everything through brought us complete clarity, and that’s why we decided to go ahead and make our babies together.  But that’s not true.  We knew that making a baby this way would be messy, that we were venturing into uncharted territory.  We feared we were doing the wrong thing.

We also thought there would be something very special about our family.  We liked knowing that we could someday tell our kids the unique, incredible story of how they were born.  We imagined how special they’d feel knowing what Aunt Susie had done for them, how wonderful it would be to create life out of such a pure gift of love.

Drew’s brother came around eventually.  Susie convinced us that she was emotionally prepared for what lay ahead.  And in the end, with our families’ support, I guess we rolled the dice.

As a result, there are two tiny human beings who live in my house.  They fight and cry.  They sing songs from their dads’ 80s mixes and songs they’ve made up in their heads.  They pour yogurt in their hair.  They make us laugh.  They cost a fortune.  They’d eat cupcakes 24 hours a day if we let them.  They hug and kiss and say, “I love you.”  They’re ours.

And they wouldn’t be here if not for my love for Drew, and Susie’s love for her brother.

That doesn’t make the doubts go away.  In some ways, it makes them worse.

Every day, I feel guilty that Susie doesn’t get to be our kids’ mommy.  I see bits of her in our children – their features and their personalities – and I feel like she deserves more than our arrangement provides her.  I struggle wondering about the pain she must feel when she says goodbye to them, when Drew and I make different parenting choices than she would and about the tiny sting she must feel when the kids call her “Aunt”.

I feel bad for Drew, too, like I got something that he didn’t get, a bond he might not feel quite as strongly as I do.  I worry that the kids will treat us differently when they’re old enough to understand how they came into the world.  I fear that they’ll view Drew as less of a dad.

I fear for my kids, too.  Have we doomed them to being outsiders, anomalies of nature the world will never fully appreciate or understand?

These aren’t issues we addressed and resolved.  They aren’t emotions that will ever go away.  They’ll be with us forever.  It’s the path we chose, and a bit of ambiguity was part of the deal.

I don’t know how my family will evolve over the next 5 or 10 years or how my kids will feel as they grow up.  But I know they’ll always be loved.  If there’s one thing I can do, it’s to make sure they know that.

… and also, to do my best to educate everyone else.  As long as anyone out there thinks we’re “creepy” or a “freak show”, I need to keep sharing our story.  (Say what you will, but we’re not inbred.  Susie isn’t even my sister-in-law, let alone my sister.  Drew and I aren’t legally married.  Thanks, Prop 8.)

My family may not seem normal to everyone else, but it’s our normal, and if it wasn’t how we were, we wouldn’t be us.  I never have a moment of regret for how our kids came into the world.  I’m grateful for it every day.  We’re not perfect, and at times things still get a little messy, but we’re a family.

I guess, in the end, a post-Modern one.

Beyond the Happy Ending

If you’re familiar with my family’s story, you probably know that there’s a sad footnote to our happy ending.

For anyone who may not know, Drew’s sister, Susie, a/k/a the most amazing woman on the planet, donated eggs for us to have our kids.  Every time I write that on this blog or anywhere — in fact any time I say, type, pantomime or cuneiform that sentiment in any medium in perpetuity throughout the universe — I must immediately clarify that I was the sperm donor, just so people don’t get confused or creeped out.  It was a beautiful gesture, just trust me.

Anyway, the downside is that through the process of her donation, we learned Susie was actually not as strong a donor candidate as we’d thought.  Although she was in her 20s and in perfect health, her body produced very few eggs.  Given the high doses of fertility drugs she’d been taking, the doctor was extremely concerned.

He delivered the news in probably the worst possible way, just moments after the egg extraction, with a joke.  “It’s a good thing you have kids of your own already,” he said, as Susie was still hazy from the anesthesia, “because your ovaries are a mess.”

But Susie didn’t have kids of her own.  She wasn’t married.  She wasn’t even dating anyone.  Those things were all part of a far-off hypothetical future for her, when she was ready for them.  She’d always thought she had plenty of time.

The doctor apologized for having his facts wrong, but what he said next was just as blunt.  “You’d better have kids soon, because it’s probably already too late.”

He was pretty sure we were wasting our time transferring Susie’s embryos to our surrogate, but we went ahead anyway.  And incredibly, two of them attached.

Sutton and Aunt Susie

For me and Drew, the story had a happy ending.  Our kids love their Aunt Susie, and we’ll always remind them of the special gift she gave us to help bring them into the world.

But as we shared our joy with Susie, we always feared it was a joy she would never experience first-hand.  What if she was not only cursed with infertility, but also with the knowledge that her brother and his partner were raising kids with her DNA, kids that would always be her niece and nephew, not her own?

Bennett and Aunt Susie

Well, that memoir I’m writing just got one hell of an epilogue.

Susie’s pregnant!

She wasn’t even trying.  It just happened.  She and her boyfriend had just moved in together when they got the news, and in February 2012, their baby will be here.  They couldn’t be happier, and we couldn’t be happier for them.

Who knows why she didn’t produce as many eggs as she should’ve.  She produced enough, and that’s what matters.  Enough to make three babies — so far — and enough to make two families.

I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to look at that picture of Susie’s bulging belly or to think of Sutton and Bennett playing with their new cousin in a few months.  I wish Susie and her new family as much joy as she’s given us.  Nobody deserves it more.