'Who's the mother?': Two new dads embrace parenthood after surrogate birth
Anxiety about parenthood dissipated as soon as daughter Bette was born
This piece was originally published Nov. 18, 2018.
"Who's the mother?"
It surprises me how often we get asked that question — often right to our faces — as two dads with a newborn baby girl.
People — often uninformed straight people— are convinced we must have compartmentalized our marital duties into perfectly traditional gender roles. When they ask, "Who's the mother?" they are actually asking, "Who wears the pants and who wears the skirt?"
Yes, we still get asked that question all the time. In 2018.
I usually answer with something saucy like, "Hey the 1950's called, they want their mores back."
When we began our surrogacy journey two years ago, we were cautioned by a psychologist that as a same sex couple we must remain very clear, precise and steadfast with our use of parental terminology. More specifically, we were told to be careful never to allow ourselves and others to misuse the term "mother."
This caution didn't fully resonate with me at first. The notion of actually having a baby was still theoretical and so far out of reach. Parenthood was just too abstract to even matter.
As things progressed, and we were successfully pregnant, and the arrival of our baby was truly inevitable, suddenly the word "mother" became a giant pink elephant that lumbered awkwardly beside us.
Surrogate remains maternally detached
There are two superstar women who have been an essential part of our journey. One is a close relative who kindly donated her ova so we could develop miracle embryos that are genetically related to the both of us. This was an incredible act of generosity and selfless love and we are forever grateful, but she is not the 'mother'. Technically, she is the "Genetic Donor."
We will need to come up with a much warmer name for her when we eventually explain the creation story to our child. Auntie Egg, perhaps? We'll work on it.
The other woman on the team is the amazing Christine, who housed and nurtured our embryo and eventually gave birth to baby Bette. Christine is technically referred to as "The Gestational Surrogate."
As you may imagine, Christine is the person most often misidentified as the mother. In fact, she is currently named on Bette's birth certificate as the mother, because the current laws are behind the science of IVF and the increasing number of surrogacy cases.
We are in the process of legally changing the birth certificate, both to reflect the truth of Bette's parentage and so we are allowed to obtain important things like a health card, a SIN or a passport.
Throughout the entire process, Christine has been incredibly patient and diligent about correcting the countless people who insist on calling her "Mommy." It's generally safe to assume a visibly pregnant woman is the mother. Not so with surrogacy.
Christine has had to remain maternally detached from the entity growing inside of her so that when the time came she was psychologically prepared to hand us our baby. This monumental task sets surrogates apart from other humans. It's a super-power.
We've affectionately dubbed Christine our family's "Super Surro-Goddess."
'The ritual you plan pales in comparison to the ritual that just happens'
We created a very detailed birth plan months in advance.
We secured a midwife, a doula and a place at the Birth Centre in Winnipeg. We figured that given our oddball team of two dads, a doula and a surrogate along with her mother and her auntie, the cozy and spa-like Birth Centre was an ideal setting.
We quickly drove to Winnipeg from Regina — where we live — at the first signs of labour. We arrived safely to begin participating in the big plan — our personalized ritual of labour and birth.
The first glitch happened almost immediately. Christine's blood pressure was a tad high, so we had no choice but to abandon the Birth Centre — with the luxurious room and the Jacuzzi and all the spa-like birthing amenities — and move our mini-entourage to a hospital.
This relocation was truly a setback. This hospital was a veritable dump. The tiny room with the broken light fixture was spatially awkward for our full team.
Even worse was having to explain and re-explain our situation while clinging to our birth plan within a medical institution that frankly didn't give a damn. We often had to defend our position, hold our ground and refuse to be disbanded.
At one point, a particularly cantankerous nurse grunted, "You know, Mom will not dilate properly if there are two men in the room." Christine responded, "Hey, I'm not the mom and those aren't just two men. They are the Dads and they are staying put."
We persevered for more than 40 hours of labour. It was a marathon of emotional extremes with all the peaks and valleys: sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, sometimes full of compassion, sometimes angry with frustration and impatience.
It was the most human experience I've ever been through. This unplanned, arduous ritual prepared us for the arrival of a living being.
At one point, Christine's mother said, "This is going to be a while yet. You two boys should go home and rest." There was no way we could leave. As useless as we were at providing any comfort to the incredibly fatigued Christine, it was essential that we travelled side-by-side for the full experience.
Our job was to be quietly empathetic during this sacred vigil. We had to witness the physical price of birthing our baby. How else could we appreciate the magnitude of this gift?
Christine was bearing the final burden of motherhood, yet relinquishing all claims to the title of "Mommy." Our role was already one of complete privilege and comfort. The least we could do was to share a small fraction of the pain and exhaustion that comes with labour. The least we could do was be present.
At 2:15 am Christine released a low animalistic scream. It seemed to come from the very core of the planet, reverberating throughout the hospital. A young doctor happened to be passing by. He darted in and asked, "Did that come from here? Because that baby is coming now and fast."
"We have to wait for the midwives — they went on break?"
"No can do. I'm afraid it's going to have to be me that catches this one. Hey Dads, you hold and support the Surrogates legs, cuz your baby is on its way."
What are the chances that a queer male doctor happens to be walking by at this strange hour and that he understands our perspective without any explanation? At one point he looked up at me and said gently, "Don't worry, bud. You got this. It's going to be beautiful."
Wow. He got it.
Everything happened in slow motion. A circle of great women surrounded three men, two of which finally had an active role to play in this ancient ritual of childbearing.
Finally our wee Bette was born. It was unrehearsed, unplanned and perfect. The ritual you plan pales in comparison to the ritual that just happens.
What happened immediately after is a bit of a blur. My world was suddenly in soap opera soft-focus. That's what a baby does to a room. She filled it up with such incredible love that the euphoria was tangible and infectious. I believe it was this love that made it possible for Christine to hand over our baby.
The moment was an amplified feedback loop of affection. Christine beamed brilliantly as she watched us fill with joy from this miracle she just gave us. I couldn't stop repeating, like a fool, "We have a baby. I love her. I love you. I love everybody in this room. We have a baby."
We were instructed to remove our shirts so Bette could immediately have skin-to-skin contact. The very second we touched, all the maternal instincts dormant within us suddenly became active. Bam! It all made sense.
Every anxiety about parenthood suddenly dissipated into complete calm and clarity. We knew how to hold her, how to feed her and how to change her diaper.
As I fed Bette for the very first time, I whispered, "Don't fret baby. Not a single thing is missing. You do have a mother. You're looking at him. And he loves you fully."
We finally had a crystal clear answer. Who's the mother? Isn't it obvious?