The Junior Project: Part One

Two Dads Junior Project

By Marc Leandro

In early 2011, my husband Lin and I decided we wanted to start a family. With precious little knowledge, but a lot of determination, we waded into it. There have been many twists in the road to the present, where we now await the birth of twin boys in about four weeks. This is our story. I hope you enjoy.

Early Days

We talked about kids early. By any reasonable standard, six weeks is way too soon. But we’d just taken our first trip together, to Charlottesville, Virginia, and stayed with old friends of mine who have the sweetest boys you can imagine. So there was a context. And in our budding relationship, a mere six weeks in but gunning hard for the future, it didn’t seem weird when Lin asked for my thoughts on the topic.

The idea of having kids was just that – a hypothetical to ponder but not approach in reality. Which made sense. As someone who’d been in only one serious relationship to that point, at 37, it seemed like something that probably wasn’t going to happen for me. And being gay, I felt absolved of any societal expectation to have kids in the first place. In fact, I prided myself for being boldly transcendent, and often said that having kids, even for straight couples, is a choice and not an obligation, or at least should be. So there I was, living my truth, when out of Lin comes, “ So how do you feel about kids?”!

Something shifted inside as my brain, dazed but registering something like excitement, formed a response. I told him my thoughts about it not being an obligation, but that it was an interesting idea to me. It was interesting, and had become infinitely more so in that moment. Having been asked about kids in earnest by someone I’d already fallen for was really something.

I have an involuntary habit of attempting to digest “big things” as they happen, in real time. This leads to a state of internal static, followed by an utterance that may come out sounding polished, even if it’s all just tumult within. In this moment, realizing I’d been admitted into the people-who-might-have-kids club, it felt like I’d jumped a line I didn’t know I was in.

But really, the two of us just talked; about how it was ridiculous to be talking about it so soon, about how we both did love kids even if the idea of changing diapers grossed me out, about how lucky we felt that we could talk about this at all, without fear or expectation.

Interested but not committed to the idea, we decided to take a year before bringing it up again. Being in the same baby ballpark spared us from over-thinking, mostly, and freed us to move on with our electric courtship. That we set a date for anything a year hence was pretty remarkable, but how we were beginning to roll…

Our Beginning

Does anyone really want to hear the details of someone else’s whirlwind romance? I’m not convinced. And does anyone who’s experienced that kind of thing really want to share all that much, and force into narrative terms something that by definition disorients and leaves you changed? In the words of Doug Martsch, my inclination is to “keep it like a secret”, illuminating the outer edges of our courtship, and paying forward the positive effects of meeting Lin, but protecting what’s ours and only ours.

When we found each other, something clicked. We met on Thursday in November of 2008, and saw each other the next 5 days straight, each time staying up late into the night, luxuriating in this new and precious thing we’d found. There was wine, too, lots of wine. And in this case the wine may have been both an enhancer and a form of self-medication, because all those natural love chemicals flying around had thrown my body and mind into glorious disarray.

What am I saying? It was great. It was the greatest thing in the whole world that’s ever happened to me, meeting Lin. And both of us had been perilously nearing the point of resigning ourselves to being alone, to giving up but studiously framing it as some kind of victory — well we were blown away that there might be someone for us. And that it could be someone who seemed so perfect. That was a cause for great joy and great trepidation all at once. I threw caution to the wind early, but not without wondering if I was setting myself up for a monumental disappointment. We found a new apartment and signed a lease together after three months.

The summer of 2009 was taxing, as I tried to balance my work as a private chef, which took me away from Brooklyn for weeks at a time, with my still-new relationship I was greedy to lavish with attention. It was additionally stressful because in June, I’d decided that I would propose to Lin during a planned trip to San Francisco in September. A lot was buzzing around in my head that summer.

Marriage, like having kids, had always been a theoretical to me, and over the years I’d vacillated between the notions that it was an outmoded and constraining aspect of patriarchy that same-sex couples should be happy to be free from, versus my equality-hungry desire that even if it was those things, I wanted into the franchise. Now, having fallen deeply for Lin, not only did I want the chance to marry him, I was uncomplicatedly excited by the idea. I spent countless hours thinking about what I’d say and how I’d say it. I’ve never thought that perfection was a particularly useful goal, but I wanted it to be “right”, it had to be right.

The Proposal

San Francisco was our first big trip together, and since Lin and I had both lived there, our schedule was jammed with seeing friends, comparing notes, and generally filtering our trip through the newly acquired lens of “us”. I’d kept my North Beach apartment sublet after decamping for Virginia, France and ultimately New York, in 2005, so we had a good home base to strike out from. I decided that Lin’s birthday, the illustrious September 11th, would be the perfect time to propose; we could go to a nice dinner at a surprise location, and he’d chalk it up to his 33rd and nothing more…
We kept a trip journal for this vacation, and this probably calls for some unedited excerpts from within, rather than trying to tease it from memory…

From me:
Chez Panisse was warm and golden brown and inviting as ever. We were seated at the front, left table. It was perfect and the waitress set the tone beautifully. The first thing we received was a wild fennel-infused prosecco, which was so delicious, the ideal apéritif. We talked about the day’s surprises, and what an amazing time we’d already had. The first course was a deconstructed tomato sandwich of incredible heirloom tomatoes, an aioli toast, three kinds of basil and some fresh mozzarella – followed by a shrimp sauté with some scallions and other veg in an incredible broth. OH – I brought a bottle of wine with me that I ordered online, a 2002 Bond St. Eden – an offshoot of Harlan, a classic Bordeaux blend, and really really wonderful.

Before dessert we took a stroll through the kitchen, which was filled with friendly faces + amazing smells. We went back to the table, dessert arrived soon – as I’m writing this, I can’t recall what even came, preoccupied as I was with what was to come. Throughout the meal I occasionally fidgeted with my courier bag, making sure that the ring box I’d planted there was easily accessible. At one point, I even pulled it up into my lap and Lin was like, “What are you doing?” and thankfully was satisfied with my “looking for something”. Anyway I’d been looking for a segue, and finally Lin provided it by saying, “What an amazing DAY” – to which I replied, “Actually, it’s been 296 amazing days so far.” At this point Lin sort of gave the tilted-head confused-dog-look and said —– “How’d you know that?” No turning back now. I continued, saying that they had been the most amazing of my life thus far. And how happy I was, and how with the most amazing lack of any shred of doubt, I was wondering if he would do me the honor of agreeing to marry me and spend the rest of his life with me.

At some point after noting the 296 days and before actually proposing, I’d plopped a ring box in the middle of the table. At the point that he realized what was happening, his hand raised to his mouth. There were some quickly repeated OH MY GODs, and tears began to flow. And tears flowed for me too. It was really special and touching. I started to explain to him about the ring — and realized that he hadn’t responded yet (!) – upon pointing that out, Lin said, phew, ” I would love nothing more.” SMILE. (Then tears.)

From Lin:
Marc left to go to the bathroom, the ringing in my ears diminished, and the rest of the room came back into view. I was a little dazed. As I remembered that there were other people around, and as I wondered how loud I had been in my shock, a woman at the table behind us said to me, “Excuse me, were you just proposed to?” And I thought, wow that’s what happened, isn’t it? and said “Yes.” And she asked, “Did you accept?” and I smiled and said “Yeah”. And she and her husband offered their congratulations and asked if I was in shock and then she said, “I think I know him from Newport.” And I was surprised for the 38th time that day and she said, “Yeah, I think I worked with him at the Clarke Cooke House. Is his name Marc??” And I said, “Yeah, and he grew up working at the Clarke Cooke House!” So by the time Marc came back from the bathroom we’d struck up quite a conversation about what a great guy Marc is, and made our introductions, and I could tell that Marc, “This is Lisa Kelley, remember?” But he didn’t really though he made a good show of it. And after a celebratory glass of champagne we grabbed a cab and headed for North Beach… It was a long and amazing day, the best birthday ever, and the day I learned to stop worrying about surprises.

So that’s how it went down.

Gay Marriage Proposal

Note about photo: We left Chez Panisse in a state, such that we forgot our menus, which we wanted to save as mementos. I called them from the cab and they agreed to mail them to us in Brooklyn; when we got home 10 days later they were there, and had been signed “Congratulations!”by Alice, who wasn’t even there that night. It was a nice thing for her to do.

The Wedding

We didn’t talk about kids again in a real way until months after our wedding, in May of 2010. I could devote a book to the planning and enjoyment thereof, but I’ve compressed it down to a video of our friend Hannah singing and playing guitar during the ceremony.

The wedding lead-up was predictably intense. Lin and I tried to maintain perspective and remember that our initial idea was to throw a great party for our friends and family, and share with them what we’d found in each other. Simple. Everyone seems to have had a pretty great time, and even if the toasts went on FOREVER, we were pretty happy with how it all went down.

There was a definite recovery period afterwards. When you’ve put months of time and energy into something that occurs over 72 hours and then is done, there’s a feeling, at once liberating but also wistful of…what next? There wasn’t a whiff of discontent, more that I was impatiently excited to see what came next for me and Lin.

The Kid Question

I went through weeks, maybe months, convinced that I shouldn’t be a parent, had no business being a parent. I’m too selfish, I thought. I’m capricious and I get bored, and sometimes don’t follow through well, or at all. None of these traits boded well. And we’d talked about taking six months and getting round-the-world plane tickets someday! All by our lonesome, with nary a diaper in sight! We’d shared dreams of ditching the typically driven, exhausting city life, and getting jobs at bookstores or cafés in the country! I grasped at the last, flailing tendrils of my youth – had mad desires to stay out all night, smoke cigarettes, get so drunk I’d lose the whole next day! Then I took the equivalent of a very deep breath…

How could I not want to have a kid with this guy, I thought? I may be selfish, but am I also stupid? No, really, Lin’s going to be the best Dad a kid could hope for. And stripped of my curtains-on-youth defenses, I decided that with the parenting task in front of me I might be pretty okay at it myself. It’s syrupy, but all I really wanted was to share with a kid whatever magic Lin and I had found together. And once I started thinking that we might be good at the baby-raising thing, I relaxed into the idea, and started to get really excited.

But Wait… We Can’t Make a Baby by Ourselves?!

That’s when a dear friend of ours said she’d have a baby for us. She wasn’t kidding; she was serious. And sure, we’d had a few drinks, but she’d thought about it and wanted us to know that she wanted act as our surrogate.
Over those next few weeks and months, we danced around the topic of Jen (not her real name) being our surrogate. And it’s important to note… nearly all surrogate pregnancies today are achieved using a gestational surrogacy, in which embryos created in vitro from donor eggs and sperm are transferred to a biologically unrelated “carrier” to ripen. What Jen was offering was to be our “traditional surrogate” – her egg, our seed, her pregnancy. It was, needless to say, a generous offer.

For a time, it looked like it might actually go down. And eventually, with assurances and caveats expressed and comprehended on both sides, we met for dinner to talk about how to proceed. I had been absent for a lot of the initial talks, so in terms of really knowing how into the idea Jen was, I was at a disadvantage. It was a weird dinner, honestly. When you’re hanging out with a good friend, where normally the decision of the greatest import is whether to order a totally unnecessary second glass of dessert wine, this was new territory. And it palpably weighed on all of us, there on the precipice of action. Yet the topic stubbornly refused to come up.

It took until an after-dinner tipple at a tavern down the street, for Jen to tell us that though she badly wanted to do this thing for us, the timing was not cooperating. She also mentioned that she was fine with all aspects of the plan, except the pregnancy part. Hearing this was disappointing for about 3/100ths of a second. First, who the hell offers to do this kind of thing, outside out movies and fairy-tale existences – no one. And it was such a wildly giving thing to even consider doing that it was impossible to feel anything other than love for Jen, sweetheart that she is.

But we were nonetheless back to square one. Having considered and, for the time set aside adoption, and knowing that gestational surrogacy was prohibitively expensive, we re-grouped. What that consisted of was loosening our grip on the whole idea of kids. After all, we were having a ball without them, and as I’d said a couple of years before, it’s a choice not a necessity.

False Starts and Difficult Conversations

Still, for a few days after talking to Jen, Lin and I were both in a funk. We’d felt the joy of momentum, only to see it vanish over digestifs. We consoled ourselves that at least we hadn’t gotten further into the process.

It was but a few days later that a phone call shook things up once again. I was talking to my sister Sara, a college student in Boston, and mentioned about Jen and what had gone down with that. She said something to the effect of, I’m glad you brought this up, because I wanted to talk to you about something…

Sara had been thinking about the topic, too. It was something she could do to help us, she said, and she was interested in being a traditional surrogate for us. Well, this was a surprise. And not that we hadn’t already thought about how she was the only pathway to having a kid related to us both – but it’s something we would have never asked her. How do you even do that? Anyway, I was happily taken aback, and processed as quickly as I could what she was saying.

I said how honored I was that she’d even consider this, but that it was a huge decision and an enormous thing in general, and that the best thing was to take it. I asked if we could let’s talk again in a month to see if she still feel the same way, after digesting the myriad realities involved. And the general physical inconveniences, which I’m told are not insignificant, of actually giving birth.

We sat on it for a month, and in the interim Lin and I had time to think about whether this was a gift could possibly accept. I feel so strongly that people’s decisions are their own, and though Sara was only 22, I couldn’t help but think how infuriated I would be if, when I was 22, someone told me I didn’t have the wherewithal to make a decision like this. I felt I had to present Sara with as many worst case scenarios as possible, in an effort to tease out her doubts, and support her in deciding not to do this.

When we talked a month later she said that she was indeed serious, and wanted very much to do this for us. I started in with the scenarios: 1. You decide to do this, and immediately after medical interventions have taken place and you’re definitely going through with it, you meet the man of your dreams, and he’s offended and disgusted by the whole idea. Her response: “Well then he’s not the man of my dreams.” Wow, good one, okay. 2. Certain relatives may not look kindly on the arrangement, and Sara could face the real possibility of being written out of wills, etc. Her response: “That would be lame but I’m okay with that possibility” Ok. 3. What if we move back to California in a couple of years and you will only be able to see the little one infrequently? Her response: “It would be just like how I don’t get to see Emma (our brother Jay’s daughter) in Colorado. It would be a little sad but I would make the most of what time I had.” Well, okay, she really did seem to have good answers to my queries.

Now what to do? Should I go ahead and start looking into the legalities and realities and how one goes about doing this, I ask. Yes, she says, I should. Ok, I say, but let’s not consider this a done deal yet, you take your time and sit with this decision and we’ll see where this all takes us, ok? Ok.

I sat at my computer late one night and drafted a letter that I sent to 50 or so surrogacy attorneys in Massachusetts, many of whom specialized in working with the LGBT community. By morning, I’d received 15 responses, some discouraging, some encouraging, and a few downright excited to work with us, a dynamic that was much less common than we’d imagined. This is actually when we learned that nearly all surrogacy is the gestational variety, where the carrier isn’t using her own eggs. This was a situation where three related people were acting in concert with the shared goal of Lin and I ending up with a kid. It was cutting edge stuff, and the ambitious lawyers seemed ready to burrow into it.

Lin and I talked more, and decided that if Sara was serious about this, and wanted to give us this gift of gifts, then we were going to accept it. Not without a lot of mental and emotional caveats, some of which were hard to shake, but we weren’t going to tell her no. I talked to Sara the day after I’d heard back from the lawyers, about two weeks after our last conversation. Earlier that day I got a text from her that we needed to “talk to me about this”. In the fullness of time, Sara, like Jen before her, realized that the timing was bad, and that she too didn’t know when it would be better. And that maybe, just maybe, it was too much of a big thing to go through a whole pregnancy. And she felt so bad, really sad, because this wasn’t something we could do for ourselves and it was something she was biologically capable of, but not now, not soon, probably not ever.

Like before, we were momentarily disappointed, with the difference that this time there was also substantial relief. What was I thinking anyway, believing I could accept this kind of thing from her? She was only 22, and maybe she didn’t even have the context and emotional maturity to agree to this in an informed way! I felt bad we’d ever accepted and happy that she had been comfortable enough to back out.

But we were still back to square one twice within a few months, and at this point, there seemed to be very few remaining options that involved us and a biologically-related baby. Lin and I got blue over that weekend. He took to bed like a Victorian lady, and I moped and moped. And the rain was interminable that weekend, as if by design.

We’d promised ourselves from the very beginning that we would not become baby-obsessed. We refused to be those people. Our life together was so great and growth-inspiring and idyllic in so many ways that we knew we’d be fine, utterly fine. And with, minus the kids, far more European vacations, so why was this even a cause for disappointment??? But logic fails and emotions take over sometimes. To hell with all those rational thoughts, this was a huge blow, and we were rattled.

Crunching Numbers

Over that weekend, with Lin mostly in bed, and me all mopes-alot, I drove out to JFK to pick up our friend Stef. We’d only recently gotten a car, and somehow it still seemed like a fun idea to drive in a rainstorm, while depressed, to the very end of Atlantic Avenue to the airport.

Stef was getting back from a marginally enjoyable trip to France and Berlin, and was happy to be home. I asked if she wanted to go to a new restaurant down the street from us for a bite and debriefing, and she did. The whole scene, the whole night, was moody. Not bad, just moody. I confided in her that Sara had decided not to be our surrogate, and told her how I was simultaneously relieved and crestfallen.

Stef’s deeply in the loop on pretty much everything in our lives. She was my anchor when I first came to New York in pursuit of a dream job, cooking for Jerry Seinfeld ¬– and really, my savior. The job fell through and facing unemployment and slim savings I was facing having to leave New York. Stef and her husband Manny let me stay in an empty apartment owned by relatives for the five months in took me to get a job. That she’s continued to be very important to me is an understatement. She also met Lin within days of me meeting him, and they became thick as thieves instantly.

I walked her through what happened, and where Lin and I found ourselves. And she and I started to break it all down, and talk it out in detail. Did we really want kids at this point or had our small defeats made us think better of the idea? Yes, really we did. Were we really opposed to adoption? Not in theory, but for us, we didn’t feel like we were there yet. Maybe, but I didn’t think so. Why did we want kids? The junior project had taken on a life of its own by this point, and this was a good question to consider again. We just did. Though it had also crossed our minds that, being somewhat older parents, our children would feel extra-obligated to take care of us in our old age and decrepitude. So there was that potential practical benefit.

Then we talked figures. We talked about how envious Lin and I were of those yuppies who were able to simply decide to go the gestational surrogacy route, and then write a check. And about how bitter that made me, and how I didn’t like my joyful desire to have a kid co-mingled with all that bitter. And Stef asked, was it definitely not possible, or was it something that we just assumed we couldn’t do because of the cost?

No, we hadn’t crunched the numbers, mainly because the important number, that of the entire cost of gestational surrogacy, seemed like monopoly money to me. Should you think about whether it could be financially possible, even if it isn’t plausible?

We ordered another pint, and Stef and I did some math. Savings? Yeah, we had some. Nothing insane, but significant. But man did I feel good to have and not be spending that money, financial train wreck that I’d been for so much of my life! In terms of “possible”, though, what we had would cover 25% of the cost. Do they offer loans? I think I’d read something about that, yeah, for the medical stuff. Are you willing to go into debt to do this? Not something we’d even considered to that point, but I guess we could if this was fundamentally important to us. I mean, most of our money seemed to go to eating out with reckless abandon. Some weekends we’d dared to actually add up what we’d spent, and it made us both blush. Surely, if we could scarf down burgers at Minetta Tavern, we could put our money into something less evanescent, like a goddamned human life!

We’d probably ordered one final pint by this point, but for the first time in several days I felt a spark. HOLY SHIT. If we were willing to tighten our belts significantly, and budget the hell out of the process, there existed a very narrow pathway to a child through gestational surrogacy!

Stef and I finished up and I walked home through the rain and woke up Lin, who was delirious with sick and sleep. I started in about how, maybe we could do it, maybe we could make a baby! It took him about 15 seconds to dart straight up in bed, and smile for the first time in days. And we hugged, and kissed, and got up and made a makeshift cocktail with whatever we had around, and we toasted. We toasted the hell out of the idea, and it was good.
Maybe we even knew someone willing to be our egg donor…

Editor’s Note:
Look for Part Two of Marc and Lin’s journey to surrogacy here soon.

Marc Leandro is a Brooklyn-based private chef and the author of the surrogacy blog, The Junior Project, which chronicles the journey he and his husband Lin are taking as they attempt to start a family. He has spent the past six years in New York, preceded by a year in Normandy, France and a decade in San Francisco before that. Marc is also a contributing blogger to the Huffington Post, American Circus, and Out Magazine online.

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