Busy-ness: The Start-Up CEO, the L.A. Entertainment Lawyer and Their Child
Chad Billmyer, 36, is the founder and CEO of Panjo, a marketplace for rare and high-quality items. Jason Hendler, 47, works as an entertainment lawyer, representing actors, writers, directors, and producers. These are the types of jobs where logging 12-hour days is more the norm than the exception. But on top of their jobs, Chad and Jason are also fathers to a 6-year-old boy named Colin. In other words, Chad and Jason are very, very busy.
In fact they are so busy, I couldn’t find a time to conduct an interview for this article (which is about busy gay dads, if you hadn’t caught on yet) that worked with all three of our schedules. (Hey, I’m kind of busy, too.) So instead, I caught up with Chad and Jason separately to talk about just how busy they are, and how they managed to pull off fatherhood and busy jobs all at once.
Chad and Jason are both ambitious men, which is perhaps what originally attracted them to one another when they met in a bar, in Philadelphia, 15 years ago. Chad was living in Philadelphia working on his first tech start-up at the time, and Jason, who was living in Los Angeles, was in town visiting his family for Thanksgiving.
The two hit it off immediately, and began dating long distance. “Jason’s parents were thrilled with me at first since their son was suddenly in town much more often,” Chad said, laughing. Jason’s parents were probably less thrilled when, two years later, Chad decided to join Jason in California, making his Philly trips less frequent. Today, the two are permanently situated in Santa Monica.
For Chad, that he would one day be a father was more or less a given. Growing up, he was the oldest kid in his neighborhood, and was everyone’s first babysitter call. “I enjoyed taking care of kids in the neighborhood,” Chad said, “and it sort of inspired me to be a parent.”
Jason’s path to parenthood, however, was less preordained. “I was somewhat ambivalent at first,” Jason admitted. “But Chad was so interested in it, and I was open to it. So he convinced me.”
“He didn’t take any convincing,” Chad said, perhaps anticipating this characterization of events from Jason. (Though I spoke to Chad and Jason separately, it often felt like they were listening in on each other’s interviews and responding accordingly.) And interestingly, Chad attributes Jason’s ambivalence to parenthood, compared to his own more active interest, to their generational divide.
“Being 10 years apart in age, we had different experiences being gay,” Chad explained. “Being a parent was not very much, if at all, on Jason’s radar.” But Chad felt that he was part of a generation where parenthood for LGBT people was starting to become more of a forgone conclusion, as it is for many heterosexual couples. “You grow up, get a job and have a kid,” Chad said. “That’s how it works.”
So was the concept of fatherhood just slightly more foreign to Jason than it was to Chad? “No, it just wasn’t a shared vision at first, and I definitely seeded and drove the parenthood conversation,” Chad clarified. “And over time, it became a shared vision.”
“And I couldn’t be happier about it,” Jason said.
Once Chad and Jason decided to turn their shared vision into a reality, they started doing their research. First, they attended an event hosted by the Gay and Lesbian Center in Los Angeles called “Maybe Baby” geared towards (you guessed it!) LGBT people who were interested in having a baby, maybe.
“It’s a day-long event,” Chad said. “They have speakers on foster-to-adopt, open adoption, international adopt, surrogacy. We explored all our options, and debated the merits of each, …” he trailed off, pausing a second.
“So…” I asked. “What route did you choose?”
“You know what’s super interesting about that question?” Chad asked me, as an aside, before answering. “People aren’t sure if they’re allowed to ask it. I’m totally fine with it, but I’m not sure if all gay dads feel that way. There are other gay dads in my life who I haven’t asked and I don’t know.” Fortunately for us, however, Chad and Jason are of the mindset that being public about routes to parenthood can be helpful to other gay dads.
“We decided adoption was right for us,” Chad said.
The adoption process took the couple two years start to finish. To help them through the process, they hired a private lawyer. “He’s kind of like the ‘go-to’ lawyer for gay dads in the entertainment industry,” Chad explained. “He did all the home study work, and had a particular way of doing things.”
The lawyer, for instance, asks the birth mothers a series of questions about her preferences in order to find the best match for his clients. Does religion matter? Geographic location? Do they mind adoptive parents who are LGBT? But then, each birth mother is given a set of several adoptive parents to choose from. “The onus is on her to pick who she wants to adopt her child,” Chad explained.
Eventually, Chad and Jason were matched with a woman in Florida. Knowing they were up against other adoptive parents, Chad asked his lawyer to arrange a phone call with the birth mom so he could make his case. “In retrospect, it was a pretty terrible experience,” Chad said. “It must be horrible to get this disruptive call in the middle of the day, and have this guy pitch himself to you.”
As an entrepreneur, Chad was of course used to cold-calling people to pitch himself to investors. But it was one thing to be pitching an idea, he continued, and quite another to be selling yourself and your relationship for the right to adopt a child.
“This felt like the ultimate sales call,” Chad said. “The emotional investment, the stakes, everything was just so high.” After that call, there was nothing left to do but wait. But as the weeks passed on, Chad and Jason didn’t hear a definitive answer from the birth mom. Maybe she had selected another family? She could have still been deciding, but they didn’t keep their hopes up.
But then, out of the blue, Chad received a text message from Colin’s birth grandmother wishing Chad and Jason a happy Thanksgiving. “It was just a little random,” Chad said, noting that they hadn’t corresponded at all in several weeks. “So I said, ‘Thank you, but has [the birth mom] chosen who she wants to adopt the baby?’”
In all caps, the response came back: “IT’S YOU!”
Make it Work
Chad and Jason were thrilled they had been chosen to be Colin’s adoptive parents, but there was a problem: Colin’s birth mother was living in Florida in 2009, which still prohibited adoption by same-sex couples. In order to get around this law, they had to fly Colin’s birth mother to California. Though Colin’s birth mom left the Sunshine State for the Golden State well before she was due to give birth, Colin seemed ready to meet his new dads as soon as he arrived in his new home; Colin was born just three days after his birth mother’s arrival in California, and nearly a month before his due date.
They had nothing. No baby clothes, no crib, no childcare plans. But they made it work. They borrowed a bassinet from a neighbor, went to Babies “R” Us the day after Colin’s birth, and hired a nanny to help the dads out during the day. “Speaking from experience,” Chad said of their rushed path to fatherhood, “you don’t need to do that much to prepare. We’re living proof!” He laughed. “You just make it work. You’ll be fine.”
“It’s funny, before Colin arrived, people would ask us, ‘What are your childcare plans?’” Chad said. “But we had no idea! We didn’t know what it was like to work and have a kid. We had no idea the type of help we would need.”
“I felt like we could figure it out,” Jason said of the challenge. “I knew enough people with good careers and kids. I knew we had the ability to make it work.”
And so they did, though not without some sacrifices along the way. One of the first shifts, for example, was a career change for Chad. “I was working for Nelnet at the time,” Chad said, “which is a diversified education holding company.” Chad’s position with Nelnet required a lot of travel between Los Angeles and Princeton, New Jersey, where the company is headquartered. “With Colin, I just had to change the amount of travel in my life,” Chad said, “so it prompted me to leave Nelnet a number of months later.”
“Lucky you!” I said before I could stop myself. (Nelnet, I told Chad, is the company in charge of my own tuition payment plan for graduate school. If only I could break my association with the company that easily!)
The move would be a good one for Chad, who used the opportunity to begin work on his second tech start-up, Panjo. (“We’re a peer-to-peer market place,” Chad explained. “So the world’s most hardened mountain bikers will turn to Panjo to buy and sell high-end used gear.”) Though Chad was still logging plenty of hours at his new start-up, he didn’t have to travel as much and had more flexibility as the company’s founder.
The other big “make it work” development for the couple was childcare. With Chad and Jason both working 12-hour days, they knew they’d need some outside help. “We don’t have any family nearby,” Jason explained. “Se we got a nanny for the daytime hours.”
Even with the help, though, it was difficult. For a number of years, after working a full day, Chad and Jason would get home around 5 p.m., and then immediately slip into the dinner, bath, and bedroom routine. Once Colin was asleep, however, they’d both still have a number of hours of work left before bed.
“That was breaking me,” Chad admitted. “I was super mentally and physically exhausted.”
As Colin has gotten older, however, it gradually became easier. “Now, we basically just need an hour in the evening to help with dinnertime and bath-time before we get home for the bedtime routine,” Chad said.
Given their lighter childcare needs, the couple decided to hire an au pair just six months ago. They had heard good things from friends, and thought the cultural exchange experience could be a beneficial one for all of them. By this time, Colin was 6 years old and was often in after school programs until the early evening, so the family only needed a couple of hours of help each day anyway.
“It’s wonderful that someone brings a different perspective on childcare and children, language, and the world into the house,” Chad said. “It’s been an incredible experience.”
The only real problem? Their au pair was a bit uncomfortable behind the wheel – within the first two months, she got into two minor traffic accidents. “Everyone was fine, thank God,” Jason said. “But she doesn’t drive now.”
Now I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I’d always thought driving a car, like downing gallon-sized iced-coffee drinks and discussing your yoga practice with strangers, was an essential part of Los Angeles living. How did they make it work without a car?
“Thank God for Uber,” Chad said, wryly.
Besides that minor mishap, the au pair experience has been a positive one for the family, and also came with one other major benefit. Since au pairs live with their host families full time, the couple was finally able to reclaim date night for the first time in 6 years. “We have no family in LA, no grandparents here to help,” Chad reminded me. “So until recently, since we brought Colin home, we’ve been terrible about having any semblance of a regular night to ourselves.”
First date night with your husband in six years? Seems worth the Uber surcharge to me.
Work Life Balance or Bust
Since Colin joined their family, the quest to find the perfect work-life balance has been a perpetual one for both Chad and Jason. And it’s a challenge they both take very seriously.
“It took us years to find a daily routine that allows us to maximize everything – work, spending time with Colin, personal time, and then time as a couple,” Chad said. “And still, no matter what I do, it feels like I’m either cheating my spouse, my child or my start-up,” Chad says. “Nobody gets the amount of time I’d like them to get.”
Though they both recognize the challenges of being dads while simultaneously working demanding jobs, neither Chad nor Jason have any regrets about the path they chose. “Colin doesn’t know a world with stay-at-home parents,” Chad said. “This is the world he knows.”
“It hasn’t seemed to negatively impact him at all,” Jason agreed. “Regardless of all the difficulties we’ve had – schedules, lack of grandparents – I don’t feel like Colin has lacked love and support. He’s extremely happy, independent and social.”
That said, both Chad and Jason feel strongly that they didn’t bring Colin into their home just to turn around and hire a staff to raise their child. So even though they are logging late hours at work, time with Colin is still the priority.
“Its important to me that I get him ready in the morning and that I get home in time to be part of story time at night,” Chad said. “And then, of course, that I spend almost the entire weekend with him.” This set-up works for Chad most days, though he admits that it can be draining. “It’s difficult when you have a stressful day at work and then come home to a toddler who has no way of comprehending that you’re stressed,” Chad said. “It can require you to pull from a well of patience that you didn’t know had, and that you better have.”
For Jason, time is really the issue. “We have demands on our time in our professional lives, but every minute you’re spending on your work, you’re not able to spend with child.” When Jason is with Colin, he told me, he tries to be very mindful, and careful not to be distracted by work. “I feel that I’m getting good at that,” he said. “But that also means I’m probably ignoring work sometimes when I shouldn’t be.”
But Jason feels much more conflicted when he’s not getting enough time in with his son. “It is really tough if you’re working and don’t get home until 30 minutes before he goes to bed,” Jason said. “I’d like to spend more time with him than that.” And Jason has plans to do just that: he’s actively attempting to lessen the amount of time he spends working so he can spend more time with Colin.
“Will it be easy for you to scale back?” I asked Jason, naively.
He laughed. “No, it’s kind of unheard of,” he said. “It won’t be easy to scale back, but it’s going to happen anyway,” he continued. “It’s the kind of thing that most people in my work wouldn’t try to do, and I’m going to do it for a variety of reasons. You got to be willing to face the repercussions in the workplace. To say, hey, this isn’t going to be my top priority 24/7.”
Jason is looking forward to shifting more of his time at home. “I enjoy the work I do,” he told me “But I think I’ll enjoy it more doing it less. I’ll be more in control. I’m willing to take a financial hit, at least in the short term, to have more control over work schedule and life.”
Having it All?
“Let me choose my words very carefully,” Chad laughed, when I asked if he had any words of wisdom for other busy gay guys contemplating having a baby, maybe. “It is clearly possible to maintain intensive careers and be amazing dads,” Chad said. “You just need to give serious thought to the kind of work-life balance that will work best for you. But the truth is, there really isn’t an answer to that question until you’re parents, and living it full time.”
“You have to both really want it,” Jason said for his part. “It’s really important both of you are committed to this because it will be challenging. You need to know that if you’re both pursing dual careers, you’ll need help. You’ll need family nearby or be prepared to have some sort of full-time support.”
Any last pieces of advice?
“Be prepared to let your priorities shift,” Chad said. Though six years ago, Chad and Jason were more willing to allow their lives to be fully consumed by work, that is less true of them both today. “If all I had was my tech start-up and work, that would be a very narrow existence,” Chad said. “Now, when I get home at 5 or whatever to relieve our childcare provider, I get to come home and use a different part of my brain to read Winnie the Pooh.”