Personal Essays by Gay Dads

A "Village of Women" Helped These Gay Men Become Dads

Elliot Dougherty's mother-in-law served as a gestational carrier, and his sister donated eggs, so that he and his husband could become dads

All good love stories start hot. Ours just so happened to, literally. The summer I turned 23, during the sweltering heat, I stood at an invisible crossroads. I felt a momentum pulling at me, but I couldn't tell from which direction. I had been putting myself out there as a hairstylist and building my portfolio by working with local photographers and designers. At the beginning of July, I received a Facebook message from a young man named Matthew Eledge. He sent me the script to a short film he was directing, hoping I might be interested. We met a few days later on a humid summer day at a quaint French cafe in the Old Market of downtown Omaha. Drinking wine, we discussed our inspirations for hours.


That summer, we shot the film amid blistering record temperatures in a small nearby village. I styled the wigs while he stole my heart. That fall, the film was released, and I moved in with Matthew. We were madly, deeply in love. The kind of love that can only come from two dreamers sharing a waking vision together. Late nights turned into early mornings. We were reckless artists, dreaming up impossible plans of moving to Paris. Love made us brave, but boredom made us restless. Come spring, we began untethering ourselves from our life in Nebraska. By that next summer, we packed up one backpack each and left for Europe. We spent most nights sleeping in a twin-size bed at budget hostels, sharing cheap meals together, reading the same books, and philosophizing about everything under the sun. We got to know each other deeply while traveling and aligned in every way. Five months later, we headed back home, missing the life we fled. That's when I began to dream of homesteading and starting a family.

Elliot and Matthew's wedding

Life is about harvesting intentions from the seeds of passion you sew. For the next few years, my garden grew and grew, but so did something else. Cancer had begun growing in my sweet mother. She fought hard, and we did all we could to heal her. In the past, we didn't express the need to get married, but a part of us wanted to. I wanted my mom to be there to see it. Suddenly, internal desires became urgent intentions. Gay marriage had just been legalized. In a heartbeat, we were engaged, but not without consequence. Matthew worked as a high school teacher at a private Catholic school. When they caught wind of his plans to marry me, they denied him an extension on his teaching contract for the following year. To marry me would mean losing a job he loved. The situation became a national media whirlwind as students publicly protested the administration's decision. They created an online petition that gathered over 100,000 signatures. The school didn't budge, but neither did we. We were married that fall in the woods where we shot the film and first fell in love. The following weekend, we celebrated our reception at a historical music venue. The night was a celebration, not just for our love, but for all of the love now recognized between same-sex couples throughout the country. I'll never forget the way my mom giggled awkwardly during our mother-son dance as I cried and told her how much I loved her. It was one song, one fleeting moment that I will live in forever.

Elliot dancing with his mom

Soon after, my mom's health quickly declined. My sister also wanted to get married to her fiancé before my mother passed, so she quickly scrambled a wedding in our parents' living room. I laughed through tears as I curled her hair and stuffed socks into her bra because her dress hadn't been altered yet. Days later, as my mom drifted to the other side, her breaths becoming heavier and heavier, my mother-in-law Cele Eledge came to visit her. Cele hugged her softly, grabbed her hand, and whispered in her ear, 'You don't have to worry about Elliot. I promise to take care of your boy as if he were mine.' The summer wind blew love into my life, but a cold breeze took my mom away that February.

A few months earlier, my first nephew, Easton, was born. I hadn't realized I wanted kids, but the joy Easton brought made me want to be a father. Given how Matthew was fired from his job, we suspected the adoption process may not be sympathetic to our dreams of building a family. Not to mention, it was illegal for same-sex couples to even foster a child in many places two years prior. As we had since our first summer swoon, we took things into our own hands. We started living frugally, saving money for a three-letter dream called IVF. We began by scouring egg donor websites, bumbling through various options, but the whole process felt cold and corporate.

I mentioned my frustrations with the process to my sister over brunch. Immediately, she said, 'I'll donate my eggs.' My sister has always been my best friend, and losing our sweet mother brought us even closer. I absolutely cherished this idea. Not only would the child be genetically related to me and Matthew but, more importantly, my mother's legacy could live on in our child as it forever will in our hearts. Now we just needed to find someone willing to be a surrogate. We mentioned this during a big family dinner, and Matthew's mother casually said, 'Oh, I love being pregnant! If you're taking names for candidates, put my name in the hat!' We laughed lovingly at the unrealistic gesture. Cele hadn't had her period in over a decade, but her support meant the world to us. She couldn't have a baby… could she? In a conversation with our IVF specialist, we mentioned the casual comment his mother had made. Matthew laughed. Our doctor didn't. 'Anyone can have a baby if they are healthy and have a uterus. It's all about egg quality, and considering that your sister is young and fertile, your chances are looking good. Bring your mother in and we can see.' Cele continued to vault each health examination hurdle. Her cholesterol levels came back lower than ever and her pap smear was cleared. In the middle of her cardio test, the doctor abruptly turned off the treadmill. 'No matter how fast we turn up this speed, we can't even get you to hit the danger zone!' My mother-in-law was put on estrogen, and for the first time in years, she had her period. When the first ultrasound results came back, we were told, 'Her uterus is beautiful.' Matthew was both proud and mortified.

Matthew, Cele, Lea and Elliot

Ours is a story of summers. As the weather turned hot, my sister went through a series of intense shots and underwent surgery to retrieve 24 eggs. Of those 24, they found three of the embryos viable for life. From the infinitely impossible to a concrete number, we had three chances at the child we dreamed about. At our doctors' advice, we decided to transfer only one embryo; carrying multiple babies is a major health risk for the carrier. The last thing we wanted to do was put the only mom we had left at risk. On the day we went to the hospital to transfer the single embryo into Cele's freshly awoken uterus, I brought my mom's ashes in a small urn. I was eating a hardboiled egg in the waiting room when Cele, in a delirious state from the morphine, said, 'Hmmm. Eating an egg on this day. How appropriate!' Our laughter became tears as they wheeled her off for the procedure.

Next came the two-week wait to see if the embryo attached. They strongly suggested to avoid taking a pregnancy test on our own. Five days later, on my 29th birthday, we asked Cele to pee on a stick anyway. Minutes later, she sent a frown face via text message and said, 'It's negative.' Later that morning, Matthew drove to his parents' house to comfort his mother. She looked up at him and bluntly stated, 'Ya know, it may have been negative, but I gotta tell you, I sure do feel like shit.' She asked him if he wanted to see the pregnancy result himself. He took the walk of shame, knowing he would only find disappointment. But when he squinted and looked at that pregnancy test with just the right amount of light, he could see it: an oh-so-faint second pink line. A maybe baby. He ran back outside and mentioned what he saw. Cele pushed him aside, literally screaming, 'Shut the f*ck up!' She insisted Matthew was seeing something that wasn't there. She could not, no matter how much her heart willed it, see it. After a second pregnancy test, everyone saw that second pink line. Cele was pregnant. We were pregnant. She may have the physique of a 20-year-old, but she definitely had the eyes of a 60-year old.

Lea, Elliot, Matthew and Cele,

Cele continued to soar through ultrasound after ultrasound, as our dear friend Laurie pumped and stored her breast milk for us. Two men in love, trying to make a family, were surrounded and lifted by a village of women working to help us. As two men about to raise a daughter, Matthew and I sometimes wondered if we lacked that special something women have, that maternal magic that heals the world. We soon realized that didn't matter, because this little girl would be surrounded by the most powerful women in the world anyway.

On March 24th, Cele's blood pressure began to rise alarmingly high. The doctor said she was at risk of gestational hypertension. At 38 weeks of pregnancy, he decided to have her induced. Although she requested we be on the other side of the room, Cele allowed us to be there for the delivery. The process of giving birth is truly indescribable. I watched my charming, goofy mother-in-law shift into a silent, stoic warrior who dug deep within herself for this visceral, supernatural strength. Childbirth is not effortless magic, but it is an undeniable miracle.

15 minutes later, I was able to take off my shirt and do the same. Speaking of magic, in that one instant, the whole room and everyone in it disappeared. I felt my heart open in a way I had never experienced. Our Uma Lu, the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, was barely born, and I could already see my mother in her face. In that moment, I made a promise to take care of her as tenderly as my mother took care of me.

Now, a few months later, I am holding my daughter in my arms, feeling a love I didn't know existed. I still cannot believe how she came to be. Her beautiful aunt gave her the seed of life, her selfless grandma provided the loving garden for her to bloom, and my own mother's example will help guide her as she grows. This is a story of two men in love, surrounded on all sides by women. It's an origin story of creativity, of true poetry. It is a story that can't be made up, only lived."

Upstream Pictures has secured the life rights to The Eledge Family's story, to develop a feature film as well as a docuseries featuring the Eledges as they continue to grow their family. Stephen Gyllenhaal and Ambika Leigh will produce both projects, and Screenwriter Kathleen Kwai Ching Man will write the feature script.

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