Justin Ruehs and Adam Smeets tried for two and a half years with three surrogates before finally getting pregnant. Then they learned they were expecting triplets.
The arrival of Harper, Collins and Emmett in June has been celebrated in the media worldwide. Even before then, the family first made news when they won an IKEA Facebook contest for a "room makeover." The homewares company filmed a video of the expecting dads receiving a fully-furnished baby room.
Next, the news caught on that they may have been the first gay couple to have triplets using both of their DNA—a claim they prefer not to make because most countries do not report those statistics, so it's impossible to know for sure.
And recently, the pair appeared on Ellen after a close friend wrote to the comedian about their story. On the show, Ellen DeGeneres had a personalized "Our Daddies Were on Ellen" triplet stroller rolled out onto the stage for them. She promised to cover the family's diaper costs until the kids grow out of diapers. And the photo service company Shutterfly added a gift of $10,000.
"Ellen was a whirlwind of excitement," Justin says. The attention has brought both encouragement from around the world and some unwanted attention.
"National TV is a bit scary, especially when you know Ellen's audience is so big. We wanted to make sure that we not only represented our story, ourselves, our family, but that we were also a good face for LGBTQ families," Justin says.
"What's really been upsetting is that a lot of international outlets—and even some local—are running stories about us that we didn't even know about," Justin says. Some publications have, without permission, used a frame from a local TV story that shows Emmett's face.
"I don't have a chance to tell them, 'You're not allowed to run my child's photo.'"
Adam says he was particularly affected by strangers' speculation about whether or not the couple deserved the gifts, arguing that there are other families out there with more need.
"No one knows the volume of work that has had to go in to make this happen," he says. The couple’s pregnancy expenses increased the moment they learned they would have triplets — each child carries an additional surrogacy fee—and continued to grow with the high-risk pregnancy and complications with the surrogate’s health after birth.
"That $10,000 isn't even 10% of what we owe," he says.
Even though the birth of their children made news around the world, the couple hesitated to tell anyone when they first learned they were expecting. A miscarriage last year had left them weary of sharing the news too soon.
"We told our families a year prior when we were pregnant—and it's just really hard to make the calls back and say you're not pregnant anymore," Justin says. "I think with the triplets, we just wanted to focus on making sure that everything was going right — making sure that they were healthy, making sure that they were growing right."
They told their employers first, out of necessity. They would need to save up the whole year's worth of time off and use it all at once to stay home with their newborns as long as possible.
Then they told their immediate family and each of their best friends. And so although only a few people knew it at the time, they quietly began preparing to grow their family.
"We've learned through the process you have to be joyful when you're to be joyful," Justin says. They moved to a home in the suburbs that was more affordable for a big family than their downtown Chicago home. When they found a good sale on baby clothes or diapers, they would stock up.
The couple welcomed three healthy babies in June.
"In the beginning, because they were born early, they had to eat every three hours," Justin says. That would take about an hour. Then they would need to go down for a nap.
"Then you would have, like, an hour. You could go take a quick nap or get one thing done."
Around the clock, the couple worked together like a team — a very sleep-deprived team — to keep the newborns fed, bathed and their diapers changed. Adam's parents came to live with them temporarily to help.
They began early sleep training after two and a half months. Now the babies "work" during the day, practicing with tummy time, sit-me-ups or play mats. They still eat every three hours while the sun is up.
"About six in the evening is the witching hour for the kids, so we'll kind of take them for a walk in the neighborhood," Justin says. The family walks for about an hour and returns for the babies' final feeding before their eight o'clock bedtime.
They only eat again at four in the morning. Though the feedings are fewer, they're still logistically complicated with two parents and three babies.
First, for that early morning meal, they'll grab the two most in need of feeding. Then, while one dad feeds the third kid, the other heads to the kitchen to sterilize bottles.
"We'll use that 30 minutes to get our housework done for the day," Justin says. "I think it would be impossible for us to go through a day without a schedule. Because if we didn't, we would always be feeding, we would always be changing diapers."
The couple has returned to work and relies on a nanny four days a week and Adam's parents on Fridays.
"It's a new type of exhaustion where you're just kind of zombie-like. You have to function, so you do," Adam says. “We’re now eight-o’clock-bed people and five-o’clock morning people, which I never thought I would be."
The babies are now old enough that they watch their dads as they walk around the room. All the late nights, exhaustion and financial woes fade away, if just for a moment, when one of the babies looks up and smiles at their daddy.
"That's kind of your first reward, when they start smiling at you," Justin says.