The x-ray machine conveyor belt ground to a halt as the security guards shouted at each other in Hindi. It took me a second to realize that I, my husband and my 2-weeks-old daughters were the reason.
“Baby not go through," said one guard, gesturing at the soft carry-cot in my hands where one of the girls slept unaware. I started to laugh, but his expression told me he was dead serious.
We had already successfully navigated the other treacherous spots both at the airport and through the bureaucratic process of getting our surrogacy-born twins out of India; from their Delhi birth certificates that, rather than one of us, listed “surrogate" on the line reading “mother," to getting their passports from the U.S. Embassy, to – most harrowing of all – getting their exit visas, which required spending three hours in a single linoleum-floored, fluorescent-lit office where we were sent from one to another to another of the manila-folder-covered desks lining the walls. Finally came passport control at Indira Gandhi International Airport, where I tripped on the agent's first question: “Purpose of your visit to India?"
“Uh… um… surrogacy," I blurted. If looks were an elbow in the ribs, the look my husband shot me would have left serious bruises.
Fortunately, the man was perplexed. “Huh?" he responded.
“Visiting friends," I said quickly.
“Oh," he responded, followed by a few more questions and a request to see the girls. And then it came: “Where's the mommy?"
At the security line, 30 paces past passport control, the shouting continued. “You know, they do come out of the carriers," I said.
“Where is the mommy?" asked one of the guards. “We try to find you woman guard to hold baby."
“The mommy's not here," I answered, annoyed, giving the response other parents who had gone before had coached me to give, “and I can hold her myself."
The shouting stopped.
It dawned on me that none of them was about to ask a father to hold his own baby; that was a mommy's job. I lifted Olivia out of the carry-cot; the empty cot I placed on the conveyor belt. She woke and began to fuss as I submitted to a scan with a metal detector. By the time I reached the end of the security gantlet and put her back into the warm, cushioned carrier, she was howling, and a female security guard was staring at me, bemused.
“Where is the mommy?" she asked, as I gritted my teeth.
* * *
One day a year doesn't just beg the “where's the mommy" question; it screams it. Mother's Day began chastely in 1908, but by the 1920s, it had morphed into the champagne-brunch-and-rose-bouquet fed bacchanal we know today and even its own creator began lobbying for the beast to be put to death.
It didn't work. Last year, Americans spent some $20 million on gifts for Mom, and while that pales in comparison to the more than $700 million spent over the winter holidays, it still ranks third on the calendar for consumer spending.
All that can leave kids from a two-dad family feeling a bit left out, one reason research psychologist Dr. Peggy Drexler recommends not waiting for the first Sunday in May to have a vital conversation with your child. “This is a simple, but important, conversation that should take place when it feels right to a parent, and not because of a Hallmark holiday," said Drexler, who writes extensively about gender and parenting. “That said, if Mother's Day is what causes a father to have a conversation about a child's family structure, the best approach is a direct and honest one that lets a child know that his family is one where two dads or two moms have chosen to love each other and want to raise children together. This is a matter of fact statement and no justification is necessary."
Most gay men have had plenty of time to think through various challenges they and their children will face by the time they finally become fathers, not the least of which is how outsiders view the lack of a female parent.
Matt and Chuck Casey, both 40, adopted their daughter Addison when she was 4 days old and weighed 5 pounds. “We had to think about how to navigate others' ideals and expectations, and our responses," said Matt. “We are very matter of fact, and stick with facts that Addison has two dads. No Mom. Thankfully this hasn't really been an issue for us but we think it hasn't been because of our approach and not making it a big deal."
He admits that the questions and awkward pauses were more common before the family moved to L.A.'s San Fernando Valley. “We lived in the Midwest when first adopting our daughter, and so eight years ago our family was much more an anomaly," said Casey. “We got a range of responses to our reply of 'Addison has no mom'. Mostly, the response was 'Oh...' and then they would think about how to respond next. I think society's views have evolved for mostly the better on this topic. The title of mother or father is earned; it has nothing to do with biology. Once we can all start thinking that way, this question becomes, in my opinion, much less relevant and important."
Bill Orlando-Reno, 39, and his husband Brian, 33, recently fled Rhode Island winters for Punta Gorda, Florida with sons Christian, 8, Dominic, 7, and Noah, 6, all biological siblings adopted through the foster system. They've faced questions in both locations. “We're just very bold and honest, and say there is no mommy, they have two daddies. The boys are very comfortable saying the same thing. We've always felt that dancing around the question or making awkward excuses just adds to the mystery of it all. It's best to just be honest. We want to make sure that whoever asked us where the mommy is, knows that they DO know a two dad-family, and they saw them at Target today!"
But while answers to the day-to-day questions may come easily, Mother's Day, with activities at school that have the potential to leave children from two-dad families feeling left out, often requires creativity and a proactive approach.
Dr. Drexler recommends contacting your child's school ahead of time. “It might be helpful to contact the teacher and educate her about your family," she said. “Emphasize the importance to [the teacher] that all families are not the same and the school has to be aware and accommodate all children that they are educating."
“We were a bit overprotective with her at school, and in all programs for that matter," said Casey. "Not just on Mother's Day, but when interviewing prospective schools, programs and teachers. We made sure to do our due diligence that out daughter would be in a loving, supportive environment that supported all types of families."
Bill and Brian Orlando-Reno say they have yet to encounter a problem. “Most teachers we've worked with so far are very forward-thinking and love what good care we take of these boys," said Brian. “They can tell by how they behave in their classroom, and how loving they speak of their daddies, that they are taken care of and loved as much as any birth mother could love them. We've had great experiences so far."
Dr. Drexler says using the traditional holiday to celebrate the child's nontraditional family at home also helps. “If, say, a child's school has the kids making cards for moms in anticipation of Mother's Day, suggest to your son that he make a card for a special female in his life — maybe an aunt or grandmother or friend of the family," she said. “Or he can make a mother's day card for his father. His family is nontraditional, and so can be his celebration of the holiday."
For the Orlando-Renos, it's a day to honor the boys' birth mother, who died several months after Noah's adoption, along with the other women in their lives – and their dad's birthday. “Bill was born on Mother's Day, so we always celebrate his birthday in lieu of a Mother's Day. But also these boys have so many supportive and wonderful mothers in their lives, grandmothers, great grandmothers and aunties, so we always make sure they say happy Mother's Day to the wonderful and supportive women in their lives."
Casey takes a similar approach. “We simply encouraged our daughter to make something for one of her favorite moms," he said. “Most years she would make things for our mothers. One year she made something for her godmother. We minimized the no-mom issue and again emphasized with her the types of different families and she has responded well to this."
This will be the first Mother's Day Robbie Cronrod and Allen Artcliff spend with son Dylan, born via surrogacy nine months ago. For them, Mother's Day will be an occasion to remember both their surrogate, Andrea, and egg donor Maya.
“While he's still too young to understand we're hoping it will make it easier for all of us," said Cronrod. “Maya sees Dylan on a regular basis and now has a daughter of her own who is two months younger than Dylan. The goal is for the kids to grow up knowing each other and that they are half siblings. She'll always be Dylan's bio-mom."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the thornier questions surrounding being a nontraditional family seem to concern parents more than children.
“Each child is different, but it's quite amazing how kids don't care or know about what is 'normal' like adults do," said Casey. “I don't recall a specific time when this question came up because we didn't make it a big deal that our family was different. We have always been very matter of fact about our daughter's family with her and with others. Our response has always been, you have two dads in your family ... All families are different: Some have two mommies, some have one daddy, some have one mommy, and some have grandparents."
As proof he cites an exchange he heard between Addison and another girl at a recent party. “It went something like this: New girl: 'Where's your mom?' Addison: 'I don't have a mom, I have two dads.' New girl: 'Oh, ok. I love my dad; that must be fun to have two.' Another example of kids not getting caught up in normalcy and awkwardness."
The same approach worked for Bill and Brian Orlando-Reno. “It's second nature to them, when they hear someone talk about Mother's Day, to have a very simple and matter of fact response. 'We have two dads instead.' 'Nuff said. They don't feel like they're missing out on anything. In fact, they've always thought they were lucky to have two daddies instead of one, and we're so lucky to have them!"
Dr. Drexler says it comes down to one word. “There is no greater truth to say to parents in nontraditional families than 'Relax!'" said Drexler. “If you love your child, support them, listen to them, your child will turn out fine despite the challenges they may face at school. Very good things come from outside the bounds of our worn-out assumptions. I would say this to all of those who believe they can attach limits to the idea of family: family is far less about composition than it is about the power of its love."
* * *
The Lufthansa flight crews treated us like rock stars on our way back to Los Angeles. Any German reserve was left in a heap on the tarmac as they gushed over our girls.
“The Indian babies are here!" cheered the gate agent as we caught our connection in Munich. “That's the tiniest baby I've ever seen!" exclaimed another flight attendant about Clara as we sat on the tarmac. “She's adorable!" The first class purser, blonde, female, six feet tall, came back to our seats with plush toys for each of them. “I wish you a life full of joy and happiness," she said in a deep, Marlene Dietrich-accented voice.
Then, again, from another flight attendant, the question: “And where is the beautiful mommy?" she asked sweetly.
By now, my patience was shot but my reflexes were honed.
“She's right there," I said, indicating my handsome husband, sitting across the aisle giving Olivia her first of many in-flight bottles.
"Oh…oh, my god, I'm so sorry!" she sputtered as she turned red.
At least she knew to apologize. Feeling proud of myself for my quick retort, I laughed and told her not to worry.
I was getting used to this.