My husband's 41st birthday wish was one of my greatest nightmares: a family weekend at Disney. With our twins growing like weeds, it was bound to occur sooner or later – my husband loves Disney and I, well, avoid it like the plague. It's been a wild year and it happens faster than you can change an explosive diaper. Since becoming dads our lives have transformed completely, but I never expected to feel, dare I say, a glimmer of joy in the Not So Happiest Place On Earth.
My babies are ten months old. Somehow they grew from wishful thinking into a crawling, teething, no-refunds reality. I remember the afternoon Chris and I made our first official surrogacy decision. It was late October of 2015 and we did what most Floridians do during the onset of those cold winter months – hung out at the beach. Two bobbing heads within a gilded ocean of aluminum ripples, we treaded water as conversation naturally drifted toward our shared desire to have children.
That September we married in Chris's hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, followed by a two-week honeymoon in the Mediterranean. We'd been together for five years and recently purchased a new home. We were riding high on waves of romance, enough to make some people puke.
So there we were, treading water however many feet offshore, sunbathers appearing as small silhouettes in the distance. Beach umbrellas, brightly colored bathing suits, lounge chairs scattered along orange sand in the horizon.
The concept of growing our family was abstract. We had vague ideas how it could happen, limited knowledge on the process or any real facts. We were unsure of adoption versus surrogacy – what route to take. It was one question after another after another, all leading to a big black hole of unknown, which is scary shit.
But there in the ocean, for the first time, we had a serious conversation about our future as parents. We knew the timing was not right, wanting to save money and make sure our careers were steady. So we agreed to pursue our family in April of 2016, with no rhyme or reason to the month other than it gave us the time we needed.
I remember that moment in the ocean like yesterday.
Fast forward – May 2017. Connor and Olivia are born. Holy shit.
Fast forward – March 2018. Our first family trip to Disneyland. Holy shit.
It happens in an instant. One moment we're newlyweds on a cruise in Greece, the next minute we're a family of four stuffed in a room at Animal Kingdom Lodge with two cribs and an unspeakable amount of baby crap piled everywhere.
It's not only amazing how quickly life changes, how fast miracles can manifest; but also how adaptable humans are. I knew nothing about surrogacy – I mean, I knew so little that when April 2016 rolled around, panic ensued because we didn't know how to start. Didn't know who to trust, who to call, let alone how two dudes make a baby. It's like a crash course in some foreign language, but a really hard one like Mandarin. I honestly have no idea if Mandarin is hard to learn, it seems like on of those untouchable languages. But within months I felt like a surrogacy expert. And months later I'm magically a dad and the feeling of panic reemerges because I have no idea how to be a dad. Now ten months later we're towing those two nuggets to Disney for the weekend, which if anyone has done that vacation with two infants, you know it's no easy task.
First off, I hate Disney. Rather, I dislike Disney greatly. Hate is a finite word that reminds me of black hair dye – painfully permanent and never looks good on anyone. I'm not a cartoon enthusiast, not really a happiest-place-on-earth kinda guy. The thought of strolling around a manmade tourist nest is pretty much a personal nightmare. But it was Chris's birthday and he was over the moon to show our twins Disney, so I did my husbandly duty while remaining cautiously optimistic.
People say it's a joy to experience a place like Disneyland through your child's eye. I dunno, maybe. In our case they slept through half of it. We went on the merry-go-round and teacup ride, exposed them to new sights and sounds, encouraged those little nuggets to go wild. But mainly it was 2 days, 4 parks and about 17 miles of walking, according to my step-counter. It's true what they say, life before kids becomes a distant blur. Somehow we forget what it's like to not be parents because suddenly everything, and I mean absolutely everything, revolves around your children in some way. Right down to the inner strength you muster up despite the well running dry, just so they can experience as much as possible. Even if that means carrying a 20 pound baby in one arm while pushing a stroller, sporting a backpack and holding a stuffed animal while enduring mile fourteen. Oh to wild and free, sailing Greece with no thought other than where our next port will be.
Back to Disney.
Post merry-go-round diarrhea diaper change, we sat under much needed shade to rest. Throughout the day I noticed strollers by the hundreds, but now noticed the visibly exhausted parents behind them. My eyes opened to a sea of strung out, sweaty, 20 and 30-somethings all trying to keep their shit together. Dilapidated dads and limping moms who seemed fairly composed despite battling thousands of people, sing-along music, screaming kids, blazing heat and being pulled in every direction.
A mother sat next to me, avoiding a large streak of chocolate ice cream smeared on our bench. Her husband took the kid for a diaper change, she parked their stroller, slung an overstuffed kids backpack off her shoulder and plopped down. Blonde hair tussled across her face, she pushed a bead of sweat from her forehead and caught me staring. I smiled because I knew exactly how she felt, and she smiled back because she knew exactly how I felt. It was then I realized we're part of this amazing community of parents, a comradery I couldn't have understood until becoming one. My eyes opened to a sea of exhaustion and suddenly I didn't feel so alone. The woman's husband walked out the bathroom with their daughter under his arm, followed by my husband, our son glued to his chest. Freshly changed diapers and recently chugged bottles mean we're golden for a few hours.
As hours passed and miles accumulated, snapshots were imprinted in my head. Little moments that make me smile even while writing these words. Like our son overjoyed by a large stuffed monkey at Animal Kingdom – one he now cuddles with at night. A stuffed animal intended for his twin sister but he's a savage when it comes to toys. Or all of us relaxing on a lawn in front of Cindarella's Castle in Magic Kingdom. Or Olivia's unbridled excitement at seeing animals roam free. Connor perched on Chris's shoulders to watch a parade. Mental snapshots that bring me back to my own childhood, moments I so vividly remember in my parents photo albums. Old 4x6 photographs of our family together in Disney, my dad holding me with a joy only he could truly understand.
And I become overwhelmed with emotion at the realization I'm the same age as my father in those photos. The same age with my children as he was with me in Disney, creating similar photographs but with entirely new memories from a very different perspective.
I am the father now.
And it hits me like a train that this is only the beginning. There are miles and miles of memories ahead, years of snapshots and milestones and mess-ups and laughter that I can't begin to imagine. Connor and Olivia will one day look back on these photographs of Disney the way I did many times growing up. They will see much younger versions of their two dads, blind to the future ahead. Blind to whom these babies will become by the time they can look back at those photographs. They'll see the still memories of our Disney vacation and it will mean much less to them than it will ever mean to us. Until they themselves step into the role of parent. Until they realize that sharing this journey, watching their children grow into little people, watching their spouse transform into a parent, seeing their own parents become grandparents, realizing we've all been here before. Until then only we can understand the development of a true family bond, only we can understand the unspoken bond amongst strangers. The support from those who are going through the exact same shit; the ones who reach into their diaper bag and give you a Number 3 when you realize you're out. Who will offer a simple smile because they know you know and you know they know.
While I may still not be a Disney enthusiast, I will happily endure a few days in the Not So Happiest Place On Earth so my family can run wild in the alleged Happiest Place On Earth, because our shared experience is what makes it awesome. The many stories ahead are worth every grueling, loving step through Disney. It's why we made a decision not so long ago, two newlyweds floating in the ocean, to become dads. To show our children a life of love and adventure.
Plus I was able to watch Chris bask in the sweet glow of saccharine laced birthday cheer so.... husband points for me.