John Riehs is the proud father of two beautiful young children, each of whom was born through surrogacy. (Dallas readers may recognize John as a well-regarded pediatric dentist and the owner of Preston Center Pediatric Dentistry.) To help us tell his story, John responded to several questions we had for him on coming out, how and why he chose surrogacy and the most important lessons he learned from his experience with two different surrogacy journeys.
On Coming Out
“Coming out" was a slow process. It wasn't until after dental school, 1999 at age 27, when I first allowed myself to experience what I had thought about since I was a kid. I knew at a young age, probably around 11 or 12, that I had feelings for the same sex, but I was from rural Texas and this was not acceptable. Or even discussed.
I think being sheltered in a small southern town, with a population of fewer than 5,000 people and a community where “being gay was not allowed or accepted" contributed to my late coming out.
Because I never knew anyone who was gay, I thought my feelings were wrong and rare. I had no clue that there were bars and communities where I could meet others who felt the same way I did.
After dental school, I moved to Oklahoma to begin my career. I met a guy, and soon started traveling to Dallas, where a large gay community existed. Being in Dallas allowed me to have a “second life" away from the social unacceptance of my childhood. Jump forward five years and I had moved to Dallas permanently and I came out to my family. First to my brother, then to my cousins, whom I consider sisters – all of whom where loving and supportive. Then to my Mom and Dad. This was a little more challenging, given their upbringing and the timing, early 2000. I think their reaction was understandable. They loved me, but did not understand or support my “being gay."
For a few years my personal life was never discussed with my parents. But as time moved on and social norms evolved, mom and dad began to realize that I was happy and that maybe their reluctance to support me had to do with their own insecurities about what others would think.
Today my family is my greatest support system and they love me and my children unconditionally. Just as it took me time to accept my own sexuality, it took time for my family to accept and readjust their own expectations for my life. As a father, I understand that now.
On Choosing Surrogacy
In my mid-thirties, being gay, I never thought I would have the opportunity to have a family. It wasn't until I met a gay father through my dental practice that I realized this was a possibility. I was 35 at the time, and the dad had twin girls through surrogacy who were now my patients.
I never asked many questions of this dad, but he opened my mind and allowed that first glimmer of hope that would one day come to fruition. I eventually came to be friends with other gay dads who had created families through surrogacy as well.
After many dinners with these friends, I had gained considerable insight into the surrogacy process. But just to make sure I was as fully prepared as possible, I even reached out to other families from the local LGBTQ community whom I did not know but I had learned that they had children through surrogacy.
During this time of research, I convinced myself that “I can be a dad by myself – I don't need a partner to make this happen."
But by the time I turned 37 a couple of years later, I realized that I had not moved beyond my initial stage of information gathering. My birthday stirred emotions about aging and I believed that it was "now or never" to start my family. So as a next step, I picked a local surrogacy agency here in Dallas to learn about their program and services. I met with them in early Spring of 2012, and within a month I made the decision to proceed with them.
Before coming to that decision, however, I spent a great deal of time reviewing my finances and also thinking about how parenting could affect my future relationships with other men. At the time, I presumed the ability to have a relationship with another man would be extremely hindered if I had a family. But since then my thinking on this has changed considerably, and I no longer think that my kids somehow prevent me from finding love.
The moment I signed with the surrogacy agency, my journey began. I found it helpful having the agency to guide me through the process, at least for the initial surrogacy.
On the biggest decisions he made during his journey to fatherhood.
I think the biggest decision I had to make was to mentally be prepared to commit to something, someone, other than myself. As a gay man, I never thought I could have a family, and my life centered around me. It was a little--no, a lot--egocentric, as I'm sure most gay men can relate.
Another important decision I made: I determined not to confide in my family and friends about my decision to start a family until I was halfway through the process. I had made my mind up and I didn't want anyone to influence me to back out.
Because of our background growing up in the conservative South, I expected my family might discourage me from my plans. As it turned out, I was correct. In the beginning my family did voice their opposition. But their feelings changed along with the birth of my son, Jacob. In fact, my dad recently told me (on Father's Day) that being grandparents to my two children was the greatest gift I could ever have possibly given to him and my mother. By way of apology for his initial reaction to my plans to become a dad, he also let me know that sometimes parents concern themselves with their own insecurities, which can make them selfish.
On what he leveraged from his first surrogacy journey to help prepare him for his second journey.
As with anything, going through a process once gives you plenty of insight for the next round. Having experienced every step during Jacob's eventual birth allowed me to ask better questions, more questions, during the process of having my daughter Hayden, my second child.
Some of the trials and tribulations associated with the first surrogacy were also diminished with a better contract that incorporated items about hospital delivery, insurance, ob/gyn, etc.
I found that open communication and discussing potential hurdles in advance helps out tremendously in case the pregnancy does not go as planned. For instance, during my first surrogacy, the surrogate became hypertensive during the first trimester and eventually pre-eclamptic (a potentially dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure). During this time, it was in the best interest of my child's health to minimize the surrogates stress, so essentially I felt a great deal of pressure to “follow her lead" in order to maintain my child's safety. Had we discussed expectations for an emergency delivery, difficulties may not have occurred.
On what he did differently for his second surrogacy journey.
I made sure the following questions and requests, missing from my first surrogacy contract, were included in the second one.
- Please provide the last five years of your medical visits/history.
- Can we choose an OB/GYN was acceptable to us both? I'd like one with privileges at a level III NICU hospital.
- Delivery at a hospital I choose (one with level III NICU).
- If for some unforeseen reason the delivery occurs at a different hospital, the expenses for transport to the agreed-upon hospital would be adjusted from compensation.
- Verification of surrogate insurance at time of transfer.
- Agreement that the surrogate would not do any traveling during the third trimester.
- If surrogate chose to travel during the second trimester and a premature delivery occurred, surrogate would pay expenses associated with transportation and additional out-of-state hospital fees.
- I chose not to use breast milk from the surrogate, but made the request to obtain it if my child was born premature.
- If the surrogate had been a surrogate previously, ask to speak with EVERY family she has delivered for.
- The second surrogacy was an amazing experience. I think open communication and discussing all potential outcomes and expectations made for a smooth journey. My second surrogate maintains contact with me through Facebook. However, because of the difficulties with expectations and the emergency delivery, I do not have any contact with my first surrogate.
On the most important advice he'd like to share with gay men just starting their surrogacy journey.
I think the best advice I was given prior to the start of surrogacy was to be prepared for hurdles and not to get discouraged. There are so many moving pieces in the process from screenings, egg donation, surrogacy designation, fertilization, transfer, contracts, etc. It is a timely process and staying positive is important. For my first surrogacy, it took almost two years from the time I signed with the surrogacy agency until Jacob's birth.
Advice I wish I had received for my first surrogacy was to ask more questions -- and to keep asking as many questions as possible. The more communication and potential outcomes discussed, the more likely hurdles would not turn into walls.
During my first surrogacy, full disclosure of the surrogate's health history was not received and ultimately factored into my son Jacob being born at 29 weeks. I think it's a fair request to receive a potential surrogate's medical records. If the surrogate is willing to have full transparency with her health, that likely would set the pace for a much more positive experience for intended parent and surrogate alike.
One last piece of advice, which I consider extremely important: while reviewing the surrogate's contract, be sure to address the choice of OB/GYN. Naturally, many surrogates want to use their own OB/GYN, which is understandable. However, if complications occur during the pregnancy, most OB/GYNs only have privileges to deliver at certain hospitals.
If your child, like mine, is delivered at a hospital with a minimal neonatal intensive care unit or "NICU" (hospitals have different levels of NICU), and needs a more sophisticated NICU then you'd have to have him/her transported from one hospital to another. Believe me, watching your child fight for his life, as I did with my son, is extremely stressful. Adding the burden of a transport only served to increase the stress!
Furthermore, larger urban hospitals tend to have more experience with surrogacy and the “red tape" paperwork involved. Have a meeting with the hospital administrator prior to the birth to review the paperwork and have everyone on the same page. That process would have been invaluable for me for Jacob's birth. But the hospital my first surrogate chose was not at all familiar with the process or the documents. They required documentation to procure his birth certificate. I was eventually able to work everything out, but I can attest that it took a vast amount of time and I had to endure endless red tape.