For my husband and me there was nothing romantic about surrogacy. We were working abroad and moving quite often. We didn’t get pregnant the old-fashioned way, in the backseat of a Chrysler LeBaron like most couples. Nope, we used a FedEx box, an ice pack, and a lab in Kentucky to centrifuge our children into possible fruition. And thus our journey into parenthood began, unconventionally, awkwardly, and with great uncertainty.
When our surrogate became pregnant with twins we calculated everything so we would arrive weeks before they were born. We planned to be there from the moment they took their first breath. Things turned out differently.
The twins were born almost two months prematurely. My husband, the logistics ninja, managed to get us from Cuba to India, via Miami, Chicago, and Frankfurt, in record time. We arrived two days after their birth, but had to wait until the next morning to see them.
Overwhelmed and exhausted after the multiple flights, we climbed into bed and forgot to set an alarm. The next morning a ringing phone woke us up. It was the front desk informing us that our surrogacy coordinator had arrived to take us to see our babies.
How could we have overslept? How could we be late to see our children? Even meeting our babies did not go as we had wanted. We sprang into action: a short time later we rushed out of the hotel, showered, shaved, teeth brushed, hair combed, coffee and granola bar in hand.
In the hotel lobby another pair of new dads also newly arrived were about to go see their son born on the same day as our babies. Four jet-lagged gay dads ready to see their children. Nothing could have been stranger or more perfect.
We entered the NICU prep room; we were instructed to put on scrubs, operating masks, those tiny blue see-through paper hats on our heads, and remove our shoes and socks – after all, this was India. We washed our hands from the tips of our fingers to our elbows, methodically removing germs from every groove of our skin. Finally, we were pathogen-free and ready.
Four barefoot men entered in search of their babies in a sea of incubators – tiny shrines beeping, blinking, glowing miraculously.
On the far wall was Luna in her teeny transparent pod; she had a feeding tube taped to her mouth and the wires of a heart monitor taped to her fragile arm. Her delicate skin could hardly veil her blood vessels underneath. I reached my hand through the circular opening and I ran the back of my fingers against her tiny cheek; her skin felt impossibly soft. She hardly moved.
Leo, in a lucite cradle a few feet away, outweighed Luna by two pounds and was lying comfortably under a blue light as if tanning on some strange alien planet. He started to cry when we approached. It was a piercing, wild, earth-sized wail. It was beautiful.
For the first five days we couldn’t pick up either Luna or Leo. But they were so small and delicate I was happy to have a few days to get used to the idea of holding them. We stayed past proper visiting hours and played dumb when the nurses would ask us to leave. After all, we were a chorus of gay dads, barefoot, in scrubs, ooing and awing over their children still too small to be picked up.
Going to see the babies became a ritual. A taxi ride in a street filled with scooters piled with people, women’s sparkling saris fluttering in the velocity of traffic. Temples rising next to chic high-rises, Bollywood posters plastered on every billboard and Vishnu’s blue smiling face on a temple near the hospital.
We would take our shoes off in the hallway, our clunky American sneakers next to slender leather sandals and proceed to putting on the scrubs, the masks, the tiny blue hats. As we walked in, the head nurse said, “Today, you can hold your son.” My heart stopped, swelled, and before I knew it Derek and I were taking turns holding Leo.
He was so light.
The nurse approached and said, “Now you feed the baby.”
“Where’s the bottle?” I asked.
“We use this. This is your paladar.” In her hand she held a tiny silver bowl with a spout filled with milk.
“And how do you do this? Where does the spout go? How much milk? Is it like filling a glass?" My mind went into overdrive and the joy of holding my son was now complicated with feeding him. The nurse gently held the paladar in one hand, put the spout in the corner of his mouth, and with her index finder began to massage little Leo’s cheek. Suddenly he started to suck the milk from the spout.
“This is how we do it. This is how we give milk to babies in India.”
It was quite remarkable in its design and simplicity. And before I knew it I was holding the tiny bowl in my hand and feeding my son in a circle of mothers doing the same.
“This is how we do it,” she said. And her words couldn’t have been more true or more powerful. My husband and I had created a family through extraordinary means, had traveled across the world to meet our children, and now we were feeding them in a way that was so new and so foreign it made me tremble.
But for love and for family, this is how we do it, any way we can.