Tommy Heidenreich had given up on his dreams of becoming a father.
At one point in his thirties he had talked about having a baby with a female colleague, but the discussions fell through. And although Tommy had been in long-term same-sex relationships, the obstacles to starting a family seemed overwhelming.
"I was absolutely certain it would never happen to me," says Tommy, now 52. He didn’t know any gay couples with kids and didn’t see how it could happen.
But then he met his future husband, Mario Alaniz, and things began to change. Quickly.
Tommy was a year out of a 10-year-relationship. It was 2008, and he met Mario while both were training for the San Francisco marathon.
"He was running one direction, and I was running the other," Tommy says. The two started talking, exchanged numbers, and began dating. "I was just certain this could be my final husband. This was it."
A few weeks after they started dating, the two met Mario’s family at a birthday party. It was the first birthday party of the son of Mario’s nephew. At the time, Michael was in foster care – his father had been deported and his mother wasn’t able to take care of him.
"I immediately took a liking to this baby; he was just so cute," Tommy says now.
A picture was taken of the three together. And after Mario moved in with Tommy a few months later, the Los Angeles-area couple were approved for weekly visitations. They started taking Michael in every Sunday and spending quality time together.
So when Michael became legally free for adoption, his social worker asked Tommy and Mario if they wanted to adopt him.
“We both said yes,” Tommy says now, even though they hadn’t discussed it before.” We didn't even think it was legally possible." They weren't even domestic partners at the time.
But it turned out that the obstacles were few. The couple’s background checks and clearances had been completed for visitation, so Michael was able to move in quickly, just a few months shy of his second birthday in 2009.
It was a miraculous turn of events for Tommy.
"I had always wanted to have a son my whole life,” he says now. "To me, it was the greatest thing in the whole world."
The two now had to figure out parenthood. Tommy leaped into the task, while Mario had already helped raised his two nieces and Michael's father.
"For him, he had gone through all the diaper changing, all the crying,” Tommy says. "It was a huge new thing for me."
And while Michael was a bit fussy at the beginning, after a couple of weeks he calmed down and seemed like the happiest boy in the whole world. With remarkable serendipity, a family had been created.
Over the next seven years, Michael grew and flourished. He’s now halfway through fourth grade and turned 9 in September.
"He's never been one to be afraid to go to school," Tommy says, "Most of the tears were shed by me."
Tommy and Mario officially tied the knot in 2013, three months after marriage equality became legal – for the second time – in California. After their church wedding, the couple invited 200 of their closest friends and family for the reception.
And their son? "Michael was very excited for our wedding and he was the ring bearer in the ceremony," Tommy says.
And while there are multitudes of same-sex parents in Los Angeles proper, in the area where Tommy and Mario live, they don’t know of any. Not only haven’t they seen gay dads, they don’t know of any lesbian moms either.
But they have a birthday party for Michael every year with his friends – not to mention regular playdates – and there have never been any problems.
As for Michael’s background, they have always been totally honest about everything. Mario’s sister lives with them – she’s actually Michael’s grandmother. (Michael’s biological dad is Mario’s sister’s son.) Tommy praises her influence. "It really shows Michael how important family is to each other.”
The couple is looking to adopt again, once again going through the state’s licensing process. And once again, they’re being inspired by Michael.
"We're trying,” Tommy says. “It's all he ever asked for, a little brother.”