Fatherhood Realized

Wisconsin Rainbow Families’ Vance Skinner and Brendan Barrett outline the evolution of their identities and what lead to their desire to have children.

Wisconsin Rainbow Families’ Vance Skinner and Brendan Barrett outline the evolution of their identities and what lead to their desire to have children.

Vance Skinner

What makes someone want to have children? This may seem like a silly question for some, and a very real question for others. For me, answering it requires a personal reflection on coming out as well as the related struggles of growing up in a society which had not yet accepted gay men having children. The concept of raising children is very different from person to person as well as for each gender. And how each of us gets to that result can be very different, too. Just growing up and how each of us got from A-to-B is very different between Brendan and myself. I consider our story a testament to each other, how we met, and ultimately how we came to have two beautiful girls!

Many people claim to have a “maternal instinct” that drives them towards having children. I did not have this particular feeling. However, I did have thoughts and feelings around the idea of family. Like others, these thoughts were of me, my wife and two kids. Unfortunately these ideas surfaced in high school at about the same period I began struggling with my sexuality. Now at age 39, I can look back to high school in La Crosse and make sense of those extremely difficult times. I made many bad choices, which involved drugs and the overall suppression of my sexuality through an array of girlfriends. They, like me, often got hurt and confused. Compounded further were the experiences I had with my straight friends. They allowed me to justify in my mind that my sexuality was only a phase and would pass. Thus, the girlfriends and idea of family continued. Even now as I write this, many forgotten memories are conjured up. In particular laying in bed at night and desperately praying to be “normal.” I remember desperately trying to sort out how I was going to get married and have a family if these thoughts and feelings would not pass!? At that time I wasn’t friends with anyone who I knew was gay or who I could look to as a role model. Same-sex families were practically unknown and certainly far on the fringe. A family consisted of a man and a woman or an occasional single parent.

It wasn’t until moving to Milwaukee to attend college that I started to experience a broader gay culture. While La Crosse had a few gay bars, Milwaukee had a gay community that allowed for more exposure. Still, after years of clubbing and socializing, an inner feeling began to resurface: Is this it? Is this the rest of my life? I realized again that my world had not changed, only the players had. Gay men just didn’t talk about taboo things like kids or marriage unless it involved nieces and nephews. I remember the terms “breeder” and “Stepford Fag” being thrown around. Even now, I think this is in part due to the laws (writen and unwritten) of our society. It wasn’t until recently that some states started allowing same-sex marriage. We gays were left to our commitment ceremonies and domestic partner registries. While growing more aware and less distracted by societal norms, my idea of family became more creative. Still, the fact that so few gay men spoke about family only made the hope of ever achieving my own more distant and distressing.

My struggle to be a dad had become my own inner isolation, and, while not as chaotic as battling with sexual identity, the finality of believing I might miss out was often too much to handle. Family still seemed reserved for my straight friends, however well-adjusted or dysfunctional they may be. That was until one day when fate presented itself as a fork in the road. That’s when I was introduced to my soon-to-be husband. Upon meeting him, I had an immediate sense that something was very different. Cliché, I know… But, without a doubt it was an immediate connection of a different kind. It was only our second date when the subject of children came up. This was the first time I’d ever openly discussed this—the desire to have a family with another person. I will never forget those moments when we were learning about each other and our life ambitions. The only word that can describe that period in my life is liberating. I had found my life partner.

Brendan Barrett

Vance struggled with his sexuality and the idea of family. For me, it was quite different. I was not reconciled with being gay until later in life. My family journey began as a very young adult attending college in Whitewater. I always knew I would be a dad. I came from a family with a mom and dad, brother and sister. I had a very traditional childhood. I dated women all through college. I was the one-woman type of boyfriend. I was loyal. I had two long-term girlfriends that I imagined having children with. Then, when I was 28, I met a gay friend. It wasn’t until then that I realized I was gay. Even after I began dating men, I still had the drive to want children. I just didn’t know how it would happen. I kept all this from my family. I distanced myself from all of them. The day I met Vance, my life began again. Our courtship was traditional. This was the first time I had a conversation with another guy about having kids and the thought of it was good. Vance and I had many conversations about life while we dated. Talking about children was especially fulfilling because we both were very passionate about it. There was never a question of having children; it was just a matter of when.

About a year into our relationship, we began our family journey. Back then there were no Wisconsin-based agencies or well-known “how to” books for gay families. We remember contacting our first family law practice and asked, “Do you work with gay couples who want to have children?” We recieved a prompt “yes” without any of the feared biases or anticipated rejections. Judy, the lawyer who provided that prompt response, soon became a part of the equation and remains someone whom we consider to be a member of our extended family today. Today, many people are familiar with surrogacy. However, what many people still do not know are the unique challenges and decisions facing gay men. We opted to go with an anonymous egg donor and someone we would ultimately have to trust to carry our fertilized eggs. We were not prepared for other things like the psychological evaluations necessary to ensure we were ready or capable of being good parents. At the time it felt somewhat insulting. Here were two committed, loving adults being subjected to what no adolescent single parent ever has to go through; the ultimate bad parent/bad person test. We underwent AIDS testing as well. Ultimately realizing this was more for our own health and well being, it was yet again a reminder of our difference. We had some deep philosophical discussions about adoption. Questions like, “Why shouldn’t we adopt when there are so many needy children?” and “Is it selfish to go the route of surrogacy as opposed to adopting and risking the biological mom (or dad) wanting the child back?” When we informed our parents that we were becoming dads, it was uncharted territory. Vance’s mom countered with, “You’re men—how will you know how to raise girls?” instead of the typical “Congratulations” that usually accompanies a happy announcement.

With regard to the pregnancy and our surrogate: It requires an incredible amount of mutual trust and just as much paperwork. We learned we were having twins very early on in the pregnancy. We also learned that we were both the biological dads, which was a double surprise. While we were excited, this was when the nerves started to kick-in, or so we thought.

Our daughters were born in 2003 at a small hospital near our surrogate’s home—not in a city where the assumed acceptance would accompany a larger, more open-minded hospital. We remember the drive when we were told it was time: It was surreal. No talking, just reflection along with a jumble of nerves. Here it was: All this time in the making and all those hurdles and hoops; we were about to realize our dream. We arrived very early in the morning, and just as we sat down in the waiting room, we began to hear voices coming down the hall. Then, as the nurses passed we noticed they were pushing two carts with two newborn babies—OUR DAUGHTERS! Shortly after we were invited to come see our newborn girls. They were premature and tiny—only five pounds. We met our daughters for the very first time! We did the things all new parents do, like check to see that all their toes and fingers were there and noticing whether or not they looked like either of us.

The hospital turned out to be incredibly accepting of us as new parents. We were offered a room right in the birthing area and met with a hospital social worker to explain our relationship to the surrogate. Initially, we were not listed as the parents on the girls’ birth certificates, which created a huge weight of emotions and accompanying challenges. It was a very emotional day in court when we were finally granted birth certificates for our daughters with our names documenting us as their parents; a day we will never forget.

Since the girls’ birth we have had a lot of wonderful experiences. We belong to a great church now where the girls have also gone to preschool since they were two years old. The teachers and parents have been very welcoming and are our extended community. One of their teachers asked, “What do I tell the other children when they ask, ‘Why does Ashlyn and Bailie have two dads?’” That is tricky question. We suggested she may want to tell their parents that they are asking and let them be involved in developing an answer. We also asked her what would you tell a kid if another child didn’t have a mom or dad? As a teacher, you probably get that question a little more often and the answers are similar. One teacher gave us the book “And Tango Makes Three” and another bought “The Family Book.” Both are about same-sex families. This felt like true inclusion to the church and school. We have met a lot of great families who we socialize with at church and school functions. Joining the church has been one of our best decisions as a family. Our family is also actively involved in Wisconsin Rainbow Families, which is a great resource that allows LGBT families from around the state to interact with one another. We have met numerous families and friends through WRF, which has helped us to learn from one another and provide the framework for our daughters to interact with families of a similar dynamic.

The questions around “What makes someone want to have children?” and the associated feelings are different for every person, gay or straight. The challenges and barriers faced by same-sex couples are not so different in some ways, but unfortunately very challenging in others. While we realize we’re among a fairly new group of American families, we are increasing in numbers. In reading our story we hope that we can inspire others to follow their dreams regardless of their situation. The feelings associated with becoming a parent and ultimately having children are something that is incredibly unique. Truly, it’s of the best feelings in the world!