For gay parents, the decision can be complicated…
Choosing to become a parent is a huge decision, but for members of the LGBT community, the road to get there is rarely straightforward. For aspiring dads, the two most common routes are surrogacy and adoption. For some, the choice is clear. But for most it involves soul-searching, research, and a whole lot of patience. Are you wondering how to make one of the most important decisions of your life? Here are some personal stories, and professional advice, to help determine which option might work best for you.
Austin Wong and his husband had always dreamed of having kids. “It was something we talked about very early in our relationship,” says Wong. After the couple married, they decided to sign up for Daddies and Papas 2B, a comprehensive course at The 519, an LGBTQ community centre in Toronto. The 12-week program is open to gay, bisexual and queer men looking to create a family with a child; it walks them through surrogacy, adoption, co-parenting and foster care options. The centre offers a similar course for women called Mommies and Mamas.
Wong and his husband soon decided that they wanted to pursue adoption. “There are so many children born who need homes, and we liked that we could [offer] that,” says Wong. They also had some reservations about surrogacy. “We knew someone who had gone through [the experience]. It was expensive and fraught with problems, and it never worked out for him at all,” Wong explains. “Also [with surrogacy], only one of us would have been a blood relative to the child, and I just wasn’t comfortable with that inequity. It didn’t matter to my husband, but it did to me.”
Adoption in Canada comes under provincial jurisdiction, which means the laws vary from province to province. Once you’ve decided on adoption, there are two options: public or private. Public adoptions are arranged by government agencies such as the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in Ontario, and there are several advantages to this avenue: there is little to no cost involved; the wait time can be shorter if you’re willing to take on an older child or one with special needs; and, because most children are wards of the state, there is little risk that a birth mother will change her mind. However, for prospective parents looking to adopt newborns, the wait times can be long.
Private adoption allows birth mothers and prospective parents to meet, decide if they are a good fit, and determine how much (if any) contact they will maintain once the baby has been placed with the adoptive parents. The costs are higher: $20,000 to $40,000 for a private social worker, background checks, plus legal and adoption agency fees.
Whether they go public or private, all potential adoptive parents must complete a home study, an in-depth application and an interview process conducted by a qualified social worker. Intended parents also undergo various reference checks, police checks and home visits. In addition to this, most provinces require some type of adoption readiness training. In Ontario this is called PRIDE (Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education), a parenting course that includes modules on child development and discipline.
Wong and his husband decided they wanted to pursue private open adoption. (In an open adoption, all the parties meet and often remain in each other’s lives whereas in a closed adoption there is no contact whatsoever between the birthparents and the adoptive parents and child after the adoption takes place) “When you call the [CAS], they ask if you’re willing to take a child with health issues or developmental delays,” says Wong. “[These kids] may need assistance for the rest of their lives, and we just didn’t feel equipped to [offer] this.”
The couple found a social worker, finished the PRIDE course, got background checks and home studies, then created an online profile with a private agency and prepared themselves for a long wait. “People told us it could take up to two years, and that some birth mothers might prefer to place their baby with a traditional nuclear family.” But within just a few months, they got the call that a mother wanted to meet them. A few weeks later, they brought home a healthy, 10-week old baby – and just like that, they were Daddy and Papa. They remain occasionally in touch with the birth mother, who said she chose them in part because they were a gay couple, not in spite of it.
“Adoption is an amazing way to build a family. You’re giving a child a home. It’s a great feeling,” says Wong. “The night we brought [our baby] home was really special. It happened to be my husband’s birthday and it was the best present ever.”
For more information on adoption in Canada, visit adoption.ca.
Devin Michaels* hadn’t thought seriously about becoming a dad until a conversation with his brother changed his mind. “He made a passing comment about how sad it was that my niece would never have cousins, and it made me think maybe this was something I wanted.” After much discussion, Michaels and his husband decided it was important to them to have a newborn so they could establish an early bond. They also wanted to know as much as possible about the birth mother’s health and control some of the timeline. “I’d spoken to some colleagues who’d experienced heartbreaking disappointments in the adoption process,” says Michaels. “They’d been promised babies and then didn’t get them. That just wasn’t something we thought we could handle.” The couple chose to explore surrogacy and found a legal expert who would guide them through the process.
Sherry Levitan is a Toronto-based fertility lawyer, one of very few in Canada who practice in this area exclusively. “Gay men in their 50s never thought they would become parents,” she says. “But men in their 40s knew they could.” Single gay men or couples now make up half of all her clients.
Levitan strongly advises those choosing surrogacy to work with people who are experts in the area of assisted reproductive technology. “It’s important to understand the laws in your province and not just rely on Facebook pages,” she says. “Most [family] lawyers will answer questions by phone without charging you.” Levitan’s role is to help guide intended parents through the surrogacy process from beginning to end. This includes recommending a reputable surrogacy agency (to find your surrogate), and a fertility clinic for in vitro fertilization (IVF). “When couples don’t get the right information or aren’t clear on the process, it can cause delays,” she says. “I’ve heard of some fertility clinics telling prospective gay parents that they have to go through an ethics board, and it’s totally unnecessary.”
Levitan also recommends a mental health counsellor who will meet with both the intended parents and the surrogate. “This is called ‘implications counselling’ and helps people prepare for the journey. It also ensures the surrogate’s intentions are in the right place,” she says. “If there are problems along the way, it’s always good to go back to the counsellor to mediate conversations.”
Once you have your legal advisor in place, there are many more decisions to make when becoming a parent via a surrogacy. The first is finding someone to carry your baby. If you don’t have a person in your circle of friends and family to be your surrogate (a.k.a. the gestational carrier), you will need to go through an agency. There aren’t enough women to meet the demand, so this part of the process can take up to a year. Levitan advises clients to “choose a surrogate who’s in the right place in her life; who has the support of her immediate circle; who is honest, dependable and, most all, communicative.”
Next, you need to choose an egg donor. “When you’re picking an egg, you only have the equivalent of a Facebook profile,” says Michaels about his own experience. “There’s no such thing as a donor with no family health issues at all. We had to get over that psychological hump.” In the end, he and his husband chose someone who looked a little like both of them and was doing it for the right reasons. “She was a college graduate and she liked camping,” laughs Michaels.
With surrogacy, the biggest hurdle for most people is the cost. Expect to pay about $5,000 in legal fees, $10,000 for the surrogacy agency, $10,000 for the egg donation, and about $20,000 for medical costs. It’s illegal in Canada to pay a fee to a surrogate, but you will be required to cover her expenses. Budget $25,000 minimum for things like transportation to and from doctor’s appointments plus time off work. If there are twins, multiple IVF attempts, or the surrogate is required to go on bed rest, expenses will run even higher.
The other thing that’s challenging about surrogacy, says Michaels, is living with uncertainty. “Someone you’ve only known for a short period of time is holding the most cherished thing in your life. You feel a loss of control and a bit out of touch.”
After more than one failed egg transfer—“IVF is not for the faint of heart”—Michaels and his husband welcomed a beautiful and healthy newborn into the world, and they feel extremely grateful to be parents. Michaels’ advice? “Speak to a couple who’s going through it, and ask questions. Find support and get advice.”
*Name changed for privacy
MARIANNE WISENTHAL is a Toronto-based writer and content strategist. When she’s not wrangling words with aplomb, you can find her singing show tunes with her community choir.
For gay parents, the decision can be complicated…