Over the sounds of baby activity in the background new dad Stephan Howard says he couldn’t be happier about the new addition of eight-month-old Mari-Sol to his life.
“Of everything I’ve ever done in my life she’s the best thing,” says Howard. “It’s such a phenomenal experience.”
Howard, along with Mario, his partner of nine years, started the adoption process with Children’s Aid Society before adopting Mari-Sol at six months by private adoption.
“She has been a remarkable baby,” says Howard. “She laughs at everything, a very happy baby. Mario stays home; he’s the stay-at-home dad, the papa. I go to work at my store and when I come home she puts her arms up to see me. It’s so wonderful.”
When the couple first started thinking about bringing children into their lives they signed up for the family-planning course Daddies and Papas 2B at the 519 Community Centre.
“It is a really eye-opening class. It tells you everything,” says Howard. “The panels were the best. We saw dads come in and there was one young couple with their baby girl and it was amazing to see and that was the moment I knew I wanted a baby girl.”
This past Father’s Day marked the fifth anniversary of the Daddies and Papas 2B course, as well as the 30th anniversary of Gay Fathers of Toronto (see Coming Out After Kids). Both groups combined their celebrations with the Fabulous Fathers’ Day picnic at The 519 on Jun 14.
Modelled after the Dykes with Tykes course, the Daddies and Papas 2B course is designed and taught by Chris Veldhoven, coordinator of the queer parenting program at The 519. Veldhoven has first-hand experience with his subject matter —he has two gay dads himself.
“My parents separated in the ’70s when I was seven because my dad had come out,” says Veldhoven. “He started seeing Norman and they’ve been together for 33 years.
Veldhoven’s story is one of many that were recently documented as part of a national study on fathering by the Father Involvement Research Alliance.
“Originally gay fathers were not included in the study,” says Rachel Epstein, coordinator Toronto’s Queer Parenting Network, “but I approached them and explained how important it was to include them. They agreed and I became the primary investigator on that cluster.”
The collection of gay fathering tales was launched at the anniversary and will soon be online at Lgbtqparentingconnection.ca.
While the research is still being analyzed there are some themes emerging, says Epstein.
“Certainly there is the whole issue of entitlement, people feeling like they’re entitled to be parents,” she says. “What we’re facing as queer parents are all these deeply held ideas in our culture about how wrong it is to have gay parents. It runs deep and there is collective grief about having to give up kids, even more so for men.
“People talk a lot about invisibility,” she says, adding that most queer parenting programs are geared toward women. “Where do you go where you can feel comfortable? There’s a lack of visibility and a lack of resources.”
“One day I was walking down the street with Mario and Mari-Sol and a woman stopped me and asked if it was our baby and we said yes,” tells Howard. “She started to cry and said, ‘Oh my God, I have a son who’s gay. He’s my hero. It’s so great to see you with a baby. I’d love to see him with a baby.'”
“It’s good to see more gay men adopting. We live in the gay suburbs,” says Howard, referring to Leslieville and more and more men are asking us about it. There are a lot of us out there, this is how we create our families.”
But adoption isn’t the only option for same-sex couples. With the variety of methods for creating family — including insemination, surrogacy and coparenting — no two stories are alike.
“In 2003 I basically advertised in the paper that I was looking for a woman who was interested in having a child with me,” recalls gay dad Mike Hall, who is also a grad of Daddies and Papas 2B. “I got a couple responses, we met, got to know each other and did artificial insemination. She was gay and I was gay and on the third try she got pregnant. We used the nine months to get to know each other, our parenting expectations and involvement.
“We had to learn about family law,” says Hall. “Shaw is five years and almost five months now. She has custody but she consults with me on everything involving his upbringing and I have him about 35 percent of the time including one night a week and every second weekend. Having this little human being and watching him grow and being able to help show him what life is all about, it’s amazing.”
Trans men and would-be dads Nik Redman and Syrus Marcus Ware also attended the Daddies and Papas 2B course before helping to create a course for trans parents.
“Nik is older than I am so we talked about timelines and when would be the best time,” says Ware. “I had a lot of time in terms of fertility; I planned to carry the child. There were a lot of questions. Can you have top surgery and still breastfeed? How long do you have to be off hormones? They just don’t know the answers. We designed the trans fathers to be course for other trans dads who were thinking about parenting.”
“I am ready to be pregnant and it is challenging and terrifying…. I have been off hormones for about two years and then you go through the process to make sure your ovaries are still functioning. We are looking at donors and I would like to be pregnant by November.”
Other dads choose to foster children. “For people wondering if they want to be parents, fostering can be a good step toward adoption and a good way to know if parenting is for you” says Krink Zook, coordinator of the Children’s Aids Society’s Out and Proud program.
“We are desperate for foster parents,” she says. “We never have enough foster parents for our LGBTQ and gender-variant kids. It can be difficult to find appropriate placements. The foster system is full of people from faith-based groups and we’re doing an uphill battle to get those foster parents in line with our best practices and policies. In the meantime we want homes that will be very accepting. We do need foster parents from the LGBT community. We have a few and they have been amazing.”
Five years after the creation of the Daddies and Papas 2B program Veldhoven says there have been more than 200 graduates. More than 30 grads now have kids of their own, some of whom attend The 519’s Daddy, Papa and Me program for dads and kids.
“Many more gay/bi/queer men are seeing parenting as a possibility… are able to authentically integrate their sexual orientation and gender identities with their desire to parent.”