Fred A. Bernstein

Daddy, Why Are You So Old?

How I became a middle aged father.

Published in The Advocate, May 28, 2002

Sometime soon, one of my sons will throw me a baseball, and I'll dislocate my arm trying to throw it back. I was never much of a ballplayer, but now, at 45 -- with twin sons on the way -- I'm worried that I'm past my prime. One day one of them is bound to blurt out, "Daddy, why are you so old?"

I'm so old because I had to overcome legal, moral, practical, medical, and emotional obstacles in order to become a father. If you're gay, it takes more than one night to start a family.

My own father was 28 when I was born. He was married, with a steady income and -- so far as I know -- no doubts about where his life was headed. Oh, and he was straight.

At 28 I loved children. But I wasn't straight, and 1980's gay culture -- in which married folks were called "breeders" -- was anything but child-friendly. And then came AIDS. I couldn't bring a kid into the word not knowing if I'd live.

It was in the 1990's -- once I knew more about HIV and knew I didn't have it -- that I began to think seriously about becoming a dad. But I wanted any child in my care to have a happy, stable home. I was single, and I wasn't sure I could handle the responsibilities alone. Besides, my options -- adopting (difficult for a single gay man) or hiring a surrogate (expensive, uncertain, and possibly exploitative) -- didn't grab me. What did was trying to find a woman with whom to share the benefits and burdens of parenting. (This was before Jennifer Aniston and Madonna did it in the movies.)

I met and talked to several women, including a straight acquaintance whose boyfriend didn't want kids; her plan was to see him and our children on alternate nights. Not exactly the kind of cooperative parenting I had in mind. I knew that with a lesbian, comparable life experiences and shared values would give our family a stable foundation.

Four years ago I was introduced to a wonderful woman who wanted kids -- and wanted them to have a father. Although we got along famously we also saw that it wouldn't be easy for two people who weren't in an intimate relationship to raise children together. So we met for dinner once a week to talk about ourselves, our hopes for our family, and the details of how we might make it work.

There were many stumbling blocks, some imposed by a homophobic legal system. We wanted to formalize our understanding on key issues with a contract, but we knew that courts are often hostile to gay and lesbian parents. That might make our contract unenforceable. As it is, we spent almost two years negotiating an agreement, which we consider morally binding, and which we see as a powerful statement of our intentions.

While all of this was going on, the clock was ticking -- and not just hers. I knew that at a certain age I'd feel too old to have babies. And then she fell in love with a terrific woman, and I fell in love with a terrific man. That meant there were two more people to consider. It was a happy complication but a complication nonetheless.

Once we were ready to begin insemination, new problems arose. It's illegal for a man who has had sex with another man to use a sperm bank in New York State. I was honest about being gay at the first sperm bank I went to -- and so my semen was tossed out with the trash. This despite the fact that I am HIV-negative, and was willing to undergo -- indeed, would insist on undergoing -- every test known to medical science. Though we both live in Manhattan, we ended up having to use a sperm bank in New Jersey. That created a lot more headaches but ultimately led to a happy result when we found out we were doubly pregnant.

Oh, and did I mention how much money all of this cost? I'm afraid to do the math. At 28 I couldn't have afforded any of it.

My route to parenthood has been a long one. It's likely to be almost as long for any gay man or lesbian who chooses to have kids.

Sure, I'm old. But I've come a long way, babies.