American Gratitude

A very special friend from an obscure little town called Lockport in western New York took me on a road trip across New York and Massachusetts states almost 30 years ago.  Lockport is the kind of town where you almost expect to see Opie Taylor ambling down a dusty dirt road with a willow fishing pole carelessly dangling over his shoulder, while the echoes of a whistled tune from an idyllic, sepia-toned America that no longer exists ring in your ear.  Starting from Lockport, we drove across New York state – through the magnificently verdant Finger Lakes region that was James Fenimore Cooper’s setting for The Last of the Mohicans.  And shortly after we crossed the New York state border into Massachusetts (and after a totally unmerited not to mention categorically unfair speeding ticket), we made one of those wonderfully impulsive but fortuitous stops that you sometimes take on road trips if you’re not overly anal-retentive, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.

Freedom from Want

There, I was deeply and indelibly moved by a quartet of Rockwell paintings that are collectively called The Four Freedoms.  They were inspired by a 1941 speech given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, identifying four quintessentially American rights: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  And one of those paintings – Freedom from Want – became an iconic Thanksgiving holiday image.  The odd thing is that nothing about this image should resonate with or appeal to me.  And not just because I don’t know anyone who carves their turkey at the table!  After all, my family doesn’t even remotely resemble Rockwell’s depiction: I’m a gay man, I’m the first-generation child of Asian immigrants, and (even though my husband’s family has been in the U.S. for generations and is as American as apple pie) my children will partly have Asian genes that contrast with the Rockwell ideal.

Nonetheless, this image keeps haunting me as we prepare to travel later this week to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws.  Even if I’m Chinese-Korean, my husband and his family is overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, our egg donor is Korean-Irish, and our surrogate’s family is African/Hispanic/Filipino – I know that all of our various family’s tables on Thanksgiving (with or without stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, or my personal favorite – butternut squash!) will all radiate the same gratitude for our shared freedom from want.  So it seems to me that the diversity of my family actually represents this nation of immigrants just as well as Mr. Rockwell’s beloved and nostalgic depiction.  (I note with irony here that my WASP husband can only choke down pumpkin pie if it’s buried in whipped cream.)

We obviously have a hell of a lot to be thankful for going into this holiday season, and will finally be letting extended family and friends know that we’re pregnant at last.  We had been holding off telling most people because we didn’t want to jinx it with prematurely broad announcements.  From what research I could do online, along with consultation with one of our dearest friends who happens to be a physician, it seems that the odds of miscarriage are significantly reduced after two major milestones:

  1. When fetal heartbeats are detected (usually at six to seven weeks gestational age, or four to five weeks post embryo transfer), and
  2. After the first trimester (twelve to thirteen weeks gestational age, or ten to eleven weeks post embryo transfer).

We haven’t quite hit that second milestone yet, but will hit it right before Christmas (knock on wood) so we decided to go for it.  I’m sorry to say, however, that we’ll be letting most people know through a form newsletter in our holiday greeting cards: my husband and I mock people who use impersonal mass communications because Christmas letters are usually filled with self-congratulatory notes on the kids or descriptions of luxurious vacations that can’t help but provoke envy.  Most people (whether they’re willing to admit it or not) would almost rather get a letter detailing your woes in the past year.  #schadenfreude  Apologies if you include newsletters with your Christmas cards – but I’m still guessing that you can relate to my point.

As long as we were throwing caution to the wind, we also decided to join a group dedicated to supporting gay men with, starting, or considering families.  Our original goal was to make sure that our children could see other families without a mother, so that they don’t feel that our family is abnormal.  Not the majority, absolutely.  Distinctive, why not?  But abnormal, hell no!  A little surprisingly to us, we also found sharing the collective experiences of other gay men starting families – whether through foster care, direct adoption, or IVF/surrogacy like us – was somehow therapeutic.  Hearing both the frustrations and joys of others earlier, later, or at the same place in the process as us was as cathartic as the storied balm in Gilead.  It almost doesn’t matter what else we have in common: that shared desire to mark our short time in this world by nurturing children, especially since it’s so much harder for gay men to have children, overrides all.  If every parent had to work as hard as gay men do to have children, perhaps the world would be a happier place.

A gay man we met at the group meeting referred to surrogates as the “ovens” that bake our children to birth.  And I confess that I have in the past used the same simile in jest.  But honestly, one of the things I’m most grateful for this year is having the woman who is our surrogate become part of my life.  The whole person, and not just her uterus – because I’ve come to have enormous respect for her strength and integrity.  I think that’s why we haven’t had any of the challenges that I’ve heard some surrogates and intended parents have.  For example, my husband and I don’t worry excessively about whether we’re communicating with our surrogate too frequently or not enough.  We’ve gotten to a place where we respect and know each other well enough to simply ask if there’s a potential issue.  Our next ultrasound is scheduled on the day before Thanksgiving, but my husband and I will be out of town with his family – so I asked our surrogate if she was OK with us not being there.  (She was more than understanding.)  Our wonderful working relationship with our surrogate is probably also a factor of her maturity (many surrogates are younger than ours), but our interest in her extends beyond her uterus – even if she isn’t genetically related to our kids.

Freedom from Fear

Anyhow, my husband and I are totally focused on our coming children, and doing everything we can to ensure they have everything they need.  The recent American presidential election has me, and many members of the LGBT community, fearful for our hard-won rights to equality.  Will the government try to do things that will make it difficult to raise our children as a gay couple?  So this holiday season especially, I appreciate another montage from Mr. Rockwell’s famous series: Freedom from Fear.  It shows a couple lovingly tucking their children into bed, secure and confident in the knowledge that they can keep their children safe.  Thank God that, regardless of what others may try to do to our family, my husband and I are Americans who can fight for our freedom and the freedom of our children.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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