Jerry Mahoney talks about becoming a dad, inventing a not-yet-national holiday and the best trick ever for taking preschoolers to Disney World.
When it comes to Father’s Day, well, what could possibly be better than a heartwarmingly funny story about a really great dad? Unless it’s a heartwarmingly funny story about … two really great dads?
In honor of fantastic fathers everywhere, we talked with TV-writer-turned-stay-at-home-dad Jerry Mahoney about his new memoir Mommy Man: How I Went from Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad
Mommy Man is the story of how Jerry and his husband Drew met, married and then, like so many other couples, decided it was high time to start a family and so went looking for an egg donor and gestational surrogate to help make it happen. Along the way, our hero dads navigate the complex world of gestational surrogacy, grapple with fertility issues and gradually (if reluctantly) don the mantle of gay parent activists, blazing the trail for other gay wanna-be dads to follow. It gives nothing away to reveal that their surrogate, Tiffany, eventually becomes pregnant … with twins … conceived via IVF from Drew’s sister Susie’s eggs and Jerry’s sperm. And thus another happily unconventional family is born … albeit in a maternity ward that doesn’t quite know what to make of two men, two babies and a surrogate. Though now that we think about it, that does sound like it has all the makings of a really fun rom-com.
Norine caught up with Jerry during a calm moment when the twins, Bennet and Sutton, now nearly 5, were still at preschool. (Oh yes. Some things are the same no matter what kind of family you have.)
Norine: So, Jerry, your story has got to be the feel-good, having-a-baby story of the year. It has all of the elements: love, suspense, drama, impossible odds, humor. All the things that make a book a compelling read. I swear, I’m just waiting for the movie to come out.
Jerry: Thank you. I’m very happy that my story has a happy ending. One of the reasons I wanted to write it is that I’m always looking for a good story. And here was this thing that happened to me, and, like you said, it had all of the elements of a really good story. I had to write it.
But in my book, I also talk about how influential reading Dan Savage’s book, The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend And I Decided To Go Get Pregnant, was to me as a prospective gay dad. It’s this really honest and funny and emotional and totally candid book about what it means to become a gay parent and what you have to go through. When I sat down to write my book, I wanted to capture that too. My story is obviously very different from Dan Savage’s, but I went through a lot of the same emotions he did, and I wanted to be very frank about it, so that anyone looking for an account of what gestational surrogacy is like would get a very realistic picture and not some sunny, rose-colored glasses version of it.
Norine: For sure, that’s a huge help to gay parents who want to follow in your footsteps. You also write the blog, Mommy Man. Which came first — book or blog?
Jerry: The book came out of a “Modern Love” column I wrote for The New York Times about my sister-in-law offering to donate her eggs to us.
Norine: I LOVE the “Modern Love” column. It’s the first thing I read on Sundays.
Jerry: I was a huge fan of the “Modern Love” column. I’d always wanted to write one of my own, but I never thought I had a good enough story. And then we went through this, and I thought THAT’s a “Modern Love” column. I was so thrilled that they published it. It got a bunch of attention. That’s when I thought, I’ve got a lot more story to tell. I think this is a book. I wrote a book proposal and got an agent, and my agent told me that the best thing I could do to sell the book was to get some sort of following online.
I think of the book as a prequel to the blog. On the blog, I write about my life now, what it’s like being a gay dad. And it was nice to keep the book and blog separate; to have two distinct stories going on at the same time. When I got burned out writing one, I could always work on the other.
Norine: You write extremely fun and funny characters. I fell in love with Susie, your egg donor, and Tiffany, your surrogate. I got a huge kick out of the all-business prospective surrogate you nicknamed the “Womb of Steel,” and Jessica, who was always shouting. And, of course, Drew, who clearly must be enshrined in the Husbands Hall of Fame. Did you take some license or are these characterizations pretty true to life?
Jerry: There are definitely things you heighten for comedic affect. Like, Jessica doesn’t scream all the time. But, I feel like I was pretty true to who those people are. I’m grateful that I happen to have some funny people in my life.
I did worry that I was sometimes crossing a line in what I was sharing about other people’s lives. When you’re writing a memoir, you want to be confessional and honest and reveal things about yourself that you might not normally talk about. And I feel like I wrote things I was uncomfortable writing about myself. But when you’re writing about other people, who you care about, there are boundaries where you’re like, Whoa … should I be saying that? And there were some cases where I asked Is it okay if I write this about you? So if anything, I was worried about being too honest. Actually Drew is the one person who’s said I took liberties with who he is. He’s not 100 percent thrilled with his portrayal in the book.
Norine: Really? You mean he’s even more amazing than you wrote him? I mean this is the guy who brought donuts and bagels in for the entire nursing staff when your surrogate, Tiffany, went into labor. He’s seems so incredibly kind and generous, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. How much more fabulous could he possibly be?
Jerry: He’s very happy with the book. But I think there are a couple of things he would nitpick over. There was one part where I wrote about a fight we had. He was like, Oh, I look like a jerk. Well … he was kind of a jerk. Maybe I was too.
Norine: One of my favorite parts of the book, was how you stood up for yourself and your new family in the hospital. Typically, as you write in the book, hospitals give security bands to the mom and dad, putting matching bands on the baby, so no one else can walk out with your kid. And the hospital was going to give one to you, as the father and one to Tiffany, your surrogate. The hospital viewed her as the mother because she was the one giving birth. You insisted that if there were two bands, that you and Drew were to get them as you two are the legal parents. And you also insisted that you get a room in the maternity wing so that you and Drew could be with your new babies after they’d been born. Drew’s M.O. was to go in and make nice with all of the nurses so that they’d want to cooperate with you. But I loved that you kept making the point that you and Drew were the parents and as such you needed the same things that all new parents got.
Jerry: You know, all I wanted was to become a dad. I never wanted to become an activist. And yet, if you are a gay man who wants to have kids, you are kind of forced into that role. It’s not necessarily in my nature to be the person who causes trouble and goes up against authority. But when it came to being a dad and protecting my kids, suddenly that was something I had to find in myself. It became very important to me. We’d gone through so much trouble to have the kids, to get to the point where we wouldn’t be able to stay in the hospital with them when they were born, that broke my heart. The whole point was that we were their dads, and we wanted to be there for them the way parents should be when their kids are born.
Ultimately, I don’t think there was anything homophobic going on at the hospital. It was just that they hadn’t dealt with a family like ours before. They had their procedures, and we didn’t fit into them. Everybody at the hospital was so nice to us. But I feel that they needed to be educated about different kinds of families and adjust their procedures a bit.
Norine: It’s interesting that you say you never intended to be an activist. And I say that because while Mommy Man is a very personal story of how your family came to be, as with so many things that are personal or start out personal, your story is also political. You and Drew aren’t just dads. You’re an example of Gay Parents; your family is a Gay Family. Intentionally or unintentionally, you’re a spokesperson for gay parenting and for the rights of other gay parents to walk around, exhausted with spit-up on their clothes and pureed peas in their hair.
Jerry: It’s been an adjustment. And one of the things I talk a lot about on my blog is that if you are planning on becoming a gay parent, that’s something you should know ahead of time. You will be an ambassador for all of us. And you will be an activist whether you like it or not. Even being gay doesn’t prepare you for that. A lot of times gay men and lesbians sort of “pass” for straight. Or our sexuality is not an issue. But when you have kids, people will come up to you and say things like It’s so amazing you’re taking care of your kids. Your wife is so lucky. You can’t let comments like that go because your kid is listening. You can’t say Yeah, I thought I’d give her the day off. Your kid’s going to think, Why is daddy lying about our family? Is there something we should be ashamed of? Something we should be hiding? You’re sort of forced into being an activist because at any moment a complete stranger could come up to you and you might have to say, No, I’m a gay dad, and this is our family, knowing the person might not be comfortable with that.
But the more people see families like ours and see kids like mine, growing up as perfectly wonderful, well-adjusted kids, the more they’ll come to appreciate families like ours and the better a world it will be for my kids. So even though it’s not something I intended or prepared for, now I relish the role of activist, That’s part of the experience for me, to let the world know I’m a gay dad. I feel very proud that I’m able to do that.
Norine: Has there ever been a situation where you had to explain your family to someone who was uninformed or intentionally/unintentionally rude?
Jerry: Amazingly, I’m going to say No to that. But I was a little nervous when Drew and I took our kids to Disney World recently. You’re never more visible as a family than when you travel. When my husband and I go out to dinner with the kids, people just assume that we’re just two buddies who took our kids out or something. But when you’re traveling on an airplane and you’re buckling your kids into their seats, people understand that you’re a family. So I was a little nervous about what other families at Disney World would think of us, and once again, I was amazed.
The story I love to tell is that we met the Fairy Godmother. She was one of the people we waited in line to see, and the kids were very excited to see her and get her autograph. Then the next day, we went to the opening ceremony in the morning. This train comes out and they have characters on it, and she was one of the characters who got off the train that day. And she’s waving to everyone in the crowd. There are a zillion people crammed into that plaza waiting to get into the park. And somehow in this crowd she see us. And she points to us and waves. And my husband and I are like No! She doesn’t remember us. She sees hundreds of people a day. But then the ceremony ended and she walked down, close enough to where she was within earshot, and she actually yelled out to us, Hey! I remember you guys! Come see me again today! My kids felt like rock stars. And we felt like it’s really nice sometimes to stand out as a family that’s a little bit different.
Norine: I have to say, hats off to you for braving Disney with young children. Trips like that usually end with tears and tantrums.
Jerry: We got a stroller. That was key. Even though my kids are 4 and too old for a stroller. My sister told me that when she took her kids to Disney (and they were 7 and 8 at the time), she got a stroller for them. And I was like Are you kidding me? You wheel them around Disney in a stroller? It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. She said, Trust me. And you know, getting the stroller every day was the best decision we made. We didn’t have the complaining. The kids didn’t get tired as fast. It was great.
Norine: I need to ask, the organization you went through to find your surrogate was fairly adamant in repeatedly saying … drumming it into you basically, and then you drumming it into us, the readers, that THERE IS NO MOM. The babies have two dads. And you are showing that two dads can raise kids. And yet … you’re Mommy Man. How’s that?
Jerry: There are a couple of different answers I give. One is that when you’re a man taking care of kids, people act like it’s a superpower. Especially when the kids were newborns and I’d push them in the double stroller and pile up my groceries on top of the stroller, women would just come up to me and be like Oh my God! You deserve a medal! Mommy Man was kind of a joke about that, that I was the man with Mommy Powers. But it’s also kind of a nudge to the people who think that kids deserve a mom. If kids need a mom, then fine … I’m the mom. I always make a point to say that moms are awesome and any kid who has one or more moms is very lucky. That’s just not something we were able to give kids, and having two dads is also awesome in a lot of ways and we’re focused on making our kids appreciate that. Though Mommy Man does cause some confusion sometimes.
Norine: I was just tickled by it. Your book makes a point of saying that moms aren’t necessarily necessary. And that there are all different types of families.
Jerry: One of the reasons I wanted to stay home with my kids was that I felt that if we were going to hire a caregiver, odds were that it would be a woman. And I wanted to prove that a man could do this. That’s part of what the blog has been — to show a competent stay-at-home dad. I don’t want to play on that stereotype of dads as clueless and oafish. That’s been overdone, and it does a disservice to dads. I’m not saying that the Idiot Dad isn’t out there. But I think most dads are trying harder, and when you’re talking about a stay-at-home dad, somebody who consciously makes a decision to be a stay-at-home dad, it’s someone who obviously takes parenting very seriously. I treat it like my job. This is my profession, to take care of my kids and make sure that they’re well-raised and shaped into the wonderful citizens that I feel like they should be. So I don’t like to play up my incompetency for laughs.
Norine: Tell me about Surrogate & Egg Donor Day. That’s what you celebrate instead of Mother’s Day. Is that an actual holiday? Or is it a “Jerry and Drew holiday?”
Jerry: It’s our holiday. We made it up because we want the kids to appreciate what’s special about our family. We talk about surrogates and egg donors all the time. Celebrating Surrogate & Egg Donor Day around Mother’s Day is intentional because we knew that every year at school other kids would be making projects or cards for their moms for Mother’s Day, and we didn’t want our kids to feel left out. So we tell the teachers we celebrate this other holiday. If the kids are going to make cards, they can make cards for their surrogate and their egg donor.
We actually got the idea from open adoption which I read about in Dan Savage’s book. It’s so nice that kids know from the beginning where they came from and how they came to live with the parents they live with and everyone is presented in a positive light. We wanted to follow that model. There’s something beautiful about it. Plus, Surrogate & Egg Donor Day gives us an excuse every year to spoil Tiffany and Susie a little and thank them. In fact, one of the things that makes me proudest is our daughter has this idea that she’s going to be a surrogate for her brother Bennet. He’ll say he’s going to marry a boy, which, who knows? He’s 4 and has two dads, so who knows who he’ll actually end up marrying. But when he says he’s going to marry a boy, she says, Okay, you need a woman to help you have a kid, so I will be your surrogate.
Norine: How lovely is that?
Jerry: That’s very sweet. She also knows that’s what her aunt did for her dad. And so that’s one of the reasons I feel so grateful that Tiffany and Susie are such a part of our lives. It’s really made our kids appreciate how they came into the world.
Jerry Mahoney is the author of the new memoir Mommy Man: How I Went From Mild-Mannered Geek to Gay Superdad. Follow his blog and on Facebook and Twitter.