"Now you just enjoy this moment." That's what the nurse told us as she backed out of our room and gently closed the door, leaving us alone for the first time with our daughter, Julia, who had been born just that morning. It was profoundly good advice. The day had been filled with anxiety and effort, our hearts were full, and our minds were spinning with the hopes, fears, and countless questions of new parents. There would be opportunities later for swaddling tips, feeding schedules, and burping instructions: it was time to pause and just live in that extraordinary moment. I'll always remember the beauty and the power of those first quiet minutes with our child -- gazing at her, holding her, taking her in.
It had been a very busy few days in the relatively bright, modern maternity wing of the Clovis Community Medical Center, located just outside of Fresno, Calif., where our surrogate, Catherine, lived. Brahms's "Lullaby," which played over the PA system whenever a baby was born, was in heavy rotation, and two extra rows of little Lucite cribs-on-wheels were parked in the small nursery.
The room where we first sat with Julia was, in fact, neither ours nor was it really a room. Instead, it was a closet that opened off the hospital nursery, filled with sample packages of formula and diapers, and stacks and stacks of freshly laundered burp cloths and pink and blue striped swaddling blankets. We took Julia there because there was nowhere else for us to go.
In maternity wards, hospital rooms are assigned to mothers, and healthy babies are wheeled in to spend time with their families and returned to the nursery when their mothers need rest. Not being mothers, we weren't given a room, and there were none to spare that week. The nursery itself was also generally off-limits. It was small, crowded, and continually buzzing with the urgent business of caring for babies who had just been born and others in need of special medical attention. Consequently, and understandably, we were usually barred from the place and spent most of our time sitting on the floor just outside, waiting for a sign from a sympathetic nurse that we could come in and take Julia into our cozy little closet. (Probably because of the kindness and acceptance of the hospital staff, the irony of two gay men visiting their newborn baby in a closet didn't occur to me until I sat down to write this.)
Apart from our accommodation, though, our stay at the hospital was carefully planned and expertly carried out with the help of our surrogacy agency, our surrogate, the hospital administration and nursing staff, and our obstetrician, pediatrician, and anesthesiologist. Aside, of course, from providing Julia and Catherine with the best medical care, the most important goal of our "birthing plan" was to honor Catherine's essential role in our daughter's birth while still making it clear from the very beginning that we were her parents.
The first test of our plan came at the occasion of her birth itself. The fact that it was a scheduled Cesarean section mercifully removed the element of surprise, but we encountered an unexpected practical issue. The operating room was very small, and we had an unconventionally large birthing party, each member of which, it seemed, had a good reason to be there: Catherine (obvious), her husband (comfort, support), and David and me (parents). We didn't fit, we were told, and, absent special dispensation from our anesthesiologist, one or two of us would have to wait outside. Fortunately, our understanding anesthesiologist consented, cleverly solving the crowding problem by literally taping marks on the floor to keep us all safely in our places.
From here, things went beautifully. Once the procedure had begun, Julia emerged in minutes -- healthy, kicking, and screaming. David cut her umbilical cord, and she was washed, swaddled, and handed to us. We then took her to meet Catherine before she took up residence in the nursery. The nurses even prompted us to take pictures I'll always treasure: the nurse holding up the just-born Julia, her thick cord still intact; Julia being washed, wincing in the light; Julia's first embrace in her fathers' arms; Julia being presented to the smiling Catherine and her husband; Julia's first meal; Julia asleep in the family closet.
The second test of our plan was one we had anticipated, and it was not one of logistics. We had agreed with Catherine that she could have two visits with Julia at the hospital -- one with her husband and four children and one alone. She could hold her, feed her from a bottle, say goodbye. This was a test of my emotional fortitude. Catherine was self-contained and gracious as always, and tried to put us at ease. I found myself overwhelmed, though, by my conflicting feelings of joy, gratitude, and sadness. When it was time to part, I recalled the good advice we had received the day before. I let go, tried to just experience that extraordinary moment, and said, through my tears, "Thank you."