Society’s norms about having a baby are in fact not typical for many families. From the 10 percent of women in the United States who have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant to same-sex couples and single would-be parents who seek children, the struggle and misunderstanding that surround their desire for children can feel defeating and heartbreaking.
In an effort to educate about, normalize and celebrate the many options for building a family, three metro parents share their inspirational stories.
Fathering through foster care
Brett and Heath Holt Hayes have always wanted a family but couldn’t agree about when, or how, to have to children. Early in their relationship, the two cared for Heath’s nephew and sister fleeing domestic violence, keeping the 5-year-old out of the foster care system and helping raise him until the two were back on their feet. That was their first taste of fatherhood as a couple, but it wasn’t until a few years later that they began to explore their options in earnest. They initially considered surrogacy and private adoption but kept being drawn back to foster care.
With Brett’s background as a child welfare specialist and now director of behavioral health integration for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and Heath’s as senior director of communications and strategic engagement for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, caring for vulnerable populations is a family priority and lifelong value for them both.
“How could we go any other route when we know there are so many kids who need love and support, and we’re asking so much of others who are serving as foster parents?” said Heath. “We decided to become foster parents as an entryway into fatherhood.”
Heath and Brett were intent upon bridging with a biological family with the ultimate goal of the child reuniting with that family, seeing themselves as the “cool uncles” who could remain in various families’ lives to support and care for them throughout their parenthood journeys.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t know how you do it’ because your heart is broken when you give them back,” said Heath. “You have to think of it as an opportunity to change the trajectory of another person’s life. That is always worth it, and you can help a lot more people that way.”
The dads fostered through the Choctaw Nation. Brett is a tribal member and while he wasn’t raised traditionally Native, the couple were compelled to give back to a tribe that has supported them in various ways. In addition to their required training hours to become foster parents, they were grateful for the opportunity to complete an additional 10 hours in tribal knowledge, getting to attend healing circles and learn about tribal traditions.
“In Brett’s experience, there is a lack of tribal foster homes, and we saw this as our contribution to the recruitment of tribal homes,” said Heath.
While the two carefully prepared for their foster care journey, not much of it went according to plan. Heath and Brett initially received a placement call for twins. They had agreed to foster a maximum of two children but were also asked to provide temporary respite care for the twins’ baby brother. The baby ended up staying when his other foster placement fell through and Brett voiced the compelling research about the benefits for siblings who stay together in foster care.
Heath says the dads tried to achieve the gold standard in bridging, inviting the kids’ mom to come to their home to help with dinner and bedtime and remain a regular fixture in their lives.
“It was magical for awhile, but addiction is a beast and she wasn’t ready,” remembers Heath. “I was so certain that if anyone could help her it would be me, given my career, but it’s not about me, it’s about her and her readiness to engage in services. It just wasn’t the right time.”
The case eventually moved to default termination for the mom, and Heath and Brett began to move toward unexpected, but incredibly welcome, adoption of their first set of foster children. While the twins’ father was unknown, the baby’s father was in prison and wanted to fight the adoption process. In quite an unconventional move, Brett and Heath requested a meeting with the dad so the toddler could see him and they could talk face-to-face.
“He hugged his child, acknowledged we were doing a great job and said he wouldn’t fight the adoption,” said Heath. “He asked if we could send photos once in a while.”
The dads are very intentional about staying connected with all three of their kids’ immediate and extended families, sharing photos through social media, FaceTiming with an older brother in Texas and inviting an uncle for the holidays.
While their home is closed for foster children now, Heath and Brett have ramped up efforts in recruiting friends to become foster parents. And their three beautiful kids, with whom they share an even deeper connection through shared Choctaw heritage, are flourishing. The dads are in the throes of potty training their 3-year-old and navigating school during a pandemic with their 5-year-old twins. Though the Hayes’ journey to fatherhood wasn’t what they would have predicted, Heath knows it unfolded exactly as it was supposed to.
“I 100 percent feel they are my own kids; they are the family we choose,” said Heath. “And there are so many kids out there waiting to be chosen, waiting to be part of someone’s family.”
Choosing single motherhood
As college students, Kay Robinson and her friend Kurt joked that if they were single at age 30, they’d marry each other. When they hit that milestone, they knew marriage to each other wasn’t in the cards, but Kay vocalized that she wanted to have a baby and Kurt offered to be the sperm donor. Kay was intrigued by the idea but took some time to think about it.
“I prayed for a husband and wanted to get married, but even more than that, I’ve wanted to be a mom my whole life,” said Kay. “At age 10, I created a babysitter’s club and made business cards out of notebook paper.”
Kay decided at 35 she’d start the process to have a baby on her own. She met with a local reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, who at the time was one of two doctors in Oklahoma who would perform artificial insemination by sperm other than that of a woman’s husband. Oklahoma law only provides for artificial insemination of married couples. Kay’s doctor had never performed AI with donor sperm from a friend of the mom-to-be, typically using sperm from anonymous sperm bank donors, but it just so happened one of the two banks in the country the doctor accepts donations from was located in the same town as Kurt.
As required by the AI process, Kay attended several counseling sessions, and she also saved money even more intentionally than before and met with her boss to request a raise.
“I didn’t make enough money to have a baby,” said Kay. “I made a spreadsheet of potential costs and my salary and asked for more responsibilities and a raise. I did good work and knew there was room [for a raise] but I was willing to leave if I had to to get financially stable.”
She earned a promotion at the University of Central Oklahoma and a raise from her supportive boss. Kurt had made his donation two years previously, waiting for when Kay was ready. The two employed professionals to draw up contracts detailing their agreement, ensuring all parties were legally protected. Kay wanted Kurt listed as the father on the birth certificate, but the two agreed he would have no rights or responsibilities as a father.
“We were very black and white about it,” said Kay. “It was just like if he was a surrogate. He is the donor, not the dad.”
Kay’s dreams of becoming a mom were solidified when her pregnancy was confirmed and fully came to fruition when her son Rex was born six years ago. As she planned to become a single mom, she knew she had a supportive village surrounding her, but she has been caught off guard by how many people have invested in their lives.
“I say Rex is the people’s kid because so many have invested in him, prayed for him and cared for him,” said Kay.
That village became even more important as she and Rex became a foster family more than a year ago. Though Kurt offered to donate again if Kay wanted to have more biological children, she didn’t want to chance a potential high-risk pregnancy.
“There are other ways to become a parent, and thanks to my village and flexible job, I knew we could be successful with foster care,” said Kay, who has cherished opportunities to develop relationships with biological parents and become a support system as her foster kids have been able to return home.
Kay shares her story often, including in the classes she teaches at UCO, where she has witnessed female students, in particular, feel reassured that they could explore the same path when they’re ready to become moms.
“There’s a stigma, but showing that women or men can support a child by ourselves and that kids can be successful from single-parent households is important and helps society evolve,” said Kay. “I feel the pressure and I have high expectations for Rex because I refuse for him to be a statistic being raised by a single Black mom. There will always be those residual things in the back of my mind, but I also know that Rex will be who he is going to be.”
At the end of the day, Kay sticks to the greatest truth she’s learned in motherhood and as a foster mom: what a child needs most is to know he is loved. She and Rex experience that exponentially from family and friends, including from the donor who made her dreams of becoming a mom possible.
“We see Kurt and his husband when we go to Ohio, and his parents send Rex Christmas and birthday gifts, but he has no more relationship with Rex than any of my other friends,” said Kay. “We have agreed that Rex will know Kurt was the donor when it’s appropriate.”
Kay is grateful for the support and positivity that have surrounded her journey to becoming a mom and wishes the same for other single would-be parents, too.
“I have never regretted becoming a mom, even in the hardest moments,” said Kay. “This is a role that I was meant to play; this is my calling. If you are financially and mentally prepared to raise a child on your own, you can do it.”
Understanding secondary infertility
Stephanie and Dirk O’Hara always dreamed of having a big family. Almost 13 years ago Stephanie joyfully gave birth to their son Aidan but not long after began her nearly 6-year battle with secondary infertility. The inability to become pregnant or carry a pregnancy after previously delivering a child affects approximately 3 million women in the United States, according to The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
Stephanie traveled to the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine to undergo IVF treatments, and it was after her seventh miscarriage that she was stopped in her tracks while watching her young son jumping in puddles on a rainy day.
“I had put my body through so much, each pregnancy getting more and more dangerous, and I was already a mommy to Aidan, so I knew I needed to hang up the dream of ever being pregnant again,” said Stephanie. “But my husband and I have found through the years to look for loopholes.”
Stephanie’s best friend offered to become their gestational carrier with their frozen embryos.
“We had never thought about that option,” said Stephanie. “It wasn’t our plan B or even plan F.”
Their friend traveled to the center in Colorado and for months took fertility medicines, but her body did not progress as doctors had hoped. That experience became a stepping stone, though, broadening the O’Haras’ perspective to what alternatives were available. They decided to explore hiring a gestational carrier, or surrogate, using their frozen embryos. At the time surrogacy was not legal in Oklahoma and Texas was a more surrogate-friendly state in regards to supportive legislation, so Stephanie researched several Texas agencies and before she knew it was receiving surrogate profiles to review.
“It was the strangest thing to go through,” laughs Stephanie, equating it to online dating.
When Stephanie came across Tiffany’s profile, she had a feeling she’d found their surrogate. The mom who had previously served as a surrogate had much in common with Stephanie, and upon meeting in person, Stephanie felt that though surrogates are compensated, Tiffany had a true passion for helping others. After 18 months of contractual agreements, insurance investigations, fertility treatments for Tiffany and doctor’s appointments, Tiffany gave birth to the O’Haras’ miracle twins.
While the long and complicated journey was worth the end result, it was not without extensive pain and heartbreak. Stephanie employed a counselor for several years to help her cope with feelings of despair, failure, depression and isolation. She dealt with feelings of jealousy and disappointment, and then shame when women around her became pregnant.
Stephanie placed significant pressure on herself to get pregnant and yet every time she did she lived in extreme fear of losing the baby, all of which she says wreaked havoc on her marriage. Stephanie relied heavily on her faith, friends, online support groups and eventually a life coach to change her perspective from failure to feeling worthy as a woman and mom.
Now Stephanie spends time talking with and encouraging other moms dealing with infertility, imploring them to hang on to hope and explore all the options science and medicine have made available. She wrote a book about her experience, Angel Wings, to spread awareness about the need for advocacy for reproductive assistance.
“If you look at surrogacy laws across the nation, legislation has not caught up with technology,” said Stephanie. “House Bill 2468 just made surrogacy in Oklahoma legal in 2019, allowing courts to approve surrogacy contracts. But there is so much work to be done. Whether infertile couples or single people or same-sex couples, if you wish to be a parent, you should be allowed that opportunity.”
In addition to the need for legislation for assisted reproductive technology, Stephanie hopes to lobby for insurance companies to pay for fertility treatments and surrogacy in Oklahoma. She also wants to bring to light the very real and often misunderstood plight surrounding secondary infertility.
“People around me would say ‘sorry you had a miscarriage but at least you have Aidan,’” said Stephanie. “I was deeply grateful for Aidan but that did not make my desire for more kids any less valid. We often find ourselves unable to talk about secondary infertility because we’re supposed to just be thankful for the child we have.”
Stephanie and surrogate Tiffany remain close friends, and together they started a nonprofit for those struggling with miscarriage, infertility and difficult pregnancies. A portion of her book proceeds supports the organization, and she and her husband have also raised funds to provide five $5,000 scholarships to families or individuals who need financial assistance to bring their dreams of a family to fruition.
“There are so many paths to parenthood and we need to support the infertile in every way,” said Stephanie. “It’s such a taboo subject, and it’s been that way for far too long.”