Stories by Tim Paluch
Photos by Duane Tinkey
Stay-at-home dad to triplets
This is the earliest memory I have of my father: He is shirtless, lying on his stomach with his arms folded beneath his chin, either on a bed or a couch. I am seated at his side, rolling toy cars up and down his back and shoulders and making engine noises with my mouth. His hair is long and curly, but the rest of the room is just fog. I see only me and my dad and my toy cars and the moment is brief, but the faded snapshot of my boyhood warms me.
In recent months, I’ve begun to wonder what my three daughters’ first memories of me will be. The girls, triplets, are nearing their second birthdays. After they were born a week after Father’s Day in 2013, I quit my job to become a stay-at-home father, a decision made more by pragmatism and economics than desire.
They will forget the time we spend together now. But soon, a moment will drive through the fog and burrow itself into each of their brains forever. Will I be rocking them to sleep, their sweaty, sticky heads resting on my chest and shoulder? Are we laughing and playing in the grass? Or will this chosen memory be one of my many moments of weakness and fatherly frustration? Am I yelling, cursing?
Looking at photos on social media, life as a stay-at-home dad is an adorable romp full of laughs and hugs and blond-haired, blue-eyed tiny little humans.
Sure, there’s plenty of that. Babies and toddlers can be fun as hell, after all. But other parts of my day-to-day life recall the wildebeest stampede scene in “The Lion King.” I play the role of Simba, and this pack of relentless, unstoppable creatures chases me deeper and deeper into the gorge.
There evidently are more of us stay-at-home dads than ever before. According to the At-Home Dad Network, the number of stay-at-home fathers has doubled in America over the last decade, to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million. But in public, I’m still a novelty act. Strangers pay for my coffee. Dads do double-takes. Moms rush over and crouch near the stroller.
“Oh, is it dad’s day out?” (Technically, you’re correct.)
“Triplets! I can’t even imagine what that’s like.” (No, you most certainly cannot.)
“How many of them are yours?” (Time to go, kids.)
On good days, my heart feels like it is going to explode with love. On other days, I experience a miniature identity crisis. I long for my past life—a newspaper guy, working late and moving up in the company—and feel marooned, alone, even insecure about spending the money my wife brings home. I am constantly coming to grips with what my life is now, and just as important, what my life isn’t.
Those days I force myself to remember the long, arduous journey to get my girls here and to recall the moments in which I almost lost them forever.
• • •
Having a child did not come easy for us. For years, we tried and failed and wondered why. Then one morning, I found a pregnancy test on the bathroom windowsill. It was positive; my wife had planned to surprise me when I woke up. She lost the baby a few weeks later. The news crushed us.
We started fertility treatments. I injected hormones into her hips and thighs and drove sperm samples to the doctor’s office hidden in brown paper bags. Six more attempts, six more failures. We moved on to in vitro fertilization. More tests, more shots and hormones, more brown paper bags, and in the winter of 2012, doctors placed two fertilized eggs into my wife’s uterus.
Somehow, both took. Somehow, one split. Triplets, somehow.
Weeks later, doctors told us two of the fetuses were monoamniotic-monochorionic (“mono-mono”) twins, meaning they shared both an amniotic sac and a placenta.
This is rare, occurring in about 1 percent of twin pregnancies.
So rare, no figures or examples existed to quantify just how uncommon it was within a triplet pregnancy.
This was also dangerous. The mono-mono twins would grow and float next to each other in the womb, and their umbilical cords would twist into a knot that could eventually cut off their blood supply. Baby A and B had a 50 percent chance of survival, and would have to be delivered by C-section eight weeks early—at the latest. Baby C, the innocent bystander, would have to come with them.
I moved my wife into a hospital room at Mercy Medical Center as she entered her 27th week of pregnancy. She received daily ultrasounds and underwent tests every few hours. Nurses placed tight bands around her belly and poked and prodded her with fetal heart monitors connected to a loudspeaker. I would sit in a chair next to her bed in the mornings before work and listen to my daughters’ heartbeats. I’d do it again each night after work, then return home alone.
She remained in that hospital room for 35 days and nights, lasting the full 32 weeks. She was amazing.
We waited for them for so long, for nearly five years, and then on a clear, hot June morning they arrived quickly, three crying 4-pound babies pulled from their mother barely a minute apart.
A nurse placed an oxygen mask over their tiny red faces and handed me my daughters, one at a time. Tears streamed down both our faces. I held their delicate bodies in my hands and showed them to my wife for a few brief seconds before they were taken to the neonatal intensive care unit.
The NICU is a contradiction of mood and atmosphere. Babies fighting for their survival rest peacefully inside plastic artificial wombs. Weary parents roam the halls on the precipice of emotional and physical breakdown, but around them everywhere is stillness, broken only by the rhythmic beeping of monitors and machines.
We learned the logistics of parenting premature babies in their NICU room while they learned how to breathe and eat without tubes in their noses. We changed their diapers and bandages and cleaned them and watched them grow to health. We leaned on the wonderful, patient nurses tasked with keeping them alive. The first baby, Dorothy, came home after three weeks. Eloise followed a week later, and Evelyn the next.
We ran the numbers. Day care, on the low side, approached $30,000 a year. My company’s insurance was subpar and expensive, so I met my boss at a sandwich shop near his home and quit my job.
• • •
The next six months are a blur. Time moved differently—sometimes so fast, sometimes so slow—and I moved through it in new ways. I slept in small chunks, often in a sleeping bag on the floor next to their three cribs. The numbers on a clock meant nothing; I just needed to know where we were on the feeding schedule. I now see photos and videos on my phone of my daughters I do not recall taking.
The pains of sleep deprivation were sudden and severe, and it put intense strain on our marriage. My wife and I became strangers, passing each other in the night like trained zombies. I projected my insecurities and worries onto her; we fought constantly. We lived our lives inside a tornado, occasionally finding our footing before the next health scare or sleepless night or physical therapy appointment sent us swirling up once again into chaos, leaving us grasping for something, anything, to hold on to for support.
Then, it got better. The girls started meeting milestones. My wife and I slept more, and I grew closer to her once again. Infertility nearly broke us. Life with three premature babies nearly broke us. But we survived, and the journey in full restored us.
Winter turned to spring and summer and I ventured out alone into the world with my daughters. When they learned to walk, I took them to the play areas at the mall, and when they learned to run and climb, I wedged a triple stroller into the exit of a tennis court, dumped a bucket of toys on the ground, and let them play until we were all out of breath.
Everything about raising triplets is a drama-filled chore: Meals, bedtimes, getting them dressed, leaving the house. Getting three toddlers into a minivan becomes a lesson in risk management; I could give a TED talk on it.
Then there’s bedtime. They’ve been alive for more than 600 days and have given us an uninterrupted night of sleep twice. When they came home from the hospital, I wrote, as a joke, a note on a chalkboard door in their nursery: “It has been __ days since we woke up in the middle of the night.” After nearly a year of seeing that big fat zero every day, the joke stopped being funny and we erased it.
Some days I cook dinner and take a nap as soon as my wife walks through the back door at 5 p.m. One night, I fell asleep in their playroom tepee. I’m usually exhausted. That’s just the new normal.
My wife took a work trip to Georgia last month, leaving me alone with the girls for three days and two nights. On the first day, two of them took 10-minute naps and they all walked around the kitchen screaming for their mother at bedtime. I tried rocking them and singing the lullaby she sings to them each night from “Sleeping Beauty,” but it wasn’t the same.
The next night, one of them developed a bout of diarrhea, so the two of us stayed up watching movie trailers on a phone in my bed until 3 a.m. I finally fell asleep
around 4 and rolled over onto my glasses, breaking them, in the middle of the night.
They defeated me.
And yet, I miss them when they’re not near me. Each night before I go to sleep, I sneak across the wood floors to their bedroom door and creep inside. I walk to each of their cribs and place my hand on their backs to feel them breathe, and I tell them goodnight again.
• • •
Three weeks ago, my wife fed the girls dinner and put them to bed while I visited a preschool in the basement of a Des Moines church. This was the first of an open-house tour of potential options for a day or two a week of 2-year-old preschool this fall.
I looked around and imagined them walking through the halls toward their colorful classroom, scared at first but soon in love with learning and their teachers and being around other kids. There, they’d hang their jackets. There, they’d eat their lunches and drink their milk. There, at the tiny wooden tables, they’d paint with their fingers and learn to share.
I left the building and sat in my car while it warmed up in the cold, and for the first time felt a new sense of dread and worry. For almost two years, I’ve spent nearly every waking hour with them. Soon their lives outside our home will begin. Seventeen years ago, I went away to college and never came home. Seventeen years from now, my daughters will graduate from high school.
They’ve pushed me to the edges of sanity and made me question my decision to put a successful career on hold. But they are my girls, my everything. Being their father has changed me. It is changing me. I am not the same man I was five years ago, or the same man I was the day they were born, or even the same man I was the day before yesterday. I’ve spent their entire lives coming to terms with what being a father means.
At certain moments—when they were facing long odds of survival in the womb; when I stared at their tiny pink faces asleep in their darkened NICU room; when I was finally able to hold their beautiful warm bodies to my bare chest and I knew they would be OK—I made promises to them and to myself to be a good man, a good father.
No matter what lies ahead, they would always know and feel the infinite reach of my love. Every day, I work to keep those promises.
Chad Kammin speaks of India like a man in the midst of romance.
Life there is exhilarating. Frenetic like a Black Friday at the mall, only with ox carts and cows and scooters and bicycles and monkeys and 10 times the people. The weather wields a sledgehammer: hot, incredibly so, but for the occasional cool breeze wafting off the mighty Ganges River or down from the mountains to deliver a brief, sublime reprieve. One’s senses and emotions are stretched to impossible limits. Joy is profound; frustration is crushing.
“You have to have a sense of adventure,” says Kammin, a teacher for Des Moines Area Community College and Winterset High School. “India is not for everyone.”
Wanderlust brought the 54-year-old lifelong bachelor back to India, this time to the northern city of Rishikesh, in the summer of 2013. There, on the grounds of a private school for the poor, he met Vikrant Sharma, a teenager with dreams of escaping the slums to become a brain surgeon. His family’s two-room house leaked when it rained, and they shared a bathroom with four other families. His father, an abusive alcoholic, would soon be dead.
This serendipitous encounter would forever change them both.
“I just felt like that’s the kid I was supposed to have,” Kammin recalls.
The two are seated together in a busy downtown Des Moines coffee shop on an early February afternoon, some 18 months after their first meeting. Sharma, now 17, is thin, with wiry arms and jagged shoulders that point through a tight-fitting black jacket. The collar is up. He’s a month overdue for a haircut and has the early makings of a mustache.
It was 2 p.m. the day they met, Sharma says. He was still wearing his school uniform and remembers dropping his backpack before helping show Kammin around the school: “I thought he was a pretty cool guy.”
Earlier that day, Shahla Ettefagh, the founder of Mother Miracle School, had asked Kammin if he knew of anyone in America who could sponsor her gifted student. Kammin had hosted international students for decades, but this felt different. He pictured Sharma in his life, spending time with his friends and family, living in his downtown loft. He saw himself becoming a father to this young man.
“I believe we are here to be the best we can be, and also here to help others do the same,” he says. “I’m single with no kids of my own—what else should I be doing?”
The two began to chat on Facebook, Kammin learning later that Sharma would often reply to messages while riding a scooter through the streets and alleys of Rishikesh. At first, Sharma addressed him online as “Chad, sir,” but a few months later asked if he could just call him “dad.” Kammin cried.
Kammin became Sharma’s legal guardian in America and worked with Ettefagh to secure a passport and student visa. He enrolled him at Roosevelt High School, which had to be vetted by the Department of Homeland Security.
The passport took 74 days. Sharma’s student visa was approved the same day he boarded an airplane for the first time in his life, in August 2014. He spent his first night in America in a Detroit Super 8, and he loved it. The next day, Sharma landed in Des Moines and took an English proficiency exam at Des Moines Central Campus before he even unpacked or saw his new bedroom.
Sharma enrolled in four Advanced Placement courses, earning A’s in all; his only B was in English literature, only the second B he had ever received. “I was pretty upset,” he says. He joined the robotics club and salsa club and learned to play Dungeons & Dragons with classmates.
The schoolwork came naturally for him; it always had. But Sharma also found himself adjusting quickly to his new home life. Sharma and Kammin dine out with friends and spend lazy nights and Saturdays inside, watching “The Big Bang Theory” or the anime series “Avatar” in the living room, Kammin on the couch and Sharma on the chair.
“We function like a father and son,” Kammin says.
The first time it snowed, Sharma slipped and fell and laughed like a little kid. He licked the snow through an open car window and made Kammin take a photo of him sitting in it. “He sees everything with a sense of wonder,” Kammin says. “It’s refreshing.”
In America, Sharma has become a homebody, but in Rishikesh he often avoided his home. His father spent the family’s money on alcohol. Sharma and his younger sister often went to bed hungry, and as a young boy, he would cry in bed and pretend to be asleep while his father beat his mother. When he grew taller, he would sometimes step in in her place.
Still just a boy, Sharma dedicated himself to school. “I decided I really wanted to do something for myself and for them,” he says.
In 2008, the quiet, lanky 11-year-old showed up at the Mother Miracle School, which sits on a quarter of an acre near the Ganges River on the edge of the Rishikesh slums, and told Shahla Ettefagh he wanted to learn English. She gave him a job helping to teach kindergarteners and later, when studying at home became impossible due to his father,
she let him sleep at the school, where he studied late into the night and fell asleep next to about a dozen other neighborhood boys on mattresses on a classroom floor.
His father fell ill while Sharma was in 11th grade, and he missed 40 days of school while caring for him. His family couldn’t afford a nurse, so he changed his father’s sheets, cleaned his vomit and slept in a bed next to him each night until his death. He was tempted to stay with his family, but his mother—and he—knew his best chance for success was to leave them behind.
Sharma speaks with his mother and sister every week. A narrow alleyway near his old home provides the best Internet signal, so his family and friends line up and take turns Skyping with him in front of a computer set on top of a white plastic patio table. His mother always goes first.
He plans to become a doctor in America and return to his mother and sister in Rishikesh a successful man. As for college, he’s still undecided. Kammin would prefer he attend Drake University so Sharma could still live at home with him. “I’m just not ready to give him up yet,” he says.
The teenager has breathed fresh air into the Kammin family gatherings each Sunday in Story City, in which the small extended family meets for church and food and trips to the senior care center to see Kammin’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She adores Sharma, Kammin says. The whole family does.
Having Sharma around reminds Kammin of his youth, and of his own father, who died in 2011. Kammin lived an idyllic small-town existence, on a farm west of Story City where both sets of grandparents lived a short drive away. “We made the Waltons look controversial,” he says.
He treats Sharma the way his father raised him: short on hard rules and curfews, heavy on support and guidance. Kammin is grateful for the opportunity to finally be a father—or at least his own unique version of a father.
A world away, Shahla Ettefagh is picking the next Vikrant Sharma, the next kid from the slums of Rishikesh to earn an opportunity of a lifetime. She talks to her young students about the boy who worked hard and is now studying to be a brain surgeon in America. That could be you, she tells them.
Sharma misses his family, deeply, and the burden to succeed here so that one day he can better their lives there weighs heavily on his slight shoulders. Inside Kammin’s ninth-floor downtown loft in late February, Sharma, seated on a bright red couch in the “amazing” apartment with an “awesome” view, looks up from his bare feet and talks about that pressure.
“By looking at me, (the children of Rishikesh) can go somewhere good in their lives and careers,” he says. “I have to do it, I have to succeed, because everyone is helping me do it. I won’t get another opportunity like this. … I feel so lucky I met Chad.”
It’s 6:30 p.m. Their favorite TV show just ended. Kammin heads to the kitchen to make his son macaroni and cheese.
Scott and Ken Coronet
And baby makes three
Two days before they exchanged vows near the ocean in Monterey, Calif., last December, Scott Stevens and Ken Fritz gathered close friends and family members for an intimate meal, telling them the occasion was a chance to meet the wedding photographer and videographer.
This became clear once they distributed small Christmas gift bags to their parents and stood together at the table, each wearing a casual plaid shirt and holding a Champagne flute.
“All right. We got you guys a little something extra,” Scott said. They were nervous.
“You can open them all together,” Ken said.
Inside the bags, wrapped in white paper, were black and white ultrasound photos in black rectangular frames with block lettering across the bottom: “Grandpa is my hero.” “Grandma spoils me happy.”
Silence. Then cheers, tears, hugs and, for the two men, relief. They were finally able to share their big secret, to tell their families about a nearly two-year journey toward fatherhood that involved a surrogate due to give birth this July, a family member donating her eggs, plus lawyers, fertility doctors, stress and tens of thousands of dollars.
Two days later, they were married in front of 50 people on the grounds of a sprawling private home. It rained most of the day, but the skies cleared during the ceremony. Afterward, the men, who changed their last name to Coronet, returned to Des Moines to prepare for the next phase of their lives together.
“The baby is our honeymoon,” Ken said.
• • •
“Can I get you a coffee? You have to try a cup of this coffee.”
Scott wants to show off one of the most prized possessions in the couple’s split-level Urbandale home: a Miele coffee maker, built into the cabinetry beneath the countertop in the sleek kitchen that was part of an extensive 2013 home remodel featured on an episode of HGTV’s “West End Salvage.” The device delivers a creamy cup of fresh-ground coffee with the touch of a button and costs around $3,000.
This piece of luxurious machinery also sits at about the height of a curious toddler, a sign that there’s still babyproofing and compromises to be made here. (The coffee, for the record, was lovely.)
The two relax in their kitchen and share their story. They met at the gym in fall of 2011. Ken had just returned from a decade in Florida and was working at the front desk when Scott came in to pick up a five-day workout pass. The first date was brunch with Scott’s friends, a loud and boisterous crew. Ken held his own, impressing Scott. The date continued with Christmas shopping with Scott’s mother and stepfather.
“Big first day,” Ken, a 34-year-old Central Iowa native who now works in marketing, says with a quiet laugh.
Scott grew up in rural Wyoming, 40 miles from the nearest McDonald’s and 100 miles from a Wal-Mart, with only sagebrush in between. His relationship with his father was distant, at best, and coming out to his parents as a 21-year-old ended it. His mother divorced his father over the fallout, and Scott has spoken to him only once in seven years —to tell him he was going to be a dad. The conversation was brief.
In his 20s, he began thinking about fatherhood, and this desire grew in him as he aged and developed roots in Iowa. His mother, Laurie Forster, says she knew he would become a dad, a good dad. “He’s always been a very nurturing, caring person, always worried about other people,” she said in a phone interview from Wyoming.
By the time Scott met Ken—a Carlisle native with a close, supportive family—he was ready to begin the process.
The desire to have children had been a deal-breaker in past relationships, but here was a man at a similar place in his life: ready to settle down, get married, start a family.
“It all happened pretty quick,” says Scott, who’s now 36 and works as a project manager at Wells Fargo & Co. (He also founded Iowa’s Gay Wedding Planner, a wedding planning service for same-sex couples, and Ken helps him on the side.) Ken moved in. The baby talk continued, even as the effusive and charming couple carved out a place in Central Iowa’s social and philanthropic scene.
Then, at a 100th birthday party for Scott’s great-grandmother, his sister, a doctor in Idaho, offered her eggs if he wanted to use them for a surrogacy pregnancy. They started researching but told few people.
Around the same time, Ken was at the mall shopping with a longtime friend, Jessica Allison, and her two young daughters. She caught him off guard when she turned and told him, “If you want me to be a surrogate, I’ll do it, but we have to do it by the time I turn 35.”
• • •
Inside a modest Waukee single-story home, Jessica Allison, 18 weeks pregnant with a baby bump that shows through a baggy sweatshirt, admits there are moments when her emotions surrounding her role as surrogate slip away from her.
“I’m not under any pretenses that it’s not going to be difficult to have this baby and hand it over,” Jessica says. She’s due two days after her 35th birthday.
Jessica and Ken became friends as teenagers and remained close as they advanced through adulthood. She met and married her husband, Dave, who started a landscaping company, S&E Property Care, named for their two daughters—Samantha, 9, and Emily, 11.
After Ken moved back to Iowa, Jessica saw how kind and giving he and Scott were to her family and to others. She knew they hoped to become parents, and after talking with her hesitant husband, decided that “this was a chance to give the ultimate gift.”
“It’d be amazing to do something no one else can do,” Dave says, seated on the couch next to his wife. He talks about mistakes he made as a younger man, battles both with the law and with his personal demons. When he takes sips from his coffee mug, tattoos peek out from beneath his long-sleeve shirt. This, for him, could be a kind of personal redemption.
“I’ve always taken and taken, and I wanted to do something to give back,” he says.
Over coffee and pastries, the Allisons met Scott and Ken in their new kitchen to walk through the details and logistics of the pregnancy—the hormone shots, the health screenings and psychological exams, the legal ramifications, compensation.
They used Mid-Iowa Fertility in Clive, one of only two clinics in Iowa that work with same-sex male couples on surrogacy by in vitro fertilization (the other is at the University of Iowa). Jolie Lee, the donor coordinator there, says the number of gay men showing interest in surrogacy at the clinic has shot up in the last two years; in the last year and a half, five gay male couples have started the process there, despite the high cost. Scott and Ken have spent around $30,000 on treatments, testing, and doctor and lawyer fees—and still face the upcoming hospital bills.
Ken’s sperm was tested, frozen, quarantined for six months, then combined with Scott’s sister’s eggs (she requested her name not be used in this article). The fertilized eggs were frozen for two weeks before two were inseminated into Jessica. Then everyone waited. The IVF success rate at Mid-Iowa Fertility is about 65 percent.
After a visit to the clinic for a blood test, Jessica met Ken and Scott at a hotel for breakfast to wait for the results. “I was in tears as soon as my phone rang,” she says. The news: One embryo stuck. She was pregnant.
A few weeks later, Jessica saw blood. “I lost it,” she says. “I left work crying.” So many people were invested in this pregnancy, and in her. Was this going to work? Would she fail them?
She rushed to the doctor. Everything looked normal; the baby was fine.
“It was a ride,” Dave says of the early days of the pregnancy. “She was pretty emotional.”
“She was kind of a butt,” Emily, her daughter, chimes in. Everyone in the living room laughs.
Dave won’t be in the room when his wife gives birth this summer. When the child is born, Jessica will decide whether she wants to hold the baby. She says she will. From there, the legal system steps in: When the baby is ready to go home, a lawyer will physically carry the child out of the hospital and into Scott and Ken’s car. Ken will be the legal father, and the men expect a drawn-out judicial process before Scott can legally adopt him or her.
For Jessica, the hardest part will be “the loss I’ll feel when everyone is gone, moved on from my room. I’ll be in my own solitude.”
The Allison family is using most of the compensation from the surrogacy to take its first real vacation together. Somewhere warm. The Bahamas maybe. The couple’s two daughters have never seen the ocean.
• • •
Scott and Ken walk through their home’s second-floor hallway to what will soon become the baby’s room. Scott picks up two items that carry deep meaning: a piece of wall art featuring a seahorse and a large gold crown.
A male seahorse carries and births the offspring, and a coronet, unique as a human fingerprint, is a ring of bony spines that form on the top of its head. The seahorse’s coronet, in fact, inspired Scott and Ken’s new last name, representing a compromise since neither man wanted to take the other’s last name.
The men admit worry about raising a child as a gay couple—the awkward questions, the playground bullies and taunts. “I did have to come to terms with these concerns and say, ‘Who cares?’ and ‘It is what it is,’ ” Ken says. “This is my kid.”
They long for the day they can begin to explain to their son or daughter the extraordinary circumstances of his or her birth. The child will meet and know Aunt Jessica. The Coronets will share everything, revealing details as the child is able to understand them about the wild, stressful, expensive journey to start their family.
“We worked really hard and had some really close, amazing people that helped bring you into the world,” Scott says he will tell the child. “It’s an extra special thing.”