‘We needed a surrogate and she was 60 years old. My mother-in-law said, ‘Oh, I love being pregnant!’ We laughed at the unrealistic gesture. She couldn’t have a baby, could she?’

More Stories like:

“All good love stories start hot. Ours just so happened to, literally. The summer I turned 23, during the sweltering heat, I stood at an invisible crossroads. I felt a momentum pulling at me, but I couldn’t tell from which direction. I had been putting myself out there as a hairstylist and building my portfolio by working with local photographers and designers. At the beginning of July, I received a Facebook message from a young man named Matthew Eledge. His profile description said he was a Martian and an artistic warrior. His pictures were captioned with nihilistic Nietzsche quotes, but in a good way. He seemed exciting, eclectic, and energized.

He sent me the script to a short film he was directing, hoping I might be interested. We met a few days later on a humid summer day at a quaint French cafe in the Old Market of downtown Omaha. I arrived early, as is my mojo. Matthew arrived late, which I would later find out is his. He wore an orange tank top, woven fedora, and carried a busted-up bowling bag that he used as a briefcase. He seemed fascinating. He sat down, and we began talking about the script. Drinking wine, we discussed our inspirations for hours.

That summer, we shot the film amid blistering record temperatures in a small nearby village. I styled the wigs while he stole my heart. He had such passion that everyone around him immediately trusted and believed in his vision.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge
Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge

That fall, the film was released, and I moved in with Matthew. We were madly, deeply in love. The kind of love that can only come from two dreamers sharing a waking vision together. Late nights turned into early mornings. We were reckless artists, dreaming up impossible plans of moving to Paris. Love made us brave, but boredom made us restless.

Come spring, we began untethering ourselves from our life in Nebraska. By that next summer, we packed up one backpack each and left for Europe. We shut our cellphones off and took a sabbatical from our jobs. Our first night in Amsterdam, we slept in an attic on a faulty air mattress we found online for free. When you’re that much in love, it’s the only comfort you need. We spent most nights sleeping in a twin-size bed at budget hostels, sharing cheap meals together, reading the same books, and philosophizing about everything under the sun. We got to know each other deeply while traveling and aligned in every way.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge

After spending nearly a month secluded in a southern Turkey apartment, I told Matthew one morning, ‘I see how little we need, and I know we can live happily together, forever.’ Four months later, we headed back home, missing the life we fled. That’s when I began to dream of homesteading and starting a family.

Life is about harvesting intentions from the seeds of passion you sew. For the next few years, my garden grew and grew, but so did something else. Cancer had begun growing in my sweet mother. She fought hard, and we did all we could to heal her. In the past, we didn’t express the need to get married, but a part of us wanted to. I wanted my mom to be there to see it. Suddenly, internal desires became urgent intentions. Gay marriage had just been legalized. In a heartbeat, we were engaged, but not without consequence.

Matthew worked as a high school teacher at a private Catholic school. When they caught wind of his plans to marry me, they denied him an extension on his teaching contract for the following year. To marry me would mean losing a job he loved. The situation became a national media whirlwind as students publicly protested the administration’s decision. They created an online petition that gathered over 100,000 signatures.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge

The school didn’t budge, but neither did we. We were married that fall in the woods where we shot the film and first fell in love. We aren’t religious by any means, but the act of marriage felt surprisingly spiritual. Matthew’s vows weren’t just a pledge to me, but to my mother. ‘No matter what the future holds, I promise to take care of your son, to treat him with the upmost respect, to protect him, and to love him unconditionally for the rest of my life. I cannot express my gratitude for you, Jody, because you have given me the most precious gift of life: my best friend.’

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

The following weekend, we celebrated our reception at a historical music venue. The night was a celebration, not just for our love, but for all of the love now recognized between same-sex couples throughout the country. I’ll never forget the way my mom giggled awkwardly during our mother-son dance to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ as I cried and told her how much I loved her. It was one song, one fleeting moment that I will live in forever.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

Soon after, my mom’s health quickly declined. My sister also wanted to get married to her fiancé before my mother passed, so she quickly scrambled a wedding in our parents’ living room. I laughed through tears as I curled her hair and stuffed socks into her bra because her dress hadn’t been altered yet.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matt Eledge

In front of my mom’s hospice bed, my sister said her vows.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge
Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matt Eledge

Days later, as my mom drifted to the other side, her breaths becoming heavier and heavier, my mother-in-law Cele Eledge came to visit her. Cele hugged her softly, grabbed her hand, and whispered in her ear, ‘You don’t have to worry about Elliot. I promise to take care of your boy as if he were mine.’ The summer wind blew love into my life, but a cold breeze took my mom away that February.

A few months earlier, my first nephew, Easton, was born. His middle name is ‘Chance’ because my mom had a dream in which she said, ‘I am going to call you my little chance, because I had a chance to meet you.’ I hadn’t realized I wanted kids, but the joy Easton brought made me want to be a father.

Dreams and reality are more often foes than friends, so I was so fearful it wouldn’t be possible. In denial, I pretended fatherhood was something I didn’t want. Having shared with him my calling for fatherhood, Matthew wouldn’t have it. He was determined. ‘Look at how beautiful our life is, look at how happy we are together. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a child to share all of this with?’ Given how Matthew was fired from his job, we suspected the adoption process may not be sympathetic to our dreams of building a family. Not to mention, it was illegal for same-sex couples to even foster a child two years prior. As we had since our first summer swoon, we took things into our own hands. We started living frugally, saving money for a three-letter dream called IVF.

We began by scouring egg donor websites, bumbling through various options. For a mere five to ten thousand dollars, we could be placed on a waiting list to accept anonymous donor eggs. If we wanted to venture into the designer baby industry, we could spend exponentially more and purchase eggs from a popular fashion model who happened to be a brilliant Harvard college student. The whole process felt cold and corporate. Whatever visions we had of fatherhood, these were far from them.

I mentioned my frustrations with the process to my sister over brunch. Immediately, she said, ‘I’ll donate my eggs.’ My sister has always been my best friend, and losing our sweet mother brought us even closer. I absolutely cherished this idea. Not only would the child be genetically related to me and Matthew but, more importantly, my mother’s legacy could live on in our child as it forever will in our hearts.

Now we just needed to find someone willing to be a surrogate. We mentioned this during a big family dinner, and Matthew’s mother casually said, ‘Oh, I love being pregnant! If you’re taking names for candidates, put my name in the hat!’ We laughed lovingly at the unrealistic gesture. Cele hadn’t had her period in over a decade, but her support meant the world to us. She couldn’t have a baby… could she?

In a conversation with our IVF specialist, we mentioned the casual comment his mother had made. Matthew laughed. Our doctor didn’t. Our doctor was a very direct, no nonsense kind of gal. ‘Anyone can have a baby if they are healthy and have a uterus. It’s all about egg quality, and considering that your sister is young and fertile, your chances are looking good. Bring your mother in and we can see.’

Despite her arguments, we were still hesitant. Sure, Cele was ridiculously healthy. She had spent her entire life focusing on nutrition and exercising often. Hell, her blood pressure was lower than all of ours! But she was 60 years old. And yet, Cele continued to vault each health examination hurdle.

Her cholesterol levels came back lower than ever and her pap smear was cleared. In the middle of her cardio test, the doctor abruptly turned off the treadmill. ‘No matter how fast we turn up this speed, we can’t even get you to hit the danger zone!’ My mother-in-law was put on estrogen, and for the first time in years, she had her period. When the first ultrasound results came back, we were told, ‘Her uterus is beautiful.’ Matthew was both proud and mortified.

Ours is a story of summers. As the weather turned hot, my sister went through a series of intense shots and underwent surgery to retrieve 24 eggs. Of those 24, 16 were considered mature, 13 were successfully fertilized with my husband’s sperm, and 7 made it to day five. We sent those 7 through pre-genetic screening, where they found three of the embryos viable for life. It was an expensive process, but it was worth it. From the infinitely impossible to a concrete number, we had three chances at the child we dreamed about.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge

At our doctors’ advice, we decided to transfer only one embryo; carrying multiple babies is a major health risk for the carrier. The last thing we wanted to do was put the only mom we had left at risk. On the day we went to the hospital to transfer the single embryo into Cele’s freshly awoken uterus, I brought my mom’s ashes in a small urn. I was eating a hardboiled egg in the waiting room when Cele, in a delirious state from the morphine, said, ‘Hmmm. Eating an egg on this day. How appropriate!’ Our laughter became tears as they wheeled her off for the procedure.

Courtesy of Elliot Dougherty and Matthew Eledge

Next came the two-week wait to see if the embryo attached. They strongly suggested to avoid taking a pregnancy test on our own. Five days later, on my 29th birthday, we asked Cele to pee on a stick anyway. Minutes later, she sent a frown face via text message and said, ‘It’s negative.’ Anticipation and excitement surrendered the war to panic. If this embryo didn’t attach, would the next one? And if not that one, then our final one? The stakes were so high.

Later that morning, Matthew drove to his parents’ house to comfort his mother. She was on the back porch, laying down on the gazebo swing. He expected her to be distraught; instead, she was strangely relaxed. She looked up at him and bluntly stated, ‘Ya know, it may have been negative, but I gotta tell you, I sure do feel like shit.’

She asked him if he wanted to see the pregnancy result himself. He took the walk of shame, knowing he would only find disappointment. But when he squinted and looked at that pregnancy test with just the right amount of light, he could see it: an oh-so-faint second pink line. A maybe baby.

He ran back outside and mentioned what he saw. Cele pushed him aside, literally screaming, ‘Shut the f*ck up!’ She insisted Matthew was seeing something that wasn’t there. She could not, no matter how much her heart willed it, see it. After a second pregnancy test, everyone saw that second pink line. Cele was pregnant. We were pregnant. She may have the physique of a 20-year-old, but she definitely had the eyes of a 60-year old.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

As the pregnancy progressed, Matthew and I alternated between pure excitement and terror. We would read books and discuss parenting strategies and philosophies. We would dream about what our future child would be like and discuss how we would handle hypothetical situations. Matthew got his hands on every childhood photo of my mom. ‘Look how perfect she is. She is an angel. What if our child looks like her? What if she acts like her?’ I smiled. We talked about how odd it was that the last time a new life was in Cele’s uterus, she brought Matthew into the world. ‘Our child now shares that same home,’ I said.

When we discovered we were having a daughter, we began to explore names. I was studying Sanskrit and Eastern philosophy at a local university. While reading a memoir by Robert Thurman, I was moved by his inspiration to name his daughter Uma. The name translates to splendor, tranquility, fame, and night. We loved how it sounded: earthy and so powerful, just like the women who were helping us bring her into the world. ‘Besides,’ Matthew said, ‘Uma Thurman is a badass.’ We decided to use Cele’s middle name. Our farfetched idea was now a soon-to-be-real daughter with a name: Uma Louise.

Cele continued to soar through ultrasound after ultrasound, as our dear friend Laurie pumped and stored her breast milk for us. Two men in love, trying to make a family, were surrounded and lifted by a village of women working to help us. As two men about to raise a daughter, Matthew and I sometimes wondered if we lacked that special something women have, that maternal magic that heals the world. We soon realized that didn’t matter, because this little girl would be surrounded by the most powerful women in the world anyway.

On March 24th, Cele’s blood pressure began to rise alarmingly high. The doctor said she was at risk of gestational hypertension. At 38 weeks of pregnancy, he decided to have her induced. Although she requested we be on the other side of the room, Cele allowed us to be there for the delivery. The process of giving birth is truly indescribable. I watched my charming, goofy mother-in-law shift into a silent, stoic warrior who dug deep within herself for this visceral, supernatural strength. Childbirth is not effortless magic, but it is an undeniable miracle.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

At 6:06 am, little Uma Louise joined us earth-side, as Matthew and I uncontrollably wept. There she was, our little idea, our little love story in the flesh.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

Once born, she went to her grandmother for skin-to-skin.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

15 minutes later, I was able to take off my shirt and do the same. Speaking of magic, in that one instant, the whole room and everyone in it disappeared. I felt my heart open in a way I had never experienced. Our Uma Lu, the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, was barely born, and I could already see my mother in her face. In that moment, I made a promise to take care of her as tenderly as my mother took care of me.

Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography
Courtesy of Ariel Panowicz Photography

Now, a week later, I am holding my daughter in my arms, feeling a love I didn’t know existed. I still cannot believe how she came to be. Her beautiful aunt gave her the seed of life, her selfless grandma provided the loving garden for her to bloom, and my own mother’s example will help guide her as she grows. This is a story of two men in love, surrounded on all sides by women. It’s an origin story of creativity, of true poetry. It is a story that can’t be made up, only lived.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elliot Dougherty of Omaha, Nebraska. You can follow Elliot and Matthew’s journey on Instagram here and here. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Spread beauty and hope for others. SHARE this story on Facebook with family and friends.

 Share  Tweet