It was 8:30pm, and Steve Chen was settling down on the couch for a much-needed glass of wine with his partner of 21 years, Don Weiner.
Hours earlier, the couple had been told their surrogate was feeling unwell and had checked herself into a hospital at less than 26 weeks pregnant. Then, they got another phone call from their agency’s caseworker, letting them know their surrogate was in fact going into labor.
“The twins are coming tonight or tomorrow morning,” the caseworker told the dads-to-be. “How quickly can you get up there?”
The couple lives in Los Angeles, and their surrogate was in Spokane, Washington. Since it was late 2020, heavy travel restrictions were in place and regularly scheduled flights were few and far between. The quickest they could get there would be the following day.
By 9pm that night, after just over 5 months in the womb, twins Sebastian and Dawson were born via C-Section weighing in at about 850 grams each.
“We didn’t get to see the birth,” Steven said. “We were freaking out because we felt helpless. But the next day, it was a relief to see that they were bigger than we thought. They were responding. And it was love at first sight.”
Don and Steve’s twins were considered ‘micro-preemies,’ and for their first month in the world they were hooked up to IV tubes and kept in incubators. Their first week outside the womb was especially hard and stressful for the new dads, because the babies were both facing health complications.
Even after the boys started gaining some strength, Steve said they heard all kinds of things that made their anxieties worse.
“Once they started feeling better, some of the nurses told us they didn’t think Dawson was going to make it,” he said. “All we could think of was; ‘What did we do? Should we have done just one baby and not two? Were we even meant to have kids?’ You run through all those things in your head, like the worst-case scenario.”
Although those early days were a scary time for the family, both babies continued to develop normally. Don said they even realized there was a silver lining to their whole experience of having premature twins during COVID-19. Instead of spending their first few months as new dads at home alone in the pandemic, they got to be with their babies in the NICU, doing regular skin-to-skin care, and learning from the nurses.
“We really got to experience watching them develop in their third trimester,” Don said. “When they first came out they didn’t really have ears, they had these flaps of skin pressed against their heads, and as the cartilage grew we could watch their ears develop.”
Before the boys were born, Steve said he had considered that if they were born on time, the hospital would have handed them the babies and they wouldn’t know what to do next. But since they were born so early, the dads got a crash-course from the professionals.
“We had three and a half months of education with the nurses, and we got to see the boys grow outside the belly,” Steve said. “We learned their cries at the NICU. We learned what they needed. We really connected with our nurses, they didn’t want us to leave!”
Once the babies were strong enough to go home, Steve and Don flew with them back to LA. They said the people around them at the airport and on the plane were super helpful, especially after they noticed the tiny twins were breathing through special masks.
Finally, back home, the couple had to quickly organize their nursery, which they hadn’t had time to set up before their boys were born. They had phone calls and video chats with family, but still no one was able to visit due to the pandemic. Although they received lots of love and long-distance support from their family and friends, unfortunately, the dads said they did not receive the same continued support from their surrogacy agency.
“When the twins came out, the only thing I heard from the agency was; ‘When is the next payment due?’” Steve explained. “Nothing about how the babies are, how we are. I don’t expect them to offer anything, but at least check-in. We let them know we weren’t happy, but still no response. The babies have now been in the world for 8.5 months, and we still haven’t heard that from them.
Thankfully, the dads also found a supportive community figure in their surrogate, Maggie, and their lawyer, Rich Vaughn — and his team.
“Maggie felt guilty and wanted to make sure we were okay. She offered us food, she was awesome,” Steve said. “Our attorney Rich Vaugn was wonderful. He checked in consistently and told us if we needed anything, to reach out to them. We thought that was the job of the agency, but Rich stepped in.”
When Don’s niece said she was holding a Hebrew naming ceremony for her kids this summer, the couple asked if they could make it a joint-naming ceremony and wedding with all their family there. In June 2021, after nearly 22 years together, Steve and Don were married with their then-7-month-old twins by their side.
To other dads who are considering surrogacy, especially those who may have twins, Steve and Don said it’s important to prepare extra early in case the baby comes early.
Steve also said the first few months of your baby’s life happens very quickly, so soak it up while you can.
“Every experience is different, just like every baby,” Steve said. “So really, take the time to enjoy the moment no matter what is thrown your way, because it goes by so fast.”