Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

For Alex Macnow and Nathan Renner-Johnson, ‘the moment when we are creating our family’

“But after we were together, we gravitated toward adoption,” Nathan says. “We wanted to be on equal footing, without the idea that one of us was the ‘real’ father.”

Alex (left), Nathan, and Gregory
Alex (left), Nathan, and GregoryRead moreCourtesy of Alex Macnow and Nathan Renner-Johnson

THE PARENTS: Alex Macnow, 34, and Nathan Renner-Johnson, 32, of Media

THE CHILD: Gregory Jared, 5 months, adopted Aug. 3, 2020

HIS NAME: Gregory was Nathan’s grandfather’s first name, and the J in Jared comes from Joan, Alex’s grandmother; both men wanted to honor their extended kin.

It wasn’t only that Alex and Nathan shared a birthday — July 1, two years apart — or that they blended easily into each other’s families.

It wasn’t just that their interests chimed: Alex majored in music history and became a pathologist, while Nathan studied environmental science along with theater and now works as production manager for the Delaware Theater Company.

It was the way both of them choked up at a short Pixar film about volcanoes falling in love. “We were really emotional, watching this thing,” Alex recalls. “A time I definitely clocked as: This is a moment.”

That’s why, when he proposed in October 2015 at the covered bridge in the Wissahickon, Alex rewrote the lyrics to the film’s theme song, “Lava,” and played it (poorly, he admits) on his ukulele. On the sly, he’d asked friends to prep the area with a spread of the couple’s favorite cheeses, wine, and Jelly Belly jelly beans.

“We knew we wanted to get engaged outside,” Nathan says, “and I also was planning to do something, but I thought I’d do it in the spring. He beat me to the punch.”

They met online in 2013, shortly after Alex finished medical school and Nathan had moved to Philadelphia following a series of short-term jobs in theater. Their first date included a bike ride from the Art Museum to Manayunk, appetizers at the Goat’s Beard, and a walk on the towpath.

“It was immediately very comfortable, easy to chat and get along,” Alex says. They said “I love you” for the first time on a frigid New Year’s Eve at the Piazza, and they lived in that area — albeit in different buildings — for a year before buying a house in Fairmount.

They married on May 20, 2017 — Alex’s grandmother’s 90th birthday — with 200 guests at an art gallery in Wallingford.

The most meaningful part, Alex says, was seeing all the parts of their lives converge: his cousin next to Nathan’s college pal; his friend from medical school chatting up Nathan’s aunt. “There are so few times in your life when you are surrounded by all different people who are there to celebrate what you as a couple have created.”

Both men were eager to become parents; before they met, each had thought about conceiving, using their own sperm, an egg donor, and a surrogate in order to have a biological connection with their children.

“But after we were together, we gravitated toward adoption,” Nathan says. “We wanted to be on equal footing, without the idea that one of us was the ‘real’ father.”

At A Baby Step Adoption, the men learned more about the value of open adoption. Alex thought about two of his cousins, both adopted at a time when birth records were sealed, and how they had struggled to learn more about their origins.

“When you marry someone, you are now part of their family and they are part of your family,” he says. “It’s the same with an adopted child; that [birth family] is part of the adopted child’s world.”

They began the adoption paperwork in the fall of 2019, including the hand-wringing project of the profile book that birth mothers would view. They included plenty of family photos, along with notes about their love of travel, the sciences, and art.

By mid-December, they were anticipating a phone call with a birth mother. “We were definitely nervous,” Alex says. “We thought: This might be the moment when we are creating our family.” Twenty-four hours later, they heard from the agency: It was a match.

The baby was due in May, but in April, the birth mother’s blood pressure began spiking. On a Friday in late April, they got a call: “It’s going to happen next week, so come on down to Oklahoma.”

There was a nationwide toilet paper shortage, a pandemic that made air travel feel out of the question. Would they be able to find diapers in Oklahoma City? What else would they need to spend weeks out of state with a newborn?

They called friends and siblings who had kids. They dashed to Target and put in a giant order on Amazon. Then they packed Alex’s Toyota Avalon for the 21-hour drive.

“We got there and texted the birth mom,” Alex says. “She said, ‘Why don’t you just come over? And can you bring some Jell-O?’ It was good to see each other face to face. It wasn’t a deep conversation, but a talk with this person you know you’re going to have a connection with for the rest of your life.”

The following day, Alex stood next to the anesthesiologist in the OR — the hospital made an exception to their one-visitor rule and allowed Nathan to stay in the birth mother’s room — while Greg was delivered via C-section. “A tiny little dude, 6 pounds, 6 ounces. I got to cut the cord, and the birth mother let me hold him first. I stayed up all that night with this huge, gaping smile on my face.”

They remained in Oklahoma, shuttling among three different Airbnbs, for five weeks, waiting for courts to reopen so they and the birth mother could sign a stack of documents. Then they drove home, taking turns in the back seat with their son.

Both work mostly from home now, with Alex’s parents — “we have a COVID bubble with them” — helping with child care a few times a week. There are daily juggling acts — bottle, diapers, computer, baby — and lifelong questions about raising a mixed-race child at this moment in history.

“He is Black, Latino, and First Nation,” Alex says. “How can we be more anti-racist and better advocates … to give him positive role models in each of those communities? He is also a child of gay parents, and I’m Jewish. How do we help all those things be part of his story?”