THE PARENT: Richard Veith, 53, of Abington
THE CHILD: Henrik Shaun Carey Veith, born January 17, 2019
A PARENTHOOD VISION: “I think the sweetest thing to do will be just sitting outside, listening to the birds, seeing the dappled light come down from the trees: We’re here. We’re home.”
Richard first contemplated parenthood when he was 6 years old.
He was perusing a kids’ calendar book that included a page of blank ovals. “They were supposed to be generic human faces,” he recalls. “You were supposed to fill them in: Who’s going to be your spouse? Your children? I thought about how many children did I want to have; what color would their hair be?”
At the same time, he wondered about his own origins. Richard and his sister were adopted, and though his childhood in a New Orleans suburb was peopled with grandparents, godparents, aunts, and uncles, he always felt curious about his birth relatives.
“I dreamt about it,” he says. “It was a big mystery to me. I filled it in with my own imagination.”
For a young gay man emerging into the queer communities of London, Paris, and New York, family became an unreachable grail. Life was a series of three-day circuit parties, nights juiced with narcotics, and anonymous encounters with men he met online.
That same nascent internet — along with a professional searcher, some clues from his adoptive mother, and a Memphis telephone book from the mid-1960s — allowed Richard to find his birth father, then his birth mother, and to meet them on back-to-back weekends in 1997.
“I remember her bawling on the phone, wanting to be forgiven. My birth father’s [burden] was that he’d been forced to do this. His father had told him, ‘You’re on your own if you marry this woman and have this child.’”
Those meetings, Richard says, “were healing for all of us.” But the life he recalls as “a swirl of hedonism and drifting” continued. “The furthest thing from my mind was settling down, having a family.”
Then 9/11 happened, and Richard felt a pall drop over New York. He made some half-hearted attempts to stop using alcohol and drugs. In 2002, he learned he was HIV-positive. “I thought that was a coffin-closer for ever being a parent. I thought no one would ever love me.”
The diagnosis spurred a turnaround: He began a 12-step program, secured his architect’s license, began to play guitar in a band called Sideways Revolt. He found new friends. “Bit by bit, I started to rebuild my life.”
He also developed a new spiritual outlook that regards setbacks as opportunities. “One door closes, and another one opens,” Richard likes to say. So in 2016, when he lost a high-paid job at a New York architecture firm just a month after buying a dream cottage on seven acres in the Hudson Valley, he decided it was a sign: time to finally flee Manhattan.
Richard put his Chelsea apartment on the market and considered what he would do with the windfall when it sold. “The thought came up: This is how you can become a dad.”
He began asking friends about adoption, about donor eggs and surrogacy. He learned that HIV-positive men could become biological fathers, as long as their sperm samples were tested and shown to be negative for infectious agents.
It took a global village: a surrogacy agency in Boston, the LGBT community center in New York, a fertility clinic in San Diego, an international organization called Men Having Babies. “I wanted to have a biological child. And I was on the fast track, mostly because of my age.”
Through the San Diego clinic, he found an egg donor and flew there in spring 2017 to leave sperm samples for testing. “I wanted to see myself reflected in my child,” Richard says, so he picked a donor whose fair hair and English heritage chimed with his own. “She sounded like someone who tried to see both sides of an issue, someone who was trying to bring people together.”
Meanwhile, he made a video for the Boston agency to show prospective surrogates, and in December of that year, he was matched with a woman in Colorado. The first embryo transfer — Richard flew to San Diego for that one — didn’t work. The second time, he watched the procedure via Skype. “I remember the doctor saying, ‘We’ve got it this time.’ And he was right.”
During the pregnancy, Richard and the surrogate spoke weekly, sharing pregnancy news — the fetus’ size, the ultrasounds, the first audible heartbeat — while learning about each other’s families, habits, and spiritual beliefs.
They also shared alarm when doctors became concerned about the baby’s development and tested him for a range of skeletal conditions and chromosomal abnormalities. When Richard got a call — “I’m going to the hospital!” — at week 32 of the pregnancy, he panicked. “I thought my dream was dying, some kind of cosmic cruel joke.” But the dream survived. Friends at the Greater Philadelphia Center for Spiritual Living held a prayer circle the night before Richard flew to Colorado. He landed on the day Henrik was born.
He’d already decided to ask the surrogate and her husband to be his son’s godparents. The egg donor had also agreed to surrender anonymity after the baby was born; she and her family will visit next month.
“Thirty years from now, I’ll be 83,” Richard says, “and I’ll have done my job, to place all these people in his life.” He even enfolded that kinship into the baby’s name — “Shaun” for Shaundra, the surrogate. “Carey” is the maiden name of Richard’s biological father’s mother.
“This is a dream that came from a spiritual place,” Richard says. “My HIV status was instrumental in me becoming a dad. If not for that, I would have continued with my addiction and probably died of it.”