THE PARENT: Paul Buttacavoli, 47, of Merion Station
THE CHILD: James Augustine, born March 7, 2018
WHAT HE PLANS TO TELL JAMES ABOUT HIS ORIGINS: "That having a child was something I always wanted to do, and an overwhelming number of people came together with love in their hearts to bring him into the world. It's his story; there's nothing to hide."
The only thing that can vanquish a fire-breathing dragon, it turns out, is a duck that quacks.
So the godfather roared his incendiary roar, and the godson stopped him with an exuberant "quack," and Paul couldn't think of any way he'd rather spend a Saturday afternoon.
Except, perhaps, with a child of his own. "I think I have always known that the most important thing I could to with my life would be to raise a child or children. And the most meaningful," he says.
Twenty years ago, when Paul was gradually coming to terms with his sexuality, being a parent and being gay seemed incompatible. He dated some men who weren't interested in children. He dated others who simply weren't "Mr. Right."
Then, three years ago, he decided to stop waiting. "I was very aware that I had everything I wanted in my life except for a partner and child: financial security, solid friendships and family relationships, a meaningful and rewarding job" as client relationship manager for a health care company. "I could get older and meet a partner when I'm 50, but I didn't want to have a baby at 50. So I decided I would do this myself."
Paul talked to attorneys and social workers, reproductive endocrinologists and friends of friends. He researched surrogacy and egg donation. He wanted a genetic connection to his child, and he didn't want to complicate any relationships with female friends by asking them to participate in the process.
Ultimately, he found a Chicago-area agency that would locate a surrogate and guide him in finding an egg donor. And soon he found himself walking anxiously into a Chicago restaurant to meet a potential surrogate and her husband. The couple already had two young children.
"We talked very generally at first —'Who are you? What's your life like?' It grew from small talk into very meaningful and important questions. She said she would consider it a gift to be able to help someone have a family, knowing how happy her family makes her."
Paul and the surrogate also agreed they would want to be in close touch throughout the pregnancy and afterward. "It was a gut feeling that everything was going to work out," he says.
The next step was to select an egg donor from a daunting list of 70. "There were pictures and profiles and family histories; it's really impossible to know," Paul remembers. He wanted a healthy medical history; he was interested in donors with brown hair and brown eyes so the baby's features might chime with his own.
One donor stood out: an athletic college graduate in excellent health, with a photograph of herself in running gear. Paul runs half-marathons. "I thought: 'Oh, I like that.' But, really, it was a leap of faith." Paul hasn't met the egg donor, but she's agreed to have her contact information shared with any offspring once they turn 18. He flew to Chicago for the first embryo transfer in March 2017. "That was ultimately unsuccessful, and very emotionally challenging because there was no real reason. It was a chemical pregnancy," he says. Doctors advised waiting three months — an excruciating lag, Paul remembers — before trying again.
He was there for the second embryo transfer, too, excruciatingly aware of the contrast between his amped-up emotions and the business-as-usual vibe of the clinic staff. "For them, this was just a normal Wednesday. But for me, it was the biggest day of my life up to that point."
Paul was in a restaurant in Yerevan, Armenia, on vacation with a group of friends, when his cellphone pinged with the clinic's number. He ducked outside to answer. The surrogate was pregnant. When he returned to the table, a friend said, "Who was that? Because you can't stop smiling."
Throughout the pregnancy, Paul and the surrogate texted several times a day. She shared photos of her growing belly. They followed different apps that compared the fetus to fruits or animals; Paul would say, "It's like a melon now," and she'd respond, "Or the size of a baby fox."
In the meantime, friends, family members, and colleagues hosted four different baby showers. Paul flew to St. Louis, Ill., where the surrogate lives, for the first ultrasound, the anatomy scan, and some prenatal appointments. He pored over What to Expect in the First Year — though, really, he was most curious about what to expect in the first few days.
"I'd always heard that parents could figure out the different cries and what they mean, but I thought that sounded ridiculous. And I was anxious to understand who I am when there is someone else to care for who comes before me."
Paul was asleep in a St. Louis hotel when the phone rang at 6:15 a.m. on March 7. It was the surrogate's husband. "You should get over here." Paul bolted to the hospital and made it in time for his son's 7:17 a.m. arrival.
The baby felt both substantial and small. He curled his fingers around his father's pinky. "It was a frozen moment in time. I can picture it in my head, but I don't know that I even have words for it. I was tearful, and so was he."
Five days later, Paul flew back with his son in a Baby Bjorn. He changed a diaper in a cramped airplane bathroom. Fellow passengers said, "Oh, brave dad, flying without the mom!"
Then he brought James — named for the patron saint, Giacomo, of his great-grandparents' Italian village — home to a blue-walled nursery. There is a dresser that belonged to Paul's grandfather, a lamp from Paul's childhood bedroom, and a painting of a young boy fishing. Paul bought it at a friend's art show six years ago, when fatherhood was still a yearning, a ripple under the surface. Now it's the first thing he sees when he comes in to fetch his son.