By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
March 14, 2012
At first glance, Jennifer Snyder and Linda Borchew could not have been more different. Borchew grew up in Des Plaines and is Jewish. Snyder was raised Presbyterian in a one-stoplight town in central Illinois.
Back in 1997, they were students with a shared passion for women's softball. Their relationship started like many: a deep friendship that blossomed into something more.
Ten years later — on Jan. 4, 2007 — the high school administrators married at Niagara Falls, Canada, and they settled into blissful domesticity on a quiet residential street in Hoffman Estates.
"My dad said that the hardest part was that he'd never get to be a grandfather," Snyder said.
But the women, now 37, had no intention of forgoing parenthood. Still, it took five years and more than $50,000 to reach their goal.
Said Borchew: "We had no idea what we were in for."
Thirty years ago, same-sex couples started having children in ever-increasing numbers. Today, they still face a mixed bag of challenges when forming families, whether by adoption or reproductive technology, advocates say.
While some of the obstacles Borchew and Snyder encountered were no different than those experienced by infertile straight couples, others were a result of the nation's patchwork laws and lingering hurdles for same-sex couples. The couple gave the Tribune an inside look at the highs and lows on the path to parenthood for same-sex partners.
Currently, 19 percent of gay men and almost 50 percent of lesbians have a child, according to the the National Opinion Research Center's 2008 General Social Survey. As more states recognize same-sex marriage — Maryland became the eighth this month — while others have murky laws, the number of potential child-rearing headaches are bound to increase, experts say.
For Borchew and Snyder, their status informed nearly all their decision-making, such as where they'd deliver, lest they find themselves at a hospital that didn't recognize their union.
"If you create your family and don't fit into a typical pattern, you're going to have some holes in your legal relationship that you didn't even know about," said Jill Metz, a Chicago attorney who specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender cases. "It's a constantly evolving and very tricky situation."
In the beginning, the women knew they'd need hefty resources to have a baby. They didn't realize that they'd need deep reservoirs of patience, as well.
First, they struggled to find an OB/GYN willing to do inseminations, as some medical personnel are uncomfortable working with gays or lesbians, they said.
"There's a reason that many lesbians make jokes about using a turkey baster at home," Snyder noted dryly.
Eventually, they found their way to Chicago Women's Health Center, where Borchew's eggs were combined with donor sperm, then implanted into her womb.
"I bring considerably less desirable DNA to the table than Linda … and she's just much more physically fit than I will ever be," Snyder said.
But in 11 cycles of in vitro fertilization, conception eluded them. Now, the roadblocks seemed more daunting than just finding cooperative clinicians. Clearly, they required more science than the health center could offer.
Their thoughts turned to adoption, but the odds seemed even longer. China had shut the door to single women, and Catholic Charities has balked at placing children with homosexuals. Even the most progressive agencies could not be encouraging, unless the couple were willing to adopt an older or special needs child.
Undeterred, they went to the Evanston location of Reproductive Medicine Institute, known for tackling tough fertility cases. They met with Dr. Carolyn Coulam, who implanted frozen embryos into Borchew, who went home and dutifully waited for the first flutters of new life.
Each time, nothing.
After 40 years in fertility, Coulam had seen many couples laser-focused on the finish line but said Borchew and Snyder's tenacity was remarkable.
"They were just so driven," said the endocrinologist, who treated six lesbian couples last year.
Coulam suggested exploring other options — specifically, that Snyder, despite her self-described "sucky eggs," carry the pregnancy.
Coulam was performing an ultrasound, when a nurse shouted: "There it is! There it is!"
An unmistakable heartbeat. They had never reached this point before.
"We both started sobbing," Snyder said.
Once the euphoria wore off, though, they had to address new, tangled legal dilemmas. Because the genetic material belonged to Borchew, Snyder would have to be listed as a "surrogate" on the facility's paperwork, even though she was the one carrying the baby. The word rubbed both of them the wrong way.
Unlike straight couples, they had to hire a lawyer to craft different language — including that Snyder was not "hijacking" her spouse's eggs. To put them on more equal footing, the revised agreement listed Snyder as the birth parent, while Borchew will formally adopt the baby in court.
"Heterosexual couples who use donor egg or sperm don't have to do that," Snyder said plaintively.
The inequities are no surprise to attorneys, said the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which fielded about 1,000 calls last year surrounding such issues, especially as people move from one state to another, facing varying legislation.
Disparities in law and in practice are familiar to Aaron Cooper, a psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University and author of a popular blog for lesbian and gay parents.
He has chronicled cataclysmic stories, such as those barred from the hospital bedsides of their partners and nonbiological parents being given no say in the medical care of their children.
"The ways our system shortchanges children is more on the radar now, largely due to cases where illegal immigrant parents are deported while their kids are left behind," Cooper said. "The children of same-sex parents are equally vulnerable."
After Snyder's water broke, the couple traveled an hour to Evanston Hospital, chosen for its inclusive policies. No one wanted to worry about producing their Canadian marriage license, powers of attorney or wills in case something catastrophic happened during labor and delivery.
"After working so hard to get to this point, we didn't want to take any chances," Snyder said.
On Feb. 20, after 32 hours of labor, Dagan Reid Borchew entered the world by Caesarean section, weighing 8 pounds 5 ounces. He is flawless in every way, according to his mothers.
With no other boys in her partner's family, Snyder wanted to ensure that the Borchew name would be carried on. But the decision was more than a nod to continuity; she also wanted to make certain that "no one would question Linda's role. Using her last name just reinforces that fact."
A steady stream of well-wishers have met the new arrival — and he was pretty curious about them, too When all the guests departed, he quickly fell asleep in a serene, pastel nursery, which included a photo of Borchew's beloved grandmother and the rocking chair that Snyder bought at age 13 with her baby-sitting money for just this day.
"Holding him validates everything we went through," Snyder said. "Right now, we just have so much joy in front of us."