Gary Gilbert, a dentist, had testicular cancer as a young man,
which left him infertile. He and his wife later had twins with the
help of a sperm donor. Doctors advised them at the time never to
tell the children about their origins, but keeping the secret eventually
became too much for Gary to bear. He revealed the truth to his children
Andrew and Emily when they turned 21.
to the Audio Version
EMILY GILBERT: When I was younger, I swore there was this
secret. There was this tension between my mom and my dad. It felt
like there was something to cover, like something I was almost at
that she was getting upset about. I used to ask her…I was
like, Mom, what is the secret? There is a secret. I know there's
I was 21, and I was back from school. It was my senior year at
UC Santa Barbara. I was back for winter break. And my brother and
I were hanging out downstairs watching TV. And I remember, like,
my dad—he just came walking down the stairs kind of sheepishly,
like…I don't know. He was really quiet. And he was like "Andrew,
Emily I want to talk to you whenever you guys get a chance."
And I just knew that it was something serious.
It was weird. I was like, what? Why is he acting so serious. It
was just weird. I didn't know what to expect. And so we went upstairs
into the family kitchen and I sat across from my dad at the table.
And my brother was sitting next to me. And I think my mom was standing
up behind us…because my mom didn't want to have any part in
this. It's from my understanding that my mom never wanted us to
know, because she thought that we would take it and just feel isolated
and not feel…. It's just different because my parents, they
both have very different backgrounds. My mom comes from a blue-collar
family in the country. My dad comes from a white-collar family close
to the city. They're very worldly. They're educated. My mom's family—they
have great hearts, but they're not as educated, and therefore it's
just like…lack of worldliness.
My mom was against us knowing the truth because she thought we
would never feel like we have these Gilbert genes. Because it was
like a big deal to us to be Gilbert—to be Gilbert-like, because
it was more appealing. I mean, I hate saying that. It really was.
And so my mom was standing behind us and my dad started out—he
said, "When I was younger, I had testicular cancer and we weren't
able to use my sperm." And I was just like, what! It didn't
make sense to me. I was like, wait a minute! You had testicular
cancer! Did it come back?
I didn't even think about that I wasn't genetically related to
my dad. He had to go into detail. I was, like, wait a minute! So
we're not genetically related to you. This is weird. Like, I just
started to cry because I felt bad. It was like, "Oh my goodness,
this is huge!"
to the Audio Version
GARY GILBERT: (sigh) I felt I was relieving myself of the
biggest load I had carried my entire life. I felt that because I
wanted them to know—and I wanted them to know before I wasn't
here to tell them myself. And that I didn't want them to find out
afterwards if they had questions about it or if they wanted to deal
with it in some way. I just didn't want that to happen.
Now, when I told them—I'm crying, Emily's crying, Andrew
put his head down on the table and cried. And Emily got on my lap
and said, "Dad it must have been so hard for you to carry this
all those years."
I would have told them when they were three or four years old—as
soon as they could make some sense out of anything. I would have
said, "Daddy didn't have enough seeds to make mommy pregnant,
so we went to the hospital and we borrowed some seeds." As
they grew up and had questions about it, I would have addressed
it absolutely honestly.
Lily Johnson, 14, and her brother Chase, 10, always knew they’d
been carried by a surrogate mother, using the surrogate’s
egg and their father’s sperm. Their mother, Fay, began telling
them the story of their births from the time they were very young.
As you’ll hear, their experiences were quite different from
those of the Gilberts.
to the Audio Version
FAY JOHNSON: I am a DES baby. My late 30s came along and
I was trying to have children. It turned out that I couldn't because
the uterine lining could not sustain the implantation of the embryo.
My late husband and I tried very unsuccessfully to have doctors
resolve the issue through IVF.
Lily and Chase were created through what is known as traditional
surrogacy where it was the surrogate as the egg donor and the pregnant
person…and my late husband's sperm. And each of the children
had a different surrogate, so they are genetically connected—only
half-siblings. But at our house it's, you know, same family.
When I first became involved in surrogacy, I really asked myself
what was I going to stand for in this? I was one of the first people,
and I'd never met another person who had done it. All the way through
Lily's birth, I had not met another person who had done it. There
is power in truth. So taking that position, I realized I needed
to start it when they were infants.
And so I started telling Lily and Chase when they were literally
like maybe six weeks old. I had developed a story called "The
Night Before Lily" that was really based on a little girl across
the street whose mother gave birth to her prematurely one night
after she and I had been out to dinner. And so I just took the same
script, and it was about a three-minute story. And for me it got
all the nuts and bolts in, as far as laying the foundation. But
one of the things I didn't put into the story intentionally was
whose egg it was, because I didn't think that that had any relevancy
to a young child. But I did want them to understand the basic outline
of what had been done.
I really viewed it as I was weaving the threads of the tapestry
of their life. And I wanted the early threads to be very strong
I really felt if I became comfortable telling the story to her,
then when she was old enough to ask questions about it, I would
probably be comfortable enough to be able to answer them and completely
convince her that I was completely sure of myself.
My story basically dealt with their father and me—our union.
How much we wanted children together. How hard we tried, which I
feel is very important—that we acknowledge the losses, but
the effort. But how after it doesn't work, we move to another solution.
And so the nuts and bolts of that story did not include the emotional
and psychological aspects of the surrogacy experience, both for
me and for the surrogate.
And I think the questions that Lily asked when she was very young
were much more about what was she like. But not until Lily was 9
years old did she pipe up one day with, "Mom, I have figured
out I am not from your egg." Children only do this when you
are driving over a cliff.
And I think the way it came up was my late husband had been diagnosed
with cancer. I think she was a little girl facing a very frightening
issue. And I think honestly she was probably saying, knowing that
I was not her birth mother—I think there may have been some
confusion in her mind that if her dad died, what became of her?
Did she go back to that other person? What exactly was that?
LILY JOHNSON: My dad just got cancer, and he was very sick.
And he had to be hooked up through feeding tubes and stuff that
was really hard to watch. I thought, well, if he died would my biological
mother come back for me and take me away. I didn't want her to come
back and take me away because I'd been with my mom all my life.
So I got kind of scared.
FAY JOHNSON: When we got home that day I went to the filing
cabinet and said, "Would you like to see your birth certificate
again?" And she said, "Yes." And I showed it to her
and I said, "See the line where it says mother? That's me.
And I am your mother forever. No matter what happens to dad, no
one can ever take you from me. I am your mother forever." And
I think that is what she needed to hear.
LILY JOHNSON: I think it was really good that she told
us right off the bat. Because if she hadn't told us, if she were
to just tell us when we were 10 or 11 or something, it'd be like,
"So, who is my real mother?" I don't think I'd ever forgive
her if she didn't tell me right off the bat. That's just like lying
to you for your whole life.
FAY JOHNSON: If there is one thing I would say to parents,
it's don't be afraid that they aren't going to love you enough.
If you tell them the truth, then that issue isn't there. And I think
I was just trying to tell them the truth so that we wouldn't have
The Ballantine-Himberg family was profiled in the documentary film
Daddy & Papa. They faced a different set of challenges. Fanny
was 13 years old when we spoke with them.
to the Audio Version
PHILIP HIMBERG: When she was three or four in preschool,
parents came to us and said, "Are you aware that having this
child in the school is creating a situation where we have to come
out to our children about your relationship?" Because a little
kid comes home from school and says, "Why does Fanny have two
dads?" And, the kid's three. And they said, "We never
expected to have a conversation with our child about an unusual
family." But how do you respond to a three-year-old who wants
to know why Fanny had two dads? You have to say there are all kinds
of families. And some men love women, and some women love men, and
some men love men, and they have a family. And we were unaware of
that—the kind of ripple effect that just having this child,
and us showing up and other kids just asking questions.
And I found that very interesting. We've always been "out"
about who we are. But in a way, having a child made us more out
because you never wanted her to feel like you were hiding anything.
So you'd be in the grocery store and someone would say, "Where's
her mom?" or something, and we'd say—as opposed to saying,
"She lives back east" or "She's not here," you'd
say, "Actually, she has two dads." So that she would learn
at a young age that it was really important to be who we are, and
it made me be more out than I ever was in my life; and I think Jim,
JIM BALLANTINE: And when you asked the question, "What
were we looking for?" I think it was exactly that: that she
would feel no hint of shame or that there was something wrong with
it. That is was perfectly normal, and it is what her response is
today. When they made the movie Daddy & Papa, and she was featured
as this kid of gay parents, that was special to her. But her approach
is that she's very normal and like every other kid.
PHILIP HIMBERG: The more you just treat it as, "We're
just like every family," as opposed to, "There's something
different," especially in this day and age where there are
so many varieties of family, not just families conceived in different
ways, but blended families and single-parent families. She said
in the documentary that really what made her feel more uncomfortable,
I think, was the fact that we were separated.
FANNY BALLANTINE-HIMBERG: I think my parents' being divorced
is something of greater importance to my daily life. I have two
houses so I have to remember all of the different books and things
that I need for school, which is often a problem. I always forget
stuff. So that's probably the biggest issue of my daily life.
to the Audio Version
ELAINE GORDON, PH.D.: A lot of parents don't want
to tell or are afraid to tell because there's a shame factor involved,
that they couldn't do it the way they were supposed to do it. And
then they hide behind "they're protecting the child."
But it really is a projection for the most part. That they're afraid,
that they're ashamed. They weren't like everybody else.
My biggest concern is the child that learns late or when he or
she is a little bit older, you really run the risk of a betrayal.
And I think that's a big risk. It's not that the child won't love
the parents, but they won't trust the parents, because if they kept
this big secret, what else did you not tell me? What else don't
I know? I think honesty is really key. The earlier, the better.
It's just easier.