Grace is surrounded by love

Grace has long been the center of her two fathers’ lives, even as they first met and most certainly now.

Grace is a healthy 9-month-old, a blond cherub who loves to be held and rocked on the family’s midtown front porch swing, laughing each time she hears small dogs barking.

Grace is the focal point of her fathers’ lives in the way all beloved babies overtake their parents. The 4 a.m. feedings, a previously meticulous home overrun with infant gear, the switch-off between two working parents — one dad on the morning shift getting her to day care, the other picking her up. And the constant narration by her fathers of every action so her little ears soak up their attention and vocabulary.

For years, Grace was a wish. She was a blessing the couple hoped would arrive one day. Neither Jim MacDonald nor Andy Schuerman could have fathomed the emotional path they would take to their daughter’s birth.

Couples who undergo fertility treatments can relate to their struggles — the steep financial costs when science must aid nature, the years spent considering the many options from international adoption, fostering children with the hope of adoption before finally deciding on surrogacy. And then the heartbreak at an initial miscarriage.

Grace’s parents’ journey was further complicated by who they innately are: two gay men.

At each step, new roadblocks — legal, emotional and societal — appeared. None deterred them. They took on extra jobs to save money. They adhered to a strict budget. They sought the help of an Overland Park social worker specializing in adoption.

Years passed as they discovered some options were either closed to them as gay men, not the right choice for them, or financially out of reach.

Eventually they formed a unique bond with a longtime friend of Schuerman. Unmarried and childless, she offered to be their surrogate. Such selfless acts run through the story of how “Gracie Lou” was born.

“You couldn’t give a child any more love than what they are giving her right now,” said Betty Lou Schuerman of her first grandchild.

This family of three, MacDonald (Daddy) and Schuerman (Poppa) and Grace, is really quite large. Grace is adored by four grandparents (Schuerman’s parents and her surrogate’s parents; MacDonald’s parents are deceased); two godmothers; her biological mother, whose presence will be explained when Grace is older; and a plethora of other extended family.

The couple’s long commitment to becoming parents has drawn in others. Their wide circle of friends covers the gamut: gay, straight, married and divorced, with and without their own children.

“This was their number one priority, and they just kept working toward it,” said a close friend, Missouri Sen. Jolie Justus. “Grace is one of the luckiest little girls in Kansas City.”

• • • 

A mutual desire to become a parent was explored during the men’s first dinner date, nearly 10 years ago.

The idea of Grace was tested in the checklist way that people who are eager to find a life partner suspend the small talk and guide conversations toward what matters most.

Schuerman, a counselor at Winnetonka High School, broached it first. Possibly losing the chance to become a father was the reason he stayed closeted until 21. Gay men don’t have children together, at least not in the 300-population Nebraska town where Schuerman, 34, was raised.

Both he and his mother remember vividly the tense conversation when he came out.

“But you would have been such a good father,” she had said.

Her son stubbornly replied that he still would be, someday.

For MacDonald, 45, the desire to be a father was something he’d set aside before meeting Schuerman.

The vice president of resource investment for the United Way of Greater Kansas City told himself that being an uncle and cultivating a large circle of friends would suffice. It didn’t.

Gay men can have children. Grace Anne Louise MacDonald, 8 pounds, 14 ounces, 21.5 inches, was born at 2:45 a.m. March 27.

But it is relatively rare for them to do so in the way Schuerman and MacDonald did. Nancy Simons Bean is the couple’s social worker and counselor. She knows of two other male couples in the Kansas City area who became fathers through a surrogate.

For years, men have married and had children with a wife and then later admitted their sexual orientation. But not until 2006 did the Missouri Department of Social Services allow lesbians and gay men to be foster parents.

Society’s hesitations will take time to overcome. The American Psychiatric Association is adamant that children raised by gay parents have no developmental differences.

“There are special issues when same-sex couples raise kids,” Bean said. “But just like in any family, being able to communicate openly and honestly is important.”

One emotional hurdle for Grace’s parents was deciding which man would be the child’s biological father. But the decision to have the fertility doctor use Schuerman’s sperm ended up not a choice at all. He’s younger. And once MacDonald researched how a man’s age can trigger complications, that was it. He couldn’t jeopardize their child.

At 20 weeks, the men traveled to Minneapolis, where their surrogate had moved, to attend a prenatal doctor’s visit. Through ultrasound, they saw Grace for the first time.

“To see Jim’s face when he saw her, he was just so peaceful,” Schuerman said. “He was in love with her then.”

The fathers were there at Grace’s birth as well.

• • • 

Grace’s grandfather Russ Schuerman watched his son and his partner (the men married in Vancouver in 2005) persevere through one barrier after another.

“They are still having to jump through a lot of hoops that heterosexual couples do not have,” he said. “As a couple, it’s quite a challenge for them, and that’s just unfortunate.”

So as they waited for the birth of their child, he certainly wasn’t going to stand for anyone from his small town casting aspersions their way.

“I was very upfront: ‘My son and his partner are having a daughter.’ I just didn’t let that be a problem with anyone.”

Now that Grace has arrived, the family hasn’t encountered one instance of negativity, although they know eventually some incident will likely occur. And they’ve carefully discussed with their counselor each question that Grace might ask, planning for every scenario.

The fathers note the awkward smiles, the averted gazes when the dynamics of their family dawn on strangers who encounter them at the airport, shopping or simply taking Grace out in her stroller.

But invariably, the attention turns to Grace, not her fathers. As MacDonald noted: “It’s amazing what a baby can do to open hearts and minds.”