Welcome to Dad Village, Huffpost Canada’s series about all things fatherhood.
A quarter of new dads feel socially isolated, and supports for fathers tend to be lacking, even though this generation is more involved in parenting than ever before. That’s why it’s so important to connect! We hope this series will get dads talking: to each other, to their partners, and online.
It was the birth photo that made the world weep: two dads, overcome with raw emotion, hold their baby for the first time.
Five years later, Toronto dads BJ Barone, 39, and Frankie Nelson, 49, are still cherishing every moment, milestone, and embrace with their son.
Milo, now five years old, was born via gestational surrogacy. Seconds after his birth during 2014 Pride Week, photographer Lindsay Foster captured the now-famous image that would be shared around the world.
“I think it resonated with so many people because no matter gay, straight, man, woman, we all feel the same love for our children when we meet them for the first time,” Barone recently told HuffPost Canada.
Since 2014, Barone and Nelson, who are both high school teachers, have spread messages of love on their Instagram pages, their website and magazine, both called “Family is about love,” and they’ve even authored two childrens’ books: Milo’s Adventures: A Story About Love, and Milo’s Adventures: A Mermaid’s Tale.
We asked BJ Barone about the couple’s journey to fatherhood, their fears, surrogacy, the goals they hope to instill in Milo, and the gender biases and stereotypes they face parenting.
Did you always want to become fathers?
We both wanted to be fathers, but I never thought it was going to be possible. Growing up, I never thought would ever get married because I was gay, never mind raise a family. When Frank and I met, one of the first things he said to me was that he wanted to be a father. I was like, “OK,” but I still had that mentality of thinking it was never going to happen.
Frank has a single gay cousin that did surrogacy back in the ’80s, well before the time when it was as mainstream and accessible as it is now, so he was always an inspiration for him. We took a course at the local community centre about ways gay men can become parents, and we chose surrogacy, as we wanted to have some kind of ‘control’ over this whole process. Little did we know we can’t control it!
What were you most afraid of?
A fear we have as parents is the unknown of the future and the decisions and choices [Milo] will make as he gets older. We are trying our best to instill good values, and to treat others and himself with respect, and we hope this carries through to his adolescence and into his adulthood. We want him to be successful and give his all at everything he does.
Has raising a boy been a challenge? How is it different from how you were raised?
As gay men, we thought it would be difficult raising a little boy, as we are not that into sports and don’t conform to the ‘straight-male stereotypes’ and thought it would be more fun having a little girl to dress up, as we love our clothes!
My father wasn’t very affectionate with all his kids (there are four of us). Every chance I get I tell Milo I love him, hug and kiss him, so he definitely knows he is loved. Times were different back then, too. My father was working 24/7 to support his family, so he wasn’t home most of the time.
Frank and I are both teachers, so we have the same schedules and make sure to be there for Milo every chance we get, whether it’s for school drop off/pick up, or for skating and swimming lessons. We do it all together. We share the responsibilities at home, and since there are no defined ‘gender roles’ as there are sometimes in heteronormative families, all our duties are shared.
What do you teach Milo about gender, sexuality, and expression, and what values do you hope to instill in him?
We teach Milo that everyone is different and that [however] they choose to express themselves is OK. We must respect everyone, and be kind to one another. Our family is different from other families, so he already knows the importance of being respectful to other people.
Values we hope to instill in him are to be empathetic, supporting, to stand up for himself and his friends, to be vocal at what he wants. So far, we think we are doing a good job!
What are the greatest challenges of gay parenthood? What are the greatest joys?
I think the greatest challenges of gay parenthood are breaking down those gender biases and stereotypes. Men can be great parents, just like women can.
When Milo was just born, we received a lot of unsolicited advice on how to take care of our son. Many questions were asked of our family, like, ‘Where is his mom?’ or even, ‘Who does the mommy stuff?’ We never got angry at these questions, but always used them as learning opportunities and teachable moments.
The greatest joys of parenthood is coming home after a long, stressful day and getting a big hug and kiss from Milo and being told, ‘I love you!’ There is nothing that can melt the stress away [more] than hugs and kisses!
What advice do you have for other dads?
Spend as much time with your kids as you can. Cherish every milestone, take tons of videos and pictures. Be in the moment with them and be patient.
Kids take an awful long time to do things, and try to relish in that. One day they will grow up and appreciate their inquisitiveness.
Your beautiful birth photo has been shared around the world. What does this means to you?
Every time I look at our photo, I just stare at it. I look at our faces and how we are overcome with emotion meeting Milo when he was just seconds born. I look at our surrogate, Kathy’s face, which is one of relief, and happiness, and awe, and I look at our midwife’s face, who is smiling.
WATCH: The story behind the photo. Story continues below.
This picture brings back so many wonderful memories from his day, and we were so lucky that our photographer, Lindsay Foster, happened to capture this moment, all unexpectedly. We get asked why this picture garnered the attention it did and honestly I think it resonated with so many people because no matter gay, straight, man, woman, we all feel the same love for our children when we meet them for the first time.
What do you want more people to understand about surrogacy?
That it may not be for everyone. Surrogacy is a long journey, and it can be a roller coaster of a time. There are a lot of factors that come into play, and you need to be committed, be financially prepared and know that you may not get pregnant.
That being said, surrogates are amazing women who want to help create families, and when you meet that special woman who wants to help you create your family, they also become an extension of your family.
You’re also passionate about skin to skin. What do you want more dads to understand about this practice?
Skin-to-skin care is so important for bonding with your baby. At first we weren’t really aware of this practice, and our midwife walked us through the process of how the birth would go. She said that once the baby is born, we would take our shirts off and the baby will be placed on our chest. We thought this was some type of “earthy” thing midwives did and thought everyone was going to be naked!
After reading up on it, we learned that skin-to-skin care is so beneficial for bonding with your baby. It regulates their heart and body temperature, and they also recognize your scent. We continued for months after Milo was born with skin to skin, and we feel it helped create a special bond.”
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