SC PRESS ASSOCIATION AWARD-WINNER
Her fathers' love
By Jackie R. Broach
Tommy Starling and Jeff Littlefield fell in love 12 years ago, after being introduced by a mutual friend.
Littlefield was immediately “smitten,” he said. After a couple of months of chasing, he had Starling convinced they’d make a good couple, and they decided to start a life together.
They had a beautiful home, successful careers and a thriving relationship. They were happy, but after a few years, they realized something was lacking: They wanted a child to love and raise.
“We didn’t care what race it was or if it was a boy or a girl,” Starling said. “We just wanted it to be healthy. We wanted a child to complete our family.”
But after five long years of trying, the Litchfield couple gave up hope. They had made several attempts to adopt, but were repeatedly turned down.
“We had lawyers who wouldn’t even speak to us,” Starling said. “They didn’t want to deal with gay people and the legal issues that come with same-sex parenting. We had basically given up on having a family.”
“We had come to an agreement,” added Littlefield. “We were done. Let’s move on.”
Then fate stepped in.
Littlefield and Starling were celebrating New Year’s Eve in New Orleans when they met a couple who restored their hope of being parents.
“They pulled out a picture of their baby daughter and we said ‘beautiful. How did you do it?’ ” Littlefield recalled. “Two weeks later, we were on a plane to New York City.”
What Littlefield and Starling learned from that chance meeting ultimately led them to Growing Generations, an agency in California that coordinated their efforts to find a surrogate, an egg donor, medical agencies and legal help.
On July 25, 2006, Starling and Littlefield became the parents of a baby girl, Carrigan. Their life together became complete.
She has a five-second attention span, said Starling, who quit his job as a food broker to become a stay-at-home dad. Littlefield is vice president of the Blue Cross office in Myrtle Beach.
As her fathers look on, Carrigan runs around their backyard, light brown curls bouncing around an angelic face lit by a beaming smile. Littlefield pushes her on a swing for less than a minute before she proclaims “all done,” and moves on to another activity.
One of her favorite games is “Jumping Judy,” which Starling said originates from her favorite TV show, “The Doodlebops.”
She stands in between her fathers as they each take hold of one of her hands. She jumps and lets loose a string of giggles as Starling and Littlefield lift her between them.
Carrigan calls Starling “daddy” and Littlefield “dad.”
The family is working on potty training, they said, but that’s easier than trying to get Carrigan to take off her favorite rain boots every night for her bath.
The couple describe their little girl as beautiful, vibrant, loving, busy and perfect.
And for them, she’s a blessing the magnitude of which they once never could have imagined. That’s something Carrigan will never have any doubt about.
The couple is open with their daughter about her origins and they make it clear how much she was wanted.
Though Carrigan can’t read the words yet, her story is told quite eloquently in the black, white and fuschia bedroom Starling decorated for her. The room is any little girl’s dream and written across the top of the walls is the story of the Starling-Littlefield family.
“Your daddies had a dream and along came you,” it reads. “You are living proof our fairy tale came true.”
For now, Carrigan doesn’t realize there’s anything different about her family.
“She has two loving parents and that keeps her stable,” Starling said. “That’s all she needs.”
“A lot of people out there don’t think it’s right for gay couples to have kids,” Littlefield said. “They just don’t see people like us, I guess, because [Carrigan] is very well-rounded. She’s a very much loved little girl. She’s not missing anything.”
That’s evident as Carrigan runs back and forth between her dads showing first a toy and then a hat specially made for her birthday party. Both men stop what they’re doing and patiently listen to her exclamations. Then Littlefield scoops her up and cradles her in his arms.
She’s their focus now and her birth has changed everything for them.
Their social life has changed. They’re closer now to their straight friends, because they have a better understanding of the family dynamic and what Starling and Littlefield are experiencing as parents.
Starling quit his job, because the couple “didn’t want somebody else raising our child” and wanted to have the “full experience of being parents.”
They worry more; about everything from safety to getting Carrigan into a good preschool. She’ll be starting Pawleys Island Montessori Day School this month.
They also worry about hurdles and heartbreaks their daughter will face.
Starling and Littlefield know Carrigan will have to endure some teasing and cruel words when she’s older as a result of having a non-traditional family. They’re trying to make sure she’ll be prepared for that and they’re trying to ease her way by educating people about families like theirs.
“Before, we could kind of hide being out,” Starling said. “She puts it right out there. You have to really be out.”
Carrigan was born in California, where the rights of both fathers are protected. Both their names appear on her birth certificate. If she had been born in South Carolina, the law would allow parental rights to only one.
When Starling and Littlefield brought Carrigan home to Litchfield, they expected “some negativity,” Littlefield said, “or at least a slight sideways look, even if not to our faces.”
That hasn’t been the case.
They do, however, get questions, which they’re happy to answer as long as the askers are respectful and well-meaning. When they take Carrigan out, folks commonly assume they’re “giving mom a break,” Littlefield said.
“We usually just say, ‘No, she has two dads. She doesn’t have a mom,’ ” Starling explained. “And if they have more questions, we’ll answer them as long as they’re not mean about it.”
“We’re up-front about it, because we never want her to think we’re embarrassed or ashamed, because then, she’ll feel there’s something to be ashamed of,” Littlefield said.
Littlefield’s family is Mormon and Starling’s is Southern Baptist. They’ve been lucky that their families are very accepting.
“They struggle with religion, but they think what we’re doing is right,” Starling said.
Yet they’ve endured cruelties from other fronts and know Carrigan will have to do so as well.
“We’re hoping to raise her to be strong enough that when she does hear certain things, she’ll be able to say, ‘Yeah, I know I have two dads. I know my dads are gay. There’s nothing wrong with it,’ ” Starling said.
He and Littlefield have attended conferences on issues they’ll face with schools and doctors as Carrigan grows older.
They know Carrigan will have questions someday, and they’re prepared to answer them as they’re asked, in age-appropriate discussions, they said.
“We’ll tell her we wanted her so much we went to this extreme to have her as our child,” Littlefield said.
“She was wanted from the very beginning and we were part of it from the beginning.”
Carrigan was conceived through in vitro fertilization using eggs from a donor. Half the eggs were fertilized with Littlefield’s sperm and half with Starling’s, so the couple doesn’t know which is her biological father.
“It’s a mystery and it doesn’t matter,” Starling said.
The surrogate who gave birth to Carrigan has become a family friend, and Carrigan is being raised with an understanding of the woman’s role in her birth. She’s visited with the surrogate once already, but there’s no familial connection.
“It wasn’t her egg, so she doesn’t feel any loss,” Starling said. “We were worried [when Carrigan was born] about what would happen when they had to say good-bye, but [the surrogate] was like, ‘Enjoy her, see you later.’ ”
Littlefield and Starling planned to be present for Carrigan’s birth, but she arrived two weeks early and the labor was so short there was no time to get there, they said.
They listened to the birth on speaker phone.
“We were an emotional wreck listening,” Starling recalled, “but we were on the first flight the next morning. Once we got her in our arms, nothing else mattered.”
When Carrigan was just a few days old, they flew her to Utah to meet Littlefield’s mother. She was in poor health and they’d hoped to have a child before she died.
Carrigan, who is named after Littlefield’s mother, just made it. She died just a few months after Carrigan’s birth.
“She was so thrilled,” Littlefield said, recalling his mom’s reaction to her new granddaughter.
“She had given up, as I had, on my ever having children when I was about 25. In those days, unless I lived a lie and married a woman, it wasn’t ever going to happen.”
Starling said his mom, too, was ecstatic at Carrigan’s arrival.
“She has other grandchildren from my brother, but she wanted me to have kids,” Starling said. “She was over the moon when she found out.”
Starling’s parents and Littlefield’s father are all a big part of Carrigan’s life. Starling’s mom often baby-sits when the family travels. Last month she took care of Carrigan in Hawaii, where her dads honeymooned.
“We had a commitment ceremony on the beach 10 years ago, but we knew it wasn’t an official thing,” Starling said. “We always wanted to have a legal marriage.”
When the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Starling and Littlefield saw an opportunity.
Unlike Massachusetts, California law doesn’t require same-sex marriage to be valid in a couple’s home state. They had already planned a trip to Hawaii in July with a stop in California, so it was easy to add a wedding.
“We’re not sure it will last, but we felt like we needed to be part of the movement,” Starling said.
A proposed constitutional amendment that would override the court’s decision will appear on the ballot in November.
If the amendment passes, Starling and Littlefield hope their union will be grandfathered, but if it isn’t it won’t really change anything, they said.
“We’re still going to live here. We’re still going to be a family,” Littlefield said.
“Still, we hope it sticks,” Starling said. “We should have the same rights as everybody else.”
Carrigan attended the wedding. She’s already getting lessons on equality and human rights. It’s one of the benefits the couple said will come from having same-sex parents.
“Definitely she will be open-minded and learn to accept and appreciate everyone for what they are,” Starling said. “She will understand diversity and that will help change the world a little bit. Even if it’s just her, it will make the world a better place.”
At 2, Carrigan is already making a difference. She’s a beacon of hope for many gay couples.
Littlefield and Starling said they’ve entertained lots of questions from other gay couples about how their daughter was born. A couple they talked with in New Orleans just had a little boy.
“We’re kind of experts now, I guess you could say,” Starling said.
As for whether they’ll be bringing home another child of their own, that’s still open to debate. After Carrigan was born, Starling started asking about having another one.
“I was so stressed out and sick worrying, I said, ‘we’re not talking about this until she’s 2,’ ” Littlefield said.
Starling agreed and “he’s been good,” Littlefield said.
But Carrigan turned 2 last week and the day before the event, Littlefield said “tomorrow may be a very long day.”
Starling said he won’t say never, but he doubts they’ll have another child.
“It would be wonderful to have more if it wasn’t so difficult for us,” he said. “We went through hell to get [Carrigan] and it took our life savings and a lot of worry.”
The total cost for Carrigan’s conception and birth was $125,000.
They couldn’t have found a better way to spend the money and they’re glad fate led them down a path to having Carrigan, but Littlefield said it’s a shame adoption isn’t easier for same-sex couples. If the option were available, he’d be happy to adopt siblings for Carrigan, he said.
“There are 10 million children out there who need families and probably 10 million gay couples who would love to have them,” Littlefield said.