When identical triplets Parker, Robin and Sylvie O’Neill are old enough to understand the full story of their journey to birth, they will learn about a story of serendipity, love and selflessness.
The 1-month-old girls are the daughters of husbands Kevin O’Neill and Eric Portenga of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Their surrogate was Maureen Farris of West Akron.
“We love these girls’ birth story, and I hope someday we can sit around the table and share it with them and tell them and they’ll love it as well and be proud of it as we are,” Farris said.
The girls were born Sept. 9 by cesarean section at Cleveland Clinic Akron General and taken directly to the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron General, which is operated by Akron Children’s. They spent 18 days in the NICU.
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But the girls’ journey to birth started several years ago on another continent.
O’Neill and Michigan native Portenga met in O’Neill’s native Scotland, when Portenga was pursuing his doctoral degree in earth science. They fell in love and married five years ago, living for some time in Scotland.
Jobs brought the couple to Michigan, where O’Neill is chief administrator for women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan and Portenga is an assistant professor of earth surface processes at Eastern Michigan University.
“We wanted to be dads and that was a cornerstone of our relationship,” said O’Neill, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in early 2020. He also maintains his United Kingdom citizenship, and the girls will also have dual citizenship.
A few years ago, the couple started researching adoption and surrogacy, interviewing agencies that could help them.
A mutual friend and an Akron native ended up connecting the couple with Farris, their future surrogate.
They jokingly call Cathy Cherico the “surrogate whisperer” because it’s the second set of friends she would connect to start a family. Another friend in Uniontown was the surrogate for friends in Chicago.
Cherico, who lives in Ann Arbor and met O’Neill and Portenga through her boss and became close friends, knew of their struggle as a gay couple wanting to adopt or find a surrogate.
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“I even considered it, but I have never carried a child to full term and I was already in my 40s, so I knew that I would not be an optimal candidate,” Cherico said.
But in her mind, Cherico had been thinking of Farris, a college classmate when both were studying to be teachers at the University of Akron about a decade ago.
In March 2019, Cherico and Farris and friends had lunch in Akron. Farris made a comment that she and her husband, Jeremiah Currier, were happy with their one child, Julian, who will be 5 next month.
Farris said she enjoyed being pregnant, but they weren’t going to have more kids.
“The comment made me think, and I came back to Michigan wondering if she might be a fit for Kevin and Eric,” Cherico recalled. “Not only was the comment telling, but also the fact that Maureen is one of the kindest people I have ever known and so being a surrogate is something that I could see her wanting to do for someone.”
Unbeknownst to Cherico, Farris said she had been thinking about surrogacy if anyone ever needed it, but she never pursued it or even mentioned it to her husband.
More than a year later in June, one day before her other surrogate friend gave birth to a boy, Cherico got a text from Farris, who shared that she quit her job to stay a home.
“I felt that the universe was telling me something and I needed to listen,” Cherico said.
She texted Farris and apologized if her ask was wildly inappropriate: Would Farris consider serving as a surrogate for a gay couple who wanted a child?
“In my mind, I hadn’t even mentioned it to my husband yet, so it was sort of like, ‘Oh my God, the universe is working way too quickly!’ But I need to at least investigate it,” Farris recalled. “I told Cathy I was interested.”
Cherico suggested the couples meet by themselves to see if they were on the same page.
O’Neill said their “first date” was perfect.
“Once we met, it just felt like a soulmate connection in a way where we could tell we were really getting along and enjoying each other’s company,” she said.
“I understood that they would be the dads and they were wonderful people from the minute I met them,” she said.
While Farris jumped full in with her heart, her husband, Jeremiah, was supportive but also more protective.
Farris explained to her husband that her mindset was very different.
“I’m not giving away babies, which is something people bring up all the time. I’m cooking their babies for them,” said Farris. “I’m babysitting their babies. I’m just helping usher their babies into this world.”
Once Farris’ husband understood that, he was all in, as were her parents, Debbie and George Farris.
Farris and the couple agreed she would not use her own eggs.
“I knew that I could keep that mindset of ushering these babies into their family’s lives if I knew I could maintain that mindset if it wasn’t genetically my child,” she said.
Similarly, the guys said it was important to them to use a donor egg — but one that allowed the child to choose to contact the donor mother after age 18. O’Neill and Portenga declined to say whose sperm was used, but said they would tell their daughters.
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Both parties used lawyers to put together a contract, and Farris was compensated and had no out-of-pocket costs. O’Neill and Portenga paid for the services at the reproductive clinic and any copays or deductibles for Farris’ insurance, which covered her medical care and the birth. Once the girls were born, the dads’ insurance kicked in and covered the babies.
They all agreed Farris and her family would be involved in the baby’s life.
“In our mind’s eye before this started, the surrogate was always going to have to be a part of the kid’s life,” O’Neill said.
After searching nationwide for a fertility clinic, Portenga said, the couple happened to choose one in Akron — Reproductive Gynecology & Infertility. Still another small-world connection: They chose Dr. Priya Maseelall, Farris’ former gynecologist and the daughter of her longtime primary care physician.
In early January, one embryo was transferred into Farris’ uterus. Due to COVID-19 visitation rules, Portenga could only be in the hallway via FaceTime. O’Neill was in Scotland visiting his parents, so he also watched via FaceTime as did Farris’ husband, who was at home.
Then they waited 10 days before Farris could go in for a blood test to determine if she was pregnant.
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Once they found out they were pregnant, the first ultrasound was at six weeks. The guys watched the appointment via FaceTime from Ann Arbor, due to COVID restrictions.
The doctor said: “Oh my God, it split. It’s identical twins.”
A week later, Farris had some spotting and one of the baby’s heartbeat was slower than normal, so Farris went in for another appointment with Maseelall as the expectant dads again watched via FaceTime.
The doctor heard the first baby’s heartbeat and then the second — and then she paused.
“Are you guys sitting down?” the doctor asked. “There’s something else here.”
The doctor was unsure if she was hearing an echo or or one of the baby’s heartbeat through the umbilical cord or something else. She wanted Farris to go to a specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
It took another 10 days for them to get an appointment for an ultrasound.
At Children’s, only one person could go in with Farris and there could be no pictures or FaceTime during the appointment. O’Neill went in with Farris, and Portenga waited in the atrium.
“After about an hour or so, they come back to the atrium and unfurl this huge stretch of ultrasound photos,” Portenga said.
The ultrasound images were labeled Baby A, Baby B and Baby C.
The one fertilized egg implanted in Farris had split multiple times, resulting in an extremely rare set of identical triplets.
Experts don’t agree on the exact odds, but it’s estimated as few as 1 in a million pregnancies — or less — result in identical triplets.
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“Nobody ever dreams of having triplets,” O’Neill said. “It’s just a bizarre fantasy. It changed our mindset of being so overjoyed to ‘Oh my God, we’re getting three and all the logistics that come with it.”
After the shock of the news, the couple went to work preparing. They had to break the lease on a new sedan they got before they were expecting. It would have fit one kid and their dog perfectly.
“We’re now minivan dads,” said O’Neill.
They also renovated their basement to add another living area, bedroom and bathroom.
Farris said she was “along for the journey” when she found out she was carrying identical triplets. But she admits she naively didn’t know what it meant to carry multiple babies.
“I got bigger faster … I was always weeks ahead where a single pregnancy would be,” she said. Her first and second trimesters were pretty normal, but her third trimester was grueling physically, Farris said. She thanks her husband, parents, supportive friends and her obstetrician, Dr. John Stewart.
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A cesarean section was scheduled at 34 weeks, but both Farris and the babies were healthy, so the delivery was pushed back to 35 weeks and a day to give the girls more time in utero.
They were delivered Sept. 9 by Dr. Stephen Bacak, head of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Akron General.
Their names are in alphabetical order by their birth order: Parker was 4 pounds, 14 ounces; Robin was 4 pounds, 11 ounces and Sylvie was 4 pounds, 8 ounces.
The girls had none of the health concerns that often come with multiples and premature babies. Their dads and Farris said they know they are so fortunate. The girls stayed in the NICU for 18 days to gain weight before they could be released to go home to Michigan.
Farris said she doesn’t feel sadness that the triplets she carried are not her children.
“I love their girls with all my heart. I told them at some point, ‘You’re not going to believe how much I’m going to love your daughters,’ ” she said. “It feels true today. But it just feels like I’m their special aunt or they’re my best friend’s kids.”
It’s still up in the air, but O’Neill said they think the girls will call Farris “Auntie Mo.”
The girls’ personalities have already come through, their dads said.
“Sylvie makes the cutest little noises just all the time,” Portenga said. O’Neill describes it as a squeak.
“Whenever she’s taking the bottle or being burped or sleeping or whatever, there’s these cutest little singing songs. She’s the little singer,” Portenga said.
She’s also the most chill and cries the least — at least so far, O’Neill said.
Robin, as the middle child, is either “all-out screaming and crying or super chill. There’s no in between,” Portenga said.
Parker, who was the first one out, “eats the best. You put a bottle in front of her and it’s gone,” Portenga said.
For now, the dads are enjoying their paternity time and adjusting to their new family.
When the girls want to know more about their birth story, the dads said they’re an open book.
“It was important for us as two dads, we know our kids are going to have questions from other kids in their classes or things like that may come up. We want them to have answers for those things and to know that just like any other family, that they were born out of love,” Portenga said.
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O’Neill and Portenga laughed when asked if they’d have any more kids.
“I joked with them at one point and said I was always a little nervous they’d ask me to do this a second time with a sibling,” she said. “I was like, ‘Nope, you’ve got three of them now!’ There are no sibling journeys in our future.
“I don’t think I would do it again. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or [email protected] Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ. To see her most recent stories and columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/bettylinfisher.