Most of our SSP families know that Dr. Cao and Matteo are the very proud fathers to their beautiful daughter Isabella...what many don’t know is the story behind her adoption. Not only was it an extremely emotional journey for them, but it is actually historic as you will soon find out. In honor of Father’s Day and Pride Month, let’s talk to Dr. Hai Cao and Matteo Trisolini in this month’s interview and learn a bit more about their fascinating adoption story and how they became a family of 3!
SSP: Let’s rewind to 2008, when you were married. Did you know at the time that you wanted to start a family together?
Matteo: We knew right away, in our first year. It was one of the questions that we needed an answer to in the first year we met. This was back in 2004.
Hai: We lived in the same building, so we talked a lot. Both of us came out of disappointing relationships.
Matteo: I had promised myself that I would be clear, frank and that I wouldn’t settle and so one of my questions was “do you see yourself having kids one day”?... he had the same question as well. And you know what's so funny? We already decided her name already (it would have been Luca if we adopted a boy)!
SSP: How did your adoption search begin, and how did it lead you to find Isabella?
Hai: We had planned a trip to Italy, and we were already in the process of doing adoption paperwork, and we had plans to finish it when we got back in September. Matteo got hopping on it, got all the paperwork done and had our website online and ready to go. We finished with the social work visit and by September 30th we were online and approved and ready to go.
Matteo: And… a week later we got our first call.
Hai: We were upstate, doing our bathroom remodel.
Matteo: We had given ourselves projects to keep us busy as we thought it would take some time, a couple of years. We wanted to keep busy so we didn’t think about it all of the time. A week later, we got that phone call.
Hai: 6 days into it we got a phone call.
Matteo: That website and ad campaign I created was my most successful marketing project to date!
Hai: We had been told by the adoption agency to post ads in the Pennysaver, go to the newspapers…
Matteo: My eyes just rolled back.
Hai: He knew that our target audience would be looking at their phones and not reading the pennysaver.
Matteo: Advertising in such an old fashioned way didn’t make any sense in 2010. The adoption agency didn’t even have the time to put our profiles on their website by the time we were approved to be on the adoptive parents list. So I did my own marketing and within those 6 days we got our phone call and it was the right one. And that's how we started the relationship with Isabella’s birth mother’s family. When I got that first voicemail, my heart was beating so fast I couldn’t even understand the voicemail and what they were saying, my heart was beating so very fast. Hai had to listen with me to hear what they were saying and what was happening here. We called and spoke to Isabella’s birth grandmother.
Hai: And the birth mother...and set up a time to meet the birth family.
Matteo: So we came down to SC to meet the birth family. We just got on a flight and got there, met at a restaurant...it was a mutual place. They were very sweet. All they really wanted was the best for the baby. And for us, if you think about it (this was almost 8 years ago), the fact that they choose us - a same sex couple - was awesome and at the same time was kind of like, “why”? We asked this to each other. They found us online, they found our website and decided this was the right family. We were honored and at the same time, we were puzzled.
SSP: How would you describe the adoption process for you, being in South Carolina - not exactly known to be as open and accepting overall as the NYC area?
Matteo: 8 years ago, we didn’t have laws, it was a lot more difficult.
Hai: We expected to go down, go to the hospital, say hello, give our best to the birth mother and then go and adopt through the pre-adoption 2 days later and come back to Brooklyn where Matteo’s family had just flown in. At our pre-adoption hearing in SC the judge recused himself (judges are appointed in SC and aren’t elected). It is a conservative state...so he recused himself, he didn't want a career suicide and sign off on a same sex adoption. We were the first same sex married couple in the state of SC to adopt.
Matteo: We are in the courthouse, and had Isabella with us. We thought it was hugs, say goodbye, leave with the baby in 3 minutes with smiles and photos. It’s our turn and the lawyer says we’re not going in. And we were like “what”? He announced he had a meeting with the judge who recused himself, who said “don’t put this on my desk”. Here we are, now with the baby, and we are told that we have to wait for another judge after the holidays, so another 2 more weeks, to get a hearing. At that point, we had the baby. We were legally the custodians until the judge would sign off or say no...and we were responsible for the baby. Imagine: we have the baby, and we think that we might be able to adopt - but we don’t know if we after the 2 weeks if we are taking the baby back or not. In the meantime we fly in my family.
Hai: So we rented a house in Charleston on the beach and we flew his family of 6 to SC to be with us. Imagine, those first days are stressful enough. Added to that is the stress to think what if she does not go home with us?
Matteo: The birth mother had signed off her rights. If the baby doesn't go home with us she is back in the system. All of this, add Christmas time and my family witnessing the situation … And right then and there, that is our parenting lesson #1.
Hai: We realized during that waiting period that we were both parenting at 80% - we thought what if we have to leave her? It was holding us back. And I called it out...and we decided: If we only have 2 weeks with this kid, we want her to have everything we have. We want her to know we did everything we could. From then on it was much easier. I think it’s much harder to keep at arm’s length than showing real affection. We threw ourselves into it fully.
Matteo: And we were contacted by other political associations who wanted it to be a thing, to make it a story - well meaning organizations, but we wanted to keep it private.
Hai: Good or bad, political associations wanted to contact us to make it a thing. We just didn’t want to. This is a private situation.
Matteo: At that time also, it was a very different situation because there were no laws protecting us.
Hai: Our marriage wasn’t recognized, and SC had DOMA in their constitution. They didn’t have to recognize our relationship, so our application was questionable. Throughout the whole process the most loyal and faithful person to the process was her birth mother. She wanted the baby with us. Even up to the point where she was in elevator to meet us, her social worker was trying to talk her out of it….saying are you sure you want her to go with two men.
Matteo: I would say though, the experiences that we had with the people in Charleston, when we went to a restaurant with the baby or anywhere else - they were very sweet overall. Now we were the obvious Benetton family. It was me, Hai and Isabella.
Hai: Even in the hospital, they were all very happy that she was coming home to us, in capable hands. It’s the politics that were difficult, not the people.
SSP: And so what happened next? How did you bring her home?
Matteo: We got the notice on December 31st that they signed off on the paperwork, and we drove that morning off to the very edge of SC before NC and got a motel room. A trucker motel.
We were just waiting for the state of SC to communicate to the state of NY that we had permission to leave the state with a baby. Now this is happening on December 31st...but somehow after numerous phone calls with the agency and pushing here and there, we got permission from the state. We got into the car, drove 13 hours and got home right after midnight. My family was back in NY, and was waiting for us.
Hai: And while we were doing the adoption, while we were in the motel we were selling our old place, buying our new place...all at once.
Professionally I tell parents especially parents with NICU kids, very colicy kids, kids that have problem gaining weight issues - this stress will be with you, and you have to do something to process or otherwise it stays with you. I didn’t have that insight, and it stayed with me. I didn’t do anything with that stress. My blood pressure still rises when I talk about this. Anytime initial parenting stress stays with you, you need to deal with it.
SSP: What has been the most challenging part of becoming same-sex adoptive parents? What do you find to be the biggest misconception about gay dads?
Hai: I think the initial part is the politics.The biggest misconception is that a) it’s different or that b) we’re smug and that we have all the answers. Because we don’t .
Matteo: The hardest part was definitely the politics and having anyone’s opinion valuable somehow. The biggest misconception we encountered was coming from some members of our own families, believe it or not. Everyone has questions and deserves answers. But I am tired of hearing people asking “don’t you think she needs a mother”? I’m tired of that question. I feel like it’s not even my turn to answer that question. If you can’t answer that question yourself, do your homework and then come back to me. This is disrespectful to people with one parent, one mother or one father. A widow, who is a perfect parent. I haven’t asked my mom “why don’t I have 2 moms” or “why did you marry my father”? I have the parents I have and you don’t decide your family. That is hard when you‘re going through all of what we were facing and have to educate your own family. You know?
Hai: I think the good thing is that we didn’t have the energy to deal with this. We had other more important focuses.
SSP: How lucky that you were able to show off your gorgeous family in a recent J. Crew ad this past holiday. How did that come to be and why was it important for you to do that?
Matteo: It happened just by fate. A friend of ours who is a family at SSP reached out because one of his friends is a producer for J.Crew and I think that initially his family was asked to be in the photo shoot (he also has a partner and a little boy). I believe they were asked, but they were out of town. He thought about us, showed this producer our picture on FB and thankfully we had been on a diet that year - and of course Isabella is gorgeous. It all happened in 3 weeks. Hai should really answer this question as it’s closer to his heart.
Hai: As a young student (of asian descent) I was in a male dorm, in Indiana...and I would get the J.Crew catalogs every 3 or 4 months.. I’d appreciate the clothes, but I couldn’t relate to these people. To see a LGBT family in this catalog would have given me so much hope back then. I was a smart kid, a great student, a great leader - but a part of me needed that and didn’t get that. So that would have been such a catapult for me.
SSP: Do you have any advice for other gay couples considering adoption?
Hai: Do it. If you have the inclination to be a parent and the want and yearning to be a parent, do it. There are so many ways to do it - you can do surrogacy, you can do adoption, you can do foster to adoption. We have friends that did foster to adoption and have a beautiful child. The state helps fund for their development and progress. For example, if you are a foster kid in NY you will receive a paid college education through the state.
Matteo: Parenting is a journey. Obviously you know if you want to be a parent or not. You know it. At one point in your 20’s you know if you want to be a parent or not. So if you hear that voice, then you should do it.
Hai: If you have that inclination and you're writing yourself off because you’re LGBTQA, that’s not a reason. That is not a reason.
Matteo: Politics are not awesome at this time in history but laws are still standing at the moment. Take advantage of the laws while we have them. This is the thing, most of our friends don’t even have to think about the laws. For us, if we are going through adoption process, we have to be aware of what’s possible. And right now it’s still possible.