Becoming Daddy and Papa
Thomas and Jonathan West share their story of hope, loss, and becoming the parents they were always meant to be.
“The best things in life are usually the hardest to accomplish,” says the statement flowing across Thomas and Jonathan West’s widely viewed Instagram reel. Their journey to becoming parents has embodied these words and although they are now fathers of four adopted children, the path has been riddled with obstacles.
The couple, who met in 2005 and were married in 2012, was bitten by the parenting bug after attending a friend’s wedding in 2013. “We had an amazing time. The atmosphere of family and tradition was so strong that we knew it was something we really wanted,” says Jonathan.
Starting a Family
The Wests, both in their early 30s, wasted no time. When they arrived back home in Monterey, California, where Thomas, a linguist for the U.S. Army, was stationed, they immediately sat down to figure out how to grow their family. After researching their options, they realized that having a surrogate was out of the question.
Jonathan says, “Surrogacy on a military budget seemed like it was astronomical in terms of cost. Even with the help of supportive organizations like Men Having Babies that could provide some assistance in the form of grants, it was still a very small portion of the overall cost which can be in the six-figure range.”
The couple decided to dive headfirst into the more affordable option of private adoption, which ranges from $30,000 to $60,000. “The first thing I did was contact agencies in our home state of Vermont because even though Thomas was in the military, your home state is still considered your home of record. Those local agencies referred us to a lawyer in California who they had worked with before and who had high reviews. Unfortunately, just as we came on board, he retired.”
The couple eventually found a network of lawyers and created their adoption portfolio, which the attorneys would utilize to send to potential birth families and expectant mothers. “This was essentially a package,” says Jonathan, “that included a brochure promoting us.” The pair also prepared for their home study, got background checks, and took the training courses each state requires on how to be successful as an adoptive parent.” The process took almost a year to complete.
During the lengthy preparation, their lawyers presented them with a candidate for adoption. A mom in Texas had taken interest in the couple, who were now stationed in Baltimore. “I have a vivid memory of Thomas—he was taking language classes in Washington and I rode the train down to meet him at Union Station so I could let him know we were going to have a girl. I remember the look of excitement on his face. We were over the moon.”
Although the Wests had used almost all of their savings in their quest to become parents, they forged ahead, spending nearly $20,000 on Texas legal fees. The adoption process was overwhelming, and compounding their anxiety was the fact that the Lone Star State was not an LGBTQ+ friendly environment, Jonathan says. “There was one judge in Austin that, if you got him on a good day, would listen to our case.”
Nonetheless, the couple prepared for the arrival of their new baby, who they named Emma. They got to work on her nursery and had her name painted on the wall.
Unbeknownst to them, a tragic story was unfolding. The baby was born premature, suffered from anencephaly—a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull—and died 45 minutes after birth. The Wests were grief-stricken. “That was completely devastating,” Jonathan reflected sadly. “Our first daughter was Emma. She will always be our first daughter.”
Emma’s death forced the couple to reassess their dream of becoming parents. “It made us pause and wonder, ‘Do we really want to continue?'” They decided their journey could not end like this—but there was more bad news on the horizon.
Another Adoption Attempt
They received a potential candidate from Tennessee, whom they accepted. However, one week before the baby was born, the birth mother decided she did not want to move forward with the adoption. “We had a second loss,” says Jonathan, “and that completely depleted us of all financial ability to become parents.”
A testament to their strength, the tenacious duo regrouped. “We stepped back again and asked ourselves, ‘What can we do? How can we make this work?'” Little did they know, they didn’t have to find the answers to their questions. Six months after the adoption fell through, the answers found them by way of an impromptu conversation about the foster care system with their Baltimore neighbors, who were also part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“They were parents of a beautiful little girl and recommended we look into fostering a child,” explains Jonathan. “I confided in them that we didn’t have the money to do it, but they said that’s not a problem because foster care is something where the state basically pays for everything. There wouldn’t be many out-of-pocket [expenses].”
The couple decided this was a definite “yes” for them. “We had to have everything redone—new home studies, new background checks, training from the city of Baltimore, home visits—all of that stuff.” Luckily, the process was shorter this time—just three or four months and once they were approved, the phone began ringing off the hook. “We started receiving phone calls on a daily basis to place children in our home. But, because we were so hurt by what we had gone through, we didn’t want to get into a situation where we thought that [a child] would come into our lives and then immediately disappear because they were going to go back with their family or something. We were very guarded and said ‘no’ a lot.”
After rejecting several offers from the state, the couple had another heart-to-heart and agreed that they had to take a chance and say “yes.” Since Thomas wasn’t allowed to take phone calls at work for security reasons, he told Jonathan that the next time he got a phone call he should accept the placement request. “A week later, we got a call [about] a baby girl, just four days old. I said yes and about 45 minutes later, she came to our home. They were like, ‘Here’s the baby and the bassinet, sign the papers.’ We had no preparation. We had no lead-up to it. It just sort of happened.” The newborn was appropriately named Grace.
Like any first-time parents, the Wests stumbled through those first few months, not quite knowing what to do. “I remember taking photos with her and just being like, ‘Are we holding her right?’ Of course, we overreacted [to] every little noise she was making. We also went to the store and bought all these things we thought we were going to need, like diaper and wipe warmers,” Jonathan recollected. “They were collecting dust in the nursery. All that stuff got donated.” Grace had the two men wrapped around her finger from the very second she came into their lives. They decided to pursue adoption.
The dads were exuding happiness and that energy quickly attracted a long-awaited blessing into their joyous orbit. Within six weeks after Grace arrived on their doorstep, they were presented with the opportunity to adopt another child. “A person from the city of Baltimore called and said, ‘We have a little girl who’s ready for adoption. Would you like to adopt her?’ That was the exact wording, really,” says Jonathan. “When we went to see Charlotte she was just four hours old.”
Their new daughter came home the day before Thomas’s birthday, and he told Jonathan that it was the best birthday present he had ever gotten. The adoption was finalized in record time. “Nine months is very fast in the world of adoptions. It sums up to parent involvement,” Jonathan says. “In most foster care scenarios, the objective is to reunify the child with a family member. Since Charlotte was given up at birth for adoption, no real attempts were made. It was a pretty clear-cut case.” Grace’s adoption was the opposite. There were numerous attempts to reunify with her birth family but the couple worked tirelessly to keep her with them. After almost two years, Grace officially became their daughter.
Living as a Non-Traditional Family
Daddy and Papa, as Jonathan and Thomas, respectively, were now affectionately called, would soon realize that their non-traditional family would be upsetting to some people. They were a gay couple, Charlotte was Black, and Grace was white.
They moved back to their home state of Vermont and while at a mall, a man walked up to them and asked, “Where did you get her from?” It was infuriating for the couple. “We know that we do live in the second whitest state in the union, but we try to keep Charlotte around Black culture. We do as much as we possibly can to provide her [with] as an authentic experience in life as possible. We emphasize how important her hair, skin, and identity are. We do things to make sure that she feels accepted and that we’re not depriving her of part of her culture.”
The couple decided to become more visible so that people could see them for the loving family they are, not just their sexuality or the race of their children. They increased the output of their social media posts and started a website called Daddy and Papa where they wrote about their children’s adoption stories and how much they loved family life. “We felt it was important that as white, homosexual parents with a Black daughter, we are out there as an example,” says Jonathan. “We have had so many people reach out to us and say, ‘I wish I could have what you have.’ If we changed one person’s life by being visible, by being present, then it is worth every obstacle we’ve had along the way.”
Grace and Charlotte are now 6-year-olds who are both sisters and best friends. “They enjoy just being silly together, playing pretend with their stuffed animals, or coming up with stories together. They are both members of Girl Scouts and enjoy [playing] soccer,” says Jonathan.
The foursome is now officially a family of six. They adopted 16-month-old Eleanor in September 2021 and their first son, a 9-month-old boy named Henry, in late 2022 via a privately arranged adoption through a former co-worker who adopted siblings from the birth mother in Atlanta. As for adopting more kids, Jonathan says, “We may think about it, but with three girls and one boy, we have a full house!”