“Hayden rules the house,” said John Kerrigan, beaming.
Sitting in the living room of Kerrigan and Billy Wilkinson’s modest two-bedroom south Ausitn home on a sunny late February day, one immediately notices a few touchstones. A framed and signed photograph from their wedding ceremony hangs prominently on one wall and a vibration Graco baby carrier sits next to their well- worn leather couch, not far from the wide-screen television where they enjoy now-infrequent moments alone after their son, Hayden, has gone to sleep. Wilkinson is completely at ease holding their 4-month-old son in a comfy dark brown big leather chair. As he feeds Hayden formula and pats his back, he jokes that Hayden’s real name is “fuss-a-lot-a-puss” and both guys smile.
Hayden, chubby-cheeked and with a generous tuft of dark brown hair, was a healthy six pounds at birth. “He hasn’t missed many meals,” said Kerrigan, laughing. “He’s a big baby – about 16 pounds now. He’s so cute!”
Both guys are relaxed in blue jeans and button-down shirts – wearing matching wedding bands – as they discussed their improbable first meeting in Dallas , their beautiful and emotional wedding ceremony in front of family and friends, the shifting highs and lows of their amazing journey toward parenthood, achieving new professional goals and what the future holds for them.
Although they’re currently in the midst of selling their house to move to a larger, more family friendly one further south, the home has certainly received its share of love. Their backyard, formerly overrun with weeds, is now fully landscaped with local shrubs and jasmine and has a fire pit with a deck that juts out over the lushness of Bouldin Creek.
Throughout our time together, Hayden would wake up or doze off, make some typical baby noises and spit up on Wilkinson or Kerrigan’s shirt. “Fatherhood hazards include not being too attached to shirts,” Kerrigan said.
Making a Love Connection
Kerrigan and Wilkinson met at a mutual friend’s Christmas party in Dallas in 2001. Kerrigan was on a date with someone else and he initially thought that Wilkinson was straight. “He was not dressed like the typical Dallas gay man,” Kerrigan said. Everyone was playing pool and Wilkinson accidentally lifted his pool stick too high and broke a light. Despite the mistake, he was a good sport about it and laughed at himself that night. Kerrigan was off on a trip to California shortly thereafter, but he emailed Wilkinson when he returned – boasting that he could “kill him” in pool.
Their first date, in February of the following year, involved talking about their lives, goals and families over dollar-pitcher beer and several serious games of pool in Fort Worth.
“He had a gaggle of his friends with him,” Kerrigan said. “I had a bailout,” responded Wilkinson. Kerrigan’s father, a former military colonel who serves as a deacon in the Catholic church in Dallas , is very supportive of his relationship. His family moved around a lot as he grew up, living for varying lengths of time in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, El Paso, Hawaii and Germany. Kerrigan went to high school in Germany and studied marketing and business administration at Texas A&M University in College Station – a close-minded place he says has been labeled “closet station.” Wilkinson is from Abilene, a city he describes as very conservative despite the fact that three colleges dot that area of West Texas. After majoring in business with a con- centration in legal studies at Schreiner University, a small liberal arts school located in the Texas Hill Country northwest of San Antonio, he received his MBA from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
Although Kerrigan said that a few friends of his who were very Christian didn’t take his coming out well, overall he hasn’t experienced anything very negative living his life openly. After living in Dallas together for almost two years, the couple moved to Austin seven years ago and hasn’t looked back.
“Austin was definitely the best place for us, we just didn’t know it,” said Wilkinson. “We both loved Dallas, too, but it was just time for us to move. We still have some great friends and family there.”
“My parents live up in Dallas,” said Kerrigan, recalling the first time that Wilkinson met his mother. “She threatened me within an inch of my life,” Wilkinson said jokingly. “She took me aside and said, ‘you’d better take care of my son.’”
A Commitment to Tradition
“We have some really close friends and we have this annual tradition of getting together for dinner at our friend Pam’s house,” said Kerrigan. “Billy was saying a prayer before we ate and he said…”
“I said, ‘I’m very thankful to have all of our friends here with me to ask John if he wants to spend the rest of his life with me,’” Wilkinson said. “Everybody cried. It was a love fest.”
A framed, formal portrait of the couple from their wedding, with messages of good luck written by guests around their picture, hangs in the living room. The photo was taken five years ago at the Botanical Gardens in Leander. They were married on April 30, 2005.
“A day that will live in infamy!” said Wilkinson, prompting both of them to laugh.
Both men consider themselves traditionalists and shared expectations of a loving, committed bond based in friendship and mutual respect; they also both had the desire to raise children. Kerrigan recalled coming out to his parents, who are both Roman Catholic, and how they worried for their son’s future. “My mom said, ‘you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life,’” Kerrigan said. “I said, ‘no, I’m not.’ I just knew what I wanted in life and I think Billy did as well.”
“The ability to celebrate with friends and family was extremely important to us,” said Wilkinson, noting that they dated for three years before walking down the aisle. “Getting married was what we were going to do. No matter what the public theory was, this was how we were gonna celebrate it.”
Kerrigan, a self-described outspoken type, has always believed in living life openly and being true to himself. He describes their wedding as an eye-opening experience for their 200 guests, most of whom were straight friends, neighbors and colleagues: “It showed them that this is about love, just like my parents or anybody’s parents.”
Even so, the couple put their own imprint on the institution. Kerrigan’s nephew, Kevin Latreille, served as the ring bearer and the couple had persons of honor who testified to the strength of their relationship and pledged to be their support system. They processed down the side aisles and met at the altar. They lit a unity candle, which has two side candles representing each of them and a larger center candle representing them as a couple; their mothers lit the individual candles and then the four of them lit the big one by joining the flames of the individual candles.
“it was just such a great event, seeing how she loved John,” said Wilkinson, noting the beautiful natural surroundings at Angel Springs in Leander.
Their wedding shower in Dallas, which the couple agrees was an “all day mimosa and champagne fest,” took place at a friend’s house in March 2005. “We got a lot of kitchen stuff, which Billy hated,” said Kerrigan. “We went to Napa Valley for five days for our honeymoon. We were watching some awful movie, both of us really tired, and Billy just cried.”
Their friend Sarah Snailum sang Shania Twain’s “When you Kiss Me” for their first song; the tune starts off with: “This could be it, I think I’m in love/it’s love this time, it just seems to fit/I think I’m in love, this love is mine.”
After the first dance, they each danced with the other’s mother. They also made a faltering attempt at feeding each other slices of Chocolate heaven Cake, all of which is well-documented in their wedding album. In one engagement photograph that epitomizes their personalities, taken outside at Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin, Kerrigan is taking a business call on his cell phone while Wilkinson mimics him with a hand gesture and a very goofy look on his face.
Father Knows Best
Wilkinson and Kerrigan both knew that they wanted to have children before they turned 35. It was a goal they’d talked about on that first date years earlier in Fort Worth.
About two years ago, the couple began the process of researching what it would take to adopt a child. The logistics of being a same-sex couple meant that they had to go where the process took them – in their case, eventually to California. The Golden state allows both parents’ names to be on the birth certificate when same- sex couples adopt.
Overall, they described the experience as being relatively smooth. Their biggest obstacle was locating an agency that was willing to work with same-sex couples. Their first meeting with Karen Langsley, an attorney who specializes in helping couples build families, was in January of last year. After finding a licensed social worker who could complete the home study, filling out the required paperwork and going through the necessary back- ground checks – which includes the FBI – they had to take part in a home study, which detailed their life together, their financial backgrounds and what they could offer as parents. Then, it was a matter of waiting to be approved. Their home study was approved last May. Wilkinson and Kerrigan then set out to find an agency, which led them to one in Iowa. They were connected with Lil Snee at AdoptLink, an adoption facilitation agency that worked with the couple to create and submit their profile book to those birth mothers they wanted to be presented to. Having two advocates working on their behalf to find their match was a blessing. AdoptLink sent the couple emails of potential matches every week until they were matched with a birth mother from southern California who was a client of Adoptions Unlimited, the adoption agency that brought Hayden into their lives.
“There were four or five times we’d asked to be presented. We would not be matched and we’d be sad,” said Kerrigan. “But we always said, ‘our baby’s out there.’ We can’t connect until it’s right.”
The couple added that there are many ways to adopt and what worked for them may not work for everyone. “There are options here in Texas,” said Kerrigan. “It’s one of those sleeping, don’t ask don’t tell same-sex couple adoption states. We thought about doing surrogacy, too, but it’s astronomical in terms of cost.”
They were driving to Dallas on Friday of Labor Day weekend last year when they received a call that they were matched with Hayden’s mother. All summer long it was an emotional roller coaster, to put it mildly, because in the back of their minds they knew that the birth mother could (and might) change her mind about the adoption at any point.
Wilkinson and Kerrigan had their work cut out for them. They still needed to set up a nursery and prepare. A few good friends proposed throwing them a baby shower on Nov. 14, since the baby wasn’t due until Dec. 19. throughout the process, they kept hearing a range of different stories, including the heart-wrenching, awful ones that end with the birth mother changing her mind at the very last minute. Just before Halloween, they received a call that the mother was going to give birth in late November. The next call from the agency was that she would have a cesarean section and that they’d find out the date on Friday, Nov. 6.
“It was 4 p.m. on a Friday and we still had not heard anything,” Kerrigan said. “It rang and rang and they’re closed on Friday; we assumed we would find out Monday.”
On Monday, Nov. 9, they finally received the call that chubby- cheeked Hayden, 6 pounds and 19 inches long, was born the day before.
They booked a flight on JetBlue out to Long Beach – he was born at Pamona Valley Medical Center in California – and stayed at a residence inn in Ontario that was nearby. Kerrigan’s mother also flew in and stayed with them for five days to offer support and parenting expertise. For the next five days, for 14 hours per day, Wilkinson and Kerrigan received a crash course in what Wilkinson called Daddy 101.
Still, the journey had not reached its conclusion.
“At that point, Hayden was alone in the world. The person taking care of him is the nurse,” Wilkinson said. Their newborn son had been placed in the intensive care unit for two reasons: first, he had low blood sugar; second, when they first fed him by bottle, he threw it back up. So he was being fed intravenously.
“We get there and we had to wash down for three minutes. Put everything in a bag that might have a germ and scrub yourself. If you have bags you wrap them in a plastic bag,” said Wilkinson. “He was so beautiful. We sat there and saw him and just couldn’t believe it was true. I remember just seeing him in there and my heart dropped.”
Wilkinson had the opportunity to experience something every new parent goes through when he changed Hayden’s diaper for the first time. “He promptly peed in his incubator,” Wilkinson said, smiling at the memory.
Ruth Franck, their primary nurse at the hospital, sent them a heartfelt letter expressing how much they impacted her life. It’s something that clearly touched both of them. In part, she wrote:
“What you guys did for me was to show me how two people can love a little baby so unconditionally and so deeply. Hayden is without a doubt the luckiest little baby.”
“It was amazing because Hayden was actually the name of her (the birth mother’s) first son,” said Wilkinson.
What do they think about societal concerns around whether their son will have enough female influences in his life? For Wilkinson and Kerrigan, the most important thing is that their child is going to be loved.
“I don’t think not having his mom in his life is going to be a negative. My mom has said this, that kids need that compassionate and loving touch. When kids fall down, moms kiss their knees,” Kerrigan said. “I don’t know that it’s a woman’s influence so much as just caring and being emotionally involved.”
Having a son as a same-sex couple has brought with it a new sense of responsibility and a strong understanding of where we are as a society – and where we still need to be. “Everything I do is setting an example for my son,” said Wilkinson, noting that their first trip to register at Babies “R” Us on Brodie Lane brought a flood of mixed emotions for him, as he had always associated the store with straight couples. “I realize that I am now a role model. Everything I do affects his life. We’ve gotta make a better world for him.”
“Our interests now are in helping others build families,” Kerrigan said. “It was a journey . . .”
“One of the most rewarding and satisfying ones you can imagine,” said Wilkinson.
The Ties That Bind
“Hi buddy, what’re you doing?”
And just like that, Wilkinson throws on his daddy hat – truth be told, it’s never really off during our lengthy conversation – and takes Hayden into the other room to change his diaper.
“Now I can change a diaper in the dark and it’s no issue whatsoever,” Wilkinson said. “The very first time we tried to go anywhere we were 45 minutes late. That was a big adjustment. Hayden gets his bath between 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and he gets his bottle and goes down at 9 p.m. John and I talk to each other and we’re in bed by 10 p.m.”
Even so, the couple makes their newborn son a big part of their lives, bringing him out to dinners, to Human Rights Campaign events and to a Christmas party. Their nanny, who arrives at 8:45 a.m. and stays until about 5 p.m., has helped them a lot. Wilkinson and Kerrigan rotate who gets up in the middle of the night to feed him, describing it as quality father time.
Kerrigan has owned his own integrated advertising agency, C.A.K. + Associates, for the past five years. The company handles public relations, design, social media and marketing strategies for companies. Wilkinson’s background is as a small banks and credit unions sales consultant – teaching sales forces how to increase their deposits. Prior to starting his own company, BranchQuest, this past September, Wilkinson was the senior vice president for the consulting division of Banc View, overseeing compliance process improvement and training, which worked with 650 different banks and credit unions.
From the time they landed back in Austin up until January, Hayden went to the office with them. He slept so often that they were able to work and when he woke up they fed him. “It was great for us, while we were looking for our nanny,” Kerrigan said.
“We both have so many responsibilities and so Hayden is the main thing. I’ll come home earlier but be able to work after Hayden goes to bed. I think it’s been a pretty easy transition,” Kerrigan said. “There’s been late – the night thing, man, it’s been tough. Now we’re going to bed at 9:30 or 10 p.m.”
“New company, new family and we’re also selling our house,” Kerrigan, a self-described extrovert, said. “You’ve just gotta go through it.”
“We haven’t had a date night in a while,” Wilkinson said. “And I’m getting in trouble.”
With one baby here and a strong desire to expand their family and have more space, Wilkinson and Kerrigan are moving into a five-bedroom, three-bathroom, more affordable house in Meridien, just south of Circle C and still within Travis County.
“I never ever thought I’d be someone who would fight for equal rights. But now it’s one of my biggest passions and I really look forward to going to D.C. for the Human Rights Campaign meetings,” Kerrigan said, noting that he’s been a governor with HRC, helping to run the Austin chapter of the LGBT civil rights powerhouse, for the last three years. He has also served as chairperson of HRC’s annual gala held in March.
“My mom is from Mexico. I learned Spanish and English concurrently,” Kerrigan said. “Hayden calls me papi and Billy is dad.”
Wilkinson, whose father died when he was just 13, was raised by his mother from that point on. He explained that, unlike Kerrigan’s relationship with his mother, he doesn’t communicate as much with his mom. “We don’t tend to talk more than once a week or once every two weeks,” Wilkinson said. “One of the things that I know will be different for me as a father is that I will be in constant communication with him.”
Their relationship has gone through the usual ups and downs, according to Kerrigan, but through it all they’ve managed to become stronger and stay committed. Now that they’re beyond Daddy 101, what’s next?
“Happy hour has turned into bath hour,” Wilkinson said, grinning as he walked Hayden around the living room gently patting his back. “This is our life.”
“In the next few weeks we’ll start introducing solid foods: rice and cereal, which should keep him full longer and hopefully he’ll sleep through the night,” Kerrigan said, noting that he wants their second child to be a girl. “It’s the little things. Like people say, ‘oh, when you’re a grandfather.’ and you think, ‘oh my god, I will be!’ those little unexpected things like that are what’s been amazing. And totally worth everything that we went through.”