AKRON, Ohio — 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, Ohio.
“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. They spent 18 days in the NICU.
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.
A few years ago, the couple started researching adoption and surrogacy, interviewing agencies that could help them.
A mutual friend, Cathy Cherico, ended up connecting the couple with Farris, their future surrogate.
They jokingly call Cherico the “surrogate whisperer” because it's the second set of friends she would connect to start a family. 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.
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.
Farris told Cherico and friends she enjoyed being pregnant, but she and her husband Jeremiah Currier weren’t going to have more kids.
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.”
A 'soulmate connection'
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."
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.
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.
'Are you guys sitting down?'
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.
Once they found out they were pregnant, the first ultrasound was at six weeks.
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 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.
"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.”
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.
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. 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.
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.
Follow Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher on Twitter: @blinfisherABJ
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Surrogate welcomes rare identical triplets for Michigan dads