You’ve seen veteran DC actor Jay Hardee die coughing on a chaise lounge as Camilla. You’ve seen Christopher Henley, the Artistic Director at WSC Avant Bard, tread the boards fully pillowed as fat Falstaff. But you probably haven’t seen them at home lately, where one of the more touching shows of recent DC theatre family-making is just entering act one.
Henley and Hardee — who in reality suffer neither consumption nor obesity — met in 2004 and married in 2010. This summer they took the next step together: with the help of a surrogate, they now have two beautiful eight-week-old children. We caught up on the phone recently to chat babies, parenthood, and how to slice and dice a life in theatre with a life raising the next generation.
We talk in the evening, after dinner, when things have quieted down a little on their end. Chris is end-of-day quiet; Jay is talkative on after-burners. Both seem hard-worked and happy.
“It’s tiring. It’s exciting. All the cliches,” Jay says. “What they tell you about not really being prepared for how your life changes? And, how much you can love someone? Those all prove to be very true. So even though it’s exhausting, it’s really satisfying.”
“It doesn’t hurt that I find poop hilarious,” he adds, and tells a quick story about their son defecating on the floor. Chris, who doesn’t respond with Jay’s level of laughter, sounds somewhat less amused.
The naked perpetrator: Aksel Wilson Henley-Hardee. He’s the older brother (by ten minutes) of his twin sister, Ivona Asher Henley-Hardee.
“The twins are half-siblings,” explains Jay. “So they have the same egg donor, but one is biologically Christopher, and one is biologically me.”
Jay and Chris started looking into the surrogacy process about two years ago. They had a very positive experience working with Silver Spring attorney Michele Zavos on setting their plans. “She’s a pioneer in LGBT family law around here, and she’s very well connected,” says Jay.
They first met with the doctor with whom they ended up working in November of 2010, right before their wedding. That meeting in New York was followed by a visit to the sperm bank.
“One of the most awkward experiences of my life,” laughs Jay. “When our kids ask us about where babies come from… well, we’ll see how that conversation goes.”
A screening for infectious diseases followed. Then six months later, another screening. “I’m delighted to say that neither of us have chlamydia.”
Through their doctor, who is based in California, they worked with an egg donation and surrogacy program in Orange County called Creative Conception. This was a gestational surrogacy, Jay explains, in which the surrogate carries an egg from a separate donor. “It’s an easier process finding an egg donor than a surrogate, obviously, but it’s still a little weird. It’s kind of like looking for a car on CarMax… You can search these databases of egg donors based on women’s heights, hair colors… We didn’t go too deep into that.”
Their chosen surrogate in California – who will remain anonymous for this article – has two children of her own, and works as an instructor in hypnobirth. This is a childbirth method, Jay explains, which uses hypnosis during pregnancy in order to release apprehensive energy and lessen physical stress during the birth. But though she teaches it, she hadn’t experienced it herself. So she decided to be a surrogate in order to experience first-hand the effects of her hypnobirth program.
“It was really attractive to us that she wasn’t doing it for money or some other, more mercenary reason,” says Chris. “Her very personal devotion to the experience of birth made her do a lot of things along the way to really take good care of our children.”
A little before Christmas, they learned that they were pregnant with twins on the first try. Then on July 21, Aksel and Ivona arrived. At a full 39 weeks, the kids were big for new-born twins: 6.5 and 7.5 pounds.
“I’m thinking less about theatre these days,” Chris muses. “And when I spend time with my family, I just feel less guilty than I used to.”
Jay has decided to take a few years off from acting. “Maybe I’ll direct a Fringe show next year or something. But I’m really enjoying being Mr. Mom right now. And I’ve been doing one project on top of another for a while, so it’s nice to be doing something so totally different.”
“After a few years I’ll probably be aching to have an artistic outlet again,” he adds. “But for the time being I’m cool with it. I’ll still be involved with the acting company at WSC, and I’ll do what I can to help out behind the scenes.”
“I’ve been getting out more than Jay has, for meetings,” says Chris. “I’m spending more time on the theatre side than Jay has, but not nearly as much as I used to. I’m probably not doing anything truly hands-on until next spring — I’m taking some time off from direct day-to-day involvement. And ironically, I’ll be able to go to more opening nights and friends’ events than I used to. It’s actually feeling like a decent time to see more theatre.”
“I don’t think I ever expected to be a dad,” Jay says. “I’ve always wanted kids. But the idea was challenging. Mostly because we love to travel. So, part of making the decision was feeling ready to give that up a little, or put it on hold. We definitely intend to travel with the kids, but it’ll be different.”
To help prep the kids for future globe-trotting, they’ve had the nursery painted with an international theme. Actor Joe Brack stopped by, picked up some paintbrushes, and created over a dozen murals across the nursery walls featuring far-off places: Oman, Argentina, Ethiopia, Japan, Australia, and beyond. Prayer flags line the ceiling. “We fully expect to raise our kids to be cosmopolitan people with a well-travelled perspective,” says Jay.
Sounds like things are going really well.
“Let me tell you, though, it can get pretty wild,” Chris chimes in. “Sometimes one goes off right when the other settles down. We’re trying to feed ourselves, and sometimes it’s like two bites and then back to work. But it’s rewarding. Even at your most exasperated moment, you have such deep affection for them.”
And what about others who might be considering doing something similar – any advice for them?
“I think that people just need to realize that it’s going to take a lot more time than they probably want it to,” says Jay. “First off, be sure to find a lawyer that you trust. That made things easier for us. And then, don’t be afraid to take a little more time than you think you might need to get the plan figured out. I promise it will save you some stress.”
Chris agrees. “Have patience, and really take the time to make explicit the understanding between all the bodies involved. The surrogate, the parents, the doctors. It’s worth it.”
“Definitely,” says Jay. “You’re going to find a surrogate match that’s perfect for you. You will. So, take the time to find it.”
And trust that you’ll make it through okay, right?
“Yeah. Obviously you’re never fully in store for it,” says Jay. “But since this was through a surrogate, and we weren’t physically connected to the pregnancy, all we could do was read books, take classes, do preparatory work… So of course we don’t know everything, but actually there’s been nothing coming out of left field.”
“I was pretty terrified,” Chris deadpans from the couch. “Just really afraid of being monstrously inadequate. And it’s not quite as terrifying as I expected.”
“He’s really good!” says Jay.
“Well. Nobody’s a teenager yet.”
You can follow the adventures of the Henley-Hardees on Facebook pages: Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee