After devoting over a decade of his life to his family's business, Tom Garden realized something important: he was married to his work the entire time.
"I really loved it, but it was entirely all-consuming, and I didn't really have a lot of time for anything else," he told POPSUGAR. "Hence being married to the business."
But in 2013, this man from Minnesota stepped away from work and found himself single, in his 40s and with no children. At this point he started to doubt whether having kids would ever be an option for him, but when his cousin pointed out that he was the last male in the family, everything changed. "That was a pivotal, life-changing moment for me," he said. "I want to be a dad, and I certainty didn't want the family name to die out, although that wasn't the main reason — I just wanted to be a dad."
Tom's mom brought up the idea of in vitro fertilization, and although Tom couldn't imagine it being an option for a single man, he was eager to learn more. "I was too embarrassed to call so my mom made the call for me because it just seemed so awkward," he admitted.
The more Tom explored surrogacy and IVF, the more seriously he took the idea instead of completely relying on online dating. He found an egg donor in New York but quickly learned that wasn't the only major decision he'd have to make. "I didn't realize at the time that the egg donor doesn't carry the child, that you actually need another woman as the surrogate," he said. "I called a local surrogate agency who told me that they don't provide surrogates to single men of my age. It was really discouraging to learn that if you're a couple or if you have a partner, then your age doesn't matter to them but that they didn't feel comfortable with me because of my age and that I was a single, heterosexual guy without a spouse or partner."
Lucky for Tom, he found a willing surrogate and this mom-of-four became more than just a temporary fixture in his life. "I got to know Nicole very well, and although I never thought I could have such a connection with a surrogate from a very different background as myself, we just became very close," he said.
The realization that Tom was about to become a single dad hit when Nicole was seven months pregnant and she sent him a picture of her growing bump. "I was like 'Oh my god! That's my son in there," and I was petrified," Tom said. "I thought being in the Israeli army was scary, but that was nothing compared to my fear of being a single dad. I knew nothing about kids — I had never even held an infant."
From that moment on, Tom knew that his life was about to change forever, and fast. "It was easier for me to go into Lebanon with an M16 than to think about holding my infant son, that's how scared I was," he said. "I think a lot of guys feel that way, but usually they have a partner or a spouse that's there that they can lean on, but for me, I didn't have that, so I was really lucky to have such a great support system."
To help cope and transition to his new role as a father, Tom's mom suggested that he hire a doula to teach him everything that he didn't know about newborns. "I was thinking, what the hell is a doula? It sounded like a mixed drink or something," he said. Yet, he took his mom's advice and hired a Doula service to be with him around the clock during those first few months after baby Joseph was born.
"Nicole and my doulas really showed me how to do everything; they really built up my confidence and it was because of them that I was able to survive and take care of Joseph," he said. "I still call Nicole all of the time when I have questions, and I'm still learning — like I had no idea what a sippy cup was two months ago — and she's a very good friend that keeps giving me great advice."
But Nicole isn't providing Tom with parenting tips; hopefully in the very near future, she will be giving him a second child. After losing his father, and then both of Tom's sisters to cancer, he has a newfound desire to grow his family. "In less than two weeks, Nicole and I are going to attempt another transfer," he said. "I figure if I haven't met the right woman, I might as well keep going since I still have six viable embryos left… I'm just crossing my fingers that it works again."
However, not everyone is as supportive as Nicole and Tom's mom in his desire to expand his family on his own. "One family member couldn't understand why I couldn't have a baby the 'normal' way because there's still misconceptions and preconceived notions about IVF," Tom said. "Whether you think that surrogacy is 'normal' or not, it doesn't matter because it's a beautiful process. There's no greater joy for me than to bring a life into this world, to share in that life, and give love to a child. To me, that's the greatest gift; whether it's normal or not normal, I don't care."
Through the influx of comments about his decision to move forward without a partner, it wasn't the people questioning his journey that has been the hardest part. "One of the only frustrations that I have — and I bet any guy can say this whether he's single or not — is that whenever I go out to eat with Joseph and he needs to be changed, there are no changing tables in the men's bathrooms," he said. "I don't think society has caught up that there are dads out there who are going to change their kids' diapers and it's really hard because when your son has a blowout in the middle of the restaurant, you can't just change him where people are eating. I can't go into the women's bathroom because there are people in there, so I have to ask someone for help and it's really hard."
Tom knows that society will eventually catch up, but hopes that others don't wait to become single parents just because they're afraid. "If your dream or goal is to become a parent and you want to give love to a child, then go for it and don't be afraid or embarrassed like I was in the beginning," he said. "Life is too short, so just go for it and take that chance because it's such an amazing gift to have a child."