A week before Memorial Day, a Philadelphia couple received a call from a young woman in North Carolina.
“They’re going to be inducing me now,” she said.
It was two days before Jermel Johnson and David “DJ” Jackson, Jr. expected to make the trip to see their first son being delivered via Caesarean section.
“We got in the car quick and hit the road,” Jackson said recently from the couple’s home in East Falls. He was sitting on the couch with Johnson next to him and their son between them playing with a plastic ball. “It’s not a short drive, obviously” — in fact, it takes about seven hours — “but we got there about a half-hour after he was born.”
As Johnson, 31, and Jackson, 32, looked at the newborn in the hospital, they decided to name him Jaden Dynishie Jackson. His middle name comes from Johnson’s grandfather.
“He was born healthy and so small,” Johnson said. “He was really tiny. He’s still tiny.”
He took a moment to adjust Jaden’s firefighter T-shirt before whispering to him, “You’re going to be tall, though.”
Johnson and Jackson finalized their adoption of Jaden at a ceremony in late October before Berks County Senior Judge Arthur E. Grimm, himself an adoptive father. A Baby Step, a Reading-based private agency, facilitated the adoption.
The couple celebrated with eight other families, including gay couples, straight couples, a single mother and a large Mennonite family. A lounge at the courthouse was decorated for National Adoption Month, which kicks off in November.
“Family is family to us and they really do come in a lot of shapes and sizes,” said Barbara B. Casey, director of A Baby Step and an adoption attorney.
She said Johnson and Jackson are devoted to each other and the idea of family.
“They’re just a great example of what a family can be,” Casey said. “They’re so kind and loving.”
“That makes a difference in a child’s life,” she added.
Johnson and Jackson had talked about wanting kids since their early days of dating. They met online in 2007 and soon Jackson, a paramedic and fire chief in Lancaster, made the trip to Philadelphia to meet Johnson, a dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
They had a small wedding last year, a month after it became legal in Pennsylvania, at a chapel in East Falls with a few family and close friends in attendance. It was right before a cruise to Bermuda they already had planned. Jackson took a job as an organ transplant coordinator for Gift of Life.
The couple bought a house together and brought three cats — Nala, Raja and Chloe — and two dogs — Bella and Tia, chocolate and yellow labs — into the family. They felt ready for the next step of raising a child.
“I wanted my life to be more than me,” Jackson said. “I wanted it to be about somebody else, about handing things down to somebody else.”
Johnson, the oldest of four siblings, said he spent his whole life taking care of kids and wanted to continue that with his own son.
One year ago, Johnson and Jackson started their research. It was around that time last October that Jackson’s sister gave birth to their nephew, Conner.
“We thought we could raise kids together and looked forward to family vacations and holidays,” Jackson said.
But, about a month after giving birth, Jackson’s sister, also a firefighter, went on-call to an emergency. She felt short of breath on the scene and died of pulmonary embolisms, a blockage in one of the arteries in the lungs, which is common in new mothers. The idea of starting a family became all the more important.
Johnson and Jackson initially thought they would use a surrogate. They had a friend who was willing to carry for the couple. It can cost $60,000 or more for surrogacy, but Jackson said they would’ve paid about $15,000 since they planned to work with a friend. Some unexpected medical problems prevented that arrangement, but the couple wasn’t deterred.
They went to an informational session for A Baby Step and began working with the agency in earnest in February. Adoption fees can run in the neighborhood of $30,000. Jackson said a federal tax credit reimburses nearly $14,000. The couple also worked with a financial counselor at A Baby Step.
Jaden came into their home three months later. His birth mother chose them as parents from a booklet they created to tell the story of their life together.
“Our style of adoption is very flexible,” Casey said. “Every party has their own support services and representation. Families and birth mothers both have a lot of say. It’s all about finding the right fit.”
A Baby Step focuses on placing U.S.-born babies, which was appealing to Johnson and Jackson.
“Not every country is open to same-sex parents,” Jackson said. “There are plenty of kids in our country that need homes.”
Johnson and Jackson have an open adoption with the birth mother.
Although he’s only 5 months old, Jaden has started showing off his personality. He’s a skilled mimic of his fathers’ noises and facial expressions. Jaden can say the word “dada” and loves to sing. He’s mastered clapping and is close to crawling.
Johnson and Jackson were pleased to see him sleep through the night starting at 3 months old. Jaden has a “Monsters, Inc.”-themed nursery because his parents are both big Disney fans.
“I love the morning, first thing, when he wakes up,” Johnson said. “Even if he is a little groggy, you say, ‘Good morning, handsome,’ and there’s always a smile. You sing to him and he’s just always happy and he starts the day off very excited.”
“On stage, when I perform, I feel like I’m free and flying and I transform,” he added. “On stage is one of the few times where I feel like that. But waking up with Jaden in the morning, it hits that level every single day.”
Johnson and Jackson are preparing to move to Lancaster by the summer so Jaden can grow up with his cousin, Conner. Ten years from now, they see themselves with a brother or sister for Jaden and attending the kids’ school functions.
“It was meant to be,” Jackson said. “Jaden was meant to be our child.”