Kevin Atherton is an aerial strap artist who, for the last 20 years, with his twin brother, Andrew, has performed in thousands of shows across the U.S. and worldwide, including with Canada’s Cirque du Soleil. Atherton, who is the single father of Luca, aged two, talked with HuffPost Canada about his son’s surrogate birth, the two-household family pod he has created with his brother and his sister-in-law, Gasya, and how he hopes their nomadic lifestyle will open their children’s hearts to the world.
I always knew that I wanted to be a father — or if not always, then at least since my mid-twenties. But it was never something I thought I would actually be able to do. I’m a gay man, and back when I started to want a child seriously, I wasn’t even out of the closet yet.
Eventually, though, I did come out. And in the summer of 2005, I got married, and my partner and I discussed having kids as a couple. A few years later, I began the process of finding a surrogate. But it’s an incredibly long and complicated process, and there are no guarantees you’ll even get matched.
Still, it seemed like a perfect decision at the time. It seemed like the perfect marriage. Then it turned out that wasn’t the case. My marriage ended in 2014.
I was devastated. For a good year and a half, I was in a strange place. I didn’t even consider that the surrogacy process might continue. I couldn’t imagine it. But one day, when my brother and I were working in Las Vegas, the surrogate agency contacted me. They just said, “A possible surrogate match is coming to Las Vegas, and it would be great for you and your husband to meet them.” She didn’t know that we’d separated. So I said, “Well, let her come to watch our shows.” So she came to watch my brother and I working.
I fell in love with her, and I think she fell in love with me, too.
Watch: A surrogate opens up about what it’s like to carry another couple’s baby. Story continues below.
“I remember thinking, ‘How will I do this alone?’”
At that stage, I didn’t feel like I was in a position to consider moving forward. Especially as a single man. On a later visit, though, when she saw me with my niece, Kamali, and nephew, Kaysen, the way we were together, she said to me, “Kevin, if you ever want to do this, and you want to do it by yourself, then I would love to do it for you.”
Having a child is a huge decision for anyone, but as a single gay man, I remember thinking, “How will I do this alone? How will I simultaneously raise a child and work, to support a child on my own? Will I know what to do, when a newborn baby is placed in my arms?” I wasn’t ready yet.
My brother and his family and I moved away from Vegas in January of 2016 and went to New York City to do a show on Broadway, and it was during that time that it just occurred to me that if there was one thing that I would regret, more than anything else under the sun, it would be not having children.
So I just decided to jump in with both feet, and I contacted the surrogate again, and she said, “Let’s do this!”
My niece wanted him to be born on her birthday and our surrogate somehow made it happen
Our surrogate, whose name is Vanna, became pregnant while we were in New York, just as we were about to finish the show. My brother and I work very closely, so we decided, together, that we would take time off for the pregnancy. I wanted to be there, along the way for the whole process. No matter where I was, I would fly to Calgary, which is where she was based, to be at every single scan, every single appointment. By the time she was about seven months pregnant, Andrew, Gasya, their kids Kamali and Kaysen, both of my parents, as well as my current partner, Judah, had joined us in Calgary, and we stayed there as a family for two months.
Vanna went into labour on December 13th, which is my brother’s daughter’s birthday. Kamali wanted Luca, my son, to be born on the same day as her, and Vanna knew that. We were in the delivery room, and it was the 13th of December, and I could see Vanna watching the clock: it was 11:56 p.m.
It was obviously getting very close, and I could just see the determination on her face. She was like, “This has to happen, we only have four minutes.” And she actually did it. She gave birth in the next two minutes!
So Luca was born at 11:58 p.m., on December 13th, the same day as my brother’s daughter.
And Vanna — she just looked at me, and smiled. She just laid back and let the nurses take care of Luca. Then, they brought him straight to me. I never put him down. She didn’t hold him, she didn’t do anything with him: she just gave him to me, and it was so special. I stayed there with them both in that room for one night. And from that point on, she just let me take care of him.
In Canada, they use the term “gestational carrier” for the surrogate, which means she isn’t biologically related to the child. The laws vary from province to province. Luca was born in Calgary, Alberta, which is a very progressive province for surrogacy. Upon birth, I was his only legal guardian. He has three birth certificates — Canadian, American and UK — and only my name appears on them, as his father. The mother is listed as “unknown.”
Still, we keep in contact with Vanna. She’s a very special person to Luca and I, and our relationship is precious. She and her husband, Matt, came to visit us in Las Vegas when Luca was five months old. We communicate all of the time, and I regularly send her photographs of Luca. By the time she gave birth to Luca, I’d already known her for two years, so we’d developed a friendship. Luca was the fourth baby she’d carried for someone else, and she’s got two children of her own. She’s the most amazing woman.
It takes a village
Our family is a little bit unusual.
When I refer to “family,” I’m talking about a big unit. It’s myself, my twin brother, his wife, their two children, and my mother and father. We all raise the kids together, really. My parents are around quite often, but not all of the time.
Growing up, my brother and I always had a tight-knit family. Our parents taught us family was always the most important thing. That’s the same philosophy we have. We’ll never do anything that sacrifices family.
I don’t live with my brother, but we work closely together. When he and Gasya had their children, I was always around. So we support each other in the best way possible. We spend more time together than we do apart.
Normally, Luca sleeps in the same room as me. So I’ll wake up, and it’s all really pleasant: we’ll have breakfast together and chill for the morning. Now, I’m starting to homeschool him, so we’ll do a little bit of work, too. He knows the alphabet in both English and Russian, thanks to Gasya. He knows the days of the week, and the months of the year. Right now, we’re learning phonics. But mostly we just chat — about so many topics.
It’s funny, Judah often tells me that Luca and I look more like roommates together. I like that analogy. I hope it always stays that way. I swear, he just said to me, “Dad, I don’t like that tank top. Take it off and put a better one on. That one is not nice!” I thought to myself, Is he really only two years old?
After breakfast, my brother and I will go to the gym, so Gasya will look after Luca and their two kids. Afterwards we’ll all lunch as a family, and then I’ll go back to my apartment with Luca.
Luca’s very young, but he’s already developing his little personality. He’s smart, he asks questions, he’s cheeky, he’s witty. He’s very crazy. He’s fun to be around. When we all go training together — my brother, Gasya, and their two kids — everyone is trying to be disciplined, and Luca does everything he can to disrupt that. We’ll try to get him to focus, but he’s only two-and-a-half, and you can see in his eyes that his only objective for the whole training session is to derail it. It’s frustrating, but it’s hilarious to see — you’ll hear us yelling, over and over, “Luca! Luca! Luca, stop it!”
We aren’t working right now, because the show isn’t able to go on during the pandemic. So we’ll often take the kids to the park to do some group activities in the afternoon. Those moments are always very special, when we’re all together as a family.
We’ll come home, have dinner with them. We’ll relax. After that is chill time, when our kids are all playing together. They’re all very close. They act like siblings, because they spend so much time with each other. So we’ll relax as a family. And then when it’s bedtime, it’s always me who puts Luca to sleep.
Luca has never mistaken my brother for me, even though we’re identical twins. And I don’t know why. When he was born, from when he was one-day-old, I took 98 per cent of the responsibility for him. Maybe it was selfish, but it was important to me that I would do every single feed, every nap, and that he would sleep with me. So I think Luca — whether it’s the sense, or a smell, or just a feeling — he knew who his father was, always. Even when he couldn’t speak yet, you could see in his eyes that he knew.
As for Gasya, he doesn’t call her “Auntie.” He calls her “Gasya.” There was a time when he called her “Mama,” but he’s realizing what her role is, now. She’s the strongest female figure in his life. She plays a huge part in his care. He even questioned it before, which was a funny conversation to have with a child — explaining that they don’t have a mother like that. But I’ve never kept anything from him. So when we’re looking at photographs that his surrogate mother is in, he knows who she is.
I’ve explained to him that she helped me to have him, that she carried him in her belly for me. That’s the advice I was given from the psychologist at the beginning of the surrogacy process, when we went to the meetings. They said we need to be truthful because the questions will eventually come. So even though Gasya plays a big role in his life, he knows that she isn’t his mother.
How travelling with the circus has affected the family
Right now, we’re in Spain, because my parents live here. But we travel a lot for work. We’ve lived in New York, Las Vegas, Spain, Germany, Los Angeles, Latin America, and Montreal. But Luca wouldn’t know; he’s too young. They’ve all lived in so many different places — I guess they feel like they’ve got so many homes, which I think is great.
When Luca was eight months old, Cirque du Soleil called and asked us to help out on a show that was having a difficult time. It wasn’t planned, but we took the whole family with us, and we went on tour. We didn’t know whether it would be the ideal environment for a family, but it turned out to be the most special two or three months of our lives. The whole tour embraced the kids. It was like one big family. We were in Seattle for two months, and then San Francisco for two months, but the kids don’t talk about the cities; they just talk about the family.
On that tour, Luca got to be surrounded by all of these people from different backgrounds and cultures, speaking all different languages, doing so many things with their bodies. I think he was 10 months old when we went, so he learned to walk there. The whole tour got to witness him walking across the floor, for the first time, in the artistic tent.
We would do these children’s circus classes on Sunday mornings, where we’d round up all the kids who were on the tour and set up a little circus training camp for them. So you have the best people in the field, experts in their disciplines, teaching your kid what they do. I think it’s so important to expose a child to the arts at an early age, to open their eyes to the world. I can even see he’s already got a sense of rhythm now, when he’s dancing.
He got to see my act for the first time recently. I never thought he would while he was so young. But Gasya would bring him to the show just to watch, and he would be so exhausted, waiting for my brother and I to perform — our set was toward the end of the show — but he would just sit and wait to see his dad and uncle fly. And as soon as we were done, he would just drop off to sleep.
I would hope all this travelling will have a positive impact on the kids. We try not to hide things from them. So when we’re in places like San Francisco, for example, they see homeless people. They see the difficult things. I think it’s important for them to see different cultures, to understand society.
We’re moving to Mexico in a few months, and we’ll learn Spanish there. The kids will be around the people, the foods .... We only view it as a positive, that they’re travelling so much when they’re little. I’m sure there’ll come a time when they grow up and start wanting to put roots down. When it gets to that point, we’ll figure out if we should stop moving around so much.
I’ve learned a lot from fatherhood. But I think the main thing having Luca has done for me is totally shift my perspective on life. My priorities are all so different now. You’ve got this tiny little person who needs you, all of the time, and your focus has got to be there. The pace of life really slows down. You have to bring it down to their level. And it’s a good thing: You appreciate things more, you notice more in the world. Everything takes a backseat to Luca, because he’s the most important thing in the world to me.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
WATCH: A video of the family doing a living room performance: