DES MOINES -- Chad and Stacey Baker’s sprawling, complex saga of how their family came to be defies the sort of breezy summary that fits on the back of a Christmas card.
This year’s obvious highlight, the birth Aug. 10 of their second child, a daughter, merely hints at the deeper and more remarkable story.
When I first wrote about the West Des Moines couple two years ago, the series unwound across six chapters in the pages of The Register. We also produced a detailed video documentary.
At that point, the Bakers had clung to each other through eight years of heartache. In their struggle to start a family they fought through a series of six miscarriages, plus two bouts of cancer that left Chad on the brink of death.
But look at them now.
Look at him, Gavin. And her, Hadley.
These are their children. The Bakers’ precious, beautiful, healthy children.
Gavin is a gregarious 2-year-old. Like many tots his age, in a heartbeat he can pivot from sheer euphoria to screaming rage. But mostly he’s a charmer who loves nothing more than to stomp barefoot through the house — leaned forward, his jaws chomping away at the air — pretending he’s a fierce Tyrannosaurus rex. But don’t worry: His prey of choice is a giant bowl of berries.
Or he can be bribed with M&Ms.
“He feels things thoroughly,” Stacey said with a smile.
Then there’s little sister Hadley, the 4-month old. As her stout brother bounces around her, she came into this world at barely more than 5 pounds. At her two-week checkup, she ranked among the lowest 1 percent in weight and still tips the scale at just over 10 pounds.
“Little but mighty” is her nickname. She’s wiry and strong when you cradle her in your arms. The couple is desperately waiting for her to sleep through the night.
A few short Christmases ago, the Bakers didn’t allow themselves to imagine a heartwarming family scene at the holidays anything like this.
Fate had given them more than enough reason to flinch.
“It’s not like we walk around every day thinking, ‘Look at this miracle we live in.’” Stacey said.
Yet nearly every day, she added, her thoughts drift into a reverie of disbelief.
How did these children get here?
“It’s pretty amazing,” Stacey said, “all the connections that had to happen in order to bring these kids into the world.”
'Cancer and infertility — for years'
People often make that common flip remark to the Bakers: Ever wonder what you did with all your time before kids?
“I know what we did,” Stacey says. “We did a lot of great things. We had a lot of fun. We had a wonderful marriage and good friends and family.”
The Bakers love their children, but because of their empathy for all those who struggle with infertility, they’re adamant that giving birth to and rearing children does not automatically bestow a full — or purposeful — life.
That can be hard to remember at this time of year, when childlike wonder is the idealized view of Christmas.
The Bakers, both 42, grew up in small towns in northern Iowa: he in Sibley, she in Garner.
They married in 2004 and worked hard to develop rewarding careers. She now manages a floor full of nurses at Mercy Medical Center, and he’s an executive with a biofuels firm in Ames.
They suffered their first miscarriage in 2007, but their doctor reassured them that they were not alone.
As many as half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, often before a woman realizes she’s pregnant. About 10 percent to 15 percent of women who are aware they’re pregnant will miscarry.
But by 2010 the couple’s life descended into tragedy: They suffered their third miscarriage. Stacey’s father suddenly died. And Chad’s two rounds of testicular cancer threatened not only his ability to father children but his very life.
"There was a lot of depression," Stacey said two years ago. "All that was going on in our life was cancer and infertility — for years."
The Bakers at that time still doted on their 84-pound black Labrador, Daisy. She was like their first, shaggy child.
Daisy also was a key link in this unlikely chain: A woman who had been the Bakers’ dog-sitter, Summer Marnin, swooped into their lives in 2013 just after the couple had officially decided to end all attempts to start a family. She texted Stacey with an unsolicited offer: How old is too old to be a surrogate?
Marnin at that time was a single mom, 36, raising two teenage daughters. She hadn’t been pregnant in years. Yet she stepped forward to become the Bakers’ gestational carrier. She and her daughters had fallen in love with how the couple had persevered through setbacks and maintained their hope and humor. (To clarify: A surrogate mother's own egg is part of the pregnancy; the child is genetically hers. But a gestational carrier is implanted with another’s egg.)
Thus the extended family known as “Team Baker” began to take shape.
'You're a mom!'
On the eve of her in vitro fertilization, Marnin made the crucial decision to be implanted with two embryos rather than one. She became pregnant with twins. (An embryo is a fertilized egg — in this case a donor egg — in the first weeks of development.)
Marnin lived three hours away in Burlington, so the family stayed in touch through a digital umbilical cord. The Bakers recorded themselves reading books and emailed the audio files. Marnin suctioned ear buds to her expanding belly to help the babies learn to recognize their parents' voices.
But in the spring of 2014, Team Baker suffered its sixth overall miscarriage: the female twin had died inside Marnin’s womb.
"When the doctor came in and finally did tell us that we were having a boy, there was like this 30 seconds of smiling at each other," Stacey said. "But then the rest was just grief. And so what should have been the best day of our lives — we had been waiting for this for eight years — you know, a healthy baby boy. For eight years, we had been waiting for that. We came home, and we cried all night."
The joy finally was unleashed in August 2014, when Gavin was born in Burlington after a 12-hour labor.
"It for sure made it all worth it when I looked over to my right," Marnin said at the time, "and Stacey had him in the rocking chair and had her son in her arms. ... That was my favorite part."
Marnin kept repeating to Stacey: "You're a mom! You're a mom! You're a mom!"
"That may have been my favorite part, too," Stacey said.
Should they try to defy odds again?
A host of Iowans and other readers nationwide — whether they cared about infertility as an issue or simply were moved by the Bakers' story — followed along with The Des Moines Registers' coverage of Team Baker's quest to make a family. But eventually I wrapped the project and parted ways with the Bakers in 2014 just as they began their new life.
Stacey at night sometimes stared at the baby monitor, fretting over Gavin as he slept in his crib.
On top of the normal fears of first-time parents — Chad worrying that he might accidentally break Gavin's leg while changing a diaper — was a deeper, existential dread that still haunted the couple.
“I constantly had the feeling like he wasn’t supposed to be here,” Stacey said. “So he might get taken away at any moment.”
Further proof that everyday life never does quite play out like a miracle: In his first weeks, Gavin cried 10 hours a day, every day. He quit suddenly the week before he was scheduled to start daycare.
The Bakers still had a nagging question to wrestle with: What should they do with their sole remaining embryo? Because of the cancer, that frozen DNA represented Chad’s final chance to father a child.
“We already felt like we had defied the odds with Gavin,” Stacey said, “and that we were really pushing it to try and do this again.”
The Bakers didn’t want to discard the embryo stored at the clinic in Clive. They also couldn’t get comfortable with a donation. What if someday they met their child on the street without even realizing?
They approached Marnin to ask if she was interested in carrying their second child. She and her family — including her boyfriend whom she began dating during her pregnancy with Gavin — talked it over and ultimately declined.
The pregnancy with Gavin had been rough in the third trimester. She was pushing 40. Her girls were getting ready for college. She was taking on more responsibility working with her mom’s collection agency in Burlington.
“I felt bad,” Marnin said of saying no to a second Baker baby, “but I had to.”
Another chance connection
The Bakers were nearly ready to set up a perpetual trust to maintain the embryo in storage indefinitely. (Think about the sci-fi implications: Down the line, Gavin or another descendant could use the embryo to have a child.)
But the Bakers seem to have a knack for this. Which other couple receives two unsolicited offers in a row, from two different women, for something as deeply personal and momentous as giving birth to children?
It was during a routine haircut that Chad commiserated with his stylist about his and Stacey's agonizing decision over the last embryo.
That night, the stylist mentioned it to a friend over pedicures.
That friend was Tiffany Kiernan, who had long since resolved to become a gestational carrier for a couple should the circumstances ever arise.
She’s a nurse who lives in Urbandale with her husband, John, and their 6- and 2-year-old kids. She works at an eye clinic but had spent four years at Mid-Iowa Fertility in Clive where the Bakers sought treatment. She made her intent plain to John before they married: After giving birth to her own kids, if possible she wanted to help other couples have children.
So the Bakers and the Kiernans met for a 3 ½ hour coffee date. They essentially interviewed each other. They clicked.
Kiernan was looking, she said, for “somebody that was going to love and appreciate their kids as much as I do. And be a good parent. I didn’t want to have a baby for someone that wasn’t going to give the love that I would give to my own child.”
Team Baker expanded to include yet another family.
Marnin couldn't help but feel a little jealous. She pledged to the Bakers that she would be "Aunt Summer" for both their children. She also was a resource for Kiernan as the two commiserated on what it means to be a gestational carrier.
The nurse who had made this generous act a personal mission while working at the clinic now was back to become a patient.
“It was a little different to be on the other side of the table — to be on the table,” Kiernan said.
The Bakers knew that Kiernan would give birth with a cesarean section, as she had done with her own two children. That established a reassuring timetable.
The most difficult part of the pregnancy might have been John — a deft hand in the insurance business but not medicine — giving his wife 12 weeks' worth of daily progesterone injections in her rear.
“The only unexpected thing” about the entire pregnancy, John said, “was that Tiff went into labor.”
Three weeks ahead of schedule, the Kiernans sped to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. John, the Bakers and a gaggle of medical students all joined Kiernan in the delivery room.
When she heard Hadley's first cries, Kiernan said, she didn't feel any pang at giving up the baby. All she felt was fulfillment for the Bakers.
"It made me feel like I made the right decision," she said, "that everything was meant to be, and it was perfect."
From 'Joy' to 'Grace'
Here's another Team Baker mind-bender: Gavin and Hadley, although born two years apart, were conceived on the same day.
Hadley’s name was inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s assertive first wife, whom Stacey read about in the book “The Paris Wife.”
But Hadley also had been the chosen name for Gavin’s twin that was lost in Marnin’s miscarriage. Hadley Joy Baker. The Bakers struggled with whether to revive the name.
One day, Stacey’s mom, Mary Best, who now lives down the street from the Bakers, asked her daughter how she felt when she heard the name “Hadley.”
“I feel happy," Stacey said.
“Then that’s what you should name your daughter,” Best said.
But the middle name became “Grace." Stacey invokes the word continuously as advice to her nurses in how they should deal with patients.
A state of grace for now seems to have descended on Team Baker, an extended family intertwined through more than its two babies.
Sadly, Daisy died two years ago, when Gavin was still an infant. But the boy has fallen in love with Aunt Summer’s dog, Cabo, whenever the mutt comes to visit.
Marnin’s oldest daughter, Liana, 19, moved into the Bakers’ basement in July while she attends Des Moines Area Community College. She plans to become a teacher. Suddenly this cavernous suburban home that once echoed with disappointment is so full of family that there aren’t enough beds for guests.
The Bakers always have been somewhat private people. But they were coaxed into public view, then and now, because it might offer some guidance or moral support to others struggling with infertility or cancer. Stacey, who had to burn through her vacation time as substitute maternity leave, also continues to push for adoptive and foster parents to be granted the same family leave as birth moms.
But most of all, talking openly about their lives is what led them to find Marnin and Kiernan.
“We always say if we hadn’t talked about it, Hadley for sure wouldn’t be here,” Stacey said. “We would’ve never found Tiffany if we would’ve kept quiet.”
I asked the Bakers if at some point they will sit down with each kid and tell them the full story. But that was the wrong question.
Marnin’s photo hangs in Gavin’s bedroom. Kiernan is on Hadley’s wall.
There are photo books in their home that show the extended Team Baker family month by month.
Aunt Summer and Kiernan visit regularly.
For now, Cousin Liana lives in the basement.
Work is busy for both, but Chad and Stacey describe themselves with two words: happy and tired. Christmastime is fun this year.
Gavin, fascinated with Santa, has asked for a “choo-choo” (train) and “num nums” (candy and food).
Hadley will receive books and soft rattles.
And you already know what Chad and Stacey consider to be the best gifts possible.