Before Cypress was born, Liam and Duane spent months preparing a homecoming.
They wanted a bigger car with more room for a car seat so they bought a new Jeep the first week they learned Liam was pregnant. Then they put some of their furniture in a rented storage unit so they could clear space in their small two-bedroom home for Cypress’ crib. Still, Liam would wistfully scan real estate listings, wishing they could afford a larger house.
Money would be tight for their family. So Duane spent most nights on the couch studying for a nurse exam, which offered him a path to a promotion and a raise.
The plan was for Duane to take the test months before Cypress arrived. But the exam was scheduled for July 21 and by then, Liam was already in the hospital.
The day of the five-hour test, Duane left Liam in the hospital room, worried and running on little sleep — and he aced it, less than 24 hours before Cypress was born.
They’d done all they could to be ready but there was no way to know Cypress would be born eight weeks ahead of schedule. When the baby arrived, Liam and Duane didn’t even have a car seat yet.
Still, Liam and Duane are filled with hope.
They imagine a life for Cypress that begins with what Liam calls “a blank slate” — a way for their child to discover their gender identity without having to first overcome other people’s expectations.
‘We’ll see how things go’
Cypress will not be raised as a boy or a girl.
If no one knows Cypress’ birth sex, their child has freedom to be “their true self from the beginning,” Liam says.
Soon after Cypress arrived, though, Liam and Duane were handed a thick packet of paperwork for their child — and they were confronted with checking a box.
Male or female. Those were the only two options on Cypress’ birth certificate, the baby’s ID bracelet, Liam’s and Duane’s health insurance and almost every other necessary form.
Everywhere they looked — from the lobby gift shop selling blue and pink “It’s A Boy!” or “It’s A Girl!” balloons, to the NICU nursery where newborns are called “Baby Girl” or “Baby Boy” plus their last names — Liam and Duane saw their choice was one or the other.
They’d hoped to avoid this.
For Liam and Duane, the pinks and blues and the “boy” and “girl” gifts reinforce an assumption that gender is something you’re born with. These “gender markers,” as Liam calls them, set up an expectation that a person’s sex at birth will align with their gender identity later in life.
“And that’s not how the story always ends up,” he says.
He imagines how his own life might have been different without the burden of gender expectations and stereotypes.
“Not saying that how I was raised was wrong — but what if more parents gave their children that freedom and that opportunity,” he says. “Society’s always done things this way: ‘You have these parts, so you’re this.’ Or, ‘You have those parts, so you’re that.’
“So we’ll see how things go to do it this way … Our goal is to give Cypress options so that they aren’t placed in a box from the beginning. We don’t want there to be any negative attached to who they feel that they are.”
Instead of calling Cypress “she” or “he,” Liam and Duane use genderless pronouns: “they/them/theirs.”
At first, this confused a few friends who heard the plural pronoun and thought Liam birthed twins. Some still ask them about the baby’s “gender.”
“It’s natural for people to ask when they find out that you’re having a baby,” Liam says. “They want to know if it’s ‘a boy or girl.’ ”
But the words boy and girl refer to gender. And Liam and Duane believe gender identity is separate from birth sex. What people are really asking is whether the baby is male or female, Liam says.
His response: “We don’t think that revealing our child’s genitals — which is basically what you’re doing — is important.”
Only a few people closest to Liam and Duane know whether Cypress was born male or female. And to the outside world, it would be difficult to tell.
Liam and Duane wrote “N/A” for Cypress’ gender on the registration forms at their pediatrician. And Cypress’ baby clothes are mostly in gender-neutral colors, with a rotation of outfits typically sold as “girl” or “boy” clothes — like a Wonder Woman onesie or a shirt with cartoon monsters.
As Cypress grows up, they plan to buy both toy trucks and baby dolls. One day, Liam imagines, Cypress could say “I’m a girl” or “I’m a boy” or indicate in some other way which gender they feel they are. Even then, though, Liam and Duane say they believe gender identity can be fluid and Cypress may not always fall into one of the two broad categories.
For now, they’ve asked their friends and family who change diapers to not make assumptions about Cypress’ gender based on anatomy.
Duane’s mom, Kimberly Morlen, says she supports her son’s and son-in-law’s decision. She knows, though, it won’t be easy.
“When I look at them, I do not see a gay or transgender family,” she says. “I see a couple that loves each other and a child that is loved … I do worry about backlash. Not everyone will understand.”
Critics say raising children gender-neutral will confuse them and lead to bullying. Parents who choose this option, though, say de-emphasizing gender at an early age helps a child form a healthier self-image.
It’s also become increasingly easier for parents and other adults to officially identify themselves without sex or gender. In more than a dozen countries and in eight U.S. states (plus Washington, D.C., and New York City), individuals can select “X” (in place of “F” or “M”) on driver’s licenses, birth certificates and other paperwork.
But in North Carolina, Liam and Duane don’t have this option.
One day, Liam says, they may have to fight for Cypress’ gender identity to be respected at school or daycare or on their first ID card.
“We’ll definitely be there to defend them … and defend our family,” he says.
In the NICU, though, Liam and Duane haven’t raised the issue.
Liam says the outside world — with its pink and blue balloons — is as imposing as ever with gender stereotypes and expectations. And inside Nursery Room 7A, when he holds Cypress, he’s navigating it all in a new way, this time as a father.
4 pounds, 9.9 ounces
Liam tucks a string with colorful beads underneath the blue plastic gown all parents are required to wear in the NICU. The necklace carries a bead for each of Cypress’ milestones in the hospital:
The day Cypress came off the feeding tube.
The first breath time they breathed on their own.
And the first bottle Liam was able to feed his baby while holding them.
In early August, Cypress graduated from the hospital’s NICU to a progressive care nursery for babies who will be ready to go home soon. Here, parents are allowed to visit more often and the newborns sleep in open bassinets instead of incubators.
When Cypress turned a month old, Liam and Duane celebrated in the nursery. Next to a chart showing Cypress weighed 4 pounds and 9.9 ounces, they hung a rainbow tapestry over the baby’s bed that said, “A Dream Come True.”
The hospital says NICU babies must weigh at least 6 pounds before going home is an option.
By September, Duane has gone back to work but Liam stays for hours a day at the hospital. He and Duane haven’t asked the hospital staff to use the “they” pronoun, so Liam doesn’t correct anyone when they refer to Cypress just as they do the other babies — by a “he” or a “she.”
With so many different medical caregivers coming and going, Liam says, it wasn’t practical to enforce the use of a gender-neutral pronoun.
Even for him and Duane, it’s hard to consistently use the preferred pronouns.
“When we’re tired and worn out and not feeling well … For me, I know that gender-neutral pronouns kind of go out the window,” Liam says.
Being more careful to use only gender-neutral words, Liam says, will be more important later — when Cypress is old enough to understand.
At the baby’s two-month mark in the hospital, Liam and Duane get a phone call from Cypress’ doctor. They’re invited to stay overnight in a special NICU family room with Cypress. If it goes well, the doctor says they can take Cypress home the next morning.
‘No more hospital’
The hospital lobby is packed.
New families wait in line at the NICU sign-in counter. Fidgety siblings play in colorful chairs scattered across the first-floor atrium. And through the hospital’s three-story tall windows, Liam and Duane see a row of cars at the curb — families about to be reunited with their babies.
It’s September 22, 2018, 12:42 p.m.
Duane walks ahead of Liam and Cypress to pull the Jeep around.
Liam, with the help of a smiling hospital worker, pushes Cypress through the lobby in a train-themed cart. They make their way toward the exit past a chorus of “oohhs” and “awes” from strangers.
As a pair of sliding doors open, Cypress feels the rush of a breeze for the first time.
The baby scrunches their nose and looks around.
“Yeah,” Liam says adjusting the rainbow-colored knit hat on Cypress’ head.
“This is outside,” he says. “No more hospital.”
On the two-mile drive home, Duane stays below the speed limit and changes lanes to avoid a pothole in the road. When they reach the next red light, he and Liam look back — they’ve attached a small mirror to the backseat headrest so they can see a reflection of Cypress in the car seat.
Cypress is undisturbed, sitting quietly in the back even as the Jeep rolls over the bump in their driveway where the concrete meets the street.
“You’re home,” Liam says, as he opens the back door and reaches in for Cypress’ car seat.
‘Welcome to your crazy family’
Liam carries Cypress up the front steps and into their house.
Duane comes up behind them — two armfuls of baby gear from the hospital stacked in front of his body, almost over his head. He looks around for somewhere to put it all before dropping most of it on his and Liam’s bed.
In the living room, someone’s cell phone rings loudly.
The commotion miffs their cat, Biscuit, who paces curiously, meowing for attention.
Then Liam’s dad, Leon, appears from behind the washer and dryer, where the vent hose has detached from the wall.
He greets Liam and his new grandchild with “Where’s the duct tape,” and Cypress lets out a fussy noise.
Liam inhales and exhales deeply as he unbuckles the baby from the carseat.
He heads to the couch but hears Duane call out from the kitchen: “Is it time to make this bottle?”
Cypress’ eyes look heavy. “Not yet,” Liam answers.
But the baby cries louder.
“Go ahead,” Liam yells.
“Can’t hear you,” Duane shouts back as Liam’s dad’s phone rings over and over again.
Finally, Leon answers it. “Yeah, hold on,” he says.
He gestures toward Liam with the phone — “She’s right here,” he says.
Liam starts to roll his eyes but reluctantly takes the phone, says, “Can’t talk right now, mom — we’re a little busy,” then he hands the phone back to his dad. As the room settles down, Liam can hear Duane coming down the hall with the baby’s bottle.
Liam leans back on the couch as Cypress gets comfortable on his shoulder.
Patting the baby’s back, he whispers: “Welcome to your crazy family.”
Read “Us,” the Epilogue of #TeamPregnantDad.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Reporter Anna Douglas and videographer Diedra Laird spent more than a year chronicling the lives of Liam Johns and husband Duane Danielson through Liam’s pregnancy and the birth of their child.
Almost all of the conversations and details in #TeamPregnantDad were personally witnessed by Douglas or Laird. In story scenes containing flashbacks or details the journalists did not witness, the Observer has reconstructed that information following extensive interviews with Liam, Duane, their healthcare providers, friends and family.
Liam had previously been featured in 2016 in an Observer profile called “Becoming Liam,” which was published around the time North Carolina lawmakers passed HB2. The law (which was later repealed) restricted access to public restrooms for transgender people who had transitioned but had not changed the sex listed on their birth certificate.