While every LGBTQIA+ couples’ journey toward becoming parents is different in details, each begins the same: with love. Kendra and Kelli Wells Williams never thought they’d get pregnant on the first try with in vitro fertilization (IVF) but were excited and shocked when they did. “The first time I knew I was in love with my daughter was when I felt her inside of me because I had wanted her for so long,” Kendra shares. “And over the years it seemed like I may never meet her.”
Like all new parents, they felt wildly unprepared, but they found comfort in at least having nine months to get ready. At their 22-week checkup with the high-risk group at Rush Hospital in Chicago, Kendra’s doctor discovered that her cervix had begun to open, and she needed to have emergency surgery to put in a cervical cerclage (sutures or synthetic tape to reinforce the cervix during pregnancy) to keep her cervix closed until at least 36–37 weeks. After some panic, Kendra and Kelli felt a sigh of relief and carried on with their lives as usual.
Eleven days later, one Sunday morning while they were out shopping for maternity clothes, Kendra started to feel immense cramping. They immediately called their OBGYN. “She told us in no uncertain terms that if we wanted the baby to survive, that we needed to go directly to Rush,” Kendra recalls.
Once they arrived at the hospital, Kendra’s water had broken and she was hemorrhaging, and she needed multiple blood transfusions. She had to go under general anesthesia and have an emergency Caesarian birth—for which she was completely knocked out. Kaelyn was born at 24 weeks on May 15, 2011, weighing one pound, five ounces.
When Kendra woke up, Kaelyn had already been whisked away to the NICU. “It was quite emotional being wheeled into the NICU the evening after I gave birth,” Kendra adds. “I had never been in one before and there are tons of sounds. And there were so many incubators just kind of in this large space, and parents, guardians or visitors next to them. It was very overwhelming.”
With her wife unconscious and healing after the surgery, Kelli’s entire focus was on their new baby. She recalls “that heart-dropping moment when you realize your kid’s barely big enough to fit in the doctor's hand.”
Though initially terrified, the care they received from day one in the NICU helped ease them into their new reality. “The care that we got that night as parents who had never been exposed to anything like this, the doctor handheld us and walked us through what our daughter's life could be like at two in the morning,” Kelli adds. “She sat with us for over an hour, and that's when I believed that my kid could live and be okay.”
Kendra and Kelli couldn’t hold their new baby until nearly a week later. Kaelyn had already experienced a surgery by then—six days after she was born. Her lungs were underdeveloped, and she had many difficulties, including an intraventricular hemorrhage (bleeding inside or around the ventricles in the brain), which fortunately drained on its own.
“I'm a police officer, I've been in life threatening situations, I was in a house fire—nothing can compare to the fear of having a child in the NICU,” Kelli emphasizes.
The NICU is an undeniable scary place, but Kendra is thankful for her two primary nurses, who were part of the March of Dimes NICU Family Support® program, as she only felt comfortable leaving the hospital for a few hours each day because she knew Kaelyn was safe in their care.
After 17 long weeks in the NICU, Kaelyn was ready to go home. “It was probably one of the happiest days of my life to just finally be able to take her home, hold her without tubes and cords and someone being there to watch us—to just get her home to our quiet apartment, and it just be us as a family the way we always hoped that it would be,” Kendra says.
Kaelyn is 11 today, and she does face some challenges: she was diagnosed with ADHD when she was five; she’s gone through physical, developmental, occupational and speech therapy; and she suffers from sensory processing disorder and anxiety.
Being a same-sex couple, Kendra and Kelli have faced many challenges of their own. “There have been instances in our pregnancy where we were treated differently,” Kendra says. “Some by just regular people, not grasping the concept of two married women trying to start a family. A lot of assumptions that we were sisters—and that's why she was at appointments with me.”
On top of all that, they’ve experienced legal obstacles…”obstacles that heterosexual couples wouldn't experience, even if they weren't married,” Kendra adds. “For instance, Kelli could never sign off any documents in the hospital because technically Kaelyn wasn't legally her daughter.” While Kelli did legally adopt Kaelyn as planned, she couldn’t sign any hospital documents or give permission for any procedures until the adoption was finalized, as her name wasn’t on Kaelyn’s birth certificate.
In Illinois in 2011, civil unions weren’t yet legal (they wouldn’t be until a year later)—and gay marriage wouldn’t be legalized until 2014. “We've jumped through a lot of hoops to make sure our family is secured and safe, and that we can both act as parental figures for Kaelyn,” Kendra says.
But luckily, their experience at the hospital was overall positive. “From conception through delivery, through our time in the NICU, they included and accepted me without question from day one,” Kelli shares. “Having that acceptance was everything because that's the last thing I could have probably dealt with at that time, was them questioning my love for my kid or whether or not I should be able to make that decision,” she shares.
Kendra and Kelli are beyond grateful for the lifesaving surfactant therapy that Kaelyn was able to get, thanks to March for Dimes’ research. That’s why they continue to raise funds and take part in the March for Babies walks today.
While they’re unable to have any more babies of their own, in July 2021, Kendra and Kelli decided to grow their family by adopting their daughter, Layla—who went home with them when she was three days old. “Kaelyn was excited at the thought of having a sibling because she's wanted one for a long time,” Kendra shares. “And I've had to have conversations with her that always brings upon my mom guilt about why I can't just have another baby in my tummy. Having Layla in the family has helped her mature a little bit because she can see how much of a role model she is for Layla. Layla completely adores Kaelyn—to watch the magic of these two, it's been amazing.”
Together, let's ensure healthy pregnancies for all families, no matter who they are. As Kendra puts it: “Love is family, regardless of what that's composed of.”