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Love, loss and family: Santa Rosa couple trying again after losing custody of baby they hoped to adopt
The Press Democrat - 9/22/2022
Sep. 22—The pictures dot their Santa Rosa home.
Matthew and Jason Benson on the beach with their baby boy. Jason's parents planting a kiss on the baby's chubby cheeks. The little boy, grinning bright, sitting in the bathtub.
In all of the photographs, the Bensons smile. Big, warm, love-filled smiles. They are happy. They are a family.
Matthew Benson, Sebastian, Jason Benson in Santa Rosa in February 2022. (Benson family photo)
But then the photos stop. The little boy, their son, feels forever eight months old.
The arc of Matthew and Jason's long and patient journey into parenthood just stops.
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There used to be more photos. They used to cover the refrigerator. But Matthew and Jason took many of them down.
But not all of them.
Like many parents, the story of Matthew and Jason Benson's journey to parenthood is one of patience and perseverance.
Unlike many parents, their story is also one of pain. And almost unfathomable loss.
But more than any of that, their story of parenthood is one of deep and unwavering love.
And it is a story that is not yet over.
Jason and Matthew Benson at Sebastian's birth in November, 2020 in Torrance. (Benson family photo)
'So, when are kids coming?'
Matthew, 32, and Jason, 35, of Santa Rosa have been together 12 years, married for seven.
From the earliest days of their relationship, they talked about having kids.
Matthew is a hairdresser, Jason a landscape architect. Jason describes them as "flatly middle class." Years ago they created a savings account to help them become parents.
Having children and raising them is expensive, as any parent knows. But for same sex couples, there are other costs — for adoption, for surrogacy, for in vitro fertilization.
All the while friends and family asked: When? It got so bad with Jason's parents, they made it a joke.
"They'd say, 'So, when are kids coming?' So we charged my parents like $20 every time they'd bring it up at a dinner party," Jason said.
By early 2020, the timing felt right. They found LifeLong Adoptions, a service based in Illinois that specializes in LGBTQ+ adoptions.
Part of the procedure was creating a profile so that expectant mothers could meet them online.
It felt almost like dating. They carefully curated photos (facilitators recommended no beach photos, no photos with alcohol). They put their best selves out there — "really selling it," Jason said.
The profile was just the start. The agency examined the couple's bank records, employment histories and took their fingerprints. There was a home visit. Even their nine-year-old Lab, Lady, and their 15-year-old cat Q-Bert underwent scrutiny.
"All of those rules are there for a very good reason, I get it," Jason said. "But here is my entire life for you to examine."
It was exhausting, and at times felt invasive, but the couple was excited to start a family.
The adoption agency told Matthew and Jason to be patient, it takes time to find the right match.
But then Kelsey Nourayi came into the picture. She was a 23-year-old college grad studying for her CPA exams. She was due in November 2020 and didn't plan to keep the baby.
Jason Benson, Sebastian, Kelsey Nourayi and Matthew Benson at Palos Verde cliffs, in the summer of 2021. (Benson family photo)
She was considering one or two other couples, but it was clear to her that Matthew and Jason were special. She reached out almost immediately after she saw their profile.
Kelsey lived in Southern California, about seven hours from Santa Rosa, so much of their early communication was by phone, text and videos.
Those early conversations were anxiety filled for Matthew and Jason. They wanted Kelsey to pick them but they also wanted her to know them.
Their hope was to have an open adoption where the child would not only know Kelsey, but to the extent they could all agree, be in her life.
Kelsey wanted that, too. She said later that something about Matthew and Jason moved her.
For one thing, Matthew and Jason have a dog and a cat. For some reason, that struck her.
"I thought it was unique and special," she said. "It told me that they were open-minded and not running the same course as everyone else, and I like that. The first conversation confirmed everything I judged from their profile."
All three felt like they were reading from the same page about their values, their potential relationship going forward, what would be best for the baby.
And Kelsey just liked them.
"I could tell we were very much aligned," she said. "They weren't always agreeable. I don't like people who always agree. It's fake. I really liked how they valued having me in their life and their son or daughter's life. I thought that was really special."
The quilt Kelsey Nourayi's mother gave Jason and Matthew Benson on the day they learned they could adopt Kelsey's unborn baby. (Benson family photo)
And she felt the kind of thing you don't learn from an online profile: "They were emotionally intelligent. They know how to treat people."
But Matthew and Jason were still nervous. Nothing was official.
When Kelsey was about six months along, Matthew and Jason went south to visit her and her family.
They hung out. They swam in the ocean.
At the end of the weekend, they had a picnic. Kelsey's mom and two sisters were there.
Kelsey told them what everyone already felt to be true: She had chosen Jason and Matthew to parent her child.
Kelsey's mom knew this would mean she would not get to be a traditional grandmother to this child. Still, she gave Matthew and Jason a quilt she had made.
A baby blanket.
Meeting Sebastian Elijah
Jason and Matthew Benson the day of Sebastian's birth in November, 2020, in Torrance. (Benson family photo)
The adoption agency urged Matthew and Jason not to move too fast. Don't set up a nursery. Don't buy too many baby items. Be patient.
Pregnant women can change their minds, they said. Things can happen.
"We really hesitated setting up a nursery," Matthew said. "We were warned not to do that. If it doesn't work out it can be really hard if you come home to it."
But they continued to communicate with Kelsey. Their connection was growing stronger.
In August 2020 Matthew and Jason hosted a baby shower for Kelsey in their Santa Rosa home. Friends came. Family came. It was a celebration.
"We were getting to know each other so well," Matthew said.
A cesarean section delivery was scheduled for the middle of November.
"It was wild. It was something I had been thinking about for years and years. All of a sudden there was a baby in my arms."
That medical decision was made independently of Matthew and Jason, but it certainly made it easier to make plans to be there when the baby came.
Jason Benson on the day of Sebastian's birth in November 2020 in Torrance. (Benson family photo)
The three conferred on names. There was talk of honoring Kelsey's Persian heritage. They floated and rejected name after name before landing one they all liked: Sebastian.
When Sebastian Elijah Benson was born, he spent his first moments with his mom. His grandmother was there. Matthew and Jason were in the room next door.
"After about an hour, we had a knock on the door," Matthew said. "They rolled Sebastian into our room. It was amazing and terrifying at the same time."
Jason held him first.
"It was wild. It was something I had been thinking about for years and years," he said. "All of a sudden there was a baby in my arms."
Matthew Benson the day of Sebastian's birth in November 2020 in Torrance. (Benson family photo)
The bond among all three parents was such that hospital staff had trouble keeping track of them. Were they in Kelsey's room? Or the Bensons'?
But they were often together. With Sebastian at the center of it all.
'Falling in love'
After bringing their son home to Santa Rosa, the early weeks were a sleepless blur.
Long nights, crazy schedules, learning some new little thing about their boy every day.
And there was COVID-19.
Matthew and Jason were strict about visitors. They tried their best to live within a safe bubble. And there was something precious about the alone time.
"It was us falling in love with our little family," Matthew said.
They were in near constant touch with Kelsey. Sending photos, offering updates.
"At that point, this is our child. Our birth experience solidified everything. It feels so perfect and so written in the stars."
Sometimes she would reply. Sometimes not. They never pressed.
"They were new parents, I was in postpartum. I had the postpartum blues," she said. "Sometimes you need some space to deal with your own things."
Matthew and Jason gave her that space.
She came north and spent a week with the new family. The Bensons wanted to show Kelsey how Sebastian was thriving. How they all were.
"At that point, this is our child," Matthew said. "Our birth experience solidified everything. It feels so perfect and so written in the stars."
After much discussion, Kelsey chose to be referred to as "aunt."
"Neither of us are going to be who she is," Matthew said. "We have plenty of room to love this child. He was going to know her as his birth mom, but she was going to be called 'Auntie.'"
The arrangement was unique. But it worked.
"I believe in transparency, being open," Kelsey said. "And they wanted a completely open adoption, a completely open nursery story about their life and not leave it up to the imagination."
Matthew and Jason were told to prepare for a six-month wait for the adoption to be finalized. But Kelsey had signed paperwork relinquishing her parental rights after 30 days.
She was that sure.
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'What are we going to do?'
It was Matthew who remembers getting the call.
"They said something had been filed," he said.
A man who believed he was Sebastian's biological father had filed paperwork to halt the adoption process.
"Your heart drops," Matthew said. "Oh my god, what is this? What are we going to do?"
Jason Benson and Sebastian in the summer of 2021. (Benson family photo)
From the beginning, Kelsey was clear: She did not know who the father of the baby was.
Her entire adult life, her ovulation cycles were not regular, and she was four-and-a-half months along before she learned she was pregnant.
"I had never gotten pregnant. I had never been in this situation," she said. "It was all very confusing."
When she learned she was expecting, she told two men they were potentially the father. She also told them of her plans to place the baby for adoption.
One man was supportive. The other had misgivings.
But she was clear: She had made up her mind.
"It was important to keep things as open and transparent as possible," she said.
Kelsey maintains that the man who eventually filed paperwork to stop the adoption kept in only sporadic contact with her after she told him she was pregnant.
But he was around.
"We were literally told, 'Your whole family doesn't have a path forward.'"
Matthew and Jason had communicated with him. They say that in all of that time — Kelsey's pregnancy, the birth, Sebastian's young life — the man never made his intentions clear.
His uneasiness about adoption in general was known to them. But to Matthew and Jason, that was far different from him wanting to raise the baby.
Kelsey, Matthew and Jason are not identifying the man because of the fragile nature of the relationship and because of their commitment to Sebastian's bond with his entire family, including his biological father.
Kelsey recalled hearing from the birth father around Halloween 2020, asking if the baby had been born.
Then nothing until the man's mother contacted Kelsey's parents in December. But Kelsey and the Bensons understood these to be just general inquiries, not legal maneuvers.
"There is a system in place for communication," Jason said. "That's the part that went sideways."
That call Matthew took in late February or early March of 2021 changed everything.
The man wanted a paternity test.
The Bensons agreed. They even paid for it.
The results confirmed he was the biological father.
As such, he was contesting the adoption.
Sebastian was nearly four months old.
Team Seb takes shape
It was the spring of 2021. COVID-19 was still in full force, so all of the legal machinations were video hearings over Zoom.
"We started the court stuff and we are all filing documents," Matthew said. "This person is filing that their rights should not be terminated. We are being assured that everything will be fine. But it's terrifying. I don't think we slept for months."
Through it all, they kept raising their son. Keeping Sebastian happy and healthy and away from the worry that consumed them was their top priority.
The court ruled the first week of June 2021.
The biological's father's rights were upheld. The adoption that had been proceeding so smoothly for so many months was suddenly over.
Sebastian was six months old.
"We were literally told, 'Your whole family doesn't have a path forward,'" Matthew said.
The court ruling made it clear that the adoption could not proceed. But what was decidedly unclear was who would raise Sebastian.
The court gave no direction.
Both Matthew and Jason pointed to key chains that they, and Kelsey, carried. On the front is a picture of baby Sebastian, big grin, looking over his shoulder, sitting in the bathtub.
On the back, an inscription: Team Seb.
All three agreed that every move they made would be for the benefit of this boy.
But the shock sent Matthew and Jason careening from one end of the emotional spectrum one day, to the far end the next.
One day it was, "We'll fight." The next, it was, "No, it will hurt our son to make this a drawn-out legal battle."
They could seek temporary guardianship, but they were warned it could be overturned months, even years down the road. They did not want that for Sebastian.
But this was their son. How could they possibly let him go?
"We can't be his parents and then when he's 3 say, 'Never mind,'" Jason said. "How does a child deal with that? I can't even deal with it. Have his whole world destroyed?
Jason Benson, Sebastian, Kelsey Nourayi and Matthew Benson on vacation in Mammoth in December 2021. (Benson family photo)
"What's best for Sebastian isn't necessarily what's best for us," he said. "He's completely innocent in this."
So, they made a heart-wrenching decision.
They would not fight any longer.
Sebastian would live in Southern California with Kelsey. Kelsey and the biological father would share parental rights, but Kelsey would be the primary caregiver.
Schedules, agreements, co-parenting — it all would be worked out.
"We knew what kind of person she was," Jason said. "She would be loving and kind and would provide the kind of care that Sebastian deserves."
Kelsey, who a year earlier knew she loved her unborn child, but felt unready to parent him the way she felt he deserved, knew in her core that she could do this.
It wasn't what she had planned, but she was fully capable.
"I think I have grown into this role," she said.
Matthew and Jason paid for a social worker to guide the transition, to keep Sebastian's needs at the fore of everything all three parties — the Bensons, Kelsey, the biological father — did.
"She was the guiding light," Matthew said.
The advice from every corner was the same: Take it slow. Make the transition a blurring of the lines for the child, not an abrupt traumatic change.
So, Matthew and Jason, after already enduring the unthinkable, endured the unthinkable again.
They brought the biological father into their home and into their lives so they could show him how to parent Sebastian.
"Here's his schedule, here's what he's eating," Jason recalled. "He loves blueberries, but he hates avocado."
"We did that for a month-and-a-half," he said.
On each visit, Matthew and Jason would spend less and less time with their son. They were easing out of their roles and easing the biological father into his.
And then it was time.
Kelsey Nourayi, Jason and Matthew Benson and Sebastian at Palos Verde cliffs in the summer of 2021. (Benson family photo)
In late July 2021, Jason's parents hosted a big family dinner at their Pleasant Hill home.
After dinner, after Sebastian played and cuddled and was loved on, Matthew and Jason loaded him into their packed Honda Element and pulled away.
They would drive all night to Kelsey's home, so Sebastian could sleep the whole way.
"My family stood on the sidewalk and sobbed as we drove away with their grandson and nephew," Jason said.
Sebastian was nearly eight months old.
"If you are selfish in any way in this situation, the child loses out. It's crazy how selfless they were."
Despite her growing confidence as a mother, Kelsey was devastated for Matthew and Jason, who she now considered family.
"I hated the fact that they had to do that," she said. "You know what is going through their minds, how traumatized they are. But they are doing this for Sebastian."
"If you are selfish in any way in this situation, the child loses out," she said. "It's crazy how selfless they were."
In the face of a devastating turnaround, everyone had to believe in the trust they had established with one another.
"She trusted us to be the parents of her child, so we needed to trust her to be the parent of our child," Matthew said.
'We were done as parents'
In Southern California, the weekend Matthew and Jason dropped off Sebastian, Kelsey hired a photographer. They took pictures on the beach. They ate meals. They loved on their boy.
"And then we left," Jason said. "We were done as parents."
They drove eight hours north to Santa Rosa from Torrance.
Without a baby who needed the baby things, they gave most of them away — rocking chairs, furniture, blankets.
They had given still more to Kelsey. These things were Sebastian's after all — toys, clothing, stuffed animals.
They closed the door to Sebastian's room.
This was their family home. But where was their family?
They listed their home on Airbnb and left. Long weekends. Work weekends. Time away. They checked out to the extent they could.
"We came to resent our home honestly," Matthew said. "Being at home, what am I supposed to do with myself? Your life revolves around your child, and your child isn't there."
"We were parents who didn't have a child to parent anymore."
They left, but they couldn't escape.
Well-meaning acquaintances and colleagues who hadn't heard, smiled and asked after their son.
What could they say?
"We were parents who didn't have a child to parent anymore," Matthew said.
'We missed each other'
In Matthew's memory, it took about six months for any of the sadness to lift. In reality, it really never has.
When Kelsey took custody of Sebastian, there were no promises about what their relationship would look like.
There was no road map for a relationship like theirs.
"We didn't want our presence to make it hard for anybody, but she needed us and we needed her," Matthew said.
And a love had been built. A bond so unique, so complicated and so deep.
"We missed each other," Kelsey said. "I loved going up there and having a three-parent household. I love spending time with them, having adventures with them. I loved showing them around Torrance and Palos Verdes, just being together and living life."
An unconventional relationship
They met up for a family vacation in Hawaii.
They showed Sebastian the snow in Mammoth in December. Extended family came.
They decided Matthew would be Baba and Jason would be Papa.
"It's a lovely, unconventional relationship. She wanted to make us a part of her family."
They traded videos like they did in Sebastian's earliest days. But now it was Kelsey sending them to Matthew and Jason, not the other way around.
Kelsey Nourayi and Sebastian at Palos Verde cliffs, in the summer of 2021. (Benson family photo)
Kelsey keeps Matthew and Jason's families — aunts, uncles and grandparents — involved, understanding that they, too, suffered a loss.
"It's a lovely, unconventional relationship," Jason said. "She wanted to make us a part of her family."
Slowly, Matthew and Jason started talking kids again.
The adoption facilitator they worked with in 2020 offered to repost their profile free of charge.
It wasn't an insignificant offer, considering the cost of their services.
But there was risk. There was a chance, however slim, that they'd be heartbroken again.
"What happened to us is not that common," Matthew said. "But it is always a possibility."
They talked about surrogacy, too, but the cost felt prohibitive.
Paying an egg donor, pay for fertilization, paying a woman to carry the baby, paying for all of the testing, monitoring and care. It's a lot, they said.
Women in their life, women who loved them, offered to donate eggs. They wanted to help Matthew and Jason become dads again.
But perhaps most crucially, Matthew and Jason felt they had already started a family — at least in part — with Kelsey and Sebastian.
And all along, Kelsey had been asking them: What are we going to do? How are we going to make you parents?
But life felt very fragile. Kelsey was in the early days of raising Sebastian and navigating the new relationship with his biological dad.
And she was working full time and studying for her CPA exams. Her plate was full.
But the biological tug was strong. Matthew and Jason really wanted a sibling for Sebastian.
And they knew Kelsey was rooting for them.
"She really wanted to be a part of it," Jason said. "She was on our team."
So, in one of their regular talks, they just put it out there.
"We think surrogacy might be the way to go," Jason said. "We said, 'When things calm down, would you be willing to donate an egg?'"
Her answer was swift. And definitive.
"She said, 'Well why can't I carry it?'" Jason said. "That was her immediate response."
Matthew, who describes himself as someone who thinks through the worst-case scenarios so as not to be shocked by anything, said the couple kept coming up with reasons not to have Kelsey do this. It seemed like so much. Too much was at stake.
"She kind of shot down all of our arguments," Jason said. "She said, 'We are doing fine and this is something I can do for two people I really love.'"
For Kelsey, what seemed for some like a complicated proposition, was actually very simple.
"Why don't we just have a baby and keep everyone out of this?" she said.
"I want to have your baby. I want to be the one to help you out with this, and plus, I can't imagine you guys spending tens of thousands to pay a surrogate."
She wanted to start immediately.
But Matthew and Jason wanted to make sure Kelsey and Sebastian were settled into their new lives. It was a priority.
"As traumatic and wild as our journey has been, whatever damage we had, was worth it to see how happy (Sebastian) is and how much he's thriving."
They wanted Kelsey to pass all of her CPA exams before they started.
So she did.
"She's a very driven young woman," Matthew said. "The more people tell her she can't, the more she will."
For Kelsey, there wasn't any question this was the right thing. For her. For Sebastian. For Matthew and Jason.
"I know it wasn't my fault. I know whatever happened wasn't anyone's fault," she said.
"But I feel something was taken away from me by having the adoption overturned. That was something I chose and I wanted to do and in the end, I wasn't able to do that. I really wanted them to be parents. I'm serious."
So, since January, they have been trying to get Kelsey pregnant via artificial insemination.
They are tracking Kelsey's body temperature and monitoring her naturally temperamental ovulation cycles.
But it's been slow going. They live hundreds of miles apart. The travel, each month, has been difficult. And expensive.
So, they are trying to find a surrogacy clinic that will accept their unique case. A clinic that will understand their bond with Kelsey and not shy away from any perceived legal entanglement this unique family might present.
And they already have legal documents drawn up and signed. This deal is set.
"We have been trying to find a fertility clinic that will work with us," Matthew said. "It's definitely not common, but it's been done."
This week, they feel like they have secured a clinic that will work with them. A clinic that will use their sperm — Matthew and Jason declined to say whose they are using — to impregnate Kelsey with a child for the Bensons and a sibling for Sebastian.
It's a lot.
But to them, it's everything.
Matthew's sister set up a GoFundMe account to help them defray the cost. Through all they have endured in the last two years, they have already spent down their parenting account and have gone deeper into their savings.
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They were unsure about asking for help at first. But so many people, from loved ones to acquaintances to clients, have offered to help. Now there is a way they can.
It's as if everyone in their lives, from Kelsey to near strangers, are trying to help them come through the heartbreak and emerge on the other side.
And when they get there, their hope is that Kelsey and Sebastian will be there, too.
"If anything, the bond between Kelsey and us has strengthened," Jason said.
To go through what they have gone through made them family. A modern, funky, nontraditional, deeply loving family.
"It was so intimate. All boundaries went out the window. We had to talk about the hardest things ever," Jason said.
"We all had to be, in varying degrees, parents to this baby. The fact that we get along and love each other? It's why we still want to be in their lives."
Jason Benson's parents, Jody and David, with Sebastian in Santa Rosa in spring 2021. (Benson family photo)
'This magical kid'
Telling their story has been difficult. It's poked at wounds that are barely healed.
But today, Matthew and Jason can look at pictures of baby Sebastian in their Santa Rosa home and feel the love that was there, not the sadness that followed.
He is everywhere.
The mural Jason painted is still on his bedroom wall. A giant stuffed lion sits on a shelf.
Photos — Sebastian in the bathtub, Sebastian squeezed between the kisses of his grandparents, Sebastian on the beach — dot their shelves and hang on their walls.
For a long while after Sebastian left their home, they struggled to look at pictures. Matthew described a huge swath of pictures on his phone he had to swiftly scroll past.
For so long it was too much.
"The whole world flipped upside down because so many people loved this child," Matthew said. "We all have to be OK with that."
"It's easy when you have lost something to try to find someone to blame. It's just not so black and white," he said.
But eventually, the pain ebbed just enough.
"I can finally look at them for what they were, this magical time with this magical kid," Jason said.
And to see Sebastian now? He's a happy, healthy boy rapidly approaching his second birthday. He's a boy learning language, looking at board books, and loving on his family.
His wild, unique, modern family
Today, Matthew and Jason are not awash in loss but in love.
"As traumatic and wild as our journey has been, whatever damage we had, was worth it to see how happy he is and how much he's thriving," Jason said.
"I wouldn't miss one minute with that kid. It was the happiest time. It was amazing being his dad."
When Jason, left, and Matthew Benson signed on to adopt Sebastian, a boy born in November 2020, they prepared their nursery and painted a mural above the crib, but their hopes were dashed when the biological father objected and the courts ended the adoption. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or email@example.com. On Twitter @benefield.
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