B.J. Holt always wanted to be a dad. As he approached 40, with no life partner in sight, he felt a version of the ticking biological clock.
"The 'having the children thing' started to overwhelm the desire to have the relationship first," Holt says. "They sort of switched on me."
So Holt decided to go it alone. A few years ago, he used an egg donor and a surrogate to create a family of his own.
First came Christina, now 4, a strawberry-blond bundle of energy who loves to stage ballet performances in the living room of their New York City apartment.
Little brother Payson is 2, and dissolves into giggles when daddy swings him up to his shoulder for a bounce.
When Holt decided to have kids, he didn't know any other single dad by choice. But family and friends were ecstatic and supportive.
As for strangers, Holt has gotten used to their assumptions about his family. He laughs as he recalls driving through a toll booth on a recent weekend.
"There I was, in the car with my two kids in the backseat," he says, "and I was fumbling for the money. And [the woman in the tollbooth] said, 'Take your time, take your time. Daddy's without the mom today!' " Holt says he just smiled and drove on.
Holt is gay. Steve Majors, communications director for the same-sex advocacy group Family Equality Council, says many young gay men once believed living openly gay meant not having children.
"Either you were in a heterosexual relationship and having children, or you were gay," Majors says. "You couldn't have both."
But with the rise of same-sex marriage, gay men have pioneered the use of reproductive technology to have children. Majors says single gay men now email him or show up at parenting seminars, wanting to learn more about starting a family.
At the same time, gender roles for straight men are evolving. With more stay-at-home dads, and fathers generally spending more time caring for kids, advocates say men are realizing they don't necessarily need a wife to be a parent.
Brian Tessier recently started 411-4-DAD, a hotline for prospective single fathers. "I think we probably right now are up to about 30 calls a month," he says.
Tessier adopted two boys through foster care. He's gay, but he says half the calls he gets are from straight men. Many believe they can't legally adopt on their own, he says.
Tessier assures them that's not true, though they may well face stigma and suspicion.
"I think that it's a bias on the part of the agencies and the system itself that questions men's ability and their intentions of why they would want to be a single father," he says.
Tessier also sees lingering sexism in the workplace.
"If a mom is in a meeting and all of a sudden she gets called because her kid is sick, nobody raises an eyebrow," he says. "But if a guy gets called because his kid is sick and he has to leave, it's kind of like, 'Where's your wife?' "
'I Will Always Be There To Love Them'
The Williams Institute, a think-tank on same-sex issues at the University of California, Los Angeles, finds there were more than one million never-married men — both gay and straight — raising children in 2010.
Gary Gates, a demographer with the institute, says that's three times more than two decades ago. The census doesn't ask how many of those men are raising children alone versus with an unmarried partner, or if they are single fathers by choice, but adoption and surrogacy agencies say they are seeing more such dads — and not just in the U.S.
Avi Brecher, an Israeli, has traveled the globe to create a family. Speaking one evening via Skype, he was holding 3-month-old Ariel, born this spring to a surrogate in Minnesota. Daniel, 6, adopted from Guatemala, was at his side.
Brecher says his dream from his mid-20s was "to have a family with three children and a dog." He was married briefly, but it didn't work out. He'd still love to find a wife, he says, but as a pediatrician, he's confident he can raise his kids well on his own.
Still, he makes sure the children spend time with women, including his mother and a nurse who baby-sits them.
"If it's female friends of mine," Brecher says, "I let them hold Ariel so she can feel the touch of a female, which I believe is different from a male."
Back in New York, B.J. Holt keeps a photo of a smiling, pregnant woman on a table right by the front door. She's the surrogate who carried both of his kids. He calls her their "special friend," and she has already visited twice. Holt says he knows his kids will eventually have questions about their family.
"Even though I'm going to have a struggle of getting them to understand why we don't have a mommy in our picture, they will always know that I'm there to care for them," he says. "I will always be there to love them. And that's all that ultimately matters."
This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Peñaloza.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.