Two gay dads on the reality of starting a family through surrogacy

What’s it really like to ask a woman to carry your child? From conception to birth, Paul Morgan-Bentley reveals how he and his husband, Robin, welcomed Solly into their lives.

‘Stop!” shouted Rachel, lurching back onto the hospital bed and ripping the gas and air tube from her mouth. It was 9.50pm on the first day of the March lockdown and she was 10cm dilated and ready to push. Her husband, James, clutched her other hand and two midwives, now beneath her legs, looked up.

“Can someone please get my phone?” she asked between quick breaths. “We need a photo [breath] of the moment [breath] the guys meet [breath] their son.”

“The guys” were my husband, Robin, and me, perched on a windowsill at the side of the delivery room. Robin was holding a water bottle, which he had been told by the midwives to keep filling, to make sure Rachel could drink regularly, but also, we suspected, to make us feel involved. I had just returned from my third nervous wee in ten minutes.

James reached for the phone and in moments it was all captured: our son, Solly, born; me holding him for the first skin-to-skin contact; Robin holding him close while Solly sucked his thumb (we later realised he had taken this moment to poo black meconium all over Robin’s arm and jeans); Rachel and James cuddling the child that their family had helped to create for ours.

Like a growing number of gay men, couples with fertility problems and single parents, we have started a family through surrogacy. Official records suggest about 450 babies a year are now born through surrogacy in England and Wales – almost four times the number recorded a decade ago.

I am 35 and work at The Times as head of investigations. Robin is 33 and writes novels and oversees content strategy at Audible, Amazon’s audiobook company. In Britain, the law doesn’t allow surrogates to be paid. This means we couldn’t reward Rachel financially for carrying our son, but we covered her expenses, such as train tickets for medical appointments, loss of earnings if she had to miss work, emergency childcare, medication, maternity clothes and extra food in their weekly shop. Essentially, we had to ensure she wasn’t ever paying for us to have a baby.

Rachel and James were initially Solly’s legal parents, even though he was in our care from birth and neither of them is genetically related to him. There was a six-month process through the courts and social services for them to pass over their official rights to us as parents.

For the most part, we have been welcomed as a family with the same joy and excitement as everyone else. But a small and vocal group of activists accuse couples such as us of exploiting women such as Rachel. They compare us to commanders in Gilead, forcing our handmaids to give us their babies. After posting about our family on Twitter, we were accused of “erasing motherhood” and denying Solly his heritage. British surrogates such as Rachel are told that no rational woman could “give up” a baby.

The truth is that while Robin and I had discussed wanting to have children since we started dating seven years ago, we were initially against surrogacy. Wasn’t surrogacy something that rich celebrities did in America? Didn’t it cost hundreds of thousands of pounds? Didn’t it involve picking eggs from a catalogue of women based on crude categories such as academic achievements and eye colour? Then, three years ago, a friend told us that he and his husband were expecting twins through surrogacy. They had developed a close relationship with the woman who was carrying their children and were certain they would always remain friends.

We briefly looked into adoption, but also applied to join Surrogacy UK, a not-for-profit organisation that hosts social events and an internet forum for surrogates and “intended parents”, as the surrogacy community describes couples like us. Every article on adoption seemed to focus on the negative, but we lost ourselves listening to podcasts featuring surrogates talking about the joy of helping to create a family.

The first surrogacy social event we went to was in the summer of 2018 at a pub near Stroud. We walked in tentatively, expecting some kind of speed-dating event for wannabe parents and surrogates. It turned out this wasn’t some kind of matching event; it was a loud and lively community, like any other but with a bit more chat about sperm counts and uterine lining.

The following week we got the train to Macclesfield for an event in a park. I immediately had one of those moments that makes you want to jump off a cliff. “She’s only a month old! You look incredible!” I said to a new mum holding her baby. She looked like she wanted to punch me.

“Don’t waste your time chatting to me,” another woman said, pointing to her stomach. “This doesn’t work any more. Hysterectomy.”

Early in the process we learnt that there are two types of surrogacy: gestational and traditional. Gestational surrogacy involves two women, a man and expensive fertility treatment. The first woman’s egg is fertilised with the man’s sperm and the embryo is transferred to the surrogate. This means the surrogate is carrying a baby that is not genetically related to her. Creating embryos and transfer, if successful, cost about £15,000 ($28,000).

Traditional surrogacy involves artificial insemination (we learnt about this from drunk dads in pubs). This typically means an intended father masturbating into a pot in a locked toilet upstairs at the surrogate’s home while the surrogate and their partners share tea and biscuits downstairs. Then the surrogate goes upstairs and does what she needs to do with the pot and a syringe. When it works, it means the surrogate is also the baby’s genetic mother. Without IVF, it is much more affordable. In either case, surrogates’ expenses are usually about £10-15,000 ($19 – 28,000).

We decided to try gestational surrogacy because it made more sense to us that a gestational surrogate could be pregnant without feeling a maternal connection (although we have since made friends who are traditional surrogates and they say they see it as egg donation and feel no parental bond).

We signed up to a fertility clinic in London and an organisation that finds women who want to donate eggs. Crucially for us, the egg donation organisation didn’t have lists of donors to choose from. We were interviewed, our details were sent to potential donors and then we were chosen three months later by a woman who liked the sound of us. We were sent some non-identifying details about her, a passage she had written on why she wanted to help us and two pictures of her as a child. We could have said no, but we knew we would say yes before we read her profile.

This woman chose to remain anonymous, but it is Solly’s legal right to discover her details when he is 18 (and, if he agrees, we would love to meet her too and thank her in person). She was paid only expenses because egg donation must be altruistic, but we bought her a small inexpensive present and wrote her a card for when she went to the clinic for her procedure.

We ended up with six good-quality embryos, which were frozen. Four of the six that made it were created with Robin’s sperm and two with mine. (Robin was praised by the nurses for his sperm quality. “The best count and quality we’ve seen in ages.” He has cerebral palsy and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been praised for a physical exam. I feel so sporty!”)

After about six months of going to surrogacy events, we met Rachel and James at a pub near Matlock in Derbyshire. They were nervously chatting to each other by the bar and we went over to say hello. We spoke for most of the day. James, a 31-year-old butcher, told Robin he looked like Tom Hardy, which went down very well. We found ourselves going into detail about our fertility clinic visits, mimicking the awkward man with a clipboard who led us to the deposit rooms and describing the awful leather chaise longue and the picture of a female glamour model on the wall. “Not much use to us!”

We carried on going to events and then, a few months later, went back to one at the same pub in Derbyshire. Rachel, who is 30 and a teaching assistant, was there, this time with her sons, Charlie and Jack, then seven and five. Jack has autism and can feel anxious with new people, but saw me and inexplicably jumped up to give me a hug. Charlie was colouring and Robin got involved, helping him out and giving him drawing challenges.

A few weeks later, we heard that Rachel was keen to get to know us better. At Surrogacy UK, intended parents are not allowed to ask surrogates if they want to carry a child for them; it’s the surrogates who are in control. The message we received is known in the community as “The Call” and starts an official period of at least three months, during which time the surrogate and intended parents are encouraged to spend lots of time together.

You also receive paperwork outlining different awful decisions you might have to make during a surrogate pregnancy. Would you all want to abort if you were told the baby was so disabled he would have no quality of life? How do you feel about home birth? How often do you want to be in contact? The surrogate or intended parents can choose not to continue at any time.

We spent the next few months travelling up and down the M1 to Rachel’s home. We bonded over Chinese takeaways, true crime documentaries and country walks. They came to London and slept on sofas in our two-bed flat. We also went through the dreaded paperwork and were relieved that we agreed on every discussion point.

After the three months we had counselling, which the fertility clinics insist upon, although its usefulness is questionable given Rachel and James were asked why Robin and I couldn’t have children naturally. “They are both men,” James reminded the counsellor. And then in July 2019 our first frozen embryo was thawed and transferred to Rachel’s uterus, while her legs were in stirrups and she reached out behind her to hold both of our hands.

Robin and I were at a friend’s wedding in Cornwall five days after Rachel’s embryo transfer when she did the pregnancy test and sent us a video with the result. She was pregnant. We called her and all screamed in excitement down the phone like teenagers. In the weeks that followed, Rachel was exhausted and hungry a lot of the time, a combination of normal early-pregnancy symptoms and fertility drugs. We felt awful. We called and texted, probably driving her mad.

We also started to get our first glimpses of the variety of ways people respond to gay parents. At our three-month hospital scan, we were told one of us should hide on a bench and sneak in so others in the waiting room wouldn’t know they had let three of us in (these were the days before Covid stopped partners coming to appointments). The subterfuge didn’t stop us staring at the screen in amazement, experiencing a moment that, as gay men, we never imagined we would.

A week or so later I went to the pub with friends and told them our news. “So, who’s the daddy?” one asked. We had practised for this moment. “We are both the dads,” I replied. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “But who is the real dad?” And then another joined in. “Yeah, who won?” It started to grate. Who won? Really?

We knew – and Solly will always know – that he was created with Robin’s sperm. We simply asked the clinic to try with the embryo that was the highest quality so was most likely to implant. We chatted to other gay dads and they all said the same thing: it seems like a big deal until the baby is here and then it is irrelevant. We decided to tell people when they asked.

As Covid-19 began, Rachel hit her due date, and then kept going. We rented a cottage nearby and helped her with the school run and looking after her boys. We had the crib ready by our rented bed. The hospital, Chesterfield Royal, had made arrangements for me and Robin to be at the birth. But then, as Rachel went a week overdue, the management panicked about the pandemic and said we could no longer come. During lengthy discussions with the heads of midwifery, we argued that it was in our son’s best interests for us to care for him that first night. We reminded them that Rachel also felt strongly about this and wanted to be able to rest after labour and not be left to look after a baby she didn’t view as her own.

They spoke to Rachel and agreed that we could join once she was in established labour. We were lucky. Restrictions would prevent many fathers from being at births in the weeks that followed.

Rachel went nine days overdue, but it was relatively quick in the end – less than three hours after she got to hospital. The contractions were relentless. I remember thinking what she was doing for us was utterly inexplicable. I could just about get my head around her enduring morning sickness and exhaustion for us to have a family. But this much pain?

And then Solly was born. The hospital kept a room for me, Robin and Solly away from the main maternity ward and he slept well through that first night, but we stayed up watching him and manically putting our hands on his chest to make sure it was still rising and falling.

Robin and I are both Jewish. We named him Solly, a shortened version of Solomon, just because we like the name and its nod to our culture. His middle names are Bertie, after my great aunt Betty, and Ezra, which is Hebrew for “help”, to honour Rachel.

In the days after Solly’s birth we kept checking in to make sure Rachel was feeling OK and she insisted she was fine. We spent the first five days in the cottage before heading back to London. We still text each other throughout the week, send pictures, catch up on video calls and also found ways to meet up a couple of times during the summer in parks and back gardens. There is no question that we will remain close for the rest of our lives. They and their sons feel like family now.

We’re fine with people making comments – the chemist on the high street who calls me “mummy daddy” or the woman who tells me Solly has my mouth and Robin’s eyes – but we have found it impossible not to be sensitive to some people, particularly during medical appointments. NHS staff ask about Solly’s mother and struggle to understand that he has an egg donor and surrogate and then can’t work out which they want to know about.

As more people become parents through surrogacy every year, trained paediatric staff should be taught how surrogacy works. They should also be encouraged to treat fathers like proper parents, rather than as occasional babysitters. The law also needs to change. Rachel and James were Solly’s legal parents from birth, even though they didn’t want to be, and the court process to change this was surely a waste of public time and money (although a court official sent Solly a teddy when the parental order was granted, which was sweet). Surrogates and their partners having legal status as parents at birth doesn’t reflect the reality of the early lives of the babies they have carried and can leave them with parental responsibility for children who are not in their care.

We were never questioned about Solly’s legal status as our son during the first six months, despite him having the usual GP appointments and vaccinations. But had there been a medical emergency, we could have been barred from making decisions about his care and crucial time could have been lost trying to get consent from Rachel and James.

The Law Commission, the independent body that advises the government on reform in England and Wales, has proposed changes to ensure parents can have legal status from birth while maintaining surrogates’ rights to object to this in the very rare cases where this is needed. For this to happen, pre-conception safeguards would have to have been fulfilled, such as having independent legal advice, counselling and checks on health, criminal records and screening, which focus on the welfare of the child.

The surrogacy community also overwhelmingly favours surrogacy in Britain remaining altruistic, with no payments for carrying a baby, to protect the principle of surrogacy through friendship and to prevent coercion.

In developing countries surrogacy can be appalling, with husbands forcing wives to carry babies for money. Our experience of altruistic surrogacy in Britain has been joyous, but independent surrogacy arrangements without the involvement of an organisation such as Surrogacy UK also happen in Britain and can lack proper oversight. Legal changes are needed to ensure exploitation is never a possibility. With delays caused by Brexit and Covid-19, it will probably now take another two years until the changes to surrogacy law are implemented.

Now that we are Solly’s parents legally as well as in practice, have we really denied him his heritage? With both our names on his new parental order certificate as his two parents, have we erased motherhood? We believe that sex shouldn’t be relevant to how good a parent you are and hope Solly agrees when he’s older. Solly will always know he has two loving male parents and a wider family who adore him. He will also know that in a world that can often be rough, he exists because of the help we had from two extraordinary women.

Written by: Paul Morgan-Bentley
© The Times of London

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