Spencer and Joel - two dad story
Written by Spencer in 2019
Joel and I have been together for 19 years. We met in our late 20s, had a civil partnership as soon as that was possible and then got married 9yrs ago in 2010 when the law changed. Family is really important to me and I’ve always wanted children. In fact it was one of the first things I said to my mum when I came out. I told her “I’m gay, but I want to have a family at some point. I just don’t quite know how yet”.
When Joel and I met and got together we had conversations quite early on about having children one day but first we wanted to enjoy life as a couple, build our careers, travel and enjoy life. Then my sister had kids and they were a wonderful addition to our family. I loved spending time with them and I realised how much our families meant to us and how much I wanted children.
Joel and I started discussing things again. The conversations made it clear we really had absolutely no idea where to go and what to do. Obviously, we were going to need help, but where from? We started off talking to our families and they were really supportive and my sister offered to be our surrogate which was lovely but we decided against that, feeling it was too close to home.
We explored finding an egg donor from our friendship group but it wasn’t feasible for lots of reasons. It was clear we needed advice from someone who had actually done this before so we met up with a gay couple with kids and got their advice. They had been to the US and recommended that route. When they told us the price we were shell-shocked. It seemed completely impossible for us financially. We needed to pause and really think this through.
We then spoke to COTS (Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy) and a couple of clinics in the UK but it all felt very difficult and no one seemed positive about our chances. We wanted to stay in the UK for our treatment, but it didn’t seem feasible. After thinking long and hard we finally compromised. We had found a UK surrogate called Lisa who we liked and decided to find a US egg donor and have treatment at a US clinic that had lots of experience with gay dads. It would be expensive to fly Lisa over to the US but she was keen and we felt in very safe hands with the clinic. A straight couple we knew had needed surrogacy and chosen this clinic. They had had a good experience and so that also felt like a good recommendation. We were a bit torn. We wanted to keep the process closer to home and also the US route was prohibitively expensive, but we also wanted to move forward with the plan.
Choosing the US egg donor was difficult. It felt a bit like an Argos catalogue of choices which made us a bit uncomfortable. But we chose a really great woman who we connected with despite only ‘meeting’ her on paper in her profile. She explained her reasons for donation and they resonated well with us. Her uncle was gay and never had the chance to have children despite wanting to. She was into yoga and Buddhism and was clearly doing this for altruistic reasons. It’s hard to ‘know’ someone just from their words on a page, but we felt a connection to her and decided to trust that.
We went ahead and had embryos created separately with Joel’s sperm and my sperm, and the doctors were really happy with how they developed. All seemed to be going well. We could finally start to imagine that we might actually become parents at last.
When things were ready, we flew our surrogate Lisa over for treatment and then just had to wait. But it was a series of failures. We did 3 rounds of IVF and each time it didn’t work. The expense, the emotional strain, the disappointment and sadness, it was all so incredibly hard. The long journey up to then, despite being complicated and stressful, had been flavoured with excitement all the way. The hope and dream was that we would become dads at the end. After the third failure we were absolutely devastated. It felt like the end of the road for us financially and emotionally. We were in debt and added to our own sadness and loss we felt the immense sadness and loss of our families and friends who were all sharing this journey with us.
We had decided to be very open about our plans with our families, partly to get support and partly to make sure they were on board with our decisions. They were as invested in this as we were and each time we had to share bad news we had the weight of their grief added to our own.
Joel’s family had also always been a bit nervous of us going to the US. They felt that it was too far away and the generally commercial model wasn’t the best option. On their suggestion we had explored a UK agency initially and it was partly due to their concerns that we had gone for the mixed model of a UK surrogate but US treatment. None of it was working out and we were exhausted. Joel was on the verge of a breakdown from the stress and 2 years after we had started this plan we decided to shelve it for a year and try to get ourselves back together. We pressed pause.
We took stock, got ourselves back together emotionally and financially and just got on with our lives. Then after a year the clinic in San Diego contacted us to ask about storage plans for our last 5 embryos they had. The thought of our five embryos sitting in San Diego pulled our thoughts back to our desire to be parents.
This time we decided to make some changes. Firstly, we decided not to tell anyone about what we were doing. It was just too hard to contemplate letting them all down again. Secondly, we decided to find a US surrogate. It was hard to tell Lisa the new plan but she could understand our need to try a different route to see if that might work. The clinic was really pleased because it gave them more control over the process. We started looking for someone and that was a journey in itself. One surrogate we found and liked turned out to have a criminal record with three stints in prison for fraud. We were extremely glad we’d done those checks but it did make us more anxious. Finally we found what seemed like a perfect fit, a surrogate called Azure. We Skyped many times with Azure and it felt absolutely right.
We decided to go ahead with Azure as soon as we could. The clinic transferred one embryo created with my sperm and another created with Joel’s sperm and amazingly this time both took! Azure was pregnant with twins. We couldn’t believe it. Finally, the dream seemed like it might be coming true.
After all the miscarriages with Lisa we were very nervous for the first 3 months but this time the pregnancy held and once we got past the 12 week window we started to think this could be really happening. It was very hard being so far away from Azure and even with regular Skype sessions and a visit to San Diego during the early stages, we felt quite removed from the pregnancy which was hard.
Then we had another bump in the road. The doctors discovered at 23 weeks that there was an issue that meant Azure might spontaneously give birth unexpectedly at any moment. We had the agonising decision of whether to give permission at that stage of development to revive the babies if she did deliver so far ahead of term. That was a very low point for us. She was put on bed rest and amazingly she managed to hold on until the babies were 28 weeks and 6 days gestation before delivering. Azure called us moments before she was taken off for a crash-caesarean. It all happened so quickly, our boys were delivered just 30 minutes after that call. Azure’s husband Greg remained on the phone with us and reassured us that Azure was OK and that the babies seemed to be as well as they could be but had been taken immediately to intensive care.
We dropped everything and flew out to the US, arriving late at night, and went straight to see her. Once we’d made sure she was OK we went to see the boys. This was surreal. Because they were so premature they were both in incubators and we couldn’t touch them or hold them. We were dads at last. But it didn’t feel like it. This wasn’t how we’d expected things to go.
We were exhausted from the travel and the emotional turmoil and the first time we met them neither of us really felt a connection to the babies. We went to our hotel and had a horrible night full of worry and fear. Would they even survive? Would they be OK? Would we be OK? Those thoughts stayed with us for the first few days as the doctors and nurses did their best to look after our two tiny babies.
Once they were a little stronger they were moved to another hospital and that’s when things took another turn, this time positive. The boys were now strong enough to be touched and held. The nurses were wonderful. We got into a routine each day where we would hold the babies with skin to skin contact and that was amazing for us to feel really bonded with them. It felt so good to be that close, particularly as we’d felt so far away during the pregnancy. Looking back, those months in the hospital were a very important time in forming really close bonds with the boys. The nurses trained us in what we needed to know and we had no other distractions apart from getting to know our twins and building the foundations for our new family. Despite the uncertainty and the worry it was a very special time for us.
Three months later we finally all came home.
We knew that one of the babies was from my sperm and one was from Joel’s. It didn’t matter which was which because we knew we would love them and treat them exactly the same. Despite not knowing for sure it seemed pretty clear to us very early on which baby was from which side of the family. I formed a slightly closer bond with Jackson and Joel formed a slightly closer bond with Alexander and that was partly because we could see the family resemblances. When we got home the family also said it was pretty clear which twin came from which gene pool. Alexander’s personality and looks clearly matched Joel’s side of the family whereas Jackson’s personality and expressions were very much from my side. We didn’t want that to dictate how people felt about the boys and stressed that they were both equally part of our family and shouldn’t be differentiated in that way. We were glad we could hide behind ignorance (after all, we didn’t know for sure) and encouraged our families to accept both children equally, which they of course, did.
We settled into normal family life and started to feel like we were definitely on the up. But the process wasn’t quite done yet.
Despite being on the boys’ birth certificates, we needed to be granted legal parentage in the UK. This had to be done through the Family Court and as part of it we had to have a visit from CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) who wrote a report for the court. The process was slow and bureaucratic and was another stressful hurdle for us. It felt odd to be active parents, busy with the daily duties of family life, being assessed by CAFCASS who didn’t know us simply to get the legal recognition we needed.
When we finally got to court the judge insisted that it was important for the boys to know their genetic origins and that we had to do a DNA test to confirm parentage before he would proceed. We had really not wanted to know for sure (despite the fact that we knew) as we felt the ambiguity helped our families not to respond differently to the children. Under duress we agreed to the tests.
When the results came back we nearly fell off our seats. The results showed the opposite of what we’d expected, stating that Jackson was from Joel’s sperm and Alexander was from mine. We didn’t believe it. The lab had obviously got the swabs from the boys mixed up and we felt utterly let down by the supposed professionals. We wrote a stinking letter to the lab and demanded they do the test again. The result came back and the conclusion was exactly the same. We were in shock. The gentle child I was so sure was from Joel’s genes was from mine, and the feisty boy with the ginger hair was from Joel’s. How had we got it so wrong?
Once the information sunk in we were actually quite happy about it. It wasn’t going to change anything from our point of view. In some ways it was heart-warming to see that the close connection and bond we had each developed didn’t actually come from a genetic connection, but rather from something else, something deeper.
We didn’t tell our families at first, and when we did there was utter disbelief. We were a bit nervous of telling them because even in the short time since the boys were born there was a certain amount of investment in the genetic connection on each side. But Joel and I discussed it and decided actually it was important for them to know the truth so it didn’t come out later as an even bigger shock. Our mums in particular really couldn’t believe it when we told them and still sometimes they wonder if both DNA tests could have been false. That’s how deep the conviction of the connection was.
It’s a challenging question – which one’s which? We tend to avoid or ignore the question. It’s not something we shared with friends, just with family and we’ll let the boys know when they are a little older of course. We would prefer it not to be a question as we want both boys to be treated equally, but it’s natural that people will be curious and we just deal with it our own way.
It was around the time the boys were turning 2yrs that we heard about DC Network and made contact. That was really helpful as we read lots of their material around openness and honesty and bought the Our Story book for our family situation to help with that. It was great to be able to share the book and use it to help people understand our story. I would recommend getting resources to help explain things. And I would definitely recommend that other gay couples get more advice and support from the outset, not just on the practical, financial and medical issues, but the social and emotional issues too.
For example, when the boys hit about a year they started saying ‘Dadda’ to both of us. Well, we hadn’t worked out what we would each be called and we couldn’t both be called the same thing! It’s just a small example of a situation we probably could have thought about and discussed earlier. We were caught rather on the hop.
Another issue was around how to explain that there was no mum in the family. Quite early on in family life the concept of mums and dads come up, whether that’s in stories and films or other families you meet, as well as in your own wider family, of course. People are curious and ask questions and our boys also ask questions. The DCN Our Story book helped with that as well as discussions with other gay dads. It’s important to remember that it’s going to come up and it’s better to be prepared for the inevitable and understandable questions.
The thing we’re currently contemplating is the egg donor. We chose an anonymous egg donor and at the time that felt really right. The way we thought about it was, the boys wouldn’t need another ‘parent’ figure so why did the donor have to be identifiable? I think I see it a little differently now and although we’re really happy with our decision we are wondering how we’ll respond if the boys want to know more about her or want to contact her. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it and DCN will be a great help I’m sure.
For now, we are just loving being dads and cannot believe how lucky we are.