“She said she’d be babysitting our embryo”: What’s it like to carry a child for a friend?
Despite the spike in surrogacies over the past decade – and a rise in profile following the examples of celebrities Kim Kardashian, Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Daley – just 302 (0.4%) of 75,425 fertility treatment cycles recorded by UK watchdog the Human Fertilization & Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 2017 were surrogacies. But it has become a viable route for gay men who want to start a family. At Care, two-thirds of surrogacies in 2018/19 were for men in same-sex relationships, an option aided by the HFEA’s 2011 decision to offer £750 compensation to egg donors, triggering more women to help others on their parenthood journeys. This, says consultant gynecologist David Polson, “opened up the options for same-sex couples to seek out a surrogate and become parents”. Advances in freezing fertilized eggs have also made it more likely that a thawed embryo will be suitable for transfer to another woman’s womb.
In Kent, Kevin, 45, a chief marketing officer, and Spencer, 30, a solicitor, are getting their six-month-old son ready for bed when the other half of “Sawyer’s birthing squad” (the name they gave their pregnancy WhatsApp group) arrives: surrogate Leanne, 36, and her sister Rachael, 33, Sawyer’s egg donor. “There’s not many teams like us out there,” says Leanne, grabbing a bedtime cuddle.
Spencer and Kevin have been together 10 years and married in 2015. “I told Kevin on our first date that I needed to be a dad,” Spencer says. “The biological connection was important to us. We wanted to be involved from the start.” They explored agencies but the networking aspect turned them off. “It was like speed dating. There were more couples than surrogates. It felt hard to be your true self.” They spoke to relatives and asked close friends but none provided an obvious solution. So, despite reservations, they turned to an agency and invested five months getting to know a potential surrogate, only to be let down by an early morning text weeks before treatment was due to start.
The one thing they did have was an egg donor. (Medics typically discourage having the same woman perform both functions, to offset concerns around the possibility of bonding too strongly with the baby.) Spencer and Rachael, a credit controller, had become friends two years earlier after meeting on an IVF forum on Facebook. Rachael, then pregnant with her third child, was exploring egg donation, and Spencer wanted to know more about surrogacy. They lived nearby and began meeting up, forming a close friendship that involved weekends together, takeaways, dinners and days out. Spencer and Kevin became unofficial uncles to Rachael’s youngest son and joined in family celebrations, which is how they grew close to Leanne, a mental health support worker who had three sons of her own.
Leanne remembers: “Kevin and Spencer were lovely, and I’d seen how close they all were and how badly the boys wanted to be parents. When Rachael told me their surrogate had let them down, I instinctively offered.”
The group drew up a 12-page “intention agreement”, detailing expenses, medical tests, pregnancy supplements and protection – including life and critical illness insurance – for Leanne’s children in the event that anything went wrong. Kevin and Spencer spent £25,000: £6,000 for the cost of Rachael’s egg donation; £6,500 on medical appointments, screening tests (for all four), medication and scans; £2,500 to transfer their embryo to Leanne’s womb; and £10,000 on surrogate expenses. On pregnancy test day, they sat around Leanne’s kitchen table together, dipping the stick in a cup she’d wee’d in.
“This was the next best thing to carrying the baby ourselves,” Spencer says. “We were so involved. Friendship-first gave us trust and openness.” The expectant dads attended scans, sent hampers each trimester – the first contained ginger biscuits and tea for morning sickness – and downloaded an app that allowed them to read bedtime stories for Leanne to play to her belly. When her waters broke three months early, at 28 weeks, the responsibility weighed heavily for all. Leanne says, “You don’t want to let anything go wrong. Decisions about what happened next were theirs to make. I felt guilty.” The men felt responsible, too. “Leanne has three children; she had to go home perfect at the end of this,” Spencer says.
Leanne was monitored as an outpatient until labor started a month later. When Sawyer arrived, at 2.36am on 6 April, eight weeks premature and weighing 5lb, all four were in the room, Rachael as birthing partner. Sawyer spent 16 days in neonatal intensive care. His fathers stayed by his side but the now familiar outdated legalities meant Leanne had to return for his discharge.
Even once they have left hospital, it is common for surrogates to be contacted by health professionals seeking consent for newborn checks, despite parents being present. Kevin remembers: “Before the birth, our consultant emailed ahead to enforce our right to be there. Some nurses called Leanne ‘Mum’ which none of us wanted. It felt antiquated. I think it’s sexuality and gender more than surrogacy. It took us being by his side for 16 days to prove ourselves, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
After the birth, Leanne was flooded with emotion: “Your body doesn’t know you’re a surrogate; he was premature and my natural instinct was to know he was all right. I talked a lot with Rachael to be sure what I was feeling was OK. The openness and honesty between me and the boys was vital. Once home, I was back to being Leanne again.”
She expressed and froze milk for Sawyer for two weeks before returning to work. Going home from hospital, Kevin and Spencer stopped at her house, “to give her boys the first cuddle,” Spencer says. “They’d been through a lot, too.”
When the friends share their story with others, it is the egg donation that tends to generate the most interest, Kevin says, but for Rachael it represented nothing more than a tiny piece of DNA. “It’s that black and white for me,” she says. “My own children are the ones I’ve created with my husband. The way Kevin and Spencer look at Sawyer is the exact reason I wanted to do this.”
They see each other often and last month shared a Christmas outing and an early New Year’s Eve celebration before Sawyer’s bedtime. “I want our son to know who the two most incredible women on the planet are,” Kevin says. “They’ll for ever have that bond with him. The more love he has, the better.”