It wasn’t the first time my nephew had called my mum “Grandma”. This was, if anything, a staple of the fairly limited vocabulary this three-year-old possessed. Mum, my sister and I had been strewn out on the grass, exhausted. Unperturbed, he announced he wanted escorting to the swings. A few years earlier, it had felt strange to hear Mum being called by her new moniker. But it became normal in no time… At least, until now.
Before that day, I’d thought little of procreation. That was for proper grownups, adulthood’s far-off frontier. Firmly in my late 20s, that’s very much a privilege of my gender: there’d been no overbearing societal pressure or talk of an ever-ticking biological clock. Being gay, meanwhile, put my present and past partners in the same position. And neither they nor I could ever find ourselves pregnant, however relaxed about precautions, or hard we might try.
My sister had ensured our family line’s continuation and a retirement gift for my parents. When it came to kids, I was off the hook. Yet that single word my nephew uttered somehow sent my brain into uncharted ground.
That, I think, was because we were in the park across the road from my grandparents’ home in Liverpool. I’d been going there on visits as long as I can recall. Years ago, my small hands in theirs, I’d be delivered to its climbing frame while Grandma had a cigarette; as we grew older, it was me gripping Grandpa’s arm tightly, gently guiding him past car and curb.
That day, though, hearing my nephew call for a grandparent suddenly sat differently. I suppose because for the first time, I had none of my own. My grandpa had passed away a few months earlier; and, as of the previous afternoon, Grandma was dead, too.
Amid the grief, this new reality hit me. Generations had shifted, and my parents were now matriarch and patriarch of our family tree. There was now just one living layer above me – what did that mean? My sister had her first child when she was my age, my parents, too. Watching my nephew play in that park just as I had, I couldn’t help but question whether I would one day have one of my own.
In the days that followed, even little things left me grappling with the existential: who would I repeatedly tell about that same long-forgotten cousin? At Grandma’s funeral I held Mum’s hand and hugged her tightly. In one of her hardest moments, she took comfort from standing alongside her daughter and son. That afternoon, I stood at my grandma’s stove-side spot, pointlessly arranging smoked salmon destined for bagels on to a plate as precisely as she would. It was while worrying about who I’d pass this technique on to that I decided it was probably time to give the prospect of parenthood some proper thought.
It’s not that I felt any great sense of urgency, more that it dawned on me that I’d never before even contemplated exactly how my own family might begin. At 18, I’d started to embrace my sexuality. At the time, in my youthful ignorance, I had assumed that that simply meant saying goodbye to having any children of my own. When deciding to come out, that was the outcome I had struggled with most. All the family units I’d grown up around had been husband, wife and kids – alternatives had never been pointed to in my school’s sex and relationship classes.
In my lifetime, of course, great strides have been made; I know of people of all sexualities and genders who’ve made this leap of their own. There’s surrogacy, co-parenting, adoption. I’d just never joined the dots – this could, if I so wanted, be for me as well. To explore this whole new world, I set out to find people who’ve been where I am to guide me, like learning the birds and the bees all over again, just with a little less of what goes where.
Michael Johnson-Ellis always knew he wanted children. The 42-year-old had felt the urge to be a dad ever since his late teens. He knew he was gay when he married his now ex-wife in pursuit of parenthood. Gay men, he explains, just weren’t having kids back then.
“Unsurprisingly, it didn’t last,” says Johnson-Ellis, perched opposite me in a West End coffee shop. “I was divorced at 21 and I came out two years later.” Eventually, he met up with a woman he met online and had briefly weighed up giving parenthood a go together. “The problem was I really wanted to be totally present as a father,” he recalls. “With her, I’d have definitely been going halves.”
When he got together with his now husband, he made sure to check they were both on the same page right away. Three years into their relationship, the couple met Caroline – their gestational surrogate. After seven months of getting to know each other’s families – her husband and kids included – the deed was done. Caroline carried both their future children – one with his sperm, one with his partner’s – with a separate donor providing each of the eggs.
Something in my gut made me uncomfortable about commercial surrogacy. Paying a woman to put their body through nine months of pregnancy purely for my benefit just didn’t click. Exploitation in countries such as India and Thailand (both have now banned commercial surrogacy for foreign nationals) is well documented. I’d read horror stories from places like Ukraine where it continues today. In essence, it’s a contract of employment – and exploitative practices are hardly unique in this field. It’s such a demanding physical process with no lunch breaks or holidays, plus it’s hugely invasive and entirely gendered.
To my mind, renting out a spare room in a property is fraught with moral quandaries. I boycott all sorts of companies for not treating workers fairly and believe in a universal living wage. No doubt some navigate their way through surrogacy with confidence, but I’m a little lost to say the least.
In her book Full Surrogacy Now, Sophie Lewis touches on this topic. A Philadelphia-based feminist academic and writer, she sees all pregnancies as “gestational labour”, and therefore each should be understood to be work. Much as the “wages for housework” campaign of the 1970s aimed to draw attention to the unacknowledged work women did behind closed doors in keeping home and family, Lewis argues the same should be understood of time with children in utero as well. Over Zoom, I ask Lewis what this might mean for me.
“As a rule of thumb, I’d think about the highest rate I’ve been paid to do a piece of work,” she tells me. “I’d ask myself: why shouldn’t someone be paid at least the equivalent an hour for a pregnancy, given what it involves, for nine months solid, 24 hours a day?”
Solicitor Natalie Gamble runs a family law firm and British surrogacy agency. The sector in this country, she assures me, is highly regulated. It’s an act of altruism from the surrogate: no party can legally profit from the process per se. That said, the financial reality is a little complicated: expenses need never be proved or itemised. Generally, Gamble says, the total will be between £15,000 and £25,000.
“UK surrogacy is built on creating a relationship with a woman who agrees to it,” she says. There has to be – at all times – total consent. Of the roughly 430 surrogacy cases to pass through British courts annually, around half are born in the UK. Many of the examples of domestic surrogacy Gamble points to see a friend or family member of would-be parents offer up their womb for gestation.
A quick ask around of my nearest and dearest suggested none particularly fancied the task. UK surrogates are therefore in high-demand and oversubscribed. There can be a long wait.
Johnson-Ellis and his partner always knew their preferred route was UK surrogacy. The adoption process is long and arduous, whatever gender your partner. It’s a gruelling journey that not all couples want to undertake. Both of them had been married previously to women and there was history neither wanted to drag up. Most of all, though, he wanted a genetic link to his future children. “Naively,” he says, “I thought that was important back then.”
I see how easily that would be a priority. If straight people can have babies who share their DNA, why can’t gay people, too? That had certainly been my initial thought and why I’d asked to meet him. What strikes me most, as he talks about the joys of fatherhood, is how quickly this presumption changed.
Queer people talk about the ‘chosen family’, the people we opt to love
“I was so fixated with having a family with my genetic material,” he says, “that I lost sight of what being a dad meant.” Their first – Talulah – is biologically Johnson-Ellis’s. “I saw how my husband loved her as his own right away. From that moment, I knew I’d love a child who didn’t share my genetic makeup. Lo-and-behold I love Duke no differently to Talulah, despite him being biologically my husband’s. Your heart isn’t limited by DNA.”
Queer people talk a lot about the “chosen family”, the people we opt to love because we want to, not because we’re forced. For many LGBTQ+ people, biological relations aren’t accepting or understanding and so we build new familial networks within our community instead. I’m fortunate enough to have never faced such prejudice or problems. I count myself lucky to have loving families of both birth and choice. Not every child – sexuality aside – is born into similar circumstances: what is adoption if not creating a chosen family with someone who needs it most?
I’ve also come to appreciate the opportunities being gay has afforded me in rethinking what my life might look like: how relationships operate; intergenerational friendships; the literature I’m drawn to and spaces I frequent. For me, it’s been a process of unlearning – from the fear that God would smite me to the shame I felt towards my sexuality – and it turns out this applies to starting a family as well.
The more I pondered parenthood, the more I realised how constrained I’d been in my thinking – looking only to one type of familial formation for inspiration and ideas. I meet parents who’ve adopted, lesbian couples who’ve used sperm donors. I was trying to find a way to recreate the sort of structure I’d been raised in: a two-parent nuclear family, connected through genes. Whether with adoption or surrogacy, however, there’d be more than two people involved. Birth parents, surrogates, donors were a necessity I couldn’t escape.
This needn’t be an obstacle but a positive, I was beginning to realise. Biologically speaking, baby-making might still be the domain of Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. So what if all three of them raised a child lovingly, with Eve’s girlfriends, too?
Sam Winter had been with her girlfriend for five years when they decided it was time to have children. For years, they’d talked drunkenly about having children with Rob, a close gay friend of theirs. Together, they decided to give co-parenting a go. This meant conceiving and raising a child as a team, outside a traditional romantic relationship. Rather than a total stranger, they invited someone they knew, loved and trusted into their family fold.
After a course of group therapy, they were ready to get pregnant. Rob would move in for a while, they’d do the first year together; it was agreed all three would have regular parent meetings at every step – away from their offspring – to keep their core values and approaches aligned.
During her pregnancy, other expecting mothers would make comments with pity: it’s going to be so hard for you to be away from your precious bundle of joy. “By the time she was three, those very same people would come up to me totally exhausted and filled with envy,” Sam continues smugly. “They couldn’t believe we still had plenty of space to sustain our relationship, and could still go to the cinema or pub half the time with no hassle at all.”
As with all routes to parenthood, says Sam, there are challenges. For the foreseeable future their lives are tied to an agreed area and, as it stands, only two adults can be legally recognised as parents under British law. “She’s 12 now,” says Sam, “and really the biggest problem specific to our setup comes when I call her and she tells me she’s at home and I have to say, yes, darling, but which one?”
Until recently, co-parenting felt like an alien concept, so far from any type of family that I’d been part of or known. But this all started with me saying goodbye to a grandparent, having been raised knowing and learning from all four. Sure, my parents certainly did the bulk of the legwork. But each shaped me and supported me in their own way: at no stage did I ever feel that was a burden too much to bear.
Having given fatherhood real consideration – appreciating the possibilities and broadening my horizons – knowing what’s out there has also given me a whole new cause for concern. Climate-anxiety, an ever-growing phenomenon, comes with being part of a generation inheriting a planet on the brink and, at times, it takes a lot to keep me from doom and despair. Throwing kids into the mix has only made it harder to shake. It’s an insurmountable ethical dilemma: bringing new life into what feels like a dying world. If doing so isn’t supremely selfish, surely fighting the climate crisis with all my might must be the first step on my path to parenthood. I’m realising it’s not just a question of “could I have children”, but “should I”, too.
I’m still getting to grips with the options in front of me. I’m not certain what will suit my future life best. Each avenue will see me contend with complex calculations and compromise. It might sound strange, but I can’t help but feel that’s the most reassuring conclusion to which I could have come. Just a few months ago, the idea of being a dad barely registered as a possibility, now it feels, if anything, there’s too much choice out there. And while most would-be heterosexual parents dive in at the deep end, being queer – as it does in so many ways – lets me think beyond simply doing what has always been done. Mostly I’m just petrified that I’ll make the wrong decision. And that sounds quite a lot like being a parent to me.