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Assisted Reproduction

Yotam Ottolenghi: Why I’m Coming Out As A Gay Father

Yotam Ottolenghi with his son MaxThe following article posted on The Guardian website a few days ago is a beautiful glimpse into the life of a gay parent. Read on for Yotam’s story:

When Max came into our lives six months ago, Karl and I wanted to keep it private. There’s work, there’s public life, there’s Twitter and all the rest. Then there is Karl and Max and me and our own little world. Sod the rest.

But we soon realised how naive, even egotistical, this was. We both came out as gay men at a time when, on the surface, things were normalised. Neither of us had experienced serious bullying or obstacles in our career paths. But, actually, we were not completely liberated ourselves. We still had a few serious chips on our shoulders, and one of them was about keeping aspects of our lives private. The moment to tell my barber I was gay just never came up. Funny that.            

When Karl and I met Melanie, who turned out to be the key to our parenthood, she said that she had first become interested in alternative parenting while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah! My radar beeped frantically with unease about privacy and the American way of making everything public. What was this obsession with exposure? There were definitely unresolved issues that made people go out and tell Oprah everything about themselves.

But it was me, of course, with the unresolved issue. At the end of a five-year process, I know we can’t be shy about telling our story, that privacy just isn’t an option. That’s because we could only have had Max, and hopefully also a future sibling, thanks to other people who have shared their stories – even if that happens to be on cheesy talkshows. Max has already brought us immense joy. He has also forced our second coming out, this time as gay parents.   

I always wanted to have children. Partly this was my very Jewish anxieties: “Oy vey, you vill grow old wiz no children? But zat is so lonely!” But it was also my positive experiences growing up in an affectionate and nurturing family, and, as I got older, a desire to inject new meaning into my life, to live more altruistically.

For my partner Karl, the idea just hadn’t occurred before we met. He had always assumed, like most gay men, that this was not a card handed to him. There was no particularly strong emotion attached to this assumption, no sense of loss or self-pity: it just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, his focus was mostly on work (he is a shop manager) and sometimes on the gym; there was a general sense of, “Let’s have a good time – why waste it?” My own idea of pursuing “self-fulfilment through brat” (his words) was completely alien.

Still, we talked about having a child. Karl wasn’t at all sure how this would work: how would a son or daughter fit into our lives? Who would be the mother, and who the father? We had no role models, no precedents between us, and the subject was full of risks and unknowns. A family with two dads was not something Karl had experienced. And what did I know about it, anyway? Not much, only that I yearned to have a baby. Karl did not hold back about his reservations, but agreed that he would support me: “As long as I don’t lose you, and you start loving that child of yours more than you love me.” He was only half-joking.

The obvious solution was co-parenting, an arrangement popular with gay men back home in Israel. That meant teaming up with a woman, gay or straight, and rearing a child together: like a divorced family, we would divide the child’s time between two homes. This suited us perfectly. Karl and I would get to keep our little unit intact, and our hedonistic lifestyle, while still having a child: a part-time child. On a deeper level, co-parenting addressed one of the many chips on my shoulder: that a baby without a mother wasn’t quite right; that feeding him formula, rather than saintly breast milk, was a proper sin. On this level, I was driven by feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

I got to know a lesbian couple from Brighton through a website that matched men and women looking to co-parent. My first date with the Brighton girls was lunch in a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware Road in London. It was a proper blind date, with all the attendant awkwardness and the hurried judgments, followed by some sheepish probing. What made the date doubly awkward was that there was only one, indisputable reason for it: we were there to make children, nothing else. This wasn’t the prelude to a one-night stand; it wasn’t even the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was an interview for the mother of my child. Help!

But once we’d passed that initial mortification, it was fine; we were able to laugh about our bizarre predicament. The biggest shock, I told Karl when I got home, was that my new acquaintances were actually nice. Really nice. I hadn’t expected this. After all, who in their right mind signs up to a website in order to co-parent with a stranger?

After that, we met every few weeks, trying to work out if this was the kind of relationship that would stand the test of time. We also started to talk about “our arrangement”. At first, it all seemed hunky-dory. The more time we spent together – nights in a damp lesbian home with two cats, the absolute nightmare of every urban gay; days in a fancy London flat with surfaces so shiny a lesbian might slip and break something – the more we liked each other. But liking each other was not enough. We knew we had to be responsible and draw up some kind of informal contract.

We ended up with a very complex document. There was a scenario for the first year, the second year and the following two years. There was a stipulation about primary school and about secondary school. I’d go down to Brighton twice a week; the child would spend every other weekend with us, but only after the age of nine months. Karl and I would be able to take “it” on holiday alone, but only after “it” was two years old.

But what if one couple broke up? What if both couples broke up? What were the rights for future spouses? For future siblings? The contract became the bane of our lives. Our initial chemistry seemed less and less capable of holding everything together. We were quickly turning into a divorcing couple, negotiating their settlement. What time would you bring “it” back on a Saturday night? And why couldn’t I have my child sleep over at six months, anyway?

After many very painful phone conversations discussing the minutest details in the life of a child who didn’t yet exist, we all realised it was not going to work. We had got so close to agreeing everything; we even had a date in the diary for our first trial. But in the end it all fell apart over where our child would spend half an afternoon at the age of six, or something like that. By now, we had all worked out some serious truths, most of which had nothing to do with visiting hours. The Brighton girls realised they wanted a full-time baby. I realised I needed my child to be closer to Karl and to me, to be much more a part of my life. I was also starting to acknowledge that I had some control issues, and that I found it hard to let go. We all went our separate ways.

Not long after, I was approached by a close friend, Karin, who was my age at the time, 42. She suggested we have a go. Karin is straight, and she figured this was her last chance to have children. “Think how cool it could be,” she said. “We live within walking distance of each other, so the child will always be in the same neighbourhood. We can live like one large extended family.”

It seemed perfect, and this time we all plunged in without much hesitation. There were a few discussions around a dinner table, some vague agreements, and then I was handing over sperm samples on the way to work in the morning. We tried this a few times, and at the same time looked into assisted reproduction. Karin’s age was the crucial factor. Fertility doctors tell it to you straight. They won’t say, “Darling, you’re just as old as you feel.” They made it very clear that our chances of pregnancy were very, very slim. We were told we had better start an IVF cycle “yesterday”.

Still, we felt different, invincible. We knew the odds were against women in their 40s, but we didn’t really think the odds applied to us. Karin was healthy and positive, and we were all used to getting our way.

We ended up trying four rounds of IVF. After every failure, our spirits were flattened just a little more. Karin took it worse than I did: every negative result was taking her another step closer to childlessness. As a man, there was a chance I might still find another way.

Our friendship suffered, too. As with the Brighton girls, arguments over control started to surface. We were turning into project co-managers, dividing up future prospects even as they gradually slipped away. Our hypothetical child became less and less able to sustain us. After the fourth failed attempt, we decided to call it a day.

We both had to pick ourselves up again and decide, separately, what to do next. For Karin, this was the gradual acceptance that there were not going to be kids in her life. I was also devastated, though maybe less so, because I hadn’t given up. But after three years of very actively pursuing this dream, it was starting to seem more remote.

With each failed IVF cycle, the possibility of taking a motherless route started to take shape in my mind. I told Karl after the final cycle. I sort of knew he would be up for it. Over the months and years, he had grown more and more comfortable with the idea of a child in our lives. His tone had changed; he had stopped talking about “your” child and started referring to “our” child.

I approached surrogacy with apprehension. On some level, I had stopped believing that fatherhood was possible. The failures, the dead-end discussions, had all knocked my confidence. And I had really wanted a mother for my child. But Karl was much more positive: the idea of becoming a full-time dad now really appealed to him.

We soon realised what a minefield we had nonchalantly stepped into. I won’t go into the legal, technical and financial minutiae, but there were many times when we looked at each other and said, “Just think how easy it is for every sordid straight couple to do this. They go to bed at the right time. End of story.”

We couldn’t have our child in the UK because it is illegal to pay a woman to carry your child here; you can only cover her expenses. In America, gestational surrogacy (having a woman carry a baby conceived with another woman’s egg) is much more common. There are now a number of agencies offering to match couples – gay and straight – with both an egg donor and a surrogate, and then see them through the complicated legal and medical process. This is extremely expensive, though, and particularly for foreigners such as ourselves, who have to pay ridiculous health insurance costs. We are talking at least $100,000 (£65,000), and often much more than that.

We signed up with an agency in Los Angeles, and within a couple of months received Melanie’s profile. She seemed sweet and sorted, with four children of her own; she had been a surrogate once before. We flew out to LA to meet her. A psychotherapist from the agency sat in on our first meeting. Melanie told us that she had first heard about surrogacy while watching Oprah Winfrey, listening to a surrogate talk about the life-affirming experience of giving a gift to a couple who couldn’t have a child. Melanie had fallen in love with the idea. We went for a quick lunch, just the three of us. When we got back home to London, we got the word that Melanie had approved us. We were delighted.

The next challenge was finding an egg donor. The faces peering at us from the agency’s computer database didn’t tell us much. How do you choose the mother of your child from a screen full of vital statistics? Were we looking at height, intelligence or skin colour? Did beauty, university degrees or ethnic background matter? The decision was the hardest and, at the same time, the easiest we had to make. Easy because we somehow understood that, whoever we chose, we had no idea what effect that choice would have on our child: we just don’t know how genes work. It was like putting your hand into a box of lottery tickets, rummaging blindly and then choosing one.

Three months later, Melanie and our donor began getting medical treatments, each in her own town, to co-ordinate their menstrual cycles. The donor was then flown to our clinic in LA, where eggs were retrieved and fertilised in a test tube using sperm we had donated: the standard IVF process.

We will never forget the day we got a call from the clinic asking how many fertilised eggs we would like “inserted” into Melanie, who had also been flown to LA to be treated at the clinic. Karl was in Northern Ireland and I was in Israel. Until then, we had always aimed to have one child in the first pregnancy. Inserting two or three eggs increases the likelihood of pregnancy, but also of a multiple birth. So we decided on just one. But then our previous failures made me panic. I phoned Karl and said, “Fuck it, we’re putting in two.” Always the calmer one, Karl persuaded me I was being unreasonable. It was our first trial; if it didn’t work, we could try two next time. I reluctantly accepted, feeling sure I was right.

How brilliant it is to be wrong! In May last year, Karl and I were sitting at the bar in our restaurant when I got a call from Pasadena, California. The familiar voice of the nurse at the fertility clinic was calling to let us know Melanie was pregnant. We just looked at each other and smiled and smiled and smiled, like a pair of idiots. It was still early, but we couldn’t resist telling our families and close friends. Finally, after four years of trying, I thought it was just possible I might be a father. There was pride and joy, some fear and a huge sense of relief.

Our next milestone was the 12-week scan, after which we started making serious plans. We spoke to Melanie every couple of weeks to make sure she was fine, absorbing every symptom, every mood, as an indication of something, good or bad. Karl planned to quit his job and look after the baby full-time. We started talking names, schools and buggies: all those conversations we had always found deadly dull in other parents.

Our first visit to Boston, near Melanie’s home, was around the time of the 20-week scan. We met her at the examining room, where the nurse showed us the little heartbeat and some very clear organs, including a tiny, pointy nose, the only human thing about the image. Everything looks good, the nurse said, and she pointed to a little white blotch: the indisputable sign that we were having a boy. A boy with a nose: that was all I could think of. The three of us hugged each other; we were on top of the world.

Four months later, we were in Boston again, armed with baby paraphernalia, lots of theoretical knowledge and a bit of practical experience. Karl had spent a few days with a friend who had just had a baby boy, changing nappies, washing him in the kitchen sink and getting a sense of the shape of things to come. We arrived more than three weeks before Melanie’s due date; we couldn’t risk missing the birth. We settled into our little apartment, got to know the area and sorted out Max’s stuff (we had decided on the name a few weeks earlier).

Then we just had to wait. It was a weird and wonderful time. Things were out of our hands. After years of working so hard to get to this point, we could just sit back and wait for the phone call.

In the end, there was no phone call. We were with Melanie during a routine scan when the nurse told her that it was weird she wasn’t having any contractions: the scan showed clear signs of labour. She sent us straight to the hospital. Melanie drove home to pack a bag, while we stopped for a burger at Wendy’s.

It wasn’t a long delivery. We spent a few hours with Melanie watching silly telly, waiting for the contractions to intensify. The nurses called us back for the last hour of labour. Melanie was a champ. We were holding her hands throughout, giving her words of encouragement. She was working so hard for us that I felt guilty.

When Max finally started popping his head out, we got regular updates from the midwives (Melanie’s pelvis was covered with a sheet, so we couldn’t see him). “Wow, he’s big, very, very big. And so much hair!” And again, after a few minutes: “Such a healthy child, and such a full head of hair!” They said this so much that I began anticipating the hairiest of monsters.

When he finally arrived, Max was indeed big and hairy; he was also the most incredible creation. Karl and I kept holding Melanie’s hands while the nurses gave him a thorough once-over. But Melanie was having none of it. “Guys, what are you doing?” she said. “Go play with your son!” And that’s exactly what we did.


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