Congratulations on becoming parents. Not only are you new parents but new parents in lockdown. How are things going?
It’s been quite the whirlwind! We are overjoyed and still somewhat incredulous to be the proud parents of a beautiful baby, but having a newborn in lockdown has not been without its challenges. We navigated the first two months of our daughter’s life going slightly stir crazy, without physical help or support from family and friends.
We had to adjust not only to being new parents, but also to life in isolation. We worry, as many people do, as to how and when we will be able to start living some semblance of a normal life, and how we’ll keep our vulnerable loved ones safe.
On the plus side, we have been very fortunate to be able to cocoon ourselves away with our baby and really take that time to get to know her. Jake’s acting and directing work has come to a standstill and although he is still writing when he gets a quiet moment, he has mostly just been focusing on being a father. We are very lucky that Hannah’s maternity leave stretches through to the end of August, so we’re currently cherishing every moment as a little threesome.
What can viewers expect from watching this documentary?
Initial conversations around the film had us in a slightly more ‘presenter’ type role, as we were keen to look at the quest to parenthood as well as focusing on other couples’ journeys. But, as so often happens, it evolved along the way and is now very much our story. The result is an intimate look at the world of surrogacy in the UK, seen through the eyes of a couple who never for a second imagined that they would one day experience the sheer joy of parenthood. We attempt to navigate what is still a complex and rarely trodden path, made more complicated by our trans identities, huge financial constraints and a global pandemic. We hope that there will be some surprises, some laughs and perhaps even a few tears along the way.
How did you find your surrogate?
Hannah and I had been searching for a surrogate for about six months, and having tried the agencies and ventured briefly into the world of the Facebook surrogacy forums, still hadn’t met anyone that we really clicked with. At the same time we were learning so much about the surrogacy process and were invited onto ITV’s Lorraine show for a catch up and to talk about our journey so far. Shortly after that interview we received messages from several women offering to help, but sadly the magic just wasn’t there.
A few weeks later I got a message on Facebook from the CEO of the National Fertility Society (NFS), offering to help. By that point we were feeling rather downhearted and didn’t hold out much hope, but after a couple of emails we spoke over the phone and the NFS seemed cautiously optimistic that they could help us. We tried our best not to get our hopes up too much until several weeks later when the NFS called to tell us that she had a woman called Laura, who had seen us on Lorraine and who was keen to meet us. Reeling, we first spoke to Laura over Skype in March of last year, and immediately clicked. We knew almost instantly that she was our match and were elated when she said she felt the same. The moment we all agreed to start the journey was truly magical, and we couldn’t have found a better surrogate and friend for this journey.
Your baby was born right at peak of the UK’s Covid-19 crisis and you had to film yourselves as you made a mad dash to Northern Ireland. What was going through your minds at that time?
Utter panic! Having gone through what felt like the longest and most nerve-racking nine months of our lives as we awaited the safe arrival of our baby, we were already fairly tense. As the virus spread across the UK the initial lockdown began amid great uncertainty and confusion as to guidelines and how best to stay safe. We tried to remain calm but everyone around us were telling us to simply pack up and go. We sought advice and were advised that our travel was both essential and fell within UK law.
After some deliberation, weighing up of options and careful planning around safety, we decided that undertaking most of the journey there by car and braving the three-hour ferry crossing was our best possible course of action. We threw everything into the car and embarked upon the 12-hour journey over to Belfast, and certainly breathed a sigh of relief when we reached our rented home at 2am, where we began an immediate self-isolation period.
Wow, what an emotional rollercoaster! Would you have done anything differently in retrospect?
We were both a little overzealous about our self-isolation from very early on. We were painfully aware that any signs of infection from either of us would not only prevent us from being there for our daughter’s birth, but would have rendered us unable to have any contact with her for a potential 14 days afterwards. Hannah jokes that I am a germaphobe at the best of times, but my obsessive cleanliness kicked into overdrive, armed to the teeth with masks, gels and antibacterial wipes. We couldn’t possibly have predicted that our due date would fall during Corona, and did our utmost to keep ourselves, our surrogate and our baby safe.
The dash to Ireland on the ferry was pretty terrifying, to be honest. By that time, we hadn’t left the house in two weeks and so the moment on the ferry was fairly hair raising. The stakes for us were just so high that everything felt intense and surreal. We navigated the situation as best we could, and although in hindsight there were moments when panic and paranoia took over and we were shorter and sharper than we might usually have been, we’re still glad that we were such sticklers and were able to be there to welcome our daughter into the world. As it was for the rest of the UK, Corona lockdown was uncharted territory, and we did the best that we could with the added pressure of impending parenthood.
When it was time to leave, we were advised that bringing our daughter home to London fell under essential travel. Given the option we might have stayed longer in Northern Ireland, traveling once infections in London had reduced, but that was very much an unknown. We had already spent thousands on accommodation and couldn’t afford to stay any longer. The thought of a plane journey, however short, was terrifying, but we had little option.
Why did you want to make this film?
Knowing how little understanding there is around surrogacy on the sides of both the intended parents (IPs) and the surrogates, and having had a fairly immersive insight into that world as part of this film, we hoped to shed some much needed light. Given that there is still so much stigma around the surrogacy process, with IPs often feeling shame and judgement, and surrogates’ voices rarely being heard, we wanted to give a platform to some of those women and parents in order to broaden that understanding and empathy. When we began the process, we became acutely aware of how little we knew. With so much conflicting advice out there we hoped that our stumbles might ease the journey for future parents.
We are also reminded daily of the lack of understanding and empathy for transgender people. We hope that our story might help the audience to see that we are nothing to be feared. Obviously, Hannah and I come from a place of great privilege as white, middle class people who were largely accepted by friends and family, but we still hope that it might resonate with viewers who have never met a trans person, and serve to dispel some of the confusion and preconceptions around trans folk.
Did you ever have second thoughts during the year given how personal the filming was?
Frequently! Honestly, we would have liked a little less focus on us and our lives and a broader look at the many and varied journeys towards parenthood, but fully understand the evolution that a project like this can go through along the way.
What were some of the most memorable times you had during filming?
It was a combination of nail-biting bouts of waiting, interspersed with euphoric highs: the day our surrogate told us that she was pregnant; the sighs of relief after the 12- and 20-week scans; arriving safely in Northern Ireland, and most notably of all, finally holding our beautiful daughter in our arms.
Hannah, you talk very openly about feeling insecure or inadequate as a woman who so wants to carry her own baby but cannot. Why did you want to speak openly about this?
Understandably, society sees carrying and giving birth to a child as one of the most intrinsic parts of womanhood and so being unable to do so can feel like your very identity is under threat. As a transgender woman I feel this very keenly as I am already frequently confronted by individuals who want to invalidate my identity, but the truth of the matter is that there are a plethora of reasons for women not being able to carry their own children who suffer the same shame and invalidation from the expectations of society. I hope that by being open with my experience, it might resonate with other women and perhaps give them some hope that you can still be a mother, regardless of how the child is brought into the world.
You’ve chosen not to call your child by neutral pronouns (they/them), did you consider it?
That wasn’t something that we ever considered, for no other reason than we wouldn’t want our experiences as transgender people to influence the way we raise our child. We refer to Millie as ‘she’ and dress her in an assortment of hand-me-downs from her male and female cousins, blues and pinks and every other colour. We hope that she loves to paint and draw and write like her daddy, play lots of sportlike her mummy, and never feels any limitations whatsoever because of her gender. She will be encouraged to pursue anything that makes her heart sing, and if at any age she tells us that she feels or loves or dreams outside of what society dictates, then we shall still accept and love her regardless and without question.
Will Millie have any future contact with the surrogate?
Absolutely. Millie will know how she was conceived, learn all about the wonderful woman who carried her, and hopefully see her Auntie Laura more often, once we are all safe to travel again.
What do you hope this documentary may achieve?
We would hope that people come away with a little more understanding of why surrogates want to help couples like us; that the audience see us as just another couple and realise that being transgender isn’t a reason to fear or hate us; and for those couples who are still desperately trying to have their own child to see that there is hope for everyone.
There is a scene in the film where you both read comments on online articles. How do you develop resilience in the face of nasty comments?
We have both experienced online hatred, bigotry and attacks prior to and throughout our relationship, and while we would be lying to say that it didn’t affect us at all, we are able to focus instead on the huge amounts of love, positivity and support that we receive. We believe that anyone who has the time to put online hate out into the universe must be rather unhappy themselves, and so we try to ignore it and rise above it, the same advice that we give to the young LGBT folk who are bullied online.
Do you think Millie will experience a world more accepting of transgender people and individual determination?
We sincerely hope so. In a world in which people still face hatred because of the colour of their skin, where young folk are often thrown out of their homes for coming out as gay and where transgender women are killed almost daily across the world, we are certainly hoping that mankind becomes kinder and learns from its mistakes. We will teach her acceptance, love and the beauty of difference, and can only hope that the world follows suit.