Gay fathers with two children say they’re constantly judged by strangers who ask ‘who the real dad is’ in front of their kids and why they didn’t adopt instead of using a surrogate
- Michael Johnson-Ellis, 42 and Wes Johnson-Ellis, 43, Worcestershire gay couple
- Had daughter Talulah, four, and son Duke, 21 months, through surrogacy battle
- They said they were ‘fed up’ with the remarks and stares of rude strangers
A same-sex couple have told how they’re fed up with being judged by by strangers and asked hurtful questions like who their children’s ‘real’ dad is – even in front of the kids.
Michael Johnson-Ellis, 42, a freelance blogger, and Wes Johnson-Ellis, 43, who runs a not-for-profit organisation co-founded by the pair called My Surrogacy Journey, longed to have children together and started their journey to parenthood through private surrogacy in 2013.
In October 2016 the pair, from Worcestershire, had their first child together, Talulah, now four, and were blessed again by the same surrogate in August 2019 with their son, Duke, now 21 months.
But the two dads are now speaking out about their experiences, admitting to feeling isolated and alone in parenthood due to thoughtless remarks from strangers.
They said from the first hospital appointment of their surrogate, they were stared at and judged by other parents, and they are worried how this will affect their children as they grow older.
Michael Johnson-Ellis, 42, a freelance blogger, and Wes Johnson-Ellis, 43, welcome their daughter Talulah through surrogacy in October 2016 (pictured) and her brother Duke through the same surrogate in April 2019. They are speaking out, as they said they are fed up with strangers asking them insensitive questions like ‘who’s the real dad?’
‘Everyone is hyper-aware of what we are doing with our children, as if we don’t know how to look after them. They constantly ask us about who the “real” dad is in front of our kids,’ said Michael.
‘Even going to the supermarket is hard, people approach you and ask the most offensive questions about who is the “real” dad. We always have to think twice before we go somewhere.’
Meeting at Birmingham Pride in June 2012, Michael and Wes were instantly smitten and just six months into their relationship started talking about having children.
‘Wes already has a 16-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. We both love kids, and I’ve always wanted to be a dad,” said Michael.
The proud fathers with Talulah, left, and Duke, centre. They used the same surrogate for both pregnancies and said it felt natural to want a biological child, as adoption wasn’t for them
‘We discussed our options and we both decided surrogacy was the best route for us as we wanted to be biologically related to our children.
‘But it was a hard journey – surrogacy in the UK is a hard process especially when you are two men. All the not-for-profits weren’t taking on new members as there is such a shortage of registered surrogates in the UK.
‘We had to do what is classed as an independent journey. So we have to source everything – from the clinic, surrogate, to even your egg donor. The system isn’t perfect and so we had to educate a lot of people along the way.
‘It was tough doing it all by ourselves but in hindsight it was brilliant because it led us to where we are today.’
The pair tied the knot in Walcot Hall, Shropshire, in August 2014, but when they told people they were trying for a baby via surrogacy, they often faced difficult questioning before the process had even begun.
Talulah and Duke now. Wes and Michael said they were concerned that the remarks made by strangers about the paternity of their children would affect their son and daughter
‘It started as soon as we told people we were going to have a child through a surrogate,’ said Michael.
‘People would ask why aren’t we adopting. I always thought, “Well why aren’t you?”.
‘I think it’s ok to say that you want biological children as a same-sex couple. You want that link, you want to experience the pregnancy and be there when the baby is born.
‘We considered adoption but as we looked into it, we just knew it wasn’t for us. We both knew that we wanted to have two, and I would go first and then it would be Wes’ turn.’
The couple pressed on with their plans and found an egg donor and Caroline, the person who would have their baby, on a surrogacy forum.
‘We found a lovely surrogate,’ Michael said.
‘But the judgment began even before our daughter Talulah was born. I remember walking into the waiting room for our 12-week scan with the surrogate.
Wes and Michael with Talulah. The couple said mothers always wanted to know what they were feeding their daughters when she was a baby
The parents said strangers had asked them invasive questions about their surrogacy journey (pictured: Duke and Michael in a field of sunflowers)
‘All the people in the waiting room just stopped and stared at us. It was like the room fell silent.’
The pair’s first child together, Talulah, was born in October 2016.
Michael said: ‘It was amazing being part of the pregnancy. That’s why we wanted to do surrogacy in the UK because we really wanted to feel involved in the birth.
‘As soon as Talulah was born, she was placed in our arms. It was just the most amazing experience – I couldn’t stop crying, it was so overwhelming.”
But after the birth, the pair’s experiences became more intense.
‘I think everything is so mum-centric. You felt like an outsider walking into groups as a dad. People treat dads differently and it seemed very female focused,’ said Michael.
‘We had no same-sex couples who had children together as role models. I don’t think there is the same level of support as there is for mums.
Michael and Wes tied the knot in in Walcot Hall, Shropshire, in August 2014, pictured. They said they faced questions about surrogacy even before their children were born
‘We’d take Talulah out and people would ask us if we were giving Mum a break. We’d just go along with it and say “yeah we are” so we could move on.’
Some people also wanted to offer help when it wasn’t wanted.
Michael said: ‘Strangers in cafes, especially mums, become overly interested in what we were feeding Talulah or how we cared for her.
‘Women would approach me whilst I was walking round the shops to tell me my own daughter was crying, as if I couldn’t hear her.
‘It made me feel frustrated. Parenting is hard and when you’re overtired, and you are desperate for sleep, it’s the last thing you need.
‘I would always just say “I know”, but it got to me.’
Welcoming their son Duke into the world in August 2019, the intrusion didn’t go away.
Michael and Wes before they had children at Birmingham Pride in June 2012. They started their surrogacy journey in 2013, and had Talulah in 2016
Wes and Michael, pictured, are speaking out against parental judgment, something they said they faced even before Talulah, their first child, was born
‘People come up to us daily and ask who the “real” dad is to Talulah and Duke. I don’t understand why everyone is so interested in our sperm,’ said Michael.
‘They want to know all the ins and outs of how our children were born.
‘Our children’s conception isn’t a secret, but it is personal to us, I don’t want to share it with a stranger.’
Michael admits he didn’t know how to respond when questioned like this.
‘When it first happened, it really took me aback; I never knew what to say.
‘We try to explain that we are both their dads but I think people just shouldn’t care about which child is biologically related to who.
‘I also think it’s rude to ask people about sperm, especially if they are a stranger in the street. I feel like if it doesn’t affect you, then why ask?’
The couple beaming, holding their second child, Duke, who was born in August 2019. The couple have found a large community of same-sex parents online thanks to their Instagram page on gay parenting
The couple are also concerned about how strangers’ comments could affect their children as they grow older.
Michael said: ‘I don’t think the kids have noticed as they are so young and we quickly shut down people’s comments and politely move on with our day.
‘I think the challenging thing is our children getting older and becoming able to read situations, especially Talulah, she’s so bright.
‘We’re trying to make sure that they’re brought up in an environment where they don’t have to feel anxiety like we do, where we protect them.’
Luckily the couple, who started out with no support group of people in their situation, have found a large community of same-sex parents, thanks to Instagram.
‘To begin with, our network of fellow same-sex parents was very small. There was no one in our life to look up to or even to guide us,’ said Michael.
‘Then in January 2017 we started TwoDadsUK as an Instagram account. It just began as us documenting our surrogacy journey.
‘We were flooded with same-sex couples asking for advice, and soon it became really clear that there needed to be an official place to go for the information.
‘We made TwoDadsUK into a blog in the summer of 2017 and in February this year we launched our not for profit organisation My Surrogacy Journey, to support parents going through independent surrogacy.’
The Instagram account has more than 33,000 followers and Michael said: ‘Through being so vocal about our journey, we’ve managed to create our own community and be the role models we wanted when we started our own journey.’
Now, the pair are speaking out with the intention of helping other same-sex families deal with public judgment, and they hope sharing their experiences will encourage people to be kinder too.
WHAT ARE THE LAWS ON SURROGACY?
The laws of surogacy differ from country to country.
In the US the laws suffer from state to state; some states have written legislation while others have common laws stemming from court decisions.
For example, California is accepting of surrogacy agreements and upholds agreements that include LGBT people.
However, others are stricter, like Michigan, which forbids absolutely all surrogacy agreements, and fines people $500,000 for entering into agreements.
In the UK surrogates are the legal mother of any child they carry, unless they sign a parental order transferring their rights to the intended parents when they give birth.
The birth mother always has the right to keep her child, even if they are not genetically related.
It’s illegal to pay a surrogate in the UK, except for medical expenses.
They are also backing a #lovedontjudge campaign by C&G Baby Club that aims to tackle parental judgment, after the organisation’s recent survey of 2,000 parents of 0-8 year olds found same-sex couples face double the amount of judgment compared to other families – being approached up to eight times a day about their parenting, with stay-at-home dads a close second, feeling judged up to seven times a day.
Michael said: ‘I think people are just mainly curious. But it can make you feel really lonely.
‘People just need to be more mindful.’
Reflecting on why people are curious about same-sex couples, he said: ‘When we were young, we didn’t see men having families together.
‘I think it’s still something that people don’t see often and that needs to change.’
And dads, he also thinks, also face parenting in a mum-centric world.
‘Everything is aimed at mums and I think dads get a hard time when caring for their kids.
‘We want the same for our kids as anybody else. We want the best for them and will always do the best for them.’
As to what can be done to improve things, Michael said: ‘I think that people need to be kinder.’
He also advised parents to have answers to awkward questions ready in advance.
‘When you have a response prepared and feel confident in how to shut it down, it gives you the ability to not feel so singled out,’ he said.
Wes is also hopeful things are improving.
He said: ‘It’s definitely getting better. When we were young there were no role models of same-sex couples having children. It’s amazing providing that for the next generation, saying that this is all possible.
‘We just need to be more mindful about how times are changing. Let’s not assume every child has a mum and a dad.
‘Talulah is the best advocate of that. When she goes to school, she never assumes every child has a mum or a dad, she’ll say parent.’
Michael and Wes are supporting the C&G baby club #LoveDontJudge campaign, which is on a mission to stop parental judgment before it starts. For information and advice on how to respond to parental judgment go here.
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