An Intended Journey
by Andrew Kauffmann
I feel like we’re looking at photos from the 1980s.” The potted lemon plant nods in agreement on the terrace outside.
Mehdi’s easy smile widens. “That’s because we are. Well, we’re looking at photos of them as kids – ”.
“No,” I shoot back. “They were born in the ‘90s. It’s their current photos that look dated. Like they’re extras in a Blondie video.” I roll my eyes, sigh and notice my mind wandering. I’m not looking for instant success, but this is trickier than I imagined it would be.
Ruminations rush in; I consider whether meditating more will steel me for the year ahead. I wonder whether I’ll get enough credit for once again finishing the washing up. Whether I’ll be a good Dad.
It’s been two months since we started consulting egg donor databases. The serious contenders – the fertility clinics that we need to choose between, not the egg donors – are located in Portland, Oregon and San Diego. We’re being chased, if not daily, then far too often: to make a decision about which clinic we’ll enter a life-changing (and forming) relationship with, and which college student or cancer rehabilitation nurse we’d like to work with to be the biological mother of our child. ‘To work with’: a euphemism one often hears in the world of assisted reproduction.
The ‘Oxford Blue’ sky deceives with its stains of cotton clouds. It’s chilly out there. Cacti sit on the terrace dining table like Buddhas in repose. Our view is of a neatly preserved lawn, but beyond, the Mediterranean churns. Our friend, Lamia, warned us that the wind could be ferocious here. Almería lies in the distance, a good ten kilometres further down the coast to the east. Not that we’ve been able to visit, not as this Third Wave of the novel Coronavirus breaks so close to the bay.
The egg donors we’re scrolling through seem to be located across the States, while others live in locations as diverse as Chile and Hawaii. With pixelated photos of their adolescence as one of our aids, their unapologetic grins and haystacks of strawberry blonde hair hide a thousand stories – of bartenders struggling in the current financial climate, and of hard-working young women who seem certain they never want to have ‘children of their own’. The women we come across are invariably kind, or so it seems. Some describe themselves as ‘goofy’. Others stare out from images that bear little resemblance to the photos posted on the cover page of their profiles. Perhaps some of them have had cosmetic surgery. It’s no crime. I was considering it once.
We’re engaged in a most peculiar pursuit. Mehdi and I are attempting to create life, in the middle of a pandemic, with the assistance of women in the United States we can’t physically meet. A month ago, we were still in Paris, before we settled here in Spain. We made an appointment to have our sperm analysed at a fancy laboratoire in the Trocadero quartier, close to the Tour d’Eiffel. Fifty per cent of fertility problems in heterosexual couples are connected with the male partner, but why is it that we only really hear about women not being fertile? The lab wanted to check the ‘morphology’ of our spermatozoa. I had to look up what ‘morphology’ meant on Google.
I was summoned to a small windowless room with a stiff-backed, blue-coloured consulting chair. The nurse asked me in French whether I understood the lab’s instructions. I nodded but imagined I’d possibly missed something in translation. She explained I needed to press a switch to advise her when I was ‘done’. I couldn’t get aroused. The internet connection was patchy and the Tim Tales’ video of a young Venezuelan guy giving fellatio to a muscly German top hardly got me in the mood. The longer I took to achieve an erection, the hotter the room felt. I heard the whispered exchanges of clinic staff in the corridors close by. Surely someone else needed the room soon, I stressed. When I handed over the tube with the tiniest droplet imaginable, I apologised in unconvincing French. A handsome, ginger-haired doctor around Mehdi’s age peered over, probably used to the stench of embarrassment.
Minutes later, comparing notes about our experiences, and thirsty after our unsexy communion with a test tube and a packet of sanitary wipes, Mehdi and I found a Franprix supermarket where we attempted to squeeze some mandarins at the orange juice counter. Again, it felt like hard work. I giggled as the orange juice spurted out in fits and bursts. I kid you not, but Simply Red’s Holding Back the Years came on the store sound system. I played Simply Red a lot when I studied for my GCSEs, but I didn’t want to listen to them now.
If I think back to the 1990s, my teenage years offered many welcome comforts. I was lucky to be brought up by loving, if slightly complicated, parents. My sisters and I grew up in a household full of hugs and home-cooked dinners. As a hypersensitive child, though, I was also conditioned to feel discomfiting self-doubt. I’d read Dad’s copy of the Evening Standard, lying with my face facing the TV set on the husky living room carpet. For some reason, I would fixate on a regular advert the paper used to run with bold type in scarlet red. It highlighted fixes men could find for problems achieving an erection. Perhaps I’m remembering this incorrectly now, but I think there was a helpline advertised for men living with HIV. I absorbed the content as if it was subliminally cautioning me, as a gay boy – ‘that I must find a girlfriend by the time I’m eighteen’; and ‘that I mustn’t masturbate so much’.
I never imagined I could father my own kids, that it could ever come to pass. Not that it was physically impossible per se. There was one occasion – one of the few I kissed a girl – where, I suppose I came, not ‘close’ to fathering a child, but close to someone who herself got pregnant. She kissed another guy at the same house party, it led to the bedroom so I heard, and I learnt years later that the guy at that same party developed paranoid schizophrenia – one assumed because he smoked copious amounts of strong weed, and not because he accidentally fathered a child.
I wasn’t asexual. My teenage years were charged, fuelled by erotic imaginings and repressed desire. To anyone who thought they knew me, however, I must have appeared sexless. I was intensely serious, studious. I buried myself in my books. Following years of internalised homophobia, I held firm that every child needed a mother. It wasn’t something I deliberated over or analysed, as such. I was growing up, about as uncertain of my desires as any child could get. Above all, I was a Mummy’s Boy, until age eighteen in any case. I believed that every boy (and I suspected every girl) needed a Mum to hold, especially close.
My teenage years were abruptly called to a halt when Mum died at age 50 of cancer. In an explosion of delayed grief and unconscious sexual need, in 2001 I hit the buffers, so to speak. I was diagnosed with OCD. I began taking antidepressants, saw multiple psychiatrists and psychotherapists. I sought counselling advice about anything and everything except becoming a parent. In my mid-twenties I comforted myself with all the wrong blankets, borrowed fleetingly in unknown men’s twilit bedrooms. Parenthood for me was simply a question of whether my Dad was getting it right and my self-pitying response to so prematurely losing Mum. I indulged in sex. Then apps and smartphones came along and the urge to connect, the dopamine fix of someone handsome liking me, played on my addictive predisposition to meet men for validation.
Mehdi and I aren’t strangers to this game. ‘Tapping-to-the-right’, and then, seconds later, slandering perfectly decent profiles as we swish our forefingers to the left. We know all too well how life can change in an instant, how you can happen upon a profile, how you may first dismiss it with a cursory shrug. A week or two later, you glance at the same photos and wonder whether you might after all prove a decent match. This time, Tinder is far from our minds, as four years on and having survived a whole Presidential term – Trump’s no less – we’re sat hand-in-hand under our blanket, nursing cups of green tea on the settee.
We don’t learn their names, these smiling young women. They’re packaged to be semi-anonymous until you match with them and pay a five hundred dollar advance to keep them for yourselves’. I enter an internal dialogue and depend on Mehdi to read my mind, to feel the slight loosening or tightening of my grip. ‘She certainly seems talented. She’s got something about her! Some oomph!’Although, looking again, what I wonder most is whether she and I would produce a baby with a Guinness World Record for the biggest nose.
Three-letters signifiers signify very little indeed. ‘EIG’ seems fond of her Mum, as does ‘TBZ’. They’re both exceptionally fond of outdoors sports and DIY. Since neither me nor Mehdi are sporty, or in the least practical, they could be potential donors. Perhaps, we could set up our infant children as substitutes for IKEA manuals and instruct them to saw and hammer away as they build our family abode. Then again, we’re not evil. We don’t aspire to be Aunts Sponge and Spiker from Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. I have the ballooning belly of Sponge and the dark rings that illustrator Quentin Blake coloured under Spiker’s beady eyes, but I’ll be caring, striving to be paternal, even. I’m curious, excited, daunted.
The January afternoon sun lights Mehdi’s dark chocolate eyes. He’ll need a Siesta
soon; he’s programmed to live in Spain. We relocated here a year after our plan to live in Barcelona was kiboshed by Covid-19. I’m from ‘Brexit Britain’. I hope there aren’t any hiccups as I wait for a Tarjeta that would enable me to remain legally resident and visa-free in the Schengen Zone. Mehdi’s the eternal and contented nomad, but it was his original conviction, possibly on our third date, that his life plan was to try to have children. It was his maturity that made my head turn and made me question whether I needed a life of dating emotionally unavailable men. It was Mehdi that spoke with such clarity three years ago in Biarritz, on an even windier January afternoon, when he said he hoped I wanted to join him on the journey, but his mind was settled. His heart was set. Gay or not, he wanted to parent his own kids.
I haven’t shared our plans with many of our friends, why should I? It’s such early days. This can be a twenty-four-month journey – at best. The ‘intended parenting journey’ as one of the surrogacy agencies we’ve consulted characterises this process, is not necessarily tougher or trickier than any other parenting ‘journey’. I know many close friends and loved ones who’ve experienced miscarriages and trauma. What’s different are the series of financial and administrative decisions that need to be taken before even one cubic centimetre of sperm is spilled.
I’m thriving on being given this particular ‘project’ to plan. I’ve even mastered Apple Numbers with its rows and rows of pros and cons; “this agency seems friendly,” I might observe, “but they don’t seem to publish reliable data on first cycles or first embryo transfers that lead to a live pregnancy.” That’s the contrived way I now speak, which I’ve naturalised as if steeped in assisted reproductive technologies and years of researching IVF. Elsewhere, I’ll observe: “and this agency seems super-organised, perhaps too organised with its forty-five-page contracts detailing every conceivable contingency, including what happens in the event a surrogate decides she doesn’t want to become pregnant after all, but to be an extra in a Blondie video.”
The journey is replete with ‘known unknowns’: should our chosen surrogate fall ill, or worse, should a discussion need to be had about a termination, where would we and our surrogate stand on questions of disability; on life and death? What’s more, there are the permutations that could be labelled, to borrow an awful phrase, ‘unknown unknowns’ – what I like to think of as the ‘John Lennon life outcomes’, the ones that occur when ‘you’re busy making other plans’.
I wait with only a degree of detached curiosity as to how I will fare over the months to come. Have I convinced myself that I am ‘okay’ with all this? Not the desire to become a parent, even though the question fleetingly pops its Jiminy Cricket head, but rather, the ethics of choosing a woman we hardly know to donate her eggs, ‘borrowing biology’ so to speak. Choosing (and yes, compensating) a woman who may sound like she’s got her life in order, but who, as much as us, is capitalising her reproductive organs, making life-changing decisions that she – none of us in fact – can ever be convincingly ready for. Who is ready to become a parent? Truly ready? Am I?
I’ve seen the self-help books, the amusing tweets a friend’s brother posted over Christmas of him and his little one ironically reading ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read’. I’ve had it explained to me that no matter how much you imagine life is going to change, you’ve really got no idea until that first sleepless and reddish night peering over a rocking cot. Reflecting more deeply, I remember feeling contrasting emotions, invited as much as I was in my late twenties and early thirties to spend Sunday afternoons or whole weekends with friends and their tots. As an uncle and Godfather too, I nearly always enjoyed the company of loved ones’ and close friends’ children, and yet, I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy the act of closing their front door, returning home, perhaps even going for a late-night cruise in a gay sauna. For generations, I believe other gay men have felt the same way. In the late 20th century, the cage of the closet gave way to a forest of endless and free possibilities – for the childless among us, that is. Why trade this for nappies and a lifetime of responsibilities, many thought, and until recently, I shared the same sentiments. Becoming a parent is by all accounts joyous and hellish, but you can’t always anticipate which of these emotions will triumph.
I’ve had friends who’ve experienced post-natal depression, postpartum depression; men who’ve felt distanced from themselves, men who for a year or two, sunk. In fact, Mums and Dads both. I’ve seen parenting advice, and the online pleas of parents who tell you to follow your instincts and to avoid official advice, ‘to do things your own way’. Breastfeed. Or don’t. Well, that’s at least one choice Mehdi and I won’t be confronted with. Although an agency did explain last week how some of their surrogates willingly pump breastmilk and for compensation see it handed to parents, including same-sex couples, who have no way of breastfeeding their children. The mind boggles. The old Carry On films, hardly a moral guide to parenthood, seem to strike a chord here. Didn’t Sid James just turn up at the maternity ward, forgoing the joys and obligations of serious fatherhood? If men ever did behave as badly as that, and they surely did, that’s not a reasonable route now. I must get serious. Grow up. I’m turning forty next year.
Bar one or two doctors, some of the men we speak to in this process remind me of the kids I avoided in the school playground. You know, the wideboys who came over all friendly when they wanted to exchange Top Trump playing cards, but behind your back, called you Pinnochio, or worse. They’re invariably over-excitable and hasty, urging us to get to La Coruña in the north of Spain and deposit our damn specimens. That’s where our European clinic is located. The one that will see us embarrassedly deposit our sperm so it gets sent in a FedEx shipment to the US West Coast. They’re marketeers, some of these men, or attorneys with Patrick Swayze facial features and coiffured hair. While they all mean well, many of them previously becoming parents through egg donation and surrogacy themselves, their emails seem code for how quickly they’ll secure their commission. Like anywhere else in the economy, there must be a slowdown in their industry. I trust the women – a good rule for life, in fact.
There are the women who run surrogacy agencies; former nurses, obstetricians, embryologists and innovators in the field of assisted reproduction. They tend to tell it ‘like it is’. They generally avoid waffle. Sceptical on occasion, they rightly remind us that we’re not their clients – their main duty of care is to the woman we eventually select as a surrogate, the woman who we hope over the course of nine months, will bear our child, or who knows, our children.
And then there’s the women who first and foremost make this ‘intended parenting journey’ biologically possible. The biological Mums, the egg donors in databases with filters applied. Databases that facilitate all sorts of personal preferences, possibly even prejudices. You can search for an African American woman who is five feet ten, or should you wish, a petite Pacific Islander. Prefer green eyes? Well, you may have to wait a while. Mehdi’s keen that future children of ours’ have something of my colouring. I’m Ashkenazi Jewish and grey, but in his favourable opinion, I’ve been blessed with blonde hair and light eyes. I, meanwhile, prefer his colouring and far prefer sassy Middle Eastern or Mexican women with toothy smiles than, sorry for saying this, Plain Jane caucasian women from the Idaho plains.
Who are we to judge these generous and brilliant women who are helping other people, to start new families? And yet, I have to be honest enough with myself to acknowledge that that’s largely what I’m doing here – judging. Judging like I did on Grindr, and Tinder, all those years ago. Our lives weighed and shaped in swift movements of fingers. Judging women with tart remarks, as if I could have ever got close to dating most of these women had I ever been straight!
We soon have to decide on a ‘match’ and organise a video conference call with a preferred egg donor. One major problem remains, however. The fertility clinics we know come recommended contain surprisingly poor choices of available donors compared to some of the more ‘boutique’ options that admittedly cost more, but might be worth the premium. I can be a snob. I blame my father’s side of the family. But even I’m willing to own the fact I can’t stand it when donors reply their favourite book is Harry Potter or Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. When asked what their favourite book is, I’ve seen some applicants respond, ‘Not applicable’.
It’s all very well having kids who look a certain way and, who knows, look much more handsome or far prettier than any child I could have had if I had been straight and had to rely on my personality to find a mate. We do, though, need to bond with our child, and see at least something of us in their personality, laugh and smile. It’s exceedingly odd to think the genetics of any future child I am lucky enough to parent can be fifty per cent ‘supermodel’, fifty per cent ‘pretty’, fifty per cent ‘perfectly normal’.
In the end, I’m reminded all we can hope for are healthy children. Children we love. Anything else is a bonus. Yet the far-reaching potential of genomics means these added extras can, in fact, be paid for and guaranteed. Want to select the sex of your child? Want to ensure the embryo you and your egg donor create doesn’t have any chromosomal abnormalities? There are tests that can now be paid for called PGT-A tests, which sound like a middle school examination, but their purpose is to design and, yes, guarantee, certain outcomes.
There are many dizzying choices here and while I cite Roald Dahl, I suppose at times I feel like Charlie in the proverbial Chocolate Factory. I’m in awe of the choices to be faced, the choices that parents, often without being aware of it, make all the time. I feel moral choices abound; there are Oompa Loompa figures waiting to pass judgement. I appreciate there is a maze to be navigated here, but I’ve got very little sense of its future loops and darkened corners. I’m eager and naive. Other times, I step gingerly, I want to slow the fuck down. I’m Charlie Bucket. With Mehdi by my side and with the incredible aid of assisted reproductive technologies, I’ve found my Golden Ticket. But if the prize is a factory to run, will I end up feeling a winner?
It’s half past six in the evening and the pavement tiles glisten as though there’s been rain. A burgundy coloured petal falls from the dying stalk on the plant our friend Lamia, and her parents must have placed in the living room for their Christmas celebrations. I lose my focus. A quick browse of my emails: more messages to respond to from the clinics, more offers, more legalese to wade through and figures that will only make sense with my calculator. Mehdi’s fast asleep and I want to write. I can’t spend all day looking at my laptop. I know my task, whomever we choose to match with. To stay on the straight and narrow, to avoid steep edges, to stick to the course. And enjoy myself. If I allow myself.
Andrew Kauffmann is a teacher, writer and coach whose queer prose has been published in Untitled Writing, Clavmag, Streetcake Magazine and Mechanic’s Institute Review. Upcoming work will be featured in the new anthology from Polari Press, ‘Creating in Crisis’. He contributes to the Huffington Post and is working on a memoir. Find more writing at www.andrewkaufman.co.uk and follow Andrew on Twitter: @JKaye82