Wednesday 22 February 2017

Parents Patrick and Alvaro on the difficulties of surrogacy: 'Irish officials wouldn't recognise our daughter's birth cert without a mother being on it'

When Patrick O'Keeffe and Alvaro Gonzalez decided they'd like a baby, they found a surrogate mother in the US. Once the baby was born, they brought her back to Ireland. Three years ago, they moved to Spain. They explain their decision to Frieda Klotz

Frieda Klotz

Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30

Victoria with Patrick and Alvaro.
Victoria with Patrick and Alvaro.
Victoria and her two dads, Patrick and Alvaro. They didn't want to go the pink-for-girls rule at first, but found out that Victoria adored pinks, purples and girly styles.

Sitting on their couch, Patrick O'Keeffe, his husband Alvaro Gonzalez and their daughter Victoria make the perfect family. Dressed alike in aertex T-shirts and shorts, the couple speak with me while their daughter, blond and in a white dress, bounds around the room, alternately twanging a toy guitar and giggling, and generally showing off. It will be her birthday next week.

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Just over four-and-a-half years ago, w hen I first spoke to Patrick and Alvaro, the couple were in the midst of an unusual but increasingly common adventure, arranging for a woman in California to give birth to their child. Nine months later Victoria was born. The family travelled back to Ireland, Victoria on a Spanish passport that she obtained through Alvaro, who is Spanish. After three years in Dublin the family moved to Madrid.

In that short time, Victoria has changed their lives. "It feels like she has been here with us forever," Alvaro explains. "You wouldn't conceive of life now without her. You miss her-when she's with the grandparents, I miss her a lot, when I'm at work. In such a short time you get really really really really attached to a tiny person."

Surrogacy is unlegislated for in Ireland, and Patrick and Alvaro have never met another gay male couple in Ireland with a child, although they suspect some do exist. Interest in surrogacy from both gay and straight couples has risen sharply in recent years, says Fiona Duffy, a partner at Patrick F. O'Reilly & Co. Solicitors in Dublin, who specialises in family law and surrogacy. "There certainly has been an increase in the number of inquiries, and probably in the number of cases that I've dealt with as well," she says.

When Duffy spoke about surrogacy at a seminar on the future of same-sex parenting in Ireland last year, organised by Oregon Reproductive Medicine, a company based in Portland, USA, 300 people registered to attend. "I think that interest is going to increase."

In the run-up to the referendum on gay marriage, surrogacy played an implicit and sometimes explicit role in the debate, with groups like Mothers and Fathers Matter arguing that gay marriage would be a first step towards granting gay people legal access to surrogacy.

Yet bringing up a child together in Swords, Dublin, caused Patrick and Alvaro few issues. Alvaro's boss created an exceptional parental leave for him, offering 24 weeks paid leave, with 16 extra weeks unpaid. Patrick's manager let him take all his holidays together, which would normally not be allowed, and even gave him a few extra days. When they sought childcare, they would tell creches that if they didn't want to take the child of two gay men, just to say they were full. But nobody ever did. Once or twice people have expressed surprise, "Oh! You don't see that every day", said one woman they encountered. But mostly Dubliners, and now their Spanish neighbours, take the two dads in their stride. "I notice how normal people around us see it," says Alvaro. "We have the same problems that heterosexual couples have."

During the recession, a lot of men lost their jobs, which might have made it easier, Patrick suggests. "It wasn't unusual that fathers were home minding the children," he says.

Surrogacy may be a different experience for gay men than for heterosexual couples, who tend to turn to surrogacy after years of trying for a baby, seeing doctors and spending money on fertility. Gay men skip that part of the process, Patrick says. Plus they are accustomed to obstacles. "Usually being gay is difficult, so you're expecting problems. We never had the problems."

Victoria was a good baby. "She was not sick, she would eat, she would sleep," Alvaro says. "We were lucky."

The move to Spain was a financial and personal decision. At the height of the recession, Patrick lost his job in construction. His parents had passed away, and a brother and sister, with families of their own, live in Clonmel. There wasn't as much support as in Spain, where Alvaro's parents were willing to help with child-care. Trained in IT, it was relatively easy for Alvaro to move companies. Private education is cheaper in Spain, so Victoria attends a private bilingual school.

The day we spoke, Victoria had been with Alvaro at their apartment's pool complex. "It's all just very convenient and easy-and, of course, there's the weather," Patrick says.

Since leaving Ireland last year Victoria has already picked up Spanish. She speaks to Patrick in English and Alvaro and her grandparents in their language. Patrick she calls daddy; Alvaro is pappy. They didn't want to go the pink-for-girls, blue-for-boys route at first, but found that she adores pinks, purples and girly styles. When I later call Patrick on the phone, the conversation is interrupted: "Dressed up again! Wow, you're so pretty. Our daughter loves wardrobe changes."

"She's really girly," Patrick explains. "There was a period when if it wasn't a dress, she wasn't interested. It's calmed down a bit there now."

Victoria is quite accustomed to chatting on Skype, since that's how they stay in touch with her birth mother, Darla. The little girl knows Darla's her mom, and happily tells people that her mom is in California. Patrick and Alvaro don't plan to have a serious sit-down conversation with her about her origins, but instead answer her questions whenever she asks them. There's a picture of Darla and her family in Victoria's bedroom. She's happy to know a mammy is out there somewhere, Patrick says. "Kids are very aware of mammies, daddies and so on."

Patrick and Alvaro still speak with Darla regularly. She now works as a support for surrogate moms in the US and is studying for a masters in social work. "She always sends something for Victoria every Christmas, and she usually sends something for her birthday as well," Patrick says.

In Victoria's case, Darla was not only the surrogate but also donated the egg (a process known as 'traditional surrogacy'). "Victoria typically calls me Darla," she writes in an email to me. "This isn't usually the circumstances in most surrogacy relationships, but we agreed to this as I was their egg-donor. In most gestational surrogacies [where the mother or a different donor supplies the egg], surrogates enjoy receiving pictures, updates, invitations, phone calls."

Darla has been a surrogate four times in all. The first time, with a heterosexual couple, the process failed. The second time, with a heterosexual couple, the baby was stillborn at 23 weeks. The third time, Victoria was born. After having Victoria, she had boy-girl twins for another gay couple, a baby from each of their sperm. Darla says that after the stillbirth, she took a new approach. "The parents made no contact during and after delivery leaving me to handle everything. This was difficult for me so I decided to work with same sex couples only."

Her advice to women thinking of becoming surrogates is to embark on it only after they have had their own families. "Make sure that you have a great support system and a reputable agency. I can't stress enough this isn't a process for mistakes, shortcuts, or lack of patience."

Patrick and Alvaro are aware of how controversial surrogacy is, not only in Ireland but in many parts of Europe, even Spain. So they were delighted to find someone experienced in this area like Darla. She had rules and was firm in what she would and wouldn't do. Darla told them how many embryos she would take and said she would not undergo a reduction. Not only that, she had a degree, and lived in a house in California that was bigger than theirs. "She knew about surrogacy, she knew what she wanted, she was able to tell us what we could and could not do with her," Patrick explains.

But cost is the big issue for couples going to the US for surrogacy. Patrick and Alvaro spent €85,000 in total, including health insurance for the mother and baby, the flights back and forth to California, and accommodation while staying there. They have considered having another child, perhaps with a surrogate in Canada, but the expense is just too much, Patrick says.

Of course, everything would be cheaper if surrogacy were more accessible closer to home. In the meantime, some jurisdictions accommodate a surrogacy process that has occurred elsewhere. Because of a directive in 2010, Spain's government-following a court case brought by two men -recognises Victoria's US birth certificate, which had two fathers on it (Darla, the birth mother, renounced her rights, a standard procedure). But the Irish system requires a birth mother on the document and if she is married grants her husband legal guardianship of the child. When Patrick and Alvaro gave Irish officials the American and the Spanish birth certs, "They came back and they said, 'Where is the mother?" Patrick recalls. "We don't recognise a birth cert without the mother being on it."

Fiona Duffy, the lawyer, says the State does its best in Ireland but needs to address the ethical and legal issues surrogacy poses, and to assist couples, whether gay or straight, who may be incurring legal risks. "The reality is that surrogacy is being used, so legislation is needed."

Alvaro and Patrick say they are only the third or fourth couple to avail themselves of the new directive in Spain. They know one other gay couple with surrogate children, and have been told that another child of gay men is attending Victoria's school.

Over time, that may change. Victoria has no hesitation telling her new Spanish friends that she has two dads. Alvaro feels sure that she will be able to defend herself if questions come up. Their concerns for her future are those of any parent-they want her to do well at school and are glad she will be bilingual. "I just want her to be happy," Patrick says.

At home, Victoria rules the roost, and their lives revolve around her. The interview is running on and it's getting late. It ends, though, when Victoria asks, "When are we having dinner?"

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