Saturday 17 November 2018

I'm 31, gay and I'm ready to be a father

Darren Kennedy

Darren Kennedy investigates the challenges same-sex couples face in starting a family

My mother always told me I'd make a great father one day. In my teens, like any young man, this wasn't something I spent much time thinking about at all.

Fast-forward two decades: I'm now 31 and much has changed.

I am in a loving relationship with my partner of 10 years, Aidan, and it seems like forever since I finally blurted out the words "I'm gay" to my parents.

Their biggest fear, when I told them, was that my life would be loveless, lonely and childless.

I'm very blessed to be neither loveless nor lonely (is it even possible to be lonely in the hustle and bustle of Dublin 8?), but recently I've begun to wonder about the 'childless' bit.

You see last year, at the same time as I turned 30, the first grandchild in our family arrived -- my first nephew and godson, Tristan.

Since then, my brother Jeff's brood has continued to grow, with the latest bundle of joy being baby Adam. I absolutely adore them both and they have brought so much happiness to the Kennedy clan.

With the arrival of my little nephews, I began to wonder if, as a gay man, I could ever look forward to becoming a father myself one day. This in turn raised the bigger question: do I really want kids?

After four years living together, Aidan and I decided we were ready to get a dog, who turned out to be Harry, a mini (as in 1.5kg mini) Yorkshire terrier. He's brilliant company and he's like our baby. But, obviously, he's not a baby.

Whenever I'm in Ireland, I love spending as much time as I can minding baby Tristan and Adam but, at the end of a day with their guncles (gay uncles), I must admit to being knackered and well ready to hand them back.

It's bloody hard work!

Could I handle the responsibility of parenthood, yet maintain my sanity? What would I be prepared to do to have children?

And then there are the inevitable career sacrifices (I currently live and work between two countries); the financial implications; the most definite lack of sleep; and the potential strain on our relationship.

These are universal questions that I've no doubt the majority of couples, regardless of sexuality, seriously consider before having children. But when it comes to creating a baby, needless to say our options are more limited than a heterosexual couple's.

Yet where there's a will, there's a way so, recently, I began on my journey of looking at the possibilities and options available to me in modern Ireland.

Basically, there are four options: surrogacy, fostering, adoption and co-parenting.

A sensible starting point was to see if I was fertile and have the ability to pass on my genes. I made an appointment at the SIMS Clinic in Clonskeagh for a sperm test.

I was totally petrified about this visit, to be honest. Even just being in the clinic made me feel as if I had begun something big and my life trajectory was beginning to shift.

The process raised the major question, 'How important is being a biological father to me?'

Having a genetic link to a child is something that most people take as a given, but for me it's a factor that would massively affect my options and the road I pursue in life.

Then there's surrogacy. This option made headlines most recently for assisting high-profile gay fathers such as Ricky Martin, and Elton John and David Furnish, who've all become poster boys for the fertility treatment.

I was interested in finding out more about the intricacies of the process, not to mention the costs -- which I imagined would be enormous -- and especially the current legal situation of children born to a surrogate under Irish law.

I took a major leap, got on the phone and contacted the UK's first surrogate gay daddies. Barrie and Tony Drewitt-Barlow made history in Britain 12 years ago when they were both named as fathers on the birth certificate of their twins, born through a surrogate in the US.

The Drewitt-Barlows, who now have five children, have since established the British Surrogacy Centre to advise and assist couples, both gay and straight, on the road to surrogacy. They invited me over, so off I went.

It was intriguing to see first hand what life is really like for a family with two gay dads, albeit in a plush, gated Essex mansion.

While Barrie and Tony are both from humble working-class family backgrounds they are now self-made millionaires.

In truth, though, it was like any other household with five kids aged between two and 12 years -- slightly chaotic and very loud. The children were like any other children their ages and just wanted to play, chat, sing, dance and run around the place.

Tony and Barrie advised me that the best course of action for someone in my situation would be to engage the services of two women: one to provide the donor egg and the other to act as a surrogate to carry the baby.

This makes it less complicated legally.

And the cost? Oh, a mere €100,000.

Quite apart from the huge expense, I was astounded to see then how mechanical the process is, if you have the money.

I was guided through the donor selection process and the best way I can describe it is like catalogue shopping.

We browsed through donor 'look books' packed full of photos and the vital stats on each egg donor, including their ethnicity, hair and eye colour, IQ, education as well as their 'baby success rate'.

I thought the photos of each donor themselves as a child were very odd. But this was no sci-fi movie. This was real life, in 2012, 30 minutes from Dublin.

Trawling through the look books of gorgeous girls with vital stats, I felt a bit cold and clinical, as if I could be casting models for a shoot. But then I reminded myself that, for some couples, this could be a lifeline if every other option had run out.

Plus, I had five adorable, happy kids running around me, so they were the best argument ever for the whole process, clinical or not.

Right now, according to Tony and Barrie, the 'Irish look' is apparently very popular among their service users, hence the Essex clinic has a large base of Irish egg donors.

Many of them are young Irish girls studying in the UK who use the money they earn from egg donations (anywhere from €6,000 and up each time) to pay their way through university.

As for the Drewitt-Barlows, they are now considering having a sixth child via surrogacy.

The legal situation in Ireland, however, is complicated regarding surrogacy. I checked with a top legal expert and, while surrogacy is taking place, it is not reflected anywhere in Irish law.

This means that children born to surrogate mothers remain in a difficult legal limbo and are not recognised by the State here.

This, I feel, is a sad state of affairs, given the core of our constitution is supposed to be the protection and welfare of the family and, most especially, children.

But Irish law is clearly now out of step and ineffective, having failed to keep pace with developments in society.

If Tony and Barrie lived in Ireland, their family would not be recognised by the State and their children would be in a very precarious position.

One option in Ireland that welcomes gay couples with open arms is fostering. While fostering can offer a child in need an amazing opportunity, it is not without its pitfalls, too. For one, the potential short-term nature of being a foster parent makes it tough.

I'm not sure I'd have the emotional strength to cope with growing to love a child and then he/she being taken away, often at short notice. This requires a deep selflessness and a very special parent indeed.

I had the good fortune to meet an incredible gay couple, Vivian and Ernie, both of them selfless and very special, who live in Kildare with their long-term foster son.

Their story is heart-warming, and one of the system in Ireland working at its best. Even more impressive was the incredible support they received from their neighbours in the small, rural community in which they live.

Hearing the news of the arrival of their foster son, neighbours dropped over toys and gifts to welcome him and congratulate the two dads.

Vivian and Ernie are lucky in that the precarious nature of fostering has been removed from their situation. Nonetheless, there are still certain limitations and restrictions on daily life, which still require the input of social services. For instance, arranging a family holiday abroad.

Even though I'm not fully convinced I could deal with the uncertainties nature of fostering, my meeting with Vivian and Ernie left me feeling inspired by this amazing couple who are making such huge sacrifices to ensure the well-being of their foster child.

Then there's adoption, the route that a lot of people I speak to consider to be the most obvious solution. The irony of it is that while gay couples are wholeheartedly welcome to foster children in Ireland 2012, they are not afforded the legal right to adopt a child.

This farcical situation means that if we were to adopt, either Aidan or I could only apply to do so as a single person. This has enormous implications when it comes to the welfare of the child and our family unit.

Whichever one of us was not the legal adoptive parent, despite raising the child as his own, would have no legal rights in relation to child -- and vice-versa -- if something happened.

Adopting would enable us to offer a child the opportunity of a loving family, a great start in life, a good education and everything a child needs to be happy.

But here's the $64,000 question (which maybe I was skirting around). If I am going to have a child, shouldn't I be the biological father?

Even typing that makes me realise what a huge statement that is. And this led Aidan and I to discuss the fourth possible option: co-parenting -- essentially, coming to an arrangement with a single women or couple to have a child together.

My good friend Jeremy and his partner, who live in Bordeaux, had a child with a lesbian couple and they now have a very strong relationship with the shared parents. While their arrangement has worked out wonderfully, there are never any guarantees.

Even if I knew someone I thought would be a suitable mother (I can think of quite a few), again, the law in Ireland relegates the father to a well-documented status with little or no rights.

Given the fact that I can be a bit of a control freak and have very clear values and ideas of how I would want a child to be brought up, the potential lack of direct regular input into the child's day- to-day formation would be an issue for me.

Not to mention having to deal with the additional parent(s) outside of my own relationship.

While this might work for others, I reckon it could prove to be quite stressful. I'm not sure I'm prepared to be a 'weekend' dad.

Quite aside from the practicalities of how we could have a child, I did wonder if I'd be bringing unnecessary hardship into a child's life.

We all know children pick up on the slightest differences which bullies are quick to capitalise on. Would having two daddies be like leading lambs to the slaughter in the schoolyard?

From my own experiences, I know growing up is tough at the best of times, but when you're trying to come to terms with being in any way different, in a country where the prime schoolboy jibe is 'fag' or 'gay', it doesn't make it any easier.

This got me thinking about my own experience of growing up gay.

I grew up in Santry on the Northside of Dublin in a very normal, grounded family. I feel privileged to be able to say I'd an amazing childhood.

I'm the middle child of three -- Jeff is five years older and my sister Andrea is six years my junior. At times, our house was chaos, often caused by my unauthorised 'borrowing' of my brother's clothes and aftershaves, and the madness that ensued.

Both my parents worked hard and they instilled a great work ethic in each of us. We were taught that nothing comes without hard graft and always encouraged to go after whatever we wanted in life.

'Coming out' was a major milestone that presented many challenges. I was about 18 when I finally plucked up the courage to sit my parents down.

It was a Friday evening and we were sitting in the living room watching 'The Late Late Show'. When I did finally blurt it out, to say my parents were shocked doesn't nearly come close.

With the words 'I'm gay', I think it's fair to say, I shattered many of my parents' dreams for me. At that moment in time, anyway.

Over the following weeks and months, I spoke with both mam and dad at length. It was clear that, apart from anything else, they associated being gay with growing old alone without ever experiencing what it means to have a family of my own.

And for them, they felt they would never have the grandkids that they'd always hoped for from me.

Obviously, I couldn't guarantee that I would find love and be happy, but these things are not a given for anyone. What I could guarantee was I had a far better chance of happiness by being my true self.

Today, from the experiences of the past few months, seeing and meeting children brought up by loving gay parents, I can say they are as happy and well-adjusted as any other child brought up in a nurturing, stable family environment.

Overall, one of the biggest things I've learned on this journey is that having a biological link to a child is far from the most important aspect of parenthood. A child's welfare has to be the number-one priority.

Whether it's a man and a woman, two men, one man, two women or one woman raising a child, the most important considerations are the quality of love, care and opportunity to flourish that this child receives.

So I guess it's kind of decision time for Aidan and me. We have been talking so much about babies in recent months that we are probably both a bit unsure of exactly what the next step will be.

Despite living in one of the most developed countries in the world, with a platinum reputation abroad for human rights, I think it's time we took a closer look at the situation on our doorstep. Because right now, if I decided to have a child, I would be entering into a legal nightmare.

I can't legally have a child by surrogacy. As a gay couple, we can't adopt. Co-parenting would mean hoping for the best, but with no legal back up. It is a mess.

The good thing, though, is that the process has reaffirmed how much we both love children and how much we have to offer.

At this moment in time, we can definitely see children in our future. And do you know what -- isn't the Irish mammy always right? I will make a great father one day.

Darren's upcoming documentary 'Gay Daddy' airs on RTE2 on Tuesday, September 18 as part of the 'Reality Bites' documentary series.

Twitter: #GayDaddy

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