Chef Yotam Ottolenghi & his journey to parenthood
For Israeli chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi, having children was culturally acceptable even as a gay men. This was not the case for his partner Karl, from Northern Ireland.
Here Yotam talks about coming together and how they found the right ingredients to have their son, Max.
“These are our own matters and we don’t need the whole world to know about them. It’s private!” This is what Karl and I were telling each other after Max came into our world six months ago. There’s work, there’s public life, there’s twitter and there is Karl and Max and me and our precious little world. Sod the rest.
But as soon as we arrived back home to London, after seven weeks in Boston, where Max was born via the process with the very soulless term of gestational surrogacy, we realised how naïve, slightly egotistical, this frame of mind was.
We are both children of the last three decades of the twentieth century. We came out at a time when, on the surface, these things were normalized. Apparently everything was smooth, relatively easy and painless for us. The only obstacle was coming out to our families, which we both did in our twenties. But actually we were not completely liberated gays, we still had a few serious chips on our shoulders.
One of them was about keeping certain aspects of our lives “private”. It always took me quite a while before a new person earned my trust trust and I could reveal the sex of my allusive “partner”. The moment to tell my barber just never came up. Funny that!
When Karl and I met our surrogate, Melanie, she told us that she first heard about surrogacy while watching Oprah Winfrey and listening to a woman’s testimonial as a surrogate, telling about the life-affirming experience of giving a gift to a couple that couldn’t have a child. Melanie fell in love with the idea. My sensitivity radar was obviously signaling loudly with unease about privacy, exposure, the American way of turning everything public. What is this obsession with exposure? There’s certainly an unresolved issue there.
It was me, of course, with the unresolved issue. At the end of a five-year process that turned Karl and me into parents we finally realised – better very-very-late than never-never-never, right? – that we just can’t afford to be squeamish about telling our story, that privacy isn’t an option. That’s because we could have only had Max, and hopefully also a little future sibling, thanks to the surrogate on Oprah and thanks to many other, public and private people, who have been involved in gay parenting and who have told their stories to the world.
And our story is part of a bigger story, the story of gay people gaining their due full rights and respect just by being visible, being out to friends and family and co-workers. Once we were all out in numbers, being gay ceased to be a big deal.
Karl and I realised that we had to do our second coming out, the coming out as gay parents, in order to help gay people, particularly gay men, to recognise that they can, like lesbians and straight people, have children; that there is a way and it isn’t all a forgone conclusion, and then get the world to accept this – fully and wholeheartedly (unfortunately, the route we ended up taking is only open to a few because it is prohibitively expensive).
I always wanted to have children. It was a combination of my very Jewish anxieties (Oy vey, you vill grow old wiz no children? But zat is so lonely!), my positive experience growing up in an affectionate and nurturing family, and my desire to inject some new meaning into my life, to perhaps live more altruistically.
The idea just hadn’t occurred to Karl before we met.
As with almost all gay men, he always assumed that parenthood was just not a card handed to him upon arrival. There wasn’t a very strong emotion there, a sense of loss or self-pity, it just wasn’t meant to be. Instead, the focus was mostly on work, maybe gym, and just a general sense of why-waste-time-let’s-have-a-good-time. My idea of “self-fulfillment through brat” (his words) was completely alien to him.
Karl wasn’t at all sure how this would work, how it would fit into our lives; who’s the mother and who’s the father? It was all full of unknowns, of risks, of pitfalls. There were no role models either, no precedents. A family with two dads was just something Karl hadn’t experienced. And since I couldn’t provide him with any kind of substantiated answer – what did I know? not much really; only that I had to have a cute little cuddly thing, and it wasn’t going to be a dog – Karl obviously couldn’t curb his reservations. But Karl being Karl – that is, a real, proper, life-size angel – he just wouldn’t stop me from realising my fantasy. “I’ll support you”, he graciously conceded, “as long as I don’t lose you and you don’t start loving that child of yours more than you love me!”
The obvious solution was co-parenting, an arrangement popular with gay men in Israel. That meant teaming up with a woman, gay or straight, and rearing a child together, like a divorced family, dividing the child between two homes. This suited us perfectly. Karl and I would get to keep our little unit intact and our hedonistic lifestyle, whilst still having a child; a part-time child. On a deeper level, co-parenting also addressed one of those shoulder chips I was suffering from. A child without a mother? That’s not quite right. Isn’t it more natural to have a woman involved? Issues of guilt and inadequacy played a huge part. Can you deprive a child of a motherly bond? Is it alright to virtually poison our baby with formula, instead of saintly breast milk?
The first step was meeting a lesbian couple from Brighton. I got to know them through a website dedicating to matching men and women looking to co-parent. My first date with “the Brighton girls” was lunch in a Lebanese restaurant on the Edgware road in London. It was a proper blind date, with the inevitable awkwardness and hurried judgments followed by sheepish probing. What made this date doubly embarrassing was that its purpose was plain, clear and totally unmistaken: we were there to make children. Full stop. This wasn’t a prelude to a one-night-stand, it wasn’t the beginning of a beautiful friendship, it wasn’t even the start of an intimate relationship. This was an interview for the definite, one and only, irreversible mother of my own child. Help!
Funnily, once we passed the initial colossal mortification, it all turned pretty pleasant. We giggled together about our bizarre predicament and found everything quite hilarious. My biggest shock, I told Karl when I got home, was that my new acquaintances were actually nice. Really nice. I didn’t expect this. After all, who in their right mind joins an obscure website to co-parent with a stranger?
After that we met every few weeks, trying to see if we got along, if this was the kind of relationship that could stand the test of time. At the same time, we talked about “our arrangement”.
At first it all seemed pretty hunky-dory. The more time spent together – nights in a damp lesbian home with two cats (the absolute horror of every urban gay!); days in a fancy London flat with surfaces so shiny a clumsy lesbian could easily slip and break her head – the more we liked each other. This was not enough though. We also knew we had to be responsible and draw up an informal contract. As we didn’t want to get a lawyer, we spent many hours wrecking our brains on how all this would work.
We ended up with a very complex document. There was a scenario for the first year, the second year and the following two years. There was a stipulation about primary school and secondary school. I’d go down to Brighton twice a week, the child would spend every other weekend with us, but only after the age of nine months. Karl and I would be able to take “it” on holiday alone, but only after “it” was two years old. And what if one couple breaks up? What if both? Rights for future spouses? Future siblings?
Drawing up the damned thing became the bane of our lives. The initial chemistry seemed less and less capable of holding everything together. We were quickly turning into a divorcing couple negotiating their settlement. What time would you bring “it” back on a Saturday night? Why could I not have my own son sleep over at six months?
After many very painful phone conversations over the minutest of details in the life of a child yet to exist, we all realised it was not going to work. We were that close – we had a date in the diary for our first attempt – but in the end it all fell apart over an afternoon visit at the age of six, or something like that.
We all unraveled some serious truths that had nothing to do with visiting hours. The Brighton girls realised they wanted a full-time baby. I realised I needed my child to be closer to Karl and me and to be much more a part of my real life. I also started to acknowledge that there was an issue of control, that I found it hard to let go. So we went our separate ways.
Not long after that I was approached by a close friend, Karin, who was my age at the time, 42. She suggested that we “have a go”. Karin, a straight woman who never had children, figured this would be her last opportunity. “Think how cool it could be,” she said to me, “we live walking distance from each other so the child will always be in the same neighborhood, and we can just live like one large extended family”.
This seemed perfect. So we all plunged in. A few discussions around a dinner table, some general scenarios and I was already passing sperm samples over on my way to work. We tried a few times “manually” but at the same time started inquiring about assisted reproduction. Karin’s age was the crucial factor. Fertility doctors don’t beat around the bush. They don’t tell a woman, “darling, you’re just as old as you feel”. They made it very clear that our chances of pregnancy were very very slim and that we’d better start an IVF cycle “yesterday”.
Somehow one always feels invincible. “Yes, of course, the odds are against women in their forties in general, but that really doesn’t apply to us.” Karin was young and healthy and positive, things in general didn’t stand in our way. We just went out there and got what we wanted.
We tried four times. After every failure our spirit was flattened just a little more. We tried to cheer ourselves up every time, “it isn’t the end of the world,” but it seemed more and more like it was with every unsuccessful cycle. Karin took it worst; every negative result was taking her another step closer to childlessness.
Our friendship suffered as well. Just like with the Brighton girls, arguments over control started surfacing. From friends we turned into project co-managers who had to divide future prospects that were gradually slipping away. The hypothetical child became less and less able to sustain us. We called it a day. We picked ourselves up and decided, separately, what to do next. Karin gradually accepted that there were not going to be kids in her life. This was complicated and unfair. I was also devastated, maybe less so because I hadn’t given up, but after three years of active pursuit my dream seemed less and less real.
After each failed IVF cycle, the possibility of “going motherless” started taking root. I only told Karl, though, at the very last cycle. And when I did, I sort of knew that he would be up for it. As I see it now, Karl grew more and more comfortable with the idea of having a child in our lives as time went by. His tone of voice changed, his speech slightly altered; from “your” child it became “ours”. While I was busy trying to make a child, Karl was busy getting to grips with it.
I approached the surrogacy route with apprehension. On some level I stopped believing that it a baby was possible. The various failures, the dead-end discussions had knocked my confidence. And remember all those preconceptions about what’s right and what’s natural for a baby? I raise my hand and own up to all of them too. I really wanted a mother for my child. But Karl was much more positive. The idea of becoming a full-time dad was appealing to him.
As soon as we embarked on surrogacy it immediately transpired what a minefield we had nonchalantly stepped into. I won’t go into the small legal, technical and financial details here but many times along the process Karl and I looked at each other saying, “just think how easy it is for every sordid straight couple to do this. They go into bed at the right time. End of story”.
We couldn’t have our child in the UK because it is illegal to pay a woman to carry your child here; you can only cover her expenses. In America gestational surrogacy; having a woman carry a baby conceived with another woman’s egg for an infertile couple, is much more common. Agencies have cropped up in many places in recent years offering to match couples – gay or straight - with egg donors and surrogates and see them through the complicated legal and medical process. This is extremely expensive though, particularly for foreigners, who need to pay ridiculous health insurance costs. We are talking at least $100,000 for the whole process, often much more.
Once we had a vague understanding of what was ahead we signed up with an agency in Los Angeles. We were lucky. Within a couple of months we received Melanie’s profile (at the same time, she received ours). She seemed sweet and sorted, with four of her own children and had been a surrogate once before. Soon after we flew out to meet her. A psychotherapist from the agency facilitated our first encounter. We then went for a quick lunch where we learnt some more about Melanie. When we got back home we got the word that Melanie “approved” us. We were delighted.
The next big thing was finding an egg donor. The faces peering at us from the computer database didn’t seem to mean much. How do you choose the mother of your child from a screen full of vital statistics? Is it height, intelligence or colour of skin? Is it beauty, university degrees or ethnic background? This decision was the hardest and, at the same time, the easiest we had to make. It was bizarrely easy because we somehow understood that though we made a decision, we had absolutely no idea about the effect it would have on our child; we just don’t know how genes work. It was like inserting your hand inside a box of lottery tickets, rummaging blindly, and choosing one.
After that it didn’t take more than three months before Melanie and the donor began getting medical treatment, each in her own town, in order to coordinate their menstrual cycles. The donor was then flown to our clinic in LA, where eggs were retrieved from her and fertilised in a test tube – the standard IVF process.
Karl and I will never forget the day we got a call from the clinic asking how many fertilised eggs we would like “inserted” into Melanie, who had also been flown to LA to be treated at the clinic. Karl was in Northern Ireland and I was in Israel. Prior to that day we had always aimed at having one child in the first pregnancy. Inserting two, sometimes three eggs increases the likelihood of pregnancy but also of a multiple birth. So we had planned on inserting just one. When we finally got to this point, though, previous failures suddenly made me panic. I phoned Karl and said, “f**k it, we’re putting two in.” Always the less hysterical, Karl said, “look, you’re not being reasonable. This is our first try. Let’s use one and next time, if it doesn’t work, we can consider using two”. I accepted, reluctantly, feeling that it probably wouldn’t work.
How magnificent was it to be wrong! It was May 2012, and Karl and I were sitting at the bar in our restaurant when I got an unidentified call from Pasadena, California. The familiar voice of the nurse in the fertility clinic let us know that Melanie had had a positive result back from her pregnancy test. We just looked at each other and smiled and smiled and smiled, like two very silly people. Of course, we couldn’t resist and told our families and all our close friends. Finally, after four years of actively pursuing my dream, I sensed that I might just be about to achieve it. I felt so many things: pride and joy, slight fear and a huge sense of relief.
Our next milestone was the twelve week scan, after which we could, seriously, start planning the rest of our lives. We spoke to Melanie every couple of weeks making sure she was fine, sucking in every symptom, every mood, as an indication of something, good or bad. Once we got the all clear, we began to seriously plan for our child’s arrival. Karl was going to quit his job and look after the baby full-time. We started talking names, schools, buggies and all the other things we had always found deadly boring.
Our first visit to Boston was around the twenty-week scan. We met Melanie in the examining room. The nurse showed us the little heartbeat and some very clear organs, including a tiny, pointy nose, which seemed to be the only human thing about the image. “Everything looks good,” she said, and pointed out a little white blotch, which was, supposedly, the undeniable indication that we were having a… boy! A boy with a nose – that was all I could think of! Karl and I hugged each other, and hugged Melanie; we were on top of the world, our own private little world that was about to expand.
Four months later we were in Boston again, armed with a bunch of baby paraphernalia, lots of theoretical knowledge, some practical experience (Karl spent a couple of days with his friend, who had just had a baby boy, changing nappies, washing him in the kitchen sink and getting a general sense of the shape of things to come). We arrived more than three weeks prior to Melanie’s due date; we couldn’t possibly miss the birth. We settled in our little apartment in Boston, got to know the area and sorted out Max’s stuff (and there was tons and tons of “stuff”). After that we just had to wait. This was a weird and wonderful time. Things were out of our hands. After years of working so hard on getting to this point, we could just sit back and wait for the phone call.
In the end there was no phone call. We were at a routine scan with Melanie when the nurse said it was weird she isn’t having any contractions since she was showing clear signs of labour. She sent us straight to the hospital. Melanie drove home to pack a bag. We stopped for a burger at Wendy’s.
It wasn’t a long delivery. We spent a few hours with Melanie watching silly telly and having a laugh together, waiting for the contractions to intensify. Then we had a little rest before the nurses called us back for the last hour of labour. Melanie was a champ. We were holding her hands throughout, giving her words of encouragement. She was working so hard for us that I felt guilty.
When Max finally started popping his head out we began getting regular updates from the midwives (Melanie’s pelvis was covered with a sheet so we couldn’t see him): “Wow, he’s big, very very big; and so much hair!” And again, after a few minutes: “such a healthy child, and such a full head of hair!” They kept on repeating this until I was expecting the hairiest of monsters to arrive.
When he was finally born Max was indeed big, and hairy, but he was the most incredible creation. For some reason Karl and I kept on holding Melanie’s hands while the nurses were giving Max a thorough probing. But she was having none of it. “Guys, what are you doing? Go play with your son!” she told us off. And that’s exactly what we did.
Yotam Ottolenghi's full parenting story, as well as an interview with his partner Karl, is available in issue 3 of We Are Family magazine, first published Autumn 2013.
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