As a gay dad via surrogacy, writer, public health professional and the founder of not-for-profit organisation Growing Families, Sam Everingham is an expert in international surrogacy. He travels the globe educating people on the constantly changing world of family building via surrogacy. He meets many people from the LGBT community who have had families, and many who are looking to start their own. Here Sam looks at co-parenting and how things can go wrong.
“For many busy professionals, co-parenting seems an ideal set up – shared responsibility, shared finances and wider cultural experiences through extended family networks. Where it can get harder is with shared decision-making on issues such as schooling, medical treatment and activities.
Some men are happy to provide their sperm and take on a more removed ‘uncle’ role, others want to be far more involved. For single gay men and gay couples who are considering co-parenting it is important to be aware of your rights and the potential pitfalls before you start on this complex route to parenthood.
Gay dad Rodney Cruise is something of an expert on setting expectations in co-parenting arrangements. Over the last 14 years Rodney and his Taiwanese partner Jeff have between them fathered a child via surrogacy and are co-parenting four children with two lesbian couples. They also have five donor children via ‘identity-release’ sperm donation (when the children turn 18 they have the right to contact their donor father).
Rodney advises that if you want truly shared responsibilities, you need to know each other very well before commencing; ensure they share your own visions and values. Have long and difficult conversations before you make agreements. Meet their friends and extended family.
‘Ensuring you have a written agreement before you begin is crucial – covering the intentions of all parties. And ensure you revisit it every 12 months, as you will find that what worked in the first year will need adjusting.’
A co-parenting agreement (also referred to as a co-parenting contract) is not a legal document and may or may not be taken into consideration in a court if you should end up in a dispute over custody or your parental rights.
Continuous communication is imperative, Rodney points out. ‘After the birth, make a weekly time to meet up and get to know each other again. Patience is key.’ He and Jeff quickly accepted that there would be little contact with their co-parented children in the first year or two, given the new mums’ priority was bonding with their children.
It is also important to be fully aware of your legal position as a parent in the country that you live in. What you have agreed as parental responsibility between you and your co-parent may not be seen as such in the eyes of the law. In the UK a co-parent father who does not live full-time with his child but has some responsibility away from the child’s primary home may be given rights, but in Ireland for example, the rules are different. Irish Family lawyer Annette Hickey points out that under current law, an Irish co-parent dad risks not being considered as such. She warns that unless the gay co-parent has ‘lived with the mother for a 12 month period including at least 3 months with the child and mother following the birth' parentage is not automatic. Instead the gay dad ‘must apply for guardianship’. If there are disagreements he must ask for the courts directions in relation to custody and/or access.
Groups who plan to embark on co-parenting would be wise to first get legal advice from a solicitor who specialises in family law and complex family setups. A solicitor can also assist with co-parenting agreements.
Unfortunately many gay singles and couples who go into co-parenting without all the information and planning fall into awful conflicts both in Ireland and around the globe, leaving them disappointed and at worst heartbroken. Here are two case studies highlighting the pitfalls. Both men did not know their co-parents before starting.
David is 42 years old and lives in Sweden. He has a good job and has been living with his Swedish boyfriend for a few years. He met his co-parent on a Swedish Facebook group set up for the purpose. They had contact for more than six months, saw each other frequently and had daily SMS contact. Together they agreed that they would share custody. They discussed guidelines for how they would share parental responsibilities. They talked about the future, thoughts about parenting and where they would live.
But David never got to meet Johanna’s family and he admits “The times I met her friends I was never presented as the ‘dad’ to the future child. I remember thinking it was a little strange, but I didn't say anything.”
Johanna quickly became pregnant after a home insemination.
“The feeling when I was told that I was going to be a dad was completely euphoric, I couldn't work much that day, I was just so genuinely happy, excited and I immediately started planning for the future”.
But quite quickly, Johanna's behaviour changed. “She distanced herself, and it was always up to me to ask how she felt or if she wanted to meet. But I had heard that pregnant women could start behaving differently and that it could be the hormones, so I stayed calm.”
For David, things when pear-shaped from the birth onwards. Johanna simply refused to have him involved. He has had virtually no contact since his child was discharged from hospital.
The loss can also be felt by grandparents. With his own parents, David has written down all the things he would have done with his daughter during her first year. He hopes one day she can read it and know “how much we love and miss her.”
David’s advice is similar. “Pay attention to warning signs early on. Trust your instincts. Meet her extended family. Document everything you agree on.”
He admits “If I had known that I do not have any ‘rights’ but everything is on the mother's terms I would have chosen to have children via a surrogate.”
Tom was single when he met Sarah who also wanted to co-parent. Tom has a busy life in the creative arts in London, so the shared responsibility appeared ideal. As they got to know each other they discussed the first year; and the future. They agreed they would live close by to each other and that the children would spend two days a week with Tom. They discussed their attitudes regarding bedtime, food, schooling, discipline, routine, television and computer games, medication and illness as well as relationships with extended family.
Tom attempted a written agreement on paper, and repeatedly Sarah put him off, so nothing was ever signed. Sarah pressured Tom into starting home inseminations and next thing she was pregnant. Oscar was born in 2013.
That first year, Tom spent each Monday with his son. When Oscar turned one, contact progressed to a regular two days a week at Tom’s house. Sarah had always talked of two children and in 2014 they conceived again. But a few months into the pregnancy, Sarah announced she was moving three hours away.
“What are you talking about?” Tom gasped. Desperate not to lose his family he pleaded. “We can both find places a bit closer… we can make it work.” At that point their relationship started to break down. Tom admits there were ‘red flags’, but “I was just in a frenzy of trying to make it work so I ignored the signs.”
Sarah did ensure Oscar – and for some months their newborn Daisy – still had a day a week with their dad. It suited her to have a babysitter while she worked. Tom adored being a dad. Just after Daisy was born Tom met a new partner. Their relationship blossomed but his partner never became involved in Tom’s parenting arrangement.
But by the time Daisy was six months old, Sarah wanted no further contact. She was emphatic. But Tom was not going to give up easily. “I wanted them to know I fought for a relationship with them.” Counselling went nowhere.
Court seemed the only answer, but three vicious court appearances took their toll on Tom’s resolve. Sarah accused Tom’s partner of inappropriate behaviour with Oscar. Tom’s mental health was questioned. While the court ultimately ruled in Tom’s favour, granting seven weeks access to his children each year, Sarah had no interest in complying. But Tom’s struggle has cost him his own husband. He has run out of emotional resilience to keep fighting. He has not seen his children in six months.
He regularly writes, but his letters, Christmas and birthday presents are returned unopened. Tom has kept them. One day things may change.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that increasing numbers of gay singles and couples are opting for surrogacy as a route to parenthood. While there can be ups and downs in the journey to birth, for those wanting full parental responsibility, surrogacy offers a level of certainty that co-parenting cannot.”
Gay dads will share their extra-ordinary journeys via egg donation and surrogacy at Growing Families conferences in London on 21 March and Dublin on 22 March. Full details at https://www.growingfamilies.org/2020-conference-and-event-schedule/
*Please note: this is an opinion piece from the author and does not reflect the opinions of We Are Family magazine.
Coming soon: Rodney Cruise’s full co-parenting story.