Melbourne 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 one child via surrogacy, four via co-parenting with two lesbian couples and five further children via ‘identity-release’ sperm donation.
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 shared decision-making on issues such as schooling, medical treatment and activities
Some are happy to provide their sperm and take on a more removed ‘uncle’ role. Others want to be far more involved.
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’.
‘After the birth, make a weekly time to meet up and get to know each other again. Patience is key’, Rodney explains. 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.
Sydney family lawyer Alfonso Layson from Sarah Bevan Lawyers points out ‘Co-parenting includes making major long term decisions for the children….. It’s when parents cannot decide on these major issues that causes friction.”
Layson agrees with Rodney Cruise. ‘Approach (it) with the view that change is inevitable… a parent entering into a new relationship …….or one parent is required to relocate for work. You need to adapt to meet the changes’.
Yet many gay singles and couples fall into awful conflicts here in Australia and around the globe, leaving them disappointed and at worst heartbroken.
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. Tom had attempted a written agreement on paper but Sarah kept avoiding the issue and it never happened. She 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 Toms 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 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’.
Sarah did ensure Oscar – and for some months their newborn Daisy – still had a day a week with his dad. It suited her to have a babysitter while she worked. Tom adored being a dad.
But by the time her daughter 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 ex-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.
David is 42 years old. He has a good job and has been living with his Swedish boyfriend for a few years. For him, things when pear-shaped from the birth onwards. His child’s mother 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’.
Perhaps its 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 parental responsibility, the rewards are enormous.
Many will share their journeys via egg donation or surrogacy at Growing Families February 2020 conferences in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland. These events put parents, surrogates and donors front and centre, along with talks from local and international experts. Full details at https://www.growingfamilies.org/february-2020-syd-mel/
Sam Everingham is a gay dad via surrogacy, a writer, public health professional and global expert in family building options.