Stuart from London says he’s been successful in life, but “I realise I must become a father to be complete”. Anthony from Manchester just hasn’t met the right person, but wants to start a family. Hamish from Brighton is “at a point in his life where more than anything he would like to have children” and Benedict from Aberdeen “would love to father a child that I can take care of, and will give me something to live for”.
And since all four of them are single, they are prepared to go to unusual lengths to get what they want. Stuart, Anthony, Hamish and Benedict are all listed on the online database surrogatefinder.com, which claims to connect would-be parents with surrogate mothers – women prepared to carry an embryo for them, and hand the resulting baby over at birth – around the world. It makes no claim to vet either parents or surrogates’ fitness to raise a family but it’s easy to register and, at $149.99 for a six-month membership, potentially cheaper and quicker than registering with one of the established agencies which conduct more exhaustive checks. While most of the intended parents on the site are couples who can’t conceive conventionally, there are over 100 single British men registered, both gay and straight.
These are perhaps not the sort of stories we are used to hearing from men. Popular culture endlessly explores women’s ticking biological clocks, their dilemmas about whether to freeze their eggs or adopt or just settle for a less than ideal partner. But there is no male Bridget Jones fretting that time is running out to meet someone. The myth persists either that men don’t really experience so-called “baby hunger”, or that they needn’t worry because they can father children well into retirement. Yet increasingly this feels at odds with the reality of many men’s lives.
When Robin Hadley was growing up, it never occurred to him that he might not have children.
“I come from a big working-class family and the expectation for me was that I got a job, got married and became a father,” he recalls. “For middle-class guys it was go to university, get a job, get married and become a father. It’s interesting that for men it always ends at “become a father”.
Yet for him, as for an estimated one in five British men, that isn’t how the story ended. In his mid-thirties he found himself desperately broody and single, following a divorce and the breakdown of a second serious relationship, yet surrounded by friends with children.
It was only in his forties, while doing a master’s in counselling, that Hadley began asking himself whether other men had secretly felt that same gut-longing to have children. The result was a PhD thesis on male childlessness, based on interviews with men talking often for the first time about not becoming fathers. It concluded that both sexes were equally capable of getting broody and if anything, the men he studied were more prone to depression and anger about being childless. It carries, Hadley thinks, a feeling of somehow having failed at manhood.
Now 59, he is happily settled with a new partner but they met too late to start a family. He has become more reconciled to being childless but the desire still “comes and goes”, as his friends begin to have grandchildren. “I can’t see where I would become a father, but that doesn’t mean to say I still wouldn’t like to be one.”
The crunch time for men, Hadley thinks, is in the mid to late thirties when peers start having families; social circles begin to revolve around playgroups and school, and old friendships fade away. What has changed since the days when he was single and broody, however, is the range of options open to men determined to become fathers against the odds.
Dating agency for would-be parents
January is always the busiest time of year at the Mayfair offices of The Stork, a dating agency specifically for men and women wanting to meet someone with whom to have children.
“People have spent Christmas playing with their nephews and nieces and think, ‘Right that’s it, I must get on with it’,” says founder Fiona Thomas, who established the business 18 months ago after dabbling informally in matchmaking for friends. She offers a traditional dating service for those still seeking true love or, for clients in more of a hurry, introductions to like-minded people with whom they could co-parent an IVF-conceived child in a platonic relationship. Men, she says, generally come wanting the first option but as time passes become increasingly open to the second.
The men on her books tend to be older than the women, ranging up to their late fifties. “Men are more fatalistic about meeting people. They think they’re going to go down the fine wines aisle at Waitrose and their eyes will meet and that will be that, whereas women are thinking ‘Right, I’ve got to get on with it, find a man’. Men don’t think they should be going to an agency, they think it should come to them.”
But once they’ve made the leap, says Thomas, if anything they are keener than women to move a relationship quickly on to trying for a baby. “They don’t want to waste any more time. They don’t want to be 60-year-old parents of young children. Although men technically can have children into their nineties, they don’t really want to. You have your own health to consider.” But what about men who can’t wait any longer to find Ms Right, or even Ms Acceptable Co-Parent?
There is no law in Britain against single men seeking fertility treatment, just as single women do. (While the Human Fertility and Embryology Act did, until 2008, force doctors to consider the “need for a father” before treating a single woman, mothers didn’t get a mention.) But there is a serious biological hurdle, which is that almost all options available – from IVF to egg donation to various methods of helping fallible sperm along – ultimately need a woman to carry the resulting embryo. Single men can, of course, adopt. But for lone fathers seeking a child that is genetically theirs, the only practical form of fertility treatment available is surrogacy, or persuading a woman to carry their embryo to full term and then hand the baby over at birth.
It’s almost 18 years since Ian Mucklejohn became the first single British man to have children via a surrogate, and he still gets calls today from men keen to know how he did it. The answer is what he calls “grim determination” combined with a certain cheerful disregard for rules and regulations. He weathered everything from rejection by the first American surrogate agency he approached (on the grounds that he was straight, and they were established to help gay men) to a long tussle with the Home Office about whether his American-born triplets would be granted residency in Britain, to hostile press coverage, and daunting medical and legal bills.
Fortunately for his sons Lars, Piers and Ian, their father is not a man to take such things lying down. “I just thought, who is going to take away my children when they are so palpably mine?” he says, of the long months of legal uncertainty. “I knew that the nonsense would have to stop some time.”
As he puts it: “Most people who want to do this sort of thing do it because they really want to be parents, and have the best of motives. It’s certainly not the easiest of paths to go down.” He is pleased, therefore, that a change in the law later this year should make it more viable for single men.
There are no official figures for the number of British children born by surrogacy, but 368 couples sought parental orders – which transfer legal responsibility for the child from a surrogate birth mother to its intended parents – in 2016. Under British law, however, these can currently only be made to couples. Single men or women can and do still have children via surrogacy, but can’t apply for formal parental rights. They can try to adopt their baby instead, but many simply settle as Ian Mucklejohn did for living in a legal grey area.
“They’re living under the radar really and hoping nobody questions their status; hoping that there aren’t going to be serious problems in terms of medical treatment or inheritance further down the line,” says Nathalie Gamble, a specialist surrogacy lawyer and founder of Brilliant Beginnings, a non-profit agency matching British would-be parents with surrogates at home and abroad. Two years ago, she helped bring a test case to the High Court arguing that the human rights of single people were being breached, and ministers subsequently agreed to extend parental orders to cover them. The change is due to come in early this year and then Gamble thinks single fatherhood by surrogacy will become more common: “In the US, it’s already quite common for single dads to use surrogacy as a means of having a family. I think the desire to be a parent is a human one, not a gender specific one.
“Men may feel that it’s less socially acceptable to be a dad on their own, but as more people do it I think that will change.” She says she has already handled around 50 surrogacy inquiries from single men and women, ranging from gay men who know it’s their only chance of biological fatherhood to “straight men coming out of marriages where their wives didn’t want children or couldn’t have children”.
For now however surrogacy remains both controversial and expensive. The current uncertainty over parental orders puts British surrogates off dealing with single men, says Gamble, meaning unless they have friends or family willing to help the only realistic option until now has been going abroad in a country open to helping single parents. In practice, thanks partly to recent clampdowns in countries where surrogacy is seen as open to exploitation, that now largely means the US or Canada. (India banned commercial surrogacy last year amid more general concerns over the ethics of wealthy couples effectively renting out the bodies of impoverished women; two years ago, Mexico limited it to Mexican heterosexuals only.) The costs of bringing home a baby from the US, where surrogacy is a commercial arrangement, vary depending on the medical circumstances but typically run into six figures; in Canada expenses are lower, but the bill can still be five figures.
Those who can’t afford the fees charged by established surrogacy agencies or don’t fit the criteria they impose are left with a somewhat murkier world of co-parenting apps and forums, offering to connect singletons looking to raise a child with someone outside a romantic relationship at their own risk, or no-frills online surrogacy networks.
Many of the single men’s stories on surrogatefinder.com are heart-melting, but one or two trigger a faint prickle of unease. Some admit to having existing children, but are vague about why they don’t see them now. There is the man who says he wants to add to his family but whose cute dad-and-toddler headshot is easily traced back to a stock photo agency, and the one who says he will never let any harm come to the child but adds: “I don’t want love to destroy my baby’s life like it has done mine.” Explore a bit further beyond this site, into the wilder undergrowth of the internet, and you find earnest discussions about whether surrogacy is a viable way for incels (men who class themselves as involuntarily celibate, or sexually rejected by and often rejecting of women) to reproduce without having to risk a relationship with the opposite sex.
And then things take a darker turn. “I am a registered sex offender and my girlfriend has a disease that makes getting pregnant very difficult,” begins an anonymous post on the American legal advice site avvo.com. “I’m wondering if surrogacy might be an option for us?” Last year, Thailand moved to outlaw commercial surrogacy after a convicted child sex offender from Australia persuaded a Thai surrogate to carry his babies. The case only came to light when one of the twins was born with Down’s Syndrome, and the surrogacy relationship descended into acrimony.
Cases like this may be extremely rare, but they don’t make it easier for genuinely broody single men. While women who can’t conceive may throw themselves into being involved aunts and godmothers or into voluntary work with children, lone older men taking a vicarious interest in other people’s kids may be expected to explain themselves.
“There’s definitely a suspicion around men and wanting to be a father, or just enjoying kids,” says Robin Hadley. “The desire to have children is innate. I think there’s a trigger to men to be broody, to want to have sex and want to have children. But if a woman says ‘I’m really broody and we haven’t had a child’ there’s sympathy there. If a man in a similar situation says it, all the fellas with kids will say ‘no you don’t, it ruins your life’.”
And at best, the myth of paternal incompetence lingers. Ian Mucklejohn was advised to hire female carers for his triplets, since it was deemed out of the question for a man to look after his own babies himself. As the founder of a language school, Mucklejohn has deep enough pockets that he could afford a succession of maternity nurses and nannies to help with the boys, and was also master of his own working hours. But as he points out in his 2006 memoir And Then There Were Three, one of the main reasons he never married and had a family is that he was a long-term carer for his brain-damaged father, and was also an ex-teacher. He arguably had more personal experience of caring for a dependant than many first-time mothers do.
His book concluded by arguing that the genie is out of the bottle, and the model of family life he has pioneered cannot now be taken away from men. “That it can be done has been accepted. It cannot be uninvented,” he wrote. “That it is something that can positively be embraced will take longer.” More than 17 years after he brought the boys home, does he feel enough time has elapsed for it to become accepted? There is a brief pause, and then he says cheerfully: “I think 17 years is long enough.”
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