Michael Johnson-Ellis and Wes Johnson-Ellis are two dads on a mission. A mission to raise awareness of same-sex parenting through their not-for-profit organisation, My Surrogacy Journey.
The UK-based fathers of Talulah, who turns five in October, and two-year-old Duke, will be guest speakers at the forthcoming Fertility Show Africa (FSA), a fully interactive two-day online event that will offer visitors access to a wide range of world-leading fertility specialists, experts and clinicians.
Following its hugely successful debut last year, FSA takes place on Saturday, October 9, and Sunday, October 10, and will allow attendees from around South Africa, the African continent and the rest of the world to discover everything they need to know before, during and after their fertility journey.
We chatted to Michael and Wes about their journey to becoming parents, their surrogacy organisation and what visitors to the FSA can expect to hear from them.
Please can you tell us a little bit about your backgrounds
Michael: I was a medical recruiter focusing on the fertility sector and then shortly after the birth of our daughter, when we founded TwoDadsUK, my career and focus changed. We later founded The Modern Family Show (an LGBTQ+ family building event) and more recently My Surrogacy Journey.
Wes: I was a major events specialist who has worked on projects globally.
How and when did you meet?
We met in June 2012 at Birmingham Pride and were engaged five months later We married in August 2014.
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming first time parents to Talulah?
Michael: Surrogacy was always our preferred route to have a family. We spent almost three years researching it, both international and UK surrogacy and eventually decided on UK surrogacy. It was a lot of hard work trawling the internet, networking, understanding the complexities around UK surrogacy and learning the various ways to build a family. At the time of our journey there were only three surrogacy organisations and none of them could accept us as intended parents due to a shortage of surrogates, so we had to carry on alone. We had no support, we researched the best clinics, the best surrogacy lawyers, and the best routes to find an egg donor and a surrogate. We met our surrogate in early 2015, and we took around four to six months getting to know her and her family. Once we were ready, we began looking at clinics and worked on creating our intention document which is the non-legally binding document that lays out the intention of your surrogacy arrangement. We were always going to use my sperm first, as Wes already has a daughter from a previous marriage, and the plan was we’d have more than one child anyway. We therefore matched our first donor to Wes’ characteristics, as if we were having a child naturally. After six months, the clinic found us a donor with blue eyes, blond hair, and fair skin. A couple of months later eggs were retrieved, and I fertilised them. We managed to get three blastocysts (fertilised eggs), one of which was transferred and nine months later Talulah was born.
How difficult was it to find information on alternative parenting solutions?
It was very difficult, and both concerning and confusing. So many conflicting stories and out of date material meant we just couldn’t trust one source – hence why we did it all ourselves. We just didn’t know anyone that had explored UK surrogacy.
What were the biggest obstacles and how did you overcome them?
A lack of support. You don’t know what you don’t know, and this became apparent with the limited support that exists within surrogacy both in the UK and internationally. We were on our own, we made mistakes, we spent more than we should have. We just had to work hard to find all the best experts to support us and we later decided to share all these people with the community that needed them most. It was also no surprise that being two men we’d face some challenges with our birthing preparation, so this required patience, determination, and a good lawyer to challenge the dated policies.
How did you celebrate Talulah’s birth?
Talulah’s birth was the best experience of our lives. As intended parents via surrogacy you must make sacrifices along the way due to the current surrogacy laws and inadequate NHS policies for some trusts. Our surrogate opted for a C-section for medical reasons, and it was explained that for the procedure her husband would be with her in the theatre and not us, due to a one-person rule. He would comfort her and ensure she was safe, calm, and okay. It was obviously the right thing to do, and we supported this. We would be in a side room on the maternity ward, where we agreed he would bring us our baby and break the news what the sex was. However, just at the eleventh hour, her husband ran into our side ward with no baby. I panicked. “Is everything okay? Is Caroline OK?” Her husband said: “I’ve been told to come and get you; they don’t want you to miss the birth of your child!” Our eyes filled with tears. We threw on a mismatch of scrubs and ran into theatre. We watched the entire operation and saw our daughter, Talulah enter the world at exactly 6am weighing a healthy 3.6kgs. Holding her and seeing her gaze into our eyes was incredible, the intensity of the bond was immediate. I’ve never experienced love and a feeling like it ever. Nothing prepares you for the wave of emotion and overwhelming love.
How much support did you get when you took her home?
It was just us, and that’s how we wanted it. We did have some help from our parents when we needed it, but we’re fiercely independent anyway. We made this decision to have a family, so we took responsibility for that decision.
Three years later Duke arrived. Was it easier the second time around?
No, it was harder! We were older and underprepared. He was very different to Talulah. He didn’t sleep, fed constantly, and had lots of allergies which we didn’t discover until he was 20 months old. We were also three years older and that’s a lot in gay years!
How did you prepare Talulah for the arrival of her baby brother?
We’d meet our surrogate each month and we’d get Talulah to talk to Caroline’s tummy. We knew we were having a boy with Duke, so we got her used to knowing that a little baby boy was on his way to meet her, and she was so excited to take up the role of big sister.
Did you use the same surrogate mother for both children?
Do you keep in touch with her?
Yes, absolutely! We meet up every few months when we can – COVID permitting. She lives two hours’ drive from us in the north of England.
Tell us about My Surrogacy Journey.
My Surrogacy Journey will offer emotional, practical, and logistical support at every stage of the parenting journey. Our inclusive and innovative platform will guide and support all members equally when building a family through surrogacy, at home and abroad. Membership is for intended parents, surrogates and known egg donors and every member of My Surrogacy Journey is equal. We believe that a successful surrogacy journey relies on everyone involved being emotionally, legally, and medically informed thus ensuring that every relationship is built on honesty and transparency.
My Surrogacy Journey will offer unparalleled support for everyone starting from conception through to pregnancy, birth and beyond. From practical guidance through the process, to specialist counselling, building patient pathways from fertility clinics to NHS hospitals. Offering a UK first including pre-conception screening to newborn genetic testing and much more. Members receive over 50 benefits which are all designed to support and inform them of the road ahead.
My Surrogacy Journey has partnered with several innovative companies to provide access to leading fertility technology: Igenomix (genetic testing), FenoMatch (facial matching donors) ExSeed (home sperm testing) and EngagedMD (UK regulatory consent platform) ensuring clinics are released to focus more on clinical care. We’ve also partnered with The Mindful Birth Group and the Doula Association to make sure intended parents (IPs) and surrogates are supported through birth, including recovery. All members also receive prenatal support via a specially designed program by the incredible team at Born Human.
In addition to the large team of experts providing individual support for each journey – whether virtual or in-person – My Surrogacy Journey has built an extensive library of educational content for IPs, surrogates and known egg donors. This library covers every single step of the process, including the IVF, understanding the medication for surrogates, birth planning for intended parents and surrogates, intended mother breast feeding vs bottle feeding, the parental order process, to name just a few. We’ve also just launched a podcast – My Surrogacy Journey: The Podcast – which is designed to educate and support those considering surrogacy. We have thought of every single step in the process so that both surrogates and intended parents can educate and prepare themselves. Everyone involved needs to know what questions to ask of themselves and what to ask of each other.
Above all else, My Surrogacy Journey has been designed from a lived experience.
Can you tell us what you are going to be talking about at Fertility Show Africa?
We’ll be talking about how we’re changing the landscape within surrogacy, how we’re challenging the norm and, through our platform of TwoDadsUK and My Surrogacy Journey, how we’re supporting hundreds of people, heterosexuals, and LGBTQ+, achieve their dreams of parenthood.
How important and useful is something like the Fertility Show Africa?
It’s crucial. The world is changing how we all build our families. Fertility treatment is very common in both heterosexual and LGBTQ+ communities and the more events like this, the more they give hope to others that are childless and seeking support and options.
Any advice they can give to those starting out on their journey?
Have patience and do your research. Use resources like Fertility Show Africa and IVF Babble Africa to understand the industry better. This is your route to parenthood – it must be at your pace.
Michael Johnson-Ellis and Wes Johnson Ellis will be talking at FSA about their surrogacy journey on Sunday, October 10 at 14h00.
Fertility Show Africa 2021 takes place virtually on Saturday, October 9 and Sunday, October 10. Book tickets via Quicket here