September 23, 2019
Art by Rachel Gingrich
Magnus always wanted a family. By 30, he figured, he’d have a steady job, a loving spouse, and two kids. When he realized he was gay, he worried that dream was impossible: gay marriage wasn’t yet legal in his native Sweden, let alone adoption. But as he became a part of the local gay community, developing friendships and relationships, he discovered there was more than one way to have a family. He watched couples join with single friends and other couples to co-parent, and realized his dream of a nuclear family wasn’t necessarily impossible to achieve.
Magnus tells me this while his husband, Peter, sits beside him holding Freya, their infant daughter, who was born via surrogate earlier this year. We’re sitting in the dining room of their home outside Edinburgh, where our interview is often interrupted by the stuff of everyday life: chickens and ducks are squawking in their coops, the vegetable garden needs harvesting, and their silver-coated Weimaraner wants attention. Magnus, a doctor, and Peter, a psychotherapist and former business executive, seem unfazed by the chaos as they toggle between logistical table tennis and flirty sarcasm.
At that time, I didn’t find a lot of gay men who wanted to have children. I felt a bit like the odd one out.
Magnus asked Peter if he wanted kids on their very first date. “At that time, I didn’t find a lot of gay men who wanted to have children. I felt a bit like the odd one out,” Magnus remembers. It was a dealbreaker for him, so when Peter told him he already had two sons, Magnus was relieved.
Their connection was intense, and after six months of long-distance dating, Magnus moved to Scotland to be with Peter.
Peter says that at first, he didn’t actively want more kids. “He wanted to be with me,” Magnus winks. Peter smiles and shrugs, planting a kiss on Freya’s forehead.
Once they began it, the process of having a baby took over three years. “The complexity of having children when you’re two men is far greater,” says Magnus. “There’s a good thing to that: you’re really prepared. I don’t know how many hours we spent talking about this.”
Initially, Magnus proposed co-parenting with another couple or a single friend, as he’d seen people do back in Sweden. But Peter was co-parenting with the mother of his sons; the complications and challenges of that setup meant it was off the table for him. Adoption didn’t feel right to them, and although the UK has had laws protecting same-sex adoption since 2005, queer couples can still experience significant stigma when looking to adopt.
The next option was surrogacy. But how? Where? There aren’t many candidates for surrogacy in the UK, and the laws concerning parental orders are complicated and fraught with risk. Magnus knew people who’d had an easier time finding surrogates in India or Nepal, but he and Peter felt it held too high a possibility for exploitation. Similarly, the presence of money in the process in the US made them both uncomfortable. (In the US, surrogacy is often a commercial enterprise, but paid surrogacy is illegal in the UK.)
So surrogacy in the UK it was.
They combed through available resources. An organization called Brilliant Beginnings, which offers consultations, information, and surrogate matching services, seemed promising, but they were transparent about the fact that there would be difficulties: there weren’t enough surrogates in their database, so they wouldn’t be able to provide any matchmaking services (four years later, that disclaimer remains on their site).
Next, Peter and Magnus made a profile on Surrogacy UK with some basic photos, a prerequisite to messaging anyone in the system. To Peter, “it was almost like a dating app!” After some dubious candidates, a young woman reached out who seemed enthusiastic—but then a negative reaction from her teenage son made her call it off.
Finally, a woman who had had a surrogate child before sent them a message. They chatted online before going to England to meet her. Though Magnus recalls a warmth in her voice when mentioning the children she had given birth to, Peter remembers her as “cold and matter of fact. I was initially keen to have it more detached with not much contact, but that freaked me out. It was too far on the other side of the spectrum.” Then they discovered she’d lied about her age. Magnus and Peter returned home disappointed.
It turned out that finding a surrogate resembled online dating in more ways than one. “I think the reason it’s so difficult to find a surrogate is because it’s almost like finding a partner,” Magnus says. “It needs to fit. If you have children with a surrogate and it’s based on friendship, it’s a life-long relationship.”
The pair rejigged their priorities: “We wanted altruism, someone who would love the baby when it’s in their body,” says Magnus. They found everyday conversations around surrogacy frustrating: friends would flippantly comment that they would love to be a surrogate without thinking through what that would actually entail. “At least for us,” says Magnus, “you become really close to your surrogate. You need to open up for that, open up your life for another person.”
It took another nine months before Abbie introduced herself on the forum. Her intention was always to be a surrogate for a gay couple, and she already had full support from her family. Peter was impressed that “she had gone into a process on her own already.” She was “quite a bit further than most of the other people that contacted us,” he says.
When they met—Magnus calls it their first date—they instantly hit it off. “It was...uncomplicated,” Peter remembers.
Right away, they started discussing the hard stuff. UK surrogacy law is mostly concerned with protecting the surrogate’s rights, so upon birth, the surrogate is the baby’s legal parent; they’re also the one who decides whether another parent will go on the birth certificate. In Scotland, the intended parents are then required to wait six weeks to apply for a parental order. During that initial period, the surrogate can change their mind—though if one of the intended parents is biologically related to the baby, they can also choose to begin custody proceedings.
you become really close to your surrogate. You need to open up for that, open up your life for another person.
In order to leave a paper trail, Peter, Magnus, and Abbie used a fertility clinic. Though none of it is legally enforceable in terms of parental rights, having paperwork formalized their involvement with Abbie, and made the logistics of parental leave much easier for Magnus and Peter when the time came. Magnus would be Freya’s biological father, which also meant that even if Abbie changed her mind, he and Peter would have some claim over Freya once she was born.
Pregnancy didn’t come easily: multiple attempts at intrauterine insemination (IUI)—directly inserting sperm into the uterus—didn’t work, so they tried IVF, which is a more invasive procedure done under general anesthesia. In IVF, an egg is removed from the surrogate’s body and fertilized in a lab before being returned to the uterus. The NHS only covers IVF in certain circumstances; if it doesn’t, it can cost up to £5,000 per cycle. Paying for IUI privately can cost up to £1,300.
It was important to Peter and Magnus that Abbie have autonomy and agency in this process— they didn’t want her to feel like a womb for hire. “Throughout the process, Abbie has been the decision-maker,” says Magnus. “It was her choice to proceed that way.”
After eight months of trying, their phones buzzed with good news.
Throughout the process and the pregnancy, the three remained in close contact. Abbie, who was based near Leeds, came to Edinburgh a few times, and Magnus took time off to go to almost every prenatal appointment with her. Peter joined when he could get off work.
The night before Freya was born, as Abbie went through early labor, the parents-to-be frantically found accommodation and started the four-hour drive as early as they could. As it turned out, they made it in plenty of time—the threesome even stopped for labor-burgers at McDonald’s on the way to the hospital.
In Peter’s retelling, the midwife asked whether she should hand the baby to Abbie once she was born. “No,” Abbie insisted: “She should go to the parents.”
There was another midwife, much older, the boss of the place. “She was the traditional, hardcore midwife. No nonsense, let’s get this baby born!” Peter recalls. But even she was moved by the emotions in the room: When Freya arrived and was placed into her parents’ arms, the older midwife told them she was retiring soon, and that this was the highlight of her career. “She said this is the one she’s been waiting for, and now she’s happy to let it all go,” Peter says, the memory bringing tears to his eyes.
Peter, Magnus, and Freya cocooned in their Airbnb for four days, their only visits from the outside world being the midwife’s checkups. “It was bliss. We were so in love,” remembers Magnus.
Nine months later, Freya is calm, curious, and incredibly cute. Abbie gets frequent updates in the form of pictures and videos. Magnus and Peter intend to let the two of them decide what kind of relationship they want to have with each other as Freya grows up. In the meantime, Peter has written a children’s book to explain to Freya the story of her birth—before this, there was only one e-book out there for babies born to surrogates.
The learning curves of parenting, of course, are steep. Even though Peter has done it before, this time is different: “There’s a lot of pressure from outside,” he admits. “Two guys having a baby really need to get it right, because if we fuck up, it feeds back into that narrative that we shouldn’t be having children.”
Two guys having a baby really need to get it right, because if we fuck up, it feeds back into that narrative that we shouldn’t be having children.
At the same time, Magnus and Peter are trying to imagine what a family can look like when it isn’t anchored by a heterosexual partnership. It isn’t always easy, in part because sometimes they find themselves falling into what look like familiar patterns: at first, they tried to resist the traditional structure of one caregiver and one breadwinner, but they soon found that for them, this was untenable. While Magnus was able to take time off work, Peter is in the process of building his own psychotherapy practice, so his schedule couldn’t always allow for the kind of intensive household management Magnus’ did. It’s difficult to sort out how much is “schemata and blueprints of millennia of heteronormative mother-father-child triads,” Peter says, and how much is simply what works for your family—but they’re excited by the process of trying.
Magnus and Peter hope their story can showcase a positive surrogacy experience. They know the process looks intimidating from the outside, and can be exhausting and expensive, so they want to offer their success as hopeful evidence for other queer parents-to-be.
Their advice for parents approaching surrogacy is to be respectful of your relationship with the surrogate: “We’ve shown Abbie respect and reverence,” Magnus says. “We haven’t placed any demands on her. It’s important to respect her as a person, not to dictate things: don’t eat that, go to this yoga class.” In other words, remember that your surrogate is your partner in this adventure.
Knowing what they know about the intricacies and challenges of the surrogacy process, you might think Peter and Magnus would be done with it.
“Do you think you’ll have more kids?” I ask.
A coy glance at each other. Magnus smiles and says, “We’re talking about it.”