Today marks the first anniversary of one of my greatest achievements — altruistically birthing a boy not mine. I met a couple in June 2013, we very quickly became best friends, and they finally got to greet their son on 10 November 2014.
Sæþór (in the water) and Ágúst finally hold their son Daníel Valur.
I’m Australian by birth, Sæþór (pronounced “Sy-thor”, it’s the legal name Ben selected when he took Icelandic citizenship) is American by birth, and Ágúst (say “ow-GOOST”) is Icelandic. They married in 2009, settled in Iceland and fostered children before deciding they wanted their own biological offspring. Early on, I started referring to Sæþór and Ágúst as “the boys”, even though they’re only four years younger than me. It’s a term of endearment and familiarity, not condescension.
Although my arrangement with the boys looks very much like surrogacy, it’s actually a loving, selfless relationship which produced a child — much like a conventional romance. We met online on a surrogate/parents-matching site but quickly discovered that we were already excellent friends who just hadn’t previously met. We commenced a love-affair that has endured past the birth and will likely last our lifetimes.
The only way I wanted to birth a child for someone else was if I could do it in the most deliberately loveliest way I could imagine — and it was important to me that this would particularly be without any consideration of financial gain. I knew I wanted to demonstrate true altruism in this exchange, so I asked for nothing and accepted no money or gifts for the travel, pregnancy and birth.
I used my savings to fund all our travel expenses to and from Europe, and I contributed to the household during the times we lived together. In return, the boys covered the medical costs in Iceland, hosted us in their guesthouse for seven weeks and lent us their vehicles so we could see a bit more of the island. They also generously replaced my phone when its battery was dying — thank you, it’s still working well!
The elephant in the room
Yes, I had a son — Elijah Rainbow. Yes, he died in unexpected circumstances. Yes, his loss was horrible and my ongoing grief has been substantial. The courts have found that in a severe psychosis and delusional episode influenced by chemical substances, my then-husband fell off a bridge while holding Elijah and released him to drown in the water.
Yes, I birthed a boy for Ágúst and Sæþór. Yes, we used my egg to conceive the baby. No, he is not my son. He has never been my son — not prior to conception, not while growing in the womb, and not out of it.
Birthing a boy for his fathers in Iceland is not comparable to losing Elijah — not for me, and not for my daughters. Is that clear?
A decision to homebirth
I previously birthed my four daughters in Australian hospitals. The first was via vacuum-extraction, two and three came naturally with epidural pain-relief, and the fourth arrived with other medical pain-relief. I also triumphantly freebirthed my son Elijah during a communal camping festival in the Australian bush, and the contrast was great for me in terms of feeling empowered, supported and safe despite our distance from medical facilities.
As I was the only one out of our trio who had experience with birth, the boys asked me many questions about pregnancy and birth and listened to my ideas. For birthing this baby, my preference after an uneventful and healthy pregnancy was to attempt a homebirth. After research, discussion and thought, Sæþór and Ágúst fully supported this idea.
As well as feeling like it was a more comfortable setting for such an intense experience, I was attracted to homebirth because then I knew my children could participate in the birthing experience — if they chose to in the moment it was happening. In order to feel safe during birthing, I needed to know that my girls were happy and safe. Because of our lifestyle and relationship, that means that I wanted them to feel free to be near me instead of sequestered within the confines of a hospital waiting room.
Because we choose to homebirth, my girls are able to support me during the process and can stay at my side if they're feeling comfortable there.
Also, because my relationship with the boys was irregular, I thought a homebirth would protect us from outsiders who wouldn’t necessarily understand that although the baby was coming out of my body, it wasn’t mine. The boys would also need loving support as they learned about caring for their newborn, and a homebirth midwife could provide that. I’m also glad that I could communicate clearly to my care-giver in English, which may not have been the case in an Icelandic hospital.
I never saw a child being born until I was pushing it out between my legs, and I’ve only witnessed one other person’s birth — my niece’s in 2007. In homebirthing, I hoped to introduce a child to his community, and so we invited all of Ágúst’s family to come. Sæþór invited his best friend Sara Leifsdóttir to take pictures, and I extended the invitation to Sara’s 17yo daughter Hekla. I am convinced that young women will be more empowered in making birth choices for themselves if they have the opportunity to witness several births before they experience it themselves, and I hope that I made a positive impression in Hekla’s and Ágúst’s sister’s understanding of birth.
With the number of people we were inviting, homebirth was the only option that could include everyone. Sixteen people witnessed Daníel Valur’s arrival, and that was only possible because we didn’t birth in a hospital.
Homebirth was a safe option for us given my past history of uncomplicated labours, the current healthy pregnancy, our midwife’s expertise and our location’s close proximity to a Reykjavík hospital in case further medical attention was necessary.
The birth-plan we agreed upon was to birth naturally — with a birthing pool as an option. My daughters were free to come and go — they knew what to expect and felt comfortable in the house and with the people who would witness the birth. Immediately after delivering, I did ask the midwife to administer oxytocin in an injection so that I would deliver the placenta quickly. My past natural-birthing experience had taught me that it could take up to an hour and a half to birth the placenta, and that wasn’t really the outcome I wanted!
Our “mother of light”
Kristbjörg provides excellent antenatal, home-birthing and follow-up care for me, the boys and their newborn.
Ljósmóðir (“Lyoss-mothr” where the th is a hard sound like in “then”) is the Icelandic word for midwife, literally “light-mother”. She who wears this label is the one who assists new beings in their journey from the darkness of the womb into the light of the world. In ancient Rome, the goddess of childbirth was named Lucina, whose name is derived from lux, meaning light.
Soon after agreeing to have a child together, we started contacting people to seek recommendations for a ljósmóðir, and the boys arranged that we meet Kristbjörg Magnúsdóttir when I first flew by myself to Iceland in September 2013. Kristbjörg was already championing homebirths, as fewer than four percent of births in Iceland happen at home — a complete reversal to the norm one hundred years ago.
We introduced ourselves to Kristbjörg and asked if she could think about whether she would feel comfortable to assist at the birth. After some time during which she considered everything, she agreed, and once we fell pregnant, I sent copies of my medical check-ups here in Australia to her so she could see that the pregnancy was proceeding healthily.
The documentary filmmaker
Through Kristbjörg, we learned of a documentary-maker who was interested in filming home-birthing stories. The boys decided that this was something they were willing to share, and invited Dögg Mósesdóttir to come and meet us. Although Dögg followed her other subjects throughout their pregnancy, she met us only a couple of days before the birth.
Dögg's calm, almost invisible, recording complemented our peaceful birthing experience.
Some of the photos shown in this post are screenshots taken from Dögg’s footage, and I’m thankful that she generously granted permission for this. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her video when that’s released, as we’ve only seen the trailer for Home Again? in which we feature briefly — note that the Icelandic is not yet sub-titled in English. After working on the film for three years, Dögg has finally raised enough funds to finish the documentary and is hoping for a 2016 release-date.
Trailer for Home Again? A documentary by Dögg Mósesdóttir.
The labour and birth
November in Iceland is dark and cold — the sun rises around 10am and sets soon after 3pm. The girls and I were sleeping together in the guesthouse when I woke to pains at 5:30. I knew this was it. It’s amazing how real the Braxton-Hicks can seem until the real labour pains start.
By 11 in the morning, I was already using the TENS machine to smooth out the pain of the contractions. You can catch a glimpse of the wires leading under the front of my shirt.
I started using my phone to take a screenshot every time a contraction came. I thought it would be handy if I had to calculate exactly how far apart they were. I got up and showered, careful not to disturb the girls. I knew today would be an exciting day for everyone, and so they would benefit from a full night’s sleep.
Last night, Ágúst and I had joked about his preference for me to birth today. He had enjoyed spending the weekend at home with all of us and wasn’t looking forward to returning to work on Monday. Since we had been living alongside the boys for four weeks, I knew Ágúst’s routine and waited until I knew his alarm had sounded and he would be getting ready for work. “Don’t go to work today,” I texted him. “I’ve got a better job offer for you.”
When I entered the house a little while later, I was surprised to see Sæþór sitting in the kitchen, knitting; his work routine meant he usually slept in.
“What are you doing up?” I asked.
“I heard that we’re going to have a baby today,” he responded with a big smile. Then he returned to his furious knitting — fulfilling a request of mine for leg-warmers made with Icelandic wool. It was our standing joke that if he didn’t finish those legwarmers, he wouldn’t get a baby. (I have ‘em now!)
Around late-morning I start using a TENS machine, a trick I had learned during past pregnancies.
We sat in the kitchen talking for most of the day, with a playlist of music by Darpan creating a peaceful ambience. We had hired the TENS machine from the physiotherapy department at the local hospital. I chatted on the phone with a friend in Australia while another sat by her computer in Croatia, ready to provide support if I wanted it.
When the contractions change so that I needed to stand for each one and I request massage help from Sara, I ask the boys to call the midwife and get the pool ready.
4yo Lana is excited about the assembling of the birthing pool — until she learns it isn't for her to swim in!
The boys had hired a birthing pool through our midwife Kristbjörg and had previously practiced assembling it. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! During our dry run, we discovered we needed an extra part that wasn’t supplied with the kit. It’s much better to run to the hardware store before there’s a woman labouring in the house!
When Kristbjörg arrived at 4pm, we went to a private room upstairs so she could examine me. Although the boys and I had talked very frankly about every part of the conception, pregnancy and childbirth, they still hadn’t been introduced to my lady-bits. While I was comfortable with public nudity, the boys’ comfort was important to me, so I chose to remain modestly dressed throughout the birthing.
With Kristbjörg, I explained that while the contractions were consistent and strong, they weren’t increasing very quickly. I had been experiencing contractions for over ten hours, but I didn’t feel much closer to birthing. She assessed that I was 5 cm dilated, and the examination triggered a bittersweet and dramatic increase in contractions, which is what I had desired.
While I'm being examined, the girls play around me, fully comfortable with their surroundings and what is happening.
Although I had to remove the TENS machine when I got into the pool, the hot water soothes me and supported me so it's easier to manage the increasingly-difficult contractions.
My girls have front-row seats to the intense (but boring to watch) process, while I receive support from Ágúst, Sæþór and Kristbjörg.
It's only during the last, intense phase of birthing that Ágúst's family arrives, and I remain ignorant to their presence until after I give birth.
At the transition phase, I told Kristbjörg that I needed more help. She offered to dab essential oil on my wrist, a practice that had previously soothed me. "Nooooo," I complained, "I want MODERN MEDICINE!" "It's a bit too late for that," she replied.
At this time, Kristbjörg encouraged me to release the pent-up emotion I was feeling inside. I sobbed a little, allowing myself to once again feel the sorrow of losing my son and husband, and I released that and all the stresses of the journey that brought us to Iceland. I cried a bit more as I felt sorry for myself for getting into such a painful predicament which I suspected would never end.
Then I took a deep breath. I looked at Kristbjörg and she smiled at me. “You can push when you’re ready,” she offered. That was it. I had an out — I waited for the next contraction, then I pushed.
"Ben! Catch the baby!" I cry, when I feel the head push through.
After the last push, Daníel Valur is drawn into his Daddy's embrace.
Oh, what blessed relief it is to push the baby into the arms of his waiting dad! As the midwife moves to care for the baby, she leaves me in the supportive hands of Hekla. In the background, along with two of my girls are Ágúst's brother and sister and the documentary filmmaker.
I love these guys so much!
After the shot of oxytocin, I quickly birthed the placenta and exited the pool as soon as I could, leaving the new little family still in their cuddle huddle. My work was done, and it felt like a luxury to make my way to my own quarters where I could shower and lay down, massaging my jelly belly to help the uterus contract.
Soon, Kristbjörg came to check on me, and other visitors too — Ágúst and Sæþór each separately, friends and family members to congratulate me and thank me. I immediately started pumping colostrum for Daníel Valur, but I knew that I had the easy job — I was free to rest, recover and relax. Next door, the boys had the hard job — getting to know a newborn!
In the house, the boys were using lit candles to burn through the umbilical cord in a little ceremony that would enhance their memory of this day.
The boys keep Daníel Valur close with constant skin-on-skin contact for the first couple of days.
We kept the placenta, dried it and encapsulated it (stand by for details in a future post). I started consuming them on Day 2, and I believe it was because of these natural hormonal supplements that my mood didn’t drop at all — not even for the ubiquitous Baby Blues when my milk came in. I stayed on the placenta pills for several months and didn’t experience any of the post-natal depression that had briefly visited me in the past.
During the remainder of our time in Iceland, I pump several times a day to offer a supply of breastmilk for Daníel Valur.
The after-birth pains were the most severe ones that I had ever encountered, but they were more tolerable because I had the luxury of only looking after myself. I was able to sleep well, rest when I wanted, get up if I felt like it, and toilet freely — all things that are impossible when caring for a newborn!
During the next few weeks, I could gauge the boys’ previous night-wakings by the bags under their eyes the next morning. As I healed and regained my energy quickly, I felt slightly smug that I had dodged that bullet and was resting so well, but at the same time I knew that they were so happy to finally have Daníel Valur in their lives.
Wow! What an experience! It’s been a euphoric rush to return to the events of a year ago — remember all that happened, edit the photos, check my notes, read over Sæþór’s account of the birth — which sounds a lot different to mine! ;) and write the story down. I am so thankful that I was given the opportunity to contribute unselfishly in this meaningful way, and I’m even more grateful that I share such a special and ongoing friendship with Ágúst and Sæþór and can witness the growth of their son.
My greatest personal achievement is forgiving the man who killed my son. My second greatest achievement is birthing Daníel Valur for his two dads. With this pregnancy and birth, I did something truly lovely, loving and selfless. It kinda makes me wish I was young and fertile again so that I could help other people out, but this birthing chapter has closed permanently for me, I’m glad to say — no more babies from this body! Six is exactly enough.
Whether you read this article because you’re interested in homebirthing, surrogacy, gay parenting or simply like looking into the lives of other families, I hope you can see the joy and love that unpinned this entire experience. When Dögg’s documentary is released, I’ll share the link to it, but otherwise I won’t write more about Daníel Valur. His is not my story to tell, but Ágúst’s and Sæþór’s.
However, I’ve been considering writing a book with a detailed account of this relational surrogacy experience. If you’d like to hear the full story, please leave me some encouragement with a comment below.