Styling parenthood their way | Justin & Leigh's story
The decision to start a family is complex for all individuals and couples. But grappling with this momentous choice is even more difficult for the queer community, with many facing overwhelming financial burdens, legal obstacles and social hurdles on their path to parenthood.
In the hopes of giving our portier posse greater insight into the challenges same-sex couples face on the journey to parenthood, we spoke to Justin & Leigh about their unique path to becoming parents of Owen.
Together, Justin & Leigh generously share their experience as gay men seeking fertility care and surrogacy and the challenges they overcame to build their own vision of family.
Tell us about your little posse; how did the two of you meet?
We met ten years ago when we were about 18, both studying dance. We got to know each other, and things started to get more serious. We got engaged four years ago and have been married for two years. The day we finally brought Owen home was our 1st wedding anniversary — such a memorable day! Our posse is a cool vibe; we’ve got Asian, Mexican, and German in our little family.
When did you decide you wanted to be parents?
We’re very close to our families, but I never thought I would have a family of my own. I was very career-oriented, whereas Leigh always wanted to be a family guy. He always wanted a family. I hadn’t really considered having babies. I just thought, “I’m with a guy; that’s not going to happen.”
In contrast, Leigh knew more about surrogacy than I did. As we got older, our relationship matured, and we felt it was time to start seriously considering what was next for us in our relationship. That’s when we started looking more into surrogacy.
What was your journey like becoming Owen’s parents?
It was quite a ride, to be honest with you.
We had been researching surrogacy for three to four years and went to our first surrogacy seminar in Melbourne. As I walked out, I remember thinking, “They’re talking $150,000 — no way am I going to pay that for a baby?”
I didn’t really understand it all, to be honest. Once we gave it more thought, we decided to explore surrogacy in Australia as our first option. We connected with our surrogate and egg donor via social media platforms and surrogacy and egg donor groups specifically for Australians wanting to commence and complete an altruistic journey. People can post and share themselves and their desires to become parents in the groups, with the hope that you can connect and meet others that can support you in fulfilling your dreams.
After a monumental and lengthy effort to try and have a baby through IVF and surrogacy here in Australia, it, unfortunately, ended following two failed embryo transfers. We are still so incredibly appreciative and grateful for our initial journey to parenthood. It solidified that we were determined to continue down this path, despite the heartbreak and loss.
We had friends who had completed an international surrogacy journey. After researching and talking to others who had made a similar journey, we explored our options and decided to proceed with our surrogacy journey in Mexico. We connected with a surrogacy agency in Cancun and also created our embryos with an egg donor there, followed by a match with a surrogate, all coordinated by our agency.
Can you tell us about the birth?
On March 7th, 2022, we received an unexpected call at 5:30 am from our pregnancy coordinator in Cancun. She was standing out the front of the hospital as our surrogate was in emergency with contractions. We then discovered that Owen would be born within 12-24 hours.
Sheer panic, anxiety, stress and worry started to set in. Our baby would be born at just 29 weeks, 11 weeks early. Was Owen going to be ok?
We hadn’t packed or planned for this, but with the help of friends and family, we booked flights and accommodation, and within the next 36 hours, we landed in LA. The next day he arrived.
The first picture we received was of his wristband. He was so tiny. We couldn’t wait to meet him. However, unfortunately, due to legal reasons, we didn’t meet Owen for the first four weeks. We ended up staying in Mexico for 3.5 months. It was a culture shock for us. We had nothing there and no assistance or anyone to support us when Owen came home. So going into the unknown of parenthood with no physical family or friend support was challenging. Being over there was isolating at times, and we missed those exciting moments when everyone meets your baby for the first time. Thankfully, my parents came over for the last two weeks of our time there, for which we were extremely grateful. Overall, I think our path to parenthood was paved with extreme highs and a few lows.
Everyone has their own beliefs about how to be a parent. How would you each describe your parenting styles?
We just kicked into gear with our natural style of what we thought would work. Being around our nieces and nephews, changing nappies and taking care of them gave us an insight into what parenting would look like for us. We followed our intuition in terms of parenting in general. We realised having a routine suited our parenting style and helped us. When we were in Mexico, I worked remotely, full-time at night-time. Because of the time difference, I worked from 6 pm to 3 am. So, in terms of routine, it was vital for us. Leigh wasn’t working during that time also, so sharing the load between us helped us both and keeping Owen in a routine helped pass the time. As Owen has grown up and changed in different phases of his development, we had to adapt to what he needed, and we have relaxed a bit more from our routine and become more flexible and adaptable during the day to be more guided by him. Despite this, we still follow a structured morning routine to start the day well and support his sleep and downtime before his big overnight sleep.
What is the best advice you would give to parents looking into surrogacy as a route to parenthood?
Know what your end goal is, but don’t have any expectations. When we went into surrogacy and gave it the green light, I was thinking, “How can we get it done ASAP? Give me the checklist.” I had everything printed out, I engaged with lawyers that got the contracts sorted, and in my mind, I was thinking, “Everything is done - Let’s go!” But sometimes, when you rush the process, that might not lead to the best outcome.
When you bring a child into the world, it’s a big thing. It’s important that decisions are made together as a couple while also ensuring that your needs are met first. Before anyone else enters the partnership, ensure they are the right person to join your team. You are allowing these people to be a part of your life. Before you start this journey, you and your partner need to know what kind of relationship you want to have during the pregnancy and, after that, what role they will play in the child’s life — whether you want them to be a part of your family or extended family or friends. A lot of gay couples struggle with that discussion. Explore all your options. There’s no right or wrong decision, and it’s just what’s right for you. Talking to your family about your situation is key because you never know who could want to be a sperm or an egg donor.
It is a lot more in-depth here in Australia. If you decide to explore overseas surrogacy, it is a very different process. You’re not offered any counselling like they provide here. Overseas it is more transactional (money-wise). However, they provide surrogacy and medical coordinators to walk you through your pregnancy with the surrogate and update you regularly. Also, compared to overseas, the amount of time you spend waiting in Australia is very different. So, weighing up your options and deciding what works for you is essential.
What kind of support is available for same-sex parents?
There are a lot of Facebook forum groups, like RDV- Rainbow Dads Victoria (include link), where they do regular catchups (we have yet to go). We’ve met a lot of same-sex couples through Instagram and Facebook, which has been helpful too. It becomes a bit of a community on those platforms because it’s easy to find people in a similar position to you. We’ve made good friends with some other gay parents here in Melbourne as well, who have become our support network. It normalises same-sex parenting for children who grow up with the same family dynamic. I think it will also help children so they don’t see it as taboo.
What are some ways you’ve approached parenthood in your way?
We’ve trusted our intuition and stuck to our guns. Everyone will always have their own opinion and ways of doing parenthood, or what you should or shouldn’t do. For us, it was important to go with our gut; when your gut tells you something, know that it is often the right thing to do.
We’ve had to adapt to some significant changes. Those are things we must do as a different family, and we’ve had to adjust and restyle what parenthood looks like for us.
What has surprised you the most about parenthood?
It’s unbelievable how quickly he’s changed and continues to develop and grow. Monumental changes can happen overnight. Owen went from not crawling to wanting to pull himself up to stand for the first time (with our support) overnight. He is also waving bye-bye. Despite his disability, he has matched the developmental leaps of other children without a visual impairment.
What do you find to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of parenthood?
One of our favourite things is seeing him authentically happy and in the moment and growing up and becoming a little boy. It’s just the best thing. My least favourite thing is teething and seeing him sick or unwell. We’ll see he’s in pain and can’t sleep, and that’s hard. Parent guilt always creeps in when you have other commitments like work or attending other life events on your social calendar, meaning you leave your little one with your parents or friends. Leaving Owen behind with others affects Leigh the most, with his parent guilt and anxiety always heightened during those phases, but over time we have worked on taking time for ourselves and knowing that he is in the best love and caring hands.
Are you both juggling career and parenthood? What are some things you do to help balance the two roles?
We have both been working full-time since returning from Mexico in June 2022. We just hit the ground running with sporadic support from our family, who all have their own work/life commitments. Justin’s parents are here in Melbourne, so they’ve helped a fair bit during the week when they can. When it comes to working for both of us, I guess it’s just about scheduling our meetings and working out our roster for the week so we know who’s caring for Owen and when. Routine, schedule, and organisation are key.
Fortunately, my employer is very supportive and allows me to manage work/life commitments accordingly. This has been very refreshing and takes the pressure off balancing the two, which I know for many parents can be a challenge at times. I work for myself, so I can be flexible about where I need to be during the week. Covid has caused a positive shift in the last couple of years, with humanity becoming more sympathetic to the challenges faced when juggling work and parenthood.
Has your relationship with each other evolved since becoming parents?
Since Owen has come into our lives, he has only enriched our relationship and love for one another more, as well as appreciating each other’s support. Owen was diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP) causing him to have limited to no vision. As hard as it has been with Owen’s diagnosis, this has only brought us closer as a couple. Despite the challenges of having a child, we have each other to lean on and share happy and sad moments. With most of our time at home now, we get to spend more quality time together, strengthening our bond.
As parents, it’s easy to lose connection with each other because of the demands of caring for a child. However, after a few months of being at home and dealing with Owen’s diagnosis, we realised that we needed to prioritise our relationship as a couple. Justin was the one who suggested it, and it made us more aware of the importance of making time for ourselves as a couple, especially during difficult times, like when Owen had to undergo surgeries for his eye. But having our little man to support and love has made our journey more meaningful. Time will tell whether he has a vision at all once he’s older, and we will continue to support, care and love him as any parent would.
What would you like to see change or improve for LGBTQ+ parents?
I’d like to see surrogacy laws unanimous in Australia and, maybe in the future, offer agency-led, supported or commercial surrogacy. There are so many different regulations across all states and territories. So, it’s not just one generic rule across all of Australia. I want to see more awareness around surrogacy, too, because I think there are misconceptions about the ethics of it. But really, it’s just a different way of having a child.
Brands need to become a lot more inclusive with dads and same-sex parents. I see a lot of marketing targeted exclusively at mums when it comes to having a baby, so seeing more inclusivity there would be great.