More like this

Monolith Plateau in Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo. Image: Norwegian National Library/Wikimedia Commons

There are six needles arranged in a neat line on the table before me. I take a photo for Instagram before throwing myself back on the couch and pulling my shirt up. Ready! My stomach is distended, a swollen mound rising from my belly button into my underwear. I look like I’m in the first few months of pregnancy, a novelty I never intend to experience for real. Matt puts his book down and walks over, sits down beside me and starts fiddling with the needles. Steven starts to chat, honouring our agreement that he distract me while the needles go in. It is our second round of IVF and we have fallen into a brisk, professional rhythm. Matt almost always injects me and I prefer it that way. He’s a doctor, and even though there’s nothing difficult about the procedure – in fact, most egg donors inject themselves – I find his relaxed professionalism soothing.

We are nervous, though no one mentions it. The needles are full of hormones designed to help me produce an oversupply of strong, stable eggs. One of them will trigger ovulation and in 36 hours time, I’ll have the eggs harvested at a clinic near the Brisbane CBD. Later, they will be fertilised with Steven and Matt’s sperm and injected one by one, months apart, into another woman’s uterus.

*

Steven and I fell in together in high school almost by accident – he needed someone to make brunch for as part of a Home Ec assignment and everyone he asked first had a class they couldn’t miss. His family was religious, his father a pastor. I was the first person he came out to and, for a while, his beard. He, in turn, was the person I could talk to about the war and what PTSD had done to my family. We were awkward teenagers – ungainly and badly dressed, pretending fiercely that we didn’t care, except to one another.

We didn’t talk as much after I moved to Melbourne, but every now and then Steven would send me a message, prefaced almost always with hey can I ask you a weird question?

It was no different when he asked about egg donation, coming at it in a roundabout way which I cut right through​.

You can have as many of my eggs as ya like 😊. There was no need to think about it, no question of pain or inconvenience. I have never wanted children, but I have always known I would help Steven have his.

We were awkward teenagers – ungainly and badly dressed, pretending fiercely that we didn’t care, except to one another.

Remember in high school when I said I’d be your surrogate?

We’d been walking home from school, a 90-minute journey that we took when one or the other of us didn’t want to be at home. I’d always known Steven wanted to be a dad, but it was the first time we’d talked about what being gay meant in terms of family. By the time he messaged me ten years later, he had a degree in early childhood education and a box full of books he’d been saving to give his children.

Lol, yeah?

I’m glad you didn’t hold me to that one, haha. This is a lot less painful.

Haha I can’t believe you remembered.

Things start slowly at first. We talk, a lot. Steven and Matt want the child to know where they came from, to get the chance to know their biological mother. I am less concerned with biology, but I do believe in honesty. We parse through the language of connection, and it feels obvious and natural that I would be an aunt. I imagine myself swooping in from overseas, full of stories and indulgence for the children, swooping out again when responsibility or desire beckoned.

There are forms to complete and blood tests to screen for genetic conditions. The fertility clinic will not accept eggs if I carry a high risk of certain conditions, even though Matt and Steven would. We book in for counselling and make plans for me to move up to Brisbane for the duration of the IVF treatment. I could have stayed in Melbourne, self-injecting as necessary and flying up just before the procedure, but Steven and Matt are nervous and want me close – just in case. Besides, they are eager for me to meet Jane*, the woman who is acting as surrogate, another friend of Steven’s who I’d heard about but never met. She has three children of her own and an unfurling generosity that takes my breath away. When Steven told her their hopes to start a family, she immediately offered to be their surrogate.

On a trip to Tasmania, I meet Matt’s mum for lunch at a classy restaurant she has chosen for us. Oh! You’re so beautiful, and tall, too! she exclaims when I walk over to her table. She wants to know everything about me and I tell her the basics. She interjects every now and again – And smart! A law degree! – and keeps calling the child mine, keeps calling me a mother. I laugh and tell her I’m going for more of a ‘cool aunt’ vibe. Oh, but all that will change once you hold him! she says. It’s a connection, you know, with your baby. She talks at length about my place in the family. Families look so different these days. Why not a mama and two daddies?

My mother talks this way too, when I call her to tell her what’s happening. I had thought about not saying anything; it hadn’t seemed relevant, to her or to our relationship. But I knew she would be hurt if she found out later, and I’m not good at guarding my words. My mother is uncertain at first, but quickly turns to enthusiasm. She had hoped I would change my mind about not having kids of my own, and sees this as a compromise, a way for me to have the best of both worlds – the life I want and the child she does. It’s ​not my kid, I tell her over and over. It’s Steven and Matt’s.

It’s blood, Dženana, she replies, or some variation of. You’ll change your mind when you see her.

My friends ask similar questions: How will you feel when you have a child out in the world? Will it be weird to hold them? Do you think you’ll change your mind once they’re born? Will you tell future partners that you have a kid? It’s kinda like being a mum, isn’t it?

I answer truthfully: honestly, I don’t think I’ll feel anything towards the baby. Not when they’re born, at least, and probably not until I get to know them. Love isn’t automatic; it’s a thing that grows.

*

I was eight when I asked my mum’s boyfriend if I could call him ‘dad’. I can’t remember how it came up – I know we were at his family’s Easter barbecue but my memory starts with me standing beside him at the grill, watching him turn sausages. Excuse me Peter, but can I please call you ‘dad’? I don’t remember him actually saying yes, but both my sister and I have called him nothing else since. I remember him crying, though.

Love isn’t automatic; it’s a thing that grows.

People used to tell us that I looked like Mum, and that my sister looked like Dad. Our personalities were reversed, they’d say. Mum and my sister were fiery and temperamental, Dad and I calm, quiet. They’d point out how Dad and my sister had the same ears, the same face shape. They were always surprised, and embarrassed, when we’d laugh and tell them there was no blood relation. They seemed to think they had broken some kind of taboo, and would apologise, as though it were poor form to have brought attention to it.

It had never occurred to us to care whether or not Dad was blood. Neither my sister nor I had ever used that classic line, ‘You’re not my real dad!’, no matter how much trouble we were in. Dad, for his part, had never treated us like anything other than his own. We were his own.

*

We are compelled by the myth of blood ties, by the strength of genetic connection. Every other week there’s a story in the news of long-lost relations discovering one another, the immediate sense of connection and love they feel. We do not tell the other story: of relations who do not find each other because there is no compulsion to look, of relations who find each other and are indifferent (at best), of relations who move apart and out of touch, or for whom disconnection is an issue of safety. In an increasingly disjointed world, the myth of blood – with its promise of effortless, indeed inevitable connection – is one we perpetuate in lieu of actively developing family.

I met my biological father only recently. I had known him when I was a child, but had not seen him since he and my mother separated during the Bosnian war. It was not a sense of loss that propelled me, but rather of curiosity. In 2017 I spent three weeks in Bosnia, surrounded by biological family. In Australia, my family had been four people strong: Mum, Dad, my sister and me, with occasional cameo visits from Dad’s parents and brothers. In Bosnia, there were dozens of relatives. A party was held to celebrate my visit and 300 people showed up.

My cousins constantly pointed out the similarities between me and my father, though I struggled to see them. It’s true that I look a lot like Biodad: we are both tall and thin-lipped, our eyes folding into the same shape when we smile. He is indecisive like me too, though I suspect from indifference rather than anxiety. Biodad also looks like my sister, but I can’t see any resemblance in their personalities.

When I came home, a friend asked me about the trip, what it was like to meet everyone. She asked: Do you love your biological father? I shrugged, I don’t know yet. Now, years later, after having spent months with my family in Bosnia, I can say that I do – but not the same way as I love Dad, and not unconditionally.

*

In his germinal1984 text A Critique of the Study of Kinship, anthropologist David Schneider criticised the definition of kinship based on blood relation. It is, he says, a condition that we have ascribed as an extension of our Western values, not a universal condition for family relations. He’s right, of course – the emphasis on direct blood ties is not shared by all cultures, including many Polynesian, Micronesian and Indigenous Australian groups. In some cultures, mother and father can apply to any relative of one’s bioparents’ generation, brother and sister to cousins, and aunty and uncle to older people who might not be blood related at all. And of course, there is the question of adopted and step-families. Schneider, and anthropologists after him, shift the focus from blood to acts of nurture and care as the basis for kinship.

In an increasingly disjointed world, the myth of blood – with its promise of effortless, indeed inevitable connection – is one we perpetuate in lieu of actively developing family.

By this definition then, Dad is kin; there is no need for embarrassed apologies. He has borne our war-baggage, our PTSD, our teenage rebellions. He has done our washing and re-heated dinners for us, taken us to netball on Saturday mornings, driven the extra thirty minutes to Joondalup every two weeks so we could go to the big library, taken us out for monthly ‘Father-Daughter Days’, taught us to drive.

By this definition, Steven, too, is kin. His first act of friendship, after all, was to feed me. The two of us have spent countless hours together, a stream of Thursday nights skulking around Carindale shopping centre, mooning over crushes and hiding from problems at home, talking seriously about the people we were and the people we wanted to become. Steven hugged me and covered my ears when we watched the fireworks by the river, the gunfire-like pops setting off my PTSD. I cried with him when his family told him that being gay was a mental illness, that he was sick. Fuck your family, I had said. I’m your family. We have held each other through self-harm, breakups, abuse, and being kicked out of home. Even living in different states, when the gaps between messages grew larger and larger, we knew more about what was going on in one another’s lives than anyone in our families did. Friendship, according to feminist and philosopher of the future Donna Haraway, is a form of kinship. It involves a serious kind of belonging to one another, a belonging that is just as meaningful and deep-felt as familial ties.

*

I Skype the Brisbane-based counsellor. She is friendly and to the point, asking the same questions as everyone else. Have you thought about what it might feel like to hold the child? What if it looks like you, how would that feel? She listens to my responses and nods, smiling often. I like her because she takes me seriously: she has conducted a hundred of these interviews and knows the variety of emotional response. She does not expect me to change my mind, only to consider the possibility that I might. There are more blood tests, more documents to sign.

Things move faster after that. Matt and Steven meet with her a week later, and within the month the four of us Skype for the final mandatory counselling session. We get the go-ahead and I move back to Brisbane, where time is charmed and glittery, like in a sitcom. Matt works long hours but Steven and I fall into an easy rhythm in his absence: early morning coffee before the day is given over to studying and errands, both of which we perform together, with frequent prolonged breaks to chat or complain. In the evenings we cook fanciful meals from recipes we find on the internet, and the three of us eat sprawled around the coffee table, filling Matt in on what he missed that day. On Fridays, a bunch of friends come over and we watch Drag Race and on the weekends we visit Matt’s family on the Gold Coast. I meet Jane, who is warm and soft-spoken and kind. She has not yet had the blood tests or the counselling, but she seems calm, ready. The weeks are punctuated by visits to the clinic for ultrasounds or blood tests and every night Matt injects me with follicle stimulating hormone and ganirelix to prevent me ovulating.

Friendship involves a serious kind of belonging to one another, a belonging that is just as meaningful and deep-felt as familial ties.

The first procedure fails. I can tell while it’s happening. The eggs are sucked from my ovaries and into vials before being carried to the end of the room where a nurse at a microscope counts the viable ones. She calls the numbers aloud, but there are long pauses between each. I see her and the doctor exchange looks, sense the mood in the room shift from anticipation to confusion to disappointment. But I am green-whistle high and far away from myself, and it is not until afterwards, sitting in the waiting room, that it hits me. The doctor confirms it. We got five, he says. They might be useable but we’ll have to see. He tells me we can try again in a few weeks’ time and I agree immediately, hot tears pricking at my eyes. The doctor has other extractions to do and he leaves me to tell Steven the news. Steven is only a few minutes longer, having been signing forms and masturbating into a cup in another room. He can tell immediately that things didn’t go well and his face is all worry and apology.

We can do it again, I tell him before he can say anything. In a few weeks. The doctor said he’ll up the meds. I’m so sorry. Steven folds himself around me, telling me that it’s fine, there’s nothing to be sorry for. He is more upset than I am, a mixture of guilt and a disappointment he tries to hide for my sake. We apologise in circles, curled against each other until a nurse comes to get us. The green whistle has worn off; I wince as I stand.

Did it hurt? Steven asks.

Like a bitch, I tell him.

Are you sure you want to do this again?

As many times as it takes.

The second time around, the doctor gives us extra drugs – additional needles to add to the mix and a small bottle of pills to encourage the eggs to develop properly. We have to sign more documents approving the new medication and complete a revised version of my egg-release document. There’s a new question, asking if Steven and Matt have permission to give away any eggs they don’t use, a space for me to write any restrictions. Steven and I, sitting at a round table in one of the clinic’s visiting rooms, find this very funny. We joke about giving them as Christmas presents. The nurse coughs, glaring at us. This is a very serious matter, she tells me. This isn’t a joke. These are your eggs, your potential children. Steven and I look at each other, our smiles falling. We don’t say anything. When we get home, Steven is crushed.

The focus on the eggs as manifestly ‘mine’, as the children born of them as ‘my’ children, as me, upon their birth, as a ‘mother’, frustrates me for the way it ties my (cis-female) body to motherhood, a thing I have no interest in. But for Steven and Matt, the insistence on my kinship is a deeper wound. Privileging my (or Jane’s) relation to any child born using the eggs disrespects the bond between that child and its (non-biological) parent. While I’ve been fielding questions centred on the inevitability of my connection to the child, Steven and Matt have been forced to constantly answer those that would challenge theirs. I’m just so tired of it, Steven tells me. It’s like no matter what we do, the baby will always be yours because it’s your genes, or Jane’s because she’s going to carry it. We’re never going to be parents enough. I don’t know what to say; in the circumstances, there is nothing to say.

There’s no denying that Jane, as surrogate, and I, as egg donor, will be connected to any children born from this process. But the external pressure to locate that connection within a framework of motherhood is antiquated, sexist and queerphobic, and imposing a traditional, heterosexual and Western structure on the family that the four of us are building undermines its validity, and its value. Even aside from IVF, there are plenty of other ways in which families are constituted that do not rely on a genetic link, or on motherhood as the central fulcrum around which the family is structured. With IVF, the possibilities for kinship only expand.

Imposing a traditional, heterosexual and Western structure on the family that the four of us are building undermines its validity, and its value.

Donna Haraway compels us to consider such other-than-natal possibilities.

Her particular concern is to reduce our impact on the environment by slowing population growth, but she calls us to look to queer, decolonial and Indigenous family dynamics to grow our families – to make kin rather than babies. In her vision of the future, IVF and surrogacy are the norm, children are raised by their community or by numerous parent-figures (who aren’t necessarily involved in romantic or sexual relationships), and adult and elder adoption are common. I doubt that this future is close, but perhaps it is coming. After all, since the first in 1978, eight million babies have been born through IVF. Of course, not all were born using egg donors or surrogates, or to queer families, but the point remains: the way that children are born and families are constituted is changing. It only follows that we change the way we think about them, and the bonds which make them, too.

*

Thirty-six hours after the trigger injection, I am led into the operating theatre, the same as last time. This time, I am prepared for the pain of it and try to relax, taking deep puffs of the green whistle while the doctor settles himself between my legs. There is less chat today; the staff are cautiously optimistic but prepared for another disappointment. The nurse does not count aloud. For a long moment there is only sharp, exquisite pain, and then, suddenly, bustling. A nurse brings a fresh tray of vials, the doctor shifts in his seat. Would ya look at that! he exclaims and someone laughs.

We harvest twenty-three eggs and, a few days later, are able to fertilise thirteen of them – six with Steven’s sperm, seven with Matt’s. This is only the first, stumbling step. What comes next will be exhausting, confusing, heartbreaking. I will be overseas and far away, but Steven and I will message a constant stream of updates, check-ins and fingers-crossed emojis. There will be other things too: his engagement, my own coming out, work and uni stress, memes. And through the distance, my brother and I will hold each other, as we always have.

*name changed