What it’s really like to carry twins… to give to a colleague: That’s what married mum Mel did for her gay friends Craig and Paul – Here, she explains why and what her husband and children thought
- Mel Odell, 38, from Chelmsford, was a surrogate for Craig and Paul Saunders
- Mother-of-two met the married gay couple while working as an air stewardess
- Her husband Tom, a restaurant manager, did research before giving his blessing
- Their story is told in BBC series, The Baby has Landed
When mother-of-two Mel Odell broke the news to friends that she was planning another pregnancy, instead of reacting with delight they told her she was ‘mad’ and questioned why on earth she would do ‘such a crazy thing’.
Their issue? This was to be no ordinary new addition, because, while Mel, 38, and husband Tom had decided their own family was complete, she had agreed to be a surrogate — to conceive, carry and hand over twins to a gay couple she had met through her work as an air stewardess.
Fast-forward nine months and Mel, from Chelmsford, Essex, was sobbing uncontrollably in the delivery suite, where she had to stay to have her blood pressure monitored, while the twin girls she’d given birth to hours earlier left the hospital to begin their lives with their two dads.
Mel Odell, 38, (pictured with husband, Tom) from Chelmsford, Essex, documents being a surrogate for her gay friends Craig and Paul Saunders in a new BBC series
‘I think the emotion of it all overwhelmed me,’ says Mel. ‘The hormones are insane when you’ve just given birth, and I couldn’t even tell you why I was crying, but I couldn’t stop.’
Mel insists she wasn’t, as one might expect, distraught at being separated from the babies she had carried: ‘I wasn’t thinking: “I need a baby” — nothing like that. I was 99.9 per cent certain that I would be able to cope with it.
‘My parents were foster carers so, all through my childhood, we had foster kids coming and going, whom I often got attached to. If I had been able to deal with that as a child, I could cope with being a surrogate as an adult.’
Mel, a devoted mother, says her motivation to help Craig and Paul was that ‘everyone has the right to have children’.
Thanks to her extraordinary altruism, Craig and Paul Saunders, who have known one another for 15 years and married in March last year, are now proud fathers to five-month-old twins Austyn and Orla, who arrived at Chelmsford’s Broomfield Hospital, 15 minutes apart, on June 19.
The wheels that led to this unusual arrangement were set in motion when Paul worked with Mel on a flight to Cuba back in the spring of 2017.
He told her, and their flight attendant colleagues, about his upcoming marriage to Craig, also a flight attendant, whom Mel had worked with some years earlier. They would love to have children, he explained, but weren’t sure how.
They had already registered their interest to adopt with their local authority in East Sussex, believing that having their own biological children with the help of a surrogate would be prohibitively expensive.
Paul and Craig (pictured feeding twin baby girls Austyn and Orla) met Mel through her work as an air stewardess
In fact, it is illegal for surrogates in the UK to receive payment, other than expenses to cover costs incurred during the pregnancy or loss of earnings.
‘Some weeks after that flight, we received a long message from Mel saying she had spoken to her husband and mum and dad: she was thinking of being a surrogate and felt it was us she would like to do it for,’ recalls Paul, 36.
Both he and Craig were stunned. ‘Lots of female colleagues have said: “Oh, I’ll have a baby for you,” but it was always tongue-in-cheek and we knew it would never come to fruition,’ says Craig. ‘It felt as if it had to be fate for Mel to offer without even being asked.’
Mel had been acutely aware that Tom, a restaurant manager, must be in agreement with her plan. He took two weeks to think about it and ‘do his own research’ before giving his blessing.
‘He was amazing throughout,’ says Mel. ‘I’m unusual in that I enjoy giving birth — I have quick, relatively easy labours.
‘Though, with the twins, after the first was born, I did think: “Oh no, I’ve got to do it all again!” But I don’t like being pregnant. The last few months are so uncomfortable, and Tom had to put up with me being grumpy.
Mel (pictured with her family) revealed friends were concerned about the emotional side of being a surrogate
‘My friends were supportive, too, but understandably concerned at first about the emotional side — they have felt that rush of love and not wanted to let their babies out of their sight, which can make it hard to get your head around surrogacy.’
While she was happy to carry the babies, Mel made it clear from the start she wasn’t prepared to use her own eggs. This wasn’t, she says, because she was worried about it leading to a greater bond, but because she ‘didn’t want my children to have biological half-siblings somewhere’.
The trio didn’t rush into fertility treatment, as all of them were keen to know one another well before taking such a step. ‘I couldn’t have carried a child for someone I didn’t know well, because it was important to me that they were going to be good parents,’ says Mel.
‘Craig and Paul are caring. They are so in love with one another and so considerate of each other. They love their dogs. You could just see they were going to be amazing parents.’
Having found a private fertility clinic in London, staff there referred them to another in northern Cyprus that was willing to perform the unusual procedure of fertilising donor eggs from the same Turkish Cypriot woman, one with Craig’s and another with Paul’s sperm, and transferring one of each for implantation into Mel’s uterus.
Paul (pictured) and Craig were given two spare beds in Mel’s side room, as NHS hospital staff accommodated them when the children arrived
The journey from discovering Mel was pregnant, in October 2018, to daily life with the twins has been filmed for a new BBC series, The Baby Has Landed, featuring several sets of new parents.
Mel was 38 weeks and four days into her pregnancy when her waters broke — far along for a multiple pregnancy — and the girls were born naturally at good weights: Austyn, who arrived first, at 5lb 13oz and Orla at 5lb 10oz.
The NHS hospital staff were accommodating of their unconventional arrangement and made up two spare beds for Craig and Paul in Mel’s side room, where the twins slept in cots.
Breastfeeding didn’t cross Mel’s mind, as her children, Keira, six, and Zachary, five, were both formula-fed. They knew that the babies in their mummy’s tummy were Craig and Paul’s, not hers, and Mel read her children age-appropriate books on surrogacy to help them understand.
Now their twin daughters are here, the subject of paternity is one Craig and Paul would rather not discuss. ‘It’s important to us that they are both our children and we don’t gravitate naturally to one or the other of them,’ says Craig. ‘In the future, God forbid, if anything happens where we need to find out the biology for health reasons, then, of course, we would, but otherwise there’s no need. We’re one family.’
Mel (pictured with her family) revealed breastfeeding didn’t cross her mind as her children, Keira, six, and Zachary, five, were both formula-fed
Their decision not to focus on biological paternity mirrors that of Sir Elton John and his husband David Furnish, who initially planned not to find out which of them was the biological father of their first son, Zachary — although the couple later said they were considering DNA testing to find out for health reasons.
Craig and Paul clearly have their ideas about which of the babies carries whose DNA.
‘One of them, when she’s kicking off, I laugh and call her a miniature version of Paul,’ says Craig. ‘And the other, my family tell me she is the mirror image of me as a baby.’
It was a challenging start. Paul and Craig both went part-time at work to share the childcare, which meant they took turns to be alone at home with the babies while the other was on long-haul trips.
‘Living on Hobnobs and no sleep for six weeks was hard,’ says Paul, light-heartedly. ‘I put on about two stone and we were permanently exhausted.’
Craig recalls one particular low point when Paul was away, the babies were fractious and one of their two beloved French bulldogs was sick.
Craig (pictured with Paul and their daughters) found himself in tears when the girls were around six weeks old as they wouldn’t stop crying
‘I phoned my mum in tears because the girls, who were five or six weeks old, wouldn’t stop crying and our dog was being sick everywhere. I haven’t had a moment like that since then — but I think every parent gets to a point where they think: “What have I done?” ’
Even in these more enlightened times, when families come in endless configurations, Craig and Paul’s set-up attracts a great deal of attention.
People are so intrigued to find out more about these two dads with their twin girls that the couple leave extra time to get wherever they are going so they can chat to passers-by.
Some, seeing either of them alone with the babies, jump to conclusions. ‘One woman in Tesco said to me: “Are you giving Mummy a break today?” I said: “No, they don’t have a mum”,’ recalls Craig, matter-of-factly.
‘She said: “Ooh, couldn’t she cope? Has she left you on your own with the twins?”
‘And I said: “No, she hasn’t.”
‘The woman gasped and said: “Oh, gosh, did she die during childbirth?”
Paul (pictured) claims most evenings he and Craig stand and stare at their daughters in their cots with their arms up
‘I said: “No, they just have two dads, it’s really simple.” ’
Another time, while Craig was out shopping with the girls, a woman in her 50s pressed a piece of paper with her telephone number into his hand and said that she and her husband would like to invite him and the twins over for dinner, ‘to ease things a little bit for you, as you’re obviously on your own’.
The implication that a man is incapable of managing with twins, while a woman should be able to do so, is not lost on them. And, in reality, they are coping admirably.
For several weeks now, the girls, who sleep side-by-side in cots in their tastefully decorated nursery, have been in a strict routine of four-hourly feeds during the day. They are growing well, and enjoy a 12-hour stretch of sleep — from 7pm to 7am — every night.
‘We wanted these babies so much,’ says Paul. ‘Most evenings, Craig and I stand and stare at them, cosy in their cots with their arms up, and say to each other: “Can you believe these are our girls?”’
The one slight concern they did have, after discovering, at Mel’s 20-week scan, that the twins were girls, was how they would navigate the peculiarities of the female body, such as periods, having no experience to draw on.
Paul (pictured with Craig) believes their family is no different, as it’s two parents providing love, nurture and care
But both have close female friends who have offered to ‘sit with the girls and talk us through it when the time comes’.
Otherwise, the couple are in no doubt they are equipped for the challenges ahead. ‘There are no mother figures because they have two dads — that’s the make-up of our family. Two dads, two girls and two dogs,’ says Craig, while Paul chips in: ‘Having two dads is no different to having a mum and a dad. It’s two parents — it’s about love, nurture and care.’
That’s not to say that they don’t recognise the vital part Mel played in making their dreams a reality. They have asked Mel and Tom to be godparents to their twins and are in almost daily contact, exchanging news about the babies, as well as the Odells’ children.
Mel insists that, despite carrying and giving birth to them, she feels no greater attachment to the twins than she does to any of her other friends’ children.
‘As much as I’d prepared myself mentally, I knew I could have struggled to be separated from them once they were born,’ she says. ‘But, when they put the first baby on my belly to cut the cord, my initial thought was: “That’s not mine.”
‘I didn’t get the feeling that I had to hold and protect her, like I did with my own — I just wanted the babies to be in their dads’ arms as soon as possible.
‘Then I thought: “That’s how it should be.” Craig and Paul were crying; it was lovely.’
The Baby Has Landed is on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC Two from November 27.
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