Celebrating the Gift of Fatherhood I Father's Day with @jake_graf5
Becoming a new father is an emotional, exciting, and enriching experience, and even though it’s worth every second of it, the path to parenthood is not always smooth. To celebrate Father's Day, we spoke to new dad Jake Graf about the pregnancy journey he and his wife, Hannah, embarked on in 2019 and what it’s like becoming a new father during a global pandemic.
As trans people, Jake and Hannah chose surrogacy as their route to parenthood and their beautiful journey was followed in a moving Channel 4 documentary that aired last year. We also spoke to Jake about his work with Mermaids, a brilliant charity that supports transgender and gender-nonconforming children and their loved ones.
Firstly, a big congratulations from all of us at Childrensalon on the birth of your daughter, Millie. What was it like becoming a father for the first time?
Thank you so much! As someone who has dreamt their whole life of being a parent, it is more than I could ever have hoped for. As trans people, we are often made to feel that we aren’t worthy or deserving of things like love, marriage or having a family, so this all feels very much like a dream come true.
You and your wife Hannah had Millie via surrogacy. Was there something that drew you to surrogacy in particular over the other options?
As Hannah and I are both transgender, we were unable to have a baby in the "traditional" way, but I had always hoped to have a child that was genetically mine. Six years ago, I went through the fairly traumatic but very much worth it process of stopping my testosterone treatment and having eggs harvested and fertilised by an anonymous donor. Having gone through all that, surrogacy was the obvious first option. Had that not worked then we would most definitely have looked at adoption.
Presumably you and Hannah had researched surrogacy extensively before you embarked on your journey, but did you learn anything new and unexpected by going through the process yourself?
There is surprisingly little information out there on how to manoeuvre the surrogacy space, which is something that very much surprised us, and it's something that we have tried to change. We started off speaking to some of the agencies, but all seemed to have long waiting lists. We then looked into the online groups, primarily on Facebook, but they are mostly unregulated and pretty time-consuming. We eventually found our amazing surrogate, Laura, after an appearance on Lorraine, where nearly a dozen wonderful women came forward offering to help us. One of the biggest issues is that there is a woeful lack of surrogates in the UK and a huge number of intended parents who need one. A lot of people now go to Ukraine for surrogacy, and others to the US or Canada, but we very much wanted to work with someone who would be able to stay in Millie’s life as she grew up.
COVID-19 made everything more challenging, and Millie was born right in the middle of the UK’s first lockdown. How did you navigate that, and how have you adjusted to being new parents with all the restrictions?
Just shy of the final month of pregnancy, Hannah and I flew to Miami for our last holiday as a twosome, just as COVID-19 rocked the world. We were lucky to fly back to the UK just hours ahead of the US travel ban. We spent a nervous few days in London, watching as the planet imploded and trying not to panic before eventually caving into the anxiety, throwing everything in the car and driving twelve hours over to Belfast to await Millie’s birth.
Self-isolation was an absolute necessity; we were warned that if we were to become ill, we wouldn’t be allowed into the hospital as our child was being born, nor to pick her up and take her home with us, so we became meticulous about hygiene, masks, hand washing and staying home. Two weeks prior to her birth we were warned that she was due on "peak Corona" weekend and that we would not be allowed into the delivery room, normally a given for intended parents. We quickly made our peace with that, keen to keep both our surrogate and child healthy, but we struggled a bit more with the news that we might not be admitted into the hospital at all, instead having to wait out in the car park as our baby entered the world.
On Easter Sunday Laura was induced, Hannah and I fifteen minutes away in our Airbnb, calmly climbing the walls...! Thirty-six hours later, Laura exhausted and Millie in distress, an emergency C-section was performed, and Millie was yanked out, healthy and perfect. Nine months of stress, worry and fearing the worst all melted away and I was flooded with a massive sense of relief. We bolted to the hospital, arriving at 6am, only to be told that as we weren’t technically the legal parents, they were unable to tell us where our baby was nor when we could meet her. A fairly agonising three-hour wait followed before Laura was wheeled in, holding a little bundle of blankets, a tiny pink head poking out from the middle. Honestly, holding her for the first time is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced and not something that I will even attempt to put into words – suffice to say that it’s a moment that I will never forget.
The months that followed were clearly unusual, but as Hannah was on maternity leave and my film work was all on hold, we had a quiet summer in our garden, getting to know our baby. The most difficult part was not being able to share that first year with all of our family and friends, but it felt like a small price to pay considering the beautiful gift that we had just been given.
Your family was the subject of an incredibly moving documentary on Channel 4, which aired last July, and you were both public figures before that as prominent trans advocates. How did you find being in the public eye when starting a new family?
It was a strange time as the documentary aired in July, so still very much in lockdown. When we occasionally ventured out for shopping, we were often recognised and had some lovely words of support from the public. What truly amazed us were the thousands of online messages and emails that followed in the days and weeks after the documentary aired. Hannah in particular saw messages from mothers who hadn’t been able to carry their own child either, mums-to-be, young trans girls who felt hopeful for the first time that they too could become mothers. It was truly encouraging and a huge relief, as we had been expecting a lot of judgement, but it was all so positive.
You and Hannah are both patrons of Mermaids, a charity supporting transgender and gender-variant children and their loved ones. Could you tell us a little bit about your work with them?
Mermaids are a phenomenal charity that provide often lifesaving support for trans kids and their families, at a time when a lot of the world is standing in judgement when they usually have little to no understanding of what being trans even means!
I knew that I was male from the age of about two, but with no internet, trans representation in the media or support from my family, I grew up feeling outcast, scared and utterly alone. Those feelings resulted in some very destructive behaviour as a teenager and well into my twenties until I was finally able to transition. Mermaids hopes to help families avoid all of that.
We are proud to be their patrons as we see first-hand how young people begin to live and thrive once they know that they’re not alone. Many of the parents of these kids have no real understanding of what it means for their children, for their future happiness or prospects. They’re often terrified that being trans or gender-nonconforming means an end to all of their own hopes and dreams for their kids. Mermaids and their patrons and volunteers help them realise that just because your child is trans, it doesn’t mean that they need to be unhappy.
It’s often a real struggle for parents to accept that their child is trans and know how best to support them, and Mermaids helps with all that, often simply by introducing those families to some of the older trans youth who have flourished since finding Mermaids. Contrary to what the gutter press would have you believe, Mermaids is just there to support, help and hopefully prevent any other trans kids from hurting themselves or living an utterly miserable childhood, as I did. I would have given anything to have Mermaids when I was growing up!
You will soon be enjoying your second Father’s Day; how will you celebrate as a family, and what significance does the day hold for you?
Well, at least this year, we will be able to be out and about and see our extended family! I’m hoping for breakfast in the garden with my two beautiful girls by my side and maybe seeing my mum later in the day. Sounds pretty great to me!
I honestly never believed that I would be a father, and it still feels surreal, so the significance is vast. Simply to be here, married, and a father to a beautiful little monkey is a dream come true.
Finally, what’s the best thing Millie has taught you about yourself as a father?
I have worked with children most of my life, as a nanny and then a manny, so my patience levels were already fairly developed...! I think, more than anything, Millie has taught me that I would do absolutely anything for her and anything to protect her. It can be a big, bad world out there, and we just want to keep her as safe as possible.
All images by @jake_graf5
Follow Jake, Hannah & Millie | Instagram
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