ST CATHARINES, Ont. — Two men and a woman are together in a hot tub in birthing room No. 9 at St. Catharines hospital.
A year ago, they were strangers. The men had their own lives as a couple in Toronto. The woman, in St. Catharines. And yet, their worlds were about to intersect in a way that would change each of them forever.
They were on the precipice of something wonderful. Something scary. Something big. Something so profound that they would easily give one another the trust, hope and faith of long-time friends.
Indeed, they would be part of an experience so intimate they could never be strangers again.
They were about to create a baby together.
Ann Pogwizd is a 34-year-old single mom from St. Catharines with two young boys under the age of five. She works as a dental assistant for an orthodontist in Burlington. And while she’s done having her own children she’s always known that one day, she’d do it for someone else.
In the tub she is mostly naked except for a bra and underwear, with a strap wrapped around her burgeoning belly to monitor the unborn baby’s heartbeat. On her knees, she leans forward into the side on the tub. Her arms are folded across a small pillow and her face is buried into her clenched fists.
Behind her is Pierre Londono, 43, a flight attendant. He is barefoot, his jeans rolled up to his knees as he balances on the back edge of the tub, massaging Pogwizd’s lower back. Tom Cahill, a 40-year-old who works in the bio-medical field, faces Pogwizd from outside the hot tub. Her hands are gripped around his fingers.
Pogwizd is having a baby for Cahill and Londono.
The baby inside her has no genetic connection to Pogwizd. She is the vessel, the womb for two men who want to be parents but, as Pogwizd explained to her two young boys, “They didn’t have the parts mommy has to carry a baby.”
In the vernacular of assisted reproductive technology, she is the gestational carrier. The surrogate.
The baby is a product of an anonymous woman’s egg, and Cahill’s sperm, fertilized in a laboratory to create an embryo then implanted into Pogwizd’s uterus.
And on this day in April, Cahill and Londono are about to become daddies.
The contractions are frequent and without relief. And despite the guys buying her spicy Tom Yum soup earlier in the day, and a subsequent decision to be induced to facilitate the baby’s eviction, Pogwizd’s body hasn’t co-operated. She’s in a lot of pain but her cervix hasn’t opened up enough. And she’s had enough of the tub.
The guys help her out and walk her to a birthing ball at the side of the bed, where they resume their roles of expectant dads.
“It turned into a beautiful dance,” says Cahill. “Everyone without saying a word knew what to do and how to do it. It just worked.”
No words are needed. Until Pogwizd announces that she has to push. Now.
Cahill and Londono help her into bed. They remember someone yelling, “Everyone in here.” They pull off their shirts for the first skin-to-skin contact they will soon have with their baby.
Cahill is handed a pair of surgical gloves; he had asked to help deliver his baby. His hands are shaking so much that he only manages to pull on one before the baby’s head appears. It’s all he can do to touch a shoulder with his one gloved hand, while the rest of baby Augustine slides into the world.
Londono is behind Cahill, in awe, immobilized by the magnitude of the moment. “My eyes are wide,” he says.
Little Augustine is placed first on Pogwizd’s chest.
“It went from panic to delivery so fast. I couldn’t believe what Ann’s body had just done,” says Cahill.
Londono cuts the umbilical cord. Cahill brings their baby to his bare chest. “He was so warm. I loved that feeling of holding him.” Londono is crying. They look at each other and kiss.
Londono holds his baby son.
“I was so choked up with emotions, with disbelief and happiness,” he says. “I knew I was going to love this guy so much. I didn’t quite realize the power that strikes you. The way you love someone.
“He came with this wand that touched me and said, you’re mine.”
While their love was instant, the journey to create baby Augustine was long and exhaustive.
There was research, thought and many heartfelt discussions. Lawyers, legal documents and contracts to be signed. There were reproductive specialists, tests and fertility drugs. And there was Pogwizd.
Surrogacy is legal in Canada, but is regulated by the Assisted Human Reproduction Act which stipulates that women cannot be paid to be surrogates. They can, however, be reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs that relate directly to the pregnancy. Think maternity clothes. Medications. Lost wages. And gas for driving to appointments.
The total cost of fatherhood for Cahill and Londono for everything, including lawyers and documents, tests and medical procedures, was $ 30,000, on the lower end by standards.
In Ontario, one in vitro fertilization cycle is covered by the government. Some of the fertility drugs were covered by private insurance. And under the new All Families Are Equal Act, which came into effect the beginning of this year, the process of people who use a surrogate to be legally recognized as parents was streamlined. Previously, Cahill and Londono would have needed to go to court to have their parental status recognized by law.
A year ago, the missing piece was someone with a uterus.
In a Facebook post, on Feb. 18 at 5:17 p.m., Cahill typed in capital letters: In search of gestational surrogate. He explained their predicament, how they wanted to start a family and who they’d like to be a part of their journey. Where we find ourselves in need of a bit of help now is finding a gestational surrogate, a kind, generous and altruistic soul who is willing to carry our baby and make this dream a reality.
A friend of Cahill’s read his post and shared it with Pogwizd. She was cautiously excited.
The trio met at a busy cafe in Burlington just over a year ago. To talk. Pogwizd had assured them she was “open to the idea,” but offered no commitment.
The initial awkwardness quickly dissolved into a conversation that felt natural and comfortable. “There was no topic off limit,” says Pogwizd.
They talked about themselves. Cahill and Londono had been together for eight years at that time, and were in the process of planning their wedding. (They married in August 2016 and Pogwizd was a guest.)
They talked about sensitive topics like genetic abnormalities, and their views on abortion. They talked about why they wanted to be parents. Would they come to all her medical appointments (they did). Could she pump breast milk for them? (Yes, she freezes it and they drive home to Toronto with the precious liquid safe in cooler in their car.) Could she breastfeed? (Yes.) Anything, and everything.
Two hours later, they parted. Pogwizd told them she needed time to think, but in her mind she’d already decided she’d do it for them. It just felt right. Good chemistry. The guys left feeling like even if the surrogacy didn’t work out, they’d all be good friends.
“When Pierre and I got back to the car, we were giddy,” says Cahill.
As for Pogwizd, she had one overpowering thought: “Oh, shit. I’m doing this.”
They made a contract. Cahill and Londono had a lawyer who specialized in surrogacy law. Pogwizd had her own lawyer. Everyone signed documents before the baby-making could begin.
Through a Toronto fertility clinic, the guys chose an anonymous egg donor. She was given fertility medication that triggered her ovaries to create multiple, mature eggs. Thirty-five eggs were retrieved. Half were fertilized in a laboratory with Cahill’s sperm; half with Londono’s. Of those, nine embryos were good enough for transplant.
The guys decided that Cahill’s embryo would be implanted first. “I knew how important it was for Tom to have a genetic connection,” says Londono.
The remaining eight were frozen for future use.
“We’re going for a soccer team,” says Cahill, who on this day is sitting alongside Londono on the living room floor of Pogwizd’s home. Baby Augustine is between them.
Everyone laughs. “Wait a minute, that wasn’t in the contract,” retorts Pogwizd.
Embryos ready, the wait for Pogwizd’s menstrual cycle began. Regular all her life, she was two weeks late and offered Cahill and Londono this reassurance: “I swear I’m not pregnant. It’s just stage fright.”
Pogwizd took medication to increase the chances of her uterus accepting an embryo that was not hers. Then one day in July, they all gathered at a fertility clinic in Toronto for the transfer. In a small room, Pogwizd lay on a table, her feet in stirrups with the guys on either side of the table, holding her hands.
The lights were dimmed. A song by Adele was playing. They all watched the procedure on a screen, as the white embryo blob was implanted through a catheter inserted into her vagina, up into her uterus. At the end, the doctor exclaimed: “Wow, a perfect transfer.” They have it on video.
Two weeks later, they returned for a pregnancy blood test. After several hours of waiting, their nurse walked into the waiting room, and someone asked: “Are we pregnant?”
The nurse smiled. “You guys are really pregnant.”
Everyone hugged each other, cried, then hugged the nurse.
“It was a very surreal moment,” says Pogwizd. On the way home, she stopped at a drug store and bought a pregnancy test. “I needed to physically see,” she says.
Pogwizd explained the pregnancy to her boys, Blake, 5, and three-year-old Alex. They read books together, like And Tango Makes Three, a true story about two penguins, Roy and Silo, at the Central Park Zoo who created a nontraditional family.
“This is not our baby,” she’d explain. “Mommy is just carrying a baby.”
One day, her five-year-old happily reported to his teacher: “Mommy is having a baby for Tom and Pierre.”
“This is not abnormal to them,” says Pogwizd.
She took care of the baby inside as if it was her own, but with no genetic link, she never felt a bond like she did when she was pregnant with her own boys. “You have to disconnect yourself from the very beginning,” she says.
Cahill and Londono attended all of Pogwizd’s doctor’s appointments. They would text, talk or video chat most every day. And when the baby started kicking, Pogwizd welcomed their hands on her belly. Londono liked to press his face near her baby bump and talk in Spanish. “Just knowing she was growing a child and there was a life inside her belly and we would eventually get to meet him,” he says.
Long before they met Pogwizd, Cahill and Londono were among the 600 men who have explored the intricacies of becoming a father through Daddies & Papas 2B, a program of the LGBTQ Parenting Network in Toronto. The 12-week course for gay, bisexual and queer men who are considering parenthood started in 2003.
The program explores different methods to become a father — surrogacy, adoption, co-parenting — the cost, and all the medical, legal, emotional and social issues to help them navigate the system, says Chris Veldhoven, LGBTQ community program co-ordinator.
It represents a profound societal shift for gay men. Historically, family was often a source of pain. Men were rejected by their own families and told they should never be around children, much less be parents. “These were the soul destroying beliefs that said you cannot be part of family,” he says.
When the program started, gay men in their 50s and 60s participated, not because they wanted to be parents, but because they wanted to witness this profound change in their community, he says.
Years ago, their choice was this: “Either I come out and I can’t have kids, or I stay in the closet and have kids,” says Veldhoven.
“And now I see younger guys coming in and saying, this is a dating question. Don’t bother dating me if you don’t plan on having kids down the road.”
“It’s a change in the narrative that seeps into your bones and your emotions and your soul and your place in the universe.”
Pogwizd was in bed when her water broke, three weeks before the due date. Her first call was to the guys, who were sound asleep. They slept through the first call. She tried again. Groggy and admittedly confused, Londono picked up Cahill’s phone and saw Pogwizd’s name on the screen, a moment he describes as akin to being hit in the face with a bucket of cold water.
“My water broke,” Pogwizd explained. “I wish I was kidding, but I’m not.”
Londono was fully alert. He woke Cahill with the words, “Oh my God. It’s Ann.”
The baby’s bag was packed. Theirs were not. In the ensuing few minutes of excited chaos, they gathered both thoughts and essentials and drove off, into a fierce snowstorm, towards St. Catharines.
Pogwizd’s second call was to her friend, who drove her to the hospital.
Welland professional photographer Stacy Hayward photographed the birth. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced as a photographer,” she says.
“A couple times I had to remind myself to pick up my camera.”
There was no awkward, no uncomfortable moment. “The three of them seemed to have known each other forever,” she says.
She recalls a moment after the birth, when Cahill was holding his baby and her gaze shifted back at Pogwizd, resting in the hospital bed.
“The realization of the gift she was giving hit me at that moment,” says Stacy.
Their final day at the hospital was bittersweet. The trio had been in together in one hospital room, Londono and Cahill in one bed, with baby Augustine in a hospital bassinet, and Pogwizd in her own bed next to them.
“It was the first time that I had an ah-ha moment,” says Pogwizd. “I’ve committed my life to carrying this baby …
Her voice trails off, and Londono rubs her shoulder as tears well in her eyes.
After a pause, she begins again, “You just wonder, now what’s my purpose?”
“It was boiling inside,” says Londono, “that we would eventually have to part ways.”
He broached the subject of leaving: “Can we talk about what our emotions are?” he asked Pogwizd.
“You need to be honest,” said Cahill.
Pogwizd started to cry. Soon, all three were sitting on her hospital bed enveloped in a group hug, crying. “It was cathartic,” says Londono.
When they parted ways, it was with the reassurance of an unspoken promise. A comforting commitment to each other.
“This is the end of one chapter,” says Pogwizd. “And now we have this beautiful extended family.”
Pogwizd will be their surrogate again. One day. She is sure of it. “Just make sure it’s before I’m 40,” she warns them, smiling. She will not be a surrogate for any other couple. “I’d feel like I was cheating on them if I carried for another couple,” she says.
Londono and Cahill never planned on making their journey so public. But when Stacy’s photos were posted to Facebook, the response was overwhelming, they seized it as an opportunity to promote alternative family building.
“It takes a village,” says Londono. “What we are working towards is to provide him with a good strong, loving, nurturing village.”
In Cahill’s words: “We’re his village people.”
In time, they will develop a cadence to their new relationship. They will decide on names for each other. Maybe little Augustine will call Pogwizd “Surro-Mom,” they speculate aloud. In time, it will become exactly what it’s supposed to be.
“Whatever it’s going to be,” says Londono, “we know it will be filled with a lot of heart.”
More maternity and birth photos can be seen here.