When the two husbands Matthew Eledge and Elliot Dougherty decided to start a family, they shared the exiting news with Matthew’s mother, Cecile. She was very supportive of them and fondly remembered how much she loved being pregnant, even though her kids were now grown up.
“If you want me to be the gestational carrier,” she told her son, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
An unusual family
Matthew, 32, and his husband Elliot, 29, thought this was a beautiful gesture but they knew it was a silly idea. They believed that a 61-year-old woman who was postmenopausal couldn’t possibly carry a baby at that age.
During a meeting with their reproductive endocrinologists, Dr. Carolyn Maud Doherty, they were discussing surrogacy options and Matthew joked about his mother’s offer. However, Dr. Doherty didn’t think this was a joke at all. Even though it would probably be a slim chance Matthew’s mother could actually get pregnant, she could still be a possible candidate for surrogacy.
Cecile was often teased by her children that she was sort of a health fanatic. She exercised regularly and had a healthy diet but all of this actually paid off. Cecile visited the at Methodist Women’s Hospital in Omaha where doctors ran a Pap smear, a blood test, a cholesterol test, a stress test, a mammogram, and an ultrasound. All of the results showed she was in great health and was the prime candidate to be a surrogate.
“She’s 61 years old and has lower blood pressure than the rest of us,” Matthew said jokingly. “When they made her run on a treadmill, even when it was turned up to the highest level, she wasn’t anywhere close to the danger zone.”
“I thought if I could do it, I would do it,” Cecile said confidently “It was kind of a no-brainer.”
Even though some people would say that it’s strange to carry your own grandchild, Cecile wasn’t the only woman in history to do this, she wasn’t even the oldest. However, Dr. Doherty stated that “it’s important for people to note that not every 60-year-old is in good enough health to be a surrogate. There are probably only a handful of people across the country who can do this — only a handful of people who have done it.”
There was a woman in South Africa, Pat Anthony, who gave birth to thee of her biological grandchildren in 1987 when she was 48 years old. This caused a media firestorm and it sparked up a handful of debates about the ethics of this surrogate pregnancy. After this, various grandmothers all around the world gave birth to their grandchildren. The oldest surrogate in the world was a woman by the name of Anastassia Ontou, who was 67 years old when she gave birth to her daughter’s baby in 2016.
Doherty was aware of the fact that she could face higher risks in her pregnancy than younger surrogates, such as blood clots, pulmonary problems and the chance she would probably need a C-section because, as she said, “bones just don’t move the way they did when they were younger.” Another grandmother who gave birth to her grandchild was a woman called Pamela Butler from Britain. After four tries with vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment she got pregnant and gave birth to her grandson at 57. When Ontou gave birth, it was through a C-section after only seven months of pregnancy and the baby weighed only 2.16 pounds.
However, Cecile had no trouble at all. An egg was donated by Elliot’s 25-year-old sister Lea Yribe which was fertilized with Matthew’s sperm and Cecile managed to get pregnant after her first embryo transfer. The planning and preparation lasted for more than two years and Cecile finally gave birth on March 25 at 6:06. a.m. Her granddaughter, Uma Louise Dougherty-Eledge came into this world as a happy, healthy and beautiful baby weighing in 5 pounds, 13 ounces.
Doherty said that Cecile “really sailed through this with no complications,”
“We’re very, very lucky,” Matthew added
Unfortunately, Matthew and Elliot faced many obstacles on their road to parenthood, just like many other LGBT couples in the US, especially in Nebraska. The couple decided to share their story in order to show people that these types of families can thrive even in the most conservative part of the Us.
Matthew and Eliot first came to the idea of having a child a few years ago when they were backpacking through Eastern Europe. They were avoiding the outside world and its turmoil by drawing and writing in their hostel room and they saw it as their sanctuary. “And we realized we could do this with each other.” Matthew said. Be together and start their own family.
The hardships of the LGBT community
However, the couple was hesitant when they were first considering IVF, as they still felt hurt after Matthew was discriminated at work just because he was part of the LGBT community.
Matthew used to be an English teacher and a speed coach at a private Catholic High school in Omaha. In April 2015 he informed his colleagues he planned to get married to Elliot and was promptly fired from his job. This firing sparked an outrage and led to a petition against the school’s actions and over 100,000 people signed it. Matthew is currently a teacher at a different public school.
Nebraska currently doesn’t have any laws banning discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. A bill which was supposed to change this hit a dead end earlier this month. The first openly LGBT person to be elected to the Nebraska legislature, Megan Hunt, has just introduced LB-501. This legislation would require reproductive health procedures such as IVF to be covered by insurance providers. Unfortunately, this bill and others similar to it will probably have a hard time getting approved in a state senate where there are nearly twice as many Republican members as Democrats.
It’s still hard for a queer couple to live peacefully and raise a family in Nebraska. Just like everywhere in the US, the high cost of IVF is only partly covered by certain insurance plans, if at all. Eliot and Matthew unfortunately weren’t covered, and they ended up spending about $40,000 on IVF alone.
“And that’s literally the cheapest it could have been,” Matthew said.
Every cycle of egg retrieval can cost upwards to $12,000. Thankfully, Cecile managed to get pregnant on the first try so the family had to pay this price only once. Another advantage they had is the fact that Eliot’s sister Lea donated her eggs for free so they wouldn’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a donor’s eggs. The other costs Matthew and Elliot had to worry about were the ones associated with Cecile carrying and giving birth to the baby. Even though most insurance companies cover some pregnancy-related fees, they didn’t qualify because they opted for surrogacy. Since Matthew and Eliot are a teacher and a hairdresser respectively, these costs were hard on their budget.
“I do think it’s sad that IVF as a process is exclusive to those who can afford it,” Matthew said. “And for queer couples, it’s a particular challenge.” However, he knows that this subject is very tricky. IVF is much different than reproductive health procedures such as abortion and birth control which many agree should be free. Should people “have a right to make life?”
Matthew and Eliot had been saving money for years so they would be ready for Uma’s birth. Matthew said that Eliot is the planner of the marriage because, as he joked, “he’s much smarter than I am”. Eliot on the other hand needed to get used to “being really open to the unknown” as his husband’s mom was doing something that was “so innovative and new”. Because Cecile was an “older gestational carrier”, a problem could arise easier and it would be financially draining for them. “Any moment could become a huge financial situation,” Elliot said. “When we found out insurance wouldn’t cover anything, we thought this could be something that affects us financially for a really long time”
When Eliot and Matthew asked Elliot’s sister if she would be willing to donate eggs, she agreed immediately. “I had already told them I would do whatever I could,” Lea said. “When they did get serious about it, it wasn’t a question — though of course I had to talk to my husband, and he was very open to the idea.”
This was great news for Matthew and Elliot. Because they were using Lea’s eggs, their baby would be genetically related to Elliot. Not only that, but because Lea was just 25 years old at the time, her eggs were in perfect health. Another sign of Lea’s fertility was that she already had one child and was expecting a second.
Matthew had to have his sperm frozen and quarantined for six months so it could be tested for diseases such as HIV. After Lea gave birth to her baby, she began taking shots which would prepare her eggs for donation.
“There are probably only a handful of people across the country who can do this — only a handful of people who have done it.”
“It was harder than I thought it was going to be,” Lea said. “I definitely knew there were going to be shots every day, but it was kind of stressful — you have to do it at the same time every day, which is tough when you have two kids running around. It took a toll on me. But in the end, it wasn’t too bad. And it did make me feel for all the couples who have to go through this.”
Around two dozen eggs were retrieved and eleven or those were injected with Matthew’s sperm. The doctors waited five days for the embryos to develop and in the end, seven of them had been successfully fertilized.
Matthew and Elliot decided to pay the additional cost for the preimplantation genetic test so they could determine which of those seven embryos were most likely to develop into a healthy baby. The test showed that thee of those embryos were viable.
Matthew admitted that he and Eliot were slightly uncomfortable with the genetic testing.“You can find out the sex in that process,” they had mixed feelings about this “I’m not a super religious person, but you do feel like you’re playing God. Like, am I choosing too much?”
“I’d always dreamed of having a girl,” Matthew admitted, but he didn’t want to tip the scales of fate and ask the doctors to implant an embryo with XX chromosomes. He said that he asked the doctors to chose the one that seemed healthiest but, in the end, Matthew got his wish because all of the embryos were female.
Mom and sister to the rescue
And out of those three embryos “One is here!” Matthew said — and that’s Uma. They put the other two embryos “on ice” so they could use them if they ever decide to have another baby.
“It’s this weird thing,” Matthew said. “They’re just this bundle of cells, right? But now I’m like, ‘How can you discard those?’” A lot of money and effort was put into creating those embryos, so it would be much cheaper to simply transfer them then to go through that expensive process all over again.
The couple was extremely grateful to Lea for donating her eggs because they said it would have felt weird to shop for eggs donated by strangers and in a way design their baby. Since they kept the creation of the embryo inside the family, Matthew said that they “took away the choice.”
When the couple first decided to become parents, they were opened for both fostering and adoptions. When they opted for the IVF route, Matthew said “you have to navigate this guilt. Like, why do we want to have a genetic connection? Are we just obsessed with ourselves? Are we trying to be heteronormative, to be just like a straight couple?” But, he said, “For us, it was about control.”
They were aware of the fact that no matter what route to having kids they chose, it would be both time-consuming and expensive. By choosing IVF, Matthew and Elliot avoided bigotry they would potentially have to deal with from adoption Agencies in Nebraska. Two years ago, this state banned same-sex couples from being foster parents. The couple didn’t want people coming into their home and deciding weather they would be good parents or not.
Thanks to Elliot’s sister and Matthew’s mom, they could become parents in their own terms.
The positive test
When Lea’s eggs were secured and Matthew’s sperm deemed acceptable, Cecile was put on estrogen. This meant that after 10 postmenopausal years, she had her period again. (“It was certainly strange,” Cecile laughed “but I kept remembering it was only temporary.”) Last summer, she was finally ready for her embryo transfer, which would be her first and last one.
Matthew said that some people want to “get more bang for their buck” and decide to implant more than one embryo at the same time. Even though this would increase the chances that one of them would stick, it could also possibly lead to multiple pregnancies. Dr. Doherty suggested implanting only one embryo, and Matthew was grateful for this as it would ensure his mother wouldn’t have to give birth to more than one child.
Doherty said that it doesn’t matter how old the person who was hoping to get pregnant was and that she always recommended using only one embryo. “Multiple gestations would mean an escalated risk of hypertension, preeclampsia, and C-sections.” Any pregnancy would be hard for a 61-year-old woman, but it would probably be unbearable is she was carrying twins or triplets.
Matthew admitted to being a wreck after a transfer. They had to wait at least two weeks to check if the implantation had been a success, but he said “of course I wasn’t gonna do that.” He was anxious so he decided to buy his mother one of the most expensive over-the-counter pregnancy tests and drive to her house. He felt that the stakes were so hard but he didn’t want his mom to feel disappointed if the implementation wasn’t a success, even though they only had three embryos to work with.
“I was nervous,” Cecile said. “They ended up with really good embryos — if the first one didn’t take, I didn’t want them to waste the others on me, due to my age.”
Five days after the transfer, Matthew couldn’t wait anymore and drove over to his mom’s house at 4 a.m. to ask her to take the test. “I knew she’d be up by then; she’s a freak” he said. Cecile had bad news for her son when she came out of the bathroom and let him look at the test himself. However, he believed that he was a faint little pink line.
Kirk Eledge, Matthew’s father, thought his son and wife were silly to check so early because it was going to drive it crazy, so Matthew didn’t say anything to his dad. However, he whispered to his mom: “I think it’s there, I think there’s a line.”
Matthew said that his mom literally said “Shut the fuck up” and pushed him out of the way to check the test again. She took another test just to be sure and this second test clearly showed two pink stripes. Unlike the last time when she was pregnant, she wasn’t young so she couldn’t clearly read the test. Her eyesight almost convinced her that she wasn’t pregnant.
Cecile’s previous pregnancies were all in her twenties and everyone asked her how this pregnancy compared. (“I used to tell people I was done having children before I was 30,” she said. “You thought,” her husband replied jokingly.)
“I had all the same symptoms, but probably more elevated,” Cecile said. “I had the same morning sickness, but it lasted longer. I had shortness of breath. But I worked out, I walked, I was physically active — as of last Monday, I was still working out on the elliptical. And actually, it was almost easier. Because I’m older, my diet’s been easier to control, and I didn’t have the responsibility of other children. Just this pregnancy.”
The stars of the clinic
Kirk jokingly talked about how they were treated at the fertility clinic. “Now, my wife is 61, and she doesn’t look it. I’m 66 years old, and I look 66. When we were sitting in the clinic with the two boys, and they’d call out ‘Eledge’ and all four of us got up to go,” he said, other people in the waiting room “would just stare, trying to figure out the dynamic of this whole thing.” He laughed. “In the clinic, my wife was a rock star. All the work stopped. Everyone wanted to come and see her. We’ve had a lot of fun with it.”
Despite Cecile’s age, Kirk wasn’t worried about his wife’s pregnancy. “This happened, and it became pretty special. I’ve just had a real love for her all my life, and now this is even more special.” He also liked that she was going to be his grandchild’s surrogate because she “wasn’t going to smoke, she’s not going to drink, she’s not going to put anything in her body that would harm the baby.” He was “confident from the very beginning. I never had any negative thoughts. She’s always been so healthy.”
When Cecile was obviously pregnant after about seven months, the family began getting some awkward and sometimes even offensive questions from people who wanted to know how Uma was going to arrive into this world.
“People were genuinely curious,” Matthew said. “They even had questions about incest. But this is so new and so unique. People didn’t understand at first, but once they do, they’re ridiculously supportive — they think it’s radical and amazing. They’re really inspired by my mom.”
“Overall it has really humbled me,” Cecile said. “When I offered to do this, I didn’t do this to be the center of attention. It was just my natural instinct to offer.”
Of course, there were some days when Cecile found the pregnancy hard and when she had to deal with nausea and similar problems, but she didn’t mind. “Wait for the day I hand them their baby, their precious gem. It will be so worth it.”
A risky pregnancy and a new baby
Dr. Ramzy Nakad at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Cecile’s obstetrician has worked with many women who had higher-risk pregnancies as they were all over the age of 35. He said: “A lot of patients we see are of advanced maternal age”. Since Cecile was 61, he said that she was “definitely a very exceptional case.”
Dr. Nakad said that any woman who gets pregnant after the age of 35 is at “greater risk of adverse obstetrical outcomes”. When this is the case, some considerations such as a higher risk of preeclampsia have to be taken. However, while most older pregnant women have to worry about genetic abnormalities, Cecile didn’t have this problem since she was a surrogate.
The doctor actually had no concerns about Cecile giving birth even despite her age, as he only took the normal precautions. He hoped she would be able to give birth vaginally because “in any pregnancy is always the aim,” as this type of childbirth means a better recovery for the baby and the mother.
“They’d say, ‘We don’t have a textbook on 61-year-olds having a baby,” Cecile joked. “But everything seemed good — they were just cautious.” People couldn’t believe that Cecile will be able to give birth this way, but the doctors assured her that this was their goal.
Even though Cecile was admitted to the hospital with high blood pressure, she managed to give birth to Uma without a C-section. Both the grandmother and granddaughter were very exhausted, but extremely happy and healthy.
I video-chatted with the family while they were preparing to leave the hospital Monday morning. “I feel fabulous!” Cecile said, and it was clear she was over the moon.
Eliot was lying with his newborn daughter, holding her close to his shirtless chest so Uma could have skin-to-skin contact while Matthew and his parents were chatting at his bedside.
The hard work paid off
When the two new parents were asked if they were playing on staying in Omaha, Matthew jokingly said “Grandma wouldn’t allow us to leave.”
“That was in the contract,” Cecile added
This wasn’t the first time Matthew was in the news. The previous time was when he was let go from his job just because he was gay. Even though this was an uncomfortable experience, it opened the eyes to people who didn’t know how hard it was to be a gay person in Nebraska. “Politically, things haven’t always been in our favor here,” Matthew said. “Elliot and I thought this wasn’t necessarily a place to raise a family as a gay couple, but we value family so much — here, we have a close-knit community. And that makes it a really good place to live.”
He also talked about one of his friends who was a new mom so she was able to pump breast milk and freeze it for Uma. “Talk about a support system! This is a friend we trust and love. We love women — we think women should rule the world. Elliot’s sister donated her eggs, my mom carried her, and we have this dear beautiful friend giving her this nourishment. Our daughter, Uma, gets to be surrounded by all these smart, beautiful, compassionate women.”
It’s good that the family has this great support system, as they’ll probably need it to help them deal with all the judgment they will undoubtedly face.
“People didn’t understand at first, but once they do, they’re ridiculously supportive — they think it’s radical and amazing. They’re really inspired by my mom.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Matthew admitted shily. “My mom and I are legally Uma’s parents. Nebraska requires the sperm donor to be the father and the person who delivers the baby to be the ‘mother,’ even if she’s not biologically related to the child. This looks really creepy for us. Let’s just say we will NOT be framing and hanging up Uma’s birth certificate. I thought Elliot could at least put his name on the birth certificate, at least symbolically, but they didn’t even offer that. He now needs to go through an adoption process to get any legal rights. We plan on doing that, but let’s pretend in the meantime, since this can be a tedious process, god forbid, I were to die: Elliot would have absolutely no legal custody for our daughter.”
“We have gay marriage, but we have an entire structure that hasn’t caught up,” he added.
However, all of this hard work and effort pays off because the two parents are already crazy about Uma.
“She just kinda lays there. It’s so cliché because everyone says it,” Matthew laughed “but seeing her — it’s so hard to explain. I just want to stare at her. I’m looking at her — and this has been a two-year process. It was all a theory. But then through creation and creativity and imagination and dreams, she became a thing, a physical thing. That’s when I think I lost it, when I realized she’s no longer a thought, an idea. She’s here! We did this. We all did this together.”