‘Why I had my brother’s baby’
LOUISE Appleton will never forget the looks of disbelief when she'd tell people she was having her brother's baby.
"I'd make jokes out of it all the time," laughs Louise. Those jokes were endless; she was having the baby of her brother and sister, giving birth to her niece or pregnant with her children's cousin.
Louise, 30, is the first to admit being the surrogate for her brother, Stanley Oliveira-Gray, 39, and his husband, Marco Oliveira-Gray, 32, is an unusual situation - made even more extraordinary as it also involves her and Stanley's sister, Amanda Gray, 31.
Extraordinary is the right word for this family, who behind the jokes, through love, devotion, science, luck and an absolutely unbreakable bond, helped to create a life.
That life is baby Annabelle, born on September 7, 2018, using Amanda's egg and her brother-in-law Marco's sperm and carried into this world by Louise, who jokingly refers to herself as "Oven".
The family's surrogacy case has been described as "a rare event" by their fertility specialist, Dr Andy Stamatiou, who says he's yet to see another situation quite like it.
Stanley, a relationship manager at the Commonwealth Bank, and Marco, a nurse at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, had been waiting years for the chance to be parents.
Sitting together around the dining table in Stanley and Marco's South Brisbane apartment, the family has just spent the morning celebrating Annabelle's christening.
It's an occasion Louise, who lives in Maryborough, and Amanda, who lives in Wagga Wagga in NSW, have travelled hours to attend, but they wouldn't have dreamt of missing.
The close-knit family members catch up and take turns holding Annabelle, who is seven months old. They're trying to make her laugh, but as Louise begins to share the story of how Annabelle was born, it's the siblings who can't stop giggling.
"When I was pregnant, people would say 'Congratulations!' and look over at my husband next to me … he'd say to them, 'It's not mine', then I'd have to tell them, 'Well no, it's not my husband's, it's my brother's', and that sounded even worse," laughs Louise. 'I'd always carefully have to say, 'I'm surrogate for my brother', and you see the relief in their faces."
Before they met, Stanley and Marco had given up the idea of ever having a family. As gay men, it wasn't something they thought possible.
But as soon as they found each other, through an online dating app in 2013 and married two years later in New York, the idea of wanting their own family grew stronger.
"For me, I wanted to raise a little human into this wonderful life and instil my life experiences on them and go through their milestones with them," says Stanley, who will take over paternity leave from Marco in July.
They had no idea how to make it happen and even considered going overseas to enlist the help of a commercial surrogate. But four years ago, over a few drinks on Christmas Day, the couple realised they had exactly what, and who, they needed right in front of them.
"We were up the coast at Stan's parents place on the deck and mentioned we wanted to have kids and the first thing Louise said was, 'I'll do it', and it started from there," smiles Marco.
Amanda, a corporal in the Army, adds, "My initial reaction was yes, yes, yes, you can have as many eggs as you want".
Out of all four of his sisters, including Emma, 37, and Sharon, 28, Stanley knew Amanda was the closest to him in looks and personality and by using her eggs, he'd have a greater genetic connection to the baby.
"The two of them are pretty much the spitting image of each other," says Marco, pointing to Stanley and Amanda as they sit side-by-side. They have the same mannerisms, the same weird personality and they laugh at the same thing."
Sure enough, right on cue, the pair erupts in laughter. "We're the weirdos," smiles Stanley, giving his sister a nudge.
Marco continues, "I thought if Stan can't physically be involved … and I have no sisters, I only have a brother, why not choose someone who is the closest to him."
Louise was the obvious choice to carry the baby as she and her husband, Danny, 30, have two children, Kaine, 7, and Amelia, 5, and no desire to have any more. Louise fell pregnant easily and says her kids were both "good surprises."
But using her sister's eggs helped minimise Louise's emotional attachment to the child.
For the two sisters, providing the ultimate gift for their brother remains the easiest decision they've ever had to make.
"I was so happy to do it for them. I don't have my own children and don't plan on having my own kids," says Amanda, whose girlfriend, Rosie, has two kids of her own.
Now they just needed the "oven". On November 19, 2016, Stanley and Marco drove the two hours from their home in South Brisbane to visit Louise and her family in Gympie, where they were living at the time, to ask her to be the surrogate.
They sat nervously in the living room, trying to find the right words. With a deep breath, Marco launched into the conversation and turned to Danny and said, "Can I get your wife pregnant?"
Louise laughs at the memory, "Danny looked at me and said, 'It's your body, Louise, and I support you in any decision you make.'
"I was over the moon to be able to give them something that would be really difficult for them to achieve and to help them have their own little family."
This hurdle was only the beginning of what would become an emotional and expensive $46,000 journey for Marco and Stanley.
The next two years were full of hoops to jump and boxes to tick with extensive legal proceedings, medical checks and counselling sessions. During the process, their fertility specialist, Dr Andy Stamatiou from Rainbow Fertility, was guiding them through.
"It does get a little bit emotional for them … there is a lot riding on it. It can be costly and if they don't get a result they can get upset but in the end, they're happy because they have a wonderful, wonderful gift," Dr Stamatiou says.
Commercial surrogacy (where the surrogate is paid) is illegal in Australia but altruistic surrogacy became legal in Queensland in 2010. All surrogacy cases in Queensland are assessed and examined by the Queensland Fertility Group Surrogacy Committee, whose approval is required for the surrogacy to go ahead.
But Dr Stamatiou, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, was never in any doubt over Stanley and Marco's case.
"These two guys obviously come from that loving background and were always going to provide a good situation for a young child to grow up in. Not everyone is as lucky as Stanley and Marco to have family who are so willing to help."
He also says not everyone is as lucky as Louise to fall pregnant, especially when the odds were stacked against her.
"In this case there was only one good quality embryo that was able to be frozen," says Dr Stamatiou, who has been doing surrogacy cases with Rainbow Fertility since 2016.
"At the age of 30, which I think Amanda was at the time (of the egg collection), it is about 28-30 per cent chance of that embryo actually creating a pregnancy.
"Everything worked really well for them and they got a pregnancy straight away … and baby Annabelle was born … she looks fantastic."
During the entire pregnancy, through every kick she felt, Louise was preparing herself for the moment she gave birth. The moment she knew would be the hardest, to watch the baby not being placed in her arms but in the arms of her brother.
"I had mentally prepared myself a lot, I think the wording was what helped me," Louise says.
"I'd always say it was Stanley and Marco's baby, or the baby, never our baby or I'd refer to the baby as my children's cousin or my niece … I never associated it as my baby, it was my pregnancy but never my baby."
In September last year, at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital, Annabelle entered this world in the most loving way possible, delivered by her dad, Marco. "Being a nurse, the midwife asked if I wanted to be the one to deliver the baby," Marco smiles. "Being able to do that was pretty special."
Waiting back at her Caloundra home was Stanley's mother, Leigh Gray, 59, who couldn't wait to meet the baby she always hoped her son would have.
"I nearly broke down when they said Louise was pregnant, I just melted and lost it when they told me … I thought it was so amazing," she says. "I was hoping Stan would have children and I think that's why I broke down like I did because I thought he's finally going to be a daddy … he'll do anything for his daughter, they both will.
"Annabelle is just so loved from both sides of the family and having her dads and aunties, she is going to be a well-loved baby."
Leigh, like all mothers, already knew how special her children were but watching them go through this together has made her realise just how incredible they are. She only wishes Stanley's father, Colin, who died in 2012 from cancer, was still here to experience it all.
"I'm just so proud of what Amanda and Louise have done and their dad would've been proud too."
As the family take turns in holding Annabelle, who giggles back at their smiling faces, they reflect on what they've all gone through together as a family. Stanley pulls out a small book, "It's all in here", he says as he flips through the pages on the table. He's holding a 441-page book, titled, Annabelle: A Journey from Creation to Birth.
It's a printed version of their two-year, and very prolific, Facebook group chat during the entire surrogacy process. They made it as a keepsake to one day give Annabelle so she knows just how she arrived into this world.
The pages are filled with a conversation, named 'Baby Stuff', between Dadda (Stan), Daddy (Marco), Aunty Weeze (Louise) and Aunty Manda (Amanda), and shares everything from results, doctor appointments, ultrasound pictures, photos and jokes ("don't you mean eggcellent?").
There are lighthearted moments when the sisters referred to each other by their nicknames, Amanda was "Egg" and Louise "Oven": ("Egg, did you get (the) scan done today?" wrote Louise on April 23, 2017). But on those pages, the family were also documenting life changing moments.
"Committee has 100 per cent approved to proceed" wrote Stan on December 1, 2017, with baby emojis either side.
"AAARGH!!!" replied Amanda, followed by Louise's response: "YES!!! … my body better be ready … fingers crossed."
The open forum was the easiest way to communicate, with Louise and Amanda constantly moving cities throughout the two years.
Louise, a stay-at-home mum who is studying education, moved with her family from Gympie to Hervey Bay and then Maryborough, where she now lives. Amanda, a psychological examiner in the Army, moved for work from Brisbane to Sydney then to Canberra and eventually Wagga Wagga. It makes it even more impressive they're all together now in the one place, on this rainy day in Brisbane for Annabelle's christening.
"I'm quite proud of myself, often I'll sit back and say 'wow', I'll let myself appreciate what I have done for them, especially when I see photos and it makes it so worth it," smiles Louise.
Amanda echoes the sentiment, "We knew they'd be brilliant parents … it was two deserving guys who love each other and want to start a family and we're able to do that for them."
Marco and Stanley cuddle their joyous, happy daughter into their bodies and she stares lovingly up at her dads.
"I can't believe it's actually happened," smiles Stan, "she's just so perfect, she's our little girl."