LGBTQ+ parenting: ‘It was a rocky road to becoming a dad, but I’m loving it’
Ian ‘H’ Watkins from the pop band Steps is dad to six-year-old twin boys, Macsen and Cybi, who were born through an egg donor and surrogate after a long and difficult journey to parenting for H. He talks about the emotional challenges for members of the LGBTQ+ community when it comes to parenting, and his rocky road to becoming a father as a gay man.
When you were younger, did you hope you’d become a dad one day?
I've always had that paternal longing. I always wanted to be a parent, I always wanted a family. There are lots of pregnancies that are not planned, and children arrive by accident. But mine were completely and utterly wanted and loved and planned down to the minute detail. I have videos of my children being literally conceived in a petri dish, it's incredible to see that moment where life starts.
What have you learnt about the journey to fatherhood as a gay man?
I had very idealistic visions of instantly becoming a parent. But you need to plan for setbacks and failure. It's not as instant as you think because, as as gay men, the process is a lot more challenging than for gay women because there are all different parts involved in the reproductive process.
Also, if you use a donor, you need to think about who you will be matched with and then you are matched with a surrogate too, and that needs to be somebody who has the same values and ideas as you.
Have you explained to your kids about how they were born yet?
It was important for me to be completely honest about where they came from. I'm a gay man and my children know that Daddy, one day, will find his prince.
Children are incredibly accepting of facts. It's very black and white. They've always known that they have a special auntie and that's why they're here. They understand completely and they don't question it. We’re in touch with their surrogate daily. We have a fantastic relationship.
Have they faced any tricky questions at school?
No, we live in a very progressive village in Wales. There are lots of different kinds of families, from children being raised by grandparents to foster families. It's not about traditional family units anymore and they're aware that all families are different. We celebrate humanity.
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I live in a predominantly white village, so my kids don’t see many Black people and because they say what they see, when we saw a Black family, one twin said, ‘Why is your skin Black?’ and the other said, ‘Because everybody is different’. I get goosebumps thinking about how beautifully progressive my children are.
Do you still suffer from Twitter trolls?
I get daily messages of abuse. There's still homophobia out there, there's still hatred. And when you bring my children into it, I will come for you. Call me what you like but you do not bring my family into it. It's very scary that people think like that.
Some boys at school told them, 'Pink is for girls'. Those things come from parents, so, the day after, I made a point of wearing pink from head-to-toe on the school run. It is about education and it needs to start in schools.
My children are now at an age where their peers are becoming more aware of our situation, so I'm in constant contact with the school about awareness, about supplying books about different kinds of families.
But we are still very lucky that we live in a society where we can celebrate and you can find your tribe, you can find your people. There are people in some countries that are not as lucky.
Before coming to surrogacy, you went through the adoption process and found it to be homophobic. Could you explain what happened?
It's quite an exhausting, draining process, emotionally, and is very intrusive but, in my mind, I wanted to give a child a home that needed a home. So to find out that part of the team we were working with was homophobic, that was really hard.
We're talking over 10 years ago and times have changed. If that was today, I would have called those people out and taken that further but when you're in the middle of the process, it's so unbelievably draining.
You then turned to surrogacy. What kind of challenges did that bring?
You plan for things not to go according to plan. We were matched with surrogates that didn't work out. They weren’t compatible and then egg donors weren’t compatible, fertilisations didn't work, there were miscarriages. It was a rocky, bumpy road.
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In America, the surrogacy rules are so different to the UK, so we decided to do it in California and, in the end, we found our surrogate who is now very much in our lives and she's incredible.
There are so many potential things that can go wrong, but we were named on the birth certificates in the US – I think from three months when they were in the womb – there was no anxiety about that. But it's a really exhausting process, emotionally – and financially.
[In the UK, if you use a surrogate, they will be the child’s legal parent at birth and, if the surrogate is married or in a civil partnership, their spouse or civil partner will be the child’s second parent at birth, unless they did not give their permission. Legal parenthood can be transferred by parental order or adoption after the child is born].
How did it feel the day your twins were born after such a tough journey?
Well, I arrived in America when the boys were close to full-term, for a holiday first because it would be the last time I could do that for a long time, and I rented this beautiful, boujie apartment.
When I got there, I took a little melatonin and decided to have a sleep to get myself into the timezone. It turned out I had 30 missed calls and was woken up by someone banging on the apartment door saying, "Your wife is having a baby!" I was like, "I don’t have a wife!"
The dream holiday I thought I was going to have literally turned into me holding newborn twins three hours later, thinking, ‘What have I done? What now?’ But I went into survival mode.
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Parenthood hit me like a train and you don't realise the sacrifices you have to make. You forget how hard it was at first, the torture. It doesn't matter what you want, or what you need, you’re last in line. And you're making it up as you go along, you make mistakes, but you have to celebrate the wins and you have to enjoy where you are.
It's really hard as a parent to be present. And that's the advice I would give to a parent, be present, enjoy where you are. Take one day at a time and don’t beat yourself up about the way you deal with the situations.
How have you coped with the challenges of being a single dad?
I’ve done the tough love thing from day one, that's just something I had to do because I've been a single parent from the start and they’re little boys and they're challenging. It was survival.
We’re all judgy and people will probably criticise my parenting, but, when they were little, I had them in a military routine. I could literally time it to the minute when they would squawk for a feed. I’d pick them up and, if they stopped crying, I’d put them down and walk out of the room because I knew they were playing me.
I've never had my children in bed with me; if they’ve been ill or worried about something, I've slept on the floor in between them.
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I’m reaping the benefits now because, from three months old, they’ve been 12-hour sleeping babies. Seriously, they are incredible. Some of my friends play musical beds every night and my heart goes out to them. I could honestly say if I was sleep deprived, parenting would be a nightmare.
I’d still say the first five years were absolute slavery. There were times where, between feeds, I’d sit in my hallway and cry into a glass of wine, like, ‘What have I done?’
That sounds really ungrateful but I'm painting the reality. It's not the fairytale any parent envisages when they look at those beautiful family images on Instagram, with the crisp white sheets. My house is carnage. It’s like a zoo. It looks like somebody's burgled us.
In the last year, life has turned a corner because they now understand consequences. You can have a conversation and take things away when they're not doing the right thing. They're interactive, creative, kind, funny and demanding.
How do you manage being a pop star in the midst of all this?
The game has changed now. On our last tour four years ago, they were very portable, and I took one of my friends on tour with me who became my nanny. We had a games room that turned into a mobile creche and we'd have a family room in the arena.
But now, my children are in education, so I have to rely heavily on my parents. They moved into my house for nearly two months, just so we could actually get this last tour up and running.
Lee in Steps has a boy who is nearly one, and he messaged me in the early days saying, 'I don't know how you did this with two'. It's hard, but I don't know any differently. You do it, you deal with what you have. And I'm going to pat myself on the back and say my kids are absolutely cracking.
Steps' new album, the 'Platinum Collection’ is out on Friday 19 August and is available for pre-order now.
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