'We don't want you to die, daddy': How the triplet sons of Britain's first single surrogate father are helping him face the biggest challenge of his life
01:40 GMT, 2 December 2012
It was October 1999 when, at the age of 52, Ian Mucklejohn set about creating a family – even though he was neither married nor with a partner.
Ian, who runs foreign-language schools, chose a 31-year-old egg donor from a Californian catalogue, and a 29-year-old surrogate mother from San Diego.
And in the process he became the first heterosexual single man in Britain with surrogate children of his own – Piers, Ian and Lars – three confident boys who today live happily with their father in Newbury, Berkshire.
Dad in danger: Single father Ian Mucklejohn, with his sons Lars, top left, Piers, bottom right, and Ian, bottom left, was left fearing for the future of his family when he was diagnosed with melanoma
The searching on the web for surrogates; the visit to Beverly Hills; the donation on the sofa in the blue-carpeted room in California. 1999 was a lifetime ago. Another me.
In that small phial I had handed over to the girl at the counter, I had seen my entire future. They had been in there. Everything I love. And here they are now, three 11-year-old boys, Ian, Lars and Piers: challenging, bickering, plotting, inventing, adoring, cuddling, arguing, yelling and all the time simply being.
Although I did not see it as an adventure at the time I started on this journey, this is what I had imagined I would be doing – bringing up children on my own in a very similar way to the millions of other people doing exactly the same thing.
Though it has led to some confusion. ‘Hello, C’s mum,’ I said at picking-up time.
‘Hello, Ian’s mum,’ was the response. A hand immediately went to the mouth.
‘Oh . . . Sorry. I realise what I’ve just said!’
‘The greatest compliment. Thanks,’ I replied.
What I had not imagined was that there would be another journey and that it would be from one CT scan to the next, with fingers firmly crossed. That I can no longer take existence for granted gives each moment an added piquancy.
‘We’ve seen us.’ Lars was emphatic in front of his teacher. He paused so that the specialness of his words would sink in. ‘When we were pies.’
His teacher was nonplussed. She mentioned it to me casually at their prep school’s staff-parent evening.
Family: The cancer diagnosis left Mr Mucklejohn worried for his sons Piers, Lars and Ian, in fancy dress in 2006, and who would take care of them
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘That’s what they looked like when they were embryos. I’ve put a photo of the three of them when they were embryos on their nursery wall. This must be the earliest-ever family photo. That was Lars’s first reaction, “We look like pies.” The expression has stuck.’
Thereafter, Lars would often refer to the past before they were born as ‘when we were pies’.
The photo of the embryos was one of the marker points in their creation and I was happy to show it to them. It was one of the first scans sent to me from the IVF clinic in America. The four discs could just as easily have been flying saucers.
I needed to doctor it first, though. I often wondered what happened to number four of the embryos implanted into Tina Price, the surrogate mother, and what that child would have been like. The truth came out when the boys were eight. I had not reckoned on the ubiquity of YouTube.
A picture of me from a couple of years earlier filled the computer screen. The boys had found the hard-of-hearing version of a film I had made for the Equal Opportunities Commission, Equally Different. In three minutes and 34 seconds, complete with subtitles in Welsh, they had the elements of their story with images of Tina, Melissa Valdovinos, their biological mother, grandfather, and themselves, right from the day the film was shot when they were aged six back to being embryos.
‘Gosh, I’d forgotten all about that. Clever of you to find it. So that’s the story.’
‘But we could have been four. Quads. What happened to the fourth one of us Did he die’
‘Quite possibly, but this one was only a tiny speck and it often happens. I’m just so happy to have you three.’
‘It might have been a girl.’ Ian spoke with a hint of regret, whether because a sister would have been a preferable addition or because he was at the stage of regarding all girls as silly, I chose not to explore. I put my arm around all of them.
This is a grown-up and tolerant country and, from my experience, one that embraces new ideas with generosity of spirit.
In my case, though, there is the additional pressure of comments a decade or more old, often ill-informed, usually poisonous and, I’m sure, forgotten by their creators, floating around on the internet to be accessed by anyone Googling our names.
‘Did you buy us like that person on the internet said’
My boys love to Google and what they find, they can throw at me in moments of pique. There can’t be many parents who can have ‘You bought us!’ yelled at them. I can forgive it, but it hurts.
I say to my boys: ‘When you’re a bit
older, you can bet your boots that people will come and what they’ll
want to see are three motherless, loveless, damaged children. And
what’ll you say’
Piers is pragmatic. ‘We haven’t got a mum.’
‘Well, you do, Piers, and she’s in America.
‘Come off it. We don’t. She not a mum. If she was, she’s a retired mum now.’ He’s right. There is no else who loves them.
Then there were three: Ian Mucklejohn paid 50,000 to have his children by egg donor Melissa Valdovinos and a 29-year-old surrogate mother from San Diego
The notion of ‘Mummy’ has hardly featured in their lives. When the word was used, it always related to Melissa. She had donated the eggs. I could see her in each of the boys.
The boys knew they had met Tina, who gave birth to them, but their perception of her was hazy. Melissa’s name was imprinted in their minds. Her photograph stood by the stairs for them to see every night before they went to bed. She worked with children’s charities looking after deprived children, yet had no wish for children of her own.
For all the boys’ lives I have acted on the assumption that the law is nonsense. Yet although I have obtained nationality for them and they have the right to live in Britain and they have British passports, no one has challenged me so I have set no legal precedents.
I have proved by DNA testing that I am their dad. In every practical sense, I am their dad, but in law, I am not. Under the law, they have only a mother.
She has no right of entry to Britain, isn’t their mother and would not legally be able to be responsible for them in America as she has signed away her rights, but it is she, not I, who is their only legal parent. Were I to focus on these idiocies, I could be forgiven for being downhearted, but I don’t and won’t be. I have dared to be their dad and shall continue to do so.
It was one of the first ‘play days’ and, for me, a sure sign of my acceptance as a parent. What mother would leave her child with a single dad unless he were trusted completely I had become a mum. When the children went to state school, I met plenty of dads at the school gate. They were mainly young.
At pre-prep, I met just a few and mainly at football practice. They looked my age. The school gate was populated by women. Young, elegant, invariably slim and busy mums whose 4x4s popped out one small child and disappeared.
‘Not one bad egg among ’em,’ opined a parent at the children’s harvest festival regarding the line of children presenting their pictures of crops. ‘And your nanny’
The statement assumed that there was one and presumed that she was a ‘good thing’ otherwise the boys might have been the bad eggs they clearly were not.
‘Haven’t got one. Not since they were three years old.’
‘Your poor wife.’ The questioner moved on.
‘Haven’t got one of those either,’ was directed at the empty Chanel-fragranced air.
Donating mother: Melissa Valdovinios is the biological mother of Ian Mucklejohn's triplets
‘Daddy has to have some skin removed from his back, boys.’ They accepted this information without comment. ‘He’ll be in hospital on Friday and he’ll be a bit tired when he comes out.’
‘Will you make our dinner’
‘I think we’ll just have a pizza.’
Their enthusiasm was far greater than if I had offered to cook a four-course cordon bleu feast. I thought I would introduce the dreaded ‘c’ word just in passing.
‘Daddy has had a sort of cancer removed and the doctors need to know that it hasn’t spread.’
In my childhood cancer equalled death and a rather nasty death at that. For them, cancer was removable, liveable with. There was just the operation to undergo.
‘Just let me insert this suppository . . . ’ The nurse held a coloured phial and approached me with intent. I declined and requested a DIY option. And so the melanoma was removed.
I had been warned not to make any serious decisions post-operatively, but managed to decide what flavour pizza to give the boys, wash them, put them in their pyjamas and cuddle them goodnight.
‘What’s that, Daddy’
What I had thought was the mixture of sweat and adrenaline in the small of the back that had become second nature after a day being chief cook, bottle-washer and everything else that a single dad takes on board, was a pink trickle down my legs. The wound had opened.
The boys screamed at the stab mark in Daddy’s back. I wrapped towels around me, dropped some more on the floor to blot the small pools.
Over the next few days, anyone who came to the house was likely to be asked to remove the dressings. For the first time since being a baby, I felt dependent. Now I had to confront my own mortality.
The boys had no one else. There were no blood relatives, no doting grandparents and, while there were godparents who would nominally act as guardians, there was no one who loved them as I did.
I looked into their open, trusting faces. They loved each other deeply, unquestioningly, but they were at the age of squabbles and ‘me first’, and of tantrums.
Every three months, I went to one or the other of two specialists. They told me there were two in case one of them missed something. The lady doctor would examine my back, feel under the arms and brush my boxer shorts with her hands.
The male doctor would do the same, but
push his fingers into my armpits until they hurt. He was always
accompanied by a nurse. I asked why, but there was no answer.
this was some modern paranoia and told the doctor that I trusted him,
but I was never allowed to be alone with him. I asked the lady doctor
why she was never chaperoned. As I suspected, it was fear of allegations
which, it was assumed, would not be made against a woman.
Christening: Esther Ranzen (left), was a guest at the Mucklejohn triplets's christening in their hometown of Newbury, Berkshire in 2001
‘Just on my way to the c-a-n-c-e-r clinic,’ I told one of the boys’ teachers, spelling it out so that the children would not be concerned.
‘That’s nice,’ came the reply.
That regular visit went as the others had with the exception that he looked between my toes.
‘That’s where melanoma can hide,’ he said. ‘That’s why we always look there.’
‘But you haven’t,’ I said. ‘I mean this is the first time you’ve looked there.’
He seemed concerned. Under my arm he had found a lump.
The horrendous possibility of leaving my children without a parent, however ersatz, loomed large. What would be the practicalities of the care of orphaned triplets The answer came shortly after my diagnosis in a call from my friend Emma, as I was leaving the clinic.
‘I’ve been thinking about you. About your health. You have many friends. But I want you to know something. I love your children. I see them as my surrogate grandchildren. If anything were to happen to you, I would love to have them live with me and for me to bring them up.’
These were the most generous and selfless words I had ever heard. I felt my legs weaken and I clutched the door frame. There was no need for thought.
‘Who will look after us if you die, Daddy’
Question answered, the boys carried on with their homework.
‘Melanoma’s not well-known.’ The oncologist had his serious face on. ‘It’s likely to drain to the nearest lymph nodes. Now that it has migrated, the next step is to have PET (Positron emission tomography) scans. They will show if the melanoma has spread elsewhere.’
‘And if it has’
‘We treat accordingly, although it’s not really treatable by chemotherapy.
‘And if it hasn’t, or doesn’t seem to have spread’
‘Then we remove the remaining lymph nodes on that side. Having done this, it’s likely that the remaining nodes will be clear, but we can’t tell unless they are removed.’
‘But won’t this take away part of my immune system And if, as you said, the melanoma is likely to migrate to the nearest lymph nodes, where would it drain to’
I sought a second opinion – and it was quite straightforward. ‘If they were my nodes, I’d have them out.’
With this opinion came the information that I knew would shape the way I viewed the rest of my life.
Peas in a pod: Mucklejohn triplets Ian, Piers and Lars pictured as toddlers in 2001
‘You may be completely free of the disease. But you will never know this. Only if you die of something else at 90 or 100 will you know that you had been clear.’
‘So’, I observed to the oncologist. ‘I may be quite well.’
Which did not get me further forward. Would I continue to be able to do everything myself as I had done, or not Always I had been able to rely on me. Now I was not so sure. The children had to be safeguarded. That was the priority, but should I assume that this would be with me or without me and to what extent should I change my life, and by extension theirs, to allow for my early death which might not happen Already I could feel control slipping from me. I had been the strong one, the one people depended on, the one who made the decisions and took charge. The one who went it alone and had children.
Out went these brainsickly thoughts. Life had begun again at 52. I wasn’t about to give it up so soon.
‘Maybe you could see if there are any drugs trials available’
I told Emma. I would explore the possibility. I just had to stay alive. A few weeks later, I started a trial of Avast-M, the ‘M’ being for melanoma, in Southampton.
I drove there every third Friday and had needles stuck into me, blood sucked out and jollop drained in.
‘How did it go from there to there, Daddy’ Ian traced a line from my shoulder blade to my underarm. ‘That’s where your angel’s wing would be.’
‘Nastiness tends to end up in the lymph.’
‘But you haven’t got any on that side, Daddy. If it can’t stop there, where does it go’
‘That’s a question. Maybe the other lymph.’
Three pairs of eyes travelled from one underarm to the other.
‘It may not go straight across. The doctor tells me it may go to the large organ nearest to the original melanoma.’ I tapped my head.
‘The brain’ Piers said, knowingly.
‘What does the lymph do’ Lars asked.
‘It deals with, let me put it this way, “unpleasantness” and helps the body recover. If something happens to this arm, the lymph tries to make it better.’
‘But you haven’t got lymph there.’ Ian was concerned.
‘This is why Daddy has to be careful.’
‘I don’t want you to die, Daddy.’ Ian stroked my arm and pressed his body against mine.
‘I’ll do my best not to, Ian.’
Snowangels: Ian Mucklejohn's triplets changed his life at the age of 52 and inspired him to write two books
Had I done the right thing in being so upfront That’s the problem with being on one’s own. There’s no constant adult presence to bounce ideas around with. One family friend pulled no punches.
‘I’m very doubtful about children being given information they can’t do anything with. They needed to be told when there was a need to tell them, not at such an early stage.
‘If something happens that changes their life, they need to know what’s being done about this change, not be given some abstract possibility that just complicates their lives.’
To get another opinion I decided, was a huge advantage of having a partner and a real disadvantage for me. I would have to do my best to consider a counter-argument to all my child-rearing ideas.
On second thoughts, that’s the way madness lies. I decided that carrying on confident about my own rectitude was preferable to being in the state of constant indecision that was the alternative I saw.
I had imagined I would bring up my children in peace and anonymity, but I also had the feeling that my children would wish to know from me what it was like. If I did not write it down, the memories would be lost; as I recorded my thoughts I had the feeling that my audience might be larger than the one I had at first anticipated.
And Then There Were Three was published in 2005. The response touched my heart. It seems that I managed to inspire people who had suffered the heartbreak of childlessness and give hope to those who had given up on the chance of happiness. That there are babies alive now who might never have been conceived is a source of great pleasure to me.
‘How are you’ they say at the clinic, with more than a touch of predestination.
‘Absolutely fine,’ I tell them. ‘I just hope you are not going to change that.’ I feel great and have done right from the start.
I am no longer the only single father by surrogacy in Britain. The others have sensibly remained silent.
The journey has only just started and there never has been the possibility of going back, but I have no regrets. Nor, I think, have my three sons.
They were all away at school trips at the weekend. Silence is such an unusual and welcome event in my life, but after an hour I felt suddenly bereft and missed the constant background buzz of banter-cum-rivalry. But we are only 12 years along the way . . .
Ian Mucklejohn 2012. Abridged extract from A Dad For All Seasons, How My Sons Raised Me As A Parent by Ian Mucklejohn, with a foreword by Esther Rantzen, is published by Gibson Square at 7.99.
To order your copy at 7.49 with free p&p, call the Mail Bookshop on 0844 472 4157 or visit mailbookshop.co.uk. All proceeds will be donated to ChildLine. To make a donation, please go to childline.org.uk