This article discusses the topic of stillbirth and fertility issues which may be triggering for some readers.
After a devastating stillbirth, Michelle Harley and husband Jonathon were told it was too dangerous for her to ever fall pregnant again. But when two very special surrogates – Michelle’s mum and Jonathon’s sister – stepped in, their family grew beyond their wildest dreams.
Gifts of love delivered just six weeks apart, baby brothers Hugo and Spencer Harley are the children their parents desperately wanted, but feared they could never have. The little boys arrived thanks to the kindness of two separate surrogate mothers – one their biological aunt and the other, their 52-year-old grandmother.
“It’s crazy, like having an instant family,” proud father Jonathon “Jono” Harley tells The Weekly from his home in Wollongong, NSW. “It’s a lot to sink in. I’m a twin, so I grew up with a brother. But that was just a stock standard thing, nothing like these fancy guys!”
The couple’s journey to parenthood has been long and harrowing, fraught with grief and devastating loss. Michelle suffered a near-fatal haemorrhage after their first IVF baby, Ralph, was stillborn at 18 weeks. Cautioned that another pregnancy could kill her, the high school chemistry teacher was bereft. Until her mother, Jasmina Pandevski, and sister-in-law, Sophie Falzon, 34, selflessly offered to “step up” as surrogates.
Cute siblings Hugo Jay Harley (Jay for Jasmina) and Spencer Louis Harley (a nod to Sophie, whose middle name is Louise) are the result. Both born at Wollongong Hospital – on December 12, 2022 and January 20 this year respectively – they have joyously fulfilled the extended family’s roller-coaster, five-year fertility quest.
“I certainly didn’t expect that, at 52, I’d be carrying my grandchild,” admits mother-of-two Jasmina. “The IVF doctor was shocked as well. He said most people are lucky to find one surrogate, let alone two. It’s certainly not your regular situation, and at first my husband, Dragi, said, ‘Don’t be silly, you’re old.’ “The hardest thing for people to understand is that the babies were conceived using my daughter’s eggs and my son-in-law’s sperm. They’re the genetic parents. So I was just someone to grow the baby, like an oven or an incubator. It was like that from the beginning. I didn’t feel maternal. I felt I was looking after Hugo for nine months until I could hand him back over to his parents. I always felt like his grandmother, babysitting like any grandmother would. It was just very intensive babysitting!”
Even as a teenager, Michelle received early warning signs that fertility could be an issue down the track. From her first period, she suffered excruciating pain, misdiagnosed as endometriosis at first. Later, medical scans discovered she had been born with just one ovary and one fallopian tube, instead of two, and only half a uterus. Doctors cautioned that although the rare condition (known as unicornuate uterus) wouldn’t prevent her from carrying a baby, it could complicate any future pregnancy. “The minute Michelle got her first job, she started an IVF fund,” recalls Jasmina. “She must have known, in the back of her mind, that she’d maybe need that money one day.”
And sadly, so it turned out. “Michelle told me there might be a problem falling pregnant about 12 months before we got engaged,” says 31-year-old Jono, who proposed over a home-cooked gnocchi dinner. “So we started trying before we got married. It was a bit like, ‘What the heck, we might as well give it a shot now!’ We didn’t want to wait until it might be even more difficult.” The couple – teenage friends who later reconnected and fell in love – tied the knot at Wollongong’s beautiful Botanic Garden in March 2019.
“We’d lost contact for a few years but bumped into each other once he moved back home to do his Master’s,” explains Michelle, now 32. “I thought, ‘Oh, he got attractive!’ And that was pretty much it.” The only dark cloud on the newlyweds’ horizon was their continuing failure to conceive naturally. Their first attempt at IVF proved unsuccessful. “Infertility sucks,” Michelle says. But in June 2021, “overwhelmed with relief and gratitude”, they conceived using egg collection and embryo transfer techniques. Unfortunately, that happiness was not destined to last.
Michelle started haemorrhaging at seven weeks and was rushed to hospital. Incredibly, she didn’t miscarry but heavy bleeding persisted. “It was significant blood loss every day. It never stopped,” she recalls. “Jono and I hoped the baby could hang in there. In my mind, we were just counting down to 24 weeks, because we knew that was when he would be considered viable, although that’s still very, very early and there can be a lot of issues.” Michelle couldn’t allow herself the luxury of looking forward, although her excited husband was already choosing names. “I didn’t enjoy a single day of the pregnancy, because I was petrified the entire time,” she says. “Every day I had my fingers crossed.” Unfortunately, her fears were justified.
At just over 18 weeks, her waters broke, infection set in and tiny Ralph arrived stillborn on October 1, 2021. Delivering the placenta, Michelle started to haemorrhage, losing more than two litres of blood before emergency surgery saved her life. “I thought I was going to lose them both,” Jono grimaces.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, what if Michelle doesn’t make it? What will I do?’”– Jonathon Harley
Already grief-stricken, the couple then learned it was too risky for Michelle ever to carry a baby again. Their dream of starting a family seemed to be over before it had started. That’s when Jasmina and Sophie stepped in to volunteer the extraordinary blessing of surrogacy. Watching Michelle and Jono struggle to become parents, they had both decided, quite separately, they could bear a child on their behalf. “I knew that was an option and might be the only way for them to have biological children,” recalls Sophie, who already had three children with husband Michael. “Instantly it was like, ‘Well, why not? Why wouldn’t I?’ It definitely helped that we’re a close-knit family. It probably wouldn’t have been as quick a decision if it had involved anyone other than my brother and sister-in-law. But knowing I was always going to see the baby afterwards made it very easy.”
Following extensive tests and counselling, Jasmina was first to be implanted with one of several embryos left from Michelle and Jono’s previous tries at IVF. Speed was essential, since she was close to being considered too old for the process. Seven weeks later, it was Sophie’s turn. Astonishingly, both surrogates became pregnant first time. “We had to wait for a scan to be sure Jasmina wasn’t carrying twins,” chuckles Sophie. “Everyone agreed two babies would probably be enough!” From the get-go, she made sure her own children – aged seven, five and three – knew and understood the situation. “We told them from the beginning it was their baby cousin in my tummy, and they accepted it. Adults got confused, but the kids didn’t care.” Luckily, both pregnancies proved comparatively trouble-free, although Jasmina developed gestational diabetes – common in older mothers – which has now been successfully treated.
“The whole thing was easier than I thought it would be,” she admits. “I had minimal morning sickness – just for two weeks – and I felt full of energy. “Getting diabetes was a bit of a bummer, but that’s been managed through diet and insulin. I didn’t have that with my own two children. But it was probably a good thing because it stopped me eating everything my heart desired and putting on masses of weight!” Michelle watched her unborn babies grow with mixed emotions. Mostly joy, tinged with a touch of jealousy since she’d always wanted to carry a child herself.
“It was weird seeing your mum and sister-in-law pregnant with your children,” she told a recent episode of the ABC’s Australian Story. “I was still scared something would go wrong, because of what had happened before. And even when Hugo was born by caesarean, my brain needed a second to realise it was all okay – he was safe. I was excited, but in so much disbelief.” Jono, a professional problem-solver who masterminded the entire surrogacy journey, adds: “I guess the strangest thing was that we weren’t around all the time for the pregnancies. I wasn’t able to touch Jasmina and Sophie’s bellies, feel the babies kick … There was less of that build-up for us, I suppose. We walked into hospital two normal, childless people on December 12 and walked out with Hugo! It was intense.”
By the time Spencer arrived, however, everyone was more relaxed. “Michelle and Jono were both at the delivery and so was my husband,” grins Sophie, who gave birth naturally. “Michael was videoing it, Jono was busy avoiding watching anything that went on and Michelle was delivering. “Spencer was the littlest one I’d given birth to – just 2.7kg – but I felt so excited he’d arrived. It was very emotional. There were tears – more when Spencer was born than with my own children. It was just overwhelming that we’d all gotten there after losing Ralph and going through so much grief.”
“There are no words to explain how we feel. We’re just so thankful Sophie and my mum offered to do this for us.”– Michelle Harley
Nevertheless, surrogacy comes at considerable cost: In this case at least $80,000, according to Jono. Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Australia – it must be done for purely altruistic reasons – but medical treatment, including IVF, pregnancy and birth, must be paid for by the intended parents. So far, so good. But the Harleys have more hoops to jump through. Legally, the surrogate (and her partner, if she has one) are listed as parents on the child’s birth certificate. So, Michelle and Jono must apply to the Supreme Court for a Parentage Order to adopt their own babies, at even more expense.
“I think that’s the hardest cost to wrap our heads around. Go through the surrogacy process, get to the end and it’s still not over,” comments Jono. “It’s crazy!” But he’s a man who can see the bright, and the funny, side to most things. “We’ll always get questions because they’re not twins, although they’re so close in age. It’s hard for people to understand,” he says. “I’m sure we confused the hell out of our neighbours. Michelle wasn’t pregnant, then there’s a baby, then there’s another baby. We’d only just moved in, so we hadn’t met them yet. They must have thought we were kidnappers!”
If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call SANDS on 1300 308 307 or visit their website.