[BOOK EXTRACT] Winging It
Jonathan Kaplan, celebrated international rugby referee and former world record-holder for most Test caps, had his fair share of challenging moments on the field. He was known for his commitment to fair play, ability to defuse tense situations, and courage in making difficult, and sometimes controversial, decisions. All this would stand him in good stead and come back into play when, at the age of 47, he made two life-changing decisions.
The first was to blow his whistle for the last time and end his career as a professional rugby ref. The second was to become a parent – and a solo parent at that. The following is an extract of the story of his decision to have a baby by surrogate, the two-year fertility process that followed, and the subsequent birth of his son Kaleb.
FROM THE CHAPTER 'TELL THE WORLD
You must understand that my brain is programmed from the catalogue of failure in this process. So any time we go for a scan or a check-up, I’m weighing the odds. At twelve weeks, I can confirm the pregnancy and find out the sex. At 20 weeks, I know the thing is not going to have Down Syndrome or other abnormalities. But I have to wait for 29 weeks to feel secure. At every scan I’d ask: When can it survive? What are the chances of success if it pops early?
I never felt it was smooth sailing, even if I could see Jacqui’s tummy growing and we’d done all the tests. I always say it’s easier not to be wise because then there’s less opportunity for failure and disappointment. So I was like part of the idiot club: I kept my knowledge base quite low and I knew specifically what I wanted to hear. I can’t say I enjoyed the pregnancy process. For me, it was a mechanical process and I just went wherever I was needed.
Once a pregnancy is confirmed, I stay in touch as much as the recipient or intended parent chooses to keep me involved. Some recipients prefer to step away completely; in fact, they want to put the fertility treatment process behind them and move forward. With Jonathan… I think of him as a deer in the headlights. He had wished for this for so long and suddenly it was a reality and he was like, ‘Okay, so now what??’ I left him to be with Jacqui and to get through the first scans. He sent me regular updates, but they were brief and unemotional.
In December, when Jacqui was twelve weeks pregnant, he sent me a WhatsApp saying, Good morning, I’m at the scan place. He didn’t even learn the official terminology. So he’s there at the Foetal Assessment Clinic, and he messages me: All fine. It’s a boy. That’s it. No smiley face emoji or soccer ball. That is just how he communicated. No fanfare. It was almost robotic. I know it’s not how he was feeling, but it was how he was going to play this whole thing.
We arrived at the specialist scan place. Me, Jacqui and Gareth.
When Jacqui checked in, the ladies at reception said to her, ‘So you’re not the mother?’
‘No, I’m not.’
‘So who’s the dad?’
‘He’s the dad.’
‘Okay, can you get your husband to sign here?’
‘It’s not my husband.’
Oooh, this was going to be fun.
So I’m in the examination room with Jacqui. Gareth has gone to get something to eat. We’re looking at these shapes on the screen: it looks like a teddy bear in grainy black and white. The doctor is clicking and double-clicking, measuring and stretching the lines along the screen, but she’s not saying anything so I have no idea if it’s good or not. I’ve never been to any of these before so I don’t know if she keeps quiet when she’s happy or if quiet means there’s a problem. So I just sit there like an idiot.
Then the doctor points to a thing sticking up. ‘Boy,’ she declares, and types the word on top there. I’m having a boy.
I’ll get back to the boy news, but something I couldn’t get over was the measurement showing that this thing was tall. I pored over that for a long time, wondering how I would deal with a tall son. The doc said he was in something like the 90th percentile. That’s a giant! And I’m hardly tall myself.
She produced some stats – I love a number. I kept stats for 33 years on my rugby games, an Excel spreadsheet that I filled in diligently: who my assessor was, where the game was played, what my score was, how many tries were scored in the game, whether they got a bonus point. Like a flipping madman! So the doc said: ‘He’s in the 90th percentile for height; he’s very long-legged but his body is –’
‘Is what?’ I wanted to know. ‘Too short?’
‘No, no, the body is fine. It’s just that he’s got very long legs so it’s likely he’ll be tall.’
I laughed. ‘There’s no one in my family with long legs. Nobody tall. My mom is maybe slightly taller than average height but she’s not exactly going to play basketball for South Africa.’
So I learned I was having a tall boy. The best part was that everything was fine and healthy and on track. I was so happy about this – it was one of my life’s dreams taking shape and coming true – I wanted to shout from the rooftops: ‘Finally! I’m nearly 50 and this thing’s happening!’ But there was one big problem. For J [Jonathan’s girlfriend], it was the exact opposite. She was happy for me but not happy for us.
I was focused on nurturing our relationship in a very delicate manner to try and get it over the bump (excuse the pun). I hadn’t realised how serious she was when she said she didn’t want babies. I didn’t understand the depth of the problem, that there was a whole range of things I’d never thought about. We went for therapy but it didn’t last long because I’m very mistrustful of dialogue with no remedial action attached to it. And J is a very private person, so she struggled.
Still, she was in the present, and the baby was in the future. And I’m all about the present. At the 22-week scan, it was great to see all that detail on the screen – like his nice mouth, and how he put his fist up by his face while he was sleeping – but I kept my focus on the here and now.
Like when I’m going on a holiday, I don’t get massively excited before I leave. I want to embrace the experience while I’m there but I don’t want to waste the energy fantasising or thinking what I could be doing – I don’t get excited like that. It was the same with the baby.
It was important for me to know the sex of the baby. Not because I was painting the baby’s room, but because I had so many other things to worry about that I needed some certainties. And I quite liked the feeling of having something concrete to tell my family.
On my mom’s side of the family, it’s all boys. My mom had me and my two brothers, then my brothers had five boys between them, so we’re sitting on eight; this would be the ninth in a row. I was more comfortable with the idea of a boy, especially as a single dad.
So I should have been ecstatic that I was having a boy, right? But secretly, I was really anxious because a boy meant a bris [Jewish ritual of circumcision, performed when the baby is eight days old]. I was nervous of the bris. Not because of the physical act; even if I wasn’t Jewish, I would still circumcise. No, it was because having a boy meant facing the religious complications around surrogacy from the get-go. With a girl, I might have been able to stall until she was twelve and needed a batmitzvah. But with a boy, I’d have to face my religious choices at the first whistle.
FROM THE CHAPTER COMING HOME
My mom got a lift to the hospital on the morning we took the baby home. She came so that she could sit at the back with him as I’d be driving us home. It was his first time in a car seat – if he flipped out, what was I going to do from the front seat?
Everything was new, everything was foreign – for me and for him. The main thing for me was to keep him warm. You’re taking them from the cocoon of the womb into winter. It’s a fright! So my main thing was just to keep this baby healthy for three months. He’s not on colostrum, he doesn’t have breast milk, so his immune system may be low; and he may not have that emotional nourishment to keep him feeling happy.
I took him from the car, straight to his room upstairs. Estelle, the night nurse, was ready and waiting. We put him in the bassinet that fits on the wheels of the pram and he slept there for a couple of days; it was cocooned and felt warmer, more stable and secure. It was also handy to be able to move him around, just wheel him to another room. He was good from the beginning. Other people talk about feeding troubles, problems with the teat of the bottle or the dummy. He never had any of that. He was hungry and he didn’t mind the formula…
The nurses at the hospital taught me how to feed but not how to make the formula; Estelle taught me that. She usually pre-makes enough bottles for the day and leaves them in the fridge for me to take out when we need to. I learned how to use the bottle warmer too. She worked every single night, and when she wanted or needed a night off, there was a relief night nurse called Julia.
A night nurse is a luxury. You can say it’s a necessity if you have ammo, but, for most people, a night nurse is out of reach. I wasn’t working and I had to be careful about my spend. I was hoping to wean myself off the nurse by four months, and then call her if and when necessary. But to get started as a dad, I couldn’t do without her. She would arrive at 6pm and by then I was going out of my mind.
My mom came a lot in the beginning and she’s still a massive help. In fact, I would say she was there every day for the first six weeks, sharing the bulk of the workload with Estelle. And I had Zonke, who wasn’t here to be a nanny initially, but who started helping me more and more with childcare. And Lenie, who came when Zonke couldn’t. Most of the work in this house is actually the baby and the washing. In the mornings, the mess in my house needs to be cleaned because my dogs are not disciplined…
Because I wanted this so badly, I was prepared to do whatever was needed to get it. Then I got it, and I was driving back with my lucky-packet and I thought, Okay, things are going to start happening.
And nothing happened.
Everything I was doing was mechanical. It was all mechanical. Although I didn’t even realise it, emotionally I had a creeping sense of detachment and disappointment…
I was learning to change nappies. I was learning to wash bottles and mix formula. I was learning the mechanics. But why wasn’t I feeling something?
I was disappointed in myself, in this creeping sense of disappointment. I’d think about the birth, a mega event. It hadn’t exactly been what I’d thought it would be. Problem was, I didn’t actually know what I was expecting. I didn’t read up about anything during the pregnancy. People told me that the baby’s birth would be the most amazing day of my life. But the actual birth, how quickly it all happened … it was a shock and amazing in the same breath. And now the baby was here and home, and I was waiting for this blinding love to hit me, or this deep connection to come over me. I could touch him, I could put him against my skin, but I couldn’t feel it.
This carried on for a day, two days, a week, a month. I didn’t even realise it was happening, and I didn’t really speak to anyone about it, but I did hear people tell me that it’s normal to not feel much. All a newborn does is eat, sleep, shit, eat, sleep, shit. There’s no response from the thing.
Looking back at the pregnancy, I think the detached feeling started even then, and with my blocking mechanism that I automatically use to ‘get in the zone’. Also, I wasn’t living the process of pregnancy. I was sporadically going to a viewing at the gynae and then I’d detach for another few weeks until the next appointment. That went round and round until the big event itself, and obviously continued through it. I’d have moments of dipping in, of connecting, but it wasn’t constant…
Can you fathom the level of trust that has to exist between the surrogate and the parent? You don’t actually know somebody, yet you’re entrusting a life project to them. I can say that because, until it’s born, it is a project.
You have to trust that the person’s not going to booze it up, do a little bit of drugging on the side, have one big night … It’s something to think about when you embark on this journey – the whole thing can hinge on the trust issue, just as it hinges on getting the legal side of things in place. Of course, it helps that surrogates can’t do it for the money, so they really need to do it from the heart. But trust is crucial…
Not only did Kim say that Jacqui was one of the best surrogates she’d seen, but also my interaction with her calmed me down. Jacqui wanted to do this – for me, for herself – and she did it exceptionally well. Jacqui’s optimum, which I’m happy with, is to look at Kaleb from a distance, on social media platforms, and if she wants to meet him when he’s older and see where he is in his life, I’ll afford her that opportunity. And as much as she’s looking at the baby and me from a distance, I’ll be doing exactly the same thing with her because I’d like to think she’s fulfilled one of her lifetime dreams and she’s living a better, more enriched life as a result of it.
As for me, I was limping through the first weeks. My mom came a lot. So did my friends, especially Kimberley and Pam. They even offered to come for a few hours at a time. And, of course, there was Estelle. But the three and a half hours between Estelle leaving in the morning and someone else arriving, before I could escape the house and go do some work or have a meeting or get a coffee… they were full-on.
'Winging It Jonathan Kaplan's journey from World-Class Ref to Rookie Solo Dad' by Joanne Jowell is published by Pan Macmillan South Africa.