Freddy McConnell has wanted to be a parent for as long as he can remember. When he got his first computer as a young teenager in the 1990s, he started a Word document with a list of names for his future children. Years later, when he got a phone, he transferred the list there.
When other kids were friending each other on MySpace, he was researching schools. Was Montessori the best educational philosophy? He knew he was years away from actually needing to know the answer to that—but he knew his future would have children and he just wanted to get a head start.
But when he began his medical transition in his 20s, he was told the testosterone he was taking would make carrying a child impossible. He briefly considered having a child before starting the transition but decided against it because he wasn’t yet at a stable point in his career. So he went forward with the medical transition and figured he’d look into adoption at some point down the road. He mostly put it out of his mind. It wasn’t until he stumbled across a YouTube video of a transgender man discussing his pregnancy that McConnell realized that could be an option for him. As he neared 30, he decided he was ready to have his first child. And he decided he would carry it—and give birth.
“I know it sounds odd to people sometimes, but all those options of how to have a kid, pregnancy felt like the simplest one, and the one I can have the most control over. I wouldn’t have to subject myself to these other government agencies. No one else would be able to make a decision about whether I can have a kid,” he says. “It was just a purely pragmatic choice. I had no desire to be pregnant.”
McConnell started down the path to pregnancy with a film crew in tow. The documentary, Seahorse, which came out this week on AppleTV and iTunes just in time for Father’s Day, starts with McConnell switching from testosterone to folic acid, a vitamin that doctors recommend for people trying to become pregnant. And it ends with a powerful scene of him giving birth. The name he chose for his child came from the list—the collection of names he started as a teenager and had kept with him all these years.
Today, McConnell’s kid is two and a half. And he’s continuing to fight a legal battle to have his child’s birth certificate changed to identify McConnell as the father instead of mother. When we see him in the documentary, he is a journalist working for the British newspaper The Guardian. Now, he has a podcast with BBC called Pride and Joy about queer parenting.
So, all that’s changed. But, mostly, what’s changed McConnell is fatherhood.
“My life has just become all about being a dad. I now realize what people mean when they say your life changes completely, and obviously it’s such a big cliché, but once you go through it, it’s like, ‘Wow,’” he says. Then he smiles widely, pulls up the brim of his baseball cap, and shakes his head. He has the look of exhaustion and joy that unites the parents of toddlers. “People who don’t necessarily want kids, the advice I would give is if you feel that, I would say, ‘Then, listen to it.’ Because, if you might not want it, then don’t, because Jesus Christ.”
McConnell and I talk over Zoom in early June, morning for me, late afternoon for him. Daycares have just opened in the U.K.—he lives in Deal, a small oceanside town in Kent, England. And, like so many parents around the world, he’s been weighing whether or not to send his son back to daycare as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread. He decided, ultimately, to do it. So his home is quiet as we talk for an hour.
Life in lockdown has felt a lot to him like his year of parental leave after his child’s birth. There’s the cocoon of solitary life with his son, the easy routine that emerges when you’re at home. They wake up at about 7, then his kid quietly plays with blocks or books before they head downstairs for breakfast. McConnell will do an at-home exercise class while his son watches TV. Then they’ll go for a bike ride or to the beach—his son loves swimming in the ocean. They’ve formed a quarantine bubble with McConnell’s parents now, so since his kid no longer naps, they sometimes go over to his parents’ in the afternoon for tea.
In that way, it’s been nice.
A piece of the routine that’s been missing since quarantine is time at the playground with other parents. McConnell has formed a group of friends, mostly moms. One thing he’s noticed over time is the gendering of so many aspects of parenting.
“It’s an unusual experience being a full-time single dad by choice, and if you leave aside the trans-ness of that for a second, because that tends to be what people are interested in, and focus on my day-to-day experience it is pretty much identical to what it would be for a cis dad, a cis single dad by choice. So, it’s been interesting learning about all the expectations of stereotypes, and sexism that goes around that, which mostly I benefit from. I’ve had to change my career, but I don’t think it’s been negatively impacted, because what I’m doing seems cool, and fun and admirable,” he says. “But then, at the same time, I feel like I’m really sad about how unusual my experience is. There’s the idea that men can’t be broody. It’s not true. I’ve had men whispering in my ear implying that they would love to have this experience.”
While fatherhood suits McConnell—he beams when talking about his kid’s dance moves—pregnancy was “terrible” for him. The hardest part was being off the testosterone, or “T” as it’s typically called, that he’d been taking for years before pausing to get pregnant.
“I felt ill. I felt terrible. When you read about cis men, who have low T, that’s what I experienced,” he says. “I had forgotten what it was like to just be 24/7 uncomfortable in my skin, which is such a hard concept to convey. I once heard it described by someone much more eloquent than me as a cosmic toothache, which I think is the best thing I’ve ever heard about what it feels like.”
The birth, however, was a powerful moment for McConnell. Seahorse shows him going through contractions and then pushing in a serene tub of water. The first thing he says when he holds his newborn is a stunned, “It feels like a dream.”
When his child received a birth certificate, McConnell was listed as “mother” because he gave birth, though his sex is legally male. He started on the lengthy process of filing a lawsuit to have that changed.
“Someone’s birth certificate is not the be-all and end-all. It’s not that I think that the birth certificate is what defines who I am, or my relationship to my child at all,” he says. “Obviously, all the trans men out there that have incorrect birth certificates doesn’t change who they are, but if we live in a society that puts significance in these pieces of paper, then it has to be accurate.”
The story of his legal battle garnered headlines around the world. Late last year, McConnell lost his case when the court ruled: “There is a material difference between a person’s gender and their status as a parent. Being a ‘mother,’ whilst hitherto always associated with being female, is the status afforded to a person who undergoes the physical and biological process of carrying a pregnancy and giving birth.”
McConnell hopes to take the case to the Supreme Court. And he wants to draw as much attention to his case as possible, pointing out the implications the ruling has for other trans parents.
While he struggled in deciding how public to be in his decision to carry his child, the documentary, which came out in the UK last year, and then the lawsuit drew global attention to his decision. He worried about harassment online as well as the media sensationalizing his story. Now, two and a half years later, he’s glad to have shared the process.
“As a journalist, I’d never heard of a trans person having a positive experience telling their story in a situation where they weren’t completely in control … I wanted to show that you could tell a powerful story, and have consent, and do it without hurting anyone, and it not be a less powerful story and not take away from the value of telling that story. I wanted to tell my story on my own terms, and in my own time,” he says. “The reaction has been so overwhelmingly more positive than negative. Lots of trans guys and non-binary people, parents of young trans men, who are worried, lots of people [have reached out]. The sad thing is when you realize that you have been that person for someone in the same way that the guy on YouTube was for me, where the person thought they were infertile or have grieved in many cases their ability to have children in this really traumatic way, and then realize, ‘Oh…’”
The messages from those who’ve seen the film have helped inspire his latest work, like the podcast. For McConnell’s own family, the story of his child’s birth will always be a part of the conversation. As we wrap up our Zoom call, McConnell reaches for one of his kid’s books—a colorful, illustrated book called “How to Make a Baby,” an inclusive story of conception, gestation, and birth. “It’s one of his favorite books,” McConnell says. And as soon as the child shows interest, they’ll sit on the couch together and watch his own story unfold on film.
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