A couple have become parents after seven years of trying thanks to a surrogate who is now their best friend – and they are so close they even got in the birthing pool together.
John Michael, 37, and Natalie Holt, 40, were desperate to become parents, but were devastatingly told in April 2017 that it would never happen naturally.
Natalie doesn’t produce enough of the hormone required to produce eggs.
They started to look into surrogacy, and met Ashlea North, 30, and her husband, Lee, 35, in February 2019, with the help of Surrogacy UK.
The two couples got on instantly and went on ‘double dates’ including a camping trip and country walks – before deciding to become a surrogacy team.
Ashlea volunteered to be a ‘straight surrogate’, which means using her own eggs and John’s sperm to help them become parents, making her biologically related to the child.
After a ‘slightly awkward’ DIY insemination, Ashlea fell pregnant in September 2019.
The happy couples welcomed 9lbs 1oz William John Michael on June 24 at Ashlea’s home in Full Sutton, Yorkshire.
They had a home water birth, and Natalie even joined Ashlea in the birthing pool after William was born to share the incredible moment together as friends.
John, a chartered insurance broker, from Leeds, Yorkshire, said: “We can’t imagine anyone better to have a baby with than Ashlea and Lee.
“We have become best friends.
“It’s been a long and incredibly hard journey, but we’re at the end of it now and couldn’t be happier.”
Natalie, a retired primary teacher, said: “I’ve been called ‘mummy’ by thousands of children who I’ve taught at school.
“I never thought I would get to the point where I would have my own child to call me that.
“It’s still sinking in – we’re so happy.”
Natalie and John met in March 2009 through Match.com.
They decided in May 2013 that they wanted to have children but after 18 months without success, the couple went to their GP.
They were referred to Leeds Fertility Clinic, West Yorkshire, where both Natalie and John underwent tests.
A blood test showed that Natalie wasn’t producing enough follicles or eggs necessary for conception – and the couple were referred to the egg donor waiting list.
“At first we were so unsure about egg donation,” John said.
“But there’s a two year waiting list in the UK, so we joined and said we’d see what happened.
“The thought of having a child that wasn’t biologically Natalie’s was hard.”
Natalie and John looked into expensive London clinics, as well as treatment abroad in America, Czech Republic and Ukraine.
They travelled to Marbella, Spain and had IVF treatment using egg donors.
But after four unsuccessful attempts – totalling around £30,000 – the family run clinic suggested an operation to straighten Natalie’s cervix.
“It seemed like a good idea,” John said.
“But the surgery took way longer than they anticipated, and when Natalie came round she was ghost white and throwing up blood.
“That was the moment I realised enough is enough.
“We wanted a baby more than anything – but I wasn’t prepared to lose Natalie, and she was putting herself through too much.”
The couple started to attend Surrogacy UK events in July 2018.
It costs £1,200 to join as intended parents – although the service is free for surrogates.
“It was quite mentally and emotionally challenging at first,” John said.
“We were attending a couple of socials a month, and putting ourselves and our journey out there over and over again.
“By this time we’d been trying for a baby for nearly five years – and we were both exhausted.
“But to meet other families in the same position, and amazing women who wanted to help people like us gave us hope.”
John wrote a blog post explaining how let down they felt from the various UK hospitals they had visited – prompting a surrogate to get in touch.
Ashlea North, 30, a carer, and mum-of-three, from Full Sutton, Yorkshire, had read about their journey, and contacted John to say how sorry she was.
At a conference in September 2018, Natalie and John met Ashlea – who was already in a surrogacy team with another set of intended parents at the time.
They hit it off and Ashlea joked that maybe one day she may be able to help them fulfill their dream of having a child as well.
When John and Natalie got a call from Surrogacy UK in February 2019 to say Ashlea wanted to meet with them again, they were overwhelmed.
“We didn’t expect it at all,” John said.
“Ashlea had had to leave her previous surrogate team because they were unsure about having a child.
“So she contacted SUK and asked to get to know us – we were over the moon.”
Natalie and John met Ashlea and her husband Lee, 35, a civil servant, in February 2019 for their first ‘date’.
“It was a bit surreal at first,” John said.
“There seemed to be so much riding on it, so Natalie and I were a bit overwhelmed.
“But we really hit it off with Ashlea and Lee – we couldn’t stop thinking what an amazing person she is to want to do this for another couple.”
Ashlea – who already has three girls – Phoebe, seven, Alivia, five, Elora, four – with husband Lee, said she knew right away that they were right for each other.
“We already knew from their profile that they were great parents who were just missing a child,” Ashlea said.
“When we met them, there was an instant spark and we’ve been best friends ever since.”
The two couples continued to meet every week for three months, until a camping trip to the Yorkshire Dales in May 2019 where they officially became a surrogacy team.
The couples underwent counselling, both individually and as a whole team, to ensure they were prepared for the journey ahead.
They got to the top of the list for egg donation in the UK, but when they went to hospital to discuss the embryo being transferred into Ashlea’s womb, they faced a brick wall.
“We were told to find another surrogate because they said it wouldn’t be safe for Ashlea,” John said.
“As if it’s that easy!
“We cried the whole way to Ashlea’s house and it really felt like that was it for us.
”We couldn’t bear the thought of crushing her dreams either.”
Doctors were concerned that two of Ashlea’s previous births had been by caesarean section and that her BMI might be too high for the surrogacy to be safe.
But when Natalie and John spoke to her and said they weren’t willing to jeopardise her health, she made them an unbelievable offer.
“I told them that it was my dream to be a surrogate, just as it was theirs to be parents, so I was going to do it whatever it took,” Ashlea said.
“I offered to be a straight surrogate – which meant using my eggs to give them a child of their own.”
Natalie said: “Ashlea is my best friend, she’s like a sister to me.”
Natalie and John received a call a couple of weeks later in July 2019 to say that Ashlea was ovulating – and they invited her to their house to proceed with the insemination.
This meant amending their surrogacy agreement to cover straight surrogacy, and cutting clinics out of the process.
The procedure involved John depositing his semen to a sterile pot, which Natalie then kept warm with her hands, before Ashlea inserted it herself using a syringe for her egg to be fertilised – and incredibly it worked first time.
Ashlea FaceTimed Natalie and John while they were in Marbella in August 2019 to deliver the news she was pregnant, and the pair were understandably over the moon.
“In the whole seven years we had never once seen a positive pregnancy test,” Natalie said.
“I will never forget that moment.”
Devastatingly, Ashlea miscarried within the first few weeks of pregnancy, but she fell pregnant again, with a positive pregnancy test in October 2019.
They decided not to find out the sex of the baby – so when their little boy William John Michael was born on Wednesday, June 24 at 2:22am weighing 9lb 1oz, it was a complete surprise.
Ashlea opted for a home birth, and John and Natalie bought her a birthing pool which Lee inflated in the living room.
They had practiced hypnobirthing as a quad prior to the birth.
“Ashlea was amazing – she is an absolute warrior,” John said.
“It felt like a dream.
“She is a superhuman and handled the whole process beautifully – without any form of pain relief!”
Once their son had arrived, Natalie joined Ashlea in the birthing pool to meet him for the first time – and both she and John fell in love with him straight away.
“I knew he was mine from the moment I held him – it was magical,” Natalie said.
“A friend told us – you love your pets even though they’re not genetically related to you,” John said.
“And that’s exactly it. We are his parents, nothing is ever going to change that.”
They also introduced William to Ashlea’s three young daughters, who they have been educating about the surrogacy process throughout.
“People ask me if it was hard giving him away,” Ashlea said.
“But I wasn’t giving him away – I was giving him back to his parents.”