A young couple who thought they might never be able to have kids has welcomed the birth of their son thanks to the generosity of a stranger.

Seven years ago, as a newly married couple, Steph and Matt Larnder got news no one wants to hear – at the age of 23 Steph’s endometriosis was so bad her doctors recommended a full hysterectomy.

Aware that Steph would never be able to carry their own children, the pair put their names down on the adoption list soon after her surgery in 2015 but a couple of years down the track they were desperate for their own family and had seen no progress.

That’s when they started looking into surrogacy.

They had a couple of offers from friends which fell through and in August 2018 Steph put out her feelers through a Facebook page. Four people responded and one of those became their surrogate.

After chatting online Steph and the woman agreed to meet at Sylvia Park.

“It’s kind of like a weird Tinder date the first meeting we had,” she said.

Janelle Freeman said being a surrogate was something she had wanted to do for some time so when she saw the message on Facebook she did not hesitate to put her hand up.

The single mum to two kids, aged 11 and 15, was not planning to have any more kids of her own and figured that, at 36, it was her last chance to do it.

“It was something I wanted to personally do for myself. I wanted to help people who couldn’t have a baby because I knew what it was like to have my child. You want other people to feel that love in their life.”

The Larnders and Janelle then began the formal process which involved counselling for both parties and ethics approval.

Early last year they finally got the all clear but low hormone levels and an overseas trip delayed the implantation.

In July the stars aligned and staff at Fertility Plus successfully transferred the Larnders embryo into Janelle’s uterus.

Then the preparation began.

The Larnders involved themselves in the pregnancy as much as possible and accompanied Janelle to all the scans and appointments.

Determined to give their baby the best start in life, Steph started to see at lactation consultant and through a combination of hormone drugs and a rigorous pumping schedule she began to produce her own milk shortly before their son was born.

All the mood swings, weight gain and time spent pumping every three hours day and night was worth it, she said.

“For me, being a very removed part of the process, that was huge.”

At 40 weeks, in the middle of Covid-19 level 4 lockdown, Janelle was induced.

Steph, Matt and Janelle’s best friend were all planning to be at the birth but Covid rules meant only one other person was allowed. Luckily for Steph, Janelle chose her.

Janelle’s third labour proved to be her most difficult and after 12 hours of active labour where doctors tried every option to get the baby out, they had to resort to a C-section.

“If you can imagine the worst birth, she did it and she was doing it for somebody else. This is a real life angel considering two years earlier we didn’t know each other from a bar of soap.”

The moment their son, Grayson, was pulled out was “the most incredible thing in the world”, Steph said.

While Janelle was being stitched up Steph gave Grayson his first feed. “It was amazing, he perfectly latched and it was just a dream.”

An hour later Janelle came out of theatre and met the little boy.

Contrary to belief, Janelle said handing Grayson over was not hard.

“Through the whole nine months, for the whole year, you’re going into it knowing that it’s not yours.

“When I was pregnant I never had those special moments where you talk to your baby because all those little times I was relaxing and where the mother would talk to the baby, I would put on Steph and Matt’s recordings of them reading him books.”

Once the initial admin was done, Matt got to meet his son outside the hospital before they headed home.

“We had a baby and we were in lockdown and my husband had three and a half weeks off which was amazing. It was sort of a blessing in disguise.”

After that they had to appear before a judge to legally adopt the child. A month later they got the birth certificate with their names on it.

“The second best day of our life has to have been having that confirmation that this five year journey, one way or another, was completed.”

Eight months on, Grayson has just started crawling and the Larnders are loving being parents.

“Grayson’s amazing. He’s a very, very happy kid. He’s a perfect baby. We really did hit the jackpot with this kid.”

While lockdown prevented Janelle from seeing Grayson for the first three months, the families remain close.

“We’re friends and she’s very special to him and he will always know his special story and hopefully she will always be in our life.

“There was just an understanding that we’re friends and we will catch up as and when we can.”

Despite the happy ending, there were times when the couple thought they would never have a family which prompted Steph to tell their story.

“Every time something happened it was such a gut wrenching feeling that maybe we made the wrong decision and maybe we’re never going to have kids because of that,” she said.

“If I had read something out there back then that said, ‘this is my s****y story that turned into an absolute dream, an absolute fairy tale happy ending’, I could have held on to some hope.”

Figures from the Assisted Reproductive Technology in New Zealand 2016 report, the latest available, showed there were only 59 assisted reproductive technology treatment cycles for surrogacy arrangements which resulted in eight pregnancies and nine live born babies in that year.

“You can’t pay a surrogate in this country and that’s obviously why it’s not common,” Steph said. “You really are finding an angel and nothing else because they get nothing from the process other than the that good stuff they feel.”

Despite the trials Steph said it was “absolutely worth it” and would encourage anyone else in their situation to consider surrogacy.

“No matter how hard it is at the time, I look back now and I would do it 100 times again to have more children. Nothing would stop me because it is worth the end result.”

Janelle also encouraged those thinking of being a surrogate to go for it. “It’s a good feeling being able to give someone that love.”

As for more children, Steph wouldn’t think twice if another woman volunteered.

“I would love to give him a sibling, for him. He’s perfect, if I had no other children I’ve hit the jackpot. It’s absolutely fine. But for him, he deserves a sibling.”

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