Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Scientists discover 'why stress turns hair white'

Scientists say they may have discovered why stress makes hair turn white, and a potential way of stopping it happening without reaching for the dye.

In experiments on mice, stem cells that control skin and hair colour became damaged after intense stress.

In a chance finding, dark-furred mice turned completely white within weeks.

The US and Brazilian researchers said this avenue was worth exploring further to develop a drug that prevents hair colour loss from ageing.

Men and women can go grey any time from their mid-30s, with the timing of parental hair colour change giving most of the clues on when.
Although it's mostly down to the natural ageing process and genes, stress can also play a role.

But scientists were not clear exactly how stress affected the hairs on our heads.

Researchers behind the study, published in Nature, from the Universities of Sao Paulo and Harvard, believed the effects were linked to melanocyte stem cells, which produce melanin and are responsible for hair and skin colour.

And while carrying out experiments on mice, they stumbled across evidence this was the case.

"We now know for sure that stress is responsible for this specific change to your skin and hair, and how it works," says Prof Ya-Cieh Hsu, research author from Harvard University.

'Damage is permanent'
Pain in mice triggered the release of adrenaline and cortisol, making their hearts beat faster and blood pressure rise, affecting the nervous system and causing acute stress.

This process then sped up the depletion of stem cells that produced melanin in hair follicles.

"I expected stress was bad for the body," said Prof Hsu.

"But the detrimental impact of stress that we discovered was beyond what I imagined.

"After just a few days, all of the pigment-regenerating stem cells were lost.

"Once they're gone, you can't regenerate pigment any more - the damage is permanent."
The mouse before pain was induced (top) and some time afterwards (bottom image)


In another experiment, the researchers found they could block the changes by giving the mice an anti-hypertensive, which treats high blood pressure.

And by comparing the genes of mice in pain with other mice, they could identify the protein involved in causing damage to stem cells from stress.

When this protein - cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) - was suppressed, the treatment also prevented a change in the colour of their fur.
This leaves the door open for scientists to help delay the onset of grey hair by targeting CDK with a drug.

"These findings are not a cure or treatment for grey hair," Prof Hsu told the BBC.

"Our discovery, made in mice, is only the beginning of a long journey to finding an intervention for people.

"It also gives us an idea of how stress might affect many other parts of the body," she said.


(Source: BBC)

One ping after another: Why everyone needs a notification detox

They tell us when someone has called, texted and WhatsApped us - even to drink water and exercise. Is it time to turn them all off for good?

Three years ago, Aishah Iqbal had just qualified as a doctor and was finding it a “steep learning curve”. She often felt overwhelmed at work – and whenever she took out her phone and saw “all these messages coming up”, she felt worse. “It was very easy to get distracted from why I’d pulled my phone out, or to feel like there were so many people that I needed to reply to immediately.”

When we talk about the fragmenting effect of technology on our attention, or the dopamine hits that keep us refreshing our feeds as if they are buttons on fruit machines, we are often thinking about notifications: the pings, pop-ups and glowing red dots that pull us back into our phones, and push us from app to app.
A 2016 study by Deloitte found that people check their phone, on average, 47 times a day – often in response to alerts. Composite: Guardian Design Team

According to one small study conducted in 2014, mobile phone users receive an average of 63.5 alerts every day, with most viewed within minutes – whether the phone is on silent or not. A 2016 study by Deloitte found that people check their phone, on average, 47 times a day – often in response to alerts. It is hardly any wonder some people are undergoing a notification detox.

These might be messages from friends, family, your boss or your bank. They might be breaking news alerts, or reminders to drink water or meditate, or simply apps alerting you to their presence on your phone. (Turn those ones off, right now.)

Regardless of what the notifications say or if you opted to receive them, the cumulative effect can be overwhelming. Over the course of a day, notifications are an interruption, affecting your focus and performance.

A 2015 study from Florida State University found that, among students sitting a test that required their sustained attention, any audible interruption from their phone negatively affected the results. Just hearing the ping of a notification was equally as distracting as actually taking a phone call, suggesting to the researchers that “mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device”.
‘“Addiction” gets tossed around all the time, but when we call it what it really is – a distraction – it becomes something we can do something about, and there’s no one to blame.’ Photograph: milindri/Getty/iStockphoto

It is that sense of being derailed that is increasingly leading people to turn off all (or nearly all) of their notifications. As Iqbal noticed the effect pop-ups were having on her peace of mind and productivity, she took action. “I turned everything off, and I felt better for it. That was something I could control: the distraction coming from my phone.”

Iqbal, 28, now works as a paediatrician in Leicester. She is also a certified personal trainer and uses social media as a core part of her business. She manages this by only enabling badge notifications (a red dot on the icon on the homescreen, one of the least obtrusive options) for WhatsApp and one of her email addresses. She says she is less inclined to waste hours passively scrolling Facebook or Instagram after being diverted there by an alert, and she no longer feels she has to reply to messages instantly. “It hasn’t crossed my mind to turn them back on.”

It is only relatively recently that turning off notifications has been an option at all. After proudly publicising the 7.4tn notifications pushed through its servers in 2013, in 2018 Apple introduced features to grant users more control over how and when they were interrupted, such as a “do not disturb” function to help them “stay in the moment”. Google has rolled out similar “digital wellbeing” features for Android. Even Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, owned up to having “gutted” his own notifications, and encouraged all iPhone users to do the same. “It’s not something that is adding value to my life, or is making me a better person.”

But what if it is not the technology, but ourselves that is the problem? Nir Eyal, a behavioural design expert and author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life says that the leading causes of distraction are internal triggers: uncertainty, stress, anxiety and fatigue. Rather than reckon with them, it can be easier to blame technology. Developers’ tactics to get us to use their apps are good, “but they’re not mind control. A lot of people like to think we’re puppets on strings. ‘Addiction’ gets tossed around all the time, but when we call it what it really is – a distraction – it becomes something we can do something about, and there’s no one to blame.”

Rather than relying on willpower, Eyal favours a system (in his case, almost a microschedule) to get ahead of diversions before they happen. He says sometimes we might blame an alert from our phone for distracting us, when really we were not focused or being productive in the first place. “It’s not just about turning off notifications, it’s about knowing what you want to do with your time. You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from.”

Tinkering with tech also saves us from having to confront a more grim possibility: that even if it was taken off us entirely, we would still find means of distracting ourselves.

Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says her research has established a clear link between people being distracted by their mobile phones and low mood – but a very strong association was also recorded with a wandering mind in general.

Another line of research has led Lavie to conclude that susceptibility to being distracted is in fact a trait – Lavie calls it “attention distractability” – that varies within the population. Though it is not yet known if, for instance, it is influenced by genetics, it is an established component of research into attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). You may not meet the clinical criteria for ADHD, but if you fall higher on what Lavie calls “the inattention spectrum”, you will be not only more vulnerable to distractions, but more consumed by them.

Lavie, like Eyal, is deeply sceptical of the argument that the problem is technology: “It’s very easy to just mute it, right?” she says. Instead there is a “generalised issue of distractability”. “Obviously mobile phones do come through as a large source of distraction, but our studies also showed it’s a wider issue.”

For example, says Eyal, people feeling overwhelmed might locate tech as the source when really it is their attitude to work – or their employer’s. If your boss was to call you on a landline late on a Friday night, asks Eyal: “Is it the telephone that’s at fault or the company culture that allows for that type of behaviour?”

Employees of Slack, a corporate instant messaging platform that is often cited as a source of “notification spam”, are told not to use it after hours or on weekends, says Eyal – the message from the top being “work hard and go home”. It may not be notifications that we need to manage, but expectations: those of other people, and our own.
‘I think the notifications were symbolic of the expectation that other people had of me.’ Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

When Melissa Webb, a secondary school teacher in Lincolnshire, changed jobs three years ago, her new employer’s always-on culture exacerbated her anxiety and depression to the point where she had what she terms a “breakdown”. The constant emails from parents, students and colleagues manifested as notifications – “an enormous trigger” for her at that time, she remembers.

“When you’re going through mental health problems, day-to-day life is really difficult, and you might not be in the space to properly respond to someone,” she says. “I think the notifications were symbolic of the expectation that other people had of me.

“You suddenly became aware that you need to be a good employee, good colleague, daughter, partner, friend. It linked into this thing of ‘I can’t be all of these things to all of these people; I can’t manage this workload, this social life.’ It was too much. Sometimes the content of them doesn’t matter – it’s just the feeling that you can’t escape.”

Webb, 29, is now a self-employed illustrator. She has 43,000 followers on Instagram, with whom she has frank conversations about mental health. “I’ve had very few people in real life that I’ve been able to do that with,” she says. “I never moan about tech – tech is amazing. It’s the reason why, in the last three years, I’ve been able to earn money despite not being able to be in a normal workplace.”

Her notifications, however, remain mostly switched off. “It’s so simple, but it’s so helpful. It’s that feeling of being in control of your time and your energy and your emotions, which I think is really important.” Iqbal actively guards those boundaries too. About a month ago, Instagram started alerting her to direct messages. “That went off straight away. I don’t know why it happened – but it was a reminder of why I’d turned it off.”

(Source: The Guardian)

20 years ago, Indian TV shows were so progressive. What in the world has happened to us now?

The other day, when my internet connection was being a pain, I switched on the TV after really long. Big Boss. Nope. ClickSuper Dancer with Shilpa Shetty. Click. Sasural Simar Ka. *facepalm*

It's sad to see Indian television becoming synonymous with regressive saas-bahu sagas and pointless reality shows.
One of the major shifts that took place on Indian television was one person who denoted an era of her own - Ekta Kapoor. Unfortunately for us, she struck gold with the concept of family shows being held together by a lead woman character. These women were created to tick all the attributes of some regressive ideal of the beti, bahu, biwi. The purpose of their lives seems to be to be sorry for everything happening around them.

Indian television also has become the den of reality TV shows where anger, expletives, flaring tempers sell more than any of the talent hunt. So we see a bunch of middle-aged men fighting over whether an upcoming singer will have roti in his house after the show gets over. It's good entertainment for the audience as we see foul-mouthed judges give it to each other. And that's that. 

And that's when I drowned in my own thought about what happened to Indian television? It was decent growing up with the Malgudi Days, Byomkesh Bakshis of my time. And then everything went to shit.

Back in the '90s, TV shows were so much more progressive. Shows like Hasratein portrayed real women with shades of gray. 
Compare the regressive drivel we watch with some of the shows from the 90s like Hasratein which showed a woman leaving her husband to start a relationship with her married boss, was something way ahead of its time and the audience accepted it with equal maturity.

And now where we see a Simar turning into a fly and taking her revenge on the vamp of the family, we had the progressive Astitva around 2000. Astitva showed a career-oriented woman marrying a man almost a decade younger to her. 

Today one of the highest rated shows is Naagin - which shows a woman shape-shifting into a serpent. Compare this to Mandira Bedi's gig as Shanti, a journalist who digs up the dark secrets from the past of two Bollywood professionals. How have we got more regressive with our leading women?

Women in Ekta Kapoor's shows don't seem to ever have a life of their own. Their entire universe seems to revolve around their husbands or their in-laws. But 23 years ago (yes, before Sex and the City), Tara portrayed women and their friendships, which are closer to reality.

Around the same time there was Banegi Apni Baat. It had realistic characters, and beautifully portrayed different relationships: mother-daughter, friends, lovers. This show had a great cast and some poignant performances. R. Madhavan started his acting career with this show. 

How did the rib-tickling humor get replaced by cross-dressing men laughing on cue?
There was the era of the Dekh Bhai Dekhs, Hum Paanchs and the Family No. 1s - where we saw seriously good actors like Naveen Nishchol, Farida Jalal, Ashok Saraf and even Kanwaljeet Singh participate in the tomfoolery. That has now been replaced by The Kapil Sharma Show, which is home for most Bollywood stars who come to promote their films. 

And they are welcomed by a bunch of cross-dressing men who crack jokes and laugh when an alarm called Navjot Singh Sidhu rings. Along with this is the Great India Comedy Circus which makes fun of it's overweight host by routinely comparing her to a buffalo. What happened to good ol' slapstick humour which can be dumb and still amusing?

Today's shows exist in this bubble of unreal melodrama. What happened to relatability?
 While most of today's soap operas claim to give us a picture of what goes on inside the middle class family, it doesn't even come close to something that a Wagle Ki Duniya achieved in the 90s. The show which starred a little known Bollywood actor called Shah Rukh Khan, spoke about the everyday mishaps a middle class Indian family went through. 

The same decade even had Mungerilal Ke Haseen Sapne, where a man afraid of his domineering wife and his boss becomes a braver version of himself. Only in his dreams though. Why has all that charm been replaced by this template of a north Indian middle-class family which has the same sort of characters, face the same kind of problems and look painstakingly generic.

Today we have nothing in the league of Just Mohabbat and Hip Hip Hurray. Show-runners have slowly wiped out all the shows for young adults.
The 90s had shows like Hip Hip Hurray, Just Mohabbat which addressed most adolescent issues with its own tinge of humour. Hip Hip Hurray followed a bunch of school kids going through the angst of growing up, Just Mohabbat dealt with an upper middle-class kid dealing with the pressures of having working parents. The kid copes with it by confiding in an imaginary friend by his side.

Shows like those have now been replaced with drivel like Dare To Date, Roadies and Splitsvilla, which aim at giving youngsters an 'opportunity to prove themselves' while other youngsters look on with amusement.

What have we done? How did we get here?
We've been bitten by the vicious bug of catering to the audience. Show-runners are so convinced that the TV audience comprises of an audience which cannot appreciate cerebral content, that they have begun tailoring products to the mass preference, while the masses keep complaining there is nothing else to watch. It's a cycle.

And it can be broken by the show-runners themselves, if they take a leap of faith and try to make content which challenges the audience. The transition will be slow, but it is worth aiming for.

(Source: Scoop Whoop)

Monday, 27 January 2020

‘She said she’d be babysitting our embryo’: What’s it like to carry a child for a friend?

Surrogacy between friends can be life-changing. The people who have done it talk emotions, legal hurdles – and WhatsApp birthing groups

In a flat in north-east London, Abi is cradling her best friend’s baby. At 15 weeks old, the little boy is smiling up at her, testing out his first sounds. His mother, Rachel, prepares his bottle while Abi rocks him, showing all the love she would to any of her friends’ children. The only difference is that Abi gave birth to him.

Abi and Rachel, both 35, met on their first day at university in Birmingham in 2003 and rarely left one another’s side. At 16, Rachel had been diagnosed with MRKH, a congenital condition meaning her uterus was undeveloped. 

Although she produced eggs, she would never be able to carry children, something she kept to herself. “I’d tell people I didn’t want kids but deep down I was insanely jealous,” says Rachel, who works as an events producer in London. “I wanted them so badly but assumed I’d never have my own, so I learned to live with it.”

After meeting her boyfriend, Sam, at a warehouse party on the eve of 2014, she avoided the “family” chat for two years before confiding in him. “We continued our relationship knowing kids may or may not happen,” she says.

A weekend stay at Abi’s home, in November 2017, bringing together five friends, their partners and kids, presented an opportunity to open up to them, too. Abi, a mother to three boys, remembers: “My partner, Rich, was cooking a curry, the kids were asleep and we were sitting around the kitchen table. Everyone spilled something personal. When Rachel told us about her condition, I knew, in my gut, that I would help her to have a child.”

Rachel and Sam had explored IVF, surrogacy and adoption, but had dismissed using agencies, which can be vastly oversubscribed, with waits of up to two years to find a match. “It felt too impersonal; too life-changing somehow,” she says. Her younger sister had yet to start her own family; had she already had children, Rachel might have asked her to be a surrogate.

Abi and Rich, meanwhile, “spent Christmas contemplating what being a surrogate would mean for everyone. We had been so lucky, yet one of the people I love most hadn’t,” she says. “I hate this phrase but it was a no-brainer.”

She called Rachel in the new year and told her to sit down before offering to carry her baby. Rachel remembers: “She said it would be like ‘babysitting’ our embryo and that term stuck. She’d made up her mind, and that blew me away. I hadn’t told my friends expecting one of them to be the answer. When Abi offered, it felt, for the first time, as if having a child was a very real possibility.”

***

In the UK, the number of children born by surrogate is up to 10 times higher than it was a decade ago, according to the Law Commission, which recently consulted on modernising the process to better support parents, surrogate and child. While US states such as California have commercialised the arrangement, with surrogates earning well in excess of $50,000 (£38,300), it is illegal to pay someone for acting as a surrogate in the UK, meaning the process relies on the altruism of strangers recruited through an agency, or loved ones. It is not routinely available on the NHS, and the private medical costs are typically up to £16,000. “Known” surrogacy – between friends or relatives – is still rare: at Care, the UK’s largest private fertility group, they accounted for 10% of more than 100 surrogacy cycles at their clinics last year.
‘I could hardly believe it was real’: Rachel (right) with her baby, for whom Abi was the surrogate mother. Photograph: Silvana Trevale/The Guardian

Surrogacy is a delicate arrangement with high stakes. Pregnancy and childbirth can be gruelling, and present health risks, while the unknown territory of handing over a baby you have carried – or parenting the child you have not – presents added fears over bonding or changes of heart, albeit rare.
When there is an existing friendship at the arrangement’s heart, the stakes can feel higher still, for both the surrogate carrying a longed-for child and parents asking such as sacrifice of someone they care for, typically with a family themselves to consider. (Medics and lawyers advise against surrogacy until women have completed their own families, citing concerns about reproductive health and fears that it would be harder for them to give up the baby.) Not surprisingly, the friendships that underpin these arrangements are life-changing.

Abi, Rachel and Sam embarked on medical appointments at a London fertility clinic. The friends were invited for counselling and asked to consider everything from how they would feel if Abi backed out, to how she would feel if she gave birth to a girl, after three sons. They set up a WhatsApp group. “We left Rich off that,” Abi says. “I’ll talk about body parts and womb washing till the cows come home but he saw his role as keeping things normal – remaining practical and pragmatic in a hyper-emotional situation.” They told their families, including Abi’s boys – four, three and nine months at the time. “We always talked about ‘Rachel and Sam’s baby’. We said, ‘Rachel’s womb doesn’t work but Mummy’s does, so we’re going to look after a baby for them.’”

In hindsight, living miles apart was good. If we were round the corner I’d have been posting steak through her letterbox

After initially being refused any NHS fertility treatment that would lead to surrogacy, Rachel successfully lobbied her local commissioning group for a single round of IVF, in May 2018, allowing her eggs to be extracted for fertilisation by Sam’s sperm, creating a viable embryo. It would later be placed in Abi’s uterus at a private clinic, using money Rachel’s parents had saved for her wedding. “Surrogacy is still seen as something you do if you’ve got money rather than through biological need,” Rachel says.

Abi was given oestrogen and progesterone, and the embryo was transferred, via catheter, in a simple, minutes-long procedure, on 2 October. “From that moment, it was out of my control,” Rachel says. “I felt like I was holding my breath.”

When Abi took a pregnancy test, at 7am on a Saturday morning nearly a fortnight later, Rachel and Sam were in bed, on the end of the phone. “When she sent through a picture of the positive test, we were in total shock; it was extremely emotional. We didn’t know how to get on with our day other than staring at that picture.” They remained in daily contact and Rachel travelled the 150 miles to Abi’s home for midwife appointments and scans, as well as attending antenatal classes, along with Rich. “In hindsight, the distance was a good thing,” Rachel says. “If we were round the corner, I’d have been posting steak through her letterbox.”

They had to consider how to announce the pregnancy. Rachel would say: “We’re expecting a baby, but I’m not pregnant. My friend is carrying our baby.” Abi, who works in public engagement at the BBC, recalls: “Everyone’s mouths dropped at work. My mum asked, ‘Why you?’ But they all thought it was amazing.”

When it came to maternity leave, Abi was entitled to a year, but took six weeks, while Rachel was entitled to a year’s adoption leave. Outdated surrogacy laws require that Abi’s name is on the birth certificate alongside Sam’s; had Abi and Rich been married, he would have been named as the father. They also recognise Abi as the mother until Rachel obtains the court order granting her legal parental status. Seven months on, she is still waiting. “The fact that on paper he’s still not my son is upsetting,” she says, “but I can’t dwell on it. It’s a process, so we treat it that way.”

Many surrogacy pairings put an agreement in place. Although not legally binding – it is illegal for solicitors to negotiate one – it helps mitigate against concerns over all aspects of the pregnancy, from supplements to who first holds the baby. Rachel and Abi decided against it. “If Abi had changed her mind on anything, we all would have,” Rachel says.

Surrogates can receive reasonable expenses, such as extra food, travel, childcare or housekeeping costs, and Rachel and Sam gave Abi a cash card. “It’s the trickiest part because no expenses can repay her,” Rachel says. “She was militant about not asking for too much, but I wanted her to have a meal on us because she had our son with her.”

The baby was born on 8 June 2019. Rachel and Sam drove Abi to the hospital and witnessed the birth. “I could hardly believe it was real,” says Rachel, who fainted as he was delivered into her arms. The couple spent the first two nights after his birth in hospital, down the corridor from Abi.

“Rich was working late and arrived to find us all in the room together and the baby just minutes old,” Abi says. “He stayed for the placenta delivery, had some tea and toast and went home to be there for our boys in the morning. I don’t think the scale of what we’ve done will hit us for a long time. I’m relieved at how normal it feels when I see the baby. Rachel was so generous with her trust in me.”

Rachel adds: “Abi put herself mentally and physically through the most selfless act for me, to make us a family. She gave up a huge part of her life during those months to change ours for ever. I couldn’t handle what I was putting her through at times but she’d always say: ‘You’re not putting me through this, I’ve chosen to do it.’ If I ever asked why, she would say: ‘Well, I can’t think why not.’”

***

As fertility medicine has advanced and different family units evolved, surrogacy has emerged as a more familiar route to parenthood, but demand far outweighs the number of women willing or able to volunteer, and the British legal system is playing catchup. London-based family lawyer Joanna Kay, who has advised on surrogacy for more than a decade, says: “The landscape of what a family looks like has changed beyond recognition, but the laws are from the mid-80s. Without a court order, intended parents can’t make decisions about their child’s medical care or education; there can be problems with passports and inheritance. I don’t think anyone would argue against the need for reform.

“In most cases, everyone knows what they’re signing up for and is happy to honour their agreement. On rare occasions things go wrong and the courts are asked to intervene. There have been a handful of cases where the surrogate didn’t want to hand over the baby or the intended parent didn’t want it.”

Other relationships between parents and surrogates have been deep and enduring. Kim Cotton, who became Britain’s first surrogate in 1985, went on to help her friend Linda, who was unable to carry children because of complications associated with a miscarriage; Cotton gave birth to twins in 1991. “The family moved to New Zealand when the twins were teenagers but I still track their lives, mostly through Facebook now,” says Cotton, who is 63, and the founder of the Cots surrogacy agency. “Christmases and birthdays are still special and the twins and I always send messages to mark them. My friendship with Linda remains the kind where you are for ever aware of that person and can pick up with them anytime, even if you don’t speak often.”

***

Yet even longed-for pregnancies don’t always run smoothly. After Laura was made infertile five years ago, at 28, by treatment for stage two cervical cancer, her best friend Kerrie represented her only hope of becoming a biological mother. Last year, Kerrie offered to carry Laura’s fertilised eggs, frozen before she began intensive chemo and radiotherapy five years ago.
They had been friends since childhood and shared everything, Laura says, over a cup of tea at Kerrie’s home in Lancashire. “Relationships, breakups, marriages, my illness; she cries with me and laughs with me,” she says.

In 2014, Laura, a nursery manager, and her now-husband Grant were about to start IVF for problems unconnected to her own fertility when a routine smear test detected cancerous cells. “They talked about a hysterectomy,” she remembers. “Knowing my illness would take away my chance of having children was what broke me, not the cancer.” By this point in the story, both women are in tears. “As we left the hospital, I told Grant to leave me,” Laura adds. He didn’t. And while a hysterectomy was ruled out, Laura spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve undergoing treatment, with Kerrie by her side. She had delayed it by one month, so her eggs could be extracted and later used to try for a child via surrogate.

In April 2015, a scan revealed the tumour had gone. When Grant and Laura married in Cyprus in 2016, Kerrie was a bridesmaid. “When I was ill, a few friends had offered to be a surrogate,” Laura says. “And when we finally came round to thinking about it, two years ago, it was Grant who said: ‘It has to be Kerrie.’”

Kerrie, 33 and a hairdresser, had a similar conversation with her husband, Danny. “At the clinic, he told us he knew when Laura became ill that I would do it one day. I’d had two good pregnancies and it would only be nine months of my life to improve hers for ever. I focused on seeing them with a child.”

Although it was NHS-funded IVF that had led to the discovery of Laura’s cancer, when surrogacy became her only option, the funding was withdrawn. 

“I didn’t let it go without a fight,” she says. “Ultimately they were taking it away because I had cancer. The NHS saved my life; to then dictate that life isn’t fair.”

In the end Laura’s family paid for her treatment. “They would have helped me with a house deposit but I said, no, give me a baby, please.” The surrogacy was delayed when Kerrie unexpectedly became pregnant with her third child in 2018, but in October 2019 Laura’s eggs were thawed. Eight had been fertilised – but only one looked viable for transfer and pregnancy. It was placed in Kerrie’s womb on 7 October. The women held hands as they sat on the clinic’s bed. “When they told us there was only one chance, I couldn’t look at Laura,” Kerrie says. “She can read my thoughts. I wanted to stay positive for her but the pressure was huge.”

I’d been carrying her most treasured possession. We were numb. We drove home in silence

On 23 October, two clear lines showed on the pregnancy stick, but Kerrie tested and retested, with Laura by her side, to be sure. Both women were ecstatic. However, on 1 November Kerrie started bleeding. A miscarriage, at five weeks, was confirmed two days later at hospital.
She gave me my only chance of being a biological mum,’ says Laura (left) of Kerrie. Photograph: Shaw & Shaw/The Guardian

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Kerrie says. “I’d been carrying her most treasured possession. We were numb. We drove home in silence. My priority was being strong for her but I was broken. We went from speaking all day, every day, to nothing for 48 hours. I’d type a message asking, ‘Are you OK?’ then delete it. When we eventually sat down together, we cried our hearts out. I felt responsible but I knew I’d done everything I could.”

Laura is still coming to terms with her grief. “I was uncontrollable, heartbroken. We each had our own grieving to do; it wasn’t that we didn’t want to speak, we just didn’t have the words and didn’t want to add to each other’s pain.”

Kerrie has offered to be a surrogate again, with a donor egg, but Laura says she couldn’t put her friend through it. She has also thought about adoption but needs time to heal before giving it serious consideration.
“I don’t think anybody realises how difficult the process is,” she says. “Kerrie gave me my only chance of being a biological mum. I didn’t know I could love her any more than I already did.”

***

Despite the spike in surrogacies over the past decade – and a rise in profile following the examples of celebrities Kim Kardashian, Elton John, Sarah Jessica Parker and Tom Daley – just 302 (0.4%) of 75,425 fertility treatment cycles recorded by UK watchdog the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) in 2017 were surrogacies. But it has become a viable route for gay men who want to start a family. At Care, two-thirds of surrogacies in 2018/19 were for men in same-sex relationships, an option aided by the HFEA’s 2011 decision to offer £750 compensation to egg donors, triggering more women to help others on their parenthood journeys. This, says consultant gynaecologist David Polson, “opened up the options for same-sex couples to seek out a surrogate and become parents”. Advances in freezing fertilised eggs have also made it more likely that a thawed embryo will be suitable for transfer to another woman’s womb.

In Kent, Kevin, 45, a chief marketing officer, and Spencer, 30, a solicitor, are getting their six-month-old son ready for bed when the other half of “Sawyer’s birthing squad” (the name they gave their pregnancy WhatsApp group) arrives: surrogate Leanne, 36, and her sister Rachael, 33, Sawyer’s egg donor. “There’s not many teams like us out there,” says Leanne, grabbing a bedtime cuddle.

Spencer and Kevin have been together 10 years and married in 2015. “I told Kevin on our first date that I needed to be a dad,” Spencer says. “The biological connection was important to us. We wanted to be involved from the start.” They explored agencies but the networking aspect turned them off. “It was like speed dating. There were more couples than surrogates. It felt hard to be your true self.” They spoke to relatives and asked close friends but none provided an obvious solution. So, despite reservations, they turned to an agency and invested five months getting to know a potential surrogate, only to be let down by an early morning text weeks before treatment was due to start.

The one thing they did have was an egg donor. (Medics typically discourage having the same woman perform both functions, to offset concerns around the possibility of bonding too strongly with the baby.) Spencer and Rachael, a credit controller, had become friends two years earlier after meeting on an IVF forum on Facebook. Rachael, then pregnant with her third child, was exploring egg donation, and Spencer wanted to know more about surrogacy. They lived nearby and began meeting up, forming a close friendship that involved weekends together, takeaways, dinners and days out. Spencer and Kevin became unofficial uncles to Rachael’s youngest son and joined in family celebrations, which is how they grew close to Leanne, a mental health support worker who had three sons of her own.

Leanne remembers: “Kevin and Spencer were lovely, and I’d seen how close they all were and how badly the boys wanted to be parents. When Rachael told me their surrogate had let them down, I instinctively offered.”

The group drew up a 12-page “intention agreement”, detailing expenses, medical tests, pregnancy supplements and protection – including life and critical illness insurance – for Leanne’s children in the event that anything went wrong. Kevin and Spencer spent £25,000: £6,000 for the cost of Rachael’s egg donation; £6,500 on medical appointments, screening tests (for all four), medication and scans; £2,500 to transfer their embryo to Leanne’s womb; and £10,000 on surrogate expenses. On pregnancy test day, they sat around Leanne’s kitchen table together, dipping the stick in a cup she’d wee’d in.

“This was the next best thing to carrying the baby ourselves,” Spencer says. “We were so involved. Friendship-first gave us trust and openness.” The expectant dads attended scans, sent hampers each trimester – the first contained ginger biscuits and tea for morning sickness – and downloaded an app that allowed them to read bedtime stories for Leanne to play to her belly. 

When her waters broke three months early, at 28 weeks, the responsibility weighed heavily for all. Leanne says, “You don’t want to let anything go wrong. Decisions about what happened next were theirs to make. I felt guilty.” The men felt responsible, too. “Leanne has three children; she had to go home perfect at the end of this,” Spencer says.

Some nurses called Leanne ‘Mum’ which none of us wanted. It felt antiquated
‘There’s not many teams like us out there’: Rachael (left), egg donor, and her sister Leanne (right), surrogate for Kevin (left) and Spencer. Photograph: Silvana Trevale/The Guardian

Leanne was monitored as an outpatient until labour started a month later. When Sawyer arrived, at 2.36am on 6 April, eight weeks premature and weighing 5lb, all four were in the room, Rachael as birthing partner. Sawyer spent 16 days in neonatal intensive care. His fathers stayed by his side but the now familiar outdated legalities meant Leanne had to return for his discharge.

Even once they have left hospital, it is common for surrogates to be contacted by health professionals seeking consent for newborn checks, despite parents being present. Kevin remembers: “Before the birth, our consultant emailed ahead to enforce our right to be there. Some nurses called Leanne ‘Mum’ which none of us wanted. It felt antiquated. I think it’s sexuality and gender more than surrogacy. It took us being by his side for 16 days to prove ourselves, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

After the birth, Leanne was flooded with emotion: “Your body doesn’t know you’re a surrogate; he was premature and my natural instinct was to know he was all right. I talked a lot with Rachael to be sure what I was feeling was OK. The openness and honesty between me and the boys was vital. Once home, I was back to being Leanne again.”

She expressed and froze milk for Sawyer for two weeks before returning to work. Going home from hospital, Kevin and Spencer stopped at her house, “to give her boys the first cuddle,” Spencer says. “They’d been through a lot, too.”

When the friends share their story with others, it is the egg donation that tends to generate the most interest, Kevin says, but for Rachael it represented nothing more than a tiny piece of DNA. “It’s that black and white for me,” she says. “My own children are the ones I’ve created with my husband. The way Kevin and Spencer look at Sawyer is the exact reason I wanted to do this.”

They see each other often and last month shared a Christmas outing and an early New Year’s Eve celebration before Sawyer’s bedtime. “I want our son to know who the two most incredible women on the planet are,” Kevin says. 

“They’ll for ever have that bond with him. The more love he has, the better.”

Back in north-east London, Rachel and Abi echo the sentiment. As the baby goes down for his nap, the friends leaf through a photo book of their pregnancy, created for their children. “I can’t wait for my son to know how many people brought him into the world,” Rachel says. “It’s the biggest act of kindness imaginable; I can never thank her enough.”

Abi smiles. “But you don’t need to thank me,” she says, “because it just feels entirely normal. We were going to be friends for the rest of our lives anyway; it’s just cemented our bond.”


(Source: The Guardian)

Sunday, 26 January 2020

The agony of weekend loneliness: ‘I won't speak to another human until Monday’

For growing numbers of people the weekend is an emotional wilderness where interaction is minimal and social life non-existent. What can be done to break this toxic cycle?

On Saturday morning, Peter got up and went to the supermarket. He carried his shopping home, and took care of his laundry and ironing. In the afternoon, he browsed a few record stores and later he cooked himself dinner; always something adventurous on a Saturday night. Afterwards, he hit Netflix. And in all those hours, in common with many of Peter’s Saturdays, not to mention his Sundays, he had no meaningful interaction with another human being. “The only person I spoke to,” he says, “was the lady who came over to verify my bottles of beer at the supermarket self-checkout.”

During the week, Peter, 62, is too busy to be lonely. His commute from Brighton to London means that his working life is “a tunnel” he enters on a Monday and from which no daylight is glimpsed until Friday. But just when Peter re-emerges, he is stymied by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. 

Instead of providing respite from the stress of office life, a chance to reconnect with family and friends, the weekend looms as a vast emotional and social wilderness that must be traversed before work takes hold again.
‘I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned.’ Illustration: Monika Jurczyk/The Guardian

Peter dreads the weekend. But he is far from alone in this. He is one of nearly 200 respondents, from Falmouth to Jakarta, who replied to a request on the Guardian’s website for readers to share their experience of weekend loneliness. The youngest respondent was 16; the eldest in her 70s, and between them, the pain and isolation recurred in countless iterations.

Despite all this, the phenomenon of weekend loneliness has scarcely been studied. “It’s not something that’s been researched at all,” says Pamela Qualter, professor of psychology for education at the University of Manchester. She led the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment last year, and “found that there didn’t seem to be a time of day [nor] a season when people felt especially lonely. But we didn’t ask about the weekend.” So what does weekend loneliness look like, who experiences it – and what might be done to alleviate it?

“We define loneliness as the difference between the desire or expectation of what life should be like, and the reality,” says Kellie Payne, research and policy manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness. For those who experience loneliness primarily – or only – at the weekend, this painful discrepancy is intensified by the sense of being at odds not only with the world outside the door, but with one’s capable, sociable weekday self.

A personal, internal division emerges. Liz is 41, with a rewarding job and family nearby – but she is living two lives. “In the week, I am a contented, fulfilled person. At the weekend, I feel like a lonely outcast,” she says. Increasingly, she finds herself out of step with her social group where she lives in Somerset. 

She runs her own training business from home, so weekdays are busy. But this is exactly when her married friends want to meet for coffee “and a moan about their husbands”.

Liz would like to see these friends at the weekend, too, but when Saturday comes, “it’s unsaid – but it’s like they’ve closed the doors to me. Weekends are for couples. It would be unheard of to invite me to a dinner party, because I’m single,” she says. “I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned.” When Monday dawns, “it is always a relief”.

For Liz, the loneliness of the weekend is exacerbated by an additional, painful sense that she is not only alone but locked out – “banned from the weekend”, as she puts it. Between Monday and Friday, she enjoys her neighbourhood, but at the weekend, the streets and parks seem to transform. They become questioning, forbidding, to the extent that Liz wonders if she has “absorbed” her loneliness from her environment, now full of couples, families, groups.

“What’s interesting to me is that I’ll sit on my own in a cafe easily in the week,” she says. But the same cafe at the weekend is a space she cannot enter. Even walking the dog takes on a different cast. “I don’t feel conscious at all during the week” – but on a Sunday morning, the same walk feels acutely sad.

“As psychologists we talk about the looking-glass self,” Qualter says. “How your feelings about yourself are influenced by how you think others see you. The public space changes, becomes occupied by other people … It’s no longer your space. You feel uncomfortable because you don’t fit.”

“I hear this a lot,” says Sally Brown, a life coach and counsellor. “It’s like people have two personas. The weekday persona is busy and confident. But the weekend persona is lost and vulnerable.”

But is Liz really projecting her loneliness on to others, and imagining the way they see her – or does society read people who are alone in too predictable a manner? Peter believes he passes through his Brighton weekends undisturbed because he is regarded as a harmless eccentric. “The bachelor is something of a social misfit, but an acceptable one,” he remarks.

A person who enters a public space alone will often be read as best left alone. Mark is 32 and recently returned to London after a couple of years travelling. Going to the pub to watch football one weekend, he took a seat at an empty table for six. Quickly the pub filled. But Mark sat alone and undisturbed for 20 minutes before anyone asked if they could take one of the five free seats around him. “I guess they think you are going to be bringing extra people, or you’re weird,” he says wryly.

Brown, who sees many clients in their 30s and 40s, thinks this disconnect is “related to those transitional times when your peer group may have moved on to a stage you haven’t yet reached”. And, of course, may not wish to reach. Mark’s friends, like Liz’s, are mostly in relationships. “It can happen really fast. 

All of a sudden, your group isn’t there any more. You are second-tier friendship, relegated to week nights. You’re not in the couples’ dinner party or playdate scene. You start to lack confidence in connecting, so hesitate to suggest things. You assume you are not welcome at the weekend and withdraw … It becomes a toxic circle.”

Brown’s belief that loneliness at the weekend arises out of life’s transitions resonates with Kate. At 61, hers is a different kind of shift to Mark’s or Liz’s. Kate sees herself moving “from motherhood to single life again”. She uses the word “transition”, especially when she reminds herself, while she sits alone on Saturday nights, that she has raised her girls well, that the loneliness is just another challenge to overcome.

Kate, who lives in Cardiff, has two grown daughters whom she raised alone. Her weeks are busy with work and friends, and sometimes her children, if they happen to be nearby. But her weekends, like Peter’s, are “very long and quiet … I will not use my voice or speak with another human until Monday.”

For Kate, the silence of the weekend is wrapped in another sort of silence. She cannot speak of her loneliness to anyone, least of all her children.

“They would be devastated,” she says. “In a way, promoting their education, encouraging them to be social and confident … That has been to the detriment of me. The more they achieve, the further from home they have moved. But I wouldn’t change it, because it was my duty as a mother.”

Seven times during the course of an hour-and-a-half’s conversation, Kate worries that sharing her loneliness with her children would “burden” them. The word feels heavier each time it lands.

While silence protects her daughters, and preserves their sense of Kate, and Kate’s sense of herself, as “strong and capable, someone they can talk to”, it compounds her remoteness. Although she exchanges WhatsApp messages with both children every weekend, these seem to make no impact on Kate’s underlying isolation.

She has a “wonderful relationship” with both daughters, but their closeness makes the pain worse – because how can they not see?

I wonder if Kate’s daughters ever ask her what she did at the weekend, and Kate says she has been wondering about this, too. They don’t. “At some level – not consciously – they are worried about the answer.” In the meantime, her children’s absence weighs “like a bereavement” and the loneliness hits hardest at certain predictable moments.

Just as Peter sits down to his adventurous dinner, picks up his cutlery and feels instantly lonely – despite his efforts in the kitchen – so Kate reels from her plate.

She is at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum to Peter. “One of my favourite go-to meals is a couple of boiled eggs and a piece of toast,” she says. It’s a classic comfort meal that Kate routinely enjoys. But last weekend, she sat down, cracked open the egg, “and I thought: ‘I can’t do it.’ I have had that meal so many times, I just couldn’t eat it.” She threw the food into the bin.
Kate is approaching retirement. “But the idea of being retired is horrific – because all the days will be like weekends.” So what can she, or anyone, do to try to stem their weekend loneliness?

Sarah, who is 44 and lives in Surrey, asks herself this very question. “What can you do to alleviate your loneliness? We’re all struggling. Everyone I know has less money to spend.” She, too, is a single parent; and as her daughter, 18, becomes more independent, Sarah feels increasingly lonely at weekends. “What exacerbates the loneliness is that I’m a very sociable person,” she says.

To counter this, she keeps herself in a state of perpetual readiness for last-minute invitations. “It’s good to be seen as someone who will say yes – because you get asked again. I’ve been very lucky to be an emergency plus-one in quite a few situations,” Sarah says. She is aware that this won’t sound lucky to everyone.

She has filled in for her best friend on a trip with her friend’s husband to Secret Cinema. And she has made up the numbers at a wedding. “There is a kind of currency to being a couple,” she says. “That’s the word I want to use – a currency that makes couples worth more in social situations.” (Conversely, of course, the cost of living is lower for them, too.) So does being available at the last minute represent a kind of personal devaluation?

“I think that’s fair to say,” she says. “I’d much rather be turning up with someone. But I really appreciate it when I’m included. I love it. I think it’s important to be the person who says: ‘Yes, sure, I can sit next to whoever.’”
‘The idea of being retired is horrific – then all days will be like weekends.’ Illustration: Monika Jurczyk/The Guardian

Sarah and I are speaking on a Saturday afternoon. If she were not talking to me, she says, she would be writing an email or doing housework. She has a natural positivity and a bright voice that belie the sadness she feels on her most solitary weekends. If her daughter goes to university next year, the weekends, and weekdays, will further quieten. Like Kate and Peter, Sarah is conscious of the life change that looms.

So she is quietly hatching plans – to move, maybe, depending on her daughter’s movements. And in the meantime, she offers to babysit for friends, hopes for a leisure revolution for single people, and says yes to as many invitations as possible.

“It comes down to keeping the communication lines open, and initiating,” Brown, the life coach, says. Some of her clients have resolved their divided lives by adding structure to their weekends. Loneliness creates passivity in friendships, Brown warns. “There is a sense of ‘I can’t make this happen … It has got to happen to me’”, which can make people who are lonely less inclined to make an effort.

With some clients, Brown has mapped on paper their social circles and groups. “It’s amazing how many people they come up with.” Others’ “proactive approach” include cultivating regular haunts (because being among fellow regulars can feel a bit like being among friends) and attending groups or clubs through the website Meetup.

“That journey can involve some extra loneliness if you find a group you don’t fit with,” Brown warns. I think of Peter, who dropped out of a walking group after a woman berated him for describing himself as “a sad old bachelor”. (“You mustn’t say that,” she told him. “You must say you’re alone and happy.”) Or Kate, waiting for her children to ask what she did at the weekend. Or Mark, who sometimes finds Meetups “a group of lonely, desperate guys”.

“It’s about keeping going,” Brown advises. “If after two weeks you’re not connecting, move on.” Loneliness is complex, she notes. “It can impact those who crave time to themselves after a week at work”; a double bind in which company is both a salve and an impediment.

Peter, for instance, used to volunteer, but, he says, “it cut into what little weekend time I had”, which makes me suspect that as well as hankering for connection, he also cherishes his time alone. “People talk about the difference between being alone and being lonely,” he says. “I am slap bang in the middle of that.”

Meanwhile, Kate is thinking of fostering children. When Peter retires, he might travel the UK and explore a new culinary continent: veganism. Liz has been broadening her group of friends, “meeting new people who aren’t so stuck in the couple thing”. Mark is considering a move to a livelier part of London. And Sarah reminds herself, on her loneliest Saturday evenings, when no last-minute invitations materialise, “to look at all the positives. It’s really hard, but try to embrace the aloneness, the solitude.”

Some names and personal details have been changed.

(Source: The Guardian)