Shannon Garner is all about spreading kindness in the world. That's one of the reasons she's penned her book Labour of Love, to show how the often misunderstood topic of surrogacy can actually be good news for all parties involved.
"There are so many negative surrogacy stories so I wanted to put a positive story out there," she explains. "They happen quite often but are so overlooked."
Shannon started exploring the concept of surrogacy after witnessing a friend's heartbreak at not being able to conceive. With two children of her own, she could only imagine the heartache of not being able to have the child you so badly want.
"So I thought, 'I'm not having any more children [of my own], but my body is perfectly able to do it again, so why not just help someone?'" she says.
Looking online, Shannon was shocked to find hundreds of couples discussing infertility and surrogacy. She mentioned it all to a friend who told her of a Sydney couple who were desperate to have a child of their own.
Shannon got in touch with the couple, named Jon and Justin, via email. After chatting a little online their relationship grew to the point where they all agreed to meet face to face. It was decision time: would she be their surrogate and give them the child they so badly wanted?
"They drove up from Sydney and we drove to where my husband's parents live and had a two-and-a-half-hour lunch with them," Shannon says. "That was just the first meeting to see how we felt around each other, whether we clicked."
For Jon and Justin, meeting Shannon was nerve-wracking too, but they were determined to stay open-minded and see what happened. "We were prepared that if we went up there and met them and it wasn't going to be for us then that was okay," Justin says.
But it didn't take long to realise there was an instant connection between the couples.
"During our lunch Justin said 'Thank God you're normal!' and we said we feel exactly the same way!" Shannon laughs. "We didn't want to be in this awkward situation where we met them face to face and thought 'we want to back away from this because these people aren't right for us', but it just seemed like it was meant to be. They are just lovely people and we get on really, really well."
Of course, the lunch also had a serious side. With surrogacy being fraught with so many complexities, there were some tough questions to be asked about finances, stability, and Jon and Justin's relationship.
"Initially I felt bad having to ask those questions on our first day," Shannon admits. "I told them 'I don't want to do this and find out you are going to split up or you can't afford to have this child.' I wanted to make sure we were all in the right space and have a nice journey together."
But Jon and Justin were more than ready and welcomed the questioning.
"I said to Jon on our way there, 'We all need to be so honest and put everything on the table', because that's the only way you can make a really good decision – for us and for Shannon," Justin says. "We needed to make sure everyone was okay and felt the same way. We talked about lots of stuff that some people would find a bit confronting, but we all had it in our heads that that's what we needed to talk about."
And even though Shannon was passionate about surrogacy from the moment she began to learn about it, she admits her husband had some doubts. "I had to say, 'we've met these guys and they just want to be dads'. I just tried to put it in the perspective of 'what if you couldn't be a father just because of your sexual orientation?'" she says.
That was enough to get him to wholeheartedly agree to the plan. "He was very supportive and I couldn't have done it without him," Shannon says.
Love was at the centre of every decision and action throughout the surrogacy journey, and Shannon says there was never any doubt this baby was going to be anything but cherished. "They had a baby shower and there were over 150 people there," Shannon says. "It really struck me: 'Wow, she is so loved already. She's got all of these people here waiting for her - what a lucky little girl'."
Labour of Love is the ultimate love letter to little baby Elsie, which not only honours the incredible path taken to bring her into this world, but also proof positive that surrogacy can be a truly beautiful journey to undertake.
Labour of Love is out now and available at all good bookstores.