The morning after I visited his Newbury home, Ian Mucklejohn was making sure his children were ready for their first day back at school. Some couples choose not to have one child on the basis that it is too much hard work; Ian has raised three boys by himself for 12 years.
Having been a carer his whole life – when he was eight, his father was involved in an accident that left him with dementia – it seemed only natural that Ian would want to have children of his own. However, in between caring duties and running his business ‘Vacational Studies’, starting a family had to be put on hold. When he got to the stage where he felt he was ready, Ian was missing one vital component – a partner. Vital, however, it was not. He explains, “I didn’t want to assess dates as potential mothers. That seemed wrong, so I found another way.”
British law is not conducive to the concept of surrogate mothers (they are able to claim custody of the baby they are carrying), so Ian turned to the US. Once the genetic mother was picked, four of her eggs were implanted in the chosen surrogate. Doctors warned Ian that the process is a tricky one and often doesn’t work. Lo and behold, a whopping three of the eggs took and Ian was informed that Tina, the surrogate, was “very pregnant”. After initial amused confusion over what on earth ‘very pregnant’ could mean, the truth dawned and Ian never looked back. After an inevitably difficult multiple birth, Ian Mucklejohn became the proud father of triplet boys – Piers, Ian and Lars. “Beginner’s luck,” he laughs.
When asked if he felt the screening process had been any stricter because he was a man, surprisingly he answered in the negative (with the exception of getting the boys British citizenship). It’s a shame this didn’t last.
Upon arrival back into the country, it soon became clear that Ian would not be able to bring up his children quietly as he had hoped to. Someone – “to this day I don’t know who” – had thought it wise to alert the Daily Mail to the situation. In typical form, they hounded the new father and initiated what became a wider attack on the concept of purposeful single parenthood, and in particular that of a father. Interest in the story grew; audience-participation phone lines asked questions that amounted to (as Mucklejohn put it) “should my children even be allowed to exist?”, and the BBC’s own Anne Atkins asked Ian to his face if he believed his lifestyle choice made the children ‘disabled’.
I asked if he felt less antagonised nowadays and he explained thankfully, “I don’t get [media hostility] anymore. They’ve seen that I’ve done it – the good job that I’ve done in raising the children is palpable so they have nothing to say anymore.”
One area when talking about surrogacy and egg or sperm donation that tends to elicit intrigue is whether or not the children should meet their biological parent. Ian, having chosen to be completely honest with his children from the get-go, decided that a meeting would be a good idea. From what Ian tells me of that meeting and others since, he has been fortunate enough to avoid a potential tricky situation.
Before choosing a mother for his child(ren), Ian was told to pick carefully, looking not only at desirable physical features but to consider their reasons for donation. Melissa, the donor he chose, saw the process as simply passing on perfectly good genetic information without having to go through the usual steps of having and raising children herself – a lifestyle which she was not interested in herself.
When she eventually met the triplets, however, no one could be certain that maternal feelings wouldn’t emerge and make the situation heart-wrenchingly difficult. Fortunately, no drama occurred. Ian recounts, “I introduced them, it was fine and then they talked about football. After we’d met, Melissa asked if I wanted to keep in touch. I said ‘if that’s alright with you’ and she said it was – if ever we visited America we should drop by, and whenever she was in Europe she would.” As their father has always been open with them about their upbringing, the boys are remarkably unfazed by the situation. They do ask about their mother occasionally and Ian answers with the truth. “Does our mother love us?” “She doesn’t know you – but if she did, she definitely would.”
In the absence of a mother figure Ian fulfils both traditional functions: “I’m caring – I give them cuddles, which they still want unlike many boys their age, but I also fill the role of disciplinarian.” He recounts a time when one of the boys’ friends held his hand to feel affection because he hardly ever got to see his own parents. This to me highlights the hypocrisy of arguments against alternative family set-ups: for every unusual lifestyle that results in a difficult childhood, there are so many nuclear arrangements that are, to say the least, far from perfect.
The boys themselves are fantastic. Possibly because of Ian’s directness in answering, they are highly inquisitive and unafraid to speak their minds. Polite, intelligent and young-looking for their age (they definitely still fall under the ‘cute kids’ umbrella), they don’t want to go back to school, but for very different reasons. Piers likes to choose what he learns about and in his own way – he is probably the only person I’ve ever heard to get into a religious conversation and learn about another’s culture from someone thousands of miles away via the medium of the games console headset. Ian Junior doesn’t like the strictness and having to sit down all day – he’d rather be looking for wild animals. Lars knows that he is very lucky to be where he is and to be doing what he is doing, but finds the whole school experience spoiled by the fact that the others in his class do not share his appreciation and take their position for granted.
This highlights the fact that, although the three have been brought up together and in the same way, their personalities have developed in distinct directions.
Regarding their relationships with each other, Ian can find the boys’ internal rivalries trying. The bottom line is that they all compete for daddy’s affections. Every question is a messily-hidden way of asking “who’s your favourite?” Two of the boys bought Ian chocolate for Christmas, and immediately needed to know whether he preferred the Lindt or the Ferrero Rocher. This has led to Ian’s resolution never to compare. Anything. The children, with their bent for competition, love the CBBC programme The Slammer; Ian finds the concept of comparing a mime to a juggler and deciding who should win frankly absurd, on the grounds that “they’re just different; they both have different good and bad points.”
However, the strain of having only one parent became very apparent when Ian was diagnosed with skin cancer. For the first time thinking about what would happen to the boys without him became a reality. A friend offered herself as guardian should the worst happen, potential arrangements were made, and Ian’s mind was more at ease. Fortunately his brush with the disease is now seemingly over. All through the procedure, he told the boys the truth, albeit in diluted form, as he seems to with every area of life which they ask about.
Ian’s experiences have compelled him to share these messages with others. After writing a book about his initial experiences of the hectic blur that was bringing up three infants, purely because he found it interesting, he decided to have it published to convey his side of the story after the furore caused by conservative tabloids. And Then There Were Three became the first of what Ian expects to be several books. The second, A Dad For All Seasons, has been very recently published and is full of anecdotes and quotes that put the Outnumbered kids to shame. “Sometimes we’ll be having a conversation and one of the boys says something so funny that I have to start writing it down,” Ian tells me. “The boys know what I’m doing now and start asking, ‘is that going to be in the book?’” In the future, Ian hopes to continue writing. A collaboration with Esther Rantzen on abuse is in the pipeline, and he is tempted by a foray into fiction; however, with golden material at his dinner table every day, the boys provide plenty to write about for now.
Admittedly this successful scenario cost a huge amount of money to bring to fruition, money that Ian is not short of. He proudly shows me the 1959 Cadillac he has on display in one of the sitting rooms of his phenomenally gorgeous house. Whilst admiring the car, I look up to see two iconic Roy Liechtenstein pictures; he points to the clearly handwritten signatures in the bottom corners. It is true that having a child in the way Ian chose is highly exclusive (he estimated to the press at the time that the process cost £50,000) but this should in no way cast a shadow on the Mucklejohn family, as some have tried to do. If anything, Ian’s case (and that of men with similar stories) should be a stepping stone towards making alternative procedures to start a family more accessible to those on more modest salaries.
Ultimately, I was delighted to have the opportunity to conduct this interview as I hoped it would show that non-nuclear family set-ups have the same results as ‘typical’ ones. The Mucklejohns did not disappoint. Piers, Ian and Lars are bright and happy young children who have a father who has given them so much time, love and affection. It puts most other families to shame.
Ian is sure that many men will have been put off having children by themselves because of how he was initially treated by the media, men who were more prepared to commit to fatherhood than the many ‘regular’ parents who may have only had their kids by accident. This is a travesty. We should embrace the different ways of becoming a parent and encourage those who want to have children to do so. The common theme binding the successful raising of families is not a mummy and daddy, but something far more abstract. As Ian himself said, “the Beatles got it right – all you need is love.”