Rugby ref becomes solo dad, with a little help here and there

winging itReview: Vivien Horler

Winging It: Jonathan Kaplan’s journey from world-class ref to rookie solo dad, by Joanne Jowell (Macmillan)

Cape Town writer Joanne Jowell was dimly aware of who Jonathan Kaplan was – the Green Point-based international rugby ref. Both she and he are Jewish, share acquaintances, and they’ve bumped into each other socially over the years.

But she’s not much of a rugby fan, and didn’t really know him.

When she saw he’d posted on Facebook the image of a foetal scan, which is apparently today’s way of announcing you’re pregnant, she was happy for him. She assumed he’d married and started a family.

But then one of the comments referred to the fact that he’d be a single parent – and Jowell was intrigued. She discovered he was having a baby with a surrogate mother, a donor egg, and his own sperm.

How on earth would a single professional rugby ref, approaching 50, handle the colic, choice of dummy and the delights of nappies? This was a story she wanted to write. “Never mind the birth of the baby,” she says, “I was more interested in the birth of the father.”

So when Kaplan contacted Jowell and asked her to write a book about his experience, she didn’t hesitate.

The result is this engagingly honest and readable account of Kaplan’s determination to be a father, and what he did when his dream came true.

He was born in Durban, the eldest of three boys, and his parents split up when he was about six. A few years later his mother moved to Joburg with the two younger boys, and Kaplan stayed with his father in Durban. So although he had two parents, he was, for almost as long as he could remember, the child of single parents.

He always wanted a child or children of his own, and as his stellar rugby reffing career wound down in 2013, when he was in his late 40s, he decided it was time to do something about it. His relationships never seemed to last more than two and a half years, so it didn’t look as though he was going to father a child in the conventional way.

In December 2013 he contacted Kim, a woman from an egg donation and surrogacy agency. And the process began.

There is a huge need, Kim tells Jowell. The agency probably gets two or three inquiries a day from people seeking surrogates, and perhaps one or two a month from women wanting to be surrogates.

South African laws in this area are strict. The surrogate, who is usually aged between 30 and 40 and must have a child of her own, can’t be paid, although her expenses can be. The egg donor, who must be between 19 and 34, gets about R7 000. The agency cannot be paid for the surrogacy, but is paid for egg donation services.

The client family – the people looking for a baby – must be under 50. They go on to the agency’s website and seek a suitable egg donor. There will be pictures, but only of the donor as a young child, not as an adult. As for the surrogate, as long as she’s healthy, her looks don’t count – the baby will have none of her genetic material.

Why do donors and surrogates do it? Kim says it isn’t the money – they simply want to do good. Of course being a surrogate parent is way more involved than merely donating some eggs. In Kaplan’s case the surrogate mother, Jacqui, who was married and had two daughters of her own, simply loved being pregnant but did not want any more children.

Eventually Jacqui became pregnant, and Kaleb was born on June 1 2016 by Caesarean section, with both Kaplan and Jacqui’s husband present. The next day Kaplan took his son home.

To start with he was a somewhat hands-off father: he had a night nurse for five months, and a daily nanny. His time with the baby was in the couple of hours between when the night nurse left and the nanny arrived, and the similar time in the evenings. Kaplan would prepare his son for his bath, blow on his bare tummy and exchange chuckles, and then hand the baby over to the nurse.

This may have had something to do with the fact that at first he wasn’t feeling the expected connection to the baby. And then, at five weeks, Kaleb smiled at him, and Kaplan was smitten.

Jowell has interviewed the various figures in the story, including Kim from the agency, Jacqui the mother, Greg the rabbi, the doctor and Kaplan’s own mother who has been a pillar of strength. She also interjects her own opinions – as the mother of three children she has some strong feelings about parenting, and they don’t always agree with Kaplan’s.

Many people embark on single-parenting or have it thrust upon them, but Winging It is a readable new take on a familiar theme.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on April 29





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