When Toni Street and Sophie Braggins are told to cuddle up for a photo, Toni instinctively goes to place a hand on her friend's belly.
"Wait, we can't do the baby bump thing any more!" she laughs. "What are you even going to write about that, like, 'She cradles her abs?'"
There is, after all, no evidence by looking at Sophie that a little more than a year ago, she was in a studio like this one, for a story like this one, and six months pregnant with Toni's baby.
There is, however, plenty of evidence that said baby exists. Instead of the calm and serenity that described the previous shoot, today's vibe is decidedly more hectic.
Against the hum of a wind machine and the pop of a flashbulb, Toni's four-year-old daughter Mackenzie – who arrived wearing a tiny ballgown and sparkly gold boots – is stomping around in a pair of lilac Mi Piaci mules, size 38.
Adding to the cacophony is the rhythmic thud of a rubber ball on a concrete floor, being bounced over and over for the pleasure of baby Lachie by his beloved nanny Kate. He giggles and gurgles in response, enchanting the dozen or so adults that in amongst all of this activity, are trying to do their jobs.
It's fitting that Lachie is commanding all of our attention, being the reason we're here in the first place. Born last August, he was the long-awaited and much-desired son of Toni and her husband Matt France.
Genetically he's all theirs, but because of Toni's Churg-Strauss syndrome – an autoimmune illness she was diagnosed with in 2015 – she was advised against carrying any more children.
Unwilling to risk her health or that of an unborn baby's, the 35-year-old radio host for The Hits, who had always pictured herself with a big family, tried to come to terms with the disappointing development, berating herself for being, in her own mind, ungrateful for what she already had.
But despite her best efforts, Toni couldn't shake the feeling that her family wasn't complete. That's when best friend Sophie Braggins stepped in.
"If you can bring ultimate happiness to those closest to you, why wouldn't you?" says 36-year-old Sophie, CEO at a law firm in New Plymouth where she lives with her husband Michael and their two children Isabella, nine, and Theo, eight.
She says it almost like she loaned Toni a cup of sugar or, at a stretch, handed over the keys to her bach for a long weekend. In reality, it was an emotionally fraught, vulnerable undertaking that in Toni's words, "really took its toll" on her best friend of more than 20 years.
Described by Toni as stoic and pragmatic and, therefore, "the ideal surrogate", Sophie might be matter-of-fact, but she's by no means flippant about her experience. "There's so much involved and it's very testing – emotionally, physically and legally," she says of the two-year process that began the day in 2017 when, in a single text message, she made Toni an offer she couldn't refuse.
Except she did refuse. Only after several more messages, lengthy phone calls, and a cathartic face-to-face conversation with Sophie and Michael, did Toni and Matt finally accept what was on the table. And so for the tight foursome that had formed at school in New Plymouth two decades earlier, another long and at-times arduous, yet uniquely friendship-affirming journey was begun.
First, the two couples were required by the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART) – the New Zealand body that reviews and approves applications for surrogacy arrangements – to complete six months of counselling to determine whether they were psychologically prepared for the challenges ahead.
Toni then underwent two rounds of IVF treatment, which ultimately yielded just two viable embryos, and Sophie endured three months of hormone therapy to prepare her body for implantation. On the day of implantation, one of the two frozen embryos perished as it thawed, leaving Sophie just one chance at getting pregnant. Miraculously, she did. But with this first wave of relief came new ripples of anxiety.
"You're responsible for this human life," Sophie says, explaining that on account of Toni's profile and particularly as the due date neared, she felt enormous pressure to produce a healthy baby.
"You never actually know what's going to happen and I definitely felt this huge weight on my shoulders for something that I had very little control over."
She needn't have worried. On August 8, 2018, Lachlan Stephen France was born by caesarean section – perfectly healthy. "It was one of those things Toni, Matt and myself will never forget," remembers Sophie.
"He was crying straight away and Toni just said 'He's crying', like, 'He's real, this is happening, we've done it.' It sort of summarised the whole journey in that moment. It was incredible."
For all the months of preparation that had gone into it, the day of Lachie's birth didn't go exactly as planned. Sophie had arranged to be in Auckland a week before her scheduled C-section. But, says Toni, in true Sophie fashion, she decided this wasn't enough of a buffer, and rearranged her travel plans so she'd arrive on the Thursday, rather than the Tuesday.
On the Friday morning, Toni clocked out of work for the last time, and met Sophie in Ponsonby, where they shoe shopped before a final appointment with Sophie's obstetrician.
"We just wanted to nut out how everything would play out in just over a week's time," Toni explains.
At a Ponsonby café, the pair ordered coffees and waited. "When the obstetrician arrived, says Toni, "he sat down, took one look at Sophie, asked her how she was feeling – to which she answered that she'd actually had a bit of an upset tummy that morning – and then he was like, 'Right, you're not finishing that drink. I think things are rolling.'"
An exam at his private practice down the road confirmed that Sophie was in labour. At that point, it was action stations. "We didn't even have time to go home and get our bags," says Toni, who could only phone Matt and tell him to bring everything to the hospital.
Hoping they still had a window of time to work with, she also phoned Michael in New Plymouth and instructed him to get on a plane immediately. Lachie, however, was waiting for no one. At the hospital, says Toni, "to have the caesarean we needed to get Sophie into theatre straight away, otherwise it would have been too late."
Sophie describes what happened next as completely surreal.
"I'd never had a C-section before so it was all new. I was numb but lucid, and almost hyper-aware of everything that was going on – what Toni was thinking; what Matt was feeling."
For Toni, concern for her friend's wellbeing took her out of the moment at times. "What really kicked in for me at that point, seeing Sophie lying there was, 'I hope she's okay'. That was my biggest fear.
I couldn't have lived with the guilt if anything had happened to her while she was doing us this massive service. And the caesarean itself was, I think, a bit more intense than she'd expected. At one point she went completely white and I felt for sure she was about to pass out, so I was completely focused on her. Then suddenly the baby comes out and it's like 'Oh, that's right! There's our baby!'"
When NEXT last caught up with the pair, Sophie was mostly positive about her role as surrogate: "It's not hard. It's good and easy and special," she said.
But Toni admits she had two major fears at the time. The first was that she would struggle to bond with her baby.
"I hadn't struggled with my first two children, but I was carrying them and I was able to breastfeed. This time, I just genuinely didn't know how it was going to go."
Thankfully, Toni felt an immediate connection to Lachie.
"As soon as he came out, he looked like my baby. I felt exactly the same way I'd felt with my eldest, Juliette, and with Mackenzie, and I just knew we were going to be fine."
Her other major fear – which centred around Sophie's health during the pregnancy and her recovery afterwards – continued to consume her, however.
"I was worried about whether I was doing the right thing by her," says Toni, who reveals that the first few days after Lachie was born were tougher than anyone – especially Sophie – had anticipated.
Sophie is quick to confirm this.
"I'd always said that handing Lachie over would be without emotional complication, and that was definitely my mental plan going into it – that Toni and Matt would bundle him away and spend some time connecting with him, and that my focus would be on my own recovery," she explains.
"But it did feel unnatural to give birth and to not have a baby with me afterwards, and I certainly had moments over those first few nights where I woke up and I felt distressed."
Describing herself as a very measured person in her regular life, Sophie says her rational mind would jump in during those episodes and she was able to convince herself that everything was fine and as it should be, and that the feelings were just a part of the process.
"At the same time, it was such a unique emotional experience, my emotional and rational thoughts couldn't not be a little bit blurred."
For Toni, knowing how cut and dry Sophie is ordinarily just underscored how big a deal it was that she was experiencing these heightened emotions.
"That made me very emotional, too," she says.
"And it split my focus. If it had been me that had just given birth to Lachie, my entire attention would have been on him. Instead I felt very torn, half of me wanting to enjoy that special time with my baby and the other wanting to be looking after my best friend."
Admirably, even in her fragile state, Sophie had her priorities straight.
"In the very early hours after he was born, once he'd had all his weights and checks done, Toni and Matt brought Lachie into my recovery room and I kissed his forehead and rubbed his cheeks, so I had that physical connection and I knew he was real, he was safe and with his parents."
Secure in the knowledge that Sophie had ample support around her, and with a kind of unspoken permission from Sophie herself, Toni and Matt were then able to retreat somewhat, and turn their attentions to their new family unit.
"Sophie was very good at alleviating my anxiety," says Toni. "I would text her and say, 'Are you feeling okay?' And she would reply, 'Thanks for checking in, I'm fine, go snuggle baby Lachie.' She was almost counselling me through that time."
Sophie says that Toni still brought Lachie in at every opportunity.
"I had lots of cuddles that week," she remembers. Beyond that, the pair just kept communicating. "Which I think was really important," says Toni. "It would have been so much worse if we hadn't, and that's why my surrogate being my best friend made it so much easier."
After a week in Auckland recovering from surgery, and another week recuperating at home in New Plymouth, Sophie went back to work.
"I cut my days short if I was feeling a bit tired or sore, but I didn't have a newborn to look after so it was all very doable and, if anything, a great distraction. It felt really good to get back into my normal life and routines."
Meanwhile, Toni and Matt had one more hurdle to clear – adopting Lachie.
Under New Zealand law, a baby born by surrogate is legally that surrogate's child, even if – as in Toni and Matt's case – her biology doesn't come into it.
Accordingly, Lachie's hospital wristband reads 'Mother: Sophie Braggins', as does the first page of his Plunket book. Even his original birth certificate stated that he was the son of Sophie and – incredibly – Michael Braggins.
"That was one of the weirdest things," says Toni. "That Michael, who didn't really have anything to do with the process except for supporting his wife, was listed as the father."
Toni says neither she and Matt nor Sophie and Michael were fazed by the semantics. "We were so happy to have our baby we didn't care about any of that."
The more pertinent issue for both couples was that lawfully, in the three months that it took for Lachie's adoption papers to be formally processed, Sophie and Michael were his legal guardians.
Among other things, this meant that if medical intervention was required, Sophie and Michael's consent would have been sought. Not concerned that the couple would have stood in the way, Toni felt guilty more than anything.
"It was just an extra burden for them to have to bear. They'd done this amazing thing for us and they were still beholden until we could get that certificate of adoption."
"It's a long time for everyone to feel really vulnerable," agrees Sophie, who points out that theoretically, either couple could have changed their mind within that three months.
"Toni and Matt could have decided they no longer wanted a baby, or I could've decided I didn't want to give him up, and they would've had no legal standing."
For this reason, both are campaigning for the laws around surrogacy to be changed – specifically for surrogacy to be separated from the Adoption Act.
"I understand ours was a straightforward surrogacy where Matt and I were the genetic parents, and it's a little less-so when there's an egg donor involved as well," says Toni.
"But I maintain adoption and surrogacy are completely different things. The intention from the very beginning is that the child will go to the intending parents, whereas with adoption, that's not necessarily the case."
Sophie adds that New Zealand's current legislation was drafted in 1955, "and the world has changed so much since then. Our views on things have changed, family structures are different, so we need to make sure that legislation still supports and protects us."
For it to better align with what's happening internationally, Sophie says surrogacy here should change from an altruistic arrangement – whereby no money is allowed to change hands – to a commercial arrangement.
"With commercial arrangements there can be many more support mechanisms in place from a financial, legal, social, emotional and psychological perspective, and those mechanisms are what the process is lacking here."
In August, both women will speak at the Fertility Nurses Association conference.
"We really are trying to use our voices and our channels to effect positive change in this area, and this is a big platform for us to educate nurses on supporting people through this journey," says Sophie.
Shortly after Lachie's birth, Toni also shared an online petition calling for a law change. Penned by a gay couple who were similarly baffled by the hoop-jumping required of them in adopting their surrogate-born son, the petition caught the attention of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who agreed that the law was outdated, and promised that it was on her to-do list.
For Toni, one of the most problematic aspects of the adoption process was having to be vetted by child welfare agency, Oranga Tamariki.
"They were absolutely lovely, but it was bizarre for Matt and I to be sitting there having had two children before, and knowing that any Joe Bloggs can have a child and doesn't need any sort of vetting, and being made to answer questions like 'How do you solve conflict in your marriage?' It felt like a huge waste of resources and we had four visits in total. That's a lot of time that could have been utilised for children that actually really need it."
There's no question that Lachie is loved. There's also no question that he's becoming quite the little mischief-maker as his mobility increases.
"He was a very cruisy baby," says Toni, "but now he's started to crawl, he's into everything – opening cupboards and drawers… and he loves playing rough and tumble with his dad." A typical Leo, Toni says he also gets very upset if he's feeling left out. "Mackenzie had a play-date yesterday and he was right up in the girls' grill like, 'What are we doing?'"
Having lost three of her four siblings – twin brother Lance to cancer at 18 months old, an infant sister, and then younger brother Stephen, whose death in a tragic farm bike accident aged 14 was life-shattering for the then-18-year-old – it's clearly very meaningful for Toni to see her daughters doting upon their little brother.
"We don't have a lot of boys in my family, so we talk about Lachie balancing the ledger a little bit," she says, adding that she sees a lot of Stephen in his look and temperament.
"Compared to the girls who are very fair, he's got that olive skin and those chocolate brown eyes… I know Mum gets a bit emotional around him because she's been through parenting a little boy. She knows how special that relationship is between a mum and a son. And I get that now, too. It's a different dynamic."
Despite her proximity to tragedy, Toni is not a helicopter mum. Her work/life balance has improved since she resigned from her co-anchoring role on Seven Sharp in 2017, opting for the more family-friendly hours of morning radio that have since enabled her to spend evenings with Matt and the kids. Don't think she's running a super-tight ship, however.
"Having three children is total chaos, but I wouldn't change it for anything," she laughs.
It seems like the right time to enquire about the ornamental crystal tree that Toni had that week featured on her Instagram – a souvenir from a family outing to West Auckland's Crystal Mountain, and of Juliette's inexplicable love of crystals.
"She also loves tie-dye, which I hate," says Toni, stumped as to where her daughter's hippie aesthetic came from. As for the crystal tree?
"Oh, it's been life-changing."
It's said with an eye-roll, but given Toni's own health issues, one wonders whether she'll secretly take all the good vibes she can get. A reaction to an antibiotic last year left her seriously unwell, to a point where the threat of chronic illness and invasive courses of treatment remain front of mind.
"I was in a really bad way," she says of the liver condition that left her "yellow from head to toe".
Being just a few months before Lachie was born, it also served as a timely reminder of why surrogacy had been the right decision.
"I just realised my body is actually not capable of going through pregnancy or childbirth anymore. It really hammered home why we were doing what we were doing. And throughout the rest of the pregnancy, whenever we were feeling frustration around the process, it was like, well, the alternative is we wouldn't be having a baby. It made everything 100 per cent worth it."
If there's one thing both Toni and Sophie want to emphasise in doing this story, it's that surrogacy is a wonderful option, but it's not to be taken lightly.
"It was a long, emotional process," says Toni. "It looks great now but it wasn't a completely smooth ride, and everything went as well as it possibly could have for us. The one embryo we had did miraculously stick, and we had a really straightforward situation where we were the genetic parents and the surrogate was my best friend who I trust completely, and she had a very supportive husband. Basically, we had the ideal experience and it still wasn't easy."
The upshot, says Toni, is that Lachie will grow up knowing exactly how wanted he was.
"He's got this wooden box with all his precious things in it – the hospital band that says 'Baby of Sophie'; his Plunket book; the original birth certificate. It's all part of his story, and hopefully he'll look at it one day and realise we were so desperate to have him, we went through all of that. And he'll also appreciate the role that Sophie played in bringing him here."
"Oh, don't you worry – once he's old enough to understand I'll be jumping in and reminding him," Sophie laughs. "Like, 'Don't you forget me boy!'"
On top of a shared love of feijoas ("Sophie ate them all through the pregnancy and now he can't get enough!" says Toni), Sophie explains that she and Lachie do share a special bond.
"He definitely feels different to me. He feels like my best friend's baby but at the same time, it's like we know each other on a different level, and he does have a little twinkle in his eye for me. It is really special when I see him and I can't wait to spend more time with him as he gets a bit older."
Currently involved in planning Lachie's combined christening and first birthday, as well as a joint holiday to Noosa, Sophie and Michael – who are Lachie's godparents and an unofficial aunt and uncle to Juliette and Mackenzie – are as good as family to Toni and Matt.
"Sophie has always been 'Aunty Willow' to the girls," explains Toni. "And now – because we've talked so openly about the surrogacy – Mackenzie will offer up her services to anyone who wants a baby. My mum said the other day, 'Oh, babies are so cute, I wish we could have another one'. And Mackenzie replied, 'Aunty Willow will grow you one Nana!'"
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