Toni Street always knew the arrival of her third baby would be emotional, but nothing in the world could have prepared her for the overwhelming experience of welcoming a child via surrogacy.
It's thanks to the incredible generosity of her best friend Sophie Braggins that Toni and her husband Matt France are now parents to little Lachlan Stephen France, who arrived in a whirlwind of love, tears and gratitude on August 9.
And when Woman's Day visits the broadcaster at her Auckland home just a week after his birth, tears flow readily as she introduces her newest delight.
"I look at Lachie and get these 'wow' moments over how lucky we are," she tells us as she settles onto the sofa with her tiny boy sleeping soundly in a bassinet next to her. "I just can't believe we got our son! He really is the son I thought we'd never ever have."
"I'm still so amazed that someone would do this for me," Toni admits.
"I was turning myself inside out over how I could ever thank her enough, but I'm learning to accept that she's done this because she loves me and because she wanted to, because she's an amazing, selfless person."
While ultimately rewarding, there's no doubt the surrogacy was a long and exhausting process, and Toni admits that through the nine months of the pregnancy, she couldn't shake the fear that it would be difficult to bond with her baby. Thankfully, her worries were unfounded.
"That instant rush of love was there and he felt like our baby straight away. He certainly looked like our baby, and it all felt incredibly natural and right. It was such a relief to have that instant connection. He is just so perfect and so dreamy. I look at him now and wonder why I ever worried."
Lachie might be a settled and calm baby, but his arrival into the world was anything but.
Businesswoman Sophie – who lives in New Plymouth with her husband Mike and their two children, Bella, nine, and Theo, seven – had been scheduled to have an elective Caesarean section in Auckland on August 14. But when a routine scan showed the baby was very low down, it was decided she'd be best to fly up early, just in case she went into labour naturally.
On the morning of August 9, Toni and Sophie – who'd earlier dismissed some mild cramps as Braxton Hicks – met their obstetrician at a café in Ponsonby to talk through the birth plan for the following week. The two couples had earlier made the decision that a Caesarean was the best option.
"Soph wanted it to be entirely different to the experience she had with her own babies," Toni explains, and it lessened the chance of her and Matt missing their baby's birth.
But before their smoothies had even arrived, the doctor realised the baby was on its way. "He took one look at Soph and said we needed to go straight to the clinic! He could tell just by her face that things were happening."
An examination showed that she was indeed already in the early stages of labour, so to ensure a Caesarean could go ahead, they all made a mad dash to North Shore Hospital. Sadly, there was no time for construction manager Mike to make it from Taranaki, so Sophie and Toni's friend Vanessa stepped in to act as support person.
"It all happened so fast," Toni recalls. "I rang Matt at work to say, 'This is happening now!' He had to get home to pick up our bags and get to hospital as fast as possible. My parents and Mike went straight to the airport to hop on the first plane, and my sister Kirsty flew back from Tauranga. There were all these people around the country mobilising!"
Meanwhile, in the operating theatre, Toni, who turns 35 on September 8, and events manager Matt, 34, were finally about to meet their little boy.
"The feeling in that room was hard to explain," tells the former Seven Sharp presenter. "It was incredibly emotional – I remember this huge rush of adrenaline. I was thinking, 'Wow, this is actually happening.' I sat next to Soph and held her hand as the Caesarean began. I was a wreck, but she was so focused and brave."
As soon as their little boy emerged, with a perfectly pink face and a hearty cry, everyone in the room was in tears, including the obstetrician!
"He later told Soph that was the first time he'd ever cried when delivering a baby," Toni smiles. "It did feel like something really special was happening. We'd been through so much to make it to that point, and the relief that he was finally here and healthy was amazing."
After their perfect 3.4kg bundle was checked over by the midwife, he was wrapped up and taken to a recovery room, where Toni and Matt were finally able to cuddle him. Those first moments of skin-on-skin were beautiful. "We'd waited so long for that and it felt amazing," Toni tells.
Still recovering from surgery, Sophie, 35, was also wheeled into the room, where she was finally able to meet the little boy who had been growing inside her.
"She was sore and a little bit teary, but she was so happy when she saw him," tells Toni. "I asked if she wanted to hold him, but she said, 'No, not just yet.' She wanted him to be with his mummy."
Toni's parents Geoff and Wendy arrived, along with Mike, and the two families marvelled over the darling new arrival. Delighted big sisters Juliette and Mackenzie were also brought in to meet their little brother, and it was then that Toni and Matt decided on the name.
Tells Toni, "We'd narrowed it down to Noah or Lachlan, but in the end, it was clear he was definitely a Lachie. We think it really suits him."
His middle name holds particular significance – Toni's younger brother, who was tragically killed at 14 in a farm accident, was named Stephen, as was Matt's dad, who sadly passed away in 1998. Stephens is also Sophie's maiden name.
"It's such a special name for us in so many ways," explains Toni, who'd always longed for a son. "Lachie's arrival has definitely brought back memories of my brother. Mum says he was a very calm and content baby, just like Lachie.
"It really does feel like we've always known this little boy and that he's always belonged with us, which is weird but very comforting."
Several hours after Lachie's arrival, the couple packed up and headed to Birthcare, a postnatal facility, to spend the next few nights bonding with their baby and learning how to bottle feed.
Sophie, who took medication to stop lactation, remained in hospital to recover from her operation, a situation that Toni found very difficult. She desperately wanted to be at her side, helping her through the ordeal.
"Soph had lots of support – Mike, her parents, my parents, our midwife ... but I still couldn't shake the feeling that I'm her best friend, so it should have been me helping her recover. I was overwhelmed with love for Lachie and so happy, but there was also a lot of anguish, which I hadn't quite prepared for."
But at no stage did Toni worry that her friend might change her mind about the surrogacy.
"That was never a possibility. Even when Soph was cuddling Lachie a few days later, I asked if it made her feel like having a newborn of her own and it was a definite no!"
With each day that passed, Sophie felt increasingly better and Toni could start to relax. The pair were discharged on the same day and met up at the house where the Braggins family was staying to finally celebrate their amazing achievement.
"It was the most beautiful day – all our children were with us and our parents. We had champagne and salmon, and all the things Soph hadn't been able to have for so long. And there was this incredible happiness around us – it felt quite magical."
Toni is very aware of all the people who helped make the surrogacy a success, particularly Sophie's family, who despite some initial concerns supported her decision to become a surrogate 100%. Toni loves the idea that Lachie will always be a treasured part of the extended Braggins family, as well as her own.
"I feel totally at peace with the idea that this little boy is a special child to be loved and shared by everyone. It's just incredibly humbling to think about how many people were involved in bringing me this baby and I'll never ever stop being grateful for that."
Surrogacy in New Zealand is governed by strict rules, with all the parties going through months of intensive counselling, bureaucracy and medical treatment before being approved.
Surrogate mothers are unable to be paid for carrying another person's child, and despite being his biological mum and dad, Toni and Matt must now adopt their son. It's a complex process that could take another 12 weeks and until then, Sophie and Mike are his legal parents. Surrogacy, Toni says, is not for the faint-hearted.
"The hurdles are huge – both the bureaucracy and the emotional challenges. It's worked out amazingly for us, but I can't imagine doing this with anyone else. We've been best friends for 24 years and have been through so much together. We trust each other implicitly."
Unsurprisingly, Lachie's godparents will be Sophie and Mike, and Toni is adamant he'll grow up always knowing the special story of how he came into the world.
All too aware that it's impossible to adequately thank anyone enough for the gift of a child, Toni says, "I was driving myself crazy over how to express the extent of our gratitude. But Soph wrote me a letter telling me it was time to cut myself free from those thoughts. She told me we'd all achieved what we set out to, and that it was time just to enjoy our new baby and move on."
With Sophie now home in New Plymouth, getting back to normal life with family and her high-flying role as CEO at a local law firm, Toni – who's on maternity leave until next year – is also settling into life with Matt and their girls as a whanau of five.
Thankfully, the star is healthy again after battling a frightening liver illness earlier this year and it's clear that her bonny little boy signals the start of an amazing new chapter.
"It's funny how it takes a new baby to make us slow down and appreciate all the little things in life," Toni smiles. "I mean, look at him. He is proof that absolutely anything is possible."
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