Life & Culture

The Story of a Dad Who Gave Birth

A new documentary titled Seahorse paints an intimate portrait of Freddy McConnell, a trans man who decided to conceive and carry his own child

At the opening of Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth, we are underwater, swimming among the curly creatures referenced in the film’s title. Seahorses are known for the way in which they incubate young; after an egg deposit from the female, the male carries the pregnancy through to completion. Up out of the water, we see Freddy McConnell, the camera zooms in on his broad shoulders, his facial hair, his eyes, his heartbeat, his skin. Just as male seahorses have been carrying their young for millions of years, Freddy – a trans man – decides to conceive and carry his child. “I am going to have my own baby because it is the pragmatic thing to do,” he explains. “It is the simplest option. This is a physical process and I will be Dad.” 

The 90-minute film follows Freddy from his decision to conceive up until the moment he cradles his newborn son and tearfully tries to articulate what that bond feels like. Finlay’s documentary sensitively frames Freddy’s journey exploring both the physical and emotional impact pregnancy has on him in a way that is lightyears away from the sensationalist headlines often imposed on trans experiences. This was vital to Freddy who initiated the film in the first place, meeting Finlay in a pub on the recommendation of a colleague to discuss everything from filmmaking to childrearing. “I felt like it could be powerful to share this experience but also that it was crucial to do it in a very different way to the way trans stories tend to be told. Often trans people become stories in a way that’s not their own choice and they have no control over it. I wanted to tell my own story in my own time and on my own terms.”

Consequently, the doc avoids the tiresome tropes of trans films, refusing to refer to Freddy’s dead name or fixating on transition with before and after pictures. “Transition is seen as this magic trick that it just isn’t,” says Finlay. “It is much more complex and human and emotional than that.” Rather than focusing on the mechanics of Freddy’s transition, Seahorse delves into what it is like to live as a trans person and what it means to start a family. “I hope what we achieved was to show the process in all its difficult, complex, emotional, extraordinary and ordinary ways – so cups of tea and painting the wall, but also the miracle of giving birth.”

Although Freddy was cautious to avoid becoming a “story”, it seems that on finding Finlay and a trusted team, he had no qualms about creating an immensely personal film. We are invited into the bedroom during his pregnancy tests, we hear the disappointment in his voice when he isn’t and the disbelief when he is on the second attempt. There are teary speeches straight into the camera when Freddy feels “like a fucking alien” or that it’s “hard to be in my body”. We visit family and friends, watching the exhaustion in Freddy’s face when he is tired of endlessly justifying himself. Finally, we join him in the birthing pool and see the moment his son enters the world.

“I thought, if I want to do this on a big scale and reach as many people as possible, it has to include the birth,” explains Freddy when asked why he decided to share this incredibly private experience. “My memory of giving birth does not include a camera or the film, they may well not have been there as far as I was concerned. Obviously, I am very glad that they were because of the film that has resulted from it, but I am also really glad that the two things aren’t really the same in my mind – there is me giving birth and how wonderful it was and then everything that is happening now.”

Seahorse is not a self-indulgent memory box for Freddy, rather it is the beginnings of an honest conversation about the trans experience of starting a family; a conversation that seeks to tackle ignorance and open up the way for many more trans men to choose to carry their own children. “I heard someone say the other day that ‘prejudice doesn’t survive in proximity’ and I thought that that was a perfect little thought for what we are trying to do with the film – whether that is really intense prejudice or whether it is just mild misunderstanding and a sense of ‘I don’t get it, but I want to because I want to be supportive’. Whatever it is you are bringing to watching it, I just hope that people feel close to the story and to me, and they are moved in a way they didn’t expect to be.”

Seahorse has its European premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest on 8 June 2019.