Maybe meeting Rachel Segall when I was six months pregnant wasn’t the best idea. I’m bloated and achy. Segall, 47, has the build of a teenager in her tight jeans and billowy tunic. She’s dynamic, rested, and cheerful. Oh, and she has also given birth to seven children. Three of them, now teenagers, are biologically her own. Four were surrogates for friends, including twins that she had in February.
“I’m so lucky. I have such an easy time with pregnancy and delivery, and then I’m fine. I’m my usual self, I don’t need bed rest, and I can function. I feel blessed that I can do this,” Segall sparkles as I try to suppress my heartburn.
Some people give their pals a free week at their beach house or bottles of wine. Segall offers up her womb. The documentary “The Guys Next Door,” screening next week at the Provincetown International Film Festival, chronicles her story.
It’s like “Friends” meets “Will & Grace” with “A Baby Story” thrown in. Social worker Segall and her husband, Tony Hurley, live in Newton with their teenagers. They went to Bates College with Erik Mercer, a psychotherapist, who remained a close friend through the years. Closeted at Bates, he came out and eventually met and married Sandro Sechi, an Italian teacher and writer. Segall and Hurley were watching TV one night when they saw a news show about gay couples having trouble adopting or surrogating children. Segall instantly thought of her friends and their conversations about having kids.
And so Segall offered to carry a child for Mercer and Sechi — for free.
“It’s at least $50,000 or $60,000 to pay someone to carry for you. People can adopt, but why should we be able to have biological kids when we want to and they’re not able to have the same option?” Segall asks.
Of course, there was pushback. Segall’s parents, liberal but concerned, fretted a bit about her health and her 40-something status. Her husband — portrayed in the movie as amiable and supportive — needed to adjust to having a pregnant wife as the dad of teenagers. Segall says he took it in stride, though he had to break the news to his conservative family.
“My mom expressed concern about the health of the mother of my children and putting that at risk. My response to her, which I think she was able to hear, was, ‘Yeah, it’s putting something at risk, but at the same time it’s a valuable, meaningful, rich experience,’ ” he says.
A tricky experience, too. Getting pregnant the old-fashioned way can be hard enough. Arranging a surrogacy is even tougher. Both Mercer and Sechi donated sperm; an egg donor was found through New England Fertility, a surrogacy specialty clinic in Connecticut. Segall went through physical and mental testing to ensure that she was up for the job, particularly considering her advanced maternal age.
The guys, meanwhile, went through legal hoops to make sure both of their names could appear on the birth certificate. Then, they waited. After a few months, the eggs were implanted. Two weeks later, like women everywhere, Segall took a pregnancy test. It was positive on the first try.
And so Segall was pregnant as a 40-something mom of teens, generating kindly questions at the grocery store and quizzical looks from strangers.
“Telling friends wasn’t hard,” Segall says. “With people I knew casually, it was harder, because then I would have to explain. They’d ask, ‘Oh, when are you due?’ If it was someone in the supermarket, I would just say thank you. If it went further, I’d explain that I was carrying for friends. Some people would even ask me, ‘Are you getting paid?’ Which I wasn’t.”
The payoff is the movie chronicling the birth, two years later, of Eleonora, Mercer and Sechi’s second daughter with Segall.
The documentary’s co-director Amy Geller, another Bates graduate, got the idea after reading Segall and Mercer’s story in a college alumni magazine. The film toggles between Segall and Hurley in suburbia with their three children, each of whom seem admirably unfazed by their mom’s pregnant status, and Mercer and Sechi preparing for their second child in Portland, Maine.
Mercer is a self-confessed anxious man with a busy career; Sechi is a laid-back guy who lost his dad as a child and enjoys staying home with kids. He handles the majority of the child-rearing when Mercer travels for work as a mitigation specialist, hired by defense teams to interview criminals on death row to understand their backgrounds to possibly spare them the death penalty.
The Mercer-Sechi relationship is complex, and the movie captures its nuance. Mercer and Sechi each grappled with their sexuality growing up; as Mercer’s mother explains in the movie, parents were often blamed for homosexuality, and she tried to “redirect” her son when she suspected. Today, his family is “110 percent supportive,” Mercer says.
Sechi, meanwhile, had greater hurdles as a gay man in Italy where homophobia was rampant. It’s in stark contrast to Segall, who has an open-minded family and gets pregnant easily. For Mercer and Sechi, this life is hard-won.
“I always wanted to have kids, but I thought it was impossible,” Sechi says in the film.
If there’s any flaw in the movie, it’s that the process seems downright uncomplicated here in the United States. Segall gave birth to Rachel Maria for the couple in 2010. In January 2012, she gave birth to Eleonora, in a similar process. The movie chronicles this pregnancy, complete with live shots in the delivery room with everyone’s modern family — Segall, Hurley, Mercer, Sechi, grandparents, and excited siblings — crowded around in anticipation. A few grunts, and out she came. Mercer whipped off his shirt for skin-to-skin contact, Sechi cut the cord, Segall handed the baby over, and soon enough she was up and about in sweatpants, hugging her friends and their baby goodbye in Beth Israel’s parking lot.
But didn’t Segall feel a bit bereft after carrying children for nine months, only to hand them off, left with nothing but stretch marks? Nope.
“I wasn’t looking for that. I knew my role. I was clear. This wasn’t my egg. It was more like baby sitting,” she says.
Mercer and Sechi gave Segall a necklace with birthstones of each of her children to say thanks. But their true gratitude is impossible to measure. These days, the families see one another every couple of months, and their kids think of one another as cousins. Rachel Maria is 6 and Eleonora is 4.
“Our gratitude isn’t expressed in big, grand gestures but in the smaller, day-to-day way our lives are woven together. How do you give a material thing to thank someone for something so extraordinary? We express it with this ongoing, deepening relationship,” says Mercer.
For Segall, though, the story continued. In February, she gave birth to twins for another gay couple, mutual friends — an idea that originated when everyone was relaxing at Segall and Hurley’s vacation home in New Hampshire.
“I thought Rachel’s mother would kill me for not putting my foot down. Frankly, if it was my decision, I might not have done it. She was getting older. But thankfully, everything turned out great,” admits Hurley.
Indeed, Segall’s unflappable husband comes across as the unsung hero in this journey. He scoffs at the characterization — although he has had some fun with the whole thing, too.
“I did post on Facebook once that I was spending the weekend with my wife and the men responsible for getting her pregnant,” he chuckles. “I got some good responses from that.”
“The Guys Next Door” screens at the Provincetown International Film Festival June 16 at 4:30 p.m. and June 18 at 7:30 p.m. For more about the movie, visit www.asquaredfilms.com.