The first time I had to explain surrogacy to a child happened when Ross was 8-months-old and we were staying with family friends. Their young daughter had asked to look at baby pictures on my phone, and, for several minutes, she scrolled through my camera roll– normal photos, pictures of Ross trying sweet potatoes for the first time or playing in a pile of brightly colored leaves– before stopping at a photo of him as an embryo.
It was easy enough to explain the embryo photo without going into the details of gestational surrogacy, but I knew we were likely headed into complicated territory. The concept of surrogacy wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to get into, but I didn’t want to lie to her either. As I watched her swipe, I wondered which photo would be the one to give us away, but a picture of us with Elle during the second trimester went by undetected. It wasn’t until she saw Elle holding a newborn Ross while still in a hospital gown that she hesitated.
“Did she give birth to her baby in the room next to you?” she wanted to know.
“No…” I started, not sure how forthright I should be, or even really where to begin.
At first I tried to give a vague answer, something simple, but it only led to more questions until eventually, without intending it, I had her full attention. After she’d absorbed the basics, she wanted to know how surrogacy was possible, why Ross wasn’t considered to be Elle’s baby instead of mine, whether getting pregnant (by taking Ross from my body and transferring him to Elle) had required surgery, and how long Elle had been a part of our lives. They were all questions I’d answered many times with adults, but finding the words to make the answers accessible to a child made the conversation difficult in a new way. To start, I referred back to the embryo picture and told her that although my body could make babies, it wasn’t able to carry them. I explained that someone else had offered to carry Ross for us until he grew big enough to be born and come back home to us.
It took her a few moments to process and accept it, but then she surprised me by asking in a rather matter-of-fact way, “So… now you guys are like sisters?”
“Yes,” I answered, shocked by her immediate understanding of our deep gratitude for Elle and the amazing thing she had done for us. At 9-years-old she had grasped on her own what most adults struggle to understand about our surrogacy journey.
On the other hand, explaining the way we became parents to our surrogate-born child presents further challenges. We don’t just have to reveal it to him, we will have to help him process his own feelings about his birth and choices that were made before he was even in existence, including our choice to write openly about it. We will also need to give him the ability to explain it, refuting on his own the common misconceptions and stigma. It’s not something we will do once; we will work through this issue for and with him throughout several phases of his life and understanding. I don’t doubt that at some point he will come across detractors. I imagine there will be someone who tells him that we were selfish for not adopting, that I am not his real mom, or that he is the product of his dad’s physical relationship with someone else. I know this because I have witnessed and experienced it myself.
From the beginning, we decided we wouldn’t hide the surrogacy from anyone, especially Ross. But there is no model to work from or book to consult when it comes to an explanation, nor is there anyone in our lives who can relate. We don’t want it to be something he remembers learning, but that means talking about it well before he is able to grasp the concept.
So, when Ross was a newborn in the fits of a colic episode, and I’d spend hours just rocking and talking to him as he squalled in my arms, sometimes I would tell him his story. Later on in his infancy, we bought every surrogacy book available for kids (so, basically, all three of them) and kept them in the rotation. My favorite, The Very Kind Koala, tells the story of a special koala who carries a baby koala in her pouch to help another couple become a family.
After he’d passed his second birthday and we began another cycle of IVF in the spring, we started talking about it more in depth:
“Did you know that when you were a teeny tiny baby, the doctor took you out of Mommy’s belly and put you in Aunt Elle’s belly so you could grow big?” I asked him casually one morning.
“Ohhhh,” he replied very seriously. And then, to my amusement, he added, “That’s cool.”
Shortly after the move this summer, we read Sophia’s Broken Crayons together. When we got to the part with the woman who had a broken belly, I stopped reading and placed my hand on my own stomach, telling him that the same was true for me. The words tasted bitter even as I forced myself to say them, and I shared that it was something that made me very sad.
“That’s why Aunt Elle carried you in her belly,” I carefully explained, “She made Mommy and Daddy so happy, because now we have you!”
After finishing the book, we moved to another activity, but he wanted clarification.
“Is you belly broken, Mommy?”
“Mmhmm,” I answered, nodding in encouragement of his understanding but not really wanting to repeat it.
“I will carry you baby, Mommy! I will carry you baby!” he said brightly. Not knowing what to say, I hugged him tightly and thanked him while blinking back tears. “You’re welcome,” he responded simply.
Since then he’s been the one to bring it up on occasion, like the other week when he started talking about it at dinner or Saturday when we ran errands and he randomly asked me if I remembered when “Aunt Elle carried Ross in her pouch.”
Yes, Sweet Pea, I remember.