What Gestational Surrogacy is Really Like: Early Pregnancy [Part 3]

To read the previous posts in this series, click here:
[Part One] What Gestational Surrogacy is Really Like: The Matching Process
[Part Two] What Gestational Surrogacy is Really Like: Surrogacy During IVF



Part Three: Surrogacy in the First Trimester

Finding Out

Before we started our IVF cycle, Elle decided on her own that she wanted us to be the first to know if we were expecting following each of the embryo transfers. She chose not to take any at-home pregnancy tests before the official blood draw and personally asked that she not be contacted with the news until after we were informed. I knew a lot of gestational carriers/surrogates tended to take tests on their own but hadn’t wanted to ask her to wait, so I was touched that she’d already thought through how painful it was for us not to have the option of finding out at home together like a normal couple.

When we finally got the good news, I felt an immediate shift in the relationship we’d built over the six months we’d known Elle. Our lives were now linked together with hers by a baby the size of a tiny poppy seed– and that changed everything. Suddenly we had reached brand-new territory in the surrogacy process and were tasked with continuing to build our relationship while simultaneously navigating through the abnormality of the situation. None of us had been through anything like this before, so we did our best to figure it out as we went along. It was surreal, not just because we hoped to finally be on our way to becoming parents, but also because this moment we’d been waiting for didn’t just involve the two of us and our unborn child. With surrogacy, there is this strange feeling of someone always being in the periphery, and then you realize that it’s actually the other way around– you’re the one standing on the sidelines in the pregnancy of your own child.

The day we got the positive test results, Elle sent me a smiling photo of herself with flushed cheeks, writing, “Your Sweet Pea is giving me hot flashes! :),” and I will never forget the way it felt to receive it. From then on, “Sweet Pea” is how the baby was almost exclusively known until the day he was born, and I still use it every day. I can say now that Elle’s text was indicative of the way she handled everything in the pregnancy: she kept us updated and involved, she was always careful to never complain about the pregnancy symptoms I wanted to be feeling, and she went out of her way to refer to the baby as ours, never once asserting any kind of ownership.

The Unknown

We knew that the first trimester would be difficult– there was such a long way to go and we had way more to lose now. With so much that had gone wrong for us in the past, it was hard to have faith that this would be the time things worked out. Beyond the fear of loss that gripped me every day, it made me anxious that if something did go wrong, I wouldn’t know about it. There would be no warning signs because my body would go on as normal, completely oblivious until I received word secondhand. For months, the sound of every text message or call was enough to make my stomach drop with the fear of hearing from Elle that everything was over.

I wondered what we would do if we did lose the pregnancy. I didn’t want to be stuck 12 hours away while it happened as if it didn’t affect me, as if I wasn’t the mother of the baby. I wanted to be there, to share in the burden and experience, but should we get on a plane even if there was no role for us to play? The only other option was to leave Elle to deal with the physical and emotional pain on her own, and I hated the thought of that. The guilt that any loss of ours would be putting her in such a difficult position weighed heavily on me.

Accepting the extreme lack of control was also excruciating. I’d heard of a gestational carrier who simply grew tired of giving herself progesterone shots (which help sustain an IVF pregnancy until around the end of the first trimester) and chose to stop treatment after a few weeks. The Intended Parents were never informed, and when the pregnancy ended, they lost their child. Although I trusted Elle completely and knew she would never do something so reckless and cruel, I didn’t like being so reliant on someone else and desperately wished I had the ability to take the shots myself.

Babymoon

Seven weeks into the pregnancy we packed up for a trip to Nova Scotia & Prince Edward Island, which was originally booked because I felt like I needed to be able to get away from home and what was happening around us if we failed another embryo transfer. Since Kyle was planning to start his master’s degree within a few months, we decided to call the trip a babymoon and enjoy the time together before the stress of a major life change.

A few times throughout our travel it came up that we were parents-to-be, and I reveled in the ability to say “I’m pregnant” without having to clarify that it was via proxy. People were genuinely happy for us and treated me differently than they did when they heard the surrounding story. It was refreshing to feel so normal, and I had a hard time leaving that behind with the end of our trip.

The First Appointment

Once we returned and completed the 8-week ultrasound through Elle’s hospital, our fertility clinic gave the okay to transfer care to a regular OBGYN. The first appointment was low-key compared to everything we’d been through to get there, basically just checking the heartbeat and relaying information. Elle explained the situation to the office ahead of time, and it was agreed that I could be present via speaker phone to ask or answer any questions.

The nurse practitioner who conducted the appointment was very matter-of-fact in her dealings with us, focusing on Elle while I awkwardly paced on the other end of the call. Even though we’d been told there would be no ultrasound, she decided to pull up a quick image of the baby along with the heartbeat; unfortunately, since we weren’t prepared to Skype, I was unable to see it. Instead, I studied a mark on the wall nearby while I listened to the nurse point out the baby’s features to Elle and tried not to think about what was happening– it had been important to me that I not miss any of the ultrasounds. Thankfully Elle was at least able to snap a few quick pictures on her phone to send later.

When the non-invasive prenatal testing was inevitably brought up, I asked for confirmation that it came without any risk to the baby. “Nope, it’s just a blood test for Mom,” the nurse replied, before giving Elle information on when she should plan to have it done. For Mom. I stopped pacing and stood still. It was the first time I heard someone refer to Elle as the mother of my child, but it wouldn’t be the last.

After that, I never sat in on speaker phone for a regular check-up again.

Reactions

We quickly discovered that it was much more difficult to tell people we were expecting when they didn’t already know our situation. There were quite a few awkward reactions and insensitive remarks, occasionally even looks of pity. But towards the end of the first trimester we experienced one of the most uncomfortable reactions yet while at a social gathering with both friends and strangers. A new father (whom we’d just met) overheard a mutual friend asking about our latest ultrasound when he loudly called across the room, “Oh, you’re pregnant?!” Taken aback, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Everyone in the vicinity had already turned to look at me for the answer, but I was afraid that if I simply said yes, I’d be called out by someone who knew better, or that the truth would somehow come out later, making the situation even more awkward. “Um… well, yeah…. kind of. We’re expecting via surrogacy,” I replied, flustered at being put on the spot while I was still trying to figure out how to best handle this kind of situation. But, instead of acknowledging what I’d said, he acted as if I’d never responded and awkwardly turned around to walk away and find another conversation.

Throughout the entire pregnancy, there was only one truly positive reaction from a stranger. Usually there was never so much as a ‘Congratulations!’ or even a smile; people just didn’t know what to do with it. When we’d started this process, I had no idea how much of a stigma surrogacy still carried, and eventually I avoided mentioning that we were expecting a baby at all to make it easier on everybody.

Life Update: One Year (and Three Months)

Last summer I wrote a 6 month update with the intention of updating again after we celebrated Ross’ first birthday. And, well, somehow three months have passed since then. On January 24th we marked the conclusion of what was easily the fastest (and best) year of my life. The fact that Ross turned 15-months-old earlier this week is something that I am still trying to wrap my head around…

A year ago Ross was changing before my eyes, growing faster than I ever thought possible. Now he is back to doing the same, except instead of making strides in physical ways, his language skills are constantly improving and his grasp of the world around him is growing in leaps and bounds. For the last couple months I’ve been conflicted over how I should be describing him. At what point does a baby become a toddler? Most seem to claim that toddlerhood begins at 12 months, but when I hung up the birthday streamers at the end of January, he still felt like more of a baby to me than anything else.

Since then I’ve watched as more of his baby-ness falls away with each passing day, and although I perceive the change to be rapid and unyielding, it still doesn’t seem to be happening quickly enough for him. He is always frustrated that he can’t do more, walk faster, reach further. I wish I could tell him to slow it down a little; there’s no need to wish this time away. But over the last few months he seems pleased to have found that his feet have steadied beneath him, and he no longer reaches up to hold my hand for reassurance when we are walking together outside. His cheeks are a little less round, his thighs a little less pudgy. Eventually I realized that at some point my uncertainty had faded away; he is definitely a toddler now.

So here is a bit of what we were up to over the last several months of babyhood:

When Ross was 7-months-old we quietly acknowledged the end of the first year without Kyle’s mom. Her absence throughout these times has been especially painful, but we keep her photo on the fridge and lift Ross up to say “hello” often. He points to her image now when we ask him where his Mémère is, sometimes putting his hand to his mouth to blow her a kiss.

In October, while he was 8-months-old, we brought home a Chihuahua puppy named Pippa to join our family. We call her Pip, but her older brother affectionately refers to her as Pa (like the second syllable in her name), which he usually says in either a delighted scream or awed whisper. “Pa” receives more hugs and kisses than Kyle & I combined, and, even though she knows how to drive me absolutely crazy, I can’t help but smile when I hear Ross squeal with laughter as she chases the pat-pat-pat of his bare feet.

_dsc4260
7 Month Photo with Paddington, the Original
IMG_4488
A day at the beach on our 7th wedding anniversary in September
IMG_4678
Love at First Sight: Bringing Pippa Home
IMG_5843 2
Best Buds
IMG_5105
Babies

We fit in quite a bit of travel throughout the Fall months, including a trip to New England to take Ross to the city where we met and the towns where we each grew up. Along the way we stopped in Mystic, Connecticut, the place we were visiting when we first got the call from our fertility nurse that we were expecting Ross. Throughout October and November we spent time with grandparents and great-grandparents in other states, first staying with my parents to give Kyle some space to catch up on work and later surprising Kyle’s dad at his 60th birthday party. At 10-months we flew south to spend Thanksgiving with Elle (our gestational carrier) and her family, which was especially meaningful since it was exactly one year from our trip there for the 3D ultrasound during the end of our wait for Ross. It was the first time we were back in the area where he was born and the first time we’d seen them since they came to visit us when he was 3-months-old.

IMG_7031
May 20, 2015: Lunch in Mystic, CT on the day we found out we were expecting Ross & October 23, 2016 in the same spot with him.
Nauset
Trip back home to New England
IMG_4950
Make Way for Ross in Boston!
_dsc4503
10 Month Photo

We celebrated our first Christmas as a family-of-three by doing all the things I’d been dreaming of since Christmas 2011 and beyond. Even in the midst of the stress of Kyle’s finals, we made sure to savor moments of decorating the apartment and bringing home our first tree in years. We took Ross to the mall to meet Santa and paid way too much money for the photo evidence, rode the train into NYC to hold him up in front of the enormous Rockefeller Tree, and found a little wooden snowflake ornament to represent his beginnings as a frozen embryo. On Christmas Eve I soaked up the sight of him in a little plaid dress shirt, completely mesmerized by the flickering light of my candle during the service, and felt at peace.

Then, just a month later, we went to bed one regular night and woke up the next morning with a one-year-old. To celebrate, we skipped the pressure of putting on a Pinterest-worthy 1st birthday party and instead met my parents in Philly for the traveling Jurassic World exhibit. Ross loves animals (including gigantic, animatronic ones) and was thrilled to meet every last dinosaur, even the roaring T-Rex that had “escaped” from its enclosure. After dinner in the city, a treat, and a few presents, we drove an exhausted birthday boy back home while he slept in the backseat.

anderson23of30
Baby’s First Christmas!
Anderson(8of30)
Picking out our first family tree
IMG_5716
Hello, Santa!
SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES
Celebrating a 1st birthday by meeting the Jurassic World dinosaurs in Philly.

This year Ross…

  • Traveled to 10 States and 6 major cities
  • Took 5 flights (and, on the last one, projectile-vomited all over mommy so badly that she cried)
  • Cut 7 teeth (plus 4 molars currently coming through)
  • Grew 10 inches and put on 14 pounds
  • Favorite song: Bad, Bad Leroy Brown (followed by Baby Beluga)
  • Favorite food: spaghetti and meat sauce
  • Started crawling: 5 months
  • Started walking: 11 months
  • First word besides Mama & Dada: Bye (pronounced with a southern accent that we like to joke he picked up from Elle while in the womb), followed by book, shoes, and dude.
QLNA0477
First time down the playground slide

As we enter the world of toddlerhood, I’ve found that I am forever underestimating just how much Ross observes and understands. He has a love for learning new things, and it is amazing to see that what previously took weeks of work to teach him at 8-months-old (such as identifying his nose) can now often be learned by showing him something once or twice. He is initially shy around others, but at home he has a lot to say with a vocabulary of 30+ words– about 4-5x more than the average for his age. On the other hand, his pronunciation, while consistent, could use a little work in some cases (for instance, “auwh” = help). Still, it’s strange to me that this little person I’ve spent my days talking to for all this time can now answer back.

Ross’ favorite new activity is to be helpful around the house. Not long after he turned 12-months-old, I walked away from the laundry for a moment and was startled to hear the machine click on behind me; he knew exactly which buttons to press just by having watched me do it. Now he regularly helps out by standing in front of the washer and handing the wet clothing back to me so I can move it up to the dryer. Once we’re done, I lift him above my shoulders to start the timer before we load up the washer again. He assists in lots of other ways too– by bringing little things to Daddy in another room or “helping” me push the dishwasher door closed. It makes him happy to do the things he sees us do on a daily basis, and we like to complete each of our tasks by clapping for ourselves.

IMG_6724
Puppy Love
IMG_3870
Childhood

There is still a part of me that’s surprised to find that our seemingly endless wait for a child did, in fact, come to an end. I know that there is no reason we should have been given this gift over others still waiting and feel that the least I can do is strive to never take it for granted. In one way or another, I think about it every day, and there are times when I feel like I will explode if I don’t share just how grateful I am with someone. Sometimes I mention it, but most times the fear of appearing disingenuous leads me to simply squeeze Ross tightly for an extra beat the next time he’s in my arms.

I love being a mom and this messy, wonderful life. I love the inconveniences of a sink full of bottles to wash and little shoes to trip over after bedtime because they are signs of Ross being with us. People often talk about how hard parenting is– and it is certainly not easy– but the years we spent desperately wanting to become parents and believing it would never happen were far more difficult. Now, even the hardest, most sleep-deprived, tantrum-filled of days are peppered with crinkly smiles and the feeling of little arms wrapped tightly around my neck, moments we never had before on even the best of days.

 

Gilmore Girls & Surrogacy

After the bizarre first season of Fuller House was released last year, I was a bit hesitant to hear that Netflix was also producing a four-episode revival of Gilmore Girls, a show I watched as a teen in the early 00’s. When it became available for viewing in late November I was careful to temper my expectations, but I still can’t deny the feelings of nostalgia that washed over me as I settled in to the familiar music of the opening sequence.

*Minor spoilers below*

Unfortunately, those warm, fuzzy feelings didn’t last long. For those of you who haven’t watched it, or maybe did but don’t quite remember, the topic of surrogacy comes up as Luke and Lorelei explore options for expanding their family. For age-related reasons, they are unlikely to become pregnant on their own, so together they visit a surrogate agency to discuss having a baby they’re not even sure they are ready for, let alone want.

First of all, no one just casually pursues surrogacy. It is a long, arduous process that comes with enormous emotional, financial, and legal risks. But, that is the least problematic issue here.

087_gilmoregirls_101_win_00405r-e67c9094-47f9-4b6e-9310-f56dcd385962
The following scenes are actual quotes:


Luke: [Looking through binders containing photos of women] “So, what are we looking at here?”

Lorelei: “Potential surrogates.”

Luke: “Surrogates, yes. And these surrogates will…?”

Lorelei: “Carry the baby.”

Luke: “I’m confused, am I supposed to have sex with these women? Because I do not want to have sex with her.”


Paris [Surrogate agency founder]: “Do you know how this works?”

Lorelei: “Uh, we look through there and pick?”

Paris: “Give me that. [Those are] Bargain basement breeders. I’m not letting any of those bottle-service bimbos carry your baby. No, for you I pull out the prime meat.”

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-4-54-37-pm
Luke & Lorelei viewing a slideshow of “prime meat breeders” at the surrogate agency

Paris: “Okay, so here’s a sampling of what we’ve got: Blondes, brunettes, and redheads. Tall, short, athletic, artsy. We’ve even got ’em with a little extra junk in the trunk, if you secretly like them that way, Luke.”

Luke: “I’m sorry, am I or am I not having sex with this woman?”

Paris: “That’s a sick thought. Of course you’re not having sex with her, she’s married — We’ve got Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, one Wiccan, and for a premium, you can get the cream of the crop, top of the line army wives. Sturdy, reliable, great at packing.”

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-4-56-16-pm
The “cream of the crop” army wife surrogate, who comes at a “premium”

Paris: “So, it’s pretty cut and dry here. We plant an egg in a viable body, we fertilize it, and out comes a baby.” [Side note: No. That’s not how this works. I’m including this quote just to say that “planting eggs” and then fertilizing them is not a thing. This doesn’t even make any sense.]


It’s one thing to have a character so dense that he doesn’t understand that surrogacy does not (in any circumstance) involve sex, but it is entirely something else to treat women as though they are the equivalent of cattle– literally referring to them as “breeders.” Describing women in this way is dehumanizing, degrading, and absolutely disgusting. Furthermore, Luke discussing having sex with the women as though they are objects who have no say in the matter is not a clever punchline, it’s just gross. Yes, surrogacy is still a foreign concept to most of the general public, but talking about a group of women like this only desensitizes us, making it more acceptable to talk about all women like this and reducing us down to nothing more than our reproductive body parts.

As someone with real experience in the surrogacy world, you do not choose a gestational carrier based on physical attributes. It doesn’t even come into play. (I shouldn’t even need to make this clarification, but I read an actual article written by someone who really thought that this is how the matching process works.) If that’s an important aspect for you when it comes to trusting another person with something so precious, your priorities are way out of line.

More lovely quotes:


Paris [on the phone]: “No, there is no return policy. What’s she going to return? It’s a baby. Fine, I’ll call and see if she wants it, but last time it was Brad who put the kibosh on it.”


Paris: “You just need to know I’m good. I’m the Pablo Escobar [Columbian drug lord] of the fertility world. I move the best product and I would like to help. I get you. You’re a small town boy. You get your milk from a cow. So I thought I’d make it a little more homey for you… Jill and Jane are two of my top breeders.”


One of the hardest things for me to deal with regarding the surrogacy process was the stigma others associated with it. It’s been almost three years since we joined the gestational surrogacy program at our fertility clinic and I became an “Intended Mother.” Unfortunately, by now, I am used to seeing women in my position portrayed in various media as sub-human or defective, women who take the easy way out when it comes to having children. “Intended Parents” are regularly depicted as selfish, privileged couples taking advantage of generous (usually young, low-income) women who have no choice but to carry a child for strangers in order to make ends meet. Above all, the most common portrayal of surrogacy in media is the characterization of surrogates as money-hungry psychopaths willing to use the life of a child as leverage.

But, worse than all of that is hearing children born via surrogacy being referred to as a product, something that can be returned. Watching the above scene made me feel sick. These children–actual human beings–have had absolutely no say in regards to the situation in which they were born. They are the only ones involved who were never able to make a choice. So say what you want about me, use my body and the fact that it doesn’t work properly for a laugh, but leave my baby out of this. He has just as much of a right to be treated with respect as anyone else.

And finally, one last punch to the gut:


Rory: “Paris? What are you doing here?”

Paris: “I’m working.”

Rory: “Here?”

Paris: “Wherever there’s an old or defective uterus.”

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-5-28-28-pm


When I first saw the episode, I was shocked and dismayed. But the longer it sat with me, the more I started to become angry. I was ready to shut down Netflix and skip the rest, but I forced myself to get through the remaining episodes. I knew people would think of us when they watched it, and I wanted to be prepared for the perspective they might have of our experience based on the show. Then, thinking that I couldn’t possibly have been the only viewer bothered by the storyline, I turned to Google. I believed that even if people didn’t feel the need to defend surrogacy, they’d find the jokes about women being breeders in poor taste from a feminist perspective (or at least a humanist one). But no one seemed to care. In fact, many found the comments of Luke and Paris endearingly characteristic. They found them amusing. I guess I just don’t get the humor.

I’m sure there are those who will see this as an overreaction fueled by sensitivity, and I will readily admit, this one does hurt me–a lot. But why does it matter? Because this is a chronic problem with surrogacy storylines. This is the kind of depiction that influences the way people think about surrogacy, and that affects real people in real life. Although it’d be nice to believe that most will see through the dialogue as being written by individuals who have literally no idea what they’re talking about and virtually no experience, I know better now. These overwhelmingly negative portrayals and gross misconceptions start to seep into the public perception of reality. They begin to infect the water.

Below is a quote from an article I found discussing the topic of surrogacy in Gilmore Girls:


“At no time in the show do we get the impression that the writers actually think surrogacy is wrong. Yet the picture they paint may make some think twice about it. Really, who wants surrogacy when the worst parts of Paris are endorsing (and selling) it?… Maybe it’s easy to regard the off-color comments as Paris simply being Paris. But it does make you wonder… if there is something off with the industry itself.

Ironically, a friend had been talking with me about surrogacy mere hours before we watched these episodes. He had listened well but had no real issue with the practice. After watching, he said he could understand better what I had meant in my determination to #StopSurrogacyNow.

It’s probable that other fans—even those once unfamiliar with or sympathetic to the idea of surrogacy—may also find in Gilmore Girls more of a subtle critique than an endorsement of surrogacy.”


Personally, I don’t see a critique here. Instead, what Gilmore Girls does with the storyline is strip surrogacy of every last shred of humanity and twist it into something ugly. This representation isn’t harmless and it’s not just ignorant; it’s downright irresponsible. It emboldens those who are poorly-educated or misinformed in their criticisms, and it attempts to cheapen the miracle we (and so many others, including countless gestational carriers) have experienced.

I will be the first to agree that surrogacy as a whole is not a perfect system. But neither is adoption or fostering, nor even fertility treatments. And remaining childless (for whatever reason) in a society that is quick to tell women they are selfish if they don’t want to be mothers or will be unfulfilled without a family isn’t always the best solution for everyone either. There are invariably going to be people who seek to abuse or profit from any situation, but that is exactly why more education in this area is so desperately needed.

Sadly, I now feel compelled to clarify that for us, Elle was never a means to an end. Ross was never a product. The founder of our agency (who, by the way, referred to surrogates as angels and not breeders) was the first to encourage us to develop a meaningful relationship with our gestational carrier. During our initial interview, he specifically told us that we would not be a good fit with the agency if we were looking for something shallow and impersonal. But it seems that too often these are the stories that are pushed aside in favor of whatever is most shocking.

_DSC3333

There was absolutely nothing in this episode of Gilmore Girls that I recognized from my real-life experience with surrogacy.

Leftovers

Two years ago tonight I was injecting myself in the stomach for the second time as we started the daily grind of injections-appointments-ultrasounds-blood work that IVF requires. It once seemed like such a huge mountain to climb that we would never fully reach the top, but now all of it (and so much more) is in the distant past. A couple weeks later my swollen, overworked ovaries had produced 27 eggs— far more than the normal one-per-cycle they’re meant to— and, mercifully, one of them became Ross.

We finished that cycle with two boxes of an expensive fertility medication leftover. It would only amount to a measly 2-3 days worth of dosages but they had cost around $300, so I saved them, believing (desperately hoping) that I could use them in the future to have a second egg retrieval, a second child. They’ve sat in the back of our fridge on the top shelf since then. I worried about them through power outages and even the untimely demise of an old appliance. When we moved in August 2015, I carefully packed them in ice for the drive and immediately transferred them to the empty fridge upon our arrival.

I don’t know at what point over the last two years that I realized they would go unused; I guess it’s just that my hope has dwindled as the months have gone by. Lately, each time I open the door I see them sitting unopened in the back and try to fight the lump in my throat at the thought that they will end up being trashed, that time is almost up. Because somehow it’s February 2017 and the expiration date that once seemed so far away is here.

But it’s not the thought of never opening those boxes that makes me want to cry the most; it’s the thought I have no reason to that really hurts.

img_1136

 

The Best Day of My Life: A Surrogate Birth Story [Pt. 2]

For Part One:  The Day I Thought I’d Never Get to Have: A Surrogate Birth Story


The original plan following delivery was for me to have immediate skin-to-skin contact with the baby for at least an hour or so before he was passed around, weighed or measured. Unfortunately, due to the intensity of the birth and the fact that he had spent several hours in distress and was not breathing properly, this was obviously no longer an option. Instead, Kyle and I spent that time watching and waiting as the respiratory specialist and nurses worked to stabilize Ross and ensure that he was able to breathe on his own, hardly daring to breathe ourselves. When the danger had finally passed and things began to calm down, we were able to stand next to him as he remained on the warming bed, and I slipped my finger inside his tiny, balled-up fist to feel as close to him as was possible in that moment.

It was the first time we were able to really look at our son– things had been moving too fast earlier– and I marveled over his miniature fingernails, ears and eyebrows, details we hadn’t been able to see during the ultrasounds. Every feature was perfectly drawn; I’d never seen anything so breathtakingly beautiful in my entire life. While we continued to wait, things had started to wind down for Elle, too. I could hear her nearby, talking and laughing with the nurses. Sometimes she would ask her husband for an update and he would turn around to check on us and let her know that everything was okay.

In the meantime, I couldn’t wait to hold Ross close and anxiously watched his nurse for signs that it would be soon. When the time finally came, I was helped out of my scrubs and settled into the recliner next to Elle’s bed until he could be brought to me. It was a moment I had imagined a million times and I was overwhelmed that this dream would actually become my reality.

Becoming a parent through surrogacy is hard. You are forced to give up complete control of your unborn child and hand it to another person throughout the duration of the pregnancy. So, it is a very strange feeling when your baby is born and suddenly all of that control immediately reverts back to you. As soon as Ross was here, it was up to us as to how to spend our time with him.

Some Intended Parents choose to take their baby to a separate room right away following delivery to bond in private. This is understandable to me– it’s the very first time they can be alone with their child after sharing or giving up literally everything else throughout the pregnancy. If we had chosen to do the same, I believe that Elle would have understood our decision, but from the beginning it didn’t feel like the right choice for us. Unless she preferred it, I hated the thought of leaving her to recover in a quiet room after all the chaos and excitement. She had endured this process to help us become parents at the end of it, and I wanted her to be able to really see what she had given to us; I wanted them to be a part of our celebration. Bringing this child into the world was a team effort and it felt like we should enjoy the reward in the same way. I knew there would be time for the three of us to be together as a family later on– he was ours and there was no changing that, and from the moment he was born, I never felt otherwise.

When our nurse placed Ross on my chest for the first time, everything hit me at once. He was just so tiny and perfect, all I could do was hold onto him and cry. I wasn’t supposed to get this. I should never have been able to have this experience; my body should have barred me from ever having those moments. But there I was with this child that I had fought through 16 years of pain and surgeries and treatments to hold. He didn’t come into the world the way I expected, but he was here now.

_DSC3301
The three of us, reunited.
_DSC3297
Thanking our amazing doctor for allowing me to be a part of the delivery and doing such a great job. (Can you spot Paddington?)

One by one the nurses, our doctor, and other staff members who had been in the room came to see the baby, often with teary eyes, to wish us well and tell us how meaningful it had been to be a part of his delivery. We talked about our story and shared the picture of Ross as an embryo, which was passed around among the nurses. Eventually we were left to soak up that precious time as the sun began to rise for the day and came flooding through the windows.

For a while we happily chatted as the baby slept in my arms, sometimes recounting pieces of this incredible thing that had just happened, sometimes just admiring this new little life. We had been up for more than 24 hours by then, but pure adrenaline had pushed me through the stress, exhaustion, and excitement of the night. Much of my makeup had worn off long before and the little that was left had washed away with my tears. I knew that the photos would reflect me looking every bit as worn out as I felt but didn’t care. In contrast, Elle was radiantly beautiful. She was propped up in bed and beaming, and it was hard enough to believe that she had been up all night, let alone just given birth. At times I couldn’t help but look at her in renewed awe.

When I was ready to pass the baby around, Kyle prepared to hold him for the first time. Seeing the two of them together made my heart feel like it was going to burst. Our nurse came back to tell us it was time for Ross to eat, and because he hadn’t been able to cut the umbilical cord as planned due to the urgency, Kyle took the first feeding. A bottle was brought with some of the colostrum that Elle had thoughtfully been pumping for us in the weeks before delivery.

_DSC3309
Focusing on the hand-off
_DSC3312
My boys!

My mom was next to hold him, and I want to say just how grateful I was that she was able to be there. Having any of us in the room for the delivery was completely Elle’s prerogative, and the privilege of my mom seeing the birth of my child was another priceless gift we were given. Had I been able to carry a child on my own, there’s no question that she would have been there for it, but I had never imagined that it would still be a possibility with the surrogacy.

From the beginning, Elle told us that when it came to the birth, we should take as much time with the baby as we wanted and not worry about her. She said that she understood how important it would be for us to bond with him and asked that she just be able to see him and hold him at some point before leaving the hospital. It was important to us for them to be able to spend time with Ross before we went home, but for months I wondered how it would really feel when he was finally here. Would I feel even a little bit jealous of the bond he shared with her? Would I struggle in sharing our time with him during those first few days at the hospital? Even though I didn’t think so, there was no way to truly know in advance.

But, everything changed the moment I saw him. All I felt was happiness, pride, and overwhelming gratitude as I handed him to her and stepped back to see the two of them together for the first time. Elle’s husband patiently waited nearby for his turn to hold the baby next, and it is clear to me that the three of them will always share something special. Although there are things I may have lost through the surrogacy, Ross has only gained from the experience. There are now people in his life who would have otherwise not been there, and they love him so deeply. He is beyond blessed by their presence in his life.

_DSC3334
Showing Ross off to Elle
_DSC3333
My favorite; this photo is framed in the nursery

fullsizerender-jpg

_DSC3328
Ross with his Aunt Elle

After he was weighed and measured and the time came for us to pack up and move out of the delivery room, we were directed to our own rooms just next door to each other. The nurse took Ross for a quick clean-up so that I’d have the chance to change, go to the bathroom, brush my teeth, call my grandparents, and regroup for the first time all night. He returned a few minutes later for another skin-to-skin session, and while Kyle got the bags from the car and something to eat, I savored every moment of being alone with my baby for the first time. Never before in his existence had I had the ability to talk or sing to him without someone else overhearing us, but now that the opportunity was there, words failed me. Instead of saying all the things I’d wanted to say for so long, I just whispered how much I loved him and how long I had waited for this moment. I tried to remember every detail– the weight of his warm little body against mine, the way his tiny fingertips rested up by my collarbone, and the feeling of his knees pressing into my stomach as they were tucked up underneath him. If I could go back to any moment from the day, it would be that one.

That night our nurses had the sweet idea to bring an extra table into Elle’s room so that the four of us could have a celebratory dinner together. They set things up so nicely, and Ross slept peacefully in the portable crib beside us while we ate and talked.

img_2023
Our celebratory dinner!

We spent most of our time at the hospital all together, going back and forth between rooms so often that we ended up confusing the nurses, who weren’t the first to tell Elle and I that we looked like sisters. One time while the guys were out getting food and I was showering, a nurse walked in to look for Elle and, seeing her with the baby, thought she had the wrong room. Another time I was resting on her bed while she was in the bathroom when a nurse came in and started setting up to take my vitals. Again I was reminded of just how lucky we were to have become so close throughout such an intense and difficult process.

Our experience at the birthing center could not have been better. The nurses made me feel special for the first time in the surrogacy process, celebrating me as a new mom and Ross as a miracle. Throughout our stay we had several visitors– nurses who weren’t working over the hours he was born but wanted the opportunity to meet the surro baby. A couple of them even shared their own struggles with infertility, some of them cried hearing ours. Others talked to Elle about her experience and told her how extraordinary it was to see our relationship.

We stayed a second night with the baby, but Elle was discharged and ready to go home after the first day. Before she left, the director of the birthing center came to talk to both couples separately to make sure that everything had gone according to plan and to wish us well. She told us that they had been preparing for our arrival for several weeks to ensure that everything went smoothly. Then, during our conversation, she pointed out Paddington on my night stand and I shared that I had carried him through every treatment and ultrasound over a year and a half in hopes of giving him to a child someday. We felt a bit like minor celebrities while there and left having made friends. Now, a year later, we still keep in touch with our L&D nurse and our first baby nurse, who was the one to hand Ross to me after he had been checked out following delivery.

As a whole, the experience was better than I ever could have imagined. The second night in the birthing center, once Elle and her husband had gone home, I asked Kyle to take some photos of me holding Ross. It was important to me to still have those classic “new mom” photos– sitting up in bed with the baby and wearing a hospital gown– even though I hadn’t become a mom in the traditional way. I am so glad we took the time to capture those moments, especially with the craziness that followed in our lives, because they ended up being some of my very favorite photos of the two of us.

_dsc3356

_DSC3355

_DSC3348
Silly faces!
_DSC3363
Worth the Wait

I can’t end this birth story without thanking Elle (and her husband) again, for giving us the best gift possible. We are forever grateful to them.

The Day I Thought I’d Never Get to Have: A Surrogate Birth Story [Pt. 1]

A couple months ago I wrote a post answering some of our most frequently asked questions. Considering that it’s still rare enough that most have never met a family brought together via surrogacy, there is a lot that people are curious about or want to know. Above all, the question that we are almost always asked is, “Were you able to see the baby at the hospital?”

The answer is yes.

We were there when Elle’s water broke. We were there when she checked into the delivery room. And we were there when Ross took his first breath.

I had intended to share the birth story here when we welcomed Ross into the world, but after our commitment to being open with our most private and emotional moments for the year and a half before his birth, it felt nice to have something to keep ourselves for a little while. Now, as we are looking back to this time last year and preparing for a first birthday celebration, I feel ready to give a glimpse into the best day of our lives and share what a birth story looks like when surrogacy is involved.

gift

It’s hard to imagine our lives without Ross. Was there ever really a time when I didn’t know his face as well as my own? When I didn’t know the color of his eyes or the sound of his laugh? Logically, I know there were many years like this, but already I struggle to fully remember what it was like not to know my own son. A year ago today was just such a day, our very last one without him.

By January 23, 2016 we were beyond anxious for Ross to arrive. We’d left home more than 2 weeks before and it started to feel like he might wait until Spring to meet us. Then, that night, Elle’s water broke. Not wanting to sound a false alarm, she got up and left the room to check after hearing two tiny popping sounds while we watched tv in the den. None the wiser, I remained on the couch until a few minutes later when Kyle and Elle’s husband came home early.

“Her water broke,” her husband stated calmly when he had both Kyle and I in the same room. I stared at him, uncomprehending. “Her water broke,” he repeated at least once more, while I struggled to process his words. And then: clarity. And… what now?! After frantically dumping out the smaller of our suitcases (Kyle’s) and repacking us for the next couple days (minus any socks and my shampoo), we drove into the cold winter night on our way to the birthing center.

As we settled in to the room, our labor & delivery nurse located the birth plan and information our surrogate agency had sent ahead in December and informed us that our OBGYN was not on call. Immediately, my stomach dropped. For months now we had talked through the logistics of the surrogate birth with our chosen doctor and I was terrified of how our situation might be handled by someone who didn’t know us. Although we’d had a great experience so far at the practice, we’ve also come across many who feel that our choice to pursue surrogacy was a selfish or foolish one, and there was no way to know how this new doctor would feel about it.

Things progressed quickly. Although she wasn’t in pain when we arrived, the rapid escalation of contractions left Elle struggling soon after. She had come prepared with information on acupressure and massage, and I began watching for signs of oncoming contractions in an effort to help ease the pain. We helped move her back and forth from the bed to the birthing ball for a long time while I alternately kneaded her lower back with my knuckles and knelt on the floor beside her to press the acupressure points on her feet, legs, and hands. A few hours must have passed this way, though I was mostly unaware of the time. It was deep into the middle of the night and my knees and back were aching and painful, but I was determined to ride out each and every contraction with her. Both her mom and mine offered to take over to give me a break, but I felt honored to do it. Taking care of the baby was not yet my job; there was nothing I could do for him. Caring for him was still Elle’s responsibility and privilege, and mine was to care for her.

It wasn’t long before the contractions started to come more quickly together, leaving Elle very little time to rest and recover between them. When she accepted an epidural despite her preference to go natural, I was worried she would regret it but also relieved. Watching someone suffer through the pain of labor for you is incredibly overwhelming. It is not easy. Even as we were there I felt it should be me in pain; I wished it was me.

Then, as we drew closer to morning, it became clear something was wrong. The machine monitoring the baby’s heart rate showed it dropping to dangerous levels, from around 150 bpm (good) down to the 80’s (not good), and later we even saw it fall to the 60’s (scary). Our nurse was on top of it, coming in to check when his heart rate dropped and continuing to closely monitor the readings when it seemed to stabilize. Every time she came in the room a spasm of fear would grip me, but I tried not to let myself get swept away by it. I didn’t want to upset Elle and I didn’t know enough to fully understand what was going on or how close we were coming to needing intervention. We tried to have Elle reposition her body during contractions to see if it would help– I’d watch his heart rate and nod to her when it was okay or shake my head when she needed to move again. Unfortunately, it didn’t make enough of a difference. He was in distress and it was decided that our doctor needed to be contacted.

I’m sure the very real possibility of an emergency c-section was on all our minds, but no one said it out loud. Of course, the health of Elle and the baby was the most important thing, but if our doctor felt this was a necessary course of action, it would change a lot. We had been warned by the agency that we were unlikely to be admitted to the room in the case of a c-section. Usually only one person is allowed, and that person would be Elle’s husband, meaning that we would not be there for the birth of our child. Elle also strongly preferred not to have one since it would mean a much longer and more difficult recovery time as well as a significant delay in returning to work. But all of that was out of our control; there was nothing we could do now but wait.

A little while after 4am we stood out in the hall when our nurse came in to check dilation. We heard her say it was 7cm when all of a sudden, people started coming down the hall toward our room. Walking back in we heard them telling Elle that even though she wasn’t fully dilated, they wanted her to start pushing and that the baby needed to come out now.

We had arranged with our original OBGYN that I would “catch” the baby during delivery once the head and shoulders were free. When we got to the hospital, our nurse asked the on-call doctor if she’d be willing to let me assist as planned and she had agreed. Now I was being told I needed to suit up immediately and a nurse nearby yelled for someone to grab me disposable scrubs. I stood with my knees literally shaking while they dressed me, wondering why on earth I had ever wanted to do this and wishing I had never asked. At some point in the chaos the doctor had arrived, and as she was getting suited up next to me, she carefully (and sternly) warned me that newborns are very slippery. “The last thing I want to do is drop him!” I managed to squeak out, and she must have been satisfied by my sincerity because she didn’t question me again in regards to catching him.

Elle now had an oxygen mask, her body had started involuntarily shaking, and she was being prepped for delivery at the same time as me. Her husband stood by her side toward the end of the bed, our nurse stood on her other side up by her head, and a stool was brought for me to sit out of the way until they were ready for me. The mood in the room was intense, pressing, urgent. For such a large space, there was almost no room to stand due to the sheer number of people there. Some stood by the door, some were ready by the infant warming bed, others were crowded toward the back of the room and around the bed with various tools. My mom stood to the side with the camera while Kyle stood slightly behind a nurse where he could “see everything [he] wanted to and nothing [he] didn’t.”

I sat there, stiff and unmoving after being warned that I wasn’t allowed to touch anything (for sterile purposes). My nose itched and I willed myself not to think about it. The paper scrubs were so large I worried that I might slip off the stool and cause a ridiculous scene at the end of the bed. My feet had been covered in enormous paper socks when someone noticed that I wasn’t wearing shoes. Only part of my brain seemed to be working. Part of me understood there was significant risk to the baby’s health, but rather than processing that normally, I went in to a bit of a shock. I don’t know if I was breathing regularly– or at all. I just went on autopilot. It could have been 10 hours, 10 minutes, or 10 seconds that Elle pushed, but time lost its relevance to me.

Unfortunately, progress was slower than the doctor hoped and I watched as she assessed the situation and made decisions. A vacuum extractor was called for and she quickly explained to me that my baby would come out with a bubble on his head. I nodded my understanding, caring only that he was safe and breathing. The vacuum was suctioned to his head and with each contraction and the additional help of Elle’s pushing, the doctor held on and worked to guide him further down as he came out at a strange angle. Eventually we started to see the progression as he began to move closer to us.

And then his head started to appear. I could see his hair. That’s my son, I remember thinking to myself. He’s mine. The entire room fell away. All I could focus on was him.

_DSC3276

It was then that the doctor’s voice cut through my reverie–

“I need you to stop pushing,” she said firmly. “The cord is wrapped around his neck.” Somewhere in my head, two separate thoughts bounced around: this isn’t good and that’s just like my Grandpa! [Ross’ namesake]. I watched as she worked to stretch the umbilical cord up and away from him. It had been wrapped so tightly that I couldn’t even see it from my vantage point and she seemed to barely be able to pull it over his face.

And then, “Hold on– one more.” For the second time I watched her pull the cord up and slide it over his head to free him. I was still holding my breath when she called out, “And again!” before removing another tight section of cord from around his neck. “That’s three times, everyone!”she said in what seemed like near disbelief.

By then I could see his eyes, nose, and mouth. The doctor had me stand up as she prepared to deliver his shoulders and showed me where to place my hands around his head. I held on to him as she helped to work him free and suddenly he was simply there, in my arms. I will never forget that moment, staring down at him. I watched him make only the slightest movement and took in his blue-gray color while somewhere in my head I thought, He’s not making any noise. I had been told to bring him immediately over to the warming bed once he was delivered but might still be standing there even now if the doctor hadn’t urgently yelled out, “Make way for her!” to the collection of people around us. I started at her booming instruction and it took every ounce of energy I had to focus on not tripping over my ridiculously large socks and scrubs. Gently, I laid him down on the bed as he made the tiniest of noises– it sounded just like “hello“– and from somewhere in the room I heard Elle’s mom exclaim, “Did you hear that? He just said hello!” I took one last look at my baby as I stepped back and was replaced by those who would help him breathe and make sure he was stable.

_DSC3285

I felt terrified and helpless, but there was nothing I could do beyond trusting that he would be okay. I leaned back into Kyle while we waited and tried to remember how to stay upright– and breathe. It seemed like forever before we heard him cry, and when we finally did, it was the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard in my life and relief flooded over me.

_DSC3286


 

Because this post has gotten so long, I’m going to separate it with the second part going up (hopefully) tomorrow where I’ll talk about being able to really hold Ross for the first time, seeing Elle and her husband with him, how our situation was handled by the birthing center staff post-delivery, and lots more pictures, including the first of Elle on the blog.

I do have more photos of the actual delivery, including my part in it, but since Ross is unable to consent to me posting these private photos of him, they will stay in our photo album for now. 🙂

For Part Two: The Best Day of My Life: A Surrogate Birth Story

 

Labor

It was two years ago that we agreed to be matched with Elle*, our gestational carrier, after meeting via a Skype session less than 48 hours before. As I think back to that moment and the overwhelming feelings of hope and fear that were fighting within me, the miracle that came from that decision is napping peacefully beside me.

When we first started to share the news that we were pursuing surrogacy — our only hope of becoming parents — one of the most hurtful reactions I received was, “You’re so lucky!” …because having a baby without the pain of labor somehow came with the perception of taking the easy way out, no matter the circumstances.

It’s not exactly what you want to hear when you are facing the most excruciatingly painful and downright terrifying journey of your life. We were already devastated, already heartbroken, already physically, emotionally and financially exhausted. As someone who had spent 15 years in fear of being rendered incapable of ever carrying children, I was also suffering a crushing personal defeat. And although surrogacy can be amazing and wonderful, it is also full of loss and sacrifice. Not only that, but we weren’t even attempting surrogacy with a trusted friend or family member as we’d hoped. Instead, we were beginning the search for a compassionate stranger to whom we would hand over control of the most precious thing we could ever imagine– something I’d once vowed I would never do.

For as gut-wrenching as the process was, our journey went (almost) as smoothly as was possible, and looking back over these years and the events that have since occurred, it’s somewhat tempting to see the way things unfolded as being predestined. But it did not feel that way as I answered the call from our agency and committed to working with someone we only knew through a few photos, notes from extensive interviews, and a 15-minute Skype call. We had no way of knowing where that decision would lead us or what, if anything, would come out of it. In hindsight it’s hard to believe I was ever so brave (or maybe so reckless) as to take that step in the first place, the one that would ultimately change our lives.

No, I did not give birth to my son, but that doesn’t mean that I did not labor in bringing him into the world. It may have been different from the traditional labor that most mothers experience, but it took every ounce of strength and energy I possessed. At times it tore me apart and the unbearable pain felt like it would never end. At times I felt completely overwhelmed by the task before me. (It also lasted a hell of a lot longer than normal labor.) But, just as I’d heard, when I held him in my arms that first time, everything else faded away and I was forever changed.

When I relay to Elle yet another insensitive comment I receive or someone’s implication that I had it easier than other women, she often reminds me that I did something most could never even imagine doing. Ross was not born from my body, but I most certainly labored to get him here.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons