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.
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, of course) and repacking us for the next couple days (minus any socks and my shampoo somehow), 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, and a stool was brought for me to sit slightly 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.
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 called out to the mass of people in the room.
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 jolted into action 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.
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.
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