“Why I Became a Surrogate”
What’s it like for women who essentially loan out their bodies for nine months? Here, three gestational surrogates share their stories. Photo: Lindsay Flanagan
A Lifelong Bond: Christine Rush, 28
When Christine Rush was still in high school, she went to visit a friend in the hospital, who had just given birth to a baby. Only, this baby wasn’t hers -- she had been a gestational surrogate for a Japanese family. “I just found the whole thing so cool. She had just given birth to someone else’s kid!” Christine recalls. “It really stuck with me and I thought it would be something I would really love to do one day.”
By the time she was 22, Christine was already married with two little boys of her own. She started thinking about surrogacy again and how the financial gain -- which, in the US, is often anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 -- would allow her to put herself through school, keep working, and take care of her children. At first, her then-husband, Devin, was concerned about the emotional toll it might take on her to carry someone else’s baby and then have to give that child away. After a lot of discussion though, she managed to convince him that she could handle this, and that it would ultimately be a good thing for their family.
So Christine called the agency that her friend had worked with and said, “Get me matched!” The agency specialized in providing surrogates for families from Japan, where surrogacy had been banned (although recently, the country has been considering conditional approval). After a psych screening, a health screening with a fertility doctor, and lots of paperwork, she was matched with a Japanese family that already had two other children, born via gestational surrogate. She went through two embryo transfers using the couple’s eggs and sperm -- the first didn’t take, but the second did and she got pregnant about a year after starting the process.
The couple came to the US several times during the pregnancy, but because of the language barrier and the distance, Christine says they didn’t form much of a relationship. In September 2008, Christine delivered a healthy baby boy, and the parents gave him the middle name, Christopher, after their surrogate. “It was so shocking that they were naming their child after me because it was such an easy thing for me to be pregnant. It was just like, ‘Here I am; I’m pregnant!’ I didn’t have to stress over having my own child to prepare for,” she says.
She loved the experience so much, she was eager to do it again. This time though, she wanted it to be with a couple in the States. “I liked the idea of having a family that was involved, that I could connect with and share things with,” Christine says. “The agency will match you based on what you expect out of the process. Some surrogates don’t want a lot of contact, but I was really open and felt like I had nothing to hide. If they wanted to talk on a daily basis, great! If they wanted to know what I was eating today, fine!” The agency matched her with Nicole and Josh Lawson, a couple who had tried years for a baby, suffering a number of miscarriages and disappointments along the way. They hit it off immediately and two months later, Christine went through an embryo transfer and got pregnant. This was just five months after giving birth to the Japanese baby.
While she did go to LA a couple of times to see the Lawsons’ doctor, most of Christine's prenatal appointments were in her hometown of Turlock, about 350 miles away, and Nicole and Josh were there for almost all of them. The two women talked on the phone, emailed or texted every day, and often they’d Skype so that Nicole could talk to her baby, whom the couple had already named Zoe, and see her moving around in Christine’s belly.
The night before Christine was due to be induced, Nicole and Josh came up and stayed with the Rush family. At the hospital the next morning, while waiting for the Pitocin to kick in, Nicole rubbed Christine’s back and feed her ice chips, asking again and again what she could do. Meanwhile, Christine, lulled by an epidural and, by now, an old pro at the whole birthing thing, watched TV and even took a nap.
When it was time for the baby to be born, Nicole held one of Christine’s legs, and Christine’s husband stood at her shoulder. “The birth went perfectly. It was so calm and so loving, because I had this really special connection with Nicole and Josh, and they were my support system,” Christine says. “It was a beautiful experience.”
When Zoe was born, the nurses, as instructed, handed her to Christine first. “We had discussed that I wanted to be the one to give the baby to Nicole and Josh, because I felt it would complete the whole cycle,” she recalls. Then Josh cut the umbilical cord, and after the baby had been cleaned up, Nicole and Josh held her and fed her the first bottle.
Three years later, both the Lawsons and Christine are now advocates for surrogacy, helping couples struggling with infertility to have families of their own. In 2011, Nicole and her mother, Pam Hirsch, founded Baby Quest Foundation, a non-profit that gives money to couples who have trouble trying to conceive, so they can afford IVF or surrogacy, which are both very costly. Since their inception, they’ve awarded nine grants and their first recipients are having a child in March.
Meanwhile Christine, busy raising her own three boys, still periodically donates her eggs to couples trying to get pregnant. “That’s my way of helping people right now, and it allows me to help multiple families at once,” she says. Still, she hasn’t ruled out doing surrogacy again in the future. “I would love to do it again when it’s the right time, and for the right reasons. In the end, you’re giving someone a child, helping give life to another person,” she says. “What could be more amazing than that?”
A Friend’s Gift: Jennifer Marett, 42
After struggling with her own infertility issues, Jennifer Marett understood the emotional pain of trying desperately to have a child, only to be disappointed again and again. She and her then-husband, Eric, ended up conceiving through IVF -- and her boy-girl twins were five years old when her good friend Sarah* went through some tough times.
Sarah had gone through several cycles of IVF to get pregnant, and lost her baby boy at birth. Sarah and her husband bravely decided to try again immediately, but before beginning the IVF process all over again, they had to consult with her fertility doctor. When he took a look at her uterus though, he saw that there was a tremendous amount of scar tissue left after her son’s birth and recommended a D&C procedure. During the procedure, Sarah began to bleed profusely, and the doctors were forced to perform a hysterectomy. Sarah, who had already lost a baby, would now never be able to be pregnant again.
The couple’s one hope: they still had frozen embryos from a previous IVF cycle. They just needed to find a surrogate who would carry them.
Jennifer was heartbroken for her friend, who’d experienced such horrible loss and trauma. She had loved being pregnant, and even though she and Eric knew they didn’t want any more kids, she’d felt a little wistful at the fact that she would never be pregnant again.
“Sarah had been through so such tremendous grief -- I just wanted to do what I could for her.” One day, while she and Sarah were talking about her various options, Jennifer realized what she needed to do. She said, “Hey, I’m not using my uterus right now. I could grow your babies!”
Of course, it took Jennifer some time to convince Eric, whose main concern was for his wife and twins, and whether she would have the energy to give their own children the time and attention and energy they needed. They went to family therapy sessions as a couple, and attended therapy with Sarah and her husband as well. “The attorneys insist on [therapy] to make sure everyone is on the same page, as well as to assess the mental health of everyone involved,” she says. “We were going in with our eyes wide open, not romanticizing anything. We knew the risks that come with a pregnancy -- miscarriage, premature bleeding, bed rest -- and were prepared for them.” While Eric wasn’t thrilled, he also didn’t want to be the one to deny Sarah and her husband a family. So, he agreed.
After getting the go-ahead from the therapists and a clean bill of health from the doctors, they did embryo transfers and Jennifer got pregnant with twin girls. “I had already carried my own twins, so I knew the challenges [of being pregnant with multiples], and was ready for them,” she recounts. As with her own pregnancy, she ended up on restricted bed rest, but luckily had a flexible enough job as a university clinician that she could work a lot from home. Only this time, Jennifer was a lot more anxious, feeling that it was her responsibility to keep the girls healthy. “It was like taking care of someone else’s kids -- you don’t want to do anything that could cause any damage,” she says. Just as she had been with her own pregnancy, she was cautious of her health, and sure to take breaks and stay off her feet when she felt rundown.
Jennifer’s pregnancy brought the friends even closer. “We just felt really bonded to each other, like family,” she says. “As I was getting bigger, Sarah would come over and take my kids out for the day. We were there for each other.” Still, despite the close friendship, Sarah and her husband insisted on doing everything by the book. “They wanted to pay me, and I kept refusing, because I wasn’t doing it for the money,” Jennifer recalls. “But ultimately, it was what they felt they needed to do, I think because it made them feel that it was more fair.”
At 35 weeks, Jennifer’s water broke and she went straight to the hospital for a c-section. During delivery, Sarah was in the operating room, snapping pictures. “It was really surreal and kind of crazy. I was shaking from the epidural and physiologically overwhelmed, but the babies were healthy, which was such a relief,” she says. She says it was very easy for her to hand the little girls to their parents, because she knew she would be in their lives forever.
Five years later, Jennifer is still incredibly close to the healthy twin girls she carried in her belly for almost nine months. “They consider me an aunt, and my kids are like cousins to them,” she says. “And in a way, I’m kind of like a Grandma because I get to spoil them and enjoy them and then give them back.” In the end, the twin girls weren’t just a blessing for Sarah -- they were a gift to Jennifer and her family too.
Making History For Same-Sex Couples: Jennifer Menges, 33
In 2005, Jennifer Menges was a stay-at-home mom, raising her three children in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Through a parenting website, she had met another mother who had been a surrogate for a family, and was now trying to get that child back. “I was absolutely horrified for that poor family, and shocked that this woman would even attempt to claim that child as her own,” Jennifer recalls. “I started researching surrogacy and discovered that what this woman was doing, wasn’t at all the norm. And the more I looked into the experience of surrogacy, the more I thought that it was something I could totally do.” She had donated her eggs while in college to help pay her tuition, and saw surrogacy as another way she could help families desperate for a child.
In 2006, Jennifer joined an agency, one that was working with same sex couples, and it matched her with two Jewish men in New York City, who already had one adopted son. “At the time, Minnesota was very surrogate-friendly and same-sex-friendly, while New York was not,” she says. “It seemed so unfair to me that there were so many laws, preventing a loving couple from being parents, just because of their sexuality.” Because of all of the laws in New York, the couple had no choice but to seek a surrogate from out-of-state.
They also decided to use an egg donor from California, and to do the embryo transfer there at a clinic that would allow each of the men to fertilize a separate set of eggs with their own sperm (rather than using just one man's sperm). Up until then, clinics weren’t willing to work with more than one father, concerned that mixing samples in utero would be somehow less successful. (To this day, some clinics still won’t work with two sperm donors.) In February 2006, they transferred the best quality embryo from each father’s “batch,” and Jennifer became pregnant with the couple’s twins. They were set to become the first surrogate family to have twins by two different Dads.
While some in her community questioned Jennifer’s choice to become a surrogate for a same sex couple, even going so far as to refer to the twins as, “gay-bies,” her family, and even her church, embraced what she was doing. “It’s a pretty lenient Lutheran Church to begin with, and they were really supportive of the fact that we were helping others,” Jennifer says. “They’d even pray for us and for the intended parents. I think everyone’s main concern was whether or not we’d be able to give up the babies without it breaking our hearts.”
Both Jennifer and her husband, David, treated the pregnancy as they had with their own three children. “We’d play music for the babies in my belly, and my husband would talk to them, but we still never felt like they were ours,” she explains. During the course of the pregnancy, the same-sex couple came to Minnesota about every eight weeks, and they talked every day. “I think that’s actually the saddest part when the experience is over -- people think it’s hard to give up the baby, but it’s harder giving up that bond you create with the parents,” she says.
Although Jennifer didn’t feel that the twin girls were hers, when it came to their birth, her maternal instincts kicked in. “My doctor wanted to deliver the twins at 36 weeks, but I just didn’t feel right about it, and was sure the babies just weren’t ready to come out,” she recalls. “I talked it over with the intended parents who agreed with me, so I dodged the doctor’s office, and stayed off my feet for the last three weeks of the pregnancy.”
At 39 weeks, they all showed up at the hospital for her c-section. “One of the fathers was totally freaked out and didn’t want to see blood, I think, hoping he could just look through a window, from a distance, but he ultimately came around, and all four of us were in the OR,” she says. “We had a coordinator who was helping us with all of the logistics, which was great, because normally they wouldn’t have allowed so many people in there.”
Jennifer had given birth to her own children at home, so a hospital c-section with a team of doctors and nurses, was a very different experience for her. “I was chattering from the epidural and the fathers kept asking if I was okay,” she recalls. “I didn’t want them to be scared, so I kept telling them I was totally fine, trying to make it a positive experience for them.” When the babies came out, each weighing around 7.5 pounds, the doctors handed them to their fathers, and the new family spent the next several days in a hospital room together. Jennifer also agreed to pump breast milk for the twins, while she was still in the hospital. So, the two families saw a lot of each other in the first few days of the twins’ lives.
Jennifer’s kids came to visit as well, and were so excited by what their Mom had done. “Our kids think we’re like Santa Claus, giving families children,” Jennifer explains. “Still, they were happy to have their mom back, and we were all looking forward to getting our lives back to normal. Some surrogates say they feel sad leaving the hospital without a baby. I was happy to have done this, but ready to move on to the next part of our life.”
The day she got out of the hospital, she and her husband, along with the Dads, went down to the courthouse to make it official. They signed papers and went through a legal procedure that essentially removed Jennifer and David’s names from the birth certificate, and included the two fathers instead. They became the first surrogate family in the country to do this. “The judge said it was a defining day in history, and that she wished she could have married the two men right then and there.”
It was such an incredible experience for Jennifer and her family that, a few years later, she decided to become a surrogate for a same-sex couple in Michigan. “This time, I skipped the agency, and did all of the paperwork and logistical stuff myself,” she says. “It just seemed more fair to me because these couples end up spending such insane amounts of money on egg donors and IVF and embryo transfers, I felt we could eliminate some of the extraneous costs.” In general, surrogates in the US are usually paid in monthly installments. The contracts are always worded carefully, implying that the fee is for care and expenses, not a lump sum for the use of the surrogate’s body. Once again, Jennifer went to California for the embryo transfer and got pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl, born in October 2010.
Jennifer still keeps in touch with the two families she’s helped, regularly getting emails, pictures and Christmas cards. She says she would love to one day be a surrogate again, even the physical burden of carrying two sets of healthy-sized, full-term twins has left her with back problems. Still, she cherishes her surrogacy experiences: “It was such a rewarding thing for me, to give these wonderful, loving couples the children they deserved,” she says. “I have zero regret and would do it again for them in a heartbeat.”
*Name changed for clarity. "Sarah's" name is also Jennifer.
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