Having My Baby
How surrogacy made one local couple’s parenting dream come true—twice.
The author, her husband, and their second son (October, 1998)
Every Mother’s Day, I sit down at my computer and write to two women. I express my deepest gratitude, my heartfelt thanks. I note my debt for what they gave me. These women are not my relatives. What they gave me are my sons.
Sixteen years ago, the first was born. My husband, Ron, and I had worked our way from Manhattan to the Center for Surrogate Parenting in California after five years of infertility treatments. The constant diagnosis: unexplained. Always unexplained. Hope dies a long, slow death with unexplained, a torture instead of a jolt. OB/GYNs were left for reproductive endocrinologists, pills replaced with injections, temperature charts upgraded to blood tests, endocrinologists abandoned for fertility clinics. And always as a backdrop: the parade of friends’ and siblings’ newborns, the convoys of Maclarens, the scourge of pregnant bellies on the street.
There was the renowned doctor, eyes glinting with success-rate percentages, who winked as I lay down for my first in vitro egg retrieval and said, “Make me look good.” The friend who said I was lucky, I might never have stretch marks. The in-laws who sat next to me at family gatherings and compared birthing stories. There were laparoscopies and hysterosalpingograms, all normal, and in total, eight IVF cycles. Eggs were retrieved, fertilized, reinserted. They never took. Unexplained.
This is a story of medicine and technology. Of doors closed, doors opened, and the tortured and tortuous corridor that connected them. But mostly it’s about the courage and compassion of strangers who vowed to have a baby for a couple who couldn’t. Most of them had known someone faced with medical obstacles. They wanted to make a difference. They were parents themselves, and couldn’t imagine being denied their children. And their own pregnancies were easy. Much is rumored or assumed about surrogacy, but little is known of the thousands of successes, the result of expert administration. The program we chose, the Center for Surrogate Parenting (CSP), the country’s oldest, has seen approximately 1,400 babies born since 1980. Not one surrogate has changed her mind. And today, with nearly one out of five couples infertile, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, business is booming. It is a good business, to the tune of about $100,000 per IVF pregnancy, the most common type. Of that, about $28,000 goes to the surrogate. A nice amount, to be sure, but if that’s her motive, legitimate programs won’t accept her; the intensive screening process would reveal it. And besides, as you’ll see, she’d never last.
When we began at CSP in 1990, most every surrogate lived, and delivered, in liberal-leaning California, and artificial insemination was the routine procedure. Today, about 99 percent of surrogacies are through IVF, notes CSP co-owner Karen Synesiou, in which the surrogate is a gestational carrier of either the intended parents’ embryo or one from a donor egg. And thanks to progressive surrogacy policies, 60 percent of CSP surrogates live in the 41 states in addition to California that now allow surrogacy. New York is one of the eight that prohibit it.
No one comes to surrogacy easily. It’s the purview of the desperate, a haven for refugees from parenting dreams, offering sustenance, assistance, and the right of return. Like the rest, we arrived broken and afraid. After five years of failure, it was time to concede. Ron, abandoned by his father at three, wanted his own child and refused to pursue adoption. He eschewed it as too unpredictable, too risky. With surrogacy, the pregnancy is planned, the goal shared. At programs like CSP, a team of experts ensures that, from the get-go, all parties are equally informed and in agreement. The surrogate is a trusted caretaker who never thinks of the baby as hers.
And so we considered, we argued, we grieved. I mourned the daughter who would never have my nose, my skinny legs, her grandmother’s eyes. I mourned the betrayal of my body, the denial of my birthright. I let my child go, as all parents eventually must, except mine I never got to see.
When the counselor at our IVF program first suggested surrogacy, I refused. It seemed the ultimate indignity: being relegated to third wheel, barren onlooker, while my husband made a child with a fertile woman. But I read, I listened, and came to understand that if anyone might feel left out, it would be my husband, that I would be the one who would bond with the surrogate, sisters in a shared purpose. I came to terms with his unwillingness to be an adoptive parent, exchanging the resentment of unequal footing for the realization that, if a child couldn’t be ours, at least it could be Ron’s.
The new parents, with surrogate mother Tabitha and their first newborn (August, 1992)
But wait—maybe it still could be mine, too. Maybe a surrogate could carry the embryos that I, for some reason, couldn’t. I would give it two more IVF cycles in New York, with our embryos transferred in California to a gestational surrogate. We’d go that route first, before the last resort of artificial insemination. My kid still had a shot.
Refocused, we plunged into the breach of the Center’s psychological and medical screenings, legalities, and paperwork. We were approved. We were on our way. We obsessed over surrogate candidates’ files, analyzing handwriting and job track records, dissecting smiles. We made our choice—tall, thoughtful Wendy—and had our first anxious, elated phone conversation. I began another IVF regimen. And then the setbacks began.
The IVF cycle yielded enough embryos for two cycles (the second from frozen specimens), but there were no pregnancies. Wendy had agreed to just two tries, so we combed through candidate files again. We chose Sheri, petite and vivacious, whose body, halfway into the process, refused to cooperate. Her hormone levels, fine in screening, were now somehow nil. She was devastated that she had let us down, and I spent hours on the phone staunching her tears, stifling my own.
It was time to move on, to let my dream-child go. My body, my faith, was done with injections, blood work, follicle sonograms and the swarm of OR staff readying for business as I lay willing myself into numbness. Done with the negative pregnancy tests. Enough. We would pursue a traditional surrogacy, artificial insemination. The Center scrambled and called back within weeks. A new surrogate had just been accepted. She was my height, my build. She had skinny legs. She was young, and with two toddlers, very fertile. Her name was Tabitha, and she wanted to meet us.
It took her six months to conceive. Six months of perfect ovulations, perfect hormone levels, perfect sperm samples, and doctor’s inseminations perfectly timed to the day and hour. Unexplained. Our cross-country flights to her home near L.A. became as routine as our Grand Central commute. We could have left sperm to be frozen for next time, or shipped it in special canisters, but we wanted to be there to give it fresh, to maximize our chances. The clinic complied with decorous men’s quarters, lusty videos, and magazines. After a few months, Ron didn’t bother rifling through the stacks; he just went right for his favorites.
Tabitha’s family became ours. We spent long hours trading histories. We drove her husband, Chris, to work when his pick-up broke down. We took their kids to the mall, bumbling with car seats and strollers as their parents giggled. One night we all went out dancing. Often I sat with three-year-old Joshua, his blond head nestled in my shoulder as Elmo taught letters and I swooned with imaginings. And we’d meet at the doctor’s office for up-to-the-minute ovulation checks and finally, the pinpointed insemination.
By the fifth visit, our traveling was getting too impractical. We decided to bank frozen sperm if a sixth try was necessary—which seemed our inevitable Sisyphean lot. And so it was, with Tabitha entering the insemination room alone. It was mid-December. She called around New Year’s, the day her blood-test result was due. I grabbed the phone, my monthly executioner, just wanting it over. It’s me, she said. Just say it, I demanded. And she did, two words: congratulations, Mom.
It was an excruciating euphoria. Against all sense, all judgment, I celebrated with abandon. I didn’t want to hear about first-trimester miscarriage rates, fetal abnormalities, or heartbeat confirmations. I was a mother-to-be! I had a due date! Those bellies on the street were my sisters. I was marching in the stroller parade. And thankfully, the band didn’t miss a beat. We had a heartbeat, we passed our trimesters. And we clung to our sonogram photos, where deep in the muddled swirl, my son dozed, waiting to meet me.
There were, of course, moments. A long-haul trucker, Tabitha sometimes didn’t check in. She missed required surrogate support meetings. We got a call from an irate, vengeful girlfriend saying she’d been drinking, which induced a spike in bi-coastal phone calls that must have overloaded circuits for days. The Center mandated ongoing urine testing, which always showed negative. We regained trust and the weeks passed. We made one visit—several elated days of barbeques, doctor check-ups, and relentless hugs. I kneeled and spoke to her belly in my tenderest tone and believed that he heard me. In her seventh month, she and Chris came to stay with us for a week, and I whispered to tell him he was home. When they left, I whispered good-bye between quaking sobs.
We went on a shopping rampage. The store’s layette checklist was epic, and I wanted it all. And I wanted it home. Our parents’ balked with superstition and reasonable worry, but I didn’t want reason. I was rabid with joy. In August, we boarded our flight a week before the due date. It was hot in the Los Angeles desert, about 110, and we passed the time in malls and multiplexes parched with thirst and anticipation. The call came in the middle of a movie, four days early. We gunned the car to the hospital, but fate had its final laugh: we missed the delivery. No matter. The film had been Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but as Tabitha’s arms bequeathed my son into mine, fate dissolved in forgiveness with the whisper of hello. Through our melded tears, surrogacy had blurred into salvation.
For two years we basked in normalcy, liberated by the constraints of feedings, naptimes, and broken sleep. I reveled in diaper blizzards and Similac cascades. I strode the market’s baby-care aisle like Miss America on her coronation walk. There were daily stroller pilgrimages to playground Meccas. The corner mailbox was a treasure chest for family photo gems destined for California, our beatific faces Tabitha’s consummate reward.
And then we decided to try again. Were we being greedy to want another? Fools to push our luck? Other rights had been stolen from us, but not the one to complete our family. We had been blessed with parenthood; it was the ride of our lives, and we wanted another turn.
Tabitha and Chris were willing to provide it. It was perfect, neat, as familial a family as we could get. We filed new paperwork, got our go-aheads. A few months later, she was pregnant. Our luck had held; the gods’ smiles were permanently affixed.
And then they sneered. There was a miscarriage at six weeks; crushing, but so common, we knew, and we consoled ourselves knowing we’d try again. But we sensed a hesitation in Tabitha’s voice, a shift. Something was wrong. The Center called with confirmation: she and Chris were having marital problems—unrelated to us, they assured—and wouldn’t be able to continue. Hell had returned with a vengeance, but this time our toddler was our shield. The Center supplied counseling back-up and the darkness receded. When we were ready, they said, they had a new match.
The author, right, and her second newborn with surrogate Heidi and her husband
It took a while to be ready. Closure requires slow, deep stitches. When they healed, we studied the new file, liked what we saw, and flew west. Heidi and her husband, Gary, were waiting. We met in the Sonoma counselor’s office: Gary was older, about our age, logical, and sedate. Heidi was 27, blonde, my height, outgoing, and sincere. This was their second marriage, and there was a kinship about them, a certitude. I sensed a resolve in Heidi’s gaze, crouched like a sentry awaiting the call.
We had no idea then how deep that resolve ran. It ended up sustaining us through three and a half years, 12 inseminations, and two miscarriages. She was committed, she said. With relatives who had suffered infertility and friends with cancer, she had watched enough people battle obstacles and lose. She was going to win. We would have our child. At some excruciating point, the Center insisted we stop, take a break and all of us be rematched. Our last phone call managed every sentiment but goodbye.
We chose another surrogate and forged ahead. Then, a miracle: a pregnancy on the first try! But within a month, another miscarriage. We kept trying, but after another unsuccessful cycle, our surrogate bowed out.
What had been an infertility nightmare became a marital one. I insisted we adopt, and Ron and I negotiated a brittle pact: we would begin a conventional adoption while pursuing the Center’s new option: donor eggs fertilized in vitro, then carried by a gestational surrogate. But who? I had nothing left to offer a new woman—no energy, no gratitude, no hope. And then one day the Center called to say Heidi was suddenly available. Her new match hadn’t worked out, and she was willing to try with us once more. I agreed to one cycle. She would be our gestational carrier.
Ron and I chose the genetic mother of our child, 3,000 miles away, near L.A., from dozens of photos, and medical and personal histories on the Center’s website. Marlene was dark like me; her essay conveyed intelligence and compassion. She had a healthy, beautiful young son. She agreed to move forward, and began fertility drug injections. In northern California, supervised via phone by Marlene’s L.A. doctor, Heidi began injections to synchronize their cycles and prepare her uterus for embryo transfer—if there were embryos to transfer. But the status reports from L.A. were good, and within two weeks, Marlene’s sonogram showed six viable eggs. The egg retrieval date was set, hotel reservations made, and flights booked. We would fly to meet Marlene the day of her retrieval and give our sperm sample; Heidi and Gary would follow a few days later for the transfer.
Of the six eggs, the doctor retrieved five. Ron’s sample was strong. We spent the afternoon with Marlene, three lives fused over burgers and a walk to her car. Two days later, in the doctor’s office with Heidi and Gary beside us, the news was euphoric: all five had fertilized! We agreed to transfer two embryos and freeze the rest for—we said hastily—one last attempt. I clenched Heidi’s hand as she lay for the transfer, breathing with her, willing life.
Ten days later, her blood test was negative. No pregnancy. We steeled ourselves for our final try. We knew the odds. Our adoption paperwork had been completed months ago, and I added current photos to the family bio I had written to convince birth mothers that we really wanted another child.
A few weeks later, Heidi and Gary flew to L.A. alone. And they got the news alone: of the three frozen embryos, only one had survived the thaw. That microscopic eight-cell bit of protein, revived and craving life, was born our son. He will be 10 in October. His brother just turned 16. Birthday photos will be mailed to California, with accompanying thank-yous.
Diane Weintraub Pohl’s advocacy for regulated surrogate parenting was recently voiced on Newsweek’s “Letters” page. She is a contributing writer at Westchester Magazine.