The emotional part. It’s probably not what you’re imagining.
One of the most common questions surrogates hear is “How will you be able to give up the baby?” But when surrogates talk about the “bond” they form, they’re usually referring to one with the intended parents, not with the baby. They may not imagine what the infant will look like, or rub their belly as they did when pregnant with their own kids.
“I sometimes forget I’m pregnant until someone asks when I’m due,” says Julie, 37, who lives in Silver Spring and recently had her fourth surrogate baby. (A confidentiality clause in her contract prohibits her from publicizing her last name.) “With your own child, you never forget; it’s like, ‘I’m 24 weeks!’ ”
Susan Fuller, a 44-year-old nonprofit director and fitness instructor in Reston, is pregnant with her ninth surrogate baby. She says that when people ask whether she misses the child afterward, she laughs. “The absolute last thing I want in my life is a baby,” she says. “I have three teenagers, and I’m thoroughly enjoying this phase of life. I still yearn for pregnancy and birth, but I don’t yearn for the baby.”
Fuller has had great experiences with most of her surrogate pregnancies. But the one relationship that didn’t work out, her first surrogacy, in 2002, remains a heartbreak.
Fuller’s first set of intended parents treated the situation more like a rent-a-womb transaction than the close relationship she’d hoped for. Because she was carrying twins, they wanted her to gain more weight and see a nutritionist, even though Fuller’s obstetrician said her pregnancy was going well. When Fuller refused, the father broke off contact with her.
Worse, the birth was traumatic: Fuller delivered one twin vaginally and the other by emergency C-section, lost a lot of blood, and was in the hospital for five days. The new parents were distant, and the mother visited her only once. Fuller was devastated.
Six months after the delivery, she called the surrogacy agency that had matched her with the couple and asked to do it again. “Oh, my God—after everything you went through?” the agency head asked her.
“I want my love story,” Fuller said.
When asked what that meant, Fuller doesn’t mention the babies. She describes a relationship “where you both grow to love each other, to be excited to complete or add to their family. Because you want them to experience the joy of parenthood and you feel the support and the gratitude from them. It’s this homeostasis of ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this for me’ and ‘Oh, my God—it makes me so happy to do this for you.’ ”
$23,000 is the typical fee for a first-time surrogate (experienced surrogates and those carrying multiples are paid more).
Fuller has since found her love story several times over. With the exception of one stillbirth at six months because of a heart defect, her pregnancies have been blissful, her deliveries easy, and her relationships fulfilling.
Many fertility centers and surrogacy agencies will use only surrogates who have had fewer than five deliveries or three C-sections. Not all agencies are regulated, however, and people who make matches independently on websites don’t necessarily adhere to the medical recommendations. Some women have done as many as 10 or 12 surrogacies.
Fuller is now carrying her 12th baby, but she says she’s not worried, because both her obstetrician and her fertility center have cleared her before each pregnancy. She’s never had high blood pressure or high blood sugar, and she teaches exercise classes up until she goes into labor. During her last pregnancy, she took a kickboxing class the evening before her due date—and delivered ten hours later. She figures she’s not only fit to carry but also more thoroughly tested than the average mother-to-be. Plus, she says she truly enjoys “the endorphin rush of pushing a kid out”—she has given birth to five babies without drugs.
After the births, Fuller is content with occasional photos and e-mails, and only rare phone calls and visits, to learn how the babies are doing. “You’re interested and care about them,” she says, “but as someone else’s children, not your own.”
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And the fact that these are someone else’s children brings a certain pressure.
Twenty years ago, before IVF became mainstream, “traditional surrogacy” was the norm. A surrogate was both the egg donor and the carrier, inseminated with sperm from the intended father. Now the vast majority of surrogates are “gestational.” They have no biological tie to the baby because the egg comes from the intended mother or a donor.
This shift means the surrogates must endure IVF, an invasive process that can involve painful testing, up to 16 weeks of hormones delivered by injections or pills, an embryo transfer, and blood tests—procedures repeated for each attempt.
The two-week wait between the embryo transfer and the pregnancy blood test can be “horrific” for a surrogate, says Pam Stepka, an Ohio surrogate who twice has carried babies for a Washington couple. About three days after each transfer, Stepka bought 30 pregnancy tests and started testing two or three times a day. “When I was pregnant with my own kids, I took one test and was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a baby,’ ” she says. “I never thought it wouldn’t stick. Not so with this. You see that faint line and you’re taking the test apart, holding it up to light and asking your husband, ‘Do you see? Is that a little bit different?’ And then you continue testing because you want that line to get darker. ”
Stepka dreaded telling the intended parents when her tests were negative. “It felt like it was up to me. It’s so hard to have to say, ‘No, nothing yet,’ when you know they’re waiting every day, wanting to know. But once you see that line, you’re ecstatic.”
At the same time, she says, throughout the surrogacies “I was so much more conscious that things could go wrong. I never felt like that with my kids. Every day you just feel 100 percent responsible for somebody else’s child.”