'The Little Engine That Thought It Could'(1)
(My Experience as a Surrogate) - Rosie
When thinking back over my experience as a surrogate, I look back with a feeling of contentment, of personal satisfaction, and of an unexpectedly strong bond to a family that now feel like a part of mine. I thought that I would be capable of being a surrogate, but the journey was walking into completely unfamiliar territory. Just like in the story about the little engine …
we don’t know what we are capable of until we try.
“I think I can!, I think I can!”
I cannot speak for Carrie and Jeff the parents (called I.P’s – Intended Parents) of the lovely baby girl (Frankie) that was born, as their experience is their own personal story and not mine to tell. Hopefully it won’t come across as too didactic, this is my story: from my perspective on how the roller coaster of being a surrogate affected me personally; physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Before I discuss the detail of my surrogacy experience, I would like to let you in on a little secret: life is not fair! I know not only the absolute joy that comes from being a mother, but also the heartbreak of losing a child. In a roundabout way, it was the learning to live without one of my lovely daughters that gave me the courage to investigate having a child for someone else. Although not directly related to this article, I think that it is important to have some background information. I am a single parent in my early 40s and have had three beautiful daughters whose ages range from my youngest about to turn 5 years and my eldest about to turn 21 years. It was my middle child who died at almost two years old in 2001 from an unknown and undiagnosed heart arrhythmia. To put it as concisely as I can; to lose a child leaves a space so big and so dark and so terrifying that it hurts in places that you never knew you had. It was the long, hard crawl out of that dark space that made me feel like I wanted to be an active participant in the world around me, not just a passive bystander. The grief of losing a child had a huge effect on me as a person, but how must it feel to not even have the chance of experiencing the kind of love that only a parent can feel. There are many ways of knowing the unfairness of life.
I had thought about being a surrogate for a number of years. I had been an egg donor in the past and knew how good it felt to help others create a family (the couple had a daughter). The drive I had to become a surrogate felt like a natural extension of the egg donation. There was a part of me that thought that carrying a baby for someone else would be too hard and too emotional to be something that I could ever do. After all, I loved my babies so much when they were born that how could I give one away? What if there were deep pools of undiscovered grief yet to be uncovered?
“I think I can, I think I can”.
For a few years I wondered about it vaguely and tried to ignore the niggling tap on my shoulder from my conscience telling me to do it. The niggling tap got harder and louder and became more difficult to ignore. I would open a magazine and there would be a surrogacy article, or I would turn on the TV only for there to be a surrogacy documentary on. After this happening time and time again I said out loud one day to the deafening tap: “Oh alright already! I will do it!!!”
As soon as I decided to investigate it then the conscience became quiet. I phoned a fertility clinic thinking that they would tell me that I was too old to do surrogacy (40) and then I could put it to rest. They didn’t. As I was looking at Gestational Surrogacy (GS) only (i.e. not my egg) my age didn’t matter as long as I was healthy. They gave me the name of a surrogacy website that could help me to find a suitable couple. Reading the stories of people looking for a surrogate were heart breaking - and I thought that it was just too hard to choose. It felt a lot like internet dating - I could read all the profiles of couples I wanted to, but I needed to meet with people to see what they were really like, and if we fitted together. I cannot stress enough the importance of making sure there is a connection when starting such an intimate journey with people who are for all purposes strangers!
As it turns out, the people that I clicked with needed a Traditional Surrogate (TS) which meant that I would be using my egg as well as carrying, so the child would be biologically linked to me and my children. I hadn’t been thinking along these lines, but had such a strong connection with Carrie when we first met that I had my head around the biological aspect in no time. I decided that it was just like donating eggs again, but this time I would give the couple their egg nine months later!
I didn’t offer to be their TS until I had time to think about it logically and had spoken to my counselor about it to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. As I tend to make huge life decisions based on intuition alone, I thought I should at least pretend to have thought it all through ‘properly’ :) . I researched extensively to find out what surrogacy was really like for the surrogate, not just the examples that we see on those cheesy ‘made for TV’ movies that always has a surrogate falling in love with the baby and keeping it – eventually being taken to court by the Intended Parents. As I found out in my reading (2), less than one in a thousand surrogates end up regretting their decision and wanting the baby – I guess those other 999 surrogates don’t make as good drama, so are overlooked in the media. There seemed to be so many mis-perceptions about carrying a child for someone else.
The next step was us all taking the time to get to know each other and discussing important issues that may arise. We downloaded a surrogacy contract to look at – while not legally binding in New Zealand (don’t even get me started on surrogacy law!!) it did bring to light the many things that needed discussing before we even thought about getting pregnant. We saw a counselor who had a lot of experience in donation/surrogacy/adoption – both on our own and together – to make sure that we were all on the same page.
Due to the fact that there is no specific law for surrogacy in New Zealand, as the ‘birth mother’ the child would be legally mine. They as the ‘Intended Parents’ would need to legally adopt the child; having social workers and lawyers involved just like any other usual adoption process, despite the fact that Jeff is Frankie’s biological father! Things could go wrong as there is a huge amount of trust that needs to be established, and we all needed to acknowledge the fact that we were planning on making a person! A human being would be created to make them a family. It would be hugely irresponsible to enter into such an emotive and legal minefield without discussing contingency plans and potential hiccups that could arise.
Examples of how things could have gone wrong:
• The child could have something wrong with it medically and they could change their mind about wanting it – leaving me as the ‘legal’ mother with the responsibility of raising a special needs child on my own.
• They could be killed in an accident while I was pregnant, once again leaving me literally ‘holding the baby’.
• I could promise them the world and yet drink and smoke etc while pregnant – leaving their child with health issues
• They could want me to terminate the pregnancy for some reason, such as birth defects.
• They could pretend to be my friends just to get what they wanted and then disappear as soon as the adoption was finalised – never to hear from them again
• The obvious one, that I would want to keep the baby once it was born and refuse to sign the adoption papers.
When I think back to the amount of trust this couple had placed in me, putting themselves in such a vulnerable position on my word alone, it gives me shivers! I felt both honored to be given such trust and a sometimes overwhelming responsibility to not let them down. During the first year I suffered a miscarriage at 7 weeks which was very difficult for me – I had conceived on the first try (Artificial Insemination) and felt like I had given them the world only to now have to see them heartbroken. Knowing the intensity of parent-grief, I felt helpless. I felt like I had let them down – my frequent thoughts were had I done something wrong to cause this? All of my emotion however was worrying about how Carrie and Jeff had lost their child. What was interesting in the aftermath of the miscarriage was that I now knew that I was capable of detaching emotionally from the baby growing inside me, and that Carrie and Jeff had already formed a strong attachment to their child; grieving like any other parents. While the miscarriage was difficult for us all, it did confirm where our emotional boundaries lay: This was their child.
When I conceived again, I don’t think that any of us breathed until we saw the healthy heartbeat on the scan! My main concern this time was that I was older and the chances of Downs Syndrome had increased. While we had discussed in counseling that if there was a reason to look at termination the decision would be theirs alone, (while it was happening in my body, it affected their future) I found myself getting more and more anxious as we got closer to the time for nuchal testing. I had some surprisingly strong ‘mother bear’ protective instincts kick in. It turned out to be all academic as the baby didn’t have Downs Syndrome and Carrie and Jeff may not have wanted me to terminate anyway. It did, however, make me realize that no matter how much you discuss things in the abstract in a logical manner, when you are actually in the middle of it all, logic doesn’t enter into it! I needed to acknowledge that I was heading into the unknown… having never been in this situation before, I had no idea how any of us would feel as the pregnancy progressed. I decided to just let myself feel whatever I needed to feel, and to surrender to the lack of control in this aspect.
“I think I can? I think I can?
The one thing that took me most by surprise was the amount of responsibility I felt carrying a child on someone else’s behalf. With my own children of course I took care of myself; avoiding things that could harm the baby and increasing fresh healthy foods and supplements but not regularly. With this pregnancy I was careful to take my supplements daily and eat well, rest when I could etc. I even started being extra careful crossing the road to get my coffee at work in case I was run over. (Yes I still drank coffee!! I did some research and found that I could safely have limited caffeine while pregnant(3)). I thought that these people had entrusted me with their most precious thing in the whole world, and sometimes it weighed very heavily on my shoulders.
Once the pregnancy began to show I had all kinds of questions to answer when I told people that I was being a surrogate. The most common two were if I would find it hard to give the baby away and how much was I getting paid! I realised that a large part of this ‘journey’ would involve educating people what the mindset accompanying surrogacy really meant. A part of me also wanted to tell them that of course I had no idea if I would find it hard to give the baby away because I have never done this before! (NB on the other question: ‘commercial’ surrogacy is illegal in New Zealand – only ‘altruistic’ surrogacy is allowed).
The pregnancy went so well – I felt so good and together both emotionally and physically and alive for the first time in a long while. Given that I am in my early 40s I was surprised to find that it was my easiest pregnancy yet – yes I had all the physical discomforts; morning sickness, extreme tiredness, heartburn, back pain (not forgetting those painful little electric shocks in private places!)… but I felt great! I loved being pregnant – the kicks and squirms that reminded me that there was a little person growing inside me. When she would do big kicks I would tell her “hello little one – make sure you do lots of those when mummy comes to visit next”. I would then text Carrie to tell her how ‘awake’ her child was to try to include her in the pregnancy as much as possible.
At the end of the pregnancy I had mixed feelings: looking forward to getting my own body back (and relinquishing responsibility), as well as feeling anxious that I would have a rush of hormones at birth and fall instantly in love with her (that ‘planting the seed’ of the media does have a lot to answer for!).
“I think I can? I think I can?”
Carrie stayed close for those last couple of weeks: her phone on at all times etc. I was also nervous about giving birth again and it felt strange thinking that another woman’s husband would be there in such an ‘undignified’ event! Of course they should both see their child coming into the world and having birthed three of my own children already I knew that I wouldn’t care about dignity at all when the time came.
It was wonderful having both Carrie and Jeff be there for her birth. I thought it important that they share that experience with each other. It was my fastest and hardest birth yet but with no major complications. They were both such an active part of the birth and I am so pleased that they have that memory together. They squeezed hands, and pushed my lower back, sourced ice chips and gave good supportive encouragement. I felt completely comfortable with both of them sharing such a private thing and their focus on whatever I needed during labour meant the world to me.
My sister was there too as part of ‘team Rosie’ which meant that once the baby was born I would have someone to help me if needed in the shower etc and drive me home, be supportive if I cried all the way home etc. Having had my own babies I knew that no matter how much the couple thought that they would be there for me afterwards, all a new parent wants to do is hold their child in their arms and enter their own little world. The look on their faces when Frankie was born was so wonderful for me to see. A mixture of complete disbelief that it had all happened: They had a child - and a protective love when they looked at her. Carrie holding Frankie skin to skin and whispering lovely things to her. Carrie and baby booked into the hospital maternity unit for their stay, and I had a shower and went home! Just as it should be.
My feeling towards the baby
The feelings that I have towards baby Frankie are unique. These feelings are of a nurturing quality and have a real fondness to them but so different than my other pregnancies when the children felt like mine. While I felt such fondness for her, she always felt like she belonged to someone else. Now that she is born, I feel an intensity of love that is similar to the love that I feel for my nieces, for example, but with a feeling of both pride and responsibility with a connection that is difficult to explain. Due to the fact that I had a part in this little person being here on earth, I have a real feeling of responsibility towards her and her wellbeing. That feeling when I was pregnant continued after Frankie was born. I expressed colostrum before she was born and continued to express for the first 7 weeks to help give her a good healthy start. When I think about her I feel warm and happy and know that she is in the right place with her wonderful parents.
My relationship with the ‘Intended Parents’
Extraordinary would be the word best used to describe my relationship with Carrie and Jeff. We took time to develop our friendship and get to know each other properly before conception (after all, there is no going back). Carrie and I discovered our shared love of visiting the op-shops to find vintage bargains, and spent many hours buying things we really didn’t need but had so much fun finding! Being at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum we found a real mutual respect in regard to our contrasting ideologies, leading to some fun ‘theosophical’ debates too. As our bond further developed we would talk openly about both our anxieties and our excitement, daydreaming about what life would be like ‘after’. I learned over time that my initial feeling of connection with them was confirmed and I knew that this was a totally unexpected special lifelong friendship.
Being Human beings of course meant that even becoming such firm friends, we would still have our challenges along the way. While we had much in common and had established a lovely friendship we were individuals who of course wouldn’t always agree. Due to the potentially emotive positions we were in when I look back I can see how ‘careful’ we were with each other to avoid conflict; with so much at stake there was a large risk in trust for us all. As people who are very different I think that we did really well. :) This was my fourth pregnancy and so I was very ‘relaxed’ over some aspects of pregnancy/birth. I know that you can’t control what your body does, how birth will go etc so just ‘went with the flow’. Due to the somewhat dichotomous aspects of my personality, I also got very stubborn when two specialists thought I should have an elective c-section (due to complications in my last birth) when this pregnancy was different so I refused to back down. I think this worried Carrie and Jeff a bit as well that I wasn’t listening to the experts and potentially putting myself or their baby at risk. (NB there were no safety issues – of course I would have agreed to a c-section if this was the case – and as it turns out I was right!).
Carrie had accompanied me to my appointments and I felt that we shared our pregnancy experience with each other as much as we could – she would text me updates on what developmental stage the foetus was in, send me ‘gift packages’ of ginger lollies etc for morning sickness, even doing my housework when I was 9 months pregnant (and forcing me to sit down, read a magazine and eat strawberries while she did it!). In turn I kept her up to date with movements/kicks etc, discussed with her how excited she must be, lay around with her hand on my belly feeling her baby kick and roll. She read stories onto an MP3 player so that I could put the headphones on my stomach and the baby would know her voice. It was her pregnancy experience and important that she was as involved as much as possible. In saying that, Carrie was not physically carrying her own child and I believe that this was very difficult for her to cope with at times. Surrogacy is never the most ideal situation and of course comes after the heartbreak that must accompany infertility. While I tried to keep her as involved as possible, there would always have been challenges on this matter – once again, surrogacy is a hugely complex and emotive experience.
In hindsight I would have remembered more often that this was Carrie's first pregnancy and it was all new and unknown to her. I could have remembered how overwhelmed I felt when expecting my first child. If I did it all over again I would have been more sensitive to her feelings. I’m a very ‘matter of fact’ person sometimes and may have needed to exercise empathy more openly than I did. Possibly think more about how difficult it must be to give that much power to someone else? How must it feel to be so vulnerable as to have to watch someone else grow your child in their belly?
The core of my relationship was with Carrie rather than Jeff. He is a lovely man and they seem like a strong couple who will be great parents. I think that knowing that biologically we had a child together was a bit strange for the both of us and we managed to have firm boundaries around each other. Don’t get me wrong, we laughed and joked sometimes about the baby having my height (or lack thereof) or Jeff’s nose and that I now have all these children with even more fathers :) (My own three daughters have different dads). It always felt like an easy low key relationship with Jeff, but my main connection was with Carrie. I read in an excellent book that said the drive behind the surrogate was to ‘create another mother’(4) and therefore the primary bonding is between the surrogate and Intended Mother, with the Intended Father being more of a background figure in the arrangement. That’s what it felt like for me too, so good to know how ‘normal’ we all were.
Our relationship now has a deeper connection – as Carrie and Jeff settle into parenthood and I settle back into ‘normal’ life. There is no sense of what should be between us all – it has, and will, develop into whatever it will be naturally – no expectations on maintaining a forced relationship. Carrie said a nice thing on the phone the other week: that she didn’t feel like she had to contact me periodically to update me about Frankie, but that she wanted to. Their friendship feels like an extension of my family, as there is a real familial type of bond – but not a family that lives in each others’ pockets! And as family, we don’t have to always agree... I really cherish the friendship I have with them and am so pleased to have shared such an extraordinary thing with these people
The psychology of mindset
As already stated, the most common misconception around surrogacy is that the surrogate will bond with the baby while pregnant and decide to keep it herself. Even though I had read the research and felt in myself that I wouldn’t get emotionally attached to somebody else’s baby, I had these concerns privately as well sometimes.
“I… think… I …can…? I… think… I… can?”
I had seen the ‘Baby M’ movie on TV and knew how bonded I had been to my own babies when pregnant. While I had felt great about my relationship to Frankie while pregnant, I was probably as secretly relieved as Carrie and Jeff must have been that I retained that mindset after the birth as well. I expected my body at least to want her – there are some primal instincts(5) involved in birthing hormones , so I made sure that I had a really good smell of her when I took my children up to the hospital that same day to meet their ‘surro sister’ Frankie. My body didn’t feel attached at all. She felt and looked just like someone else’s baby. It's all mindset. There were no undiscovered pools of grief bubbling up to the surface – if anything, the philanthropic aspects of surrogacy helped me realise that I really do live with courage, and all of that hard work (really, really hard work) that I did after my daughter died has made me a better and more real person.
Even prior to conception I knew that the baby would be conceived for other people, so the focus was different. I didn’t spend an entire pregnancy planning and preparing for a baby – no painting a nursery(6) or buying little clothes etc… rather I planned on the things I would do after the birth when I got myself back: go scuba diving and drink wine!
It felt so wonderful to relinquish the responsibility of this child – like I had been babysitting for nine months and I was relieved that the parents had finally arrived home! When I signed the adoption papers a few weeks after she was born, I had a lump in my throat as I was signing. Not because I didn’t want to sign or felt any maternal attachment to the baby but because I realized the enormity of what we had done. We had done it! I felt like The Engine That Thought It Could: I thought that I would be able to be courageous enough to dive into the unknown of surrogacy and I was…yay me!
“I thought I could, I thought I could”.
I remember walking back to my car after signing the papers feeling a quiet sense of personal satisfaction, like a job well done.
“I knew I could”.
1.Story of the Engine That Thought It Could. Rev. Charles S Wing (1906) New York Tribune
2. Teman, Elly. (2008). The Social Construction of Surrogacy Research: An Anthropological Critique of the Psychosocial Scholarship on Surrogate Motherhood. Social Science & Medicine 67: 1104-1112
3. Food Standards Agency UK (2008) Retrieved from:
4. Elly Teman: Birthing a Mother – The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self. (2010). University of California Press.
5. Basten, Stuart (2009)., Neuroscience and Parental Behaviour: The Future of Human Reproduction – working paper #2. University of Oxford Press.
6. I did experience some ‘misplaced’ nesting instinct and painted my kitchen!