Photo: Julia Ross
Julia Ross’s body is a roadmap. A small butterfly tattoo, perched on her right foot and blurred by time, honours a friend who died in high school. Intertwined figures—two daughters and their mother, whose womb is a starburst, skirt the hairline at the nape of her neck. “Patience,” in meticulous cursive across the inside of her right wrist, is both a prompt and a reproach. Stretch marks telegraph multiple pregnancies but not their outcomes: one miscarriage, one biological child and three surrogacies. The swell of her stomach, pregnancy number six: a son, due in July.
Tucked between two don’t-blink hamlets in the heart of the Ottawa Valley, the Ross family’s trim red-brick farmhouse and bright-white wraparound porch call out to passing drivers. In many ways, the building’s current vocation isn’t all that different from its original purpose: a shelter for a growing family and their motley menagerie. Three dogs, one cat, two donkeys, nine chickens and seven bee colonies currently populate the three-acre property; until a barn fire six months ago, a pair of baby goats did too. The loss of the kids was a swift and merciless reminder of the unpredictable nature of life and death.
Inside the 112-year-old home and up a flight of stairs, three bedrooms, each with a colourful centerpiece: a quilt handmade by a then stranger, now friend—the grandmother of two of the three “surro-babes,” as Julia calls them. In the master bedroom, a bassinet nestled up against the junction of two walls, awaiting its next occupant.
On the main floor, in a sunny living room presided over by a sign proclaiming, “I’m So Happy We Ended Up Here,” are Julia and her husband, Warren, both 37. They are spending a rare afternoon together without their daughters. Carrie, 12, is with the air cadets, having recently joined the local squadron; Sophie, 8, is at her best friend’s place for the weekend. The family has been living in their farmhouse just nine months. They moved here, a 15-minute drive from the centre of Pembroke, Ont., when Warren, an aircraft structures technician for the Air Force, was transferred from the base in Trenton, Ont., to the one in nearby Petawawa. Getting everyone settled is a work in progress, but the Rosses are nothing if not accustomed to a challenge.
A relentless quest Julia and Warren met as high school students in Toronto and were married in 2002, at the ages of 21 and 22. They immediately stopped taking precautions: they knew they wanted children, and right away. But after a year of trying, they grew concerned. A consultation at Women’s College Hospital led to a year of temperature tracking and charting. Still nothing—except tears and a gradual pulling away from friends and family who seemed to conceive as if out of thin air. When Julia’s sister came across an ad for a free trial at St. Michael’s Hospital involving intrauterine insemination, the couple signed on.
It seemed as if every morning, every week, every month there was something for them to do—some appointment to squeeze in before Julia’s job at a daycare and Warren’s military training. “We used to joke that it was The Fertility Amazing Race,” says Julia. “You’d see the same couples and you’d be competing for the same parking spots to get the same ultrasounds and blood tests.”
Their quest—relentlessly intense and stressful—had become all-consuming.
As months and then years went by, old race-mates vanished and new ones appeared, but Julia and Warren were still running. And then, four years after they started trying to conceive, their fertility doctor found pre-cancerous cells in Julia’s cervix. The shock—and fear—jolted the couple onto a new track.
“It hit me that I didn’t need to be pregnant. What I needed was to be a mom,” says Julia. “I’d been so mad at my body for so long for not doing what it was supposed to do. Suddenly, I realized I could take the pressure off and focus on the main goal. It didn’t matter how we got there.”
Warren and Julia were in agreement: they’d become foster parents.
Fostering Carrie When Carrie arrived, she was 13 months old. Julia got the call from Children’s Aid while standing in a PetSmart. (To this day, she can’t remember if she ever paid for those dog nail clippers.) That first night, Carrie slept for 14 hours. Julia, zero. “I kept going in and out of her room. I wanted to make sure she was okay, but I also think part of me was in disbelief,” she says.
What was originally envisioned as a foster-care placement became a potential adoption within weeks. In April 2007, the Rosses began the paperwork to welcome Carrie permanently into their family, determined not to agonize over the possibility that she would be returned to her birth mother and that they’d need to say goodbye to the child they’d come to love. “I trusted that it was going to work out—there really wasn’t another option for my head or for my heart,” says Julia. One event she certainly hadn’t considered: becoming pregnant before the adoption papers were even signed.
Julia remembers feeling off in the first few days of 2008, her body a stranger. Even though just the notion seemed ridiculous, she bought a pregnancy test. It glowed. After those long years of trying for a baby, her excitement was tempered with concern—but not about the pregnancy. Julia didn’t know how she and Warren would parent an adopted child and a biological child—she had never even thought to consider that particular combination. “I didn’t want Carrie to feel ‘less than.’ She was my daughter and she’d made me a mom.”
Don't tell anyone I'm sad While early ultrasounds indicated that everything was progressing normally, nine weeks into the pregnancy Julia began to cramp. A check-up at the hospital; no heartbeat. “I was so, so angry. It was as if the biggest, cruelest trick had been played. All I could think was that I was fine before the pregnancy happened. What was the point of all of this?”
Julia remembers lying on the bathroom floor, Warren knocking to get in. Through the door, she begged him: “Don’t tell anyone I’m sad, don’t tell anyone I’m sad.” The adoption wasn’t yet final and she didn’t want people to worry that she couldn’t be who Carrie needed her to be if she was grieving.
Only five months passed between Julia’s miscarriage and news of her second pregnancy. But when Sophie was born in April of 2009, Julia felt ready to be a mother of two. She had spent the time leading up to the pregnancy reassuring herself that what had once seemed like an impossibility could actually happen for her. “Every night as I went to sleep, I told myself, ‘I will be pregnant and it will be okay.’ As soon as I saw the positive test for Sophie, I realized that’s what the miscarriage was for: It was to teach me that I could handle a pregnancy. I could have a baby—but I had to trust my body.”
What was conceivable Amazed by her physical metamorphosis throughout the pregnancy, Julia began to wonder what else her body could do. While still expecting Sophie, she brought up the idea of surrogacy to Warren. If it was feasible, she wanted to see if she could help someone else, someone like them perhaps, young people who had spent years trying to conceive.
Or maybe she and Warren should even think about enlarging their own family. But any such plans would have to wait. Warren was deployed to Afghanistan for a six-month tour in June of 2010, and during his absence, Julia began to notice that Carrie’s development wasn’t age typical.
Her outbursts of anger, which lasted two to three hours, seemed particularly worrisome. “There was nothing I could do to take her out of them—I just had to wait for her to come back to me,” says Julia. “For so long, through my childcare work and in my personal life, people had asked me for advice. This was the first time I didn’t know what to do, and it happened to be with my own kid.”
Carrie would later be diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder (when a child doesn’t develop healthy attachments with primary caregivers) and oppositional defiant disorder (when hostile behaviours are directed at adults), as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (characterized by impulsive behaviours and difficulty focusing) and trichotillomania (repetitive pulling out of one’s hair).
From the very beginning, Julia had struggled to build a connection with Carrie, who had spent her first year with her birth mother in a home for teenaged parents. Carrie actively resisted any form of physical bonding with Julia, preferring to be fed, cuddled or soothed by Warren. “It was as if she was always expecting me to leave,” says Julia. She often wondered how different her daughter’s life might have been if Julia had been the one to “grow her”; she imagined an alternate reality in which Carrie was untouched by maternal loss and responsible for some of Julia’s stretch marks.
Focused on shoring up her bond with Carrie through play therapy and family-fun days, Julia realized that rather than expand their own family at that time, she and Warren should concentrate on nurturing the two girls they did have. That awareness solidified her decision to look into surrogacy. Once Warren returned from his tour of duty, Julia got in touch with Canadian Surrogacy Options, the country’s oldest agency of its kind. Within the year, she was matched with intended parents: a couple from Newfoundland who shared a wedding anniversary with the Rosses.
Carrying Kennedy In 2012, Julia gave birth to a baby girl, whom her parents named Kennedy. “Surrogacy is an out-of-body pregnancy. Even though it’s happening inside you, you’re watching all the joy, excitement, concern and worry through the intended parents’ eyes,” says Julia. “When I was having the C-section, the intended mother kept thanking me. I allowed myself to cry when the cord was cut: everything was fine, everybody was safe, I was so happy.”
Kennedy’s parents stayed in touch through Facebook and Skype, providing regular updates on the baby’s progress. Within five months, Julia knew she wanted to be a surrogate again if she could. She now had a better understanding of the process—and privileged insight into how rewarding helping another couple could be. This time, she was matched with a couple closer to home, about half an hour from the base in Trenton. Their son, Ben, was born in 2014.
She compares her relationship with the surro-babes to that of an aunt with her nieces and nephews: “I have a strong connection to them. There had to be, in order for me to have healthy pregnancies and for the babies to grow hearing me laugh and sensing my happiness. But I knew that the connection I had was going to be secondary to the one the babies would develop with their parents.”
Being able to share those experiences with her own family made them all the more worth it. The surrogacies encouraged further discussions about belonging; Julia and Warren made it clear that despite the fact that Carrie didn’t grow in Julia’s “tummy” she was still their daughter, and even though the surro-babes did, they had a home with other parents. That narrative was established early and unequivocally, leaving no room for ambiguity.
The will to give Although the idea of surrogacy initially surprised Warren, he recognized Julia in it. “She is one of the most caring people I know and is willing to give more than I would ever expect anyone to give,” he says. “Years ago, we agreed not to hold each other back. So I supported her in this. I just told her, ‘I have no idea what it is—you’ll need to educate me a little bit!’”
Teaching people about surrogacy turned out to be much more than a personal project. In 2016, Julia joined Canadian Surrogacy Options as a support worker for intended parents. “We had to say yes when she suggested we create the role for her,” says managing partner Robyn Price. “She brings such a high level of compassion, trust, integrity and passion to her work. She’s driven not only to educate but to support in any way she can.”
That urge to be of use led to one final surrogacy: Tarryn was born in March 2017, a brother for Kennedy, who had spent her fourth and fifth birthdays with Julia, Warren and the girls, as well as her parents.
Despite the substantial rewards of childbearing, Julia—now past the mid-30s mark—was ready for this to be the last go-round. That is, until December and three glaring clues: her period was late, her breasts were sore and she couldn’t stand the thought of coffee.
A sixth pregnancy.
Have one for us Julia’s body, the roadmap, has allowed her children to grow up with a broader definition than most of what it means to be a family. Gestational queries are fair game for Sophie, who doesn’t hesitate to ask pregnant strangers if the baby they’re carrying is theirs. For a recent public speaking assignment at school, Carrie talked about different family models: adoption, surrogacy, same-sex parents, grandparents as caregivers. “It was the first time she led that conversation,” says Julia. “And at the end she spoke about herself, about her own experience. I had to work hard to keep it together.”
Sophie and Carrie almost vibrate at the thought of their baby brother—after Julia’s second and third surrogacies, they’d pleaded with their mother to “have one for us.” While Julia had reservations about a third child when the girls were young, she is now unruffled by the potential challenges of a larger family. “Parenting Carrie and a newborn was so hard. But Warren and I are at a place where we’re aware of our expectations and we know how best to be there for our kids.”
Warren, their children, the surro-babes, a meaningful career supporting couples on their own tortuous paths to parenthood—they’ve all come together to allow Julia to forgive her body and to forgive herself for years of negative self-talk and overwhelming grief tied to her inability to conceive.
“My 20s were such a horrible, hard time, but they seem to have a purpose now,” she says. “When parents introduce me to their baby as the person who helped them build their family—well, it feels like it was for a reason. I was really sad and mad then, but now I get to have all this. I’m in awe of what my body has accomplished.”