What it’s like to watch a surrogate give birth to your baby

"In my infertility groups, people often described surrogates as angels, but with her slick skin and the tubes twisting off her like seaweed, she looked more like a mermaid."

Photo: Chloe Cushman

Jeremy and I met the woman who would give birth to our son in January: bleak weather, waning hope. For almost five years, we had been on what insiders call a “surrogacy journey,” which was torturously long and complicated. In Canada, unlike the U.S. and India, surrogacy is largely unregulated, with prohibitions around payment. Even discussing paying a surrogate can net the parents up to ten years in prison and/or a $500,000 fine. But without the ability to legally compensate surrogates for pregnancy, few women in Canada offer to do it. The result is that many intended parents wait years to match, even with the services of paid ‘consultants’ who work to match waiting would-be parents with women willing to carry pregnancies for the cost of monthly expenses.

After having “journeyed” with a paid consultancy for almost a year—during which time we received no matches—we had been connecting with prospective surrogates ourselves, using websites and our own personal connections. Our first, and then our second, surrogates each miscarried our three remaining embryos in turn, before deciding not to continue. Around the same time, I had an ectopic pregnancy that required surgery. My infertility felt less like the absence of something than a malignancy, spreading from one part of my body to the next, from me to these other women who tried to help.

We went back to the Canadian consultancies, who gave us a timeline of a year-long wait to match with a surrogate. With the additional time of legal and medical screening, it could be two years before we brought home a child. I wasn’t sure I had the stamina for that. The remaining options were also grim: an American surrogacy would take less time but cost up to $200,000; the surrogacies overseas, in places like India or Kenya, were legally murky, and while the conditions of the surrogates likely varied, we were uncomfortable with not being able to confirm first-hand that the women were consenting, healthy, and had adequate control over their pregnancies. The risk of a failed adoption—where the birth mother takes the child back during the early stages of a placement, an occurrence far from uncommon in our province—still rendered adoption a non-starter. Out of embryos and nearly out of cash, with my womb in literal tatters and no other womb in sight, Jeremy and I spent our Christmas holiday trying to imagine which was more difficult: a year-long wait to even try for a baby, or a future as a family of two.

In my initial panic, I had emailed a number of family members and friends, asking if they knew anyone who could help. It was a desperate email, and one I’d sent many times to no avail, so I didn’t think about it much after I pressed “send.” But then, as I was fear-googling American surrogacy expenses, an email popped up from an address I didn’t recognize. It was from a woman named Mindy who worked in college admin with my cousin and had posted about our search for a surrogate on Facebook. She was 29, and since she and her husband had had their first child the previous year, she’d been thinking about surrogacy.

“Having Charlotte was one of the most important things I’ve done,” she wrote. “I really want to help someone who can’t do that experience that for themselves.” She was OK with the fact that we didn’t have embryos, and she knew miscarriage was still a possibility. Her husband and mother supported her, and when Jeremy and I met them all, we felt not only a rush of relief at how kind and trustworthy they seemed; but also a shock of familiarity at their dynamics: the dark-humoured banter between Mindy and her husband, Eric—so much like mine and Jeremy’s—their love of animals, the fact that they’d named their daughter Charlotte Elizabeth—the name we’d had for years on our list of names for girls. As the four of us sat in their living room and agreed to go forward, Charlotte popped up and down over the edge of her playpen, peering at me, like a tiny firecracker with pigtails shooting straight up from her head.

We also found Anna, our egg donor, online. I loved her immediately, not only because she had thick reddish hair like an Alphonse Mucha illustration and shared my taste in books and art, but because she was willing to have an open, known relationship with any children we had using her eggs—something that was important to us. She had initially donated eggs for the money—around $10,000—but seeing the twins created from her prior donation had since made her excited about the possibility of helping create families. Going from my own eggs to hers was initially an easy decision. Many women I knew had taken years to warm up to the idea of using donor eggs, but unlike them, I had the advantage of having been stubbornly disinterested in my own DNA. I had always been uncurious about the branching family trees my aunt put together; I had never fantasized about seeing my mother’s eyes or my grandfather’s grin on my own child. Still, as we moved toward the reality of it, I felt new grief. Not so much for the loss of my genetics, but for the total loss of a conventional motherhood story. False as it may be, for many people, mothers are people with both a genetic and gestational connection to their children—certainly at least one of the two. Using Anna’s eggs in addition to Mindy’s uterus made my parenthood so different from that of most women, I worried I’d always feel different and alone. But after Anna completed her egg retrieval and we started texting, I felt a relief and pride at my new connection that mostly outweighed my anxiety. In one sense, as with Mindy’s, Anna’s presence didn’t diminish my motherhood, but added to it: I had another partner in the process.

calm pregnant woman graphic What you need to know about gestational surrogacyBy the fall, Jeremy and I had nine frozen embryos, but, eager as we were, the gravity of the situation hadn’t fully impressed itself on me. Jeremy, Mindy, Eric, and I slogged through the routine of clearing medical, legal, and psychological screening, and then the wrenching process of shipping embryos to Toronto, thawing the best one, and, after she’d undergone a trying regime of injections and monitoring, transferring it to Mindy’s uterus. It worked on the first try. But as the pregnancy went on, each blood test promising, each series of heartbeats measured and deemed perfect in frequency and strength, I had to accept something multiple losses had made seem impossible: we were having a baby. In gaps in my days, I found myself saying this to myself silently, over and over, like a mantra: We’re having a baby. But the excitement wasn’t there, just relief that he was still alive, that this one wasn’t dead yet. And as long as he was alive, I would not have to keep trying for him. Waiting for my baby felt less like anticipation than a break from prolonged effort and pain.

Mindy, her belly rounding, her cheeks flushed with hormones, was the site of this break, the space in which I located my relief. I saw the baby inside her—I saw him on ultrasounds, his nose sharply upturned, his spine a delicate puzzle in the translucent skin. Every week, his fist was raised up by his face, and we’d joke that already he was a very political, very left-wing baby. What I couldn’t feel of him, Mindy narrated: he kicked a lot, mostly at night, and he moved around when he heard music, or she’d play Jeremy’s and my voices for him using headphones she’d stick on her belly. Every visit, he was more and more present, pushing Mindy’s belly out the front of her parka, making it difficult for her to sit or run. But despite these signs of life, he was still mostly a theory, an idea. The baby that hadn’t died yet.

Since he’s still alive, maybe I can start buying things, I rationalized, when he was still a few months away. I bought onesies with prints of ponies and hamburgers and a big soft toy bunny, because years ago I’d seen a little curly-haired boy holding one, in a dream. I put the things in the Room, the room that every infertile couple has, the one that is supposed to be for a baby, then fills with sad junk, until (if) luck changes. I moved around some of the junk and spread out the new cute things. But it still didn’t look like stuff for a real baby, in a room for a person that would actually exist. It felt provisional—stuff for a baby that hadn’t died yet.

A familiar pattern of anxiety for an infertile parent-to-be, but luckily the baby himself would have none of it. He came five weeks early and quick as a flash flood, before Mindy’s epidural had a chance to work, and while Jeremy was in line at a Walmart, hurriedly buying a car seat. But I haven’t even processed this yet, went a line in my head. He was still just an idea! It didn’t matter, I realized, because the baby didn’t care, and the baby was here. I had spent years lamenting how invisible I felt in my infertility, how little understood, but in truth, no one would ever be more indifferent to my neuroses than my newly born son. No one cares less about your trauma than a baby. But how quickly he eclipsed it, too, and us, and everything else. He changed so much in those first few minutes: at first just a head between Mindy’s thighs, then a wiggling eel, yellowish, laid down on her belly. Then, wiped down, a squalling red silhouette with a rubbery cord I cut myself and the doctor clamped with a plastic clip. Then a series of measurements—six pounds! 20 inches!—that the doctor shouted into the room from the tiny basin in which the newborn was prodded and measured. The room collectively sighed: despite being born premature, he was healthy and robust, and wouldn’t need NICU. Then, finally, a tiny little baby in a diaper that a nurse laid between my bare chest and my hospital gown: silent suddenly. Sleeping.

Apparently I was crying so hard I could barely stand—I don’t remember that. What I remember is the screaming red child, the way the exact pitch of his voice had an immediate and indescribable meaning to me, the way he plugged into my chest in a very exact and deliberate way and instantly fell asleep.

At some point, Jeremy returned from Walmart. I looked at him. We had a baby. His name was Charlie, and he was sleeping on my chest. Jeremy put his arms around both of us. Across the room, doctors adjusted beeping machines around Mindy while Eric cradled her head and her mother held her hand. Off to her side was the placenta, bloody and beached, doctors picking through it. In my infertility groups, people often described surrogates as angels, but with her slick skin and the tubes twisting off her like seaweed, she looked more like a mermaid, and the air smelled damp and old.

Eventually, Mindy turned her head and we caught each other’s eye. Oh, I thought. This is what she wanted me to have. This is what she was talking about. The fact of this: that there was so great a feeling I had not known—and that another woman had been willing to give it to me—overwhelmed me as much as Charlie’s existence. Mindy and I looked at each other for a few moments, breathing.

Later, the nurses guided me, Jeremy, and Charlie into our own room. The hospital had not been prepared for our labour team of four, but had found a space for us with twin beds, between which they wedged a bassinet for Charlie. But these provisions were mostly moot; no one slept for a good 48 hours, so constant was the care of this tiny body. His demands were a punishing combination of frequent and random—there was no way to predict the next task, despite it being always either feeding, changing, burping, or holding him. The physical and primal labour was impossible to streamline or hack. The only thing to really do was to surrender to it, to let our big adult world contract to a tiny star and orbit Planet Charlie.

Top: Baby Charlie, Jeremy and the author, Alexandra Kimball. Bottom: Alexandra with her surrogate, Mindy, and Mindy’s daughter, Charlotte. Cover: Chloe Cushman. Photos: Alice Xue; Jennifer Bel.

Mindy had been given a room down the hall to recover in the company of Eric and her mother. When Charlie would let me, I thought about her, about the nice symmetry of the moment, each family in an identical room, her labour ending as mine had begun. A common second-wave feminist objection to surrogacy (as well as for C-sections and drugged labour) was that it separates motherhood from the bodily work of pregnancy and childbirth. I already knew this was bullshit. The medical experience of my infertility—all the miscarriages, surgeries, tests, and IVF, as well as the physical burden of the attendant grief—was as much a part of the process of conceiving Charlie as Anna’s egg retrieval or Mindy’s pregnancy. (This is my labour, I said to myself after every surgery.) But I was less prepared for how bodily early motherhood was, how the combination of fatigue and a newborn baby would produce an effect that was hormonal—almost postpartum. My stomach cramped; I was sweating buckets. Most surprisingly, my breasts were sore. Curious, I let Charlie latch and suckle, and immediately felt milk pull down to my nipple. The nurse told me that, having been pregnant multiple times, I already had the plumbing to produce breast milk, and now my body was responding hormonally to the proximity of a baby. Jeremy, too, got folded into this biome, a three-person constant exchange of touch and skin and hormone-steeped sweat; soon we all smelled the same, like slightly sour breast milk. I did not need to go through labour to learn—as all new mothers do—that the term labour is an insulting misnomer that implies it ends after birth.

There was also a loneliness in this closeness, but it wasn’t until the day after we were discharged, when we had to return to the hospital for a hellish early-morning checkup, that I was able to touch it. I missed them. For over a year, Eric and Mindy had become entwined in Jeremy’s and my lives in a way no other two people had. We not only made Charlie together, but we had become friends. New parents themselves, they had become our sherpas to the journey of not only having, but also raising, a baby. Few days had gone by when Mindy and I weren’t constantly texting about parent stuff: what to buy and what wasn’t worth it; what various dramatic personae in the Canadian surrogacy world had said or done online that day; the ridiculous pressures mothers faced in a “mommy culture” of brand-sponsored Instagram posts of $20,000 nurseries and strollers with four iPhone chargers (or whatever). As delighted as I was to have Charlie back in Toronto with us, shrinking our parenting team of four down to two was disorienting. When we saw Mindy and Eric at Charlie’s checkup, bearing a cooler of pumped colostrum, I felt my unease melt. Online, I’d been advised frequently by other parents to not continue a relationship with a surrogate because I might feel intimidated by another mother figure in my baby’s life. We had an open relationship with Anna, but the connection between Mindy and Charlie was more immediate and intimate, and thus more potentially threatening. But it never felt right to me to sever it, and now I knew for sure we weren’t doing that. Charlie had knit us together.

And yet, even this flourish of optimism germinated from that familiar black seed: all the miscarriages, the years and years of grief. Some people say the condition of modern womanhood is one of navigating contradictions and clashes: between the personal and the political, the said and the done, the body and the heart. For me, every time I saw Mindy, or Charlie, or even Jeremy, and every time I texted with Anna, I was aware of two stories, the one in which I had to have other women help make my baby (how sad!) and the one in which I got to have a baby with other women (pretty cool!).

Was this a feminist experience? I wasn’t sure. One of the reasons women in my infertility groups often considered surrogacy, like adoption, a ‘last resort’ was that their infertility would become very public and visible, and, because they still faced so much stigma, make them extra-vulnerable. But in the weeks and months that followed Charlie’s birth, I found myself trumpeting his unusual conception, hopeful that by being so public, I might start to chisel at others’ discomfort with, and misconceptions about, female infertility. It was an easier time than ever to be loud: infertility was having a moment in the press. Some of the most revered pop feminist celebrities, including Chrissy Teigen (my favourite), Beyoncé, and Kim Kardashian, were opening up about their struggles with miscarriage and infertility, as well as their experiences with IVF, while gay men such as Elton John, Tom Ford, and at least one of the new Queer Eye guys were talking about building families through egg donation and surrogacy. Articles about infertility ran in almost every publication, including parenting magazines and websites. TV shows were addressing the topic in ways that were surprisingly nuanced: for example, Tyra Banks’s character on the show Black- ish, a new mom after infertility, who confesses that ‘when you’ve tried this hard to have a baby, you think you have no right to complain.’ (Banks is herself infertile and had recently had her first child via surrogacy—I imagined she had something to do with this bit of dialogue.) Screens were full of it: the CBC web series by Wendy Litner, How to Buy a Baby, based on the writer’s own experiences with IVF (Litner subsequently became a mother via adoption); the beautifully told documentary Vegas Baby, about a queer single woman trying to conceive via donor eggs and sperm; and Private Life, a drama about a couple struggling with the aftermath of failed fertility treatments and an unsuccessful adoption. Social media was beginning to provide a welcome alternative to infertility support groups, with Twitter feeds (my favourite: a man with azoospermia who tweets as Balls Don’t Work [@gotnosperm]), Instagrammers, and Tumblr bloggers using imagery and humour to express not only their personal grief, but the often-messy politics of infertility. Many stories, such as Michelle Obama’s disclosure that her daughters were born after a miscarriage and IVF, spurred a long-overdue conversation about infertility and race.

Activists were also making news: in 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario decided in favour of a Markham woman who was fired from her job after suffering depression related to a pregnancy loss, issuing a decision that could ultimately redefine miscarriage as a disability. The same year, the World Health Organization announced they were considering adding single people of all genders, as well as couples in same-sex relationships, to their definition of infertility. An author of the proposed change argued that such people deserved equal access to reproductive health services, including reproductive technologies such as IVF, under their home countries’ health-care programs. While the proposal is still up in the air, it suggested something provocative: that infertile people, as well as people in non-reproductive circumstances (like being single or in a same-sex partnership), may have a “right to reproduce”—a declaration that ultimately expands the idea of “reproductive rights” beyond the negative rights to abortion and birth control.

Alana Cattapan, a feminist historian who documents the history of assisted reproductive technology (ART) legislation in Canada, has argued that the creation of the private ART industry in the West mirrored and entrenched the idea of “reproductive citizenship” in neo-liberal society: a person whose rights to reproduce, or not reproduce, are enabled by their access to free-market biomedical resources, such as birth control, abortion, and technologies like IVF. Legislation, such as the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (the same one with which Jeremy, Mindy, and I had to contend to have Charlie), worked not only to legitimize ART as a private consumer option (instead of a health-care issue to be folded into public health-care plans), but to define who did, and who did not, count as a “reproductive citizen.” Ultimately—and unsurprisingly, given the paucity of feminist voices on the committees that shaped the act—reproductive citizenship was afforded to infertile, straight, middle-class Canadians, while the interests of LGBTQ Canadians, third parties such as surrogates and egg/sperm donors, and the children born of these technologies were marginalized. (For example, only one surrogate was consulted in drafting the policy around surrogacy, and the legislation around sperm donation allows donors to remain anonymous, to the ongoing protest of many children born of donor sperm.)

By privileging the interests of infertile straight couples with money, Cattapan argues, reproductive technology was used to uphold the patriarchal idea of the two-parent, genetically linked, heterosexual family. This reflects a distinction I had long noted in the surrogacy community specifically, where infertile women seeking surrogacy were consumed by the possibility of recreating the typical conception as much as possible—making the surrogacy feel as close to “actually being pregnant” themselves as the situation could allow—while LGBTQ parents-to-be tended to embrace the situation as a whole new way to have babies, a step into the unknown.

Back home, still knit to Mindy but feeling increasingly snug in our pod of three, I spend time in between feedings reading about these families (Charlie strapped on my chest as I hold my phone above his head— the consummate pose of new motherhood in the digital age). The most radical families were born from a technology designed to uphold patriarchal convention. Andrew Solomon has a rambling, widely-flung-but-still-close family composed of kids conceived with his sperm but raised by lesbian parents, a child with his partner conceived through egg donation and surrogacy, and a stepchild via his partner’s former spouse. Michelle Tea, an infertile queer woman who carried and birthed her son, who was conceived with an egg from her partner, who is transmasculine, and donor sperm. Or, closer to home, a single, gay man in my IVF group who is conceiving with a donated embryo and his sister as a surrogate, or my friend Victoria, a surrogate who has carried two children for a gay couple she remains close to in an ‘auntie’ role, and is currently considering a traditional surrogacy (her egg, their sperm) for two men, one of whom is living with HIV (she will be called the child’s ‘surrogate mother’). I used to think the transhumanist theory of Donna Haraway—in which the marginalized appropriate technology to create new ways of being, and new patterns of kinship, identities, and language (one of Solomon’s kids calls him ‘doughnut dad,’ a riff on ‘donor dad’)—was overly utopian, but it was basically already happening. In a Haraway cyborg world, children like Charlie, with his multiple mothers and his biotechnical conception, were not objects of pity but harbingers of a more equitable world, in which the pleasures and risks of family were available to all.

A few weeks after Charlie was born, I found myself going back to my old IVF and surrogacy message boards, wondering what these communities of women could have been like had there been even a vague feminist ethos. If earlier feminists had seen us as sisters, rather than patriarchal dupes or oppressors of other women. If infertility lobby groups had embraced an idea of infertility as an issue of medical, emotional, and spiritual health, rather than a type of consumer identity. I imagined a feminist movement parallel to the one for abortion access, in which women would call for more research into the causes of infertility, the potential efficacies of various treatments, as well as their risks. We could call for expanded access to proven reproductive health care for all Canadians—not just the rich ones, not just those in cities who are partnered and straight—by demanding it be brought under the auspices of a properly regulated health-care system. We could align ourselves with, rather than against, surrogates and egg donors, lobbying for a system in which policies around third-party reproduction are shaped by them, for their own safety and interests, opening up the possibility of them organizing as workers. We could support infertile women who do not conceive in either finding other forms of family or healing into satisfying lives lived without children. Truly patient-centric clinics could bloom under our watch. Perhaps most importantly, infertile feminists could embrace our status as different kinds of women—as the kinds of women who eat people in folk tales and get thrown down elevators in movies—to challenge the idea that motherhood is unthinking, automatic, and instinctual, and be living examples of how maternity is instead a thing that is both worked at and worked for, sometimes by multiple people, and sometimes not by women at all.

I scrolled through the boards, the endless posts about follicle counts and sperm fragmentation and beta results, the proffers of “Hang in there” and wishes of baby dust, and thought I should add something like this, but then the baby started whimpering, and my mother was coming over soon, and within a few minutes I’d forgotten, sucked back into the routine of feeding-then-changing-then-holding Charlie, who still couldn’t care less about whatever pointless debate I was planning on social media. What a creature he was. The incredible muchness of my many-mothered child. His multipronged roots of will and optimism, and shit-tons of money, and advanced science, and—quite deep down now—that black seed of longing and loss.

Much is born from less.

Excerpted from The Seed: How the feminist movement fails infertile women,” by Alexandra Kimball © 2019. All rights reserved. Published by Coach House Books. 

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Making a surrogate mother part of the family

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