Making a surrogate mother part of the family

There’s no name for the relationship that forms between a surrogate and the parents of the baby she carries. But in this special case, “friendship” only scratches the surface.

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“Frank and Norm!” the kids squeal as two men walk into the house with a car seat holding a very precious passenger: Baby Luca. The children clamour around this little guy who, they tell people, once lived in their mommy’s tummy. And then they’re off, pulling Frank and Norm to see their newly tidied rooms and latest works of art. Their mom, Angela, is weaving through the crowd to greet her guests with hugs as their dad, Rene, comes in from doing chores at the barn.

They might be the best of friends now, but less than two years ago they were complete strangers, and Luca was just a dream. That all changed, thanks to Angela. And Facebook.

In the summer of 2012, Frank Emanuele was on a mission: Find a woman to have his baby.

Frank, a teacher, and his husband, Norm Furtado, a doctor, hit it off right away when they met in 2005, but there was one topic on which they were divided—kids. Norm hadn’t really seriously considered fatherhood yet, but for Frank, it was non-negotiable. “It was like, if you want to get on board,” he says, “this is where the train is going!”

As their relationship got more serious, so did the baby conversation. Eventually the idea of expanding their family felt right, so in early 2011 they started investigating surrogacy. The couple knew they wanted a separate egg donor and gestational carrier (meaning the woman carrying the baby wouldn’t be genetically linked to it). Finding a woman to donate her eggs turned out to be easy, when a friend of Norm’s from medical school said she’d be willing. It was finding an oven for their precious bun (a.k.a. their frozen fertilized embryos) that was the challenge.

Frank took the surrogate search into his very determined hands, navigating the complicated, unregulated world of Canadian surrogacy through online research and agencies that help match “intended parents” (IPs) with surrogates. It’s illegal in Canada to pay a woman to carry your child, though IPs can pay for their carrier’s expenses. Frank learned quickly that the process can get pricey regardless, and that regulations are murky.

They joined Surrogacy in Canada Online, a site which gave them access to information and a Facebook group for surrogates and IPs. Frank says the process of searching for the perfect surrogate felt like online dating: “I was on there every night and every day. He quickly grew disappointed at how many women were just looking for preliminary information or were already committed to another couple. It was also a challenge to find a surrogate who lived nearby, with some IPs working with surrogates out of province or even across the country.

After a couple of months, they finally got a bite. Frank and Norm were excitedly anticipating their coffee date with the woman who might carry their child, but after they met, she ended up choosing another couple.

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“I was kind of relieved,” Norm admits. “She was looking for a long-lasting friendship and a lot of support that I wasn’t sure we could provide. So I was OK with her choosing someone else, but that created tension between Frank and me.”

“I didn’t think we could afford to be that picky,” Frank says. “I was starting to feel desperate.”

Angela Peeters didn’t know that a conversation with a random pregnant woman in a restaurant would one day change her life. “I remember chatting with her before I had kids,” Angela says. “It turned out she was a surrogate. She’d done it three times for three different couples. I was fascinated, and remember coming home and telling Rene that I would totally want to do that.”

Fast-forward five years, and Angela and Rene have a house full of their own kids: four-year-old Madelyn, three-year-old twins Emily and Carter, and one-year-old Cole. They had decided that their baby-making days were over—well, sort of. Rene was certain of this; Angela had other plans.

“Surrogacy was always in the back of my mind,” she says. “I started hearing about more and more people—friends, family, in the news—who couldn’t have their own kids. It made me incredibly sad. By the summer of 2012, I decided to start researching.”

One night Angela found herself on the same surrogacy Facebook page as a guy named Frank. “It was a fluke,” she says. “I was still up in the air about whether it was really a good time for us because I was still nursing Cole. But someone posted a question about where everyone lived. Frank said he was in London, Ont., and I was shocked, because people on there are from all over. I posted that I was just an hour north.”

Angela immediately received a private message from Frank, and the two fell into an easy rhythm. “We would chat online pretty much every night,” she says. “I remember sitting with my laptop in our living room thinking, ‘This guy is really cool,’ and talking to Rene about it. And Rene said to me, ‘You’re not really serious about this, are you?’”

She was. “Once I started talking to Frank, it wasn’t just an idea anymore. There was a person attached,” Angela explains. “Our family is very chaotic, and in order for me to do this, the couple had to be aware of what our life was like. So I said, ‘You need to come here and meet my kids—I’ll make supper.’ If my kids warmed up to them, I knew I’d feel better about it.”

Frank remembers being shocked by the invitation, and the prospect that this could actually be happening for them. “We were nervous. It felt like a first date—‘How’s my hair?’ ‘Am I wearing the right outfit?’ ‘I really hope she likes us!’”

But as soon as they walked in the door (with cupcakes), that anxiety disappeared. The kids ran to greet them at the front door. They were bouncing off the walls with excitement.

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“There were hugs right away, it was a good feeling,” Angela remembers. “And Emily, who is my introvert, went to them immediately. I get chills thinking about it, because it was something I’ve never seen from her. That was a huge thing for me. They brought the kids a pack of books, and Frank read to her. Cole was right in Norm’s lap. It was great.”

They had dinner, put the kids to bed together, and then the four adults got down to the business of discussing what a potential surrogate partnership would look like.

“We talked about a lot of taboo details that we thought were going to be hard to broach,” Frank says. “But as we now know, that’s Angela. She’s very no-nonsense.” Both couples had been looking at sample contracts and knew the issues that needed to be discussed. A big one, of course, was money.

“We wanted to set a base amount for what we thought would cover our expenses,” explains Angela. “I didn’t want to have to say, ‘I bought vitamins. Can I have twenty bucks?’ I knew it was a world where there was a lot of grey area because the law is so vague about what expenses include. But in order for us to agree to do this we had to feel, ultimately, it was for a good reason, not about money.”

“We had no intention of getting rich on this,” says Rene, “but we didn’t want to go into the hole, either.”

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They were able to quickly agree on a monthly amount, with the understanding that if she decided to do this, Angela would keep an ongoing spreadsheet of her expenses. They also discussed issues like genetic testing, under what circumstances the pregnancy would be terminated and who would be present at the birth.

By all accounts, Rene was the grounding force in this situation. “Angela was so excited and had all these plans,” says Frank. “She, too, was someone who anticipated a long-term friendship. Rene was the one who said, ‘Back down a little here. You can’t guarantee that.’ That made us feel more comfortable about moving forward.”

Frank and Norm left the Peeters’ house late that night feeling elated. Not only did they believe they had found their surrogate, but Angela was a person who was doing it for all the right reasons.

There were a few phone calls and questions in the following weeks, and then one day Frank found a card in their mailbox from the Peeters. On the front of it was a picture of a big oven. Inside, it read, “Yes, we will be your oven!”

Instead of leaving contract talk to their lawyers, they gathered again around the Peeters’ dinner table and hashed out the final details between themselves. (They then presented the contract to their respective lawyers to make it legal.)

“There’s a lot in the sample contracts about telling the surrogate what she can eat,” Frank says. “We scrapped that whole section and just said, ‘We trust you. Clearly you know how to have healthy children.’ She’s the one who’s done this before. There was an element of trust that formed very quickly between us, and Angela’s attitude was to not beat around the bush about anything—just talk it out. That’s what made this successful.”

By December, Angela was undergoing the first embryo transfer. When Norm and Frank picked Angela up at home for the drive to the fertility clinic in Toronto, Rene handed them a box of chocolates and joked, “I wasn’t sure what to give the guys who are going to go impregnate my wife!”

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They found out just before Christmas that the transfer wasn’t successful. Angela was heartbroken, though Frank and Norm knew that it could take a few tries.

They did a second transfer in mid-January. A few weeks later, Angela scheduled a Skype call with Frank and Norm. “She said, ‘I have this cool video for you to watch, but I want to see your face as you watch it,’” Frank says. “So I launched this video and saw all these pee sticks and thought, ‘Wait, what’s going on here…’ We were waiting and waiting and then all the little lines came up, the ‘yeses,’ the ‘pregnant,’ and I freaked out!”

It was finally time to tell the kids. Frank and Norm brought over a book called The Kangaroo Pouch, about a little joey whose mother decides to help another family have a baby. They explained that just like in the book, Frank and Norm wanted to have a baby, but had no “pouch.”

“Emily piped up, ‘You can have baby Cole!’” Norm laughs.

So Angela asked the kids, “What do you think if we help Frank and Norm have a baby using Mommy’s tummy?” They all enthusiastically agreed.

“I liked that they felt part of it from the beginning,” Frank says. “There were nights the kids didn’t see their mom because she was in Toronto with us. Sometimes I’d cart her away while they cried at the door. We’d leave Rene to tend to four little kids and that’s not easy either. They were all a part of this.” Adds Angela: “We didn’t know how much the kids understood about their relationship, but we just rolled with it. We didn’t see any need to put a label on it. By that time, everything was ‘Frank and Norm’ to the kids. They are always talking about Frank and Norm.”

“For a while, they thought Frank’s name was Frankandnorm,” Rene laughs.

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The relationship between the two families grew naturally. They talked or texted most days, and either Frank or Norm attended prenatal appointments with Angela. Angela turned her 34th birthday celebration into a surprise “reveal” party for the guys. With their permission, she found out the baby’s gender, filled a box with a certain colour of balloons and had them open the top flap in front of all of the guests. They were blue. The dads-to-be decided they would name their son Luca.

It was Angela whom they asked to accompany them as they registered for baby shower gifts, since they had no idea what to choose. They’d take Rene and Angela out to a fancy restaurant or look after their kids every once in a while, too, so they could have a night out. They also invited Angela to their baby showers, where she became the guest of honour, while building fast, close relationships with their families. Angela and Rene also joined the celebration when Frank and Norm officially tied the knot in July 2013.

At the Peeters’ house, the kids were taking it all in stride. “We were very clear that this was Frank and Norm’s baby,” says Angela. “Not once did I hear anything about ‘Mommy’s baby.’ At Maddie’s birthday party that summer, one of the parents came up to me and said, ‘Oh, when are you due to have your baby?’ And Maddie piped up and said, ‘My mommy’s not having a baby, she’s growing a baby for Frank and Norm.’ She understood. There was no confusion.”

That acceptance didn’t necessarily carry over into the Peeters’ tight-knit town, where Angela’s pregnancy became big news. “Nobody got it,” Rene says. “Rumours started flying around, but you have to separate yourself from that stuff. Who cares? I didn’t have as much of a problem with that as Angela.”

The question Angela most often faced was “Why?”

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“I realized that if people couldn’t fathom doing it themselves, they had trouble understanding how I could do it. They wanted to figure out what made me different. But it was just a choice. As cheesy as it sounds, I was drawn to the idea of this altruistic, beautiful thing. Some people would give anything to have a baby and it makes my heart ache. I thought, if I have this gift—and it really is a gift to be able to have babies—why not share it? What’s 10 months of your life? And look what came about.”

Rene was worried that Angela would become emotionally attached to Luca, but Angela says she was never concerned. “He never felt like mine. I was growing him, I was taking care of him—and then I was giving him back,” she says. “The terminology was extremely important. When people asked, ‘How are you going to be able to give him up?’ I’d say, ‘I’m not giving him up, I’m giving him back. He’s not mine.’”

The ties Luca’s creation forged are the result of a genuine affection between the families, including the kids. “Angela said that one of her reasons for doing this was to give her kids a story, and to show them how to be selfless,” says Frank. “She wanted to teach them that when we’re in a position to help somebody else, we help, and we don’t expect anything in return. Right from the beginning that was one of the things that connected us to her.”

Read more: Post-traumatic (childbirth) stress disorder>

Luca was born on October 8, 2013. Everyone was at the hospital—Frank’s family, Rene, even some new-found friends of Angela’s who are also surrogates. After Luca’s safe arrival, Rene brought the kids to meet the baby they’d been chatting with and reading to in utero. There were no issues, just a lot of excitement and hugs—and a request to have Luca over for a playdate. Angela remembers feeling a sense of pride. “It was like, ‘Hooray, I did it!’”

Angela went home to her family, and Frank and Norm to theirs. But as the guys adjusted to life with a newborn, Angela’s world came crashing down. The first few days postpartum were tough for her. While most women have a baby to occupy their time as they recuperate, she didn’t. “I remember texting Rene at the barn and saying I’m crying and crying, and I don’t know why,” Angela says. “It was probably just hormones, but I know he was worried. He said to me, ‘You knew this was going to be the hard part. You’re the strongest woman I know. You’ll get through this.’”

Angela struggled to make sense of her emotions. “I was trying to give the guys their space. It was their time now, my job was done. But I missed them. I realized I wasn’t missing the baby, I was missing Frank and Norm, and there was this sense of not being needed anymore.”

Then later that day Frank texted Angela a photo of Luca and asked if he could call. She was flooded with relief. Angela says that Frank and Norm always seemed to say and do exactly what she needed in those early days, including referring to her as “Auntie Angela” and inviting her to join them for Luca’s first doctor’s appointment and his newborn photo session.

“Norm and I cried while Frank set Luca up for his baby pictures,” she remembers. “We were together for hours that day and it tied everything up. I kept thinking, ‘Now I’ve got to get back to my life.’ But I realized I couldn’t go back to how things were before. It would never be the same. We’re all joined in a huge way now.”

Luca is now seven months old, and Frank and Norm still see the Peeters regularly. They’re so entwined that whenever Norm and Frank’s family members come to visit, they want to visit the Peeters family, too.

“Before we got to know Angela, I had mentally prepared some limits about when we’d see each other and what would happen afterwards,” Frank says. “But none of that exists anymore. There’s no need.”

And it’s a good thing, since Angela’s work here might not be done. “We knew going into it that they wanted more than one child,” Angela says. “I couldn’t commit to it at the time, but I want Luca to have a sibling—it would complete their family and I want it to be me. I’d really like to be Auntie Ange to both of them.”

“Nothing’s been decided yet,” Rene interjects.

But you can tell by Angela’s expression that it’s only a matter of time.

This article originally appeared in our June 2014 issue with the headline “Family ties, ” p. 70-74.

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