Discover more from HeyReprotech
SUMMER REPLAY: When intended parents offer surrogates a post-birth relationship, do they mean it?
Many surrogates want to get updates and maintain contact after the birth. And many intended parents promise it. Is that sincere or sometimes just a sales pitch?
4 minute read
Beth Miller had never given much thought to surrogacy. It wasn't until she bumped into a former babysitter, and heard about the young woman's struggles to have a family, that she first turned the concept over in her mind. The two women hadn't seen each other for more than 20 years, but now they started meeting for lunch. "We talked about it for a year or more, about the idea of it, the planning of it," says Miller. "I was going to be the auntie type figure."
They consulted with the IVF clinic. Miller (not her real name) was healthy, and had had two uncomplicated pregnancies and births. But she was also 48 years old. The doctor said they didn't normally do surrogacy at her age, but given that she was considered a very close friend, almost family, they would make an exception.
"To be honest, I really didn't know much about surrogacy at all," says Miller. When she spoke to her lawyer on the phone, before drawing up the contract, the lawyer asked if she was working with an agency. "I didn't even know what an agency was."
Miller says she was motivated both by their acquaintance and by the fact that for various reasons the woman had faced discrimination her whole life. "If I could bring hope to her," she says, "then it seemed like I was doing the right thing."
But pregnancy was different from when she'd been younger. Her blood pressure was high, and towards the end, she developed preeclampsia. She gave birth to a healthy baby, born via C-section, about two years ago.
Miller suffered post-partum depression, which she'd never experienced before. She also developed pregnancy-related carpal tunnel syndrome, and the pain medication made her hallucinate.
Following the birth, with 50 pounds of extra weight and an incision across her midsection, she needed some clothes. "I had never had a Caesarian," she says, "so I didn't know that you would need certain clothing to fit." Clothes for after the birth were not included in the expenses — which did cover things like supplements, additional groceries, travel to appointments and acupuncture — but Miller wanted to get back to work, so she asked the parents to cover the cost. "The response I got was they were tired of being constantly reminded of the sacrifices I made." (They did pay.)
Miller had thought that once they got the baby home and the pain of infertility had receded, the resentment would fall away. But after the transfer of legal parentage was complete, about three weeks after the birth, the parents cut off contact. "They basically ditched me," she says.
Something similar happened to Jenny Lee (not her real name). Like Miller, she had also been told she'd be auntie to her couple's child. "Literally hours after I gave birth, there was this complete shift of energy," she recalls. The parents had another room in the hospital, where they were celebrating. "They took the baby. Tons of family came to see them. I was basically ignored from that point on."
Before agreeing to the surrogacy, Lee had made sure to only sign on with parents who lived close by and were interested in maintaining a relationship. "I wanted some kind of connection. The whole idea of surrogacy to me is you're helping create a family — that they would have had a hard time creating their own family, and I'm sort of a piece of the puzzle, helping them out. Not that I need 100 pats on the back or fireworks, but I wanted to see the family grow." She says she would have been happy with social media updates, the odd email or a visit here or there. But she got nothing.
"It's such a weird feeling when you give birth to this baby and then that's it — you don't ever see them again. You don't hear about how they're doing, but you're always wondering."
Miller, who is an adoptee, worries what it will be like for the child to be denied a connection with her. "Would I do it again if somebody told me I wouldn't have any contact? No."
Both women now wonder if the intended parents ever had any intention of maintaining contact. Lee often thinks back on the early conversations she had with the family. "I replay those conversations in my mind," she says. "I think they basically just told me what I wanted to hear." Infertility can make you desperate, she says: "Some couples are willing to do whatever it takes to get a surrogate."
Miller is unhappy about what happened. "It feels like coercion," she says. "Emotional coercion. We all talk about not being allowed to coerce with money, but the emotional may be even more difficult to process."
"When it comes down to it," she says, "you're just a donated womb."
While writing this piece, I recalled an old interview, in which a mother described how her feelings toward her surrogate changed after the birth.
The two women had become extremely close during the pregnancy. During the final weeks, the surrogate moved back to her mother's house, so her mom could take care of her, and and the intended mother moved in too. "We shared a room. We had Bert and Ernie beds — two twin-sized beds — we felt like we were in college! We literally stayed up until four in the morning every night talking."
They had intended to stay in touch. But after the birth and after the boys had come home from the hospital, and after some tensions over money, the relationship was really over for the intended mother. I remember asking her, when the babies were seven months old, who the surrogate was to them. She was candid.
"She's nobody to them... She's not their aunt, she's not their sister, she's not their mom, she's not a blood relative, she's not a close friend of mom's, she's — she doesn't exist. At all. Yeah, I don't want her to exist anymore."
A week before our interview, the surrogate had sent a text wishing her happy birthday. The mother thanked her and asked her how she was doing. This was after months of not speaking at all.
"And she said, 'I'm doing great. I've had a little bit of personal drama, but everything's fine. How are you? How are the boys? What's going on? I hate not knowing.'"
The mother replied that they were well.
"I thought, do I really want her to know how they're doing? Do I want her to know how they look? Do I want her to have any sort of connection at all to them? But I didn't have the heart to not, so I said, you know, 'They're rolling over, they're sitting up, they're laughing and babbling and getting really big.'"
The surrogate asked if it would be okay to see a picture. It took the mom a long time to respond, but in the end she sent one.
"She wrote back and said, 'I miss you. I miss our friendship. I miss the boys. I miss not knowing what's going on in your life. I miss your family. I miss everything. I don't want to rehash the past, but I would like to stay in touch. Do you have any desire to?'
"What I wanted to say to her — but I couldn't — but what I wanted to say was, 'My life is better without you and I'm able to move on.' But I didn't have the heart to say it. I said, 'Sure we can give it a shot and see what happens.' "
Ten years have passed. They did not stay in touch.
A version of this item was originally published in HeyReprotech on February 2, 2021.
All summer, HeyReprotech will be replaying favourite stories from over the past four years. All items will be open-access, so please encourage your friends and colleagues to sign up.
HeyReprotech is a weekly newsletter exploring the ripples caused by assisted reproduction, written by freelance journalist Alison Motluk.
Above all, thank you for being here and thank you for your interest in this field.
Follow me @HeyReprotech
Send questions, comments, or tips to firstname.lastname@example.org