A year after we married, my husband and I began moving toward our goal of becoming fathers. We decided we wanted to shepherd our children into the world from their very beginning, so chose to pursue surrogacy.
Our first two attempts to work with a GC (gestational carrier) ended poorly, but the lessons we learned were critical to the success of the two surrogate relationships that followed.
Like many intended parents, we knew little about surrogacy when we began. We knew several couples who’d worked with full-service surrogacy agencies, and asked them about their experience. “For all the money we paid to the agency, this is all we got?” one complained. “We couldn’t get the clinic nurse to call us back, and the case manager was hardly ever available!” another said. After listening, my husband and I asked each other -- since we both managed projects for a living, did we really need a full service agency for a successful surrogacy?
We set up an appointment at a small do-it-yourself agency whose founder, an attorney, we had met at an LGBT family conference. At our first meeting, she was warm, enthusiastic, and prepared.
She warned us the process could be drawn out, and encouraged us to begin preparations immediately. We soon signed a contract for her services. After also starting a separate egg donor search, we soon began receiving piles of questionnaires from the agency’s office that had been completed by potential surrogates and pre-screened.
Since each woman’s identity was hidden, all we had to go on were answers about medical history, motivations, and current circumstances.
We didn’t have to read too many questionnaires to discover a theme.
Young lives, usually in rural areas, mired in poor circumstances. Part time jobs at the Mini-Mart. A boyfriend’s DWI for reasons “I can explain, really. He was only trying to help find out where I gone.” Babies first appearing at 16, 17. Educations cut short.
I felt like I was flipping through a numbing accumulation of lost souls. Where was the screening we’d expected? Should we not be concerned for these women? For choices they may not understand? Could a surrogacy be just one more bad choice they were about to make, one that could now lay in part on our shoulders?
I was torn between figuring out how to choose a GC to build our family, and overriding concern for these young women and their families. We could only suppose that this was what surrogacy really was.
It felt heavy and irretractable to select the first candidate from the growing pile. We chose Teresa. She lived only a few hours away. Teresa was in her early 30s, with three young children, and a husband who worked in construction. Our first conversation had no obvious hiccups. We agreed to speak on the phone again a week later. On that next call, Teresa had news for us. Even though she thought her husband supported her desire to be a GC, she said he had now left her because of it. We didn’t know what to say. We imagined her alone at home with her small children because of our actions, just a phone call we had made.
Then, impossibly, insanely, she said, “I still want to do this for you.”
“No, no,” we backed off. “You need to take care of your family.”
I silently mouthed, “Good luck.”
Next up was Dee, from a small Midwestern town. She was chirpy on the phone, with a country drawl. I imagined her as sweet and funny. Dee was opinionated yet vulnerable. It seemed this surrogacy would be the solution to something – what that was, we didn’t know.
We flew Dee and her husband in to stay at a hotel near our house for a night in order to have a complete evaluation at a nearby fertility clinic. We could meet and become acquainted.
My husband and I picked them up at the airport on a beautiful spring morning. At the crowded passenger pick up curb, they each awkwardly handed me a teddy bear as a gift. I recognized them immediately as strangers.
We headed straight for the fertility clinic, an hour’s drive away. It included a session for Dee alone with a psychologist. The psychologist came over to talk with us afterwards, while Dee was with a physician.
“Dee has some minor issues, but overall, I think she’ll do fine.”
I had planned a nice evening for us in our home. Soft lights, a nice dining room table set, steaks on the grill. We could sit out on the deck, and talk over a glass of wine while the grill sizzled and roasted the meat.
Once home that night, I felt us descending into a morass I couldn’t communicate through. I desperately clawed for common ground in conversation. Something to say, questions to ask, funny stories to laugh about. The psychologist had said she’d be fine, right?
We moved ahead.
A few weeks later, Dee began the medication to time her cycle with the retrieval of eggs from our chosen donor. My husband and I headed to Montana for a short trip to attend a friend’s wedding. We had been talking to Dee regularly. She seemed like she enjoyed the communication.
After we arrived at our hotel, suddenly, there was only silence. Dee didn’t answer her phone, nor did her husband. We had no way to get in contact with her. Was she okay? Had she changed her mind? Was she having side effects? Was she even taking the medications properly? There was no way to know. The clinic nurse was unable to contact her as well.
After we arrived back home, a call finally came from Dee.
“What’s happening?” we asked.
“Well, I’m in the hospital in Louisville. They say I have a heart infection.” A heart infection? “I probably won’t be able to get pregnant this cycle.” She sounded blithely unconcerned.
“Dee, we don’t care about the cycle. We’re worried about you.”
“Oh, I’ll be okay!” she laughed.
“Okay, Dee, we’ll contact the clinic and let them know.”
A week later, Dee called back. “I’m out of the hospital! Just needed some IV antibiotics, you know. By the way, I’ll be ready again in a few weeks, so we can get back to making that baby.”
“Uh, Dee, you’ve had a serious illness, I don’t think it’s wise for us to talk about that right now.”
We hung up the phone. It hit us that we couldn’t be sure that Dee had been in the hospital at all. The buzzing discomfort we had felt dealing with Dee wasn’t about cultural differences -- Dee had significant emotional issues, and we had dodged a bullet. Vastly more importantly, our embryos had.
We later learned that most reputable full-service surrogacy agencies screen GC applicants far more deeply and effectively than the small agency we worked with, turning down the large majority of those who apply. Regardless, our experiences with Teresa and Dee helped us form rules that would prove crucial to our eventual success.
Choose an agency that’s detail-oriented and views you as a partner as much as a client.
Every surrogacy agency screens applicants differently. In fact, one aspect of evaluating an agency is to learn how they describe and treat their GC candidates. Are these actions in alignment with how you think others should be treated?
We have encountered wonderful people in our dealings with surrogacy and egg donor agencies and fertility clinics. However, they, like us, work for a living, and this is their business. Their experience and authority can easily dominate timid, inexperienced intended parents. Don’t let anyone’s prestige, role or even condescension keep you from exercising and relying on your own research and intuition. No one knows better than you do how to pay attention. In retrospect, we see this responsibility as one of the first acts of parenting we performed.
Draw a potential surrogate out.
It’s vital to get potential GC’s to talk about themselves and their life, though it may not be their style. Perform enough due diligence to be sure that any potential surrogate’s reason for helping you is a reason that speaks to you directly.
This is not dating. You are not trying to woo a potential GC and her husband. Surrogacy is a project that all of you are working on together as a team. There’s a critical team connection to be made (or not).
One of the most important demands of surrogacy is the ability to relate intimately, and about the most incredible, even sacred, bodily function there is. If there is doubt by either you or her as to whether that bond between you is possible or likely, respond to it while there is time.
Pay attention to your instincts.
Rely on the same gut instincts about potential GC’s that you would have about anyone important coming into your life. I don’t know of any collaboration in the world where the presence of a gnawing, anxious feeling heralds a likelihood of success.
Here are some broad ideas to consider:
Does the GC have family nearby who she can rely on emotionally? - If even minor differences of opinion crop up with her or her husband, how do all of you handle it together?
Does she describe the people near her as complex human beings, or as all-good or all-bad?
Has she had disagreements or even feuds within her extended family, and if so, how did she handle and feel about them?
When you discuss issues that might arise during and after pregnancy, is the conversation comfortable?
Does she display empathy for people in trouble that she doesn’t know well?
The final step is possibly the hardest. You (and perhaps your spouse) will almost certainly be having an emotional reaction to the possibility of someone carrying your child who, until practically a moment ago, was a stranger. It’s vital to acknowledge these strong feelings, but remain outwardly focused as well.
See if you can bridge two worlds.
Unless your potential GC is a friend or family member, it’s highly likely that the two (or three) of you would not have ever met or known each other. You and she were born and have lived your lives in different worlds, where there are different unwritten rules for managing relationships and life decisions. Sometimes these differences can be huge.
The only way forward is to not hide the gap, but try and bridge it, even if only temporarily. Imagine how to encounter this potential GC and her family, on their terms. Expose yourself to them during this time of intense consideration and expect the same in return. Only then can you realistically estimate whether there’s a match for intertwining your families’ lives for a life-changing period.