Mom Talk: My Surrogacy Journey
Written by Jennifer Talesfore
Photography by Photos Courtesy of Jennifer Talesfore
Like new mother Jennifer Talesfore so eloquently details in her essay below, surrogacy is a practice often shrouded in mystery and judgement. We hope reading her touching personal narrative of love, loss, and hope brings a better understanding to the families going through the surrogacy process and other challenges along the path to parenthood. -KHZ
Ever since my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 34, we knew we would need the help of IVF if we ever wanted to start a family. When the time finally came, we discovered it was going to be much more difficult than just a trip to the lab. Only after several years of doctor visits, surgeries, and repeated disappointments did I finally get pregnant with one of the few viable embryos we were able to create. We were elated. We were finally on our way to start the family we so desperately wanted.
However, at 24 weeks (6 months along) I developed severe preeclampsia, an age-old condition that’s extremely dangerous to the health of both the mother and her baby and a complication that modern medicine still has very few solutions for. I had a few warning signs, but it wasn’t until I was taking a New Years Day hike with my extended family that I realized something was wrong. My ankles and legs were as swollen as tree trunks and I lost my breath at every step. A few hours later I was admitted into the hospital and pumped full of anti-seizure medications that caused the room to spin and made me feel like a million degrees. My blood pressure periodically raced to the levels of a heart attack victim and my kidneys slowed. It went like this for a week until the doctors finally had the heart to tell me that the only way to save me was to induce the delivery of our baby, who at 24 weeks still had translucent skin and lungs only barely able to breathe. Devastatingly, our baby didn’t survive, and after I returned home to face a seemingly unbearable loss, my body only served as another reminder of what was missing. My breasts started producing milk. My stomach remained enlarged. I had a postpartum body without a baby to go with it. I even avoided taking a shower because seeing my body was coming face to face with the grief I could not comprehend or describe. Just walking into the bathroom was a triumph.
As the months went by, and with the help of grief counseling and the love of my family, I slowly regained a part of my old self. We started believing in a future again. With medical records in hand, we decided to visit several doctors to hear what they thought about our chances. They all said the same thing—it was just too risky for me to ever attempt to become pregnant again. I felt a renewed loss—a loss of my baby, a loss of a future family, and for me, what felt like a loss of my identity. After all, what kind of woman am I if I can’t bear a child? The world had taught me that my femininity, that my womanhood was defined by my ability to procreate and to mother.
My husband and I struggled to come to terms with our prognosis. But after months of soul searching and thinking about all the dangers of me trying to carry again, we decided to try to become pregnant through the help of a Gestational Surrogate (GC)—someone who carries the biological child of the mother and father. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but my husband and I agreed that we both wanted a child of our own and were willing to brave more potential heartbreak for the chance.
All I knew about surrogacy was what I had gleaned from celebrity gossip columns—that nefarious surrogates might run off with your baby, that it’s something that high-powered CEOs do who can’t be inconvenienced by a due date, that it’s the territory of wealthy pop stars who have figures to maintain. Thankfully our fertility doctor put us in touch with another couple who had gone through surrogacy and they set us in the right direction. We first contacted one of the many surrogacy agencies doing business in California, which represent surrogates who pass rigorous medical check-ups, both physical and mental, as well as handle the surrogates’ legal processing and documentation. They operate much like an early-2000s online dating service. My husband and I filled out a profile, posted photos of ourselves, happy yet childless at home and traveling on vacation, and listed all the things we were looking for in a woman who might give birth to our child. The surrogates do the same, except their photos often include happy healthy families that assert all the promise of continuing fertility. Emails were then delivered to our inbox every week with a summary of potential matches. Surprisingly, a month later we were matched with a gestational carrier, a pleasant and sweet-looking mother of two named Stephanie, who lived relatively close to us. Even though our hearts were still aching, it felt good to move forward with a plan, no matter how difficult that plan might be to actualize.
We met for an initial interview—a first date so to speak. We arrived at a nondescript office building next to the San Jose airport where we met Stephanie and her husband and a representative of the agency who served as both facilitator and mediator. I don’t think my husband and I had ever been so nervous. The meeting lasted over an hour as we told our story and went back and forth asking and answering questions. Some inquiries were softballs like, “What are three words that describe your personality?” sprinkled in between heavy hitters like, “What are your feelings on abortion?” and “Is it important that your gestational carrier believes in God?” Never had I thought that I would discuss such socially taboo topics over Dixie cups of water with complete strangers. But by the end of the conversation, I left feeling like we had been matched with a family who not only shared our love for family but who understood and respected our circumstances. If this indeed was some sort of a dating game, then perhaps we had found love at first sight.
After deciding that Stephanie would be our gestational carrier, a decision that both parties had to make, we went through rounds of appointments and tests, not to mention the signing and preparation of countless legal documents, affidavits, and contracts to ensure that the potential child would legally be ours. The day came for the embryo transfer and all four of us—my husband, me, Stephanie, and her husband—walked into the same tiny room that my husband and I walked into a year ago for my own transfer. This time, however, I watched from a chair on the sidelines as they transferred our embryo into someone I had only known a short while. When it was done, my chest hurt. I clearly remembered the day nearly a year prior when I walked out of the clinic with my hand on my belly, but this time, I kept my eyes on Stephanie’s stomach and thought to myself, “Our child, a part of me and my husband, is now in someone else.” To me, Stephanie was now this vessel that I felt I had to protect. I held the doors open for her. I made sure her husband drove her home. I prepared snacks and downloaded feel-good movies at my apartment so that we could all sit in a relaxed atmosphere. After a short while, it was time for Stephanie to leave and suddenly, my delicate embryo was leaving me. I feared that I would never feel a connection to it. From then on, after appointments and meetings with Stephanie, driving away from my bump became a constant struggle. The notion that parenting was learning to live with your heart outside of your body took a very literal meaning to me. I learned to live for each and every small text message from Stephanie to let me know how she was feeling. I even recorded voice messages and sang songs for Stephanie to play for our growing child. Even though I wasn’t physically carrying, I found myself as close to my bump as I could get, and in doing so, we started to form a close relationship with Stephanie and her family that by the end, blossomed into true friendship. Stephanie and her family became an amazing support system for us.
In July of this year, Stephanie went into labor. We got the call at 11pm, four days after the due date. After Stephanie’s husband told us that things were moving fast and to meet them at the hospital, we hung up the phone and my husband jumped up with a huge grin and shouted, “Lets go get our baby!” When we made it to the hospital, we found ourselves crammed in a room with over 10 people—nurses, doctors, a doula, Stephanie’s family—a big welcoming committee to say the least. In three short hours our baby was crowning, and the doctor told me to scrub in. She situated me between Stephanie’s legs and coached me as I pulled our baby’s slippery body onto my chest. Through sobs I looked down…it was a boy! I was crying. I was laughing. I was speaking in intelligible fits and starts. In that moment when I looked at our new son and held him, all the struggles of the past few years melted away. My husband and I held our baby tight. We were finally together.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel truly lucky that surrogacy was an option for us, and that we live in a place in the world that allows it. (Compensated surrogacy is completely prohibited in four U.S. states—including New York and Washington—and poses substantial legal hurdles in many others.) But, I’ve also had a difficult time navigating the many unexpected feelings that come with it. With all the feelings of gratitude, love, and hope, came envy, isolation, and grief. I wished it could have been me who felt those fluttering kicks in the stomach. I wished I could have bared the brunt of pregnancy. I wished nurses and doctors wouldn’t have stopped and asked me who I was when I followed Stephanie into the examination room. But more than anything, I wished I could have figured out how to talk to people about what I was going through. When I told people we were expecting, they would often look incredulously at my flat belly and I would have to stumble through the explanation. People would often follow up with comments about how lucky I was to avoid the pain of giving birth. Here’s a hint—the last thing someone wants to hear who suffers the loss of a child and her ability to give birth is how lucky she is not to have to experience firsthand the miracle of child birth. As a result, in a time where I should have been shouting my excitement from the rooftops, I often kept the news to myself. I was going to be a mom, but I didn’t look like an expecting mother to anyone. Perhaps this is why surrogacy is barely talked about and therefore carries a stigma of being an easy choice for people who can’t be bothered to carry their own child—those of us who go through it lack examples of how to discuss it openly and honestly. But I am trying, and no matter how painful or awkward, I’m starting to open up. Baby steps.
This has been a journey like no other, one that enlisted the help and love of so many people—a true village coming together to help us become a family. To offer one’s body for the sake of another is a sacred act, and it has only made me more appreciative and grateful to the kindness of others. I’ve learned that there are many different ways to become a family, all just as valid and beautiful and harrowing as the next. I’ve learned that my womanhood is not defined by my fertility or the bump I carry or even the desire to have children—but defined by courage, openness, honesty, and trust. Being a woman carries power, and you don’t have to carry a child to have it.
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