how i got this baby

The Mom of 3 Who Has Been a Surrogate 4 Times

Illustration: Palesa Monareng

Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, “How I Got This Baby” is a series that invites parents to share their stories.

When Molly took a job at the front desk of a fertility clinic in Connecticut, she didn’t know much about assisted reproductive technology. Her own children were 2, 6, and 15, and she had gotten pregnant with all of them easily. (She became a mother when she was 18 — a senior in high school.) But Molly soon discovered that she found the job supremely gratifying, especially when it came to talking with patients. In her first year of work, she got to know scores of would-be parents, many with heartbreaking stories of multiple pregnancy losses and failed IVF cycles and embryo transfers. She also became well acquainted with the specific, careful steps patients had to follow ahead of an IVF cycle or embryo transfer. Some of the patients she worked with were surrogates, and it was Molly’s job to answer their basic questions about the medications they needed to take to prepare the endometrium (the lining of the uterus) for an embryo transfer.

The more Molly learned about surrogacy, the more interested she became in trying it herself. She and her husband didn’t want more children of their own, but Molly didn’t mind being pregnant and wasn’t intimidated by the idea of carrying a child for someone else.

Molly, now 41, shares how she made the leap from learning about surrogacy to becoming a surrogate carrier four times over.

On what prompted her to consider surrogacy seriously

I remember meeting a patient who the staff and I felt wasn’t following her instructions for her medication correctly. She was taking the wrong things in the wrong doses, by accident. I remember thinking, What’s going on here? How is this happening? In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so judgy — there are lots of meds to take and needles to swap, and it’s actually pretty easy to make a mistake. But at the time, I remember thinking, Okay, if she can do this, I can. This patient was super-young and didn’t get pregnant. But I knew I was mature and settled enough to handle it, and I thought I’d do a good job.

Around that same time, my eldest, Riley, came out as nonbinary — and that was another big motivation. I was open to being a surrogate for anyone, but I started to think that it would be really cool to carry for a same-sex couple. I thought it would be meaningful for Riley — and, really, for all of my kids — to see that. I wanted to show them that families come in all shapes and sizes, and that there are lots of ways to build one.

On telling her family she wanted to be a surrogate

When I told my husband I wanted to do it, he was supportive but cautious. He said something like, “Are you sure you want to?” I think he was looking out for me, but ultimately he got onboard 100 percent. “If this is how you want to help people, okay,” he said.

My mom was less understanding. She literally didn’t get how it worked. It’s funny to think back on it now, but I think she thought I was going to give away her grandkid. She’d make these weird comments. Eventually, I realized I needed to explain it. “You know I’m not going to be related to this baby, right?” I said. It seemed to click for her after that.

On contemplating the payment for surrogacy

There’s no guarantee you’ll even become pregnant after an embryo transfer — so you have to want to do it for more than just the money. Compensation can vary widely and it’s very agency specific. At my agency, I learned I’d receive a small bonus after I signed a contract with an intended parent or parents, and then receive a medication start fee when I began taking the hormonal treatments to prepare for embryo transfer. There would be another payment after the embryo transfer, and a third after heartbeat confirmation. When I started doing this, the normal base fee was $25,000 to $35,000. Now, first-time surrogates often receive anywhere from $45,000 to $50,000.

I also learned that my care would be covered by both the intended parents and my health insurance. (In my legal agreements with the intended parents, it always states that anything not covered by my insurance will be covered by them.) The intended parents also pay for co-pays and anything OB-related that goes toward my deductible. (In some states, intended parents cover insurance premiums as well, but not in Connecticut.) They also cover travel costs associated with medical screenings and embryo transfers, as well as a monthly fee, like $200, to pay for incidentals like prenatal vitamins and prescriptions — plus an allowance for maternity clothes. Usually, that kicks in around 16 to 20 weeks. It’s like $500 to $700.

Each party also has to have their own attorney. That’s partly to make sure the surrogate isn’t going to make a claim for the baby after delivery. I think that’s always a thought in the intended parents’ minds — what if she wants to keep the baby? But honestly, I’ve worked in the industry long enough to know that that rarely happens. There are those weird, rare Lifetime movie cases, but 99 percent of people who pursue surrogacy are as invested in the process as the intended parents are. Most surrogates’ attorney costs are paid by the intended parents or the surrogacy agency.

On submitting her application

First, I went through a basic check of my health background, with questions about my previous pregnancies and whether I’d had complications. With my daughter, my middle child, I had diet-controlled gestational diabetes. And with my son, my youngest, I had cholestasis, a liver condition that can be dangerous if it’s not monitored and sometimes requires women to deliver early. My son was born healthy, at a good size, at 37 weeks. Still, I needed to do additional testing to get cleared by the agency to match with clients — like getting an A1C test to check for diabetes. I also had to consult with a maternal fetal-medicine specialist.

I also had to go through a psychological evaluation, which involved a personality test, to pick up on things like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as a background check, to see whether I had a criminal record, a history of bankruptcy, or been the victim of domestic violence. During this portion of the process, I had two sessions with a mental-health professional: a single session one-on-one and a second one with the therapist and my husband. The therapist asked a bunch of questions, like: If you had to terminate the pregnancy, how would you feel? If you had to be on bed rest, how would you and your family handle it? What kind of relationship do you want to have with the intended parents after delivery? If you need an amnio, would you be okay with that?

After I went through all of the checks, the agency cleared me to begin matching with intended parents. Because of my health history, though, some parents didn’t want to take a chance on me. They were like: Nope. Not interested.

On getting matched for the first time

A lot of the agency’s clients are international couples. Throughout much of Europe, surrogacy of all kinds — commercial but also altruistic, which is when a person carries another couple’s child without being compensated — is illegal. And there are even more restrictions around same-sex couples, who aren’t allowed to adopt in some parts of Europe.

I ended up matching with a same-sex couple from Belgium who I met over a Zoom call. They used an egg donor in the States, and then one of them made a trip here to deposit his sperm. One of them couldn’t speak much English, but the other one could, and I thought they were nice. We would have weekly video calls. My kids would pop in and out, and I think they thought that was cute.

I got a small bonus when I signed the contract, around $500. My base compensation was $30,000, which was paid out in eight or nine installments as the pregnancy progressed.

On facing the possibility of terminating the pregnancy

Pretty early on in the pregnancy, there was a problem. The couple hadn’t had their embryos genetically tested, because they didn’t get a lot of embryos from their IVF cycles and had to work with what they had. Unfortunately, during the first trimester screening, when I was about 12 or 13 weeks, my doctor found the fetus had a three-in-five chance of Turner syndrome, a chromosomal condition that can sometimes cause disabilities. I had a friend who had Turner syndrome who had very few symptoms, so I was thinking it might not be a big deal. But the intended parents were very concerned.

We started talking about termination, and I kind of panicked. I’d never had to terminate a pregnancy before. I’d never even had a miscarriage. I didn’t want the pregnancy to end. I couldn’t believe I’d come so far and they might not want the baby. I even said to my husband, “Maybe we can keep her if they don’t want her.” Like she was a puppy or something. He was like, “Uh, no?”

I remember sobbing in my laundry room, telling myself to calm down and step back, like, Molly, we talked about this; it’s their decision. You need to stop. On some level, I knew how unreasonable I sounded. But I was extremely hormonal, and my emotions were out of control.

A couple weeks later, a chorionic villus sampling (CVS) revealed she didn’t have Turner’s, which was a big relief. But the roller coaster of those few weeks was intense. I kept reminding myself that the baby was going to be the intended parents’ child to raise, in their country, with their values. Setting those boundaries was critical for my mental health.

On delivering alongside a couple she had only just met

After the Turner syndrome scare, everything went fine. I ended up developing cholestasis, so I was induced at 37 weeks. The couple arrived in the States maybe a week or so before the induction. It was funny to be that far along in the pregnancy and not have met them in person yet.

Induction can take a long time, but the guys didn’t know that. They ended up just sitting around in my room waiting. As time went on, having them in there felt more and more stressful. Here I am, in labor, in pain, trying to make small talk. I texted my husband, “Please take them for a walk, take them to the cafeteria, take them anywhere. Get them out of here.”

At one point, it seemed like they were making motions like they were going to leave the baby with me after she was born and come back in the morning. I panicked and pulled a nurse aside: “Can you make sure they know they need to stay with the baby?” I knew that if I was the one holding her and cuddling overnight, I’d get attached.

When the baby came out, her dads were just in awe. That’s the moment I live for — watching my intended parents’ faces when they meet their baby for the first time. The delivery team handed her to them right away, so they could start bonding and do skin to skin. To know I’d been able to bring them that joy … for all the difficult experiences during that particular pregnancy, that made it all worth it.

I decided I didn’t want to pump milk. That was another awkward conversation. The couple was totally fine with it — “You don’t have to!” they said — so that was a relief. But then I had to deal with breast engorgement. With my kids, I’d always fed them and pumped, so I didn’t know how painful it was going to be. It also felt like it lasted forever. I put a lot of cabbage leaves inside my bra.

For parents from overseas, it can take a while to get their babies a passport to be able to fly back home. My first intended parents ended up staying in Connecticut for a couple of weeks, at an Airbnb near the hospital. That was nice, actually. We ended up meeting once a week for dinner, and my kids were also able to see the baby, which helped them have closure. I delivered in the summertime and arranged to take a month off from work afterward to be with my kids. I think that was helpful. Doing activities with them helped keep my mind occupied.

On deciding to try surrogacy again

After my first surrogacy experience, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. The language barrier and awkwardness had been stressful. Then I reconnected with a couple I’d matched with before the Belgium couple. Their names were Henrik and Balazs, and they were based in Amsterdam. We’d met through the clinic I had worked for; they were working with an egg donor there. Initially, I matched with them, but couldn’t carry for them because my bosses at the clinic decided it would have been a conflict of interest.

That clinic ended up going out of business around the time I delivered my first surrogacy pregnancy, in June 2018. A few months later, I started working for a surrogacy agency and ended up bumping into Henrik and Balazs at a same-sex couples surrogacy conference my employer was co-sponsoring in Brussels. It turned out they’d been trying to have a baby with another surrogate, but it hadn’t worked out.

After the conference, they emailed me and asked if I wanted to try to carry for them. Something just told me to do it. I really liked them, and there wasn’t a class divide. We seemed to have a similar sense of humor and be into the same things — similar shows and books and stuff. I just thought, These guys are for me.

We signed a contract. I was going to be paid slightly more for my base compensation this time — $38,000, which Henrik and Balazs actually paid using a grant from a charity.

My first intended parents were nice, but the relationship was more formal. With Henrik and Balazs, everything was easy. We texted all the time. We started sending smart-ass memes to each other and cracking jokes about our doctors over the phone. But what really bonded us was spending time together. They’d fly here sometimes for appointments, and they’d spend time with me and my family. That’s how I fell in love with them, seeing them with my kids.

Like my first intended parents, Henrik and Balasz had to stay in the States for a while after their daughter’s birth. In Belgium and Amsterdam, parents get amazing benefits. Both couples got a ton of parental-leave time. They were also reimbursed for postpartum night nurses and stuff for the babies when they were here and once they got home. I delivered at 39 weeks, another induction. This time, I pumped breast milk. I ended up swinging by their Airbnb every day they were here, to drop off milk and hang out for a couple of hours. It felt like they were my brothers and I was visiting my baby niece. They really felt like family.

On being a surrogate without compensation

Early on in that pregnancy, way before I delivered, we had all started talking about me carrying for them a second time. And so a couple of years later, I delivered their second daughter. Henrik and Balazs were family at that point, so I did it altruistically. We still drew up a contract, and they paid for the lawyers and all of the fertility-clinic treatment and incidentals. But I didn’t ask for anything else.

Afterward, to thank us, they paid for me and my family to visit them in Amsterdam. We’ve been over there about four times, and they’ve been here a bunch too. It feels like our kids are cousins. To Henrik and Balazs’s daughters, I’m Aunt Molly who lives in the U.S. We don’t have any same-sex couples in our family, and Henrik and Balazs have shown my kids that love can take shape in lots of different ways. My oldest, Riley, isn’t mushy, but I think they’re proud of me. Henrik and Balazs made me a “golden uterus” trophy after I had their second daughter, and Riley likes to show it to their friends.

On her final surrogacy pregnancy

I thought I was done after I had Henrik and Balazs’s second daughter. But a year or so ago, I started to feel like I wanted to do it one more time. I was working at another surrogacy agency, meeting surrogacy applicants who’d been pregnant six, seven times. I don’t love being pregnant, but I do love being able to help people and seeing their faces when they meet their babies. My daughter, who’s 14, had gotten into a private school, and I started thinking it would be nice to have a little extra money to help pay her tuition. I was also thinking about starting my own business — essentially an agency alternative advising intended parents who match with their surrogates independently through word of mouth or on sites like Facebook. There are a lot of people doing that these days and they need guidance. To start the business, I knew I’d need money. So I thought, okay, if I can get cleared to carry, what’s one more?

I was 41 when I applied again, and it did take a little longer than usual to get approved. At an intake appointment, I had an EKG with an abnormal result that required a follow-up. I also had a mammogram that showed calcifications in my breast. Both findings ended up being nothing to be concerned about, but they slowed down the process.

Finally, I matched with a hetero couple from upstate New York. Right away, the dynamic was a little bit different. A gay couple needs to be able to tell their child how they were born; they kind of always have to have a story. Henrik and Balazs tell their daughters that Auntie Molly carried them. But some hetero couples aren’t comfortable with that. And usually they tend to come to surrogacy as a last resort.

On facing a complication in her fourth surrogacy

Unfortunately, in this pregnancy, at around 12 weeks, I went in for my nuchal ultrasound and my doctor found something. Your cord looks funny, he said. He was worried it was something called velamentous cord insertion with vasa previa, which happens when the umbilical cord doesn’t close correctly and the blood vessels that are supposed to be inside it kind of float around, like loose wires. If you don’t know that you have velamentous cord insertion and you deliver vaginally, it can be really dangerous; one of the vessels can burst and the baby can bleed out. But when it’s found early, it can be monitored closely and you can deliver safely via C-section.

I called the couple from my doctor’s office and put them on speaker, and he explained what was going on. I think they were definitely anxious. We all were. None of us know what to expect. Right now I’m 26 weeks pregnant and going in for ultrasounds every two weeks. It’s looking like I’ll have a C-section between 34 and 36 weeks. We all want to minimize the baby’s NICU time. If at any time my water breaks or I start bleeding, that would be an emergency. So I’m kind of on eggshells, hoping nothing bad happens.

I was saying to my husband recently, Well, I guess I should’ve called it quits two years ago, when I said I would. He feels bad for me, but I feel bad for him. If something goes wrong — if I have to go on hospital bed rest and I’m not here for a month or something — he has to do everything, which would be hard on him. And I’m nervous about the C-section. It’s going to be a different kind of recovery.

There’s also a financial component to all of this. If I deliver super-early, I don’t get full compensation. You have to make it to 32 weeks or something to get the full compensation. If I go before that, I could stand to lose about $24,000. Is this ideal? No. But it’s something that can happen. This is not easy money. There’s nothing easy about the process.

On entering her last trimester of pregnancy ever

Over the years, I’ve come to look at surrogacy as extreme babysitting. I tell myself I’m babysitting an embryo, and then a fetus. Framing it like that helps me to separate myself. When I feel the baby kicking, I message the parents, to involve them and help them bond and me to detach. I’ve gotten better and better at it with each pregnancy.

Despite everything I have going on right now, I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve done. The complication is scary, and all the extra appointments are inconvenient. But in the end, the couple I’m working with is going to have their baby. And they wouldn’t have that baby without me.

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The Mom of 3 Who Has Been a Surrogate 4 Times