by Chelsea Lanai Kimball
Surrogacy In Pop Culture:
Over the past few years, surrogacy has started to be made more public. In pop culture, and on the news, we have started to hear more about surrogacy in a positive, and negative light.
The first thing that comes to mind is movies and television. “Baby Mama” the 2008 rom/com starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Hilarious, but problematic to the reality of surrogacy. When the Bough Breaks (2016), A Surrogate’s Nightmare (2017), and A Deadly Adoption (2015) are the first movies that pop up if you google “Surrogacy Movies”. All problematic and unrealistic.
On the other hand, a lot of celebrities have gone public with tales of how their families came to be via surrogacy. Tyra Banks, Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Pompeo, Nicole Kidman, Elton John, Ricky Martin, and others have all been quoted, gushing about their experiences using a gestational carrier (a surrogate who is not biologically tied to the baby). Far from the images we see on television.
How Surrogacy Actually Works:
With so little explanation of how surrogacy actually works in the limelight, it’s no wonder the general population doesn’t fully understand how surrogacy works. First, surrogacy is not legal in all states and countries. A misunderstanding of how the process works is a large problem in seeing surrogacy being legalized everywhere.
The celebrities above all used a GC (Gestational Carrier) for a multitude of reasons. Single parents, infertility (in many forms), or LGBT+ parents. Surrogacy can help anyone in any situation actualize their dreams of a family.
Not everyone is qualified to be a GC. Recently in New York, where surrogacy remains to be illegal, prominent feminists including Gloria Steinem, have condemned the legalization of commercial surrogacy. Some have said it draws a parallel to “The Handmaid’s Tale” and only exploits women. What Ms. Steinem fails to understand is that there are rules, and no one is selling babies or bodies, and surrogacy is about bodily autonomy in every form.
In order to qualify to be a GC, you must meet the following requirements (these vary by state):
- Aged between 21-39 years old
- BMI between 18-32
- Non-smoker in a non-smoking household
- Must pass a drug test
- No history of criminal activity
- Surrogate and partner (if partnered) must both pass a psychological evaluation
- Must agree to a home check
- Have given birth to and be raising at least one child
- Uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries as documented
- Able to provide OB/GYN records and clearance
- No history of mental illness
- Not currently receiving any government financial assistance
- Financially stable
Depending on where you reside, and your Reproductive Endocrinologists (RE) requirements, more may be added to the above list. The thought that a person who becomes a surrogate to make money is just not feasible. After qualifying to become a GC, contracts are signed, all parties have to agree to everything, and there is no room for “backing out” later. IVF is intensive, exhausting, and often painful. I know this from firsthand experience, as I’ve gone through four rounds myself as a GC. Sperm and eggs are collected (either from the intended parent(s) or donors) and are made into embryos. From there they are grown for 3-5 days and then tested for abnormalities. After about six weeks of IVF, the GC is implanted with the embryo(s) and continues IVF to ensure the embryo(s) sticks.
After the dreaded two week wait, a blood pregnancy test is given and the next steps are decided. The current success rate is around 40%.
Pregnancy As A Gestational Carrier:
Most surrogates I have met love being pregnant. It’s one of the many aspects that draw them to this path. Wanting to be pregnant again, without actually adding another child to their family. After IVF is finished, the pregnancy is mostly the same as any other pregnancy. You eat healthily, avoid dangerous behaviors, and for many, sing and love the baby you are growing. A question that is asked often of GCs is “Don’t you love the baby?” and for many of us, the answer is “of course!” It’s just a very different kind of love. I compare my love for my surrogate children to that of my love for my nieces and nephews. I want them to have amazing lives, and will do anything for them, but at the end of the day, they go home to their parents where they belong.
One of the hardest parts of carrying a child that isn’t your own is the bombardment of questions from strangers as well as family and friends. Here are some of the most asked questions, and the answers that I have personally given:
- “Did you sleep with her husband to get pregnant?” No, I did not.
- “Is your partner really okay with you doing this?” My partner respects that I am my own person, and does not lay claim to my body. We are a partnership and discuss everything together.
- “I heard you can get rich from doing that! How much money do you make?” You can not get rich from being a surrogate, I make enough money to ensure that I can continue to take care of my own family while helping someone else to build theirs.
- “Are you giving your baby up for adoption?” No. It is not my baby, and adoption is an entirely different process than surrogacy.
- “Wow, that’s really expensive, your intended parents must be loaded.” I do not know my intended parents’ financial situation. It is true that IVF and surrogacy are expensive, but there are also many avenues to help anyone be able to afford it.
- “So is it a ‘designer baby’? Like did they get to pick babies sex and eye color?” No. Embryos are made using their sperm and egg. They are DNA tested for abnormalities which helps the chances of success. You can tell what sex is because they are testing their DNA. Some IPs choose which embryos they want to implant based on sex or quality of DNA.
- “Do you receive lavish ‘push presents’ from your IPs (Intended Parents)?” No. The myth that you get a Disney vacation etc. are just that. Myths. And no surrogate expects to receive anything for what they do.
- “Won’t your biological children be upset or confused when you don’t bring home a baby?” Call me crazy, but I talk to my children honestly, and openly. They met my IPs and adore them. They completely understand long before delivery that baby will not be their brother/sister and will not be coming home with us.
- “How can you give up your baby?” I’m not. I’m giving back a baby to their rightful parent(s).
Although this seems like a long list of questions, it’s only a sliver of the invasive and honestly rude questions I, and other surrogates have to deal with every day of our pregnancies. Often those who are carrying for LGBT+ IPs hear even worse. Navigating the world carrying a child that is not your own is not without struggle.
But it’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done.
Expecting A Baby And Not Being Pregnant:
Intended Parents often go through a long and exhausting (mentally, emotionally, physically and financially) journey to find a GC. Even before looking, they often face the realities of not being able to carry a child themselves. I asked a group of IPs some questions they’ve been asked, and misconceptions they’ve heard:
- “The surrogate will be attached to your baby, don’t let them hold/feed them.”
- “How could you pay someone to have your baby?”
- “You won’t be the babies ‘real’ mom.”
- “So wait, is the baby genetically yours?”
- “Your babies being born in another country? Will they ship it to you?”
- “Why are you spending so much money trying to get a baby, you could just take one of mine.”
- “There are so many kids in foster care, why don’t you just adopt?”
- “Why don’t you just marry a woman so you can have a baby the ‘normal’ way?”
- “Your meddling with nature, a baby needs a mother.”
- “Your child will have attachment issues from the separation at birth.”
- “You are a rich woman exploiting poor women of color to fulfill your dream of having a family.”
- “You’re so bored of having dogs and cats so now are just getting a baby.. what will you do when you get bored of it?”
- “You let your husband have sex with someone else just so you could have a baby?”
These are all direct quotes from intended parents of varying backgrounds. As you can see, the misconceptions around surrogacy are not only harmful but hurtful. If we want to be inclusive in our work, it’s important that we understand ‘non-traditional’ ways of creating a family unit.
From an IPs point of view, surrogacy is a very expensive avenue to creating a family. The costs of IVF for themselves (or donors), and the surrogate largely fall on them. As well as any medical bills associated with the pregnancy and delivery. Most people do not have the extra funds to simply pay upfront.
There are personal financing, grants, fundraising, and money-saving tips available if you only google “help to afford surrogacy”. These are still not always an option. Unfortunately, surrogacy is just unobtainable for so many people, leaving them without options on expanding their family.
From a surrogates point of view, if you google surrogacy in any form, you are met with ads like “Make $50k+ and help a family!” and so on. I have been in this circle for almost five years, and have never met anyone who made $50k. This does attract people who may not be looking into this for ‘the right reasons’ and agencies often get many applications that are denied because the applicant is not financially stable. This is a double-edged sword that I won’t dive into. Most of the time, your contract includes a monthly compensation that is enough to help sustain your family, so that if for any reason you can not work during your pregnancy, your family will not suffer for it.
As both a gestational surrogate and birth worker, I can truly understand how language shapes our mental health and experience. I personally had a wonderful experience (mostly) with the birth workers that I have worked with around surrogacy. With the exception of the midwife telling me, “Push your baby out,” during a rough labor, and many doulas who were just unaware of what to expect after a surrogate birth. I have no reservations on helping to educate anyone that I know has real questions about how this journey goes. Asking is never the problem. The problem is the intent or approach in how we ask others to educate us.
Still, the best days of my life, were when I helped someone else become a parent.
Chelsea Lanai Kimball CBD, CIFS is a 2X Gestational Carrier, Mother of 3, New York native. [She/Her/Hers]