Our first experience with our first surrogate

After a long, long, and I mean long, windy road, with many, many detours, we reached a point where not only surrogacy was a real option, but also we felt brave enough to move forward.  And on this adventure, we had the pleasure of meeting and working with two amazing, generous women who were to be our surrogates, or rather, gestational carriers (GCs), with very different, unimaginable outcomes.

Real names not used**

We met Tessa first. She decided to become a GC after watching a friend cope with years of infertility and numerous miscarriages. In fact, it was Tessa’s mother who had suggested the idea to help her friend. Just as these ideas germinated and all the research had been done, the friend got pregnant and carried a pregnancy to term. By then, both Tessa and her mom were motivated and decided to apply with an agency to offer the same opportunity to another couple facing similar challenges as her friend.

We were the lucky couple to match with Tessa. She had reviewed our application and we hers. We spoke via conference call facilitated by the agency coordinator. We liked her immediately, and both sides agreed to the match.  I spoke with her a few times on the phone, and my husband and I flew out to meet Tessa and her family within days. We were surprised to learn from our agency that most IPs (intended parents) don’t do this. Many IPs move forward without visiting their GC in her home town. We couldn’t imagine not doing so.

We had never been to a small rural town just as Tessa had never been to a major city.  We arrived on a Saturday morning, landing at the closest airport two hours away. The town had one traffic light and tumble weeds rolling across the road. Of course, we couldn’t show up empty-handed to someone’s home for the first time.  I had carried some pastries from NY from our favorite bakery and had looked up a florist in town. The only florist. I even called a day before to confirm store hours. When we arrived at the florist at 11:30am to place our order, we were lucky because the owner had been considering closing early at noon to go watch a game. Turns out store hours were flexible but he was kind enough to stay open long enough for our order. We chatted. He had never met anyone from New York nor had he ever left Texas. His family had been in the area for generations. We drove up and down the streets of the small town while waiting for the bouquet. So many empty streets and shut down empty store fronts. Other than two local restaurants, there wasn’t much else open in town or much to do.

We wanted to take everything in. And no. It wasn’t because we were typical New Yorkers who found small towns quaint.  From the moment we got in the cab to the airport, we found everything significant–it’s just how I remember that day. The flight, the drive, each encounter, our surroundings, all meant something to us. We were finally doing what we wanted to do. We were moving forward with surrogacy, a possibility we had been discussing for years–something that we only read about, weighing pros and cons, debating the morality, examining our faith.

And now, we had reached the point where we could move forward, confident and clear in our purpose.  So with each step, just even getting on a plane to meet Tessa, there was an association, a meaning, sentiment.  We couldn’t believe that here we were actually going through with it. We alternated between giddy, marvel, and introspective. We had come to meet complete strangers, under circumstances that few will ever know, and not too long ago, was even beyond our comprehension.

Tessa was raised and lived in a small rural town of Texas with her husband, Carl, and three children. Tessa’s great-grandparents were immigrants from Mexico, and she and her family had been living there for three generations.  She was in her early thirties, had an associate degree, and worked full-time.  Carl worked with Tessa’s dad to manage her family farm.

With pastries and flowers, we arrived at Tessa’s home.

Tessa, Carl, and their three daughters welcomed us in their new home.  We were all laughing and excited, a bit unsure. We sat down and talked about I don’t know what, but I remember a warmth. As I recall and write this, I’m surprised to at how there was no guardedness on either side. What I remember most is looking at Tessa and Carl in awe.

They showed us around the house they had recently purchased and were expanding. Tessa’s husband and brother were doing all the work themselves. Her children were so polite and well-mannered. They knew why we were there, and the parents were preparing them for how their decision would impact the family in the coming months.

One of Tessa’s motivation to carry a baby for another couple was to teach her kids the importance of helping others and how there were different ways to do so. It was important to her that the girls be part of this journey.

Soon, Tessa’s extended family stopped by the house. While Carl’s family lived in Mexico, Tessa’s grandparents, parents, siblings, and their families, all lived close. My husband and I felt like we were meeting distant relatives for the first time, with the same warmth, knowing, and bond one feels even though it’s just some obscure relation that connects you.

Another interesting connection we recognized early on was our immigrant backgrounds and similarities in the cultures.

Tessa and Carl took us out to an early dinner. Afterwards we went back to their place to have dessert. And that’s probably the first time we actually discussed the purpose of our visit and the relationship we were all about to forge.

What stuns me to this day is how each side was so concerned for the other. They stressed over again how any baby Tessa carries would be ours and that we are the parents. They felt it was important for us to share with them our needs so they can honor any wishes we had for our baby during the pregnancy. If I had any sort of preconceived ideas of what I wanted for the baby during the pregnancy, and what I hoped the GC would do (or not do), I looked around her home and her daughters playing to the side, and found myself at a loss for what to say. So I was honest. I told her it was hard for me to see her children and tell her how to be pregnant. Clearly, she knew how.

We met again the next day for breakfast. We talked about how my husband and I would find accommodations in the town over next to the hospital where the delivery would take place. I’d come a month before the due date since flights to the area weren’t that frequent and waiting until Tessa went into labor wasn’t realistic since we’d never make it in time for the delivery.

We all talk about pregnancy, delivery, and baby as an eventuality.

My husband and I left Texas happy. Finally, after a long time, we had ”movement”. We had hope.

Tessa was a superstar when it came to getting paperwork done. Between her and my husband, all the pre-screening and necessary applications before the first clinic visit were done in record time.

Next time we saw Tessa was about a month later, during the screening process at our clinic in New Jersey. She came to NYC on her own, while Carl stayed behind with the kids. There was a full day of the tests, screenings, and meetings. The trip was short. Tessa was flying out the next morning having to get back to her family and work.

This was the first time Tessa had been to the east coast or New York City. It was just before the holidays. Such a great time to visit.  So we made sure she could see a few sights, at least the festive ones and did the quickest NYC tour possible in one evening, with many must photo shots to record her trip. We talked about her return for the transfer, and planned for more sightseeing since she would be here longer.

Once all the screening test returned and the clinic cleared Tesla to be our GC, she would be returning for the embryo transfer in 4-6 weeks.

After the go ahead from the clinic came the legal process. The nitty gritty, cold language, legal jargon that would formalize this relationship, this partnership, through a contract intended to protect both sides as well as any future baby.

Similar to the pre-screening, the legalities wrapped up quickly, with both sides being as concerned about the needs of the other party as much as their own. We wanted to give what we could and she wanted to take only what she needed. We were very clear her health and wellbeing was primary, and she was very clear that this was our baby and she wanted to honor any wishes we had for the baby while in utero.

I remember how the legalities and issues addressed in the contract made me emotional, and I had to review the contract in stages. It was too hard.  Reading and discussing  scenarios that had to be addressed in writing in a contract. This involved someone we just met and our potential baby. It was scary for the first time. There was such a sense of responsibility to both Tessa and her family.

At each step, we remained very aware of what this wonderful woman and her family were about to do for us. No amount of compensation could be adequate, and you learn that no one is doing this for money. The money is just basic necessities, and can’t possibly equate to what was being done here. It can only be described as a gift from a complete stranger–it was being a woman, it was being human.

The day finally arrived, and Tessa and her mother came for the embryo transfer at our clinic in NJ, while Carl stayed home with the children . Our embryos were frozen, and we had agreed to transfer two. Tessa was comfortable carrying twins should they take, and my husband and I prepared ourselves if one or both did not.

But nothing prepared any of us for what did happen.

Tessa had been taking medications for over a week to help thicken her uterine lining in preparation for the transfer. She had been driving over an hour every other day to visit the closest clinic to monitor her lining and blood work. As soon as the lining reached the optimal thickening, my clinic set a date for the transfer, which was in 4 days.

Most GCs arrive day before the transfer. Since Tessa had a long flight  we arranged for her to come two days in advance. The clinic suggested she come in the day before for one more check up.

She arrived from Texas Thursday afternoon and went to the clinic Friday morning. Monitoring hours are  between 6 & 7:30 am. I figured she grabbed breakfast after and wasn’t too concerned that she hadn’t called. I got a call from her at 10 am, sounding confused. Apparently, during monitoring, they told her the transfer may not be possible for the next day, Saturday, as scheduled.

I just knew. It all had gone a bit too smoothly up until then very uncharacteristically–not at all representative of our infertility journey to date.

I called the clinic and insisted my doctor speak with me directly, something physicians at this clinic avoided.  I needed my doctor. I needed to know what it all meant. What happened at the morning monitoring? Was the transfer being rescheduled in a couple of days? Should we extend Tessa’s hotel stay? I felt a bit frantic while all the while trying to think straight. The nurse said someone would call me back.

My doctor called . He rarely calls. It’s always the nurses calling with updates, next steps, bloodwork. He sounded nice. Almost like a friend. Something wasn’t right. He told me that Tessa’s lining was not at the level it was supposed to be. Either the clinic in Texas sent them incorrect measurements or the lining numbers went down over the last 3 days. Not fully grasping the situation, I asked, when can she be ready. He paused, and said she can’t. I asked, so she can’t now or ever? He said well, she can try again but it’s risky and she may not be able to carry for us at all, and we had to decide whether we would start over by finding a new GC or have Tessa try again which would mean financial and emotional risk in addition to losing more time.

But what did it mean for Tessa.  She and Carl wanted more children. Would she be able now.  What about her loss. She had spent months getting everything ready and preparing. She had taken time off from work, from her family, and taken medications. And after all that, she was returning to Texas after coming so close to helping another couple, to help us.

My doctor did remind me of one important, critical piece of good news.  Since Tessa arrived two days before the transfer, before any embryos had been thawed, we hadn’t lost our embryos. It was sheer luck that Tesla went for the appointment that morning, a day before the transfer. Otherwise we would not have found out about the uterine lining until the transfer by which point the embryos would have been thawed and lost.

There was no way to stop and register what the doctor just said about our embryos. A stroke of sheer luck, or rather saved from a catastrophic, tragic, horrific loss?  As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time how close we came to losing our embryos, each of were a result of great physical and mental (and medical) feat–akin to squeezing water out of a rock.

So at least we still had our embryos.

I could feel a scream forming in my throat.

I asked if this was common. He said no. How often does it happen? Never.

He said he was sorry. He sounded sorry, sad for us. I had always liked him, even though he wasn’t as accessible as I’d hoped. He had called instead of a nurse. I was grateful.

I called my husband. The clinic called the agency. My husband handled me, the agency handled Tessa. My husband arranged to cancel all our commitments, the agency arranged for Tessa’s return to Texas.  The days after are just a haze of grief and pain.

For days and weeks after, and regularly at first and less frequently as time passed, I would be doing something, walking, standing, pausing, and suddenly it would feel as though I was about to fall. I’d reach out to hold on to something. It would pass, the unevenness, but that’s when I’d remember. The loss, the grief would come rushing at me. In the beginning, these moments lasted longer. With time, they became more brief.

Turned out, Tessa and Carl were able to have another child.  She got pregnant only a few months after the field cycle. She didn’t share it with me right away, and when I asked why, she said she felt guilty for being able to get pregnant for herself after she couldn’t for us. I was touched but also assured her there is nothing to feel guilty about. We were thrilled and relieved that Tessa was able to have her fourth child as she had hoped. After all, my husband and I knew well how it would feel and what it would mean if she wasn’t able to when she wanted to.

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