My Alternate Life as a Surrogate: a Mother’s Day confession

There’s something you might not know about me. But first, some things I’ve expressed openly:

  • I’ve never wanted to have children
  • I don’t envision settling down into a relationship or marriage until I’m 50+ (so that most of my life can be spent exhausting my solitary pursuits and passions)

The thing you may not know? I want to be a surrogate mother.

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As with most of my life obsessions, I can’t remember the specific moment when I first became interested in surrogacy.

I do know that my interest has always been in gestational–as opposed to traditional–surrogacy. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate acts as both the egg donor and as the actual surrogate for the embryo. But in gestational surrogacy, the surrogate (or “birth mother”) contributes no DNA to the fetus because the egg of the mother-to-be is used instead. In other words, I could be the carrier of a life I played no part in creating.

I also know that my desire to be a surrogate is less practical than it is abstract and speculative. I’m fully aware that the realities of pregnancy are less-than-glamorous: nausea, back pains, sleep issues, scars . . . And by all accounts, the actual labors of birth can be excruciating. But my mind always returns to the poetic image and wonder of a woman’s rapid expansion–images painted in bold words by writers like Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Jane Hirshfield. To be both the carrier and barrier between myself and a life that’s not mine; to be part of a human experience so basic but no less of a revelation from one mother to the next; to grow, but not to fear being changed.

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Perhaps I’m selfish. Writers do have this tendency to pursue experiences for the sole sake of writing them down. You could call that exploitation, but I call it revelation.

The beauty of surrogate mothers, though, is that they all lend their bodies for different reasons. Some have family members who cannot conceive. Others are in it for compensation; payment of $40-60,000 is common for couples who want to “rent” the woman’s womb for 9 months, and I’ve read accounts of some women becoming surrogates 5 times over because of it. Neither reason appeals to me, but I still can’t articulate all of the reasons why I’m drawn to the concept.

During my older sister’s first pregnancy, she shared her belief that I would be fascinated and awe-inspired by the wonder of growing a life inside me–even though I’ve never wanted children. More recently, in an intensely spiritual and vivid dream, I was breastfeeding a baby who came from me but was not mine–a glowing geode of someone else’s genes–and I held him with the passion of those brief encounters that just aren’t meant to last.

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In the animated film Prince of Egypt, which depicts the Biblical story of Moses from birth to old age, there is a scene where Moses’ birth mother places him in a basket to be sent down the river so that he can’t be forcefully taken from her. She is hopeful that God will look after him, delivering the baby into merciful hands. Watching this scene when I was younger, I associated it with my own family lineage; I’d been told that I am a descendant of Irish immigrants, of a brave and desperate man who hid in a barrel during the Potato Famine, emigrating to America across seas. Of course, the barrel would have been on a shipping vessel of some kind, but I liked to imagine a lone barrel floating across the Atlantic.

Love, to me, has always involved distance. I experience deep connections from across rooms, not from between the sheets. I can hold someone close without holding them tight. I love and fall in love for brief moments, and I let those moments go. I’d like to think that I would be capable of loving a baby without laying claim to its future, but I can’t say for certain. Some surrogates reach the birth of the child only to find that they regret the agreement, loving the baby too much to give it up. On the other hand, some surrogates are accused of being heartless if they can give up the baby with no qualms whatsoever.

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It begs the question: will I be a surrogate mother one day?

There’s one deciding factor that makes my choice simple: I’m not qualified.

Most surrogate arrangements are made through dedicated agencies which require that the surrogate-to-be has had at least one healthy pregnancy, and I do not intend to have kids of my own. If a couple were to be willing to use me as their surrogate, they would be trusting that I would have no major complications, and that I’m perfectly fertile. Most couples in a hurry to have children are not interested in playing with risk, so I’ve accepted the fact that I will never be good enough.

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And I can live with that. I’ve already learned to live with that. I come from a conservative family and background where certain conventions are expected for pregnancies and families. It’s the reason I’ve been silent for so long about surrogate interests. When I was younger, one of our family friends had reached an age where she was single with little time left in her child-bearing years, so she decided to go through with in vitro fertilization. My parents explained the situation to us with concern; they weren’t sure whether it was God’s timing, and that perhaps she should have waited for the right man to come along so that the child could have a father like traditional families.

Still, there’s an irony to conventional expectations for the family–especially for religious reasons. According to the Biblical narrative, you could say that Jesus of Nazareth was a surrogate child. Images of God as mother also abound: God as rock that gives birth, God as woman in labor, God as mother bear/hen/eagle. There’s a saying from a rabbi that I can’t recall word-for-word, but which communicates something to the extent of: when you have a revelation, you should say nothing of it for 9 months, and let it stir inside of you until you are ready to speak of it, as if giving birth. I’ve let thoughts of surrogacy stir and grow inside me until speaking of them now, an anticipated birth.

***

I still allow myself to daydream. I imagine taking months off from work, moving out into a cabin, and avoiding all the judgments about the where and the why of my sudden pregnancy. I think about the discomforts I would bear, the ways I would evolve, the person I might be after my womb returns to empty.

But I count my blessings. At any point in my career, a pregnancy would cause inconveniences, and I would feel obliged to explain my situation daily (“no I’m not keeping the baby, but yes the pregnancy was planned”). I wouldn’t say that Mother’s Day is hard for me, in the same way that it’s hard for those who have lost their mothers or are unable to have children. But it’s certainly bittersweet; it haunts me with everything that could have been.

In the end, this is life. We take things in stride. I tend to possibilities as one tends to a fire–gauging the wood, stirring the embers–and I don’t believe in bringing every spark into a flame. Not every possibility can be brought to light, so I let my alternate life run its course as I run mine.

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