It was Mardi Gras weekend, February 2001, and I was a few weeks shy of my 21st birthday. I was a sophomore at The University of Texas. It was a festive night out, but for some reason, I was not in the mood to drink. I could barely sip my beer because I felt a tightness in my chest. I could not sleep that night, and I found it so hard to breathe, that I had to prop myself up on several pillows just to get air. The next day I went to the doctors office. They did a chest x-ray and found my lungs were filled with fluid. They rushed me to the hospital.
I was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy. Basically, my heart was weakened and became enlarged in an effort to pump harder. They don’t know what caused it. Later we found out that I had genetic predisposition to this condition, but they did not know how or why it came on so suddenly. Usually this is a death sentence for people, but because I was young, and otherwise healthy, and because of a new drug on the market called Coreg, the doctors said I would be able to probably lead a pretty normal life. Just a few little adjustments to keep my heart healthy, and one major one. I would never be able to have a baby.
Of course this was a shock to hear. I was devastated. I had always assumed that I would just have kids whenever I thought the time was right. Probably 2 or 3. Now I was being told it wasn’t really an option. I mean, it was an option, but an option that would have a good chance of killing me. I immediately thought of Steel Magnolias, and how the Julia Roberts character wanted a baby so bad, that she had the baby against her doctor’s wishes. Then she dies. Nope, I thought. Not worth it. Not me. As much as I was upset to hear this baby news, I was just overwhelmingly grateful that I was going to live. As a 20 year old kid, I had never thought too much about my own mortality, and now I was in a hospital bed, talking about life expectancy with multiple doctors?! No, I was going to live. I was going to enjoy my life and appreciate it. And I made good on that promise. Not one day has gone by in the 16 years since then where I don’t feel extremely grateful and lucky just to be alive.
I still knew I’d always be a mom, but I would just have to find another way. I read everything I could about surrogacy and adoption and continued to read studies about pregnancy outcomes in cardiomyopathy patients. I was in no rush though. I knew a lot of this stuff took a lot of time and money and I wasn’t anywhere near ready. I knew that when the time came to think about having kids that it wouldn’t be easy, but that I would have options.
A few years later, in 2005 I moved to New York City to pursue my ambitions to work in film and television and to reunite with my best friend turned boyfriend (and future husband!) Joe. It was a great time. We were young and broke, but in the most fantastic city in the world as far as we were concerned. We got married in 2006 when we were 25 years old. Everyone we knew thought we were nuts. In NYC, 25 is basically a child bride. Most of our friends didn’t wed until their early and mid thirties. But we knew what we wanted. We knew each other well and we were in love, it was a no brainer.
The early years of our marriage were fantastic. I was getting jobs working on tv shows and began working my way up, and beginning to make decent money. Joe started writing online and getting more and more recognition and eventually getting hired to blog for a living. We began to settle into our life in New York. We made lots of friends, went to fun parties, did fun weekends away at the beach with friends and travelled abroad on vacations. We wanted kids, but the thought of starting the process, with so many unknowns, was daunting. Plus, all of our other friends our age were single and having fun and working long hours at their jobs, we were already married, so we were ahead of the game in a sense!
But as the years went by, we began to talk about our kids more often. We would name them. We would talk about what they would be like, their little personalities, their talents and dreams. We would talk about it more and more with every passing year. Then babies started showing up. Not our close friends, but friends of friends. I’d see a baby picture on Facebook and melt. I started feeling very jealous of people who could just decide, “ok, let’s have a baby” or of people who could just get accidentally pregnant and have a happy surprise. That would never be us. We had to do some work. So we decided to get started.
I read Dan Savage’s book “The Kid” that he wrote in 1999 about the adoption of his son. It was an amazing story of love- with a happy ending. But it really opened my eyes about all of the hurdles there are in adoption. Before reading this, I assumed like many people, that there are tons of babies that need homes, and not enough people to adopt them. But it is just not true. People wait years to adopt babies. The demand is greater than the supply. Some people never get selected.Yes, there are many kids in the foster system, who need homes. Many of these kids are much older, and have special needs and most have suffered real emotional trauma. These kids need help and love too of course, but it’s different kind of commitment and training. Not every person who wants to adopt is equipped for that.
Any idiot can have kids, but if you want to adopt, you really have to prove yourself. You have to be interviewed, have references, take classes, have your home inspected, write essays. You also have to pay- potentially a lot of money. But the real kicker, the real heartbreaker that I could not get past was, that you could do everything right. You could be a perfect candidate, you could pay, you could be chosen, and then a birth parent could change their mind even after the baby was born, and there’s nothing you could do about it.
It’s this lack of control that really got me. How cruel it felt. To not have any control about your situation, just because you can’t have kids. You are always at someone else’s whim.
So I started looking at surrogacy. Yes, I liked the idea of having a baby that looked like me (I was a cute baby!) But more importantly, I liked the idea that the baby would be mine. Meaning, I wouldn’t be taking a baby away from a mother who might have mixed feelings about letting her go. I liked that no one could change their mind, because the baby would be ours. I knew that having a surrogate meant giving up a lot of control, I would be his/her mother, and that I could control.
Joe, my husband, felt that same way I did. I did most of the research, but we came to the same conclusions. We wanted a baby and we would figure it out together. The more I researched surrogacy, however, the more I got discouraged again. The laws seemed really murky and unclear. Surrogacy was not even legal in New York! And the COST. I just couldn’t believe it. Sites were saying that you needed $100,000 at least!! WTF, I thought! So, you can’t have a baby unless you are rich??
After my initial research, I got very depressed. It didn’t seem like this would ever be something we could afford. We had good jobs, we had IRAs that we contributed to, but we didn’t have anywhere even close to that in our savings. We didn’t have a house, we didn’t have any assets really, even if we cashed in what little stocks we had, we would be no where close. So I put this on the backburner again. We focused on our careers and our friends and i tried not to think about the baby stuff.
I kept up with my research, however. We continued to save our money every year, I thought I could maybe find a way to do this if I just got started. I found a surrogate message board online. I started chatting with a woman in Colorado who wanted to be a surrogate. She was 25 and a mom of 2. She seemed really smart and nice and we began emailing back and forth. I found a clinic near her house, and made an appointment to get checked out. Joe and I flew out, met her family and began talking about making this a possibility. Everything was going smoothly until I got a call from the clinic saying that she was not a good fit for a surrogate. That’s all they told me. No explanation, nothing. I had already spent thousands on the tests at this clinic (surrogacy and IVF is not covered by my insurance). Now we were back to square one, but worse than square one, because we were out several thousand dollars. I got the call from the clinic when I was at work. I ran out the door and met Joe at Bryant Park. We just sat there and cried. I felt so down and hopeless. And just when it felt like things couldn’t get any worse, a homeless man walked by and threw a muffin at us. It was something out of a movie. It so absurd that we just started cracking up laughing. At least we never lost our sense of humor!
Then we had some good luck. Joe got a fantastic job offer. It was a super cool job where he would be on TV every day and get to do really fun work with great people. And it paid. A lot. Not only did he have a huge salary now, we would have great insurance that would cover the IVF part of the surrogacy process. Because we now had the money, and because I was still so traumatized from what had happened in Colorado, we decided to hire an agency to find us the perfect match. We decided to work with an agency in Texas, because Texas is a surrogacy friendly state and we have family and strong ties there.
It was fun getting to look through profiles of people who were already vetted, so I knew they had a background check, were healthy, probably not psychos, etc. Because it was Texas, or perhaps because of the spiritual aspect of surrogacy, there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of very religious Christians as candidates. I come from a religious family and was raised in the South, so even though I am not religious, it is definitely something I am familiar with and comfortable around. However, in this case, I became a little uneasy. When doing a surrogacy contract, you are forced to think about a lot of worst case scenarios. When to terminate a pregnancy, what if it’s a threat to the mother (or surrogate’s life?) what if it’s going to be born with severe birth defects? Many of these women’s answers to these questions were guided by what they thought God would want, not what was the most pragmatic, and this was something I was not comfortable with. I needed to be on the same page as someone when it came to the big matters.
Then I found Chelsea. She liked Nirvana, loved books and considered herself a Buddhist. I was in love. She was young and intelligent and knew how to write well and had a good sense of humor. I was stunned that she had 3 kids and was only 23! And still with their father! I had never heard of a relationship where a teenage pregnancy (much less 3!) turned into a healthy, loving marriage. But Chelsea was unlike anyone I’d ever met, and still continues to impress me. We chatted on the phone. She seemed nervous, but I was thrilled. She was into natural childbirth, and had clear ideas of how she wanted a surrogate birth to go. I just wanted a baby and for her to work with us. So as we talked about preferences, and ideas about childbirth, I told her, “honestly, whatever you want! We just want you!” Birthing Center? Sure. A tub? Why not. Midwives, Doulas? The more the merrier!
A few months later Joe and I flew to Ft. Worth to meet Chelsea and her husband, Curtis, and their kids. We had a great time. The kids were so kind and smart and well behaved, which only confirmed my suspicion that these were awesome people. They clearly were doing a great job raising their kids and had good judgment. And for me, that’s all that’s important. If someone else is carrying your child, you cannot monitor every little thing- especially from a different state. You just have to do your best in selecting someone who you trust, who has good judgment and trust that they will make the best choices, even if they aren’t the exact choices that you would make.
The process took a while, coordinating doctors visits, getting the right evaluations, contracts, etc. It is a process. During this time we didn’t really tell a lot of people what we were going through. We didn’t want to potentially have a public heartbreak. Even with the best conditions, IFV rates (in surrogacy or not) are 70% at best. That means that there still was as 30% chance at best that it would take. Joe and I are both cautious, so we decided to keep the experience on the DL until we knew everything would be fine.
I flew to Austin in June and we implanted one of our embryos (we had 2 good ones) in Chelsea. Immediately she was convinced it took. I was afraid of getting my hopes up. We had a fun weekend in Austin eating Mexican food and shopping at the Herb Bar and just hangin out. I was so accustomed to disappointment that it didn’t seem real that this could actually work. I made Chelsea swear to not tell me the results of her (many) pregnancy tests until we knew for sure at her 2 week doctor visit. I wanted to be 100% sure.
Two weeks later Chelsea told Joe and I the news via Skype. She was pregnant and we were finally going to get our baby girl. I was overwhelmed with joy. I cried. Joe cried. I couldn’t wait to tell our friends and family.
Throughout the pregnancy, I was still super cautious about telling people. I had a good friend suffer a very late term miscarriage, so I knew that there were never any guarantees. We told our family and a few close friends. I visited Chelsea a few times during the pregnancy, but mostly we just texted and talked on the phone. The beginning part of the pregnancy was super tough. Chelsea was having bad reactions to the injections and she was in a lot of pain. Our doctors, however, insisted that nothing could be done and any change in course of her medication could cause her to lose the baby. I didn’t know what to do. I did not want to cause another person undue pain, especially one who was going out of her way to help us, but I couldn’t do anything to risk my child’s life. It was a terrible position to be in, and one not that most mothers never find themselves in. Most mothers are accustomed to sacrificing their health and comfort for their children, but to force someone else to do if for you is a moral quandary that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Fortunately for us Chelsea soldiered on and kept me in the dark about the misery she was going through (thanks Chelsea). The pregnancy progressed smoothly, and our bond with Chelsea and her family grew.
Its funny, for Chelsea, she was constantly explaining our situation to people, because the evidence was on her body. She was educating the general public about surrogacy on a daily basis, and for me, I was about to be a mom and no one knew! I could go out and travel and drink and see my friends, and generally live my life as I always had. I hired someone to paint our nursery and when the painter asked when the baby was coming, I just said, oh, 2 months. He looked at my stomach confused, but I didn’t see the need to explain.
I had a baby shower. My friends planned it and just wrote a little note on the invite “Brooke and Joe are using a surrogate, that’s why she has no bump and is drinking tequila.” It’s funny how no one really questioned it. It’s very strange. No one in my family or friend group has had a baby via surrogate before, yet everyone just accepted it as a given. I would have been happy to answer questions, but not that many people had them. Or maybe they did, but were just being polite. That’s fine by me too. My good friend Alice came over to my house during this time, she was very pregnant and was complaining about the normal aches and pains and general uncomfortableness of pregnancy. “You’re not missing anything,” she said to me. And I believed her. While I did feel a little bit guilty about not having to go through the pregnancy and childbirth experience, I was also relieved. It’s like I gotta get out of jail free card. I got the baby and didn’t have to go through the physical stuff?! Fantastic. No, I couldn’t feel sorry for myself about “missing out” on that experience. I was incredibly lucky, and I knew it.
The week before June’s due date, I headed to Texas. We had a few false alarms and Joe flew down and back a few times. He only had a limited paternity leave, so we didn’t want to waste it before the baby was born. So we waited. I rented a crappy motel in Ft. Worth, and spend most days hanging out with Chelsea and waiting. I felt weird to be taking off work, but not taking care of a baby. It seemed I had so many hours, and there was nothing I could do but wait. I know it’s irrational but I really thought the baby would never come. Chelsea and I made multiple trips to the midwives, did every natural and homeopathic remedy in the book. June just would not come! My mom flew down and kept me company in my sad hotel room that faced a Hooters and a highway, so that was nice.
Then it happened. I got a call in the middle of the night. Chelsea was in labor. I rushed over to her apartment and she called the doula and midwives. My sister rushed up from Austin and Joe booked the next flight out of New York.
The birth was amazingly special. Chelsea, her husband Curtis, my mom and my sister and the midwives and I were all there through the night hanging out, helping Chelsea, and my sister was keeping joe in the loop with texts (he was on the plane.)
Then she was born at 7:03. Or maybe it was 7:08. She didn’t make any noise and I was terrified. Then she let out a cry and I feel like I exhaled for the first time in several years.
The midwives helped Chelsea and they handed the baby to me. She was beautiful. More beautiful that I expected. I was shocked. It was surreal and fun and happy and the best morning of my life. Joe arrived shortly after the birth and held her for the first time. He was so nervous! It was sweet. Chelsea’s kids came and we all ate breakfast together in the birthing center suite.
And then we were parents. Joe and I always joke that we can’t remember what life was like before June. It’s funny, it seems like she’s always been a part of our family. It’s so hard to talk about your child in a non cliche way, so I won’t even try! She is the light of our life and the best thing that ever happened to us. I honestly believe there has never been a better baby! She is well behaved, gorgeous, funny and sweet. And most likely a genius.
Meeting Chelsea was the best thing that happened to us on our journey to become parents, and we have been so lucky and blessed to have met her! And we are excited about doing it all over again!