NB: This is a heart-wrenching story but one the parents are keen to share if it gives any comfort or hope to others who may find themselves in a similar situation.
My husband Brendan and I have been together for more than ten years. One of our most dreaded questions is, “How many children do you have?” because we have Ivy who is nearly five and Hugo who is six months old – as well as Isabelle, who lives in the stars.
Getting pregnant first-time round was relatively straightforward. I had a miscarriage at seven weeks which was devastating at the time, but I managed to get pregnant again quite quickly with our first daughter Ivy. Trying for our second took a bit longer, which I told myself was normal seeing as I was in my late 30s by that point.
My second pregnancy – with Isabelle – was ropey to say the least. I had morning sickness all day long from about seven weeks up until 20 weeks. There were times when I’d leave the house and have to double back to throw up. I took many tactical bathroom breaks before work meetings! But I knew I just had to get on with it. I kept telling myself, I’d have a baby soon at the end of it so it would all be worth it.
I had a difficult first delivery with Ivy, which resulted in something called a T-section. At our 36-week scan, she was lying transverse, and after several failed attempts to turn her, we had a planned C-section. When she wouldn’t come out easily, the obstetrician had to make a vertical incision. She came out with an APGAR score of 0 (to put that in perspective, anything under seven causes concern; zero means she wasn’t breathing or showing any signs of life). After resuscitating her, she was immediately sent for an X-ray as they thought they may have broken her arm and leg in the process. Thankfully she was given the all-clear and we went home the next day.
At just over 32 weeks with Isabelle, my second, I felt my waters break. I took myself to the delivery suite for a check-up. Things escalated quickly, and the hospital gave me steroids to stimulate the growth of my baby’s lungs and antibiotics to ward off any potential infection. They decided to keep me in and monitor the situation; they really wanted the baby to stay put until 36 weeks. But I was woken in the middle of the night by excruciating pain in my lower abdomen. I could barely speak or move, yet the doctors couldn’t explain it. They prescribed heavy-duty pain killers and the pain came and went over the next 36 hours. It was in the early hours of Tuesday morning that it reached new heights. I felt uneasy and wanted to them to check my baby. I was hooked up to a monitor while they searched for a heartbeat. But there was only silence – she had gone.
Post C-section, it became clear what had happened. The scar from my previous T-section had ruptured internally and caused my daughter to die. (The hospital has since admitted full liability for her death). It probably sounds cliché, but it really made me realise how precious life is; that it can be taken away at any moment.
We were told that another pregnancy would be high risk. There was a 25%-35% chance my scar would rupture again and even if I did manage to carry safely, I’d have to deliver at 30 weeks. We were also advised to wait at least 12-18 months before trying again which, when we’d just lost our baby and wanted another child, seemed like a very long time. With all that considered, surrogacy felt like the safest way to bring another child into the world.
We started to explore surrogacy a few months after Isabelle died. There are a lot of steps and layers to surrogacy – both logistically and emotionally. In the UK it can be quite a complicated process to navigate. Because it isn’t commercialised, you can’t advertise or pay for a surrogate, beyond covering loss of earnings and maternity costs. As such, there are only a few non-profit agencies that exist to ‘match’ surrogates and intended parents, most of which have closed their books due to demand. It can take two to three years to find a surrogate in the UK. There’s also no legally binding contract between the surrogates and the intended parents. Both parties fill out a surrogacy agreement stating how they want to navigate the pregnancy, birth, and what happens next, but it’s not enforceable.
UK law states that after birth, the surrogate is the legal parent of the baby. As an intended parent, you go through an adoption process which can only be started after the baby is six weeks old. In terms of cost, it’s usually suggested that payments to surrogates range from about £10k-20k, in addition to the costs associated with IVF. Some people may choose to pay legal fees as well, for the parental order.
Surrogacy has so many emotional elements to it. On the one hand I was so grateful to have someone carry our baby, but I had to completely trust someone to do this for us – to fully relinquish control. When I was pregnant with both Ivy and Isabelle, I made certain choices that I felt were best, but you can’t be sure your surrogate will do the same. Eventually, this was something that I let go of. Whatever Helen (our surrogate) did, I knew the baby was better off in her than in me – I trusted her implicitly.
We didn’t use a surrogacy agency to find Helen. Instead, we signed up to an agency called COTS to help us navigate the process and create the agreement – particularly as both of us as intended parents and Helen and her husband were new this. We found Helen when my friend Kayla reached out to her doula community to see if anyone might be interested in talking to us about surrogacy. From the outset, Helen wanted to do what she could to replicate the pregnancy I’d want. Helen is also a doula herself and is trained in dealing with trauma, so she understood what I’d been through with Isabelle.
Getting to know Helen’s family was an important part of the journey. You have to discuss some difficult topics with your potential surrogate to ensure you’re aligned on several aspects; what kind of birth would you all like? Who can be present? What happens if there’s a problem at one of the scans – would you agree to terminate or continue with the pregnancy? How many embryo transfers will you try? What lifestyle habits would you like the surrogate to follow while pregnant? When should the surrogate stop work? Will you all keep in contact after the birth?
As it happened, I couldn’t really celebrate the moment when Helen fell pregnant. It was difficult to let myself believe we were going to have a baby in case things went wrong again. For most of the pregnancy I was extremely anxious. Having spoken to a counsellor, I understood my behaviour was symptomatic of PTSD. I was also wracked with guilt that Helen and her family might think I wasn’t grateful, or she might feel disappointed that I wasn’t celebrating each milestone. But when I shared my feelings with her, she was so understanding. We honestly couldn’t have found a better person to be our surrogate.
Helen went to most of the scans and appointments by herself – partly due to Covid-19 rules, partly down to my anxiety and partly due to distance. We were based in London and Helen lives in Bury St Edmunds. However, I did go to the 20-week scan with her. When we saw the baby on the screen, I felt a huge sense of relief, but I was also hit with a huge wave of sadness. Helen just reached out and held my hand – she understood what I was feeling. We asked the sonographer to write the sex of the baby on a piece of paper and went to meet our husbands. We all found out together we were having a baby boy.
We planned to have a home birth at Helen’s house so we could all be together. But like most birth plans, that went out the window. When Helen initially experienced contractions she called us, so we could make our way to Bury St Edmunds. When her waters broke, I went with her to the hospital. It was there that we found out there was meconium in her waters, so she’d have to deliver in hospital. After several hours of labour, the baby’s heart rate started to decelerate, which meant having to deliver via C-section. Helen’s husband Danny went with her for the surgery, while Braden and I waited in our own room in the labour ward. Once the baby had been delivered safely, the midwives brought him up to us.
From the moment I held Hugo, I knew I was his mother – it felt so natural, even though I hadn’t carried him. Our son might not have officially been ours when he was born, but legally we were allowed to take him home right away. Between six weeks and six months old, you have to go through a ‘parental order’ process to adopt your baby from the surrogate and her partner (if she has one). It sounds convoluted, but it’s relatively straightforward. Once the paperwork is submitted, there’s an initial court hearing. Both our family and that of our surrogate are then visited by CAFCASS, the adoption body, and following the submission of the CAFCASS report, there’s a secondary court hearing, before the final change of parental responsibility takes place and the new paperwork (including a birth certificate) is drawn up.
The first few days with Hugo were surprisingly easy. I wasn’t recovering from pregnancy and labour, so I had loads of energy. We went for lots of walks and spent time together as a family. The one thing I was worried about was feeding him. I had breastfed my daughter for about two years and struggled with the idea of not being able to breastfeed my son. I did try to induce lactation myself, which is possible, but it didn’t work for me. Thankfully, Helen had expressed loads of colostrum for us and continued to supply us with breastmilk for three months.
Hugo is six months old now and we’re waiting for our final court hearing to take place. Within a matter of weeks, he’ll officially be ours. In all honesty, it’s just paperwork and the lengthy process hasn’t bothered us. For so long we hadn’t allowed ourselves to believe we would have another baby. One of the best moments was introducing him to Ivy and letting her feed and hold him – particularly after everything she went through with losing her sister. She was so excited to finally have a baby brother.
We might like more children in the future, but there’s a lot to consider. We’d have to go down the surrogacy route again, which is not only expensive, but it can also be a difficult and lengthy process to find a surrogate. It’s also an incredibly emotional journey, and one that, following my experience with Isabelle, triggers a lot of anxiety. We know how lucky we were to find Helen and what a positive experience we had, so it’s hard to believe we’d have such an amazing experience again.
I have a podcast called ‘Making It To Motherhood’ which I host with a friend, Maya. We have both experienced baby loss and embarked on unconventional journeys to have another child. In series one we talk about our baby loss experiences, navigating grief and what we each went through. In series two, we interview my surrogate Helen, as well as other mothers and their unconventional journeys. You can listen via Apple, Spotify and Google and follow us on Instagram.