We probably looked like friends grabbing a casual Thursday-night bite: My husband, Paul, and I on one side of the leather booth at an unmemorable chain restaurant; Samantha, James, and their bubbly toddlers, Mason and Milah, on the other. In reality, Paul and I had never met the family face-to-face before. We’d spoken once to Sam, then drove two hours to London, ON, from our home in Toronto to ask her for a life-changing favour. Sharing a plate of deep-fried pickles, and our deepest hopes and fears, it seemed like as good as time as any to ask, "Samantha, will you be our surrogate?"
This wasn’t how I envisioned becoming a parent. That version included only Paul and me — certainly not a young couple with a family of their own. Then again, nothing has gone how I imagined it would when we began to try for a baby more than two and a half years ago. We put in our best efforts for six months before my impatience and encroaching mid-thirties led us to seek medical advice. At first, I didn’t mind the daily trips to the fertility clinic to get poked and prodded. Then came the miscarriage that trapped me under the covers for days; then the failed rounds of IVF. Month after month, I put on a brave face while giving myself hormone injections in restaurant bathrooms so I wouldn’t have to reschedule a client dinner yet again.
I kept it together during the day so no one would know I couldn’t have a baby. Or that I even wanted one.
Sticking myself with a needle in the hopes of boosting my egg count became as mundane as brushing my teeth. Each cycle, I’d pump myself full of estrogen, vitamins, and a positive outlook only to crash when I heard my uterine lining likely wouldn’t get thick enough for an embryo transfer, or worse, that the embryo we optimistically decided to transfer anyway, didn’t take. I’d cry on the way into work, then remain dry-eyed until in bed that night, insistent I keep it together during the day so no one would know I couldn’t have a baby. Or that I even wanted one. As the managing director of a cutting-edge PR agency, part of me felt I should all but pretend I didn’t want kids. Diapers and play dates didn’t seem to fit the image I was building as a driven go-getter.
Finally, our fertility doctor broke the news: Surrogacy would be our best, and maybe only, option. Logically, I knew this was a clear path to building our family. After all, I wanted to have a baby, not a pregnancy. We were blessed to have healthy embryos for a surrogate to carry, eliminating the need for egg and sperm donors. And the concept was simple enough: A surrogate would be implanted with our embryo through IVF. She would carry the baby and give birth. But hearing the s-word crushed me. I had built my identity around being an overachiever. And now I felt like a failure.
Up to 16 per cent of Canadians struggle with infertility, and yet no one is really talking about it. Surrogacy is even more hush-hush, despite the fact it’s estimated to have increased 400% in Canada in the past decade. The rise can be attributed to many factors, a major one being more couples waiting until they’re older to start families. Others include everything from cigarette smoking, alcohol, exposure to environmental factors and male infertility. "Most of us assume that whenever we’re ready to have a child we can make that happen. When that’s not the case, it’s common to experience a deep sense of shame,” says Reina Zatylny, a Toronto-based social worker with a specialty in infertility. "People feel like 'the other,' like outsiders. They’re less likely to talk with people because they don’t feel they understand." Yup. I wanted to scream every time I was told I would get pregnant if I "just relaxed" or "didn’t think about it."
Hearing the s-word crushed me. I had built my identity around being an overachiever. And now I felt like a failure.
Surrogacy came with an added layer of complicated emotions. I dreaded the idea of explaining it. Would our friends judge us? Would our family ask a million questions? Would people feel sorry for us? And the process of surrogacy itself is lengthy, frustrating, and expensive. For starters, in Canada it’s altruistic, meaning surrogates can’t be compensated, except for expenses associated with the pregnancy. This means surrogates are few and far between. Canadians who go through the surrogacy process will pay between $50,000 and $75,000, none of which is covered — so it’s an option available only to the privileged few, like many fertility options. While the province of Ontario, where I live, offers one free round of IVF, most couples use it up before turning to surrogacy. And then you’re on your own to navigate the complex world of surrogacy agencies, lawyers, and fertility clinics.
After a bad run-in with a newer, boutique surrogacy agency, we decided to try an online matching site a friend recommended. Signing up felt like joining a dating app. Paul and I plastered our profile with photos of the two of us and our mini-goldendoodle, Brady, looking down-to-earth and carefree in the hopes a surrogate would see us as exactly the type of people whose babies she’d want to give birth to. We tried to manage our expectations, as the site clearly states it can take up to a year to find a match. We could hardly believe it when, the very next day, we matched with Samantha. Two days later, there we were eating deep-fried pickles with her and her family. She told us she loves being pregnant and that she and her husband want to show their kids the importance of doing something magical for other people. They shared details of their complex families and troubled upbringings, and how they work together to build a better life for their kids. We took them through our journey, opening up in the hopes of building the village it would take to bring our child into this world. Before we left, we all agreed: It was a match.
I was already undergoing another round of IVF to gather embryos for a surrogate, and the morning after meeting Samantha, I went to the clinic for standard monitoring. But this day was different. "So, we’re not sure how or why this is happening now," said the nurse. "But your uterine lining is thick. It’s where we’ve been trying to get it for years. I think we should try to do a transfer — with you, not the surrogate." We may never know why my fertility seemed to rebound at that moment, but I like to believe it had something to do with meeting Samantha. Maybe that encounter helped me release the chronic stress I was carrying around. Maybe giving up hope I could carry a child meant the pressure was gone. Maybe it was a new combination of drugs. Maybe it was just luck.
Whatever the reason, I’m now pregnant with a baby boy, due in November. I’m still amazed it finally happened, and I walk around in a surreal haze of glee and hope. When I look back on the time I spent trying to have a baby, I wouldn’t do anything differently except one thing: Talk about it more. My hope is that my story can be for someone else, what Samantha was (so briefly) to me — a reminder that sometimes reaching out for help and sharing our vulnerabilities can be just what the doctor ordered.