I’ve spent most of my teenage and adult life convincing myself that I didn’t want to be a mother. Rather than admit the hurt and loss of not being able to physically carry my own child, I emphatically said out loud that I didn’t want kids. As you may have guessed, that was never met with warm and fuzzy opinions from anyone.
“You have to have kids!”
“But you’re so good with kids!”
“Oh, you’ll change your mind!
As a therapist, I know now it was all a ruse, a defense mechanism my subconscious had developed to protect me from the heartache of accepting that having children, the traditional way, just wasn’t a possibility for me. Due to medical complications from high school, I knew that carrying a pregnancy was simply not something many doctors would recommend, or a risk I was willing to take. Chad and I got married, him being fully aware that children were probably not in the future for us. However, as he would later admit, he always knew we would figure out a way.
For the most part, people were right: I did change my mind. I can’t tell you when or how, but just that something grew inside of me. The desire to have our own children, to see which characteristics they would get from Chad or I, my red hair and freckles or his height, my love for dance or his decathlete athletic ability, my vivacious laugh or his kind smile? And to set out on the hardest journey on earth with the best partner in the world. To build our family. But I knew that I could never go through a pregnancy, the risks were just too great.
While my (and Chad’s) dreams of a child were growing, surrogacy was beginning to get more and more press. Celebrities were publicly sharing their story of using a surrogate to achieve pregnancy, and my world opened up. Frankly, the entire world opened up, especially through some of the surrogate message boards and blogs. Placing a simple ad on a surrogate message board, for some advice and direction on gestational surrogacy was our first step in building our family, our destined family. Little did we know our destined family didn’t even include our baby.
I was overwhelmed by the immediate outpouring of love and bravery. The responses from women came in very quickly. So many women reached out just to offer words of wisdom and advice. I was completely unaware of the vast community available to those going through infertility treatments. I received several emails every day those first couple of weeks. Emails came in from women just offering support. Some offered advice, and some offered their uteruses. I was also amazed at how quickly I knew that certain women just were not a good fit for us. With some women I knew right way, such as the women who had just finished a journey with another couple (sometimes their second or third journey) and were ready to start again. I knew I wanted more from my surrogate than a quick and easy business deal. I wanted her to be more than just my internet oven. It was also easy to know when we were just too different. I trusted my instincts when our answers to the difficult questions didn’t match up or our personalities were just too different to get through a year without further trauma.
The messages back and forth with women fell within the trusting space of true authentic vulnerability. You had to lay everything on the line. What do you believe in? What do you want? No reasons necessary and no apologies. Why are you doing this? Do you believe in selective reduction? What is your opinion and willingness on transferring multiple embryos? How much do you want for bed rest? What kind of relationship with the surrogate family do you want after the baby is born? What about termination for special needs? All difficult questions and not ones you tend to open with upon meeting someone for the first time. I was grateful for the anonymous bravery that comes in the online world.
Michelle answered our ad, our prayers, our spirit and our love. She came out of nowhere, and yet from the very beginning I knew we were meant to be in each other’s lives. Michelle and I built our friendship pretty quickly through all of those difficult questions. We talked online for a couple of months before exchanging phone numbers and texting and talking. In February 2011, we met online. We finally got the courage to meet in person that August. Chad and I drove to Indianapolis to meet our potential surrogate and her husband. I will never forget how nervous I was. What if they weren’t our kind of people? Or funny? Or even nice? Or, what if I totally misread her intentions in doing this and feel like I can’t really trust her? What if she changes her mind right then and there after meeting us and doesn’t want to do this? What if they think we would be terrible parents?
We met Michelle and Ben at their favorite restaurant in their quaint town, quite possibly the cutest town in America. It was awkward, really awkward, but for maybe 15 seconds. We ate, we drank wine, we laughed and we just put everything on the table. It fit, we fit; we were supposed to meet these people. In many ways it was like meeting my soul’s match, there sitting across the table was my soul sister. The weekend ended in hilarity and a story that will go down in our history of our lifelong friendship and chosen family. A high school reunion, too much wine, amazing laughs and the first realization that Michelle and I are more alike than different, our hearts being more similar than just our physical red hair; it was the first of many memories of our new chosen family.
The next step before moving forward with the drugs and procedures was to meet Ben and Michelle’s children. We discovered the tiny town of Effingham, Illinois, directly in the middle between Saint Louis and Indianapolis with a clean and cheap hotel with a pool for the kids to swim. It was a cold, dreary day in the fall. I remember because the kids walked Maddie and Bosco (our dogs at that time) and you can see Nathan and Lyla’s (and Maddie’s) hair blowing in the wind in one of my favorite pictures from our journey. We ate some of the best pizza we’ve ever eaten before, swam, laughed and further solidified our chosen family in the little town of Effingham, IL, most infamous for the giant white cross off the highway. Michelle let us know that Nathan had an idea of who we were, but Nathan had never said anything in front of us. As for Lyla, we just became part of her extended family; little did we know she had already formed a soul mate like connection of her own with our Yorkie-poo, Maddie.
The toughest part of my friendship with Michelle was during the contract process. At the end of the day, gestational surrogacy is a business deal, not a friendship or family matter. Going back and forth with the lawyers, and not really talking much, took a toll on our friendship. The contract negotiations were difficult considering we were in different states, which therefore meant different surrogacy laws. It was confusing in the least, but also very anxiety provoking. You are paying someone to carry your baby and give birth. It is business, with a lot of money involved, but we also loved and respected these people. Chad looked at me one night and said, “I think we have to prepare that they aren’t ready for this. You have to call her.” I called Michelle, with my heart pounding out of my chest and a huge lump in my throat to ask what could have been the question to end it all, “Are you sure you are ready for this and want to do this?” We had gone back and forth so many times, and gone over our attorney retainers more than once. It was one of the first times that I simply put everything on the table, even though it would have been much easier to avoid or minimize. I was scared to death that her answer might be no, that she’d changed her mind. We both cried and realized we were feeling the exact same way: torn, confused, uncomfortable and just wanting to skip over this mandatory part of the process. This is a business deal, as our husbands kept reminding us, but it was so much more. We were friends, we had started to become family, and we were both just scared shitless. It was during the contract negotiations that I felt the fear of losing them forever for the first time. What if this doesn’t work out? I was scared to death of having to start over with a new surrogate. To go through the difficult questions again and find someone who believed in and would honor our wishes, felt so daunting. But this was not my greatest fear in the slightest. I was scared most of losing my chosen family forever.
Justine Brooks Froelker is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator with a private practice in St. Louis, Missouri. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Saint Louis Community College, where she teaches General Psychology. She can be seen regularly on the St. Louis KMOV live midday show, Great Day St. Louis. Ms. Froelker contributes to the monthly publication, St. Louis Health & Wellness Magazine, as an expert therapist. Her blog, Ever Upward, can be found at www.everupward.org. To read the rest of Justine’s story, you can purchase her book, Ever Upward: Overcoming the Lifelong Losses of Infertility to Own a Childfree Life.