Surro-baby, Darcey, turned one last weekend. Her dads threw her a party, of course, and like all first birthdays, it was more of an anniversary for the parents than it was a party for the baby. An anniversary of survival, of joy and frustration and tears (hers, theirs, and mine!) and love and learning about each other and the journey of parenthood. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and relieved it’s not me living it!
So often in the last year, I’ve been asked about my surrogacy journey and specifically about my relationship with Darcey and her parents. So much of what we know about surrogacy is what we see in the media, and usually that’s based on commercial arrangements overseas. People are curious whether I still see Darcey, and whether I have a bond with her and what my relationship is with her parents. So, in light of it being my one year anniversary and Darcey’s first birthday, here’s my reflections on the last twelve months.
The first days after Darcey’s birth was a bit of blur of hormones and overwhelming joy and love. The oxytocin was flowing and we (Darcey’s dads, myself and my partner, Troy) were in a bit of a bubble of love. It was lovely! It was a bit overwhelming because I felt like there wasn’t a guide book for how any of us were supposed to feel or act. I also felt like a bit of a circus act, because we had lots of people sending their well wishes and demanding details of the birth and the surrogacy arrangement, and midwives at the hospital ‘checking in’ to see whether I was falling apart. We were relieved to leave the hospital and back to our own comfort zones.
The first weeks were a bit of a mixture of emotions and activity – Troy and I getting on with our home lives, getting the kids ready for kinder and school, and work, and me recovering from birth and expressing milk for Darcey. And of course, lots of visits with Darcey and her dads. I found these weeks a bit strange, and as I like to feel in control, that lack of routine or consistency was a little unsettling. I was rather sad that our surrogacy journey was ‘over’ and I didn’t want it to end, because I’d had such a lovely time. I even offered to carry another baby for them immediately. Let’s say, the oxytocin ride was amazing, but quite the rollercoaster!
The biggest frustration for me was not being able to drive, and my body not moving the way I wanted it to. I had a caesarean section, and whilst I knew intellectually that my body was recovering from major surgery, I was frustrated that I was sore and tired and slow. My youngest child was learning to ride a bike, and I couldn’t move fast enough to keep up. I had to keep reminding myself that I’d just had a baby, because part of my brain hadn’t caught up to reality. It is one of the amazing things about the body and the mind – of course I knew that I’d had a baby, but it didn’t stop me wanting to get back to normal as soon as possible. I’d never wanted to care for a newborn again, so why couldn’t I get back to my usual routine?
Over the next few months, it was like a gradual ‘weaning’ process for me and Darcey and her dads. In the early weeks we would see each other ever day, then every few days, and then once a week, and then once, sometimes twice a fortnight. They were enjoying their newborn, and I was finding my way as the ‘ex’ surrogate. What was my role, now that I wasn’t pregnant and had no job to do? It was also confusing, and sometimes confronting. Sometimes I resent the impact that surrogacy has had on me and my family, knowing that they got the baby and I got…a postpartum body and hair loss. I’m still dealing with the hair loss, which bothers me more than I expected it to.
Even with lots of other things happening in my life, I still had lots of processing and thinking to do about the surrogacy, and the birth, and Darcey and her dads. I have access to an amazing surrogacy counsellor, Katrina Hale, who regularly debriefs with me about all this stuff, and I also had lots of support from other surrogates. Less than 60 surrogacy babies are born in Australia each year; having friends who understand the feelings and thoughts is so necessary and appreciated. Traditional surrogacy is all the more complex, and traditional surrogates are all the more rare.
During that time, I was able to put a lot of my creative energy into other things, including creating the Podcast, and organising the Surrogates Sisterhood Day. I also set myself a running goal, to run 10km at the Carman Women’s Fun Run in December. Having other things to focus on was really useful.
My relationship with Darcey’s dads has changed, and grown. I spent a lot of time in the early months second-guessing why they wanted to spend time with me, and sometimes I still do. I worry that they only spend time with me because I gave them a baby; that they feel they have a debt to repay. And they probably do feel indebted to me, but that’s not a good foundation for friendship. I remember feeling surprised that they seemed to like spending time with me; perhaps I thought they would stop once the baby was here? Katrina reckons there are two certainties with surrogacy – the surrogate worries that she will be abandoned. And the intended parents worry that she’ll keep the baby. I admit I was surprised when I fell into the cliche. These days we have a new normal; we spend time together as families and I babysit for Darcey occasionally. I still worry that there is a power-imbalance in our relationship; that they will forever feel they need to express their appreciation, and worry that they’ll ever offend me. I think most surrogates find the power-imbalance really uncomfortable.
As for my relationship with Darcey, it took me a while to realise that it is a journey and not a destination. I remember wanting to know what she would think of me when she’s 10, or 15, or 25. Would she know who I am? Would she recognise me? I would see her face and be struck by how familiar she seemed, as if I am surprised by the resemblance she has to me or my kids. Even now, when I see a photo of Darcey in my newsfeed, I draw breath. I know that face! Oh wait, of course I do, it’s Darcey. Katrina thinks it must be a primal response, which some donors and donor-conceived children also experience when they meet each other. Like we’re recognising ourselves in the other person, perhaps. But it took me a while to accept that it is a perpetual journey; that I don’t know what my relationship with Darcey will look like in the future, and that’s ok. I’ve found comfort in accepting that I have limited control over it, because I don’t have all the answers. And at some point she’ll decide what she needs from me and what our relationship is to be.
These days, I spend time with Darcey and her dads regularly. She’ll know me as Aunty Sarah, and of course she’ll know her story. But whilst I recognise her as being from me, and the baby I carried, I don’t feel like her parent. I don’t feel like I need to take on a parenting role for her. I don’t feel bonded to her the way I do to my kids. She looks for her dads when they leave the room – and I find that affirming, because I know her primary attachments are to the people who are her parents, just as we intended. My relationship with Darcey is different; more than an aunt-niece relationship, but not the same as a mother-daughter relationship.
The first birthday and the anniversary of me giving birth feel like two separate events, both worthy of reflection and acknowledgement. “It’s complex” is the best descriptor I can come up with. There is no box that any of this fits in. I feel some peace as we meet this milestone – this chapter is closing, whilst the book is still being written. I have other things to focus on and surrogacy, whilst sometimes all-consuming, is not a career (unless you’re a surrogacy lawyer, of course!).
There have been multiple comments from Darcey’s dads over the year about how lucky they feel to have her in their lives, and plenty of people reflecting on how lucky Darcey is to have her dads. And I agree on both fronts. But in everything that we’ve been through in the past year, and how much we’ve shared over the past 3 years, I must say that I am the luckiest person. I am so privileged to have been a part of this journey and to be a part of Darcey’s life, and for her dads to have let me be part of theirs.
Surrogacy is incredibly complex, a perpetual journey, and moreso than I ever imagined. My life is richer and I am so grateful for it. There is such a special sweetness in participating in creation.