Editors’ note: Northwest Arkansas mom and writer April Wallace recently interviewed a fellow mom of 3 named Michelle McKinley who lives in our area and who experienced a remarkable journey as a surrogate. Not only was the journey full of highs, lows and dramatic turns, it ends in the most inspiring way and beautifully illustrates the commitment, love and generosity involved in surrogacy.
The role of a surrogate is so special and important, but it seems like hard work with lots of uncertainty, too. What made you want to do it?
After I had (my first child) Beckett, I had a dream that that’s what I was supposed to do. I told my husband Derek, and he said, “No I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s right for our family. That would be a lot on you.” But my feelings continued for months. I really thought, ‘My husband will change his mind.’
Then when our daughter Saylor Grace was 6 months old, Derek came home and said he couldn’t stop thinking about (surrogacy). He told me, “I think you’re right, I think we should do this. If we’re going to do it, this is the time.” I knew that was what I was supposed to do after that. I asked a fellow runner friend of mine who was a surrogate to share her experience with me and what agency she used.
I loved being pregnant. I felt the most beautiful then, like I was doing something super important. I’ve had friends who were unable to conceive, and if I were in that position, I would hope someone would do that for us. That’s a big reason why.
I’m sure that between the decision to become a surrogate and the point where you could announce the pregnancy to your friends and family you went through a lot behind the scenes. What were all those big first steps?
I called the agency, New Beginnings Surrogacy in New York City, and told them I’m interested. First, I completed an application online with basic information, my previous births, how many weeks I went with each pregnancy; my husband Derek’s info, our work histories and other personal stuff. A representative called me to say I had one week to wait.
My medical records, through Washington Regional, were required and took 6 weeks to 2 months to clear everything. It was 2.5 months later before we were even talking again.
What did you have to do that you might not expect?
We were flown to New York City, a mandatory and kid-free trip for blood work, to meet the doctor, do an internal ultrasound and count the eggs in my ovaries. (So do you know how many eggs you have?) Yes, they told me that was the most eggs they had seen in a while and I was (laughing) like “I know.” They wanted to ensure there were no tumors or blockages.
(But you didn’t also donate an egg, did you?) No, I didn’t. As I reminded people through the entire process, it was not my joey, just my pouch.
They gave me a depo shot to stop me from ovulating. I underwent anesthesia to have a DNC (dilation and curettage, procedure that scrapes your uterine lining to remove abnormal tissues). They tested Derek as well, for STDs, AIDS and more. Since (during pregnancy) I’d be giving the baby blood, they wanted to make sure we were both fine. Those results took another week and a half.
The next step was a phone interview with a psychiatrist for both of us. For Derek, they wanted to make sure that he fully understood the process and that he was genuinely supportive.
For me, it was more about the fact that even though I care deeply, it still wouldn’t be my baby.
They also asked whether I’d ever had any pregnancies with complications or postpartum depression because that would have automatically ruled me out.
Finally, it was legal matters. We were matched with a lawyer. There was a ton of paperwork, all of it had to be notarized, so we constantly went to the bank. Papers that state when I do have the baby, I have no parental rights. All squared away over 3.5 weeks. Once legal was done, I started taking medicine.
What did you have to do medically before you were inseminated?
They mailed me medicine to take. And every week I had to go to clinics to get monitored, have an internal ultrasound and blood work. I did that for 2.5 months. I had to have oral progesterone, vaginal progesterone, and give myself a shot everyday. Well, I had Derek give me the shot actually. It made me feel pregnant even though I wasn’t. Progesterone wreaked havoc on my body. Two weeks before our trip to New York City for the embryo transfer, they gave me the depo shot to stop ovulation.
And then we were matched with a family.
How does the family matching process work?
We had a profile talking about Derek and I, our family; what my diet was; what I like to do for fun. We found a family we liked and the agency showed our profile to them. We turned one family down because they wanted a guaranteed c-section. I wanted to try for a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean).
What was the transfer like?
We went to New York City in June for the transfer, which is where they inseminated the embryo into my uterus. I had to be on bedrest for a day. After that I was able to walk a little bit but not much, so no sightseeing for us. Then we came back and had to wait seven days for our doctor’s appointment to see if it worked. I took a home pregnancy test, but it was negative and I didn’t feel any differently. The appointment confirmed that it didn’t work.
I bet that was so disappointing.
It was devastating. Not only because I’d been through all these shots and medicine but for the family. They only had one more embryo left and decided they didn’t want to try again. So we had to be matched with another family.
How many families did you consider before finding the one that you stuck with?
We considered three others before getting matched with Xavier’s family. When I interviewed with them, the mom was so cool, she encouraged me to keep working out, to not stop doing what makes me happy and told me, “Don’t do anything that takes away from your family.” That was like a breath of fresh air.
I continued progesterone and was monitored for two and a half months, and then we did the depo shot again and went back for another try right before Halloween. The next day I told Derek, “I’m pregnant. I know this feeling.” When they make the transfer, it’s a 3-week-old embryo. I got home and two days after, I took a home pregnancy test. It was positive, but we still had to wait a week for the doctor confirmation.
How long was it from the time that you called the agency to the time that you got pregnant as a surrogate?
I initially called in September 2017, and my positive pregnancy test was November of 2018, so more than a year.
Was anything different about this early stage?
My hormone levels were so high. I was worried the egg had split, but it was just a super healthy embryo, so my levels went up and up and up. I went to the doctor weekly for the first trimester to make sure numbers were still rising until 12 weeks. I continued progesterone. But after that point, I got to go to my regular OB, and it was like a normal pregnancy then, which was nice.
The whole process is predicated on you understanding that you’re not the parent, but when did that really hit you?
Most agencies do genetic testing to rule things out and to know the baby’s gender. But this family wanted to test again at 11 weeks. For us, knowing (of a genetic abnormality) wouldn’t change whether we were having the baby or not, but this couple would have terminated the pregnancy. While waiting, we spent a couple of days just speaking in positivity, and when we got the test results back, everything was normal. The 20-week anatomy scan showed everything healthy and perfect.
Also, with our kids, Derek was there with me for every doctor’s appointment but not for this baby. It was what he needed to do.
How did you explain the process to your kids (Braxton, 10; Beckett, 5; Saylor Grace, 2)?
From the very beginning, they saw me go to lots of doctor appointments, take trips, get shots and take medicine. Saylor was too little, but the boys understood. Once I was showing, people would ask them if they’re excited. Braxton would tell them that the baby wasn’t really a sibling. Beckett would say that mom’s having a baby but giving it to another family. It was funny to watch them answer. Saylor usually just rubbed my belly and asked if the baby was in there.
How did you build your relationship with the baby’s mom? What was communication like during the pregnancy?
She didn’t really message me, but I wanted her to. I felt almost annoying because I would message her almost daily with ultrasound pictures, news from doctors appointments, how I was feeling, and talk about his movements. This was not my experience, it was hers, and I wanted her to know and experience everything she could even though she wasn’t here with me.
Aside from that first trimester being full of extra testing and appointments, were there any real differences in this pregnancy from your first two?
With this pregnancy I was nauseous all day during the first trimester. I also started showing almost immediately. But from day one this pregnancy was different for me emotionally. I loved this baby and cared for him so much, not as my own, but in a way that he was such a very precious gift that I was going to be able to give this family.
April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to two beautiful and curious baby boys and wife to a very kind and generous man. She spent the past decade as a news reporter, sometimes lifestyle writer, and recently left her job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to be with her babies while they’re still babies. When she gets a few minutes to herself, April loves to run local trails and read fiction. For more of April’s posts on pregnancy, babies and toddlers, click here.