Surrogate mothers say it's not about the money. You can't put a price on nine months of discomfort. But being part of a miracle _ that's priceless, too.
On the way to the reunion, a woman on the airplane asked Andromeda when her baby was due. "Babies," Andromeda responded, patting her bulging belly. "Twins, due in July."
"Oh, how wonderful!" the woman said. "Are they your first children?"
"No. I have three at home."
"My, you'll have your hands full!" the stranger sympathized.
"I do already," Andromeda replied, smiling. "Thank goodness I don't have to keep these two!"
The woman didn't know what to say. People seldom do.
It takes a while to explain. And even then, some folks don't get it. Or don't approve.
So Andromeda has to decide: Should she stay silent about something she feels so strongly about, to save herself the pain of possible criticism? Or should she take the time to try to make strangers understand why she's doing this _ why she's growing babies for someone else?
"That's why we came here this weekend," Andromeda says, shifting uncomfortably in an armchair at a Clearwater condo, where 14 other surrogates have gathered for the weekend. "Here, we don't have to explain.
"Here, we're all sisters _ we all understand."
+ + +
They met over the Internet.
They send each other cards of congratulations when the egg transfers take, sympathy cards when an embryo dies, tiny angel charms when the babies head home with another family. Most had never talked face to face until Thursday. Now, they're acting as if they've known each other for years.
It's Friday. About 8 p.m. The women are sitting in a beige-on-tan condominium off McMullen-Booth Road, listening to Shania Twain CDs, munching Chex mix. The pregnant ones are drinking cranberry juice. The others are downing Bacardi Breezers. They're rubbing each others' shoulders, curling each other's hair, sharing sequined tops and platform sandals and photographs of wrinkled infants they handed over to others.
Andromeda is 30. She's a massage therapist. She lives in Arkansas with her husband and three children. She's carrying these twins for a 38-year-old gay man in Texas. He's going to stay with her family for a few days after the babies are born while she breast-feeds; then Andromeda plans to pump her milk, pack it on dry ice, and send weekly shipments on a Greyhound bus for at least three months.
Lissa from Iowa is 35. She's a stay-home mom who has four kids and has had two egg transfers. She dreams of giving a baby to another woman.
"Some people get blessed with art or music," Lissa says. "I've been blessed with fertility. Being pregnant wasn't that much fun for me. But I figured, what better way to teach my children about giving than to give someone else a child of their own?"
The women left their husbands, their jobs, most of their own children at home to talk about the new families they had helped form, to laugh and weep and commiserate and celebrate and talk and talk and talk: of craving Hot Fries and padded stirrups and getting hormone shots.
They ate out at Outback, ordered in from Little Caesars, got manicures at the mall.
They came to Florida because it is one of the most progressive states in the country for surrogate laws. Because Sharon, who bore twin daughters for a Tampa couple last March, invited her e-mail pals to come stay at the Clearwater condo she's renting. And because, quite frankly, most of them seldom get away for an all-women's weekend.
"Tonight, we're going to Ybor City and dance, dance, dance," says Sharon, 37, wiggling into a pair of beaded turquoise bell-bottoms. "The limo will be here at 9 to take the pregnant women for a few rides around the block. Then, the rest of us will head out. We got the driver 'til 4 a.m. Wine's in the kitchen. Body glitter's on the back dresser."
Some of the surrogates don't seem enthused.
+ + +
They have little in common, except for great wombs.
Some are thin; some fat. Kat is wearing leopard-print fur bell-bottoms, a clingy black halter top, an orange navel ring; Cher has on an oversized cotton blouse, faded blue stretch pants and sneakers.
All have children of their own. Most are married. They got interested in surrogacy in different ways, for different reasons.
Some have infertile family members or friends they wanted to help. Others say they enjoy being pregnant. All insist it isn't about the money.
Joy, who has gone through two surrogacies, says she would have made more at McDonald's.
"You can't really put a price on getting up to go to the bathroom 12 times a night or having to beg for green olives and ice cream at 4 in the morning or carrying two bodies around inside your stomach for nine months, can you?" Sharon asks. "It's a very personal thing. Very powerful. It's being able to give someone the ultimate gift."
Lissa is surprised more women don't want to be surrogates: "More people are willing to donate a kidney than to carry a child for someone else for nine months. And there are so many people out there who want children. It's a shame."
+ + +
More than 6-million American women are infertile, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Adoption was the only option 25 years ago. Then, in 1978 in England, the world's first test-tube baby was born. Since then, more than 300,000 children have been born because of in-vitro procedures.
"Most people don't understand it," says Donna. "When I told my dad I was going to be a surrogate, he said, "I can't believe you'd have sex with a stranger.' When I said, "Dad, they do it with this thing that looks like a turkey baster,' he smiled and said, "Then I think that's great, honey.' "
There are two types of surrogacy: traditional and gestational. In traditional surrogacy, sperm is implanted into a woman, impregnanting her own egg. Biologically, the baby is hers.
The gestational process is much more complicated. A doctor takes eggs out of the intended mother (or from an egg bank), fertilizes them with the intended father's sperm (or some from a sperm bank), then implants the embryo into the surrogate's uterus. In these cases, which are the majority, the surrogate has no biological relationship to the child.
"It's their bun. I'm just the oven," says Dawn, who is six months pregnant with a child for a gay couple. "I got three kids of my own. I'm done. I'll have no problem handing this one over."
Sharon agrees. "I had a feeling of accomplishment when the twins were born. But I didn't have any feelings that I wanted to hold them or touch them. I didn't even go into the nursery to see them for two days. They weren't mine."
Most of the highly publicized surrogacy stories are about situations gone bad: cases when the surrogate decided not to give up the child, cases when the intended parents decided they didn't want the child. Such tragedies are rare, Lissa says. Fewer than 2 percent of surrogacies go sour.
That's where contracts come in. Lawyers who specialize in surrogacy issues almost always require their clients on both sides to go through psychological and medical screenings. They want to make sure the woman will be able to go through with what she agrees to, and that the potential parents are prepared for consequences.
Surrogates sometimes have to promise not to drink or smoke or have unprotected sex while they're pregnant (and in many cases, not to reveal their last names or those of the intended parents). Potential parents have to promise to take the child if it has defects. Both sides have to consider things like: What happens if the intended parents die while the surrogate is pregnant? What happens if the surrogate is in an accident and is brain-dead?
"Tough questions," Sharon says. "That's one reason the laws are so strange."
+ + +
Surrogacy is illegal in Washington state, New Mexico and Utah. Florida, Virginia, Tennessee and Nevada allow it outright. Other states have unclear laws.
Several agencies link infertile couples with potential surrogates, or gay men with women who don't mind non-traditional families. Other people initiate the process through cyberspace chat rooms. Ann from West Virginia posted an ad on the Internet, offering to become a surrogate, and received responses from more than 200 couples across the country. She linked three of the women at this reunion with people who couldn't have children. She has four children of her own and delivered a daughter in July for a gay couple in New Jersey. She plans to get pregnant with their next child this fall.
"Both dads created embryos, so they don't know whose baby it really is," she says. "They kept saying, "Look, Joe, she has your big feet!' or "No, really, she surely has your smile.' They'd both wanted to be dads forever. It was amazing to make that happen."
With agencies, couples pay as much as $100,000 for the surrogacy process. But the surrogate herself seldom gets more than $20,000. The rest goes for legal fees, insurance, medical procedures.
The surrogates' stipends are supposed to cover extra food and maternity clothes, travel to visit the intended parents, housekeeping and child care, and other needs if the surrogate has to be on bed rest.
"It's just nice to be able to tell your husband he's getting something out of this," Dawn says. "Especially since he's the one who has to rub your sore feet and shoulders and fetch you weird foods in the middle of the night and put up with your bellyaching.
"My kids got a motorcycle. We paid off our land. We couldn't have done that if I hadn't done this," Dawn says, stroking her basketball-sized stomach.
"I'm making a dream come true by giving this couple a family. And they're making a dream come true for my family.
"Money alone can't do that."
+ + +
They talk about the good parts, mostly. But the bad parts bubble out, too, between rum coolers and cocktail peanuts.
"It's bad enough if you lose a child of your own. But losing one you're carrying for someone else, that's 100 times worse," says Cher, who had three failed surrogacy attempts. "You know that's all that couple really wants. You've let them down. You feel like a failure. All their hope is just taken away."
Laura agrees. "A lot of people sell their house or take out a second mortgage and spend every cent they have trying to have a baby," she says. "Sometimes, they can't afford to try again."
Some infertile women get so intense about becoming mothers, they start resenting surrogates. "It's like, "You're giving my husband something I couldn't,' " Andromeda says. "They get jealous. Things get tense.
"That's why so many of us are going with gay men. They're so grateful and happy and willing to include you in their lives. The man I'm carrying these twins for has pictures of me up all around his house. I won't be these babies' mother. But I'll always be part of their lives."
Teresa is the quietest in this group. She's from Virginia, the only traditional surrogate. She has an 11-year-old daughter and four months ago delivered a baby girl for a heterosexual couple in Massachusetts, age 42 and 52. She agreed to have a sibling to expand that family soon and plans to use her own egg again.
"I have all these eggs that were going to waste. And other women don't have any," she says. "Why did God make me fertile when my husband doesn't want any more children? And these people want a child so badly and they couldn't have one?
"If I could've given her my fertility, I would have. But I can't. So I'm lending her my uterus instead."
+ + +
Just after 9 p.m., a white stretch limo pulls up in front of the condo. Andromeda and Dawn waddle out the screen door, ease themselves into the cushioned leather seats. They click empty champagne glasses, pose for a few photographs, parade around the block rubbing their big bellies.
Back in the bathroom, the music is cranking. Joy, who hasn't worn makeup in more than a year, is trying on Laura's false eyelashes. Lissa is trading her black T-shirt for Sharon's slinkier one. Donna is putting a temporary heart tattoo on her right shoulder.
Ann and Cher are in the living room, feeling frumpy. They've decided not to go to Ybor City. They're not drinking.
"My fancy pants days are over," says Ann, who has had five C-sections. "I want the body back, sure. But sometimes, I want a piece of cheesecake more."
"Amen," says Cher. "Or Hot Fries."
Sharon walks among the women, passing out premixed shots: neon drinks with names like Sex on the Beach, Buttery Nipples, Bahama Mama. "Time for my shot too," Janine says. The women all laugh.
Janine is 36. She works at Home Depot and lives in Fort Myers. She has five children of her own and gave birth to a surrogate daughter.
She said she wasn't going to do this again.
She pulls a white medical case from her black purse and takes out a 2-inch needle. Rolls up her sparkling tube top, finds a place between stretch marks. She jabs the needle far into her stomach. "Lupron," she says. "I guess I'm addicted."
Four days ago, she started the hormone treatments again. She wants to have a baby for a couple Sharon knows in New York. This one, she says, will be her last.
"Oh, I'm a Lupron junkie too," Joy says, rolling on glittery lip gloss and looking longingly at the needle. "I can't help it. I like being part of miracles."
All the women laugh. They understand.
Dawn and another surrogate try to catch the baby moving. "It's their bun. I'm just the oven," says Dawn, who is six months pregnant with a child for a gay couple.
Sharon and Ann, who has four children of her own, look at pictures sent by the fathers of a baby girl Ann delivered in July. She plans to get pregnant with the gay couple's next child this fall.
The surrogates met on the Internet, but most had never talked face to face before they got together last weekend in Clearwater. They are: front row, Angela (from Texas), Dawn (Ohio), Sharon (New York); second row, Joy (Arkansas), Janine (Florida), Donna (Texas), Lissa (Iowa), Andromeda (Arkansas); back row, Laura (California), Cher (Indiana), Kay (Georgia), Ann (West Virginia), Kat (Connecticut) and Teresa (Virginia).
Four months ago, Teresa delivered a baby girl for this heterosexual couple in Massachusetts, ages 42 and 52. The only "traditional" surrogate in the group, she plans to use another of her eggs to expand their family soon.
Right after Ann delivers the baby, the proud fathers pose with their infant daughter. Both men donated sperm, so they don't know which one is the biological father. Ann plans to have another baby for the couple this fall.