For women with fertility issues, surrogacy can be a dream come true—with strings attached. Here's how two friends navigated the complex terrain.
They met in 2006 during a local effort to build a dog park: Heather Gwinup was district director for a tutoring center in El Dorado Hills, Calif.; Jennifer Irwin was a consultant for nonprofits who lived in nearby Folsom. From the start, the two women shared everything. Heather served as matron of honor at Jennifer's wedding. Jennifer was one of the first to hear when Heather's struggles with in vitro fertilization resulted in pregnancy. After giving birth to her son, Jameson, in 2008, Heather had a miscarriage in 2010. Shortly after that, Jennifer, who was 34 at the time and had 16-month-old twins of her own, offered to carry a baby for her best friend.
Surrogacy often presents a host of challenges—emotional, legal and financial. When the surrogate mother is someone you know, things can get even more complicated. Here is Jennifer and Heather's story: a tale of one woman's selfless gift, another's endless gratitude and how the joyful, exhausting—sometimes harrowing—experience turned them into one big family.
HEATHER: In 2011 my doctor told me that if my husband and I wanted to have another biological child, we probably would have to use a surrogate. I had one more test to take to confirm the doctor's suspicions; Jen came to the appointment to offer moral support.
JENNIFER: It killed me to watch Heather struggle to get pregnant, especially because I got pregnant so easily. I became curious about what was involved in becoming a surrogate. About a month before Heather's test, I started gathering information.
HEATHER: Driving to the appointment, I filled Jen in on my situation, and she asked, "Do you think you'll use a surrogate?" I said, "Yes, if there are no other options." Then she said, "I've been thinking of becoming a surrogate, and I'd much rather do this for you than for a stranger." I was shocked. At the doctor's office, we brought up the idea that Jen might be a carrier for me. The doctor asked Jen some questions. He thought she sounded ideal.
JENNIFER: That night, when I broached the idea with my husband, Bryan—we had already discussed it, in broad terms—he said he was worried about the potential health risks and how it was going to affect our twin boys. I thought the time to do it was now, before the boys would be old enough to remember my being pregnant. About a month later, we both decided, "It's for Heather and James. Let's do this."
HEATHER: Jen called and said, "We're in." She sounded teary, which was unlike her, and I started crying. I kept asking, "Are you sure?"
JENNIFER: Using a surrogacy coordinator, we worked out a legal contract that included contingencies for every possible outcome—making sure we wouldn't encounter any problems down the road that might ruin our friendship. For example, if the baby had a genetic abnormality, I agreed that Heather and James would decide whether the pregnancy would be terminated. In addition to paying all expenses related to the pregnancy, they insisted on paying me a fee. [See "Thinking About Becoming a Surrogate?" at right for a general discussion of fees.] That felt strange to me, but I think it eased any feelings of indebtedness on Heather's part. And truthfully, it made the situation more palatable for Bryan, because being able to give Heather and James a baby wasn't tangible enough for him yet. The money helped him see the immediate benefit to our family, as we were able to put it toward our kids' college-education fund.
HEATHER: Working out the contract, Jen and I kept looking at each other, saying, "This is weird." In addition to the surrogacy fee, I wanted her to get compensated for the time and pain of all the medical procedures she'd have to undergo, but Jen refused. She said, "I don't want to make money on the process; it's about giving you a child."
JENNIFER: I had some invasive and uncomfortable testing to prepare for the transfer of the embryo, like a water sonogram, where a camera was pushed past the cervix to look inside my uterus. It was awful, but I knew that if it ever got too bad, it would have been fine for me to call it quits.
HEATHER: It was extremely hard to be on the other side and watch her go through that sonogram, especially because it was for my sake. I kept saying, "I'm so sorry," and she kept saying, "You don't have to be sorry." Afterward, I joked that I was going to get a T-shirt that said THANK YOU on one side and I'M SORRY on the other to wear to every appointment.
JENNIFER: The first attempt to transfer an embryo didn't work. I took it much harder than Heather. She had been disappointed so many times in the past with IVF, so she was, like, "It's no big deal." It made me more determined to do it again. A few days after the second transfer, I took a pregnancy test. It was positive. Just to be sure, I took another one. Also positive! Right away I drove to Heather's house in the pouring rain. She answered the door, and I was holding up the two pregnancy tests. She was so excited! She kept repeating "Really?" over and over.