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Personal Essays

Poster by Earl Schuler, 1936-1940

The Surrogate Life

Being unemployed, and bearing colossal amounts of debt, can drive you to rash measures. Discovering the difficulty of renting out one’s womb.

It’s a Thursday night in July and I’m scouring the internet, looking to rent my womb. Black markets for babies have cropped up in India and China; I explore more familiar turf: Craigslist. I know how to write to sell—I once turned a profit on a mildewed teapot I advertised online—and I apply some semantic magic to a blurb about my uterus. “Surrogate at the ready!” my ad’s subject line reads. “I want to carry your child. Clean womb, non-smoker. Base price negotiable.” I post the ad in three major metro areas and wait for responses, pixellated hand poised on the refresh button.

In five days, I get two relevant replies. One is from a priest, offering his support for my plight during “these tough economic times.” The other is from a man named Ali. “I need someone to carry my child,” he writes. “Plus do paper marriage. If interested send your contact # and details we can discuss further.”

I’m 23. I have a fresh liberal arts degree, $50,000 in student loans, and I can’t find a job. In the past, I’ve gotten through money-thin months by subletting my apartment or selling my personal possessions on eBay. But newly homeless and with my car, bike, and dressy trousers under new titles, I’ve nothing of worth left to proffer.

Except, of course, myself.

 

* * *


Earlier this year, I was captivated by a story in the Los Angeles Times about 32-year-old Angel Howard, a Navy wife from California with six young children. She and several other women on her base had opted to become surrogate mothers to ease their financial situations; $20,000, the average lot for a surrogate, was a lot of money for nine months of the same work they’d previously done for free. One even got a breast lift out of the deal; another planned a Caribbean vacation with the windfall.

Howard genuinely liked being pregnant. She was good at it, she said, and she wanted to help people who desired children but could not conceive. Surrogacy seemed the perfect solution: with her husband in Iraq, it would bolster their bank account while allowing her to stay at home with her kids.

And so she registered with Extraordinary Conceptions, a California-based organization that matches surrogates with potential recipients. In a matter of weeks, Howard was paired with a gay couple from France as a carrier for their possible child, which would be composed of sperm from one of the men and an egg from a donor. Should she bring their child to term, she would be in line for a payment of $20,000 to $25,000. The couple and Howard are expecting twins in October. For the multiple birth, Howard will receive an additional $5,000.

 

* * *


I’ve always worked to support myself—I’ve swept hair at an old ladies’ salon, shilled Janet Evanovich novels at Barnes and Noble, copyedited elementary-level textbooks, babysat children large and small. Last year, my senior year of college, I even had my first salaried position: a whopping $12,000 for the 50 hours per week I spent serving as editor of my university’s newspaper. But despite starting my post-college job search the November prior to graduation, I was rejected from 20-odd positions. I felt, in two words, totally useless. Like many lost ex-co-eds, I elected to sidestep the job market and go straight to graduate school. But for this past summer, I joined the ranks of the degreed-and-jobless, unemployed for the first time since I was 14.

I patted my stomach whenever anyone lit up a cigarette in my vicinity.Initially I was calmed by the idea of three solid months of earning opportunity before school started again, but the prospects for even the most unsavory jobs were bleak. As I filled out an application for a minimum-wage position at a mattress store in the bowels of New York City, I knew there had to be an easier way to chip off part of my towering debt mountain. I worked at tapping into my entrepreneurial spirit, meditating on quick ways to make a good buck—selling plasma, creating my own brand of chewing gum, knitting banana holders. But none of my ideas had the kind of sticking power I needed to see quick financial solvency.

 

* * *


One idle Sunday in late June, I was sitting on a bench in Riverside Park with my aunt, eating pizza and comparing recent celebrity sightings. She had seen Dianne Wiest at the Gap on 86th; I had spotted Sarah Jessica Parker at restaurant in the Village.

I asked her if she’d heard about the impending birth of Parker’s twins, carried via surrogate, and that surrogates could command up to $30,000 for a pregnancy. I joked that I could carry a baby and go to school at the same time, circumventing the recessive job market and putting a major dent in my loan. “Sure,” my aunt joked. “A body is a woman’s most valuable asset in this economy. Why not make use of it?”

But suddenly my little quip didn’t seem so far-fetched, and the idea to sublet my womb was born. My mind shot back to Angel Howard, who struggled with the implications of becoming a surrogate to bolster her bank account. And then there was her unnamed friend, who negotiated a round of plastic surgery out of her surrogacy gig. If a woman could birth a baby for some cash and a boob job, why couldn’t I carry a child to pay back my school loans? How difficult could it be?

Surrogates do not like to joke. Their situations are not to be considered casually; it is life-making itself, about as charitable as you can get.I began to test the waters. When friends asked me what I was doing with my life since graduation, I said I was thinking of becoming a surrogate mother, and I started to take stock of all the hot air I was spewing. Before long, word of my plan got out to my immediate community and my impudence became a matter of intrigue. People started to ask when I was due. One friend gave me an old smocked dress to wear for when my belly outgrew my pants. Another gave me a bottle of his mother’s calcified prenatal vitamins, circa 1988. I stopped consuming fish or caffeine in public and patted my stomach whenever anyone lit up a cigarette in my vicinity.

Gradually, however, I had a feeling I’d dug myself into a womb-sized hole. Of course, no one actually expected my elfin body to go through with the procedure—my child-bearing hips are most comfortable in size 12 pants from the kids’ section—but I had rocked Pandora’s cradle. And truly, sincerely, if a nice couple approached me one morning at Starbucks and complimented the seeming flex of my midsection, I would take their number. My bank account was dwindling with each jobless day, and I could either run away from the crib or see what was inside.

 

* * *


“Had my 2nd beta done WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOOOO happy happy dance!” This was Julie, a hopeful surrogate. “You can bet I will know at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning I am so ticked! Argh either way I had a pee party with both my surro families today and it’s all good just need betarific proof!”

Before I drafted the papers to rent out my uterus, I went where the surrogates go—the internet, specifically Allaboutsurrogacy.com—and tried to learn their language. To my ear, Julie may as well have been writing binary Mandarin. Regardless, in her message and dozens more, the warmth and enthusiasm of a strong community, the love of hundreds of fecund women expressed through chat-speak and barrages of emoticons, was overpowering. I was not only fascinated, I was hooked.

The users on All About Surrogacy have names like LovingSurroMommy and My4Girls&More; in their profiles are whimsical icons paying homage to their biological and surrogate children. In thousands of posts, women discuss religious issues, whether or not they’d carry for gay couples, the pros and cons of different surrogacy agencies. They talk about how much they want to be pregnant. There’s an entire section devoted to the science of pregnancy—ovulation cycles, embryo transfers, and the feared and revered beta number, a measurement of human chorionic gonadotropin levels that indicates whether or not one is pregnant.

Professional baby-makers are their own subculture with their own rites. These women, it seemed, are in love with the idea of gestation despite nine months of swooping hormones, medical scrutiny, and the stress of nurturing a fragile life inside of them that they’ll be required to hand away. No one was in my situation; the topic of money was broached only by surrogates wondering how to procure payments earlier than designated in their contracts. Site-wide, the sense was that although the payment for a job well done was handsome and beneficial, no member had become a surrogate just to earn a nine-month buck.

“If you are looking for a steady flow of cash, go apply at Wally World.”I didn’t believe it—so I created a screenname, Wannabeasurrogate10, to ask the verboten question amidst all the earnest talk of birth announcements and places to find hip stretchy pants: Is anyone doing this just for the money? I was inundated with responses. Some commended me for my honesty. Others warned me that the compensation didn’t come close to measuring up to the grandiosity of the experience.

“If you are looking for a steady flow of cash, go apply at Wally World,” Lilbelle wrote. “Honestly it will make you more money than surrogacy will in the same time frame and you don’t have to shove 3” needles into your behind and more needles into your thighs and pop a pharmacy worth of pills into your mouth and have wands shoved up your vagina and get blood drawn enough times to save 1,000 lives and pray after you put the precious lives of someone’s children into your womb that it works.”

I had a more intimate conversation with a poster I’ll call Sandy, whom I corresponded with over email. She’d been a surrogate four times, she wrote, and although she had a thing for babies, she wouldn’t have kept doing it if she hadn’t been paid well. She recommended seeking out an international couple if I “didn’t want my hand held” during the process.

Our communication dropped off and I figured I’d never hear from her again, but I got another message from her soon enough. “I’m headed to bed now for my first day back to work at 9 a.m. after 10 weeks of bed rest and emergency c-section! I will tell you more tomorrow! ☺”

Ten weeks of bed rest? Emergency c-section? Back to work at 9 a.m.? With all that, her emoticon use seemed nothing less than courageous, or unhinged. These women were either colossi of will and mind, or fertile mutants. I looked at the lone smocked top hanging in my closet, a pathetic bolt of yellow cotton hemmed with eyelet lace. I thought about sticking needles into my ass. I thought about praying, which I hadn’t considered despite my current dire financial situation. But mostly I thought about the surrogacy community and how all-encompassing it was—where an internet forum provides support an expectant mother can find nowhere else. Surrogates do not like to joke. Their situations are not to be considered casually; it is life-making itself, about as charitable as you can get. I wondered if somehow I could gracefully backpedal out of my experiment while still burning eternally in flames.

 

* * *


Current surrogacy statistics are murky, but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine puts the number of surrogate births per year in the hundreds. Fertility agencies say their business is consistent despite the impressive price of the process—total fees can amount to $60,000, less than half of which usually goes to the surrogate mother. According to Fay Johnson, the program coordinator at the California branch of the Center for Surrogate Parenting, first-time surrogates stand to earn $20,000 to $23,000 for a successful pregnancy. Second- and third-time surrogates, more desirable because of their experience levels, can gross $25,000 to $30,000 in addition to allowances for food, medicine, and clothes. Still a good chunk of change, but technically, a surrogate works 24/7; nine months is about 6,574 hours. Even if I earned the $23,000, I would still only make a little more than $3 an hour.

Despite the low wage, the competition to become a surrogate is steep: on average, Johnson’s office receives 7,500 applications from prospective surrogate mothers per year; about five percent of those are matched with couples.

All of this information was a balm to my surrogacy stress. Even if I did apply for a coveted position, I was most likely to get rejected. I could still apply, show everyone my application, and then make a big deal about being turned away—I was too young, too small, not motherly enough. And even if accepted, I could always bow out, citing the need for a job that paid above minimum wage.

But what if I was approved? The surrogate credentials on Extraordinary Conceptions’ website (I figured if the agency was good enough for Angel Howard, it was good enough for me; Craigslist, obviously, had been a bust) were surprisingly fitting. Potential surrogates, the site stipulated, must be between 21 and 40. That was me. They must be free of sexually transmitted diseases and have no history of serious medical conditions. Also me. They must not be overweight, must have access to reliable transportation, must be drug-free and have no history of drug use, and must hail from California, Illinois, Colorado, or Texas. Check, check, check, check, me.

Apparently my years as an undergraduate monk were coming back to haunt me.

But then, in the type above the application, came the emancipating rub, something major and unavoidable not even my naïve yet nimble mind saw coming: Surrogates must have already given birth to children. And must be raising those children in their homes.

I was free. I began to weep, attributing the reaction to the prenatal vitamin I took that morning.

 

* * *


A month later, I met my friend Ross for lunch. “You look great! You’re glowing! How far are you along?” he exclaimed. I explained to him the undramatic denouement of my experiment.

“I don’t know what I’ve been doing the last four years if I haven’t been bearing my own offspring so I could become a surrogate and earn $20,000 to abate my student debt,” I told him, over mercury-laden tuna rolls and caffeinated green tea, bought with money I’d earned selling my kitchen cookware. “I’ve never been a financial genius, but my poor investment strategies are beginning to astound me.”

We laughed, raising our mugs in a toast to our futures.

biopic

TMN Editor Leah Finnegan is from Illinois by way of Texas. She splits her time between New York City and her website. More by Leah Finnegan