By Sara Rimer, New York Times, July 11, 2009
It was supposed to be a movie about a dog named Marley. But up on the big screen, Marley’s owner, a glowing Jennifer Aniston, kept getting pregnant – serenely, effortlessly pregnant (after one miscarriage).
Jumping up on her seat, Simmie loudly asked her mother, “How come you’re the only mommy who can’t get pregnant?”
“Sit down,” whispered Mrs. Brisman, who is a lawyer specializing in surrogacy. “We’ll talk about this later.”
Every child has a birth story. The story of Simmie, who was born to a surrogate, is different from the stories of the three children in the movie. But her story, which is also the story of her 11-year-old twin brothers, Andrew and Benjamin, is less unusual than it used to be.
While there is no widely agreed upon number for surrogate births, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates 400 to 600 births a year from 2003 to 2007 in which a surrogate was implanted with a fertilized egg. Advocacy groups put the count much higher – including most recently to the actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick – and say the numbers will increase as more people, including gay men, turn to surrogacy to become parents.
So despite the substantial costs (at least $30,000), there is now a group of young children whose parents are wrestling with this modern twist on the eternal question: Where did I come from?
These parents have to take the often excruciating saga of all they went through to have a baby and turn it into a child-friendly, reassuring and true Your Birth Story.
So many parents are trying to figure out how to tell this new story that Judith Kottick, a licensed social worker in Montclair, N.J., provides counseling in just that area. “What kids want to know is that they’re in the family they were meant to be in – that they belong to their mom and dad,” she said.
She advises parents to start telling their children’s birth story early. “You want them to grow up with the information so it’s not a news flash,” Ms. Kottick said. She also recommends some of the new children’s books that are tailored to the story of birth through surrogacy, like “Hope & Will Have a Baby: The Gift of Surrogacy” by Irene Celcer.
Marla Culliton and her husband, Steven, of Swampscott, Mass., have 7-year-old twins, Jacob and Naomi. “When they were 4, I told them, ‘First you have to get married, then you have to have a nice house, then you can go to a doctor, and he can help you,’ ” said Mrs. Culliton, a dental hygienist. “At 5, they said, ‘How is the baby made?’ I said: ‘They come from a sperm and an egg. The doctor made you in a dish.’ ”
If anyone has been preparing for The Talk, it is these parents, who have often spent years trying to have children. “You know how you sit down at night, talking to them, telling them stories?” said Jan Zoretich, who has two children, Sarah Elizabeth, 5, and Rachel, 3, born through surrogacy. “From Day 1,” she said, referring to Sarah Elizabeth, “I said: ‘Mommy’s so happy. You’re such a blessing. We’re so grateful Jessica was a surrogate for us.’ ”
In Sarah Elizabeth’s birth story, Jessica, whom the family prefers to identify only by her first name and who lives in the same Maryland town, is a central character. “She comes to the door, and I’ll say, ‘Sarah, your surro’s here,’ ” said Mrs. Zoretich, a former chief financial officer for a group of nursing homes who now stays home with her children.
Mrs. Brisman, the lawyer, who also runs an agency that connects prospective parents with surrogates, began telling Simmie her birth story when she was about 3. (“The doctor took a piece of Daddy and took a piece of Mommy and put it inside someone else because my tummy was broken.”)
Mrs. Brisman, who contends that the estimates from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine on the numbers of surrogate births are far too low, said her clients alone had 300 babies through surrogacy last year, with gay men becoming parents in 20 percent of the cases.
Jeffrey T. Parsons, a Manhattan psychologist and his partner, Chris Hietikko, have a 3-year-old son, Henry, who sees his surrogate, Jessica, at least once a year.
When their son starts asking questions at, say age 5, said Dr. Parsons, a psychology professor at Hunter College, “I would probably relate it to one of his friends. I’d say, ‘You’ve met your friend Michael’s dad and mom. You have two dads, right? Well, it takes a mom to make a baby because they grow them in their tummy. That’s Jessica.”
The television host Joan Lunden, 58, has become a celebrity spokeswoman for surrogacy since she and her second husband, Jeff, became parents of two sets of twins, now 4 and 6. Their surrogate, Deborah Bolig, has become a part of their large, extended family. This is how Ms. Lunden has described their surrogate to her twins: “She’s a woman in our lives we greatly respect, she helped us have Kate and Max and Kim and Jack.”
Although she considers her children too young for a talk about embryos and uteruses, Ms. Lunden already has a metaphor ready for when the time comes: cupcakes. “It’s almost like we can’t cook the cupcakes in our oven because the oven is broken,” she said. “We’re going to use the neighbor’s oven.”
Fay Johnson, whose two children, Lily and Chase, now 19 and 15, were born through traditional surrogacy – the surrogate was also the egg donor, with the sperm from Mrs. Johnson’s husband – said she started telling them their stories when they were babies. “I was like Seinfeld,” said Mrs. Johnson, who is a program coordinator for the Center for Surrogate Parenting in California. “I needed to practice my material.”
As the children got older and had more questions, Mrs. Johnson had more explaining to do about their surrogate. “Lily would say to me, ‘Why don’t I look like you?’ ” Mrs. Johnson said. “She was maybe 3 at the time. I would say, ‘Because you look just like Daddy, and you have Natalie’s gorgeous hair and skin.’ ” Lily knew all about her surrogate, Natalie, because her mother had been talking about Natalie since Lily was a baby.
“So when Lily was 9 years old, she said: ‘Mom, I have figured out that I’m not from your eggs. And I think Dad and Natalie make a pretty cute couple,’ ” recalled Mrs. Johnson, whose husband died several years ago.
“I said: ‘Lily, well, Natalie and Dad were never a couple. You were only created in the doctor’s office because I was going to be your mother. Would you like to see your birth certificate – because I’m going to be your mother forever.’ “