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My Sister, My Surrogate

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Monday, December 24, 2007 | 0 comments

IN August 2003, Lisa Fitzgerald was 42 years old and eight months pregnant with her third boy. Her sister was 44 and childless. The older sister had tried in vitro fertilization seven times and had either failed to get pregnant or miscarried. Her struggle with infertility was so painful that she did not want to talk about it, even with her family.

“My heart bled for my sister,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “I had good, uneventful pregnancies. I wanted to make the offer, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t want it to sound like, ‘I’ll help you out because you’ll never be able to do it yourself.’ Finally, I said, ‘If you ever get to the point you decide you’re not going to be able to carry your own, I’d be happy to do it for you.’ She said she’d always had that feeling, but would never ask.”
Though surrogacy first came to widespread attention about two decades ago, it is still rare. There were about 300 live births in 2005 to surrogates who had eggs donated by prospective mothers, according to statistics from the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, which collects data from 400 fertility clinics nationwide.

Having a sister serve as a surrogate is even rarer. One of the nation’s largest fertility centers, Shady Grove, which is based in Rockville, Md., and has several satellite clinics, does 50 to 60 surrogacy implants a year; one quarter of the surrogates are family or friends; the rest are strangers, according to Patty Stull, a spokeswoman for the center. The cost for the complete process, when using a hired surrogate, is about $25,000, Ms. Stull said.

Both sisters discussed it with their husbands. “How do you say no?” said Tim Fitzgerald, who is transportation director for the Mamaroneck schools. The older sister, who declined to be named, wanted to move forward, but her husband was hesitant. Though he finally agreed, he didn’t want to be there for the birth. Ms. Fitzgerald insisted. “I said to my sister: ‘You tell him he must be there. Don’t look at the gory details of my body — this is your child coming into the world.’”
In August 2004, two embryos were transferred. One took. As she got larger, Ms. Fitzgerald had to explain her pregnancy to her oldest son, Brian, now 11. “I thought, ‘Wow,’” Brian said. “I thought it was going to be my brother or sister. It was like, ‘Huh?’ And then she explained that my aunt couldn’t carry the baby and my mom is carrying for her. Like the hen keeping the eggs warm in the nest. I realized it was my aunt’s son in her belly. I felt kind of all weird inside.”
They all felt a little of that, but in April 2005 a healthy 7-pound 8-ounce boy was born at Hudson Valley Hospital Center, with the older sister and her husband — who live several states away — both there. “We were so appreciative,” said the older sister in an interview.

The birth felt miraculous to all of them, and Ms. Fitzgerald immediately offered to do it one more time. Two embryos were implanted in August 2006, and as the Fitzgeralds learned at the first ultrasound, both took. Twins.

Mr. Fitzgerald worried for his 45-year-old wife. “I didn’t say, but I had a feeling where this was heading,” he said.

Indeed, this time it did not feel miraculous at all. In January, when she was five months pregnant, Ms. Fitzgerald was put on bed rest. Normally, she’s a dynamo; she works two part-time jobs, volunteers at school and has those three young boys. Now she was lying on the living room couch, getting up only to use the bathroom and to go up to bed at night.

Her mother, Yvonne Tropp, 75, came daily to help, and Ms. Fitzgerald tried to keep things going — she ran her son Eric’s Cub Scout meetings from the couch. But mostly she felt the responsibility to hold those babies inside for as long as possible. “I thought a lot about what could go wrong,” she said. “They always said, ‘If something’s wrong, it’s not your fault,’ but there isn’t anyone else to blame. I was aware of that every day.”

She spoke daily with her sister by phone, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, their interests began to diverge. Ms. Fitzgerald fixated on being able to finally give birth; every day, the older sister hoped the twins would stay in a day longer.

“I’d be such a liar,” said the older sister. “If the doctor said she could get up to do something, I’d say, ‘Well, get up.’ But I was thinking: ‘Those idiots — how could they let her? We have to keep them in as long as we can. Thirty-five weeks is better than 34, 36 better than 35.’”
Ms. Fitzgerald said, “Occasionally I thought about what I’d done and should I have done it.”
At 31 weeks, Ms. Fitzgerald was hospitalized. The doctors would tell her to hang on a few more days, and when she did, they’d say a few more. “I was furious,” she said.

Her older sister said, “Every extra day was wonderful.”

Ms. Fitzgerald made it to 34 weeks, 5 days. “I did everything I humanly could,” she said. The twins, boys, weighed 4 pounds 8 ounces and 4 pounds 12. “I was thrilled these babies were healthy and full term,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.

At that point, Ms. Fitzgerald was sure the babies would be fine, but her older sister began to feel the pressure. Though grateful to Ms. Fitzgerald, the older sister fretted about the twins’ size, their inability to suck properly, and the 13 days they had to spend in neonatal care. “After about four days,” the older sister said, “the doctor made a comment to Lisa, ‘Your babies aren’t listening to me.’ She said, ‘Oh they’ll be fine.’ I was so upset. If there’s something wrong, I’m the one bringing home the babies. I don’t want to hear ‘almost fine.’ I want ‘fine.’ I want what everyone else has.”

After feeling so frustrated during the pregnancy, Ms. Fitzgerald felt the need to show the babies her love. But each day she waited to visit them until after her sister had left the hospital.

Ms. Fitzgerald was exhausted from the birth, weak from months in bed and becoming increasingly angry that her older sister wasn’t visiting her at home to help her get back on her feet.

The older sister said she worried that Ms. Fitzgerald’s boys had colds, and that if she herself got sick as a result, she wouldn’t be allowed on the neonatal unit.

The tension that had been building for months finally erupted. It all came out in a three-hour phone call. Ms. Fitzgerald told her sister that she didn’t have a clue what it was like to give birth; her sister said that naturally Ms. Fitzgerald didn’t worry about the babies — they weren’t hers.

And that broke the fever.

“That fight was the beginning of the healing,” Ms. Fitzgerald said.

“Next morning, the tension was gone,” her sister said.

The twins are now 8 months and thriving. The older sister wants them to be treated like any other children, which is why she is protecting their privacy. “We just want our family to be normal,” she said.

The sisters and their families celebrated Thanksgiving together. The older sister, who studied Ms. Fitzgerald’s interaction with the twins, said, “Clearly she feels a special bond, but it’s so appreciated by us that she reacted like an aunt, and thank God for that.”
Ms. Fitzgerald said: “I’ll always know there’s a special bond, but it’s all right, I can say they’re just my nephews. Life moves on.”

As for young Brian, he continues to puzzle it out. “They felt more related to me than any of my other cousins,” he said. “I kind of thought about it, but then I think of other stuff and it goes away.”



Image: Pregnancy After 40: 40 Things No One Told You About Being Pregnant Over 40 (Pregnancy Plan Series), by Jill Conrad, Pregnancy Support Institute. Publisher: Pregnancy Tips (August 14, 2012)Pregnancy After 40: 40 Things No One Told You About Being Pregnant Over 40 (Pregnancy Plan Series)
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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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