Surrogacy in the Media – a review of BBC Three’s “The Surrogates” (long read)

Surrogacy is often explored through TV soaps and dramas, the BBC’s The Nest being a recent example. This short series explored issues around the age of a surrogate mother and how much she is making her own choice, if it is an informed choice and if she being coerced by the wealthy, childless couple who take her under their wing. It was effective in examining how much your body is your own when you are carrying within a human being that ‘belongs’ to someone else and how far your motives are based on a previous trauma.

The BBC looked more closely at surrogacy in a real-life setting with The Surrogates on BBC Three. Here we explore their reasons for engaging with surrogacy. We recognise that quotes here can be taken out of context so we encourage readers to watch the programme (available on iPlayer) for themselves. We provide some background and including the reasons for the Commissioning Parents’ involvement in surrogacy, but wish to stay focused on the Surrogate Mothers.

Caitlin, single mother of two has Baby Joey, for her boss Kate and husband Matt.

Caitlin is the only surrogate mother featured who made the offer privately, and didn’t go through a surrogacy agency, though the couple applied to one after crowdfunding for the IVF treatment. Following the birth, Kate and Matt separate.

Kate employs Caitlin at a baby-related website company. Caitlin is a single mum of 2, having split 2 years ago from their father and she has been in a new relationship for a year. Kate has had two miscarriages and a stillbirth.

“One we had to terminate at 20 weeks, stillbirth at 32, miscarriage at 13.5 weeks. I felt relief at the miscarriage and decided to go for surrogacy. If we decided to try again the doc said there is no reason not to but I couldn’t go through that again. I don’t want to bring a child into the world with 9 months of sheer terror.”

The embryo was made from Kate’s egg and partners sperm and implanted into Caitlin’s womb. “If you are choosing somebody to have your baby then you want to choose the best possible attributes, a young fleshy womb, which is what Caitlin has” says Kate.

Caitlin does come across as being motivated by kindness and her ability to help “If someone needed something and you were in a position to give it to them you would. Surrogacy was never on my radar before as I didn’t know anyone who needed it…the selling point of me is I am very fertile.” Caitlin’s fertility is what drives her, but more as a reason to be embarrassed.

 “I worried that – I’m not sure jealousy is the right word – I felt really conscious I didn’t want to bring up my children in the office so as soon as I realised there was something I could maybe do to help I suppose I maybe jumped on that a little bit. I don’t have to be the bad guy I can be the good guy!”

(To this Kate replies “I don’t want you to feel that you have to rent out your womb just so you can talk about your amazing children!”)

When asked if she could change her mind prior to flying to the mainland for implantation, Caitlin said she had joked about going on the run but in a serious reply she said she didn’t think she could go on working with Kate if she changed her mind. Clearly quite a lot rests on her keeping to the agreement, both for her friendship and for her job, the income with which she supports her children.

We do not hear directly from Kate’s husband Matt but Caitlin’s boyfriend does feature before they split up, he jokes that “I have to ask Kate if I’m allowed to have sex with my girlfriend”. Towards the end of the pregnancy Caitlin is upset at the end of this relationship.

“There’s quite a lot of putting a brave face on. For me there wasn’t anything wrong with it [the relationship]. There was so much I was looking forward to at the end of the surrogacy, plans for the future, it has taken the shine off of it all.”

The stress of the break up leads Kate to be very worried about the baby. She takes Caitlin for a scan. Kate recognises that her worries are based on her own experiences of her stillbirth, “We are having the scan as we are very, very worried about Caitlin and I need to know that the baby is ok. I would start to feel really, really nervous if we were getting towards 40 weeks…(to the Dr) is it worth discussing doing a sweep? I feel really bad I’m like ‘let’s do that’ and it’s not me that has to do it!”

Though a light-hearted moment in amongst the anxiety, it is a timely reminder of whose body it is, who is carrying the baby and who has to endure the pain and discomfort of the procedures.

During labour Caitlin seems to want to make the experience for Kate and Matt as easy as possible, by minimising her response to pain, “ I was trying to look like I wasn’t in pain or struggling, Kate had quite a good look on her face but Matt looked so very worried sometimes. When I opted for pain relief they were relieved!”

The employer/employee power dynamic is recognised by Kate also “I’m pretty sure I have let her get away with more than I would normally” and Caitlin’s maternity leave and return to the office is not mentioned, nor are the ‘expenses’ that Caitlin is claiming.

The only time expenses are mentioned in any details are in Emma’s story.

Single mother, Emma , to 2 year old Jacob, living in a studio apartment is using her own egg for a married gay couple, Kevin 35 and Aki 40. .

Emma explains her family background and her financial motivations to provide a home with a garden from Jacob. When detailing her expenses, she points out that Kevin and Aki pay for her son to go to a childminder two days a week, that life insurance is a ‘must’, and she compares it having a company credit card and that the client is the baby.

Compared to national average, Emma’s quoted expenses are low at £7,600 (roughly half of the lower end of the average is £15-20k) but she does say she will have to ask for more as she cannot be expected to fund a pregnancy as it’s not hers.

“We risk death, illness and surgery. I thought quite a few times that I could die. The money takes away the edge off being a surrogate, we definitely don’t do it for financial gain.”

Emma seems proud of her ability to decompartmentalise, “I think you need to have a certain mindset, you know from the beginning it’s not your baby. I’m not giving away something personal which sounds silly as it’s my egg. I create loads of eggs every month so what’s one egg to help someone? Because I know it’s not my baby I feel like I’m not giving it away I’m more handing it over to the original parents.”

(Women are born with all the eggs they will ever have and generally only one egg is released each month.)

This is discussed more when she speaks to her best friend as Emma’s future role in Baby Mia’s life doesn’t seem to be clear. She hopes the fathers will involve her and she appears to consider this arrangement as a life long friendship, a new form of family even. Perhaps she is seeking some paternal figures for her son and considers the arrangement to be a more of a co-parenting situation. She wants Baby Mia to know who she is and offer a female presence as she grows up, but this is contradicted by her earlier statement and her rejection of the word or role of mother. Emma says her baby girl won’t feel like her daughter but she seems conflicted when in the next sentence she says the baby will have her genetics so if her daughter grows up to be arty or show an interest in nature she will think “that comes from me”. Her feelings are confused, wanting to recognise the biological connection but also distance herself, perhaps as an act of self-preservation.

It is later on that we learn how the surrogacy process for Emma has had a profound emotional impact, to the point of ‘healing’ her previously suicidal thoughts.

“Before meeting Kevin and Aki I felt very very low, living alone, dealing with Jacob as a single parent it all evolved from that. Even though I had my son I felt that my life didn’t actually have much meaning. I didn’t want to continue with life. Building that connection with Kevin and Aki and the realisation of what I could do for them as well has given my life a whole new meaning. From the moment we knew we were pregnant, seeing the happiness on their faces, has slowly healed me a little bit.”

Post-natal depression isn’t mentioned but this statement demonstrates that Emma had several mental health concerns before entering into this surrogacy arrangement and though they met online through an agency there is no mention of any counselling or therapy she might be able to benefit from to help her deal with her feelings. She already has plans to give Baby Mia a sibling. More on Emma’s surrogacy pregnancy and her surrogacy arrangement is here.

It is difficult to examine the next example centring the surrogate mother, as the commissioning parent’s narrative dominates this part of the documentary. After he connects with one woman at a ‘social’ (who he rejects as she isn’t willing to get pregnant as soon as he wishes) he meets Faye, who I shall focus on, but before doing so it’s was striking how often the word ‘need’ was used by David.

David is a single man. After an attempt to co-parent with a friend ended in miscarriage, he pursues surrogacy. He says “as a gay man I don’t have access to a woman” (though the same could be said of any single man) and “as a gay man I don’t have access to female bodes, that’s not part of my experience.” He had previously considered adoption but his child needs to be part of him and to have a genetic connection.  His view is that “everyone deserves to be a parent if they want to be a parent”. And that surrogacy is his only option, but this is because he has rejected others.  “I need this to happen…I feel it in every fibre of my being, I need to be a Dad.”

Faye, is the mother of two young sons, with her husband Lee. Faye and David feature here on BBC’s Woman’s Hour.

She may have been drawn into the ‘surrogacy community’ almost by accident, but again to fill some kind of void.

“I saw a facebook thing of surrogates and there were people doing selfies in the car on their way to socials, I just absolutely fell in love with all these lovely looking people that would make amazing parents and I thought how would I feel being a surrogate, can I do it can I do it?”

She appears to seek to prove to people that she is strong and not overly-emotional by being able to give a baby away.

“I’m a very emotional person but I don’t see that as a negative, I want to prove to other people that I am strong enough, I can do this. But I feel like it is also about the injustice for amazing people who want to be parents but can’t. I want others to have what we’ve got.”

(It may not have been her intention, but framing David’s sexuality as an injustice is an interesting viewpoint. One I may expand upon that in later blog…)

Faye sees her bond to be with David, not the baby and she also places value on her fertility and what her body can do but as a great favour for someone else,  “society’s view of women is that we are driven by our hormones and emotions to be mums and they have no idea that when hosting a pregnancy for someone else your bond can be with that baby’s parent rather than the baby, there’s so much more depth to it.”

Later we learn more about Faye’s deeper purpose, perhaps similar to Emma, that through the surrogacy she is looking to heal, to look at herself differently.

“I used to be a social worker. I hit a breaking point in the last few years. I was having a lot of therapy, focusing on self esteem. I put my dog first before my needs! It’s just how I was raised really. I think about having a low opinion of myself does have an impact on this, like now, going into surrogacy it’s occurred to me that maybe I felt so shit about myself that I kind of wanted to show people that I am a nice person I can do nice tings, and that would make me feel more positive.”

Maybe surrogacy is a form of therapy for Faye and there is something in her childhood that has meant she has little self-worth.

“I get this opportunity to show my boys this important thing that money doesn’t matter but relationships and kindness and helping others is important.”

Children can extract all manner of messages from an act adults carry out. Another message could be that women are vessels for men.

One very poignant moment for me as a viewer was when Baby Miles was in David’s arms but still connected via the umbilical cord, as she lay in the birthing pool, naked and exposed and supplementary, as the focus shifts from her body and the baby within, to the baby is no longer a part of her. The documentary showed even extended family coming to see Baby Miles, before Faye is shown holding him.

Maddie 29 and Alex and Rich and Baby Hannah form a team through Surrogacy UK (who, incidentally, are mentioned several times throughout the documentary series and they are directly involved with the Law Commission’s work and the APPG Surrogacy reform group).

“The ultimate dream is just to be useful to someone who desperately wants their own child and can’t without some help.”

Maddie has two sons and is in a same-sex relationship, as they chose to go for home insemination using Maddie’s egg, Baby Hannah is half-sister to her children.

It’s possible that her family background is at the root of her involvement in surrogacy, “what the opposite of a nuclear family? I see what I’m helping Alex and Rich to do is something I have never really known. They have been married a long time they are bringing a child into a very conventional – even though they are two dads – progression of a relationship.”

They agree to try home inseminations every month for 6 months and this takes it emotional toll on Maddie as it is only towards the end of that period she becomes pregnant.

“I feel like I might be leading them on even though I’m not. They’ve let themselves imagine it now so to think that might not happen just feels really cruel. It’ss hard not feel hopeful and not protect yourself, it’s a lot of conflict, you need to be quite strong. It’s quite stressful!”

When asked about whether she has revealed any of this to Alex and Rich she says no s  “none of it, they would be really upset, I just want to do it for them”. There is an element of delivering on a promise and, perhaps similar to Caitlin trying to hide her pain and put a brave face on, hiding your true emotions and worries. Maddie is thrilled when she does get pregnant and laughs that she “can’t pull out now too late for that!”

At the birth when Hannah was on rather than inside her body, her immediate reaction was to hesitate, she seemed to want Alex and Rich to touch her first. Maddie was looking right at them for their reactions.

Alex and Rich are allowing me to be part of their family biologically with my DNA and it feels really good that they want that as part of their child.” A sense of validation maybe, to have been chosen, to be good enough. I think it’s possible that Maddie was ‘paying it forward’ with this surrogacy arrangement and as a lesbian she feels she can be useful to another same-sex couple. There is more on Maddie’s story here.

Jemma is a full time mum of three, married to Steven. We meet Jemma at the end of her first surrogacy pregnancy (known as ‘Baby K’ for Sunny and Shayla) and before her second surrogacy pregnancy (Baby Jasper for Jamie and Kitty).

Though Jemma claims that “the reason why I wanted to become a surrogate was to help create a family and a friendship with a couple that was lifelong”, but her language changes as she talks about it being an addiction, that there is a an emotional ‘high’.

“it’s my thing, my buzz, it’s my kind of high…It is so addictive, and when I spoke to surrogate before I had Baby K I understood that it was very very addictive but now I’ve had her and I’m living that euphoric feeling of how we all feel….I am officially addicted to surrogacy.”

Though not motivated by money the difference of status between her and the intended parents, at least for the first surrogate baby she has is notable. She remembers the day her family met them at their home.

“There was this huge driveway and Madison was in the back of the car going mummy they are bloody rich! Gosh how the other half live, they’ve got all of this and they’ve not the the one thing that is really important to them.”

Jemma is very honest about how this gives her a sense of power.

“You’re powerful, it’s a powerful thing to have [fertility]. Their future is literally in your hands…I made a family, who can say that? That pride is like a drug…you see what you’ve done and you want it again.”

It is unsurprising that in desperation to remain in the world of surrogacy she needs to be pregnant again so we with her family at a ‘social’ just two weeks after giving birth. Later she is constantly checking her phone when her mandatory 3 month wait period is up as she is eager to offer herself again, this time for Kitty and Jamie who she is ‘falling in love with’…”I want Jamie’s baby right now!”

Jemma’s involvement in surrogacy is also based on her fertility but very much as a super-power. She says she is “quite an in your face character”, telling jokes (“but it’s not my baby….they looked at me like I was on drugs!”) and at the heart of her humour is the truth: surrogacy is a transaction, even if it’s not a financial one.

“When you’re in a room full of people who potentially you could make very, very happy it makes you feel very powerful. I look at IPs [intended parents] and I think what are you going to give me? I know what I can give you. I think what are you going to give my family?”

Jemma is seeking connections with others to have fun, she does not want to be buried and bogged down in the emotion and trauma of surrogacy, she clearly seeks friendships similar to those she lost in her 20s and in exchange she will give them a baby. “In my 20s for few years I was a stripper, I would party hard …For me it was all about being with my friends…and having  good time. As soon as I got pregnant…and I wasn’t going out drinking every weekend those friends slowly went away and you realise that they aren’t proper friends, trues friends at all. I was very, very lonely.,,

Surrogacy did bring out the person I was back then definitely but I never went into surrogacy thinking I would make the friends that I have I never ever, ever expected to meet these couples who I feel now would never walk away from me.”

Jemma understands that these new ‘friends’ will be prevented from leaving her because they owe her for the great favour she has done for them. When she secures a verbal agreement with Kitty, she jokes “They’re mine!”

Jemma is the only serial surrogate we see in the documentary and at 33 she has a few more years to have more babies for others, but what happens when you can’t do it anymore? After 3 of her own and the 2 she gave away could have a 6th, 7th, 8th pregnancy to keep getting her ‘high’. Her validation centres around her fertility and her baby making abilities, none of which lasts forever. For more on Jemma’s story see here.

So as a viewer, at the core of their reasons, I can see these women want to Be Kind or exert some kind of power or revel in their ability to have babies; they may be hoping to heal some emotional or mental difficulty, or seek friendships that can’t be lost, or be a part of someone else’s family so to expand their own.

Putting aside the ‘expenses’ or so-called altruistic surrogacy which the BBC presents here, there is a strong sense for me, that it remains transactional in nature and it is the baby at the centre of the exchange.

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