REAL LIVES: There’s no mum quite like Grandma
After years of infertility treatment and miscarriages, Sara Connell opted for surrogacy – then came a surprising volunteer to carry her baby…
Sara, right, with her mum Kristine, left, who stepped forward and offered to act as their surrogate
They say it takes a village to raise a child – well, in our case it took a village just to have a child.’ Sara Connell, a pretty, petite 37-year-old, who has become something of a celebrity in America since the birth of her son Finnean (Finn) in Chicago nearly two years ago, lets out a peal of joyful laughter.
Like so many women, Sara endured an agonising battle with infertility. She and her advertising executive husband Bill tried for seven years to have the baby they so longed for, and suffered the harrowing loss of IVF twins, delivered stillborn at 22 weeks, as well as two other miscarriages. But at just the moment when Sara and Bill felt all hope of becoming parents fading, the unthinkable happened: Sara’s 61-year-old mother Kristine stepped forward and offered to act as their surrogate, or gestational host.
‘I almost fell on my knees,’ recalls Sara, her pale blue eyes widening and welling up. ‘I was shocked, awed, gobsmacked by her generosity. On paper, it is such a far-fetched idea – for my mother to carry my baby – but in that moment, it made so much sense. Something deep in my core said, “This is it.” It was as though a door suddenly opened where a second before there had been no door.’
Surrogacy had not even occurred to Sara and Bill. They had resisted IVF for as long as they could, opting for a natural approach (acupuncture, herbs and so forth) to conceiving – in keeping with Sara’s training as a holistic life coach specialising in women’s sexual and reproductive healing.
‘Every woman deals with infertility in her own way, and, with my background and beliefs, I needed to try all those natural remedies first,’ says Sara, whose infertility still remains a medical mystery, but could, she thinks, be explained either by her having been very underweight for years, or by her ovaries having shut down in response to two separate adolescent traumas: a ruptured ovarian cyst and her sexual abuse by an older man.
‘Bill felt strongly that he did not want a stranger carrying our baby,’ she explains. ‘He wanted to keep trying to do it ourselves. But I knew that, after the horror of losing the twins so late, even if, by some miracle, I was physically able to bring a baby to term, psychologically I wasn’t up to it. I just couldn’t imagine being pregnant without worrying every second about miscarrying.’
Sara admits that, although neither she nor Bill balked at the idea of Kristine carrying their child (assuming she could medically), not everyone in the family was as keen on the idea. ‘My maternal grandmother was worried. She and others were focused on the risks.’ (Chief among these was
pre-eclampsia – a potentially fatal condition marked by a dangerous rise in blood pressure – along with increased incidence of miscarriage and complications in delivery.) ‘Some said, “Couldn’t we find another way to do this’”
The Newborn Finn with Sara and Bill, right, in hospital and happily settled at home, left
Sara’s father, perhaps surprisingly, was nothing but supportive. ‘They have a fantastic marriage and Mum has always stood by him in everything he’s done. I saw – when this opportunity came up – that he realised it was something she felt a real calling to do. He said right away that he wouldn’t stand in the way.’
And what comes through so clearly, both in talking to Sara and reading her book, Bringing In Finn – which chronicles her long struggle, going back to its possible early roots, and its joyful conclusion – is how much Kristine’s overwhelmingly ‘generous’ offer was not entirely selfless. Sara confirms: ‘She’d been searching for a mission since retiring from work, and this was something she felt called to do. Helping us was a by-product. Especially as I am a trained counsellor and coach, if she had been doing it purely to “save” us, much as I wanted a baby, I don’t think I could have accepted.’
Kristine’s role in helping her daughter is all the more poignant, as she and Sara had not always had an easy relationship. Growing up, Sara felt Kristine favoured her two sisters and misunderstood her, and until a few years ago found it uncomfortable being under the same roof as her mum. ‘About four years before the surrogacy, I underwent intense therapy, and that really helped us to heal our relationship. Mum was clear she wouldn’t have offered if she hadn’t felt we were in the right place for something so intimate.’
Kristine’s calling to help and Sara’s instinct to accept were both proved right by the battery of medical tests, which showed that, regardless of her age and the fact that she’d been through the menopause many years before, Kristine – who’d had three very easy pregnancies and births with Sara and her sisters – was an ideal candidate. (A little-known fact, Sara explains, is that, while the quality of one’s eggs declines with age, the uterus itself does not.)
‘There’s something about the magic of the maternal line that makes it feel so natural’
‘She had just the right mix of genetic and physical factors. The doctors knew this was going to make a big story, but, despite the theoretical risks, they couldn’t find anything to concern them.’ And so it was that the second embryo made from Sara’s egg and Bill’s sperm and implanted into Kristine’s uterus (in the traditional IVF method) took. ‘I was ecstatic when I heard,’ Sara says. ‘We were all hugging and saying, “We’re pregnant!” It was a feeling of pure joy: to be doing it in such an unusual way and to have affirmation that the pregnancy could happen.’
Though Kristine was more tired than when carrying her daughters (and spent much of the nine months resting), her pregnancy proceeded without incident. For Sara, however, it wasn’t straightforward emotionally. ‘I would have nightmares and wake up panicked for both my mother and my child,’ she admits. But Sara is quick to say that her mother also gave her a sense of calm. ‘She was utterly cool throughout and would sit me down and say, “Sara, I have no fear whatsoever of losing this baby.”’
What’s more, Kristine helped Sara and Bill to lighten up and see the funny side of it all – not an easy thing for a couple who had been trying for seven years to have a child. ‘Mum would joke constantly and say things like, “I can’t see what the big deal is…the baby’s just staying in your old room.” And Bill loved all the inevitable mother-in-law jibes. Having a third person’s energy really eased the strain.’
Sara did fret over her bond with the baby. ‘I thought, “Will he think mum’s his mother” I knew she really wanted to be a grandmother – not a mother again – but I thought Finn might feel more bonded to her than to me.’ To help allay this fear, Kristine moved from the family home near Washington DC to Chicago to live with Sara and Bill for the second half of the pregnancy – an experience that could have been fraught, but was joyful from the start, when Kristine turned up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with, ‘I am carrying my son-in-law’s baby!’ Sara didn’t miss a single doctor’s appointment and every night would read Harry Potter to the unborn baby, her face resting on Kristine’s tummy. ‘I did everything possible to plug in my own umbilical cord. I was so involved that when I felt Finn kick [which he did noticeably at the sound of Sara’s voice] it was as though it was happening inside my own stomach.’
Sara and Finn
At this moment it hits me that this experience – so earth-shattering and controversial when it happened that the story was splayed over every American news outlet and landed the family on The Oprah Winfrey Show – was actually natural and nurturing. Why would anyone opt for a random young girl to act as surrogate to make money if a close family member were an option
‘If the surrogate had been a stranger, I would have been much more distanced from the whole thing,’ says Sara. ‘I feel like I have an extra connection to Finn because he grew inside the same womb as I did. There’s something about the magic of the maternal line that makes it feel so natural. I know some people will think, “How strange,” and, though most of the reactions have been positive, I’ve had people approach me and say, “How could you do that to your mum” But the opportunities I had to bond were so special.’
And it would seem they paid off. When Finn arrived – by caesarean – he was given not to Kristine, but to Sara to breast-feed. ‘He latched on straight away,’ she says proudly. (A woman’s milk production can be triggered by a hormonal reaction to the sensation of a baby sucking on
the breast even when the woman hasn’t been pregnant; the early milk – colostrum – produced by Kristine was pumped and given to Finn in a bottle.) ‘It was the most amazing, precious feeling to nurse him – the physical connection I’d yearned for.’
And, amazingly, Kristine emerged unscathed, after an initial scare. Sara recalls with a shudder the moment, shortly after the birth, when she and Bill were told by doctors that Kristine was being kept in the recovery unit because of a problem with her kidneys. ‘It was as though ice-cold water was being poured through my veins.’ But it turned out to be nothing to worry about: she had simply been dehydrated by the 32-hour labour that had preceded her caesarean, and the medics were being extra careful – not surprising, as Kristine had just become the oldest woman ever to give birth in Chicago.
Kristine and Finn: Grandma's first visit after the birth, March 2011
Today, she is thriving. ‘This really has made her younger – the thrill, as a woman in her 60s, of being able to do something meant for women in their 20s and 30s. She’s got this vitality. She feels empowered, inspired. It’s like, “What next Mount Everest Kilimanjaro” She regained her fitness really quickly, and now she looks the youngest and happiest I can remember. The respect I have for her – her courage and her calm – and the leap in love and respect between us is tremendous.’
Kristine’s relationship with Finn is a normal grandmother-grandchild one. ‘She remembers the magic of carrying him, of course,’ says Sara, ‘but it’s a pretty regular bond. My sister had a son a few months after Finn arrived, and I really believe mum feels the same towards both grandsons. She loves that traditional grandmother thing of taking them out and spoiling them, then handing them back to us to deal with and going off for a rest. She’s earned it!’
For her part, Sara says Finn’s arrival – and being able to write about her experience – has gone a long way towards erasing the earlier pain. ‘I believe that I was chosen to deal with a particular challenge, but never broken by it. What happened to us feels like a miracle and has opened me
up to the idea of infinite possibilities – of achieving things in ways that are beyond the imagination, as this was for us…
‘I think the intensity and rigour of our journey has made me appreciate Finn even more – there’s definitely an extra level of gratitude. The pain of losing the twins will always be with me, as we so loved and wanted them, but the feelings of despair and “why me” have gone.’ Having Finn has also ‘burned away’ the jealousy Sara used to feel towards others more reproductively fortunate. ‘I hated myself for that. When my sister delivered naturally, a few months after Finn arrived, I felt overjoyed.’
How will Finn’s extraordinary entry into the world be recounted to him ‘We’ll figure out the right age and the right words. This is something we are celebrating in our family – not sweeping under the rug. We want him to be proud of the amazing way he came in!’
And what of the future and a possible sibling for Finn Sara doesn’t flinch: ‘Clearly, this was a one-off for mum, and I wouldn’t do another surrogate pregnancy. If we were to try again, I would try in my own body. There is a new type of surgery [trans-abdominal cerclage] that sews the uterus shut and has a high success rate in preventing miscarriages. I might be brave enough to try. If not, we might adopt. I’m going with the flow. My journey has taught me that you can’t be picky about how your child arrives. A yoga teacher once said to me, “We’re not in control, and that’s a good thing.” I hated it then, but now I understand.’
Sara is adamant she does not feel a need to physically have a child, having carried the twins
for as long as she did. ‘I now see that as an incredible gift, not a tragedy. Having done it
myself, I could relate when my mother was carrying Finn and bond more. I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had that experience. If I could do it one more time, that would be amazing… But I am definitely not incomplete without it.’ And with that, she leaves to go and tend to her son.
Bringing in Finn: An Extraordinary Surrogacy Story by Sara Connell will be published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, on Friday, price 16.99. To order a copy for 14.99 with free p&p, contact the you bookshop on 0843 382 1111, you-bookshop.co.uk