LIFE What happens when you agree to have your cousin’s baby?
How Holly Burton laboured over a fear of commitment—and found deliverance.
sometimes I just like to say the words “When I had my cousin’s baby...” and watch people’s faces as they run through all the possibilities of this statement— not to torture them, of course, but because I’m grateful to now be able to laugh about it and because that is the simplest way to label the most challenging experience of my life.
When I was 16, my cousin—whom I’ll call Susan, to protect her privacy—was diagnosed with a congenital malformation of her reproductive organs that prevented her from ever being able to carry her own child. She was only a year older than me, and we were very close growing up in Niagara, Ont. When we got the news, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that, thanks to medical technology, her eggs could be implanted in a surrogate; and on that day, my 16-year-old self said I would do it for her. What does anyone know at 16?
Years later, I was 35, living in Toronto and had a lacklustre job as an office assistant that I didn’t enjoy. I was contemplating going back to university for the 100th time. I was lost. I had been lost for a long time. I had tried h
different jobs and different majors—I had switched six or seven times—and nothing ever felt right. I never hesitated to bail out and start over: I relished constant change and relied on uncertainty to feel exhilarated.
One warm August night, over wine with my sister and another cousin, I learned that Susan was in town. “She just found out that the woman who had volunteered to be her surrogate is unable to do it,” said my sister. “Well, I guess my uterus just isn’t good enough!” I joked, in reference to my long-ago promise. The conversation moved on.
A few days later, I got a call from my sister. “I was talking with Susan, and I mentioned that you might be interested in being her surrogate,” she said. “You two should talk.” Dumbfounded, I hung up. I was on a bus on my way home from work. My grip tightened on the metal pole I was using to maintain my balance as my heart palpitated and my mind began to race. “But I was joking! Wasn’t I?” I thought. “There is no way I can do this!” I was totally freaked out.
But by the time I was walking home from my bus stop, my thoughts had evolved. “Could I do this?” I wondered. I called my sister back. “Okay, tell me the worst things about pregnancy and childbirth,” I demanded. Having had two kids, she was able to confirm all my preconceived notions of pain, fatigue, swelling, discomfort and lack of sleep. But what scared me the most was the labour. “The pain is excruciating,” she admitted. “But it’s endurable.”
“Do you think I’m capable of doing this?” I finally asked. “I know you are,” she said. I thought about it for the rest of the evening. Later that night, I texted my cousin: “So, I hear you need a uterus?”
Two months later, I began the IVF process. I took hormone pills for three months, and then I flew to my cousin’s home province on the other side of the country for the final procedure. The day the embryo was implanted, I went into shock. On my flight back to Toronto, it felt like the weight of my decision should have brought the plane to the ground. Even though I didn’t know at that point if I was pregnant, the voice inside my head that had first made me feel confident in my choice was now gone.
Two weeks later, when the pregnancy was confirmed, doubt took over and it stayed with me for months. Some days I was just pissed off: at men for producing sperm that do this to women and for not having to go through it themselves, at pregnancy books for referring to the reader as “mommy” and the baby as “your baby,” at my shoes for no longer fitting, at sleep for never really coming and at myself for getting into this situation in the first place. I did not understand why I had done it. At one point, I began to feel very afraid. I thought that I was probably going to die doing this because I could not see past the pregnancy, labour and childbirth. I didn’t know how this would change me, but I knew that I would never be the same person again. Because of this, I could not see a life for myself beyond the birth—and a part of me accepted that I may not have one. It may sound a little dramatic, but at the time it felt like a very real possibility.
I carried on with my life, but once I started to show, people began to ask about it—and I was always honest with them. When they offered “Congratulations,” I would reply, “Thanks, but it’s not mine—I’m a surrogate.” Until this happened, it had never occurred to me that I had always assumed that if I were to ever be pregnant, it would be because I was madly in love with a charming man and we were doing it together. Being pregnant with someone else’s baby—and single—made me feel very alone.
I had a few close friends—and my mom— who listened generously as I let some of this out. (I was able to keep it away from Susan as she lived so far away.) Mostly, though, I kept it to myself and recorded my thoughts in a journal. “It bothers me that everyone keeps saying what a great and beautiful thing it is that I’m doing, what a wonderful gift,” I wrote one day. “But I am no saint. I am not that selfless or altruistic, and this whole thing is not wonderful and beautiful. I feel like a liar for not correcting them.” Later, when my mom called to check on h
The day the embryo was implanted, I went into shock. The voice inside my head that had first made me feel confident in my choice was now gone.
me, she helped me put this (and a lot of other feelings) into perspective. “I always freaked out when I got pregnant,” she said (and she’s had six kids). “Even when you plan it and want it, it’s still a little scary when it actually happens,” she explained.
Acceptance of my decision came slowly. What my mind was unable to comprehend, my body, for the most part, seemed to cope with quite easily. I didn’t really have an emotional reaction to the baby itself or feel any real connection to it. Having it inside of me was a weird sensation—it was strange to see it moving, but that’s it. It sounds kind of cold, but I think I was almost trying to remain a bit distant.
As the pregnancy progressed, I kept myself busy by jogging—something I had been doing for years. I also started doing yoga. Both were instrumental in my life at the time—and still are. I began to accept the fact that I could not bail out of this. It was the first time in my life that I had no choice but to see something through to the end, so I would do it as me, with my own brand of moxie.
When I was two weeks overdue, I found out during a Monday-morning doctor’s appointment that my water had broken three days prior; my doctor explained that this can happen when the amount of fluid is very small. So, even though I couldn’t feel it, I was in labour. As soon as I left the office, I cried. I was terrified.
I went home, quickly packed my things and called Susan, who was staying with a friend about 20 minutes outside of Toronto. Then I ordered a cab. My roommate waved and wished me luck as I drove off.
Even once I got to the hospital, I never really felt like I was in labour—the doctor had to induce me. Still, nothing happened for hours. When things finally started moving, I had an epidural. I’d planned for my best friend, Tiffany, to be in the delivery room with me, but in the end I felt so woozy that I was more comfortable with the help of an amazing nurse.
When the baby came out, the doctor held her up. It was a face I already knew—not because she looked like my cousin but because I felt like I already knew her. I didn’t expect that. That’s when everything flipped into crystal-clear lucidity. All the unknowns added up to the “why”: She was the reason. The nurse asked me if I wanted to hold the baby. “Uh-uh, no way,” I said. “This isn’t my baby.” I felt like I had just gotten someone the best Christmas gift ever and I couldn’t wait any longer to share it. I was filled with joy as I watched Susan come in and hold her baby for the first time. Everyone in the room was crying.
I am often asked if it was hard to “give up” the baby, but I don’t associate it with that phrase—I don’t believe being a surrogate is anything like giving up one’s own child. I’ve never felt a driving force to be a mother the way other women tell me they do, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a baby of my own— women have such a limited window of time to have children—but I do feel more open to the possibility now.
Today, almost two and a half years later, I’m still in Toronto, now working as a server in a restaurant. I am slowly and patiently cultivating a relationship with things that I love: I spend a lot of time playing guitar and piano and writing about music for a culture magazine. Instead of always trying to switch things up and do something new, I’m working hard to get better at these things. Last year, I travelled across the United States and Canada and stayed with Susan and her little girl for a few months. It’s beautiful to watch my cousin grow as a mother. I don’t get to see them very often because they live on the other side of the country, but we do keep in touch and it feels normal. My relationship with Susan’s daughter doesn’t feel any different from the ones I have with my nieces and nephews. I think this is a good thing.
There were many moments during the pregnancy that made me feel very afraid. But I now think that fear doesn’t have to work against us; it can be a force that helps propel us to where we need to be. I’ve realized that, in spite of myself, I am capable of more than I can even imagine. I guess my 16-year-old self knew a little something after all. n
I am often asked if it was hard to “give up” the baby, but I don’t associate it with that phrase—I don’t believe being a surrogate is anything like giving up one’s own child.