LIFE What hap­pens when you agree to have your cousin’s baby?

How Holly Bur­ton laboured over a fear of com­mit­ment—and found de­liv­er­ance.

ELLE (Canada) - - News - By Holly Bur­ton

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.

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