These are the emotional ups and downs of surrogacy, according to experts

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There is no right way to go navigate the process of surrogacy, but it can help to understand the emotional challenges of the experience. We speak to to three experts to find out the different side effects, and hear one woman’s inspiring story of becoming a mother with the help of her best friend…

Family is a concept that is constantly evolving in wide-ranging and beautiful ways. These days, we know that meaningful bonds are formed not only through biology, but through the active process of choosing people we love, care about, and want to keep close. 

One of the most life-changing of them all though, is surrogacy. Not only is pregnancy a feat of mental and physical endurance, but when a woman becomes a surrogate to enable others to have a baby, there is the potential for added complications.  

As much as you can read about what to expect during the process of surrogacy, there are some things that only come with lived experience. In the latest episode of the Stylist podcast Nobody Told Me below, one woman discusses what happened when her best friend became her surrogate, and what they learned while navigating such an emotionally demanding experience.

To get further insight into how the process affects people, we spoke to psychologist Dr. Maryhan Baker, fertility and birth specialist at Zoe Clews & Associates Kristin Hayward, and psychologist and director of Private Therapy Clinic Dr. Becky Spelman to understand the different emotional impacts that come with the journey, and how they can be met in the most sensitive and empathetic way possible. 

1. Expect a whole spectrum of emotions

“Choosing to have a baby is a big decision,” explains Hayward. “When it involves someone else carrying your baby the weight of responsibility can feel enormous. Not only the practical and physical decisions play a part – who to choose, where is she located, age, appearance – but emotions can be a real rollercoaster. 

“For most women it’s understandably important to like their surrogate and feel there’s some common ground. Many women can feel like a failure when she cannot carry her own baby due to medical reasons. Relying on a stranger for this very personal journey often brings up feelings of resentment. It’s vital to address these emotions and to feel at peace with the choices and decisions made. 

“Working with a surrogate and bringing another person into the very intimate journey of having a baby can bring up many challenges and questions,” she continues. “The most common are: ‘Is it right to do this when there are so many children to adopt?’, ‘how will the baby be affected?’,  and ‘will I be able to bond with my baby?’ All are valid concerns but the stress can be eliminated to create a wonderfully positive outcome.”

“For the surrogate the emotional impact centres around the attachment formed during the pregnancy and then relinquishing the baby,” agrees Dr. Baker. “Surrogates often report a mix of emotions, but an overwhelming sense of joy for the adoptive parents, knowing the happiness the arrival this baby brings. 

“They often talk about a sense of positive detachment from the baby they are carrying, knowing that it isn’t theirs still allows sensitivity to the tiny human developing inside them, making relinquishing them much easier than one might think.

“For the adoptive mother the feeling can be a mixture of relief, joy, happiness that their long awaited baby has finally arrived, and overwhelming gratitude to the surrogate,” Dr. Baker continues. “For some women there may be an element of guilt they were unable to carry their own baby, yet this rarely becomes a long lasting emotional state.”

2. Understand that everyone has a unique set of needs

“Navigating the emotional trials of surrogacy is very individual,” advises Dr. Baker. “What works for one woman may not be quite as effective for another. What is universally key however is an open and honest communication channel. 

“For some women this may be a support network of friends, for others it might need to be a team of professionals. Encouraging women to be open and honest about their experience avoids emotions being internalised, and negatively impacting their emotional health either now, or into the future.

“What is key for every relationship a women has, who is navigating surrogacy, whether she is the surrogate or the adoptive mother is one of openness and transparency,” she continues. “No-one really knows how the process will affect them until they are actually in it; much like a typical pregnancy.”

“Women should be supported by professionals throughout the journey - the practical as well as emotional aspects must be understood before embarking on finding the right surrogate,” explains Hayward.  “Hypnotherapy with a fertility specialist is invaluable preparation, helping a woman to accept the situation, forgive her body for the situation she finds herself in and embrace the opportunity rather than resist a ‘necessity’. 

“As every woman is different there are different needs – some crave companionship, others are more private in the way they function. That’s fine as long as there is an outlet to deal with questions, emotions, frustrations and any other negative emotions that may pop up along the way.”     

3. Be prepared for the surrogate relationship to change

“Every woman will have a different relationship with her surrogate, some will prefer to keep a healthy distance and others like to feel they’ll stay in touch for life,” explains Hayward. “There is no right or wrong. It’s an important question that should, in the broader lines, be thought through and discussed before starting so that expectations don’t lead to unnecessary disappointment and upset on either side. 

“Having an open mind and being flexible to adapt some changes in the relationship is also helpful. Even when women get on well it’s of course vital to ensure that all paperwork is completed especially when dealing with foreign laws.”

“In terms of what the best type of relationship for women to have during and after surrogacy, there is no right or wrong way of doing this; there are no written rules,” agrees Dr. Spelman. “Surrogacy is still relatively new. It’s also important to remember that what works best for one set of women may not work best for another set of women, and really this will come down to your individual preferences; what feels right for you, and also what feels right in terms of discussing this with the other woman who’s involved. 

“Have open and honest conversations, put everything on the table, and state what your worst fears and anxieties are, as well as taking the surrogate’s preferences into place as well.”

4. Seek neutral perspectives for support          

“Support is very individual to the women involves,” says Dr. Baker. “Some have a desire to keep their experience very personal; shared only with close friends and family. Other women are very open and seek greater comfort from connecting with women beyond their immediate personal network. There are still so many taboos around surrogacy, often as a result of lack of knowledge, and each women needs to have their personal experience respected.”

“In this age of the internet it’s easy to turn to online forums for support and solutions but caution is useful, there is so much false information and it’s too easy to get caught up in other women’s stories, assuming that it’s the same for everyone,” explains Hayward. 

“It can be a lonely place! It’s vital to also have a personal support system, this may not be a close friend or family member but perhaps someone trusted at work or someone who isn’t emotionally involved with the situation. For some women a professional can provide this personal connection. 

“The importance of human contact cannot be emphasised enough even when we crave the anonymity of the online options. There is a place for both online and personal support, the key is to be aware of what each can provide and when one or the other would be more useful.”

5. Anticipate difficult questions

“In the UK surrogacy is still relatively new, and many people won’t have friends who have been through this process,” says Dr. Spelman. “It can be quite unheard of in certain circles, though in others it can be a lot more acceptable, and something that people will have had closer contact with. This actually makes it quite difficult and lonely for people, in terms of friends and family, when there’s a lot of explaining that people often feel obligated to do. 

“If this is a route you’re going down, I’d recommend that you have confidence about the process. Just because other people may not have done it, or may not be so aware of it, it doesn’t mean you can’t confidently say “yes we’re using a surrogate” and be proud and happy of that decision, and that that’s a route that you’ll hopefully have the opportunity to use. 

“In terms of friends and family, be aware that you might need to educate people; you might need to answer questions that seem repetitive at times, people might ask the same things out of curiosity. Don’t assume that it’s out of rudeness or disapproval; it might just be that they lack the information. It’s a good idea to rehearse this and maybe practice answering, or write down a draft of how you might answer these questions so that you’re fully prepared to answer anything that comes up.”

Nobody Told Me… is Stylist’s podcast exploring the personal life lessons of brilliant women in their own words. Season two is brought to you in partnership with Clinique, who for over 50 years have been empowering women through great skin care backed by dermatologist expertise.