The clock had just struck 1am at Dorset County Hospital when Rosie Mead gave one final huge push and brought a beautiful little girl into the world.
But instead of picking her up for some skin-to-skin contact, another couple bundled the baby away into a separate room for this all-important bonding ritual, leaving Rosie to deliver her placenta before being stitched up, the gas and air barely taking the edge off the pain.
Once she had been cleaned up, Rosie recalls how she simply sipped a cup of tea and had some toast, as she felt the warm glow of knowing that she had just fulfilled a life-long ambition.
‘I had always wanted to be a surrogate since I was a teenager, after seeing Phoebe on Friends and realising it was possible,’ Rosie remembers. ‘Watching how she had lots of support kind of normalised it for me.
‘Obviously Phoebe’s story was very different and they played it for comedy, but it did make me see that it was a really selfless act. If I could have my own children, then it was always something I had wanted to do.’
Until recent years, surrogacy, where a woman carries a baby for another couple who are unable to conceive or carry a child themselves, has often been seen as taboo.
However, with an increasing number of celebrities speaking openly about taking this route to parenthood – including Nicole Kidman, Olympic diver Tom Daley, and most recently, Khloe Kardashian – it’s becoming an alternative route to parenthood. And not one just the preserve of the rich and famous.
According to recent figures, the number of parents having a baby via surrogate in England and Wales has almost quadrupled in the last 10 years. The report by the University of Kent and My Surrogacy Journey shows that two-thirds of applicants are now mixed-sex couples often in their 30s or 40s.
Unlike countries such as the US, where commercial surrogacy is permitted in certain states, it is illegal to pay a woman to act as a surrogate in the UK, apart from ‘reasonable expenses’.
So what motivates a woman to carry a child for a complete stranger?
For Rosie, it was after giving birth to her second child in 2017, that she felt the time was right to revisit the idea of surrogacy, with the support of her husband Jon.
She joined a Facebook group run by Surrogacy UK and connected with a mixed-sex couple who lived just 30 minutes from her Dorset home.
After getting to know the couple, including arranging playdates with their children, Rosie, decided she wanted to be a surrogate for the pair.
In a bid to explain the process to their daughters, now aged 18 months and three years, Rosie introduced them to a book called the Kangaroo Pouch.
‘It was about a kangaroo next door who can’t carry her own Joey so mummy is going to carry it for her,’ recalls Rosie, who is a CEO at Musica.
‘Then we asked “what would you think if Mummy did that?” We explained it’s for the friends that we’ve already been getting to know and they were really on board.’
However, not everyone was at peace with their decision and Rosie admits that she found it more difficult to convince some friends and family. ‘I think they found it hard to put themselves into my shoes because it’s not for everybody,’ she says.
‘And they were saying from their perspective, they’d have felt like they were giving up their child and so they were worried for me and my mental health.’
When Rosie gave birth at Dorset County Hospital, Jon and both intended parents were by her side.
She had been given medication to prevent her producing milk, and later that day the new parents took their newborn home while Rosie returned to her family.
Looking back, Rosie says the hardest part of the process was forcing herself to slow down to allow her body to recover after the birth, and accepting the change in dynamic with the baby’s parents.
‘The main thing I hadn’t expected to happen was that I almost grieved our friendship,’ she recalls. ‘We had been so close during the pregnancy, seeing each other all the time, and the intended mum would come over and help out with my girls and we were intertwined as families.
“Towards the end we were together all the time on the off chance that I might go into labour, so I hadn’t quite prepared myself for them embedding as a new family of four.’
Rosie also recalls how she felt it was almost expected for her to break down after the birth.
‘Friends kept saying to me “just let us know if you’re about to fall apart, it’s completely fine”.’ she remembers. ‘I felt like people were sometimes almost waiting for me to suddenly say, “Oh, I made a really big mistake and I regret it”.’
However, Rosie insists she doesn’t, and after initially visiting the parents at their home two days after the birth, the families still talk often, seeing each other every couple of months.
Amy Beere from Staffordshire, decided to become a surrogate after seeing her friend become a parent via this route, and says she had a similar experience.
‘There’s a myth that you come out and you have this whole sense of loss, depression and grief, all this stuff that you experience when the baby’s gone,’ she says.
‘A lot of people’s first question was, ‘how was it handing him over to her?’ expecting a negative answer, for example that I was crying. But I didn’t cry once, other than happy tears.’
Amy gave birth to a baby boy for a mixed-sex couple in London in February this year after going through the process with Brilliant Beginings surrogacy agency.
She already had a three-year-old daughter with partner Matt and the couple had planned to have another child, but the high cost of childcare meant it was not possible at the time.
‘Normally for surrogates, you will have completed your family first, so then if anything did happen and later on you face the reality that you can’t have any more yourself, then it’s not so much of an issue,’ Amy explains. ‘But Matt and I were quite happy with that risk.’
However, like Rosie, Amy found it difficult to convince some loved ones that surrogacy was right for her.
‘My mum was looking at it from a selfish point of view if anything bad happened and we weren’t able to have any more children,’ she recalls. ‘We had explained the reasons behind it, that we weren’t choosing one or the other.
‘Our daughter is in childcare and when she starts school in September, we stop paying for childcare and we can then look at a second. So she got on board to support our decision and journey.
‘Matt’s parents don’t agree with surrogacy, which we found out quite early on,’ she adds. ‘But we’ve just left it at the door when we’ve gone over to them. We’ve neve brought it up and neither have they.’
Amy, a recruitment hiring manager for Amazon, underwent three rounds of IVF using embryos created using a donor egg and the intended dad’s sperm before becoming pregnant with a boy. It meant that she had to endure countless hormone injections to get her body ready each time.
Despite this and the opposition she came up against, Amy said she would do it all again ‘in a heartbeat’.
‘The aim was to see them as a family, to put a baby into her arms because she can’t have one herself, and that’s exactly what I accomplished,’ she explains.
‘I haven’t lost him, he wasn’t mine. He was always theirs.’
For Laura Clarke, surrogacy is a well-trodden path. She has gone through the process three times and at the time of writing, was taking fertility drugs ahead of a fresh round of IVF for another couple.
Laura, 38, had thought about surrogacy for a number of years and in 2011, after her youngest daughter had turned two, she decided it was finally time to take the plunge.
She met her intended parents through Surrogacy UK and after three attempts at IVF, she became pregnant and in 2014 gave birth to a healthy baby boy.
‘It was such a positive time for me that a year later I offered to do it again for them and we started a sibling journey,’ explains Laura.
However, this time her relationship with the intended parents became strained when Laura started to dilate just 24 weeks into pregnancy.
‘I was hospitalised and on bedrest for weeks, as there was a chance I could go into early labour,’ she recalls. ‘I managed to keep hold of their son and make him strong for the next four weeks, but then he was born just after 28 weeks.’
Laura says that it was during that time her relationship with the intended parents became ‘really tricky’.
‘We had differing opinions on what medication I should take, and what should be done at this point to support their child,’ she explains. ‘So it did become quite fraught at times.’
Once the little boy reached 37 weeks, he was discharged from a special care baby unit without needing any further support and thankfully Laura and the baby’s parents were able to overcome their differences.
‘We all acknowledge that it was a really stressful situation for us all,’ she says. ‘But we have been able to keep that relationship going, which was really important for me.’
Former NHS nurse Laura adds that after such a difficult experience she was ‘pretty sure’ she wouldn’t pursue surrogacy again.
‘But I also didn’t necessarily want to end my journey on a negative like that,’ she remembers. ‘I felt like I wanted to turn that into a positive again.’
Given her previous struggles, Laura approached not-for-profit surrogacy agency Brilliant Beginnings in a bid for a more supported journey, and in 2019 she was matched with a gay couple. After four rounds of treatment, she was pregnant with their twin girls.
However, when the first Covid-19 lockdown came in March 2020, the couple that Laura had grown so close to were unable to see their surrogate and connect with the two lives growing inside her.
Laura, who lives in Northampton, recalls: ‘We had to figure out a way to keep our relationship strong so they could feel that connection with their babies as well.
‘Although we weren’t able to see each other, in order for them to feel like they were helping out in some way, they did my shopping for me online every week.
‘They had it delivered to their house and then drove an hour to mine to give it to me so that we had a little bit of regular conversation’
Laura has two daughters of her own and went through two of her surrogacy journeys as a single parent – something she feels made the process easier.
‘I actually found it much harder going through it as a married woman,’ she admits. ‘You’ve got another dynamic to have to factor in when you have a partner and you’re having to think about yourself, your kids, your partner, your IPs (intended parents). There’s a lot going on there.’
Laura explains that there needs to be a high level of understanding if a surrogate is married or in a long-term relationship with a man, as under UK law he will be included as the father on the birth certificate – even if he has no biological link to the baby.
‘There isn’t a way around that, they can’t just opt out,’ she says.
Rosie echoes this, adding: ‘The legal side was the thing that really surprised me.
‘Jon and I had to be down as the birth parents on the certificate, which was bonkers because he really wasn’t.
‘Then we had to go to court to prove that I was of sound mind to hand the baby over. It was November when we went and the baby had been living with her parents since July – but we still had to go through that process, which wasn’t very enjoyable.’
The number of parental orders, which transfer legal parentage from the surrogate, rose from 117 in 2011 to 413 in 2020. It typically takes six to nine months for a case to make it to the magistrates court.
Helen Prosser, who co-founded Brilliant Beginnings surrogacy agency in 2013, says this wait is one reason why people are put off surrogacy in the UK, instead opting for countries with a tighter legal framework, such as the US, Canada, Georgia and, prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine.
‘The practical implications is that there is an immense amount of perceived vulnerability in that the surrogate has full legal responsibility and, if she’s married, her husband or spouse also has parental responsibility,’ she explains.
‘So if the baby is, quite rightly, being cared for by the intended parents, you may think what happens if the baby has to go to hospital for whatever reason, and the parents who have conceived the baby don’t have the legal ability to make those decisions?
‘The reality is that hospitals are well aware of surrogacy. But there is a niggle in your mind.’
As far as UK law is concerned, any legal documents or contracts drawn up by all parties before the baby is born is not worth the paper it’s printed on. If the surrogate decides to keep the baby, there is no legal redress.
However, contrary to popular belief, Helen says this is an extremely rare scenario.
‘It’s never happened in our history,’ she says. ‘And I think there are only four published cases where that has happened recently, and pretty much in all of those there hasn’t been a very clear agreement between the surrogate and the parents.’
The Law Commission recently launched a review into the UK’s surrogacy laws and is due to make its recommendations in the autumn.
Laura, who now works for Brilliant Beginnings as a client manager, says that change is well overdue. ‘The legalities around surrogacy in the UK right now are very archaic and they’re just not up to date with what the reality of that looks like in today’s society,’ she says.
I don’t like to be told that I’ve been exploited
Meanwhile, Helen hopes that updated laws will encourage intended parents to seek surrogates in the UK and avoid entering into any potentially exploitative agreements abroad.
‘We saw operations in Nepal and Thailand closed down for that reason,’ she explains. ‘In India, women were being paid a life-changing amount. Sometimes they were being removed from their homes, so that when the pregnancy was established, they would be living together and not have access to their family and things like that. So there’s always the risk.
‘We want people to be able to surrogate here in the UK, and for that surrogate to have a community of people that support her as well.’
With the issue of exploitation in surrogacy being a contentious one, Laura insist that it’s wrong to assume it also happens in the UK, saying she benefits from the experience just as much as the intended parents.
‘Having been a surrogate a number of times myself, I don’t like to be told that I’ve been exploited because that really is not the case,’ she argues. ‘And I think people who say it aren’t educated about what surrogacy is.
‘I’m a grown woman who has a good education and wants to do something to support others and help people have families. I do it because selfishly I enjoy the pregnancy and birth bit. So I also get something out of this for myself personally in being able to have that experience again.’
However, for some women who have been through the surrogacy experience, no matter how perfect it was, once is enough.
‘It was exactly as I envisioned it,’ says Rosie. ‘As we’re adjusting to our children going to school now, we’re moving on to the next chapter of our family and being able to go out more and travel when we can.
‘But, for me, I’m very happy with it being a one-off perfect experience.’
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk
Share your views in the comments below.