Surrogacy: How it feels when a stranger carries your babies

When two heartbreaking miscarriages left Anna Buxton unable to conceive, she remained determined to have the family she dreamed of – whatever it took.

Sitting in bed, a tiny baby cradled in the nook of each arm, I glanced from them to my husband Ed, to our little girl Isla who was nestled between us, and a deep sense of fulfilment washed over me. Everything I wanted was here.

The family that Ed and I had fought so hard to create was now a reality.

It was a morning in late June 2018. We’d travelled more than 5,000 miles from our home in London to the San Diego beach house we were renting on a holiday to trump all others.

Our three-week-old babies – son Art and daughter Olive – had been born six weeks prematurely at a local hospital, and this idyllic moment was all the sweeter because of the long journey Ed and I had taken to reach it. Our beautiful twins had been conceived through IVF, using embryos created with my eggs and Ed’s sperm, and carried by an American surrogate. Isla, then three, had arrived via another surrogate in India called Chaphala.

Anna Buxton and children
‘The family that Ed and I had fought so hard to create is now a reality,’ says Anna. Image: Sarah Brick

I couldn’t conceive. Surgery to remove two incomplete miscarriages four years earlier had caused severe scarring to my womb – a condition known as Asherman’s syndrome – so the lining necessary to maintain pregnancy couldn’t develop.

Five operations over 16 months failed to correct this and my surgeon told me to give up. ‘Anna, you’ll always miscarry,’ he said bluntly. ‘Your only hope is surrogacy.’

I was 34 and felt I’d failed at being a woman. But it immediately narrowed our options to the one that gave us our family.

Ed and I met through friends 12 years ago. We both worked in financial services – me in marketing, Ed in private wealth management. After our honeymoon, we started trying for a baby and within three months I was pregnant. However, a scan at nine weeks showed the baby had died. We were upset but pragmatic – these things happen. I became pregnant again just a month later, only to lose this baby at eight weeks. It was a horrible blow, made worse by how my body held on to both these pregnancies. Removing them required four surgical procedures, causing the scarring to my womb lining that made me infertile.

After remedial surgery failed, we tried a round of IVF in the hope that the huge surge of hormones I’d receive would force that lining to grow. It didn’t. When my surgeon said it was time to give up, feelings of anger, loss and hurt swamped me. Something my friends and sisters managed to achieve without effort was never going to happen for me.

At home, Ed and I wept together – our shared sorrow keeping us close. We’d told only close family about all these procedures as it felt like a very private journey. We reminded each other that there was still hope, channelling our sadness into finding a surrogate, but soon discovered that in the UK there are far more ‘intended parents’, as you’re described, than surrogates. Long waiting lists meant it could be up to five years before we’d have our baby, presuming everything went to plan.

I felt those years of uncertainty could break me. I was already suffering panic attacks; my heart would sometimes physically ache. I was looking at a life filled with pain, anxiety and disappointment. But Ed kept reminding me, ‘We’re in this together.’

As the one going through the physical challenges of miscarriages, surgery and IVF, I absorbed much of the attention and sympathy while all Ed could do was watch. If he ever felt useless, he was anything but: I clung to his determination that we mustn’t give up. It was comforting the way his resolve matched mine.

We looked next at the US, the most regulated and well-established route, but it was prohibitively expensive (typically between £30,000 and £50,000). India was a more viable option – with lower costs of around £5,000 – but similarly well established.

We’d vowed that however desperate we were to become parents we would never do so at the expense of another woman’s wellbeing. So in January 2014, we flew out to see how it worked first-hand. We visited ten clinics, settling on one in Delhi where we were happy everything would be done entirely appropriately – the surrogates were medically, legally and emotionally fully informed.

Back home, we started the egg-stimulation process via daily hormonal injections; when we returned to India two months later the clinic harvested my eggs, fertilising them with Ed’s sperm. It resulted in three embryos.

Meeting the young woman we’d been matched with, Chaphala, a 35-year-old mother of two, was nerve-racking. We were worried that she wouldn’t like us and might change her mind. But as we spoke (through a translator) those fears fell away. We felt a connection, finding common ground in the fact that she was a parent and that was something we were desperate to become.

When we flew home ten days later, two of our embryos were inside Chaphala. Waiting halfway across the world for a blood test to reveal whether another woman was pregnant with our child was surreal. I couldn’t settle: it was as though I was carrying an enormous secret despite there being nothing to tell at that point.

A fortnight later, I was at my desk when the clinic called: ‘Congratulations, you’re pregnant.’ I was stunned, dashing out on to the street to call Ed who was similarly overwhelmed. We didn’t feel we could celebrate – too much could still go wrong. It was only when Chaphala reached 28 weeks that we finally let ourselves believe we were having a baby.

Our emotions were up and down. The pregnancy was going well – we got weekly progress reports – but not being physically involved was hard. I felt like an onlooker to the pregnancy that would change my life. As we began to share our news, bumpless, I felt like a fraud and worried that people might think me unwilling, rather than unable, to carry my baby and give birth. This also meant I bought everything for the baby online, rather than explain myself to shop assistants.

Anna Buxton and twins
Anna is still in touch with the surrogate who carried her twins. Image: Sarah Brick

Those negative feelings faded when we flew back to India in January 2015, 37 weeks into the pregnancy. Isla was born by caesarean section the following week after Chaphala’s blood count suddenly dropped. Culturally, it wasn’t appropriate for us to be present for the birth. We waited in the next room and Isla was carried straight through and placed in my arms.The memory of that moment still makes me cry. I felt pure joy, relief and deep love for this bawling, wriggling baby girl, only learning her sex as we held her. Passing her between us, Ed and I simultaneously laughed and cried – we’d waited so long for this, and for a time had faced the terrible prospect we might never have children. Now our baby was here, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t carried her.

We stayed in Delhi for six months, renting an apartment while we completed the paperwork to bring Isla home. For the first two weeks she was stateless; we had to apply for British citizenship then her passport. I was on adoption leave, while Ed’s firm let him work from Delhi, and our mums, sisters and friends came out in turn – it was a special time.

Back home we settled into family life and our thoughts quickly turned to another baby. But soon after Isla’s birth, India stopped allowing foreigners to use its surrogacy clinics and here waiting times were longer than ever. This pushed us back to the US so we scraped together the money to pay for surrogacy in California. By 2017 we were matched with a surrogate named Holly, then 32. She was a full-time mum to a son of seven and two daughters, aged four and two. Her husband, parents and in-laws were all on board. That June we flew to San Diego for IVF where our four embryos were frozen while arrangements to transfer them were made – and we met Holly.

We had brunch with her and her husband, and her passion for surrogacy was clear. This was her first time, but she said that as a mother she couldn’t stand by and see other women suffer childlessness when she could help.

Four months later, two embryos were transferred into Holly. Elation at a positive pregnancy test turned to shock but happiness at discovering we were having twins. I felt more engaged with this pregnancy, proudly attending NCT classes and taking ownership of becoming a mother again when out shopping or talking to friends. Having Isla had taught me that motherhood is about far more than carrying your baby: it’s the love and devotion you lavish on them after they’re born.

California is eight hours behind us, so technology was an enormous help. Each morning I’d wake to a WhatsApp message from Holly telling me how she was feeling; how hard the twins were kicking her; the foods that she was craving. We even FaceTimed during scans.

Knowing the twins were likely to come early, Ed and I arranged to return to the US
at 35 weeks. But we were at dinner with friends when an abrupt call from Holly’s doctor in San Diego announced that she’d gone into labour six weeks early – and the babies were about to be delivered by caesarean section.

Ed was practical, packing and booking me on the next flight over there while I sat in stunned silence waiting for news. It came 90 minutes later when a nurse called to say both babies were on ventilators in intensive care but doing well. ‘Do they have names?’ she asked. I looked at Ed, who nodded: Olive and Art, for the girl and boy we knew we were having.

I boarded a plane at midday the next day, but being cut off from all communication for 13 hours was hellish. I went straight to the hospital to see my babies: two tiny scraps of life, covered in tubes and wiring in their incubators. I’ve never felt more helpless. I got to hold Olive the next day, Art the day after.

I lived at the hospital until Ed and Isla arrived five days later and we moved into the beach house, taking it in turns to be with either Isla or the babies. Each time I looked at the twins I felt a fresh rush of love. Holly popped down too as she was still recovering from the surgery. We both cried, holding each other – and I thanked her over and over again.

I asked Holly how it had felt to give birth then not see the babies but she insisted it was fine, saying, ‘They were always yours, I have mine.’

Surrogacy is such a well-trodden path in California that we could have completed the legalities and returned home within six weeks. The babies were automatically granted American citizenship and a passport. But we stayed for two months, partly because we wanted the twins to build their strength before the long flight home, partly so we could be together, this new family of five, away from real-life distractions. It was also about sharing time with Holly and her family, so her children could grasp the magnitude of what their mum had done for us. And it gave Isla a sense of how she came into the world.

Back at home I decided not to return to work when my maternity leave ended. I wanted to be with my children and help others going through surrogacy because I know first-hand how lonely it can feel. Now I work part-time mentoring intended parents, via the clinic where the twins were conceived, to navigate international surrogacy in the US.

They are now nearly two years old, and our family of five is complete. Holly and I remain in touch. I’ll be eternally grateful to her, and, of course, Chaphala too. They handed me the most wonderful gift a woman can give.

Contact Anna on Facebook or Instagram, @anna3buxton.

As told to Rachel Halliwell.