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Eeyore

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Sunday, August 22nd 2010, 8:02am

One woman's surrogacy family

STORY - TODAY'S MAIL ON SUNDAY


After her hopes of getting pregnant were crushed, Caroline Van Den Heever turned to surrogacy to keep alive her dream of starting a family





Caroline and Jan's children, three-year-old twins William and Daniel, and Kayla, four

My house is full of noise and activity – shouting, laughter and colourful paintings pinned to the noticeboard. Not so long ago, it was deathly quiet and I hated it. That was before my husband Jan and I had our three amazing children, born through surrogacy and egg donation in a journey that took us across the world and to the limits of our emotions.




The number of babies born to surrogates is relatively small, given the thousands of women desperate to become mothers. ‘Each year, there are just 50 to 70 surrogate pregnancies in the UK,’ says Sabreena Mahroof, secretary of Surrogacy UK. ‘Others are undergone by women abroad for couples in the UK: we don’t know how many live births those amount to, but it is thought there are currently about 750 surrogate children in the UK.’

Surrogacy, where another woman carries the baby for the one who will become its mother, is used when a medical condition makes it impossible or dangerous to get pregnant and give birth, such as after repeated IVF failure, or cancer treatment, or because of a heart condition. ‘Surrogacy is the last resort,’ says Sabreena. ‘You have to prove through your GP that you have tried everything else, because we can’t risk a surrogate’s life by putting her through a pregnancy unnecessarily.’




When I met my husband Jan in 1998, I knew I wanted children with him, but it wasn’t until we’d been trying for several years that it became apparent that I was going to need to borrow another woman’s womb. As it turned out, I needed to use another woman’s eggs, too. We married in August 2000 (Jan is a quantity surveyor and I was an IT account manager for a bank) and as we were both 38, we tried for children straight away. But by November 2001 we still hadn’t conceived, and eventually tests revealed that my infertility – along with the painful periods I’d suffered from all my adult life – was caused by severe endometriosis, which meant pregnancy was unlikely without IVF and might not happen even then.

Giving up the prospect of your own children is like a bereavement. Everyone I knew seemed to end up with their own genetic child

I was turning 40 the week I got the diagnosis, and I felt empty and old. I had always thought I’d have lots of children: now I might have none. I was silent as Jan drove us home. He stopped to get some groceries and when he returned to the car he gave me a box with a heart necklace in it. This gesture said, ‘I love you and we will get through this together’ more than words ever could.

We had three rounds of IVF in 2003, but they didn’t work because I was producing low numbers of poor-quality eggs. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know if I could face more unsuccessful cycles. We did some serious soul-searching and admitted with immense sadness that it was time to stop trying to use my eggs and womb, and consider other options.




Giving up the prospect of your own children is like a bereavement. Everyone I knew – even friends having IVF – seemed to end up with their own genetic child and here I was, turning my back on that. I felt devastated when I saw mums pushing prams, and I couldn’t attend a christening without feeling bereft. However, my drive to be a mother was too strong to give up. We couldn’t stop yet.


I started to look into adoption and surrogacy, talking to people and scouring the internet for information. The turning point came at Christmas in 2003. Jan is from South Africa, and we were visiting his parents in Cape Town when Jan’s mum showed us a magazine article about a family friend who’d had a child via a surrogate through a local clinic. We’d already looked into doing it in the UK, but we wanted to use a separate donor and surrogate (to avoid the risk of the surrogate becoming too attached to her own genetic child to give it up) and at that time very few UK clinics would work with a surrogate and an egg donor together, because surrogacy in the UK isn’t bound by law, but based on trust, so there’s a high risk of legal issues.






‘It’s a kind of gentleman’s agreement,’ says Sabreena, ‘which is why we emphasise the importance of developing the relationship between surrogate and commissioning parent.’ But the birth mother may still decide to keep the child in the end, whereas in South Africa lawyers are involved and the commissioning parent has more rights. We could also work with a social worker to manage the whole process for us. Within days we’d contacted the South African clinic and before we flew home, we’d seen specialists and contacted a social worker called Wilna who would help us find a surrogate and egg donors. We returned to the UK with hope.

I pored over lists of egg donors, looking for information about their personalities and examining pictures of them as children (the only pictures you’re allowed to see in an otherwise anonymous process). We finally found one that seemed suitable, and in May 2004 we got a call from Wilna saying she’d found us a surrogate. We flew out to meet her in July and it was the strangest meeting: I felt I had to try to impress her, to convince her to lend us her womb, even though we’d be paying her expenses. She agreed to do it, and we thought, ‘This is it – we’re going to be parents.’


But this is where we discovered that surrogate pregnancies are as vulnerable as any other to medical problems and the uncertainties of IVF. We had five IVF attempts with this surrogate, using fresh eggs from three different donors and Jan’s sperm, but each time the embryos failed to implant and we finally accepted that her womb wasn’t going to work for us.


By now, we’d paid for a total of eight IVF attempts. Every penny we could earn, save or put on the mortgage was going towards this. There were no holidays, no expensive dinners – we made cutbacks everywhere to finance our dream of a family. Then we heard that Wilna had found us another surrogate – Bronwyn, a 24-year-old single mum. This time our first attempt led to a positive test. The pregnancy didn’t last more than a day or two, but the intense elation Jan and I experienced for that short time was ground-breaking. We realised that even if it took 20 attempts, we’d do it.

My heart bursts with love for my children. They are a product of both nature and nurture

In November 2005 we found another egg donor and went for our tenth IVF attempt. Bronwyn was six weeks pregnant when we flew to Cape Town in December
2005 and we were there for her first scan. It was the most wonderful time: our first real hope of a child. Back in the UK, we kept in contact with her by phone and e-mail, hearing about each kick, every scan. When she sent us a photo of her swollen belly, I couldn’t stop looking at it, thinking, ‘That’s my baby growing in there!’ I wasn’t sad not to be there, or jealous that it wasn’t me, just excited to be finally so close to our dream.


We planned to be at our daughter’s birth (we found out four weeks before Bronwyn’s due date that we were having a girl) but, on 21 July 2006, Kayla was born at 36 weeks when we were still in the UK. On our 11-hour flight to South Africa, I sat looking at photos the hospital had e-mailed us within half an hour of her birth. She looked so like Jan’s father. ‘We’ve given birth to Boet!’ I said. We arrived on her second day and I’ll never forget the first time we saw her, this perfect little bundle. We couldn’t believe she was ours. One of my favourite pictures is of me with Kayla nestling in the crook of my neck – a new mum in newborn bliss. We took lots of photos, including us with Bronwyn, to whom we’ll always be grateful beyond words. I felt we had become custodians of Kayla’s history, and every bit of it was important to record.


I spent nearly four months in South Africa getting to know my new daughter, living in a rented home while Jan went back to work in the UK and my own small-business support service was looked after by a friend. After the legally required 60 days, we were able to start the adoption process and have a new birth certificate issued (as the biological father, Jan’s name was on the original certificate, but mine wasn’t). Once the paperwork was complete, Jan came out to collect us and on 1 November 2006 the three of us flew back to the UK as a family.




Jan had arranged for my closest friends to meet us at the airport with balloons and champagne, and I had never felt so elated. What I wasn’t expecting was the loneliness that set in a few weeks later. Other new mums in the neighbourhood seemed to know each other, presumably through antenatal groups I’d never attended, and I hadn’t realised how left out I would feel not having a birth story to tell or breast-feeding dramas to recount. It wasn’t until the following January, when I attended an NCT (National Childbirth Trust) group for new mothers, that I started to feel more like a real mum as I met some women nearer my own age, who are still among my best friends.


But we didn’t want Kayla to be an only child – especially as we were older parents living far from our families (Jan’s in South Africa, mine in Ireland). So having found another surrogate in South Africa, Suzette, we decided to try quickly for a second baby. When Kayla was just six months old we discovered that Suzette was carrying twins for us. A year after Kayla was born, our sons William and Daniel arrived at 34 weeks. Yet again, we weren’t there, but we saw them just one day later. Again, I spent four months in Cape Town while we sorted out the process to bring the boys home.


We’ve always been very open about how our children were made – I’m immensely proud of it. Even Kayla knows she has an ‘egg mummy’, a ‘tummy mummy’ and her ‘real mummy’. The egg donor was anonymous, but she knows her ‘tummy mummy’ was called Bronwyn and I’d be very happy if she wanted to meet her. We aren’t in contact with Bronwyn – she has her own life now – but if we needed to find her, we could. The boys are still too young to understand where they came from, but it won’t be too long before we tell them, and we will see their surrogate when we return to South Africa.




As each day passes, I grow more and more into motherhood. I adore them and get cross with them just like any other mum – children can be exasperating, even ones you’ve travelled halfway round the world to get! But my heart bursts with love for them. They are definitely a product of both nature and nurture. Daniel is just like Jan – a gentle giant and a peacemaker. Kayla doesn’t look like me but is a mini-me in personality – she’s outgoing and energetic and knows exactly what she wants.
William is a bit of both of us. I deliberately opted for egg donors who looked like Jan but had my personality and interests. When I look at the children now, I don’t think about the donors at all – I just think of Jan and me and the family we have created.

I get irritated when people say it is a woman’s own fault if she leaves it too late to start a family. Yes, I did have a career, but the main reason I was 38 before I tried for a family was because I hadn’t found Mr Right. I’m glad I did wait, because there aren’t many men who would have done what Jan has done, spending a fortune (around £170,000) in treatment and associated costs and standing by me every step of the way. And although my age was one of the reasons we needed treatment, being older also meant we were more established and had the financial resources to pay for it. Financial pressure is so often what tears people apart in their desperation to have a family.

Although our endeavours have made us stronger as individuals and as a couple, around 80 per cent of friends who have undergone fertility treatment have broken up: it tests relationships to the full. That’s one of the reasons we are moving to South Africa, so Jan can spend more time with us as a family and less time at work. We have a
ready-made support system there – Jan’s parents, his sisters and his school friends. I have a network through the time I spent there when the babies were tiny. And I feel a natural bond to the country because my children are little South Africans.

I used to worry about all kinds of things – my value system was different – but now I smile all the time because I think I’m the luckiest woman alive. My heart breaks when I hear of other women not being able to have a baby. The other day Jan and
I looked at each other and said, ‘Can you believe we’ve done this?’ If we’d made one, we’d have been chuffed, but we went from nought to three in barely a year.


Four years ago, I hated the silence and loneliness of my house. Now there’s commotion and people always dropping in. Jan says, ‘There’s so much noise!’ and I say, ‘I love it!’ It’s what I always envisaged. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


As told to Martha Roberts

SURROGACY - THE FACTS



  • Surrogacy isn’t illegal in the UK but it’s governed by certain restrictions – it’s illegal to advertise that you are looking for a surrogate or are willing to be one, and you can’t broker an arrangement on a commercial basis. Only reasonable expenses can be paid to the surrogate.
  • Surrogacy agreements are unenforceable in UK courts so it’s impossible to enter into a legally binding surrogacy agreement here. This is why organisations such as Surrogacy UK emphasise the importance of building trust and good relations.
  • Under English law, the legal mother of a child born via surrogacy is, at birth, the surrogate mother. If she is married, her husband will usually go on the birth certificate, even if his sperm wasn’t used. Intended parents have to apply for a parental order when the child is born, but the surrogate may change her mind for up to six weeks after the birth.
  • A parental order reassigns parenthood, conferring full parental status and responsibility on both intended parents. A new birth certificate is issued in place of the original, naming the intended parents.
  • For more information, visit Surrogacy UK (surrogacyuk.org) or Cots (Childlessness Overcome Through Surrogacy, surrogacy.org.uk).




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