Birth Story: “My sister-in-law was my surrogate”

Posted in Birth Stories.

Danni holds her baby in the delivery room with her surrogate sister in law smiling on the bed

When Danni and Paul met on a dating app a few years back, they shared an instant connection. Both had been married previously, and knew exactly what they were looking for in a new relationship. After a perfect first date, the couple got engaged six months later and were married in 2018 at a beautiful ceremony at their home in the Macedon Ranges, Victoria. But while they both wanted to have a baby together, Danni had already had a hysterectomy.

Here, they share their amazing surrogacy journey with Mum’s Grapevine.

I had a full hysterectomy

“I had two gorgeous boys from my first marriage, Will (currently aged 14)  and Finn (about to turn 13), whom I was fortunate enough to carry despite being diagnosed with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries at 16. Unfortunately, after the two pregnancies, I ended up with fibroids that resulted in a full hysterectomy back in 2013,” Danni says.

“Surrogacy was something we began to pursue even prior to our wedding. We’ve never shied away from what it would take to add to our family, and have openly discussed this with family and friends from the outset. Just prior to our wedding, a friend offered to be our gestational surrogate (where an embryo is created using an egg and sperm produced by the intended parent(s) (or donors), and is transferred into the surrogate’s uterus).

“Beginning the process in 2019, the perils of living interstate drew out the counselling and appointment process somewhat and then the subsequent pandemic in 2020 halted things to the point where a change in circumstance meant that they were no longer able to join us on our surrogacy journey. It was a difficult moment for Paul and I, but one that made us more resolute that this was the path we were willing to pursue in order to grow our family.”

The ultimate sister act

Danni and sister in law Lisa posing in the city

As part of moving forward from their setback, one of the couple’s IVF counsellors suggested they post an update on social media. Soon after, Danni received a life-changing phone call from her sister-in-law, Lisa.

“She mentioned having seen our post, checked in as to how we were going and then made the incredibly generous offer to be our surrogate.

“Lisa ticked all the proverbial ‘boxes’ for being a surrogate. Having finished her own family, being over the age of 25, met the criteria of having known us for a certain period of time as well as a number of medical and psychiatric checks, we were both over the moon to be moving forward again.

“Fast forward through the counselling – which is conducted through the IVF clinic and via an independent psychologist for all of us involved – intended parents and surrogate and her husband/partner, legal advice and contracts, final medical checks, during December 2021 we were able to collate all the required documents to submit to the Patient Review Panel, the final checkpoint in Victoria for approval to proceed with our surrogacy arrangement.

“Monday 28 February 2022 was our hearing date with the Patient Review Panel. Whilst we had all increased our familiarity with Zoom meetings, nothing will ever come close to the (slightly) terrifying feeling of sitting in front of a panel of eight strangers who were charged with deciding whether or not we could proceed with our plans to expand our family. The hearing was relatively straightforward and we kindly were put out of our anxious state 45 minutes afterwards when we received the phone call giving us the approval to move forward.  Safe to say, we were all overjoyed.”

Embryo transfer ultrasound

While working through this surrogacy approval process, Danni and Paul had also begun IVF to try and retrieve a sperm and egg. Their first attempt was on Danni’s birthday in September 2021.

“I must admit there was more than a little trepidation about embarking on IVF. The horror stories of hormones and injections, I was expecting the absolute worst. Fortuitously despite some intense nausea, a possible COVID exposure at the IVF Pharmacy on Day 1 of the cycle (which was then deemed to not be) and some pretty intense tears to certain songs on my Spotify playlist (which Paul would just attribute to my song preferences on said playlist anyway), I got through unscathed. My IVF Dr didn’t hold a lot of hope for our egg retrieval, despite ramping up my drugs to the highest allowable dose, our egg retrieval day rolled around. After Paul dropped me off and made his way to work on his contribution to our future child, I made my peace with the incredibly flattering backless gown and hairnet at the Day Surgery hospital and sat there with my thoughts (thinking we would get nothing, zip, zero, zilch) before being wheeled into the operating room.

“Waking up after the fact, the recovery nurse told me my number. Four, we got four eggs. I burst into tears. Four was a lot more than zero and as I sat in recovery, I would randomly cry happy tears.

“The following day, which was a Saturday, at around 1pm we got a call from the IVF lab. Our next number was 3. Three little embryos from our 4 eggs. In terms of percentages, that was pretty damn good. The clock started on our five day wait to see where we were at after that. Given our age (we were 39 when we undertook our IVF round) and in the interest of trying to ensure we were looking after Lisa as our surrogate, we nominated to undertake Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) testing. When we received the results for this, our three embryos had reduced to one. But this one embryo was graded a 5-A-A. What’s that mean, I hear you ask? Well the 5 is your Blastocyst Stage Grading (starts at 1, up to 6) which meant it was a ‘Hatching Blastocyst’ and the letters are for the Inner Cell Mass and  Trophectoderm – the two types of cells found within a blastocyst – rating and that runs from A (Good) to C (Poor). We were pretty stoked with that. Into the freezer it went until the 14 June 2022 which was our embryo transfer day.”

Embryo transfer time

Pregnancy announcement with ultrasound photos and little shoes

Before they knew it, it was time for the embryo transfer and as Danni and Paul met with Lisa at the IVF clinic, they felt a sense of excitement and a little trepidation but above all, hope.

“As only one of us was allowed in the room, I was lucky enough to be there with Lisa when our little embryo was safely transferred. I can still remember walking out after the transfer and Lisa saying ‘It was up to her now’ as we both cried and enveloped each other in a huge hug.

“More countdowns began. Two weeks until the first blood test result would indicate whether or not we were successful. It was a Friday and I was accompanying Paul on a work trip to the Gold Coast. We stepped off the plane in Coolangatta to multiple messages from the IVF clinic. Quickly teeing up a time for a joint phone call as we grabbed our bags and found our Uber, we were exiting Coolangatta Airport when the call came through. With Lisa on the line, one of the IVF nurses delivered us the best news – we were pregnant! Safe to say we got to know the Uber driver pretty well as he teared up as we cried in the back seat of his car heading to our accommodation.”

“Our little person was due 2nd March, 2023.”

Breastfeeding without birthing

ultrasound images at 20 weeks gestation

Danni and Paul spent the next 39 weeks supporting Lisa throughout the pregnancy and going with her to ultrasounds, including one which revealed they were expecting a boy!

In preparation for his arrival, Danni decided to look into whether she’d be able to breastfeed without actually giving birth to him.

“I purchased a very informative book ‘Breastfeeding without Birthing’ and I was fortunate to be supported by my amazing GP who admitted having limited knowledge in the area but was willing to research and help me in my pursuit. In the August prior to the little man arriving, I began a herbal regime of fenugreek and milk thistle as well as pumping with a breast pump every four hours during the day. We increased this to include Domperidone three times a day in October 2022 as well as breast pumping three hourly day and night. Domperidone is usually given to boost low supply and it was an exciting moment whilst in the Wellbeing Room in my workplace when two weeks into taking ‘Dom’ (as it’s commonly known), I began to lactate again, as all the research indicated I would.

“Funnily enough, you don’t have to have lactated previously in order for this work. There are a number of people who have successfully induced lactation to feed children that their partners may have carried or even those who adopt young children.

“In the weeks leading up to our little man’s arrival, I was producing approximately 10-20mls per pumping session. As I had learnt with my eldest two, breastfeeding is a learned skill that needs a willing mum and a willing baby. With this in mind, I promised myself and Paul that whilst I would give it a go, I wouldn’t break myself trying in the event our little man wasn’t a willing participant. Fed is fed and fed is best, regardless if it’s breastmilk or formula.”

With the due date now only a couple of weeks away, Lisa was feeling increasingly uncomfortable and asked for a stretch and sweep to try and get things moving along. Unfortunately, it didn’t do the trick.

“We filled our days with coffee catch ups, more lunches and a lot of rest for Lisa.

“As part of our surrogacy agreement, all four of us had discussed very early on in the piece how labour and delivery would be handled and who would be in attendance. As the nominated hospital for delivery was only going to allow one support person, I was to be Lisa’s primary support person and Lisa would have skin to skin contact with the baby until the placenta was delivered. We sought approval from the hospital, given the surrogacy situation, for Paul to be allowed in post-delivery for Lisa to ‘give’ our baby to the two of us. This was obviously dependent on it being a natural delivery however we all acknowledged we would be fluid and dependent on the situation as it unfolded.

Danni holds Lisa’s hand on a hospital bed

“The following week after the GP appointment, we had our 39 week appointment with our obstetrician. He agreed to put us on the induction list for the following weekend if things had not progressed on their own prior to. Four more days passed and it was Saturday. Naturally hadn’t happened and we literally were all watching Lisa’s phone awaiting a call from the hospital to ‘Come on down for an induction’. 3.30pm that afternoon, that call came. Lisa and I said goodbye to our husband’s and her children (my nieces and nephews) and headed to the hospital. 4.30pm, after all the checks and introductions, the induction was underway. It was slow to start but by 11.30pm that night, Lisa and I thought I was safe to stay. Lisa was handling everything beautifully. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case and just as I pulled two chairs together in an attempt to relax so we could both get a little rest, I was asked to leave and await a phone call once things really got going.

“I must admit, having been on the other side previously in terms of delivering, it was strange but an incredible honour to see the other perspective. I can totally relate to how partners feel – the helplessness, the awe, the encouragement that is offered as you watch someone work to bring life into the world. It’s phenomenal.”

Not long after Danni arrived back at the house, she received a call from the hospital at 1:17am telling her Lisa’s waters had broken and she better rush back to the hospital!

A hospital room sign saying Lisa, Danni and Paul

“Arriving at the birth suite, Lisa was labouring leaning on the side of the bed.  I’m in awe of how she handled each contraction. We’d had conversations where she had apologised for anything that she may say during labour. My biggest worry was that I wasn’t saying the right thing! Things got rather intense for her and as she continued to labour, we explored various pain relief from a TENS machine, gas and eventually an epidural. Our little nugget had moved from transverse back to posterior – Lisa deserved all the support she could get to keep going.

“As the morning progressed and Lisa dilated to a full 10 cms, things became a little hairy. With blood pressure concerns and the little man showing some signs of distress during some contractions, there was all of a sudden a swarm of people in the dimly lit room. Despite knowing Lisa and the little man were in the best possible hands, it’s hard to quell the panic in that moment. The obstetrician who was on-call that morning was phenomenal (as they all are!), she quickly reviewed Lisa, and the decision was made to head down to theatre where they would attempt to turn our boy and if that was unsuccessful, we would be looking at an emergency c-section.

“Despite this always being on the cards, and having been discussed, the fact that Lisa had laboured that far, I think it was a bit of a shock to hear that this might be the way in which the little guy would enter the world. We trusted the experts and soon enough were making our way through the now daylit corridors to theatre. The turn attempts were not successful and within moments, I was sitting beside Lisa, holding her hand, as they began the cesarean. I’ll never forget hearing the doctors say ‘Oh, he’s looking straight up at us’ as they opened Lisa’s abdomen. Lisa was an absolute trooper despite feeling incredibly unwell during the c-section. That moment, at 8.17am on Sunday 26 February, when they lifted baby James up and we heard him cry will never be forgotten. Both Lisa and I got to hold his hand as they delayed clamping his cord. Once his cord was clamped, they took him for the pediatrician to review him. I asked Lisa if I could go be with him, to which she responded a resounding ‘Yes’! James was perfect. Scored 9’s on his Apgar scores and I got to cut his cord too.”

‘The moment was overwhelming’

Lisa in the caeserean with the baby on her chest and Danni standing above her

Danni watched in awe and gratitude as baby James was placed on Lisa’s chest for some precious skin to skin time, as they had all planned.

“When Lisa felt it was time, she handed James to me. The moment was overwhelming as I cradled our new little boy. As the doctors and nursing staff stitched Lisa up, I was escorted with James to the recovery area. With our midwife there, I successfully got James to latch for the first time. I still tear up at this moment as despite not being able to carry him, we’d made the first step toward me feeding him.”

Danni holds her baby for the first time as Lisa smiles

Danni breastfeeds James for the first time

“So, the worst part of all of this is trying to be present for Lisa but also keep Paul in the loop. Paul had an anxious wait for us to return to the ward and in spite of him asking how everyone was, I resisted sending any photos so that he met James in person. Once Lisa was cleared from recovery, I lay James on her and the two of them journeyed back up to the ward for James to meet his daddy. I was so proud to be able to capture that moment.

Paul meets his son for the first time

“A few days later we were discharged to Lisa’s home. Whilst breastfeeding was going well, unfortunately, I wasn’t producing enough and James was losing weight. We made the decision on day 6 to mix feed and after gaining 130 grams in 24 hours, James was formally discharged on day 7. I am proud to say that James and I continued our mixed feeding journey until he was 9 weeks old, which wasn’t as long as I had hoped but I stayed true to my promise.

A future together as a family

Surrogate holding baby james at home

“The surrogate relationship doesn’t just end once the baby is delivered. James will always know how he came into this world and have an extra special relationship with his incredible Aunty. We regularly catch up with Lisa and her family. We were guided by her as to when she was comfortable for James and I to return home after his arrival. There are photos and videos sent as he continues to grow and experience the world.

two older brothers holding baby james

“Paul and I will always be indebted to Lisa and her family. Without them, we wouldn’t have completed our own family. James is doted on by his awesome big brothers (there have been disagreements over who will change his nappy). I have loved seeing Paul with a little person as the older two were not babies when he met them. We are so incredibly lucky to now have the missing piece in our family.”

A family photo of Danni, Paul, James and the two teen boys.

Danni and Paul are now campaigning the Federal Government to introduce new national surrogacy laws in Australia, which currently differ from state to state. They hope by sharing their story, other families will be inspired to consider surrogacy and help someone else’s dream of having a child come true.

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