The reality of being a surrogate: 'I knew in my mind this wasn’t my baby, but I was worried my body and my brain wouldn’t link up'
When Nicole Coiffard decided she was going to be a surrogate – she knew it wasn’t simply her choice to make.
Nicole (39) from Dublin had two small boys, Ethan and Louis, with her partner Gilles.
“It wasn’t just me carrying this baby, it was my family,” she explained.
In 2016, Nicole offered to act as a gestational surrogate to two of her oldest school friends over dinner one evening.
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The couple had mentioned they were attending the Growing Families conference and were looking into the possibility of egg donation and surrogacy.
“My other pregnancies had been complication free, and after hearing them talk, I said ‘You know I can help if you want?’” she said.
When Nicole returned home that evening she told Gilles she had offered to act as surrogate. He expressed concern about the commitment she had made.
Gilles had witnessed her go through two pregnancies and knew the physical demands it would place on her body.
He was also worried about the unknown – the impact carrying a child and then giving it away could have on Nicole’s mental well being.
And what if something went wrong and Nicole's health was compromised? A complication would undoubtedly be harder to accept if the child was someone else’s.
“I think he was worried for me and my health, but mainly I think he was worried about the psychological impact it could have.
“And I was too … but I also knew how much it would mean to them, and how great it is to have kids so that outweighed [anything else].”
Nicole’s friends decided to go to Canada and opt for the altruistic model of surrogacy; there is no payment but the surrogate is never out of pocket.
Expenses – such as travel and medical bills – are covered by the intended parents.
As this was a gestational rather than a traditional surrogacy, the eggs were being supplied by a different woman via the surrogate agency.
This meant that while Nicole would carry the child, she would have no genetic attachment to the baby.
“It took about a year and a half after I first offered to be surrogate to the time I went to Canada for the egg transplant,” she explained.
During those eighteen months Nicole went for a series of health checks, and ultrasound's, and both she and her partner had to be tested for STIs.
They also spoke to medical professionals, IVF doctors, and counsellors to ensure she was prepared for this journey.
There is still a good deal of stigma attached to surrogacy, and the doctors warned Nicole that she may be subject to comments or judgemental mutterings.
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“The doctors talked a lot about what it is like to be a surrogate. They said it wasn’t necessarily easy, and that I would need a thick skin.
“We also met with a counsellor and she went through what to expect and talked through my concerns…”
For many parents it can be hard to wrap your head around the idea of surrogacy - despite the fact that it has been practised for centuries.
The idea of carrying a baby and tracking its growth from poppy seed to watermelon, feeling it kick and hiccup, sharing its life blood and hearing its heart beat – to bear down and bring that child into the world and then give it to someone else seems, well, next to impossible.
Nicole was concerned that the hormones coursing through her body may make things even more difficult.
“I had two kids so I knew what it was like to have a baby, I knew my mind would know that it wasn’t my baby, but I was worried my body and my brain wouldn’t link up.
“I knew it wasn’t my egg – I don’t think I would be able to do traditional surrogacy. Knowing it wasn’t my baby made it easier.”
But Nicole’s main concern was how to explain the process of surrogacy to her two young children; Louis was in Jnr Infants, while Ethan was in pre-school.
To understand the process - the two boys needed to connect with the intended parents.
Counsellors advised Gilles and Nicole to hang a picture of the two dads in the house, so their children felt like they knew them.
“We also had them over for lunch and we went over to theirs for lunch,” she said.
Nicole also informed her children’s teachers about the surrogacy.
The relationship between teachers and young children is hugely important – they spend more time with our kids than most of us do.
“I wanted the teachers to know in advance so when the boys talked about it, their reaction would be a positive one, instead of being surprised or dismissing what they said.
“It was important this was a positive experience for everyone so the teachers needed to be prepared.”
Nicole read a picture book called The Kangaroo Pouch: A Story of Gestational Surrogacy for Young Children to them in the evenings.
The book is designed to act as a conversation starter for surrogates with their own families, and as a handy manual for children to refer to throughout the process.
“I also had to make it very clear that I would never give them away… I explained that I was minding this baby for somebody else.”
The intended parents decided to go private through the Rotunda Hospital and attended all the check ups with Nicole.
Their doctor was hugely sensitive to the circumstances – and visited the ward in the days before the birth to inform staff that Nicole was a gestational surrogate and asked them to refrain from referring to Nicole as ‘mum’ when the baby was born.
Nicole felt more anxious during this pregnancy when compared to her previous two.
“It definitely felt different. I was more worried about this pregnancy because it was not my pregnancy.
“I had to take daily progestogen injections for the first 12 weeks, and if you miss that it could increase your chances of miscarriage…I know it sounds strange but it did feel like more responsibility in a way.”
On top of that there was none of the nesting, fantasising about the new arrival, or stocking up on dinky baby clothes.
“I could feel him moving around and I would tell his parents about that and it was nice seeing their response.
“But in our house there was no talking about the baby’s arrival or decorating or buying things. There was no preparation for a new baby.”
Friends and family’s reaction to her surrogacy was mostly positive; when she explained what she was doing to mums at the school gate, they responded with their own stories of surrogacy.
“Everyone seemed to know someone who had done it or had considered it”.
The biggest complication she faced came down to practicalities, and the number of people allowed in the delivery suite.
In the majority of Irish maternity hospitals only one person is admitted to the room, but Nicole requested three – her partner Gilles and the two intended parents.
“My partner had to be in the room because he was the one I wanted. He had been there for my previous births, and afterwards everyone would be so focussed on the baby, so I needed Gilles to be there for me.”
Nicole arrived at the Rotunda on her due date, and was induced. “I went in with my two friends and Gilles met me there, she said.
After months of meetings and some last minute persuading – all three men were allowed into the delivery suite.
Giving birth is a primal and intimate act – having two friends in the room when you’re so vulnerable and exposed adds a completely new dynamic.
“It was strange and weird and I think they must have found it really strange. We had been together all day, and they had seen the labour pains and I know they felt bad when the pain became intense and I started to cry. They were very respectful and would turn or look away when I was being examined,” she explained.
“When the baby was born they put him on my tummy for the delayed cord clamping. I placed my hand on him to make sure he was safe, and I remember thinking ‘Oh maybe I shouldn’t have done that’. Then the dads cut the cord and the doctors handed him to them and they did skin on skin,” she said.
“They were holding him, and Gilles was holding me. I had to go to theatre after the birth and I think that was a good thing as we had our own space."
That evening one of the dad’s was permitted to stay in the hospital with Nicole.
“The baby cried during the night and I didn’t do anything. I thought ‘Should I offer to help?’ but then he’s the dad. It would be patronising to try and show him what to do.”
The following morning, Nicole’s sons came to the hospital and met the baby, the two families left the hospital together, before setting off back into the fold of their respective lives.
Nicole’s friends returned home with their new son, while Nicole and Gilles went for a burger with their boys.
“They were looking forward to me not being pregnant and having burgers with them.”
He may have no genetic connection to her but Nicole says she will always have a bond with the child.
She compares him to a cousin – an individual she feels love for who is circuiting in their wider family orbit.
“I’m still good friends with the dads, they’re sending pictures and photos… and [the baby] is still something special to me, my mother-in-law still asks about him, and … we still think of him as a baby of our family.”
Since the birth in August 2018, Nicole and Gilles have married on a beach in Thailand and welcomed their first daughter Lila just ten weeks ago.
“It is nice that my last pregnancy was my pregnancy and that I had a girl,” she said. “Sometimes I do forget about [the surrogacy]. In some ways it seems like a different life.”
Asked if she has every felt any moment of regret or sadness, she says no – she had been preparing for months. When the baby was handed to the dads she felt a sense of contentment.
“It was really nice because the whole pregnancy had been leading to this moment, it was the right thing to happen,” she said.
“And it was the proper ending.”