“They’re here,” her husband says, standing to greet two men walking toward them.
Bill Johnson and Kraig Wiedenfeld have been a couple for 18 years and married for four. Everyone embraces warmly.
They’re an unlikely foursome: two gay men from the Upper East Side of New York and a small-town husband and wife who met when they both were 20 at a Dunkin’ Donuts.
By lunchtime, if all goes as planned, Christina Fenn will be pregnant with Johnson and Wiedenfeld’s son. An embryo created from Wiedenfeld’s sperm and an egg from an anonymous donor will be thawed and transferred into Fenn’s uterus, and she will be considered “PUPO” — pregnant until proven otherwise.
“Let’s go have a baby!” says Wiedenfeld. They all smile nervously.
The couples drive in separate cars to CT Fertility, a clinic five minutes down the road.
This isn’t Fenn’s first time at the clinic. She has proudly carried three babies — including a set of twins — as a surrogate for two other same-sex couples. She heads to Exam Room 3, while Johnson and Wiedenfeld go to a waiting area until it’s time for the transfer.
“You have a beautiful embryo hatching,” says CT Fertility physician Melvin Thornton, sitting down with the dads-to-be.
He explains the series of checks that have been done to ensure that the embryo being transferred today is theirs. He says that it is growing at an ideal rate and that he feels confident the procedure will go smoothly. He outlines how he will implant the embryo into Fenn’s uterus and tells them the procedure’s success rate is 80 percent.
Under a microscope in a room just down the hall, the embryo looks like a collection of bubbles encapsulated by a larger bubble.
In the same room, Fenn is lying on an exam table in a hospital gown, with her feet in stirrups and a sheet covering her lower body. She’s clutching her husband’s hand as Wiedenfeld and Johnson, who have been ushered into the room, watch from behind her.
“Here we go,” says Thornton, surrounded by nurses. “I’m inserting the embryo now. Watch the monitor and you’ll see a small dot enter the screen,” he tells the fathers-to-be. That’s your baby boy.” Johnson and Wiedenfeld, who are very close with their nephews, were excited that genetic testing of the embryo had revealed that a boy was in the offing.
As Thornton begins the implantation, sweat materializes on Johnson’s forehead. His husband, no less overwhelmed, fans himself with a pamphlet on in vitro fertilization.
Five minutes later, the embryo procedure is done. The nurses and the doctor congratulate the intended fathers and the surrogate. Everyone in the small room rejoices, hugging and grinning.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” says Wiedenfeld, between deep breaths. “She is pregnant with my baby.”
Then the Fenns head home to their two children in Hebron, Conn., while Wiedenfeld and Johnson drive to their apartment in Manhattan, where they have already begun shopping for a crib.
Nine days later, Christina Fenn takes a pregnancy test: It’s positive.
This is the way a small but growing number of gay men are having children.
A process that takes time
While surrogacy seems like a tale of hope and happy endings for gay fathers, same-sex couples who choose to have biological children this way face legal hurdles, medical complications and daunting costs. And it can take time.
Surrogacy experiences can extend beyond three years, but they average 20 months from the time the intended parents decide to pursue surrogacy to the delivery of a child, says Ron Poole-Dayan, director of Men Having Babies, a nonprofit that helps gay men become fathers. Fenn and the intended fathers met through a surrogacy agency in July 2017.
Surrogacy is uncommon in the United States, with perhaps fewer than 1,400 babies born each year with the assistance of a surrogate mother, including for both gay and straight couples.
Surrogacy and custody laws differ dramatically from state to state. That’s why the first step in the process for many is to find a location where it is legal to pay surrogates.
“It almost never happens that you have a surrogate who is willing to carry a child uncompensated for a family that she does not know. It’s extremely rare,” says New York surrogacy lawyer Brian Esser. He says an experienced surrogate’s compensation can be $40,000, with the bulk of that sum typically paid only after a child is born.
Hiring someone to be a surrogate is illegal in New York, so Wiedenfeld and Johnson had to go elsewhere. Luckily, a surrogacy agency matched them with someone close by.
As in Wiedenfeld and Johnson’s case, most gay surrogacy arrangements involve fertilizing one woman’s donated egg with sperm from the intended father, then injecting the embryo into a second woman, who carries the fetus. This requires an egg donor, a fertile father and a surrogate. It’s a team effort.
For Johnson and Wiedenfeld, choosing which of them would be the biological father was fairly simple. Of the two, Wiedenfeld is far more attached to the notion of his child being biologically related to him, while Johnson is simply excited by the prospect of becoming a father, especially if the baby has a biological connection to his husband.
And although Fenn and her husband are not biologically related to the embryo growing within her, they have agreed to appear in a Connecticut court 27 weeks into the pregnancy to renounce their parental rights, leaving the way free for Johnson and Wiedenfeld.
Having a child through surrogacy involves choices, Poole-Dayan points out: the increasingly uncommon traditional approach, in which the woman who carries the pregnancy is biologically related to the child, or gestational surrogacy, in which she is not; known vs. anonymous egg donor; using surrogacy agencies vs. independent arrangements.
Foremost, though, Poole-Dayan and other experts say, the surrogate and the intended parents must agree on how they envision their relationship. While some intended parents want to maintain distance after the birth, some surrogates seek close ties with the parents and the child. Egg donors, too, must choose whether to be anonymous or to have relationships.
Whatever the agreement, the scene often becomes crowded with lawyers for the intended fathers, the surrogate and the donor; doctors for the surrogate, the egg donor and the implantation; and representatives of the agencies connecting these participants. And each of these links carries a price tag.
While surrogacy contracts vary, Esser says, the standard costs include an agency fee of around $25,000, $10,000 for the egg donor, $30,000 for the IVF and multiple embryo transfers, and legal fees that are likely to begin at $10,000. In addition to compensation once the baby is born, the surrogate will also get a fee of around $1,000 for each embryo transfer, regardless of whether it turns into a successful pregnancy. Other expenses include travel costs, maternity care, health insurance for the surrogate, missed wages for the surrogate (and her spouse), the pumping of breast milk after delivery, etc.
Wiedenfeld and Johnson were prepared for their surrogacy to be expensive. They have well-paying jobs: Wiedenfeld, born and raised in Texas, is a publicist; Johnson, originally from Rhode Island and a Princeton graduate, is the president of a brand-identity agency. Yet they were surprised by how quickly the costs multiplied. Initially, they were told to expect to pay around $50,000, but expenses soared to several times that much.
“I think a lot of agencies lowball estimates,” says Esser, so the actual cost can be jolting.
In their elegant apartment a month after witnessing the implantation, Wiedenfeld circles the empty nursery. “Airplanes, animals or cars?” he asks. “I want our baby to have the coolest wallpaper.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Kraig,” Johnson warns. Unlike his husband, he is hesitant to celebrate Fenn’s pregnancy. There’s still the possibility of a miscarriage. The 80 percent success rate they were told of, after all, means 20 percent failure.
For the couple, who did not have an elaborate wedding, having a baby is an important sign of sealing their relationship. “In a way, the baby is our marriage. It will really take us to the next level,” Wiedenfeld smiles at his husband. “This baby is going to be everything. It just is.”
The couple regularly send Fenn flowers and gifts out of gratitude for being their surrogate. “Yes, she is being paid, but it’s still something that involves a great deal of altruism,” Johnson says.
Their match was a result of good fortune and great timing. Fenn had recently informed her agency that she would pursue one more surrogacy, but only for a warm and loving gay couple within 100 miles who would be open to a strong relationship with her during the whole process.
Becoming a surrogate
After the birth of their second son in 2009, Fenn and her husband felt content with their family of four. They opened an eatery, FennAgains Irish Pub & Restaurant. But soon Fenn, who had loved being pregnant, yearned to have that feeling again. The problem: “I wanted to have a pregnancy, but I didn’t want to have the baby,” she says.
“When I’m pregnant, I feel that I take care of myself the best. I’m more conscious of how I feed myself. I’m more conscious of the activities I do. I take more vitamins and drink more water. I just feel so connected to my body and my self.”
Surrogacy became the solution, both gratifying her pregnancy lust and a way to help those who couldn’t do what she could.
Compensation, she says, wasn’t part of her motivation. Fenn did not want to disclose her financial arrangements, but she confirmed that Esser’s estimates were in the ballpark. There is a common misconception, she said, that surrogates are driven primarily by the money, but at least among her circle of surrogates, that’s not true. She said there has to be something bigger, given the intense emotional and physical effort that being a surrogate entails. In her case, there was also the knowledge, from the experience of a close family member, of how heartbreaking it can be to want a child but not be able to have one. “In actuality, when you break the money down into the hours spent, it’s very misleading” to suggest that people do this for money.
To become a surrogate, Fenn went through months of testing with a surrogacy agency, including a 600-question psychological examination and a full-body screening.
“Only 1 in 10 women qualifies as a surrogate, for health and psychological reasons,” says Robin Fleischner, a New York surrogacy lawyer.
Fenn is frequently asked why she is willing to be a surrogate. “ ‘How can you give up the baby?’ That’s the biggest question everyone has,” she says. “It’s a hurtful question, because it implies that we are coldhearted and don’t love the babies born through surrogacy. But it’s not my baby, and I’m very conscious of that through the whole process. When you’re pregnant with your own child, you are so connected. When you’re a surrogate, you truly love that baby, but there is a disconnect. A necessary disconnect.” In fact, she says, the most intense connection is with the parents-to-be who so long for a baby.
Fenn has agreed to be a surrogate only for gay male couples. She’s wary of heterosexual couples struggling with infertility.
“They usually don’t want contact with the surrogate after the birth and are [said to be] notoriously controlling during the pregnancy,” says Fenn, who has heard this sentiment frequently in her circle of surrogates.
A month after she was implanted with the embryo, Fenn is back at CT Fertility for an ultrasound. Wiedenfeld and Johnson are there via FaceTime. This visit, though, isn’t as upbeat as the first: Thornton, CT Fertility’s doctor, scans Fenn’s belly and finds no signs of a fetal heartbeat; the embryo didn’t take.
Fenn, Wiedenfeld and Johnson are all deeply disappointed and shocked.
“The excitement was so high for such a heavy letdown,” says Fenn, between tears.
A few days later, Wiedenfeld says, “You assume that everything is going your way because it feels like you’re making it go your way. But this wasn’t in anyone’s control.” Still, he’s hopeful that a baby is coming in the future: “We’re feeling sad but also optimistic.”
Contractually, the couple and Fenn had agreed to make up to three attempts at a pregnancy. “We will all move on to a successful second transfer,” Fenn vows.
“When the baby does come, we will appreciate him that much more,” says Wiedenfeld. “What we’re willing to go through reinforces how badly we want this.”
And six months later, they do try again. Back at CT Fertility, garbed in green, the Fenns — Christina is 35, Brian is 39 — sit in the waiting room with Johnson and Wiedenfeld. This time, they are joined by Fenn’s best friend, a fellow surrogate. She, too, is transferring for the second time, after losing an embryo 13 weeks into her pregnancy.
The time between transfers had been difficult emotionally for everyone involved. Fenn says she felt frustrated with her body, unable to understand why the pregnancy didn’t stick or why it took so long to get her period again.
She knew that things weren’t much easier for the men. “I did give the guys some space,” Fenn says. “I knew they weren’t upset with me, but I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep reopening the wound. We waited until we were all emotionally ready to connect again.”
“Instead of losing sleep over it, I’m going to just let go and let it be. I need to let time happen,” says Wiedenfeld. “In a weird way, we were almost married to the timeline.”
Before the second transfer can begin, there’s a glitch. Thornton discovers that the embryo he was expecting to use hadn’t grown properly. Fortunately, two frozen embryos remain, and after a three-hour delay for thawing, one is implanted in Fenn.
Despite the emotional setback, “I’m feeling fantastic,” says Fenn. “We’re looking positive.” They all head home.
Having gone through one miscarriage, Wiedenfeld and Johnson, who are 39 and 46, respectively, did not want to get their hopes up again.
As many people desperate for a baby can tell you, desire and hope and prayers and healthy living and the best that medical science has to offer sometimes just don’t work.
Not long after the second embryo was implanted in Fenn, she discovers that her hCG levels — an indicator of pregnancy — aren’t rising. The embryo isn’t growing. The second try has failed.
It is an emotionally exhausting outcome, but there is still hope. After all, one embryo remains and Fenn, in her usual optimistic way, is ready for one more transfer, scheduled for the middle of September. And maybe, just maybe, not long after that, two men eager to start a family will finally have a baby of their own.