Nancy and Justin Rohde met on a blind date as students at Northwestern University. They'd been married for three years and had just turned 30 when they decided to start trying to have a baby.
"From there," Nancy says, "the nightmare began."
They did four failed rounds of IVF, found a surrogate who miscarried and didn't want to try again (an attempt that cost $20,000), and tried IVF again. For three years, they faced disappointment after disappointment.
"I got to a point where I had Justin change my Facebook password because I knew it would break me to see all these people my age with kids," Nancy, now 33, recalls. "We should have been right there with them. It just destroys your soul."
Then in August 2015, they found a new surrogate - 30-year-old Ashley Brown, a married stay-at-home mom of three near Salt Lake City, Utah. As Ashley began injecting herself with hormones to prepare for Nancy and Justin's embryo, the Rohdes decided to try one final IVF cycle on Nancy to double their odds. They were so sure it wouldn't work, they planned a wine-and-sushi consolation dinner for after the procedure.
But two weeks later, a call from the clinic: Nancy was pregnant. "I thought for sure that they had mixed up my blood results with somebody else's," Nancy says. The Rohdes had been told Nancy's uterine lining was likely too thin to support a baby and were still convinced her pregnancy wouldn't survive, so they asked Ashley if she would go ahead with surrogacy.
Five weeks to the day after Nancy's positive test, Ashley was pregnant too.
After years of struggling to have one child, suddenly Nancy and Justin were expecting two babies - "twinblings" to be born five weeks apart, in two different states, delivered by two different women but with the same biological parents. Cosmopolitan.com spoke with Nancy and Justin, and Ashley and her husband, Josh Brown, each month as they prepared to welcome Nancy and Justin's daughters. This is their story.
In Chicago, Nancy is seven months pregnant; in Utah, Ashley is six months. The Rohdes and Ashley are working through the delicate relationship between "intended parents" and surrogate.
Nancy: The first time we met, we flew Ashley and Josh to Chicago for prenatal tests. I'll be honest, it was uncomfortable. I wasn't pregnant yet and I was still struggling with the idea that I wasn't going to be. It's like you're giving up that dream of carrying a baby. But we liked that Ashley is a very chill person. We're very type-A and intense at times.
We were pretty scared when we found out I was pregnant. We were so worried she wouldn't want to continue on with us. [Many surrogates are motivated by the desire to help a couple that can't conceive.] We didn't tell Ashley that I was pregnant until we saw the heartbeat, around seven weeks.
Ashley: I probably worry more now than with all my first three pregnancies put together, because I have their worries on me. But they've struggled. That's what my husband always reminds me: "You're not in their shoes. It's their baby."
Nancy: I'm still really scared that something is going to go wrong with one or both pregnancies. In general, I feel less anxiety about Ashley's pregnancy than mine. It was the easiest thing ever getting her pregnant. She's like a professional.
Ashley: This is my first surrogacy "journey," as they call it, but it's something that I've thought about for over 10 years, even before I got married. I had friends that struggled to get pregnant and a neighbor who delivered a stillborn baby, and it always crossed my mind, I would carry a baby for her. Then I was able to have three easy pregnancies, easy deliveries, and three healthy children. As a mom, I can't imagine not being able to have kids. I enjoy being pregnant, and to be able to do this for somebody … it's a win-win.
Justin: [Ashley is] really doing this because she wants to do it. She's not doing it for the money. Surrogacy gets a bad rap in the court of public opinion because people simplify it to, "You're paying some poor woman who's probably making minimum wage and she's going to do this to feed her family."
Ashley: I knew I got compensated, obviously, but I'm doing it to help them grow their family. The money is just a bonus. We're building a house, and when we had decided I should become a surrogate, I didn't have a job. So, in my mind, I also was thinking that this could be my contribution to our house. [As part of their surrogacy contract, the Rohdes and Ashley agreed not to publicly disclose how much she is being paid.]
Josh: In my opinion, raising a family and going through the process of nine months of pregnancy is a full-time job. There's a lot of sacrifice one makes as a surrogate: all the shots in her stomach and hip before IVF, medicine taken by mouth, and all the blood draws and ultrasounds.
Nancy: Before we got to Ashley, everything had been fully covered by insurance for us, save a few out-of-network medications. With her costs, it's definitely a hardship. It means that we don't buy a house in the next few years. To us, that was a trade-off worth making.
Justin: We did consider that going forward with Ashley meant we could have two babies, but only in a very hypothetical sense. I think we even said jokingly, "Worst case scenario here, we just have two babies out of this."
Nancy: When Ashley was 20 weeks, we flew out to Utah and did the 20-week ultrasound. As soon as we saw the baby she's carrying on the screen, that was the moment we were like, Wow, this is really happening. I was feeling the baby in me moving around a lot and Ashley was feeling that as well. We were joking that they were dancing because they were close to each other.
Nancy is eight months pregnant; Ashley is seven months. This month, there are some complications with both babies.
Nancy: The baby I'm carrying is measuring very small and the baby that Ashley is carrying is big. Unfortunately, for me, there's a slight abnormality in the placenta so I've been identified as high-risk. We're starting to think maybe this wasn't meant to be and we pushed it too far.
Justin: The doctor was like, "Her head is in the third percentile." We're like, "The third percentile? Holy crap, that's terrible." The doctor was like, "No. That's totally fine."
Nancy: We had the baby shower a few weeks ago, and a lot of people expected me to be obscenely happy that our luck has changed. One of the people that attended expressed to Justin, "I thought Nancy would be more joyful." It feels sometimes like people think that I should only be ecstatic, which I am, but I don't think they realize all the anxiety that goes with this.
Ashley: A few appointments ago, I went in and the baby was breached. That was kind of scary. I was worried I'd have to have a C-section. I was thinking, Is it going to take me longer to recover? I was just being selfish. It's summertime. I want to be able to take my kids to the pool. Obviously, I'll do what needs to be done to have a healthy, safe baby.
Nancy: I feel guilty for the impact on her family. I'm so uncomfortable and hormonal, and I imagine that Ashley is as well and that has an impact on her husband, and her children, and her career. [Ashley is now working as a teacher's assistant.] It's not a great feeling to think that she's doing that just for us.
Ashley: I just don't want her to feel guilty. Obviously, I wanted to do this. Josh has been so supportive; he was the one who made my surrogate profile with the agency. He probably tells more people I'm a surrogate than I do.
Josh: My main concern was her health and well-being, and how it would affect her emotionally. And at first, we weren't sure how to explain it to our children.
Ashley: My sons are 2 and 4 so they were oblivious, but my daughter is 6 and she's pretty mature for her age, so I explained that we weren't going to keep the baby. This was Nancy and Justin's baby that I was just growing for them. She was fine about it. One of her little friends asked her if I was pregnant. My daughter responds with, "Yeah, but she's carrying it for somebody else." The poor little first grader probably had no idea what she was talking about.
The tentative birth plan is for the Rohdes to deliver the baby Nancy is carrying in Chicago in early May and, a month later, 10 days before Ashley's due date, fly to Utah with their newborn for the birth of their second baby.
Justin: We're thinking we'll deliver early because the baby Nancy's carrying is small.
Nancy: But what if she's not healthy? What does that mean for travel if the baby I deliver needs to be in the NICU?
Justin: We talked about worst-case scenario contingency planning. If Nancy can't travel, I would have to go [to Utah] alone, and that's scary and terrible.
Nancy: When I found out there was some concern about the baby's growth, Ashley was probably the second person I texted after Justin.
Ashley: We're checking in each with other every week, by text email or email. Nancy's got an app on her phone tracking the two girls and I've got one just for the baby that I'm carrying. It's like, "She's the size of a rollerblade." Last week, she was a bunch of bananas.
Nancy: We've tried really hard to connect ourselves to Ashley's pregnancy as much as possible. If the baby gets the hiccups, we stop and feel them, and it's a special moment. We don't ever feel that for the baby that Ashley's carrying. In terms of voices, I worry about that a lot. We don't know if she's going to feel more comfortable around Ashley's voice in the very beginning than she will around ours. We bought a product called Bellybuds where Ashley can put little speakers on her belly, and we can talk to the baby and read books to the baby through audio files.
Ashley: The first time I did it, my brother was like, "I can't believe you're going to actually going to do that." As a parent, you worry about things you can't control. When [the baby] comes out, she'll know. She won't be coming to me. She'll get skin to skin with her mom. That will be the smell she knows. That will be the touch she knows.
Justin: They may out of instinct hand the baby to Ashley in the delivery room, but Ashley already said very clearly, "No, no, no. I want it to go to Nancy or Justin."
Ashley: The most common question I get is, "Are you attached to the baby? Is it going to be hard for you to hand the baby over?" No, because I went into it knowing it's not mine. It's really different from my own pregnancies. Obviously, she's going to be cute and smart, and I think about what she might be when she grows up, but it's not my responsibility.
Josh: I never felt attached to the baby. We knew who the parents were and knew we decided to pursue surrogacy to help another couple become parents.
Nancy: I don't know if you heard about the Baby M case, the first surrogate legal battle. Basically, the surrogate kept the baby. The agency tries to minimize that risk by making sure that the individuals that are surrogates are done with their family building.
Ashley: I'm totally done. I don't have the baby fever. My baby is over 2, and I'm going to hopefully be out of diapers this year. I joke with my husband: "Nancy and Justin have no idea. No idea what's coming."
On May 2, Nancy gives birth to Lillian Quinn in Chicago. She is 5 pounds, 7 ounces, and healthy, but Nancy suffers from multiple complications, including a torn placenta, anemia, and preeclampsia (labor-induced high blood pressure). Meanwhile, Ashley is 35 weeks and preparing for her first surrogacy delivery.
Justin: Lilly came out really fast because she was small. Nancy only pushed through four contractions and she popped right out.
Nancy: We thought that there might be a problem with the baby, but we never thought that it would be a problem with me. I'm not made to make babies, apparently. In those first few days, I was totally out of it. I think Justin even said to my mom, "Should I be worried that Nancy's not bonding with the baby?" I do not remember her first few days.
Justin: I basically took over. I got to bond with Lilly, and I got to hold her, and I was feeding her and changing her and basically doing everything with her. Lilly's birth was super emotional - that, "Oh my god, I'm somebody's dad." I never thought we'd be parents.
Nancy: Justin's just amazing. There were times when he would have to help me get my pajamas on because I was in so much pain.
Justin: What is stressful as we are taking care of Lilly, Nancy and I were looking at each other going, "How the hell are we going to do this with one more?"
Ashley: I was more emotional leading up to Nancy's delivery than any of mine. I was just so excited and nervous for her. When I got the text that Lillian was here, it was like, "OK, one healthy baby down, I got to get them the second."
Nancy: When we were looking for a surrogate initially, we wanted her to be open to providing breast milk after delivery. I'm pumping now for Lillian, but I don't know if I can supply for two. And I don't know how the timing works on that because the baby needs colostrum [early breast milk] in the beginning and will the second baby be able to get that? We are sensitive to Ashley's feelings. I'm not sure how I would feel if I had somebody else's child at my breast.
Ashley: They just asked if I was interested in pumping. I don't think it's in our legal contract, but whatever I can get out is what I'm going to give them, to help them out. I just can't wait to see the reaction on their faces when they meet her. They already love her, but they are just going to fall in love.
A month after giving birth and receiving a blood transfusion to treat her anemia, Nancy is well enough to travel to Utah with Justin and Lillian four days before Ashley is induced at 39 weeks. After a difficult labor - although the baby is not breach, she is positioned high and takes a long time to descend - Ashley gives birth to the Rohdes' second daughter, Audrey Eleanor, on June 7, 2016, at 8 pounds, 13 ounces.
Ashley: I got to the hospital the night before and I didn't really sleep. I didn't know I'd be so nervous. Because she wasn't my baby, I was like, "I just have to get her out safe." Labor and delivery was longer than we were all thinking since it was my fourth pregnancy.
Nancy: At one point, a tear slid down her cheek, and it was one of the worst moments in my life. I felt tremendous guilt. I would much rather be the person in pain than watching someone go through that. I felt awkward - I didn't want to get up in her lady parts in any way, so we definitely stood back, and we didn't actually watch our baby being born. We watched it being pulled out and put onto her stomach.
Justin: Right when Audrey came out, they put her on Ashley because the cord hadn't been cut yet. I kind of remember Ashley being like, "Rah!" Like, "Why is this baby on me?"
Ashley: When she came out and then they laid her on my stomach ... oh, see, now I'm going to cry. Delivering a warm, squishy baby is one of the best feelings in the world. You are on such a high, and filled with happiness and relief. She could have been mine, you know? At the same time, I was like, "Can they see her? Are they close enough?"
Justin: We got the cord cut and then immediately did skin to skin with Nancy. Then we basically had Audrey from that point forward. Ashley never had her again except for a couple pictures we took. I was surprised that when I saw Ashley holding Audrey, I was like, "Aah! That's my baby." I was a little worried about bonding happening there.
Nancy: I didn't really have that feeling. I bonded quicker with Audrey than Lilly because I was so sick after Lilly. It went the complete opposite way that I expected it would.
Josh: When I first saw Audrey, my immediate reaction was, "Let's have another baby."
Ashley: I'm like, "No way."
Josh: When I looked at Justin and Nancy, and saw their faces and reactions, it was a surreal feeling – I knew exactly how they felt.
After Audrey's birth, the Rohdes and the twinblings leave the hospital to get their bearings at a timeshare in Park City, Utah, for a week before flying back to Chicago with their daughters.
Nancy: We're tired. Overwhelmed. It's frustrating at times when they won't sleep. But I just feel so lucky to hold them. Maybe because of all the trauma we've been through, I'm just like, "Is this real?"
Justin: I don't have even the slightest ounce of regret or "What have I gotten myself into?" I have to imagine that people who accidentally have kids probably have a little bit of those feelings. They're so beautiful. I put Lilly down in a pack 'n play and then I put Audrey down next to her and Audrey kind of rolled onto her side to snuggle with Lilly.
Nancy: Ashley ended up not pumping because she had a really rough delivery. I just didn't feel like we could even ask for her milk because we have some from me. We are supplementing with formula.
Justin: We were in the hospital with the pediatrician the morning after Audrey had been born, and we asked, "Is it OK if she drinks mature breast milk?" The pediatrician was like, "Yeah, that's totally fine, no problem." Then he's like, "Wait a second. Where are you getting mature breast milk?" We're like, "Oh, funny story... "
Ashley: I went and visited them the other day, and I thought, Oh my gosh, I'm just going to cry the whole time. I've been a little more emotional after this birth, more so than with my others. Half the time, I don't know why I want to cry. My friend was like, "Well, you grew her for nine months. You've taken care of her, and now you don't have her." It's not that I want her as a baby, and I don't want another baby. It's sort of like, "What now?"
Nancy: Some intended parents and surrogates don't really want a relationship afterward, but we and Ashley definitely do. We're going to be extremely open with [the twinblings] about their unique entry into the world. I mean, it's going to be obvious something weird happened. They're five weeks apart.
Ashley: I would love little email updates on her: "Hey, she's chewing on her fingers," or, "Oh, she's sitting up." I've already invited myself to her first birthday party.
Nancy: This woman is like an angel. She's just so special to us.
Ashley: I don't think I want to be a surrogate again because this has gone so well that I don't think any other time could compare. I would do it again for them if they were to want a sibling for the girls. I'm looking forward to seeing them grow as a family. I know Audrey will be so loved throughout her life.
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Birth photos courtesy of Sweetly Cherished Photography.