The Connell family. All photos courtesy Sara Connell.
Man meets woman. Baby comes next. It's just that simple. Or is it? This week, Yahoo Parenting is running a series about the unique way families are formed. These include a surprise adoption right before retirement, a brother-in-law's generous gift, and an HIV+ positive father who had his sperm "washed." Here, Sara Connell tells her inspiring story to Yahoo Parenting's Rachel Bertsche.
My son turned 4 earlier this month. He loves music — he’s on his drum set every day— so we had a rock party at a music venue near my house, complete with a kids concert and dancing and fake tattoos.
I’m sure every family loves celebrating their children’s birthdays, but my husband and I always feel especially grateful this time of year. We’re reminded that, no matter what presents little Finn gets, February 9 will always be the day we got the best gift of all.
Starting a family didn’t come easily to Bill and me. We went through six full IVF cycles. Eventually I got pregnant, with twins, but they were stillborn after I went into premature labor. Then I had a miscarriage. It was a painful, traumatic time.
During that process, I learned I couldn’t safely carry a pregnancy. Determined to create a family, Bill and I started to consider surrogacy. But before we could get as far as to screen potential carriers, my 60-year-old mother made an extraordinary offer: She could carry my baby.
It came as a shock, but ultimately Bill and I accepted this incredible gift. My mother safely carried our son to term, and, at 61, she became the oldest woman ever to give birth in Illinois. I documented the entire experience in a memoir, Bringing in Finn, which was published in 2012.
Finn and his grandmother, who was also the family’s surrogate.
Since I decided to write a book about our journey, I’ve known for some time that I would one day explain to Finn how our family came to be. Certainly, when we first found out the pregnancy took, there was a part of me that wondered if maybe we shouldn’t tell him, because I wouldn’t want him to feel abnormal in any way. But as quickly as that thought came, I realized it wouldn’t serve anyone to keep secrets. We want to treat this as the way he arrived — a miracle our family received. It’s not something to hide, it’s something to celebrate.
At this stage, we don’t have a lot of conversations with Finn about how he got here. Our intention is to broach it when he starts to bring up the “where do babies come from?” questions. In our case, of course, the conversation will look a little different than it does for most families. Instead of saying that the mommy and daddy come together and mommy carries the baby in her tummy, we’ll add that sometimes mommy needs a helper. Of course, he won’t be able to understand this in terms of reproductivity until he’s much older – and maybe that “helper” language won’t mean much – but at least as he ages and understands more, none of it will be brand new. We don’t want to have a grand “let’s sit down and have a big talk about this” moment, we just want to make it part of the natural discussion.
My hope is that no matter what feelings Finn has about our experience, he feels supported and heard. Ultimately our hope is that he sees it as the story of how he got here — not who he is as a person.
The truth is, by the time Finn is a teenager, I’m not sure his story will be so unusual. More and more people are doing family surrogacies these days. I’ve heard from mothers, daughters, sisters-in-law, and cousins, all of whom are in similar situations. I’m grateful for that, because now when Finn is searching online for information at 16, he won’t be the only one. Today, one in six births are assisted — between egg donor and IVF and sperm donors and surrogates — so I think this will continue to be normalized.
Still, I get that to have been carried in grandma’s tummy is a pretty amazing thing. Every time I tell someone, I remember just how incredible it really is. And what’s perhaps most incredible is that after all this happened, we’re just like any other family. People ask my mother all the time if there’s this special connection between her and Finn. They think there must be some psychic bond. But the reality is that my mother’s hope in carrying Finn was to be a grandmother. She didn’t want to be a second mother, or give birth to a child so she could have a deeper bond with him. Yes, Finn and my mother are very close. But she’s equally as close with her two other grandchildren, who were born in the years since. And Finn adores my mother, but he adores my dad, too.
My mom and I, on the other hand, are closer than ever, even four years later. We weren’t always close, but today our connection is deeper because of what we shared. And, even outside of the actual pregnancy factor, I think the entire experience liberated and empowered her in a way she didn’t expect. She isn’t scared of anything anymore. She doesn’t care what people think of her. And this is a woman who, by her own admission, is very conventional. She’s always conformed, right down to what she wore. So to see her in retirement age feeling so alive and passionate, I’m so inspired.
As for our next chapter, people always ask if we’re going to have another baby. The answer is… maybe. We’re in such ecstasy with Finn, and my husband and I love kids so much that we would love to have more. Six months ago, I learned about a procedure called a transabdominal cerclage, which corrects for the cervical problems that made me unable to carry. It involves placing bands around the cervix that prevent pre-term labor and reduce the chance of miscarriage. It turns out the most proficient surgeon who does this is at the University of Chicago, so I had the procedure two months ago. Now, if we did get pregnant, I feel confident that I could carry the pregnancy. To go from “this wouldn’t be safe” to “if I get pregnant, great” is a huge thing. But we feel complete as a family. There’s nothing lacking, so now we feel like, if we have more kids, great. If we don’t, that’s great too. But we aren’t exploring other surrogates or doing fertility treatments at this time, so we’ll see.
People sometimes ask my mother if she’s going to carry for us again, and she always says, “well I never thought I would do it the first time so I guess I should never say never.” That’s how we feel about our future. We never expected to have our family come together the way it did, so who knows what will come next.