May 30, 2015

Surrogate mother denied custody after giving up her daughter

Anguish: Wendy Reid, pictured, was denied custody after giving up her daughterNewborn: The surrogate baby girl when she was born in 2013 - her mother was paid £7,000 over nine months 

Throughout her pregnancy, surrogate mother Wendy Reid had been resolute: she was doing the right thing. After all, what greater gift could she give a childless woman than a baby?

In a world where the rules and players in the process of parenthood are growing ever-more complicated and varied, it’s a line we’re hearing frequently, as women happily ‘rent out’ their bodies to infertile and gay couples.

Recent examples include a mother giving birth to a baby for her gay son, and a daughter carrying her own ‘sister’ for her mother and new husband. The families insisted the arrangements worked brilliantly for all concerned.

Yet no matter how many times one reads these stories, a nagging question always remains: how could any woman hand over a child they gave birth to? And the most uncomfortable question of all: what happens if the woman changes her mind?

Sadly, that is what happened to Wendy. The repercussions were catastrophic, destroying her relationship and leaving an innocent baby — her own biological daughter — to be raised by adoptive parents, with no idea of who she is. Despite the rising popularity of surrogacy — figures from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service show that there were 167 surrogate babies born in the UK last year, more than triple the 47 born in 2007 — it remains an unregulated practice in this country.

Agreements between couples and their surrogates are made entirely on trust, often between virtual strangers, with obvious potentially disastrous pitfalls.

Two months ago, Wendy, 28, lost an appeal against a court decision to place her now two-year-old daughter with another family. She may never see her again: ‘Losing her has been agony, just traumatic. The thought that she is being brought up by a couple of strangers and not her blood family is torture. I won’t ever come to terms with it.’

Wendy, who already had Lucy, five, decided to become a surrogate in July 2012. A former administrator, she says: ‘I remember reading about a woman who’d had a longed-for child through a surrogate and felt overwhelmed with emotion. I adored having Lucy and began thinking how terrible it must be for couples who can’t have a child.

‘We’d planned to add to our family, but I thought it would be wonderful to have a baby for a couple who couldn’t have children first.’

Wendy broached the subject with her partner, James, 23, and the couple discussed the possible strain on their family life, as well as the health implications for Wendy, before deciding to go ahead.

‘He felt the same way as me,’ Wendy says.

After registering her details with a reputable surrogacy website, where couples can advertise for surrogates and vice versa, Wendy, who lives in the north of England, was delighted when just a few days later she was contacted by Jane and William, a couple in their 40s.

‘They were desperate to have a baby,’ she says. ‘Jane told me health problems meant she’d had to have a hysterectomy and so had missed out on having a family. My heart went out to them.’

Obviously this meant Wendy would have to use her own eggs and would be biologically related to any baby that was born. But after careful thought, and moved by the couple’s apparently desperate situation, she chose to go ahead.

‘Every month, when a woman goes through her cycle, an egg is wasted — I felt I would be giving life to an egg that would otherwise not have life and James agreed,’ she concluded.

Over the next four weeks the couples chatted regularly online and on the phone, eventually deciding to meet.

‘They came to meet us at our home,’ she recalls. ‘I was relieved when I opened the door to see a smartly dressed couple. They said they both had professional jobs in management, and reassured us they had no criminal record or financial worries.

‘We all got on incredibly well and they just seemed so genuine and down-to-earth, it felt as if we’d been friends for years. We even shared the same sense of humour. James and I both felt a connection with them and I couldn’t wait to have their baby.’

While it’s illegal in the UK to pay a woman to have a baby, reasonable expenses are allowed to cover maternity outlays and the couple insisted on paying Wendy £7,000 spread over nine months because she would have to take time off work for midwife appointments and scans, and buy maternity clothes.

At the same time, the couple also agreed to Wendy’s wish to see the child weekly as she grew up.

‘As surrogacy contracts aren’t legally enforceable, we agreed everything verbally on trust,’ she says.

Swept up in the excitement of helping the couple realise their dream, events then moved fast, something Wendy now regrets.

As it was, two weeks later Wendy worked out she was at the most fertile time in her cycle and arranged to meet the couple at a nearby hotel.

She says: ‘Over the next three days I artificially inseminated myself with William’s sperm using a syringe designed for giving a child medicine. I was delighted when I got pregnant immediately and announced the news by sending them a photo of my positive pregnancy test.’

Apart from morning sickness the pregnancy was straightforward.

‘The wife came to all my scans and seemed genuinely thrilled when she saw the baby kicking,’ she says.

‘We spoke every day and I saw them at least once a month. I even went to stay with them for a week so they could spoil me and give me a rest, and I saw nothing that suggested they weren’t genuine.

‘At the time, even though this was biologically my child, I didn’t have any maternal feelings towards it. I always knew I was having a baby for this couple.’

By January 2013 a scan revealed Wendy was having a baby girl. Wendy says: ‘They were both over the moon about having a daughter.’

That May Wendy went into labour. A midwife rang the couple and the woman joined her in the delivery room. After six hours Emily was born weighing a healthy 8lb. Wendy says: ‘I was so proud I’d produced such a bonny baby. As she held her, the look on the woman’s face was incredible and I could see she was overjoyed.

‘I didn’t want to hold Emily as I didn’t want to bond with her. But she kept crying and in the end I said, “Put her on my chest” as I remembered Lucy being comforted by that as a newborn.’

It was then, as the midwife laid Emily onto Wendy, she was hit by an overwhelming feeling of maternal love for the baby girl — and the first pangs of uncertainty about handing her over to her new ‘mum’ began to stir.

‘I looked down at her and she immediately quietened. She seemed so vulnerable and beautiful. The rush of feelings for her came out of the blue. It was a terrible shock and I desperately told myself, “This is not your baby.” I knew I had to leave the hospital and get away as I was bonding with her.’

Within four hours Wendy had discharged herself and, after giving Emily a kiss, left her in the arms of her new ‘mother’. She says: ‘James took me home. I felt upset, but put it down to exhaustion and quickly went to sleep.’

The next day Wendy woke panic-stricken. ‘An enormous feeling of loss immediately struck me. My whole body ached for Emily and I couldn’t wait to see her again.’

She and James went back to the hospital to say their final goodbyes. She recalls: ‘I walked into the side room where the woman was holding Emily. I longed to sweep her into my arms and cuddle her.

‘The only thing that stopped me from wrenching Emily from them was seeing them so besotted with her.’

James carried baby Emily outside where Wendy gave her a final hug and her new parents strapped her into a car seat.

She says: ‘As soon as I got home I felt sick with grief. I rushed to the bathroom where I broke down in huge breathless sobs. Eventually, I allowed James in and he said over and over, “You had this baby for another couple and you will have to live with it.”

‘He wasn’t being cruel. He was simply stating the facts. I knew he was right. I had made my choice. I reassured myself they were great parents, reminding myself how happy they looked at the hospital.’

Over the next few days Wendy expressed milk for Emily. She says: ‘We’d arranged that I would do this for six months and they would pick up the milk every couple of days.’

Two days later the couple arrived with Emily and Wendy couldn’t help herself — rushing out of the house to scoop the baby out of her car seat because she was so desperate to hold her.

The next four weeks were a struggle. Wendy clung onto the pre-arranged weekly meetings, as agreed at the start of the surrogacy process.

‘The meetings when they would bring Emily to see me was all I could think about,’ says Wendy. ‘The longing to see her was painful.’

Far worse was to come, however. Three weeks later, Wendy met the couple to discuss the final adoption arrangements, and was horrified by what she saw.

‘Emily had socks on that were too tight around her ankles,’ she says. ‘Her nappy was dirty and she seemed ravenously hungry — when I gave her a bottle she couldn’t gulp down the milk fast enough. ‘She always seemed to be hungry. I’d pick her up and she’d root around for milk, even though they assured me she’d only just been fed.

‘I began texting, reminding them to ensure she was fed properly. I became obsessed that her nappy wasn’t being changed often enough.’

Then one day, five weeks later, when the couple didn’t reply to a text, Wendy began to panic.

‘I was in such a state I even rang the police to check they were OK — that their car hadn’t been involved in an accident. When the officer asked why I was so concerned, I replied, “Because they have my biological daughter.” ’

The next day she received a text from the couple saying they no longer wanted her to contact them.

By now Wendy had received the legal order she was due to sign, legally transferring parental rights over Emily to them.

But she refused to sign it, instead launching a bid for custody. A social worker was assigned to the case to carry out reports. And what was uncovered about the couple was truly shocking.

Instead of the childless couple they’d pretended to be, social services discovered they were in fact already parents to three children, now grown up, who’d been taken into care more than 20 years ago.

‘They’d lied to us with sob stories,’ Wendy says. ‘She hadn’t even had a hysterectomy. It was an utter bombshell, as we’d trusted them implicitly.

‘We were horrified, but the only upside was that it left James and me certain Emily would be returned to us. Although he wasn’t her biological father, James wanted her back, too.’

Nothing could have prepared Wendy for the court judgment in June 2014; she was denied custody.

She says: ‘Social services claimed that because I’d given up Emily at birth I had a lack of emotional attachment to her.’

They also used the fact that because Wendy had excitedly talked to Lucy about her sister, and put photos up in the house of her, that she had ‘emotionally neglected’ her older daughter — a black mark against her character which ultimately led to her being ruled as unsuitable to raise her new baby.

The other couple were also not judged as suitable and so it was ordered Emily should be adopted by strangers.

Wendy fled from the court in tears. She says: ‘I couldn’t believe their reasoning — especially after I’d done so much to try to get Emily back.’

Wendy has undoubtedly paid a high price for her altruism in trying to help another couple.

The custody bid, and the subsequent appeal, cost her thousands, wiping out her savings.

And the stress of the legal battle also cost Wendy her relationship with James; this January, they split up. Then, in March, Wendy’s appeal was turned down.

Not surprisingly, Wendy has very strong advice for anyone contemplating becoming a surrogate. ‘While I can never regret bringing such a wonderful baby into the world, I do regret being a surrogate,’ she says. ‘Women should consider it very carefully before they go ahead.

‘Even if you are giving birth to a child that is not biologically yours, there is still likely to be a bond.

‘I now don’t understand how any mother can give up a child she has given birth to whether they are biologically related or not.’

As it is, all Wendy is left with are her memories, a handful of photos and some baby clothes. She is determined that Emily will know how desperately she fought for her.

She says: ‘I have some unwashed clothes that belonged to Emily and find comfort in holding them close to me as they still have her smell. Otherwise I cope by telling myself Emily’s been given to a family who want her very much.

‘And I console myself that I will see her again — when she is 18, she will be able to trace me.

‘Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her.’