There are some experiences in life that can’t be shared. To date, pregnancy has always been one of them. A straightforward enterprise from conception to delivery, pregnancy has always been a solo experience.
But thanks to modern science, would-be mothers desperate to have their own child but unable to because of complications that prevent it, now have new hope that no previous generation possessed.
Irish American mother Sara Connell, 35, knows all about it. In 2004 she and her husband decided to start a family, but they soon learned that she wasn’t ovulating. It was the start of a journey that would transform their lives, which she tells in her emotional new book, Bringing in Finn: An Extraordinary Surrogacy Story (Seal Press).
“Like people who are married a few years often do, my husband and I wanted to raise a family,” Connell tells the Irish Voice. But when Sara learned of the steep challenges ahead of them, both she and her husband refused to back down.
“I am very much into holistic and natural health approaches, yoga, reflexology and other options to aid conception,” she reveals. “But it became clear to us we would need more western medical help getting pregnant and we were open to that.”
Connell and her husband moved on to assisted fertility treatment therapy, then to hormone treatment therapy and then finally to in vitro fertilization. That’s when they finally got pregnant. (And Connell says “we” got pregnant, not I, to remind anyone listening that it is a shared endeavor, after all).
“We got pregnant in 2007. It began as a glorious pregnancy and we found out we were having twin boys. We were delighted. We were choosing Irish names for them too, as it happens,” she reveals.
But five and a half months into the pregnancy Connell went into premature labor. Tragically, it was just on wrong side of the timeline that would have allowed the twins to survive.
“The babies were stillborn. That was really tough. We really had to take some time to recover from that experience,” Connell recalls.
Connell reveals that she felt ashamed and scared. She felt she had somehow failed too, and most of all she felt the social pressure not to talk about it for fear of upsetting others. It was a stifling experience until something in her decided to break the silence.
“Slowly I discovered how powerful it can be when other people share that they have gone through similar experiences. That way they feel less alone. That lesson was powerfully uplifting to me,” Connell says.
A year later in 2008 the couple got pregnant again through in vitro fertilization. This time at about six weeks Connell had a miscarriage.
“It was another loss. We tried a few more times to get pregnant and couldn’t and we really started to feel really in despair about how we would ever have a family,” Connell says.
That’s when Connell’s mother Kristine Casey entered the picture with a dramatic offer. “My husband and I were in this period of taking a break. The process of financing our fertility efforts took a big toll and we were working to raise the finances to try again,” she says.
“During this time my mother and I would talk about what she wanted to do in her retirement. She found out about this post-menopausal woman who had a baby late in life and an idea started to form in her mind. She came to us with her offer and we had never imagined a situation like this. The oldest woman we had heard of giving birth was 51.”
But the timing was right, and the offer was sincere.
“The moment, as crazy as it sounds, made me fall to my knees. I was so touched and grateful for her generosity. Something in me felt like this door opened that had never been opened before,” she says.
The pregnancy opened up Connell’s eyes to what she calls the miraculousness of life. “Crazy as it sounds, there are ways beyond what we ever can imagine for the desires and callings of our hearts to happen.”
In the in vitro fertilization process an egg from Connell and sperm from her husband created the embryo, making them the biological parents. Genetically and in every other way the child was 100 percent theirs. That embryo was then transferred to Casey, Sara’s own mother. Technically, Casey is called a gestational carrier, since she provides no biological maternal element of her own.
“My mother joked that she was babysitting nine months early,” Connell laughs. “She’s a funny lady with a dry sense of humor. ‘A lot of grandparents get very involved when the baby is born,’ my mother said, ‘but I started before them.’”
Both mother and daughter used humor to diffuse their anxieties about what was happening. There’s no denying that 61 is late in the day for a pregnancy of any kind, and both had serious health concerns.
“It was a funny sounding ridiculous situation that we found ourselves in and we used humor to deal with it. Of course we knew that some people would say, ‘What on earth are you doing?’”
Casey carried the baby for the rest of the pregnancy and ended up having a Cesarean after 36 hours of light labor. “She didn’t get any let up there in terms of maturity or experience, in other words,” Connell says.
But what about the naysayers who claim that what she and her mother did is unnatural, or those who object on some religious grounds?
“I’m sure I’ve judged other stories I’ve read that I didn’t know anything about,” offers Connell. “I’m really trying to not do that these days to the best of my ability. I’m a really big believer in honoring everyone’s right to say what they believe.
“But I really felt the love that this idea came with and it was something my mother wanted to do, help my husband and I to start a family. That kind of burns away other people’s opinions about it.
“We know this wouldn’t be the right choice for everyone. Some could see it as reckless or unhealthy. But it happened to feel right for us.”
Irish American by birth, Connell is proud of her heritage which is reflected in the name she chose for her son
“We chose the name Finn because I have always found a connection to my Irish roots. We just felt like we wanted to honor our Celtic heritage,” Connell says.
“The name came to me about six weeks into the pregnancy. I just felt it and I loved it, even before we knew were having a boy for sure.”
Connell reveals that her father is 100 percent Irish, and traces his ancestry back three generations to Co. Kerry.
“I’m half Irish and my mother is half Swedish and French so we’re a typical American mixture. Our son Finn is like a fifth Irish,” Connell says.
Regardless of how he came into the world, there is no question that Finn is loved and wanted.
“It truly is a gift,” Connell says. “We are really treasuring it. He’s just turned 19 months and he’s walking and running and learning words and he’s a happy child.”
Next on the agenda is bringing Finn to Ireland in 2013. “We really want to visit Ireland in the next year. The book looks like it will have U.K. distribution and we would love to visit our friends. We definitely want Finn to see the ancestral land,” says Connell. And then she beams like any proud mother.