The stereotype of the surrogate mother is a desperate woman living in poverty—strapped for cash, she makes her womb available to couples wealthy enough to afford the space. In America, surrogacy laws vary from state to state (in New York, for example, paid surrogacy is illegal). This leads to surrogacy tourism, in which prospective parents travel to conceive their child, either abroad or to states with more liberal laws.
But what motivates a woman to become a surrogate? Are there some women who genuinely relish being pregnant and the opportunity to create life for couples who can't do so on their own? We spoke to Dawn Marmorstein, the 32-year founder of the Los Angeles Surrogacy Center, about her experience as a surrogate mother for four different couples (she also has four kids of her own).
Broadly: How many times have you been pregnant?
Dawn Marmorstein: Eight. I got married when I was 18 to a man who was 40. We had our first baby pretty quickly. Then I had another two babies before I became a surrogate at 23.
Can you walk me through all your pregnancies?
I've been a surrogate four times and I have four kids of my own. My oldest was born in 2002, when I was 18. Then I had a daughter the following year and a son in 2005. I gave birth to my first surrogate child in 2006. In 2008 I had my second surrogate child and then another in 2010. In 2011 I had my last baby, a girl who is now three. My final surrogacy (and my final pregnancy) was another boy born in 2013. So I've been pregnant for most of my 20s and I delivered my last baby when I was 29 years old. All of my non-surrogate children share the same father—my husband, who is a legal worker—but we split up last November. He lives nearby and we have joint custody.
What was your childhood like?
I have a younger brother and my father passed away when I was 13. Both my parents worked in prisons. My dad was a correctional officer and my mother was an accountant. Dad was sick for about a week and we thought it was the flu. He got so bad my mom eventually took him to the hospital, where he passed away. It was undiagnosed pneumonia—he was stubborn and thought he could fight the illness himself without seeing a doctor. He was so strong and healthy; it was so sudden and surprising.
How was home after that?
My mom worked full time, so I was responsible for taking care of my brother after school and helping out with dinner. I babysat a lot and I remember holding my baby cousins and just wanting to be around them. I watched TV shows about surgery on The Learning Channel. I was really into that.
So, is your interest in the physical state of pregnancy or did you really like babies?
I was obsessed with both carrying and delivering a child. I had toy medical kits, and I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. The medical side of pregnancy—stats, doctors, midwives, and ultrasounds—fascinated me. I think it was about being in control of this new life and charting the growth process.
How did you feel when you first got pregnant?
I felt great. My breasts were really large and tender, and I felt so warm. I loved how my body looked and I felt like a complete person. I had a waist but I didn't have hips so those parts of me that were lacking became fuller.
Do you think it made you feel more feminine?
It probably did. I'd always thought that my breasts were a weird shape and then when I was pregnant it all filled out, like it was supposed to be. But, mostly, I was obsessed with the movement and the idea that something was growing inside me.
I was obsessed with the movement and the idea that something was growing inside me.
How did your first surrogacy come about?
I first learned about it online when I was 19 but I wasn't old enough, so my husband and I discussed until I was 22 and had just given birth to my second child. Then we put an advertisement on a message board.
How did you decide whom you'd carry for?
I had a list of criteria. None of it had to do with sexual orientation or race: We wanted someone who earned an average or above-average income. The main thing was that they were educated and that they wanted a child for a good reason, not just as a belonging. It took about 5 months before we finally got an email from a man we instantly connected with. He was a single, gay Rabbi from Seattle. A lot of the responses we received were from people who seemed to think they were better [than the other applicants] because they were heterosexual Christian couples. I didn't like that tone.
This guy's email was very bold. He said I'm gay and Jewish and if you aren't looking for that I'm not for you. I also felt comfortable because I have a lot of gay friends and my husband is Jewish. Also, he already had a child with a surrogate. He knew how it works.
How was the baby conceived?
Artificial insemination. It only took two attempts. I delivered a healthy girl full-term. The pregnancy was pretty uneventful, but we had a little issue with social services when she was born. We'd opted to do an induction so the dad could be there. When I told the nurse I was a surrogate, she asked what I meant and her tone was quite intrusive. Then the recipient showed up, which encouraged her even more. The nurses were gossiping about the fact that I was carrying this gay man's baby (and this was in Santa Monica of all places!).
Once the baby came out, she was handed to me and then I immediately handed her to the recipient. Later, social services showed up asking if we were trying to cover up an affair. The recipient was so upset that he had to leave the room. Then the social worker said how beautiful the baby was and [told me] I didn't have to give her away. She left me a card telling me to let her know if I changed my mind, I'll "help you keep your baby," she said.
During pregnancy had you worried about the moment you would have to hand the baby over?
There was a lot of mental prepping because I knew that the child wasn't coming home with me. Before I was due I went to the hospital, where a friend had just delivered, so I could hold her baby to make sure I could put it down. Later, I told my husband that I held this baby and it was so cute and it smelled great and I was able to let it go, and he said, "Yes, but that's not your baby." I remember the last hugs were a little emotional for me and the recipient.
The nurses were gossiping about the fact that I was carrying this gay man's baby (and this was in Santa Monica of all places!)
What was your second surrogacy like?
I carried for a gay couple from LA: a nurse and another Rabbi. I was pregnant on the first attempt. I was a bit concerned because they lived so close, but they were very respectful and they kept their distance. One of the parents was in New Zealand for work and the baby was induced so the partner could be there. He was born the day beforeThanksgiving. It was difficult being alone in the hospital on a holiday. They moved to New Zealand shortly after the birth.
So you've been a surrogate for two gay Rabbis?
And the third surrogacy?
This was a heterosexual couple from Canada, and it was also a traditional surrogacy. The father was a dentist and the mother was a teacher. It was a very different experience. It was businesslike. We'd only talk after doctor's appointments. They visited me twice during the pregnancy, once for the 20-week ultrasound where we found out the baby's sex, and then onceright before delivery.
How was your final surrogacy?
It was a very involved process. I had to self-administer hormonal shots. I'm scared of needles so I struggled with that, especially because I had to do it in the upper rear. I'd bend over the bathroom cabinet and my husband would inject me. I also had to do a lot of travel for monitoring appointments. I really wasn't sure if could go through it all again if it wasn't successful on the first attempt. That was my last surrogacy and my last pregnancy.
How did that delivery go?
I suffered a placental abruption at home and within two hours the baby was born via emergency cesarean. The baby survived, which was amazing.
I imagine that was scary and painful?
It was. The placenta tore from the uterine wall. I was having some strange stomach pains, but I thought I'd eaten too much BBQ. I went to the bathroom and I heard something pop. I thought my water had broken but then I saw blood everywhere. It was horrible. I was 36 weeks and one day, so we were almost to term. He's two years old now.
Do you think that will be your last pregnancy?
I'm not interested in carrying again. I've had a tubectomy, and I know another pregnancy wouldn't be good for my body or the health of the child. Even if a doctor told me it would be safe I think it's irresponsible. And it was traumatic facing the prospect that the baby might not make it.
How much did you get paid for each pregnancy?
The first one I made $16,000, but they also bought me maternity clothes. For the second and third I made about $20,000 and $30,000 for the last.
Do you feel like you were compensated adequately?
At the time, yes. It wasn't until I started working for an agency that I realized how much money surrogates can make. But still, I didn't feel right about asking for too much. It was a double bind: I wanted to work with a set of parents who were financially stable and I didn't want someone who wanted to take advantage and pay nothing, but I didn't want someone who would just throw money at the situation.
What's it like carrying a baby you know you won't be keeping? Did you see it as paid work?
I felt like I was doing a good service for somebody who couldn't do it on their own, but I never thought of it as a job. I stayed detached from the beginning—I'd always refer to the baby as their baby, not mine. But I do think the gestational surrogacy was easier because we aren't biologically related. I saw my first surrogate child for the first time since she was a baby two years ago; she was six. I'd always blocked out that she's my child, but she shared my features and some personality traits. But it was great to spend time with her and to see how much she was adored. There was never a question that I made the right choice.
Did you feel a strong connection to her, given that she was your first surrogate child?
I don't feel the same connection to any of my surrogate kids as I do with my own children. I don't know if it will come down the road or if it ever will. I guess it just depends on what happens they are adults and can decide what sort of relationship they want to have with me. It's hard to be attached to someone you don't see on a day-to-day basis - I think that contact and nurturing is even more important than genetics.
Do you know your surrogate children's birthdays and where they are?
I'm not good with birthdays but I know where they live. I'm friends with all of them on Facebook, except the Canadian couple, so I see photos and videos. I just distantly watch.
So, what were your 20s like, given that you were married and pretty much constantly pregnant?
I wasn't drinking or smoking or doing any of that stuff, but I was a stay at home mom and my husband was always very supportive and involved in all of my pregnancies. I was joking with a colleague the other day and she said well if you weren't a surrogate you'd probably have eight kids of your own! It didn't hold us back when it came to sex. Until I had my tubes tied, nothing really worked. We had tried a number of things and my husband didn't want to get a vasectomy—most men don't.
I felt like I was doing a good service for somebody who couldn't do it on their own.
How hardcore were you about diet and lifestyle when you were pregnant?
I never consumed alcohol and I was very good about avoiding foods like oysters, but I love sushi. I remember telling the first recipient I'll cut out everything except for sushi and he said, "Well, if you told me you weren't going to stop smoking meth I might have a problem but I'm ok with sushi." I was probably even more paranoid when I was a surrogate than I was with my own children, because somebody else would have to deal with the consequences. There was a lot of overprotectiveness.
Have all your pregnancies taken a physical toll on your body?
I'm healthy but I carry my weight on my stomach, and it's definitely droopier than it would be if I hadn't been pregnant so many times.
Is it strange now that you've started menstruating again?
It's such an annoyance. I was lucky to miss out on it for a long time. I'm ready for menopause, to be honest.
What do you think about the idea of pregnancy addiction? It seems like that's how the media usually frames women who have been a surrogate more than once. Do you think that's a real thing?
I know there's that couple who have had 19 kids and, yeah, in my mind they might be addicted to pregnancy, but I don't know if that's the right term to apply to surrogate mothers. I think a surrogate is someone who gets pregnant easily and enjoys being pregnant. They want to share that with somebody else.
Do you think that people understand surrogacy? Do you find that it's judged?
I don't think people understand it, and I think it makes them very uncomfortable. One of the main critiques is that it turns women's bodies into commodities. And some people think women just do it for the money. Of course some are motivated by money, but that's not always the case. There's a lot of misunderstanding about who is in charge. People question everyone's motives.
What's your favorite thing about being pregnant?
The way that my body changes, and the movement of the baby. But it's those minutes after birth that you really can't beat, even as a surrogate. The build up to the moment you push a child into the world. Everyone is so excited and emotional. You finally see the baby and hear it cry, and then you hold it. Babies are so sweet. They have that brand new skin and they are so relaxed and docile.
When you sit back and think, "Well, I'm not having any more babies and I'll never be pregnant again," how do you feel?
I'm pretty content with the decision. I want to do more with my life. I'm about to finish my bachelor's degree and then I plan to go to grad school to study public health. I don't know how I'll feel when I'm 40 and I have that empty nest. I definitely want all my kids to go to college, so grandchildren are probably years away. I still get that cuddly feeling when I see babies. Even though I'm done with it, there have been times when I've thought about freezing my eggs. I might do it before I turn 35, just in case.