Anna Stewart of Benwood always wondered what it was like for her birth mother, who gave her up for adoption at age 15.
"She didn't have to do it. She could have had an abortion. I am grateful to her," said Stewart. Her adopted parents also are thankful for receiving the gift of a daughter to call their own.
Stewart nearly discovered firsthand what her mother went through when, at age 17, she became pregnant. She briefly considered giving him up. But with the baby being the "only blood" she knew in the world, she couldn't do it. The daughter of a pastor and a teacher, she said she sacrificed a full-ride scholarship to Dallas Baptist University when she became a teen mom. "I'm glad I kept him," she said.
Six years later, she finally found a way to "give back" for the chance at life her birth mother gave her.
She became a surrogate mother.
Journey to Surrogacy
Growing Generations Celebrity Clients
Surrogacy has become more common in Hollywood in recent years as several celebrities have used the method to grow their families. Among those who reported they used Growing Generations are:
- Actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick (whose twins were born in 2009 at East Ohio Regional Hospital in Martins Ferry)
- Actor Neil Patrick Harris and partner David Burtka
- "30 Rock" director Todd Holland and partner, actor
Scotch Ellis Loring
Stewart sits at a table in the Upper Market House in Wheeling, calmly answering intimate questions about the surrogacy process, about her children, her job, her choices. She is soft-spoken and composed, with dark hair cropped to her shoulders, almond-shaped brown eyes and a big, warm smile.
The native Texan moved to the Ohio Valley seven months ago to take a job with Growing Generations, the largest surrogacy and egg donation agency in the U.S. The company is based in Los Angeles but has an office in Wheeling and just opened a location in New York City. Growing Generations is the agency through which Stewart was a surrogate in 2006-07. She is now a client development specialist in the Wheeling office, helping other potential surrogates through the application and screening process.
At the time she decided to pursue surrogacy, Stewart was 23 years old and a stay-at-home mom of a 6-year-old boy, Kendal, and a 9-month-old girl, Mikayla, in Houston. Her second husband (she was briefly married to her first husband, Kendal's father) was employed in the information technology field.
Having friends in the gay community - including her son's paternal grandmother - she felt drawn to help that segment of the population. Stewart began researching surrogacy online and particularly liked Growing Generations for many reasons, including the fact that the majority of its clients are male gay couples.
Stewart found it gratifying, the idea of being a "vessel" to bring the joys of parenthood to a couple who would otherwise not be able to have children of their own. She approached her husband, Nick, with the idea, and he supported it.
She felt physically capable for the job. "I liked being pregnant. I've had good pregnancies," she said. Emotionally, she also felt fit for the task.
"To me, it wasn't hard," she said of the surrogacy. One reason she felt that way was because it was a gestational surrogacy - the only type the agency practices. With a gestational surrogacy, the eggs are donated by a different woman, as opposed to a traditional surrogacy, which uses the surrogate's own eggs.
"It's a protection for you. ... I came into the mindset that I am the carrier, I'm the incubator. ... I was happy making a family. That, to me, was cool."
Who Can Be a Surrogate?
Not relying simply on a candidate's own feelings, Growing Generations puts potential egg donors and surrogates through an extensive medical and psychological screening process to ensure they are ideal candidates. First, they fill out an online application. If it is accepted, they do a phone interview with Stewart or one of her colleagues in the Wheeling office. If they pass that level, they fill out a personal profile and then go for medical and psychological testing in Los Angeles. If they make it through that step, they are put on a list to be matched.
Stewart said Growing Generations requires surrogates to, among other restrictions, already be mothers and have custody of their children; have lived in the same place for more than a year; be in a monogamous relationship (if in a relationship at all); and not be on any sort of federal aid, including food stamps. They can't have had any complications during previous pregnancies. Partners are also screened to ensure they support the process.
"If a mom's not willing to go the extra mile to take care of their own family, why would they go the extra mile for someone else's?" Stewart said.
The screening is so rigorous, according to Growing Generations president Teo Martinez, that less than 1 percent of all applicants become surrogates.
The agency serves clients (parents) in more than 30 countries, Martinez said in an email interview. On May 7, it "welcomed its 1,030th baby through surrogacy." Clients pay $115,000-$175,000 to become parents through Growing Generations, according to the website, www.growinggenerations.com. The fee covers everything from travel and legal expenses; to surrogate and egg donor compensation; to medication, health insurance and life insurance.
Surrogates come from many different states, but in some states surrogacy is illegal, including New York, Michigan, Indiana and the District of Columbia. In other states, it is legal only if it is unpaid. Some state laws prohibit surrogacy if intended for gay couples. Still others, such as West Virginia, have no laws on the subject, or in the cases of Pennsylvania and Ohio, have ambiguous or undecided laws.
Stewart said all surrogate recruitment initiates in the Wheeling office and some surrogate and intended parent match meetings take place here, as well as in Los Angeles. Case workers for the matched teams also operate out of the Wheeling office. Stewart said that about 5 percent to 10 percent of the agency's egg donors and surrogates hail from the Ohio Valley.
Asked why the agency chose Wheeling as a hub, Martinez said it was a natural progression after two former surrogates living in the Ohio Valley (not Stewart) became employees.
"We leased an office space in downtown Wheeling and set up shop. We fell in love with Wheeling and the people and it just seemed a good fit for us to expand Growing Generations on the east coast," Martinez said in an email interview. Stewart added easy access to the Pittsburgh International Airport and the low cost of doing business here also were factors.
The Arrival of the Twins
Stewart said Growing Generations is known for taking good care of its surrogates. When she and Nick were flown from Houston to Los Angeles for the medical and psychological testing, they were treated "like a king and queen" - met at the airport by a stretch limo and put up overnight in the Hotel Bel Air.
"As a surrogate, everything worked seamlessly," she said. "Everything worked the way, thankfully, it was supposed to." Although she was put on bed rest at 13 weeks and her husband had to quit his IT job to help care for her, Kendal and Mikayla. In addition, she was paid about $2,000 a month throughout the pregnancy, and all her health care was provided through the agency's health insurance plan, paid for by the intended parents. After delivery, she received a lump sum of about $8,000. The total remuneration for a first-time surrogate is usually around $25,000, she said. Repeat surrogates receive a higher rate. Growing Generations has a cutoff of six pregnancies and three C-sections.
On Jan. 23, 2007, after 33 weeks of pregnancy, Stewart naturally delivered 5-pound twins Dan and Leah. Parents Brad and Doug arrived from Australia soon after and rented an apartment nearby for about a month until completing the paperwork and legalities that allowed them to take their children home to Australia.
Afterward, "I felt sad because I missed being pregnant," Stewart said. "I was sad because I wish they could have been in there a little longer."
But a few months after the twins were born, Stewart found out she was pregnant again. Katelyn was born in December 2007. Two years later, Stewart considered being a surrogate again, but because she had been on bed rest with the twins, she was disqualified.
Life went on in Houston for the couple, and as their three children grew- Kendal from Anna's first marriage, and Mikayla and Katelyn from her second. Because the surrogacy and adoption were completely open, the family kept in touch with Brad, Doug and the twins in Australia, exchanging pictures, sending cards and gifts on birthdays and Christmas, talking on Facebook and occasionally on the phone. Stewart said they likely will be in touch today for Mother's Day. And they are planning a visit to the States in July.
"We love them, but we are like their aunt and uncle," Anna Stewart said. "I love them, care for them, want the best for them, but I'm not the mother."
She's proud of the role she played in their lives.
"My big thing is, I can tell my kids that I did what I feel was right. And I'm not ashamed to tell anybody."
Last year while still living in Houston, Stewart was reading through a Growing Generations e-newsletter when she happened upon a job opening in the Wheeling office. She had been a stay-at-home mom for seven years but when she saw the ad, she felt inspired to inquire. Within two weeks of interviewing, she landed the job and moved her family to the Ohio Valley in October. Kendal, now 11, stayed in Texas with Stewart's mother and near his biological father, per an agreement made during the divorce that his dad would take care of him during his middle school years.
Now Nick Stewart is a stay-at-home dad for Mikayla, 6, and Katelyn, 4. He loves to knit, and he does nearly all the cooking, laundry and running of the kids back and forth to school.
"I love it," Anna Stewart said of working here. "Wheeling really is the friendly city."
"It completes me, knowing I'm doing something I really enjoy doing and I get to live it every day," she added. "If I had to go back to the workforce, I'd rather go in doing something I love than go in doing a mediocre job. I love it. I really love it."