Shortly after Denise Maher gave birth to a boy for another couple, she sat down in her hospital room when nobody was around, fed the baby and told him what was on her mind:
"I told him that in years to come, when he was older, he would understand how he was conceived and how much his parents wanted him and how much he is loved and that I do love him but he belongs to them. 'They are your parents. Not me. I just carried you for nine months and took care of you because your own mother couldn't.' I just told him how special he was. Because he is a very special baby."
A Need for Some Reassurance
Maher's "poignant story" is an "aberration in the surrogate mother world," said Hilary Hanafin, a staff psychotherapist at the Center for Surrogate Parenting Inc. in Beverly Hills. It is more typical of "birth mothers in the adoption world. Most of the surrogate mothers have a need to see the child and have some reassurance about the child, but rarely have they needed to have an outpouring of feeling toward the child. As a psychologist, I want to support that if it is needed and not support any denial. But still, as best I can tell, that is an aberration."
If most surrogate mothers believe it is all right to give up a child, why do they seem to work so hard at reinforcing that idea? And why are support groups such a necessary component of "successful" surrogate programs?
There is "going to be a percentage of surrogate mother cases that don't work--that's true of everything," Hanafin said. It's dangerous to believe that a surrogate has "bonded so fully with the couple she has no feelings for the child." Hanafin said the post-partum responses to the child vary tremendously. "Quite a few (surrogate mothers) genuinely and honestly say that they felt this child is for the couple, was only created because this couple wanted the child . . . and feel the child is (the couple's) morally and emotionally."
Maher, 24, of Lawndale, has two children of her own, a boy, Shawn, 5, and a girl, Heather, 3, and is adopting a 5-year-old niece, Rachel. Maher said she enjoys older kids but not babies. And she wants to be a surrogate mother again, she said. The couple for whom she had a child may want another, and even if they don't, "I'm hoping to do it again," she said. "I would like to wait at least one year to have my body back, though."
Her husband Kevin, 38, a Viet Nam veteran and maintenance mechanic, said: "I'll be truthful--when we first got into it, it was for the money. But after I saw our couple, and when the baby was delivered, and to see how happy they were. . . . Well, if we didn't get paid, that would be fine, too."
The Children Take It Well
Her children, Denise Maher said, talk more about the receiving couple than the baby. "I had a girlfriend come over. . . . Her son is my daughter's age, 5 years old. He hadn't been to the house for awhile and said, 'Where's your baby?' My son said, 'Oh, that was for someone else. Let's go out and play.' "
The "Whitehead Syndrome," the Mahers' term for the unnecessary complications that result from a woman entering a surrogate contract without sufficient guidance, can be avoided, they said.
"I couldn't have done it without the counseling," said Denise, a high school graduate who works as a baby sitter during the week and a cocktail waitress on weekends.
The money from the surrogate birth will help the family buy a new house, her husband said.
"The money definitely is nice," his wife agreed. But she says she told the couple for whom she had the child: "If you don't have the money to give me, I would do it anyway. I wish I could do it a million times."