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An Our Story Session: Stacy and the struggle for Eliana

A year ago I photographed my very first Our Story session. Stacy’s story is an emotional tale of infertility, surrogacy, adoption, loss, and perseverance. Unfortunately, due to laws protecting the identity of a child before an adoption is finalized, I have been unable to share it with you until now.

I’m happy to say that that Stacy is now officially the mom of not only one but two beautiful little girls.  One of which, Eliana, is adopted and her second daughter born six months later by surrogate.

I share Stacy’s story with her permission here, interspersed with some of my favorite images captured at her home, celebrating the arrival of much-wanted and eagerly-anticipated Eliana.

This post is dedicated to every woman who has ever had to deal with the grief of infertility and miscarriage, including many of my own friends. My wish is that you read about Stacy’s struggle and realize that, at the very least, you are not alone.

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The story begins more than 8 years ago now as Stacy was feeling her biological clock tick. She was in a relationship but not one where she envisioned marriage and babies featuring in the future. Even so, her partner agreed to father a child with her and enter into a co-parenting arrangement. She wanted no financial or practical help in the long term, just someone to be the biological father.

Stacy got pregnant right away. “I was over the moon and thought that the sun was shining for the first time,” she recalls. And then, at 9 weeks, she miscarried.

That was just the beginning of a painful road of barriers and obstacles on her journey to motherhood.

There were many more miscarriages and many specialists. During the course of trying to conceive she found out that she had fibroids, elevated lupus antibodies, a clotting disorder, and finally adenomyosis (a uterine disease that necessitated a hysterectomy.)  At one point, she calculated that she had spent the majority of three years of her life pregnant, counting all the weeks she was miscarrying and waiting for her hormones to get back to normal.

Feeling at the end of the road in trying to carry her own child, she decided to explore surrogacy, first beginning by finding a traditional surrogate – a pregnancy where the surrogate is also the egg donor and biological mother. They found a woman who was willing to carry Stacy’s child and Stacy’s partner was the sperm donor.

3 days after Stacy’s triumphant baby shower, the surrogate messaged her to say that she was keeping the baby. She then left town and saddled Stacy’s partner with child support.

 

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Although they had a contract, it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to enforce in court and would have taken two or more years to resolve. By then the baby would have already bonded with the surrogate mom. Even if she had the money (which she did not) Stacy didn’t feel it was right to place the baby in the middle of a legal tug-of war.

“Starting back from square one was difficult,” she says.

Stacy decided to finally have her hysterectomy. The removal of her fibroids meant the specialists could view her ovaries more clearly. This gave her the opportunity to undergo two rounds of IVF retrieval, the results of which were 20 fertilized and frozen embryos. (After the legal mess with the traditional surrogate, she was using a sperm bank instead of her former partner at this point.) All of which put her back on the path of surrogacy, this time pursuing gestational surrogacy with her own, frozen embryos.

After finding surrogate number two, she hired a lawyer to produce an iron-right contract, having been burned so badly before. They did three transfers together, the first of which miscarried and the other two did not take. After the third, the surrogate mom’s health deteriorated and Stacy’s doctor recommended they part ways.

Not for the first time, Stacy saw her dreams of motherhood crushed. And she almost gave up, financially and emotionally depleted.

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But the universe had another plan. During her break she received a call from a friend who knew someone who was pregnant and considering adoption. Did she want to consider adopting the baby? Adoption wasn’t a road Stacy had explored yet but, at this point, she was open to anything. She involved an agency, financially supported the mom through the pregnancy and then… 3 days before the mom delivered, she backed out.

“I felt so burned!” Stacy recalls. “Both times I had finally felt brave enough to declare names. Both of them were girls and, at the urging of friends, I had shared the names at the baby shower.”

Stacy’s losses only compelled her to keep trying, going back to gestational surrogacy with another woman. At the time when I interviewed her, she had successfully conceived with that new surrogate, who was 12 weeks pregnant.

But the story doesn’t end there.

“Very shortly after I found out that my surrogate was pregnant, I got a call from a different friend of a friend saying that she was pregnant and considering adoption,” she says. “The caveat was that she was already 28 weeks pregnant and had only just realized. I told her that yes, I would take the baby!”

But Stacy wasn’t given as much time to prepare for motherhood as she had thought. The mom was later told she was in fact already 36 weeks along. Stacy went from years of trying with no success, to being a mom with just 3 weeks’ notice.

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Baby Eliana was born by C-section with Stacy suited-up and in attendance. “I went from excited to terrified,” she recalls of the time leading up to the birth. “I was so afraid that she was going to change her mind.  By the time they wrapped me in the surgical gown and put me in the delivery room with the big, bright lights, I was so stressed out that I was dripping with sweat, shaking and hyperventilating.”

Eliana was delivered safely and Stacy invited to watch as her new daughter was checked-out by the doctors. “The nurses were laughing and proclaiming ‘You’re a mom now!’ and I was just stoic, in shock. Then when they handed her to me, I just started bawling. The flood gates opened. I took her outside and they asked me if I had a name for her. At this point I was uncontrollably crying. I couldn’t say her name because I was so afraid. 8 years of trying, of heartbreak, of wanting, all flooding out of me at once.”

Looking back, Stacy sees her path to motherhood with a clearer perspective. “I think in the beginning, the pursuit to become a parent is like an exercise in vanity. You want to see a little you. One of the things that changed over the journey for me is that I had to challenge myself and understand why I was driven to become a mom and why it is important to me. Do I want to be a mother because I want to see a little version of myself? Can I truly love a child that isn’t my own? Is it pregnancy? A biological connection? I spent years chipping away at that. But I wasn’t raised by my own mother and so I think there is a significant portion of this experience that is about healing the child in me by being on the mothering end.”

Understandably, this experience changed Stacy profoundly. She says it has made her a better person, more empathetic and brave when it comes to talking to other people going through something painful. But it has also galvanized her into action. She now volunteers as a first responder for women who have experienced neonatal death. Drawing on her own losses, Stacy helps them get access to services and support they need.

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Stacy’s experiences have also made her a huge advocate for women like herself to share their stories. When she initially began dealing with infertility she admits to hunkering down and withdrawing from her social life, so full of grief and so exhausted. But then she joined support groups and found that talking to other women like herself really kept her sane. “I believe that reproduction is not a private issue,” she says. “and women should not go through it alone. Just because it comes from our bodies, does not mean it’s not a collective issue. I don’t think we should be silent about it.”

When Stacy and I talked early last year, she was still in the early stages of trying to find her groove as a new mother. Unfortunately, at the same time, she also got hit by a nasty stomach bug, leaving her relying on the help of friends and family to care for Eliana. “Yesterday I spent a significant time in bed but last night I was well enough to tend to her for a few hours,” Stacy told me. “She was crying so I picked her up and she looked up at me. She’s just starting to focus a little bit more now, starting to actually see something. And I saw recognition on her face. It’s just the most ridiculously heartwarming thing I’ve had happen to me. For her to look up at me and recognize me as her mom and to be content in my arms, it was like coming home.”

I hesitate to say anything from my own heart about Stacy’s story as I really want to make this post about her and not me. But, having spent more than five hours talking with and photographing her, I have to say that I was awestruck by her determination in the face of obstacles that would have made most of us give up. Her strength is ridiculous! But I am certain that there are many other stories out there from women whose infertility struggles and grief remains too painful to share openly.

Stacy has already declared her intention to remain very open with Eliana about her adoption and I can only imagine how incredible it will be for her to know someday just how much her mom went through to have her, how much she was wanted.

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If you or someone you knows is dealing with infertility or neonatal loss and needs support, here are some resources Stacy recommends:

 

Find an infertility support group near you

http://resolve.org/support/support-groups.html

Talk to wonderful therapist who specializes in infertility support:

http://pennydonnelly.com/

(Stacy resides in Palo Alto. If you’re in Sacramento here is another resource of local therapists you may want to check out.)

Find a fertility clinic and review their success rates:

http://www.sart.org/find_frm.html

Get support after Neonatal Loss:

http://www.handonline.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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