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Ties That Bind: When Surrogate Meets Mom-To-Be

 Bob and Susan de Gruchy had been through several failed rounds of in vitro fertilization before meeting the surrogate who would ultimately deliver their twins, Owen and Elle.
Marisa Peñaloza
Bob and Susan de Gruchy had been through several failed rounds of in vitro fertilization before meeting the surrogate who would ultimately deliver their twins, Owen and Elle.

Second in a four-part report

As she approached her sixth month of pregnancy last year, Whitney Watts' cervix had started to shorten. It's a common problem with twins. Watts was concerned, and was taking care not to overexert herself.

But it's probably fair to say her condition was far more frightening for Susan de Gruchy, the woman who had hired Watts to be a surrogate because she and her husband were unable to conceive. Nearly 400 miles away, de Gruchy was obsessed with worry.

"Here I am in Boston and I'm having to trust that she's not going up and down stairs," de Gruchy says. "I became a little consumed with that."

Watts remembers floating in the pool in her bikini after her doctor approved a short vacation. But de Gruchy remembers Watts telling her about having to pick up her cranky 2-year-old and carry him. She says she couldn't help but wonder what she would have done if she were the one who was pregnant.

"I would have hung myself up by my ankles," de Gruchy says, "and I would have never moved, you know? And that's not realistic."

At the next ultrasound, there was bad news: Watts' cervix was opening and closing.

"I was trying not to cry," Watts says. "I had to stay strong for Susan and Bob because they were just both ready to lose it. And this was at 23 weeks, just the cusp of viability."

From Loss To Surrogacy

There are few things more intimate than carrying a baby for nine months. Modern technology has made it possible for women who are unable to do that to hire someone to do it for them, creating an unprecedented relationship — one that's fraught with emotion.

Surrogacy was not Susan and Bob de Gruchy's first choice to create a family, but they were desperate for it to succeed. They'd been through five failed rounds of in vitro fertilization, including an agonizing miscarriage. Then they tried adoption. They bonded with a newborn boy for three heady days, until the mother changed her mind.

"I literally had to carry her out of the hospital," Bob says. Susan tears up at the memory.

"We had already had loss, loss, loss," she says, "and then this. It was awful."

That's when a friend suggested surrogacy. She placed an online ad for the couple, and Whitney Watts answered it.

Helping 'Another Woman Be A Mom'

Watts is a Navy wife living in Maryland. Her husband, Ray Watts, was on a ship in the Middle East when their toddler son, J.P., was born. She's mentally tough, physically healthy and passionate about being a surrogate.

"My parents had a very long and hard road getting pregnant with me and my brother," Whitney says, "and this was back in the early '80s. I always thought if I was fertile and I didn't have any issues that I would want to help another woman be a mom."

Ray was initially hesitant. "I think probably a lot of husbands, a lot of dads, are hesitant," he says, though he eventually came around.

In Massachusetts, de Gruchy was having her own doubts, like what if the surrogate also saw herself as the mother? The relationship seemed risky and exhausting.

"I think emotionally I was so spent," she says. "These people want to become very close to you ... your new best friend."

De Gruchy also worried that a surrogate would want to play a big role in a child's life. "So the further away [the surrogate] could be, geographically and emotionally, was going to be the best thing," she says.

Diane Hinson, the lawyer who negotiated their surrogacy contract, convinced de Gruchy she'd need to at least communicate with her surrogate by email. So the two couples met for dinner at a Cheesecake Factory — like a blind date, Bob says — and they hit it off. A few months later, Whitney took a home pregnancy test and called up Susan with the results.

"I'm like, 'I'm superpregnant!' " Whitney remembers. "And she's like, 'Woo hoo!' "

It was twins, just what Susan and Bob had hoped for.

Waiting For The Other Shoe To Drop

Ray Watts had heard of surrogates getting too attached to their babies. He found the prospect scary, and worried it could happen to Whitney. So without telling her, he reached out to Bob and Susan and they all agreed to use very deliberate language.

"I never once said, 'Hey, how are the kids doing?' " Ray says. "It was always, 'Hey, how are Bob and Susan's kids doing?' It was this constant reiteration that [these are] somebody else's kids."

And everything was going well, until that checkup at 23 weeks. Whitney was put on bed rest and, a week later — when her cervix started dilating — she moved into Johns Hopkins hospital for close monitoring.

Even in best-case surrogacies, so-called intended parents — especially women — often feel a frightening loss of control. After all, another person is in charge of the most precious thing in your life. And with Watts in the hospital, her body threatening to go into labor, de Gruchy admits she was freaking out over the smallest things, like when Watts told her she'd gone to a hospital support group meeting.

"I'm like, 'Oh really? Who wheeled you in the wheelchair? Did you go in a wheelchair? Did you walk? How long were you up? Were you sitting up?' " de Gruchy recalls. She jokes that Watts must have seen her and thought, "Here comes crazy!"

 At 16 weeks, Whitney Watts' pregnancy was still perfectly normal. It wasn't until 23 weeks in that doctors noticed abnormalities and put her on bed rest.
/ Courtesy of Whitney Watts
Courtesy of Whitney Watts
At 16 weeks, Whitney Watts' pregnancy was still perfectly normal. It wasn't until 23 weeks in that doctors noticed abnormalities and put her on bed rest.

"Sometimes she would be really upset on the phone," Watts says. But Watts took it all in stride. She says she understood that de Gruchy was anxious because until that point, something had always gone wrong.

"She believed that these babies were never going to come," Watts says. "Like this dream was there and she could almost touch it and then it was going to get taken away again."

'I'm Taking These Babies To The End'

As agreed to in their surrogacy contract, the de Gruchys paid for someone to clean the Wattses' house while Whitney was on bed rest. They also paid her next-door neighbor to care for little J.P. Combined with travel, legal and medical fees plus the private health insurance they bought for Whitney, the surrogacy cost them close to $200,000. Of that, about $25,000 went to Whitney, who also received an allowance for things like maternity clothes and prenatal vitamins. Susan worked extra to help cover it all.

Ray Watts, meanwhile, was getting no slack in his work schedule, since these weren't his babies. He says he started having second thoughts about the whole thing.

"There [were] numerous times where I remember thinking ... 'Was this a good idea? There's no way I could go through this again,' " he says. "Things like that."

Pretty soon, Bob says, Susan was flying down to Maryland nearly every week for doctor's appointments. She'd take Whitney a Kindle reader, flowers — she even painted her toenails.

My soul felt complete. I had done everything in my power, and it was the most amazing feeling. I will never forget seeing her face see his face for the rest of my life.

"All of a sudden," Bob says, "this person who was kind of distant was starting to thaw. And now it was a team, too. I think that helped having someone with you in this."

They were a team even as Whitney begged doctors to send her home, and Susan begged them to keep Whitney in the hospital. Finally, after 55 days at Johns Hopkins, Whitney was allowed to leave. It was Bob who drove her home. Whitney remembers tearing up as they turned onto her street.

"I knew when I came home, 'I can do this,' " she says, her voice catching. "I'm taking these babies to the end."

She made it an additional 3 1/2 weeks, and then had the delivery they'd all dreamed of. As the first twin, Owen, came out — a healthy 4 pounds 9 ounces — Whitney gazed up at Susan, who was standing right by her side.

"Seeing her face see his face, my soul felt complete," she says. "I had done everything in my power, and it was the most amazing feeling. I will never forget her face seeing his face, for the rest of my life."

'She Was The Perfect Surrogate'

"Did you have a nice nappy?" de Gruchy coos as she picks up Owen's sister, Elle, and smothers her with kisses. On the walls of their cozy nursery are framed, cross-stitched birth announcements, a gift from Watts, who made them while on bed rest.

The twins are 8 months old now and de Gruchy is still full of awe and gratitude for the way Watts handled such a difficult pregnancy.

"In retrospect, she did absolutely everything perfectly," de Gruchy says. "So the fear factor of her staying involved — it's nothing that I really do fear because she has been so appropriate. She was the perfect surrogate."

De Gruchy is happy now to stay in touch, texting Watts and sending baby photos. The Wattses are even thinking of a paying them a visit for the twins' first birthday.

This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Peñaloza.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.