Mother's Day

Sarah Palmer and Jonas Hansson had been trying to conceive for about a year. They’d started as soon as Jonas’ spousal visa was granted, allowing him to finally move from his native Sweden to Minnesota to live with his new wife—a blissful and much-anticipated ending to a seven-year intercontinental courtship. They dove into their early baby-making efforts casually and hopeful, like so many love-drunk, bright-eyed newlyweds. But as month after month ended in disappointment, Sarah and Jonas tried to figure out why.

The usual battery of x-rays and tests showed no physical reason they couldn’t get pregnant; it was positive news, yet provided zero answers. Artificial insemination didn’t work, either. The longer it took, the more consumed Sarah became with Project Baby, Googling incessantly and reading up on fertility like it was a part-time job. She started taking the fertility drug Clomid, which helped neither her cause nor her mental state. Slowly, the person for whom Jonas had willingly given up familiar life and country seemed to disappear before him. He felt increasingly homesick and lonely.

Then, the tipping point: Sarah casually plopped a fertility tome onto the kitchen counter in front of Jonas, its edges a thick confetti-like ruffle of Post-it notes indicating the things each of them could do to increase their chances of conceiving: pink for Sarah, blue for Jonas, and yellow for both. Using natural body products; abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, and red meat; only wearing boxers—in Sarah’s mind, every last colorful scrap represented a new house rule, effective immediately. Jonas became indignant and refused to even open the book, which made Sarah wildly frustrated. “At that point, I had achieved every single thing I had ever wanted to do,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why is this not happening for me? And how dare you, of all people, stand in my way?’” Though theirs was a love so large not even the Atlantic Ocean could keep them apart, they both saw an uneasy truth looming. If something didn’t change, they might not have a baby, or each other.

Sarah and Jonas were discovering what millions of people already know: The road to parenthood isn’t straight and narrow for a great many who head down it. As women put off having children into their 30s and 40s (when fertility declines) and same-sex marriage becomes legal (37 states and counting), more and more people seek help along the journey. Decades ago, adoption was the only widely available alternative for parental hopefuls not able to get pregnant the old fashioned way. Now, it’s an option joined by a host of so-called Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs), for those with the means to explore them. For Sarah and Jonas, the Post-it note incident was just the first of many hard-won epiphanies. If, at that time, someone with a crystal ball had wrapped an arm around each of them and explained exactly how their parenthood quest would eventually end, they would’ve had a hard time believing it.

Back in 2006, Sarah, a bubbly redhead with a big, easy laugh, scanned the airport for Jonas, her blue-eyed, levelheaded Swede, her stomach in knots and her heart beating rapid fire in anticipation. It’d been four years since they’d put the brakes on their intercontinental romance—not because they didn’t love each other, but because they were not yet ready to settle down. They’d kept up a friendly, reserved correspondence, and dated other people, though each relationship’s demise proved less upsetting than not finding the other finally ready to give it another shot. Until Sarah’s quick email, mentioning she’d love to see him sometime, drew Jonas’ immediate reply—that he’d buy a ticket to come visit her. All it took was a glimpse of his shadowy silhouette moving towards her in the airport, and Sarah thought, Well. This is it. As they spoke, he felt it, too. “It wasn’t like we’d been apart for four years, it was like we’d been together yesterday,” he says. They were engaged months later, married in Sweden a few months after that, then spent the next year mired in immigration paperwork before Jonas was finally cleared to move here, in 2008. They bought a four-bedroom house in White Bear Lake, intending to fill those bedrooms as soon as possible.

Sarah and Jonas. Photo by Jonathan Chapman

After their first year of trying ended with the dull thud of that thick fertility book hitting the kitchen counter, the couple had a much-needed heart-to-heart. They decided that to preserve their marriage, they needed a break from their baby dreams. “I realized I was on a high-speed train, and my husband was on the tracks, so it was actually a welcome relief,” Sarah says. She stopped taking the Clomid and quit her obsessive fertility research cold turkey. A few months later, they renewed their efforts with tempered perspective. They visited an adoption agency. They entertained the idea of forgetting about kids altogether—selling the house, taking an apartment in some exciting downtown, and traveling the world. Yet they weren’t quite ready to give up on a biological child. Sarah saw an acupuncturist and a chiropractor. She downed shakes and powders, and endured painful abdominal massages, experimenting with anything purported to have worked for someone else.

Then in 2010, Sarah landed in the hospital with blood clots in her leg and lungs, and was diagnosed with a rare health condition known for causing infertility and pregnancy complications. “I remember sitting across from the doctor, and he said, ‘Here’s the deal. It would be very difficult for us to get you pregnant, and if we do, it’s more likely that you would miscarry in the third trimester than not.’” Heartbroken, Sarah asked, “What would you tell your daughter to do?” The doctor didn’t hesitate. “I’d do everything in my power to get her to adopt,” he said. “I teared up and thought, ‘I appreciate his honesty. I guess it’s not going to happen for us.’”

Sarah and Jonas struggled to come to terms with the reality that she would never carry their child, and they looked more seriously at adoption. A whole new pool of information and emotions waited, and they slowly waded in, overwhelmed and unsure. Then, one evening, when Sarah was out with her two sisters, the eldest, Sonia—the no-nonsense troubleshooter that her birth order suggests—asked, “Would you consider a gestational carrier?”

Sarah said that yes, she’d checked into the option of having someone else carry their child, but it was far too expensive. In the ballpark of a $75K payment to the carrier alone, according to her research.

“I’ll do it for you,” said Alyssa, the youngest, without giving it a moment’s thought. All eyes turned on her as the possibility sank in.

“Don’t you have to talk to your husband? And the girls?” Sarah asked.

“Well, I’d have to tell to them that this is something that I want to do,” she replied.

So much about Alyssa is gentle—her curls, her gaze, her smile. She used to be a doula and is currently a lab supervisor at a Twin Cities OB/GYN practice. Though her offer came quickly and easily, the possibility still felt unreal, as fictional as the plotline where Phoebe carried her brother’s triplets nearly 20 years ago on Friends. In a flurry of excitement, Sarah scribbled a list of to-dos on a cocktail napkin. Contact lawyer. Call IVF clinic. The two sisters went home to discuss the idea with their respective husbands, both of whom were surprised, among a good many other emotions, though ultimately open-minded. But as every item on Sarah’s list begat even more items, each one causing the cost to tick upward, she became too disheartened to continue.

The Palmer women (left to right): Alyssa, Sonia, Connie, and Sarah; Sarah with her father, Jerry. Photos courtesy of Alyssa Palmer.

Meanwhile, Sarah and Jonas continued with the adoption process, which, by contrast, felt clear and altogether manageable. Over the course of the next year, they met each deadline and requirement, not so much madly paddling ahead as simply allowing the current to gently carry them forward. By September 2012, they were cleared for adoption. Sarah had written up their backstory and picked out photos to be featured in the book of prospective parents. All she had to do was turn them in, which she intended to do after the weekend. But then she got the call.

It was Sonia, and there was a gut-dropping seriousness in her voice when she said, “Please get Jonas. I don’t want you to be alone.”

“What’s going on?” Sarah asked. Hearing the panic in his wife’s rising voice, Jonas ran up the stairs, just as Sonia delivered the devastating news: “Daddy’s gone.”

Gerald Palmer, known to friends and family as Jerry, had died of a massive heart attack in Hong Kong, at the age of 65. He lived there, fiercely dedicated to his engineering work, as his wife, Connie, and their three daughters remained in America, buoyed by twice-yearly visits and weekly phone calls that always ended in “I love you.” In the months following his passing, amid tears and soul-searching, discoveries and discussions, one truth began to rise within Sarah, steady as the sun. More than anything, she wanted to continue her father’s lineage, to know that part of him lived on in her child. For this, she needed her sister.

Her quest became a whole-family project. Both sisters underwent a battery of tests to ensure the process was physically possible, and both couples required counseling, psychological testing, and attorneys, all of which Sarah and Jonas paid for—in cash, when possible, but with financing, too. In a fortunate twist, Alyssa’s health insurance did not have a clause denying coverage for surrogate pregnancies, as many do, and so covered her medical bills, which saved the couple thousands. It took months to herd everything into place.

Alyssa’s pregnancy journal. Photo by Jonathan Chapman.

The physical procedure went quickly. Both women took birth control pills, to synch their cycles, then self- or husband-administered hormone-stimulating shots daily for a few weeks, plus other various medications and hormones—the idea was to help Sarah’s body produce multiple quality eggs, while simultaneously tricking Alyssa’s into not producing any, but still readying to foster one. There were several doctor’s appointments weekly to check on each sister’s progress, too. Sarah’s egg retrieval yielded a promising 17. One week later, that number had dwindled down to two, both of which were fertilized and transferred to Alyssa. Neither took.

Sarah and Jonas didn’t think they could do it again—financially or emotionally. Then, Sarah’s mom offered to help with the cost, and Alyssa said the words the couple really needed to hear: “I don’t feel I’ve done my job until I give you a baby.”

So: More shots, more monitoring, and another harvest—17, again. This time, nine remained at transfer time. And this time, they elected to have the sperm manually injected into all of the eggs before transferring the two best (a process commonly called ICSI [ICK-see], aka Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection), instead of allowing them to self-fertilize. This time, Alyssa, who’d already carried two daughters of her own, says things just felt right. She snuck an at-home pregnancy test, then asked if Sarah wanted to know the result. The tone of her voice alone, Sarah says, gave away what days later the doctor’s office test confirmed: Alyssa was, in fact, pregnant with Sarah and Jonas’ child.

Though gestational surrogacy, where a fertilized egg is implanted into a carrier’s uterus—“our bun, her oven,” as Sarah likes to say—is more popular than ever, it remains fairly rare, as well as illegal in some states. Of the nearly 1,100 total in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles completed in 2013 at the Twin Cities’ Center for Reproductive Medicine (CRM), the largest fertility clinic in the state, a mere 17 involved gestational carriers. It’s even more rare that the carrier is a family member. Of all the carriers involved in those 17 gestational carrier transfers at CRM two years ago, for example, just two or three were related to the potential baby’s parents. One of them was Alyssa. For her, it was an easy decision. Imagine. She held the power to shepherd her sister and brother-in-law off their long, bumpy road to parenthood, stretching out a good six years before that positive pregnancy test. “It was a no-brainer,” she says. “Not a gift, or even a favor, just something I would do for my sister.”

Perhaps Alyssa’s career path in reproductive medicine influences her largely biological view of pregnancy. With both of her girls, she says, the intense mother-bear type bonding took place postpartum. When she explained to people that the baby she carried wasn’t actually hers, and the bold ones asked, “Won’t it be hard to give it away?” her answer was certain. “People think carrying life is an automatic love connection. It’s not,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t mine to begin with.”

With that knowledge came a sense of duty. “It’s more nerve-wracking because it’s not yours,” she says. She never once missed a prenatal vitamin or sipped a drop of caffeine, as she sometimes did when pregnant with her daughters. The sisters went to all the doctor’s appointments together, and Alyssa kindly stayed quiet as Sarah asked all the nervous first-time mom questions. They talked on the phone even more than usual, cooing over that first glimpse of the “tiny firecracker of a heartbeat,” as Sarah describes it, and other such sweet details of the wonder that is pregnancy. After the doctor called Alyssa to tell her she was carrying a boy, she relayed the news by wrapping up a little pair of mustache-decorated sneakers and giving them to Sarah.

For a while, the sisters kept the baby’s sex a secret from Jonas, who said he didn’t want to find out. He didn’t feel comfortable talking to Alyssa’s belly, either, as Sarah often did. “Under normal circumstances, I would be outside as a man,” Jonas says. ”Now I am even a little bit more outside. A bigger outside, because I don’t have the relationship with Alyssa that I do with Sarah.” He wasn’t upset, but instead focused on what he could do—hear about the appointments from Sarah, help pull the nursery together, and otherwise prepare for his son.

Alyssa’s induction began on the morning of May 9, 2014. Sarah set up a collection of bedside mementos—a photo of their father, one of Alyssa’s girls, and a wooden sign that read, “It’s All About Family.” They were all there. Their mother flew in from her home in Kentucky and occupied her grandkids in the hospital room where Jonas and Alyssa’s husband, Jerrod, waited. In the adjoining room, Alyssa labored with her sisters. They operated as a unit, the older two administering leg rubs, applying cool rags, and cheering on the youngest. It was the third time Sonia had helped Alyssa labor, so adapting to her sister’s rhythms felt familiar, but this was Sarah’s first. Though she’s a hand-wringing monitor-watcher by nature, and the very literal delivery of her son was unfolding, she held her tongue in earnest, fully aware that right now was all about her little sister. Jerrod was in and out of the room, rubbing Alyssa’s back and holding her hand, as he did in past pregnancies.

Labor lasted into the afternoon, and when the end was in sight, everyone gathered around Alyssa—Jonas behind her, Jerrod clutching her hand, and each sister gripping a leg. She pushed. And pushed; silent, with eyes squeezed shut, through the intense pain of each contraction. At 5 p.m. on the nose, the boy, crying sweetly, took his place among his waiting family, an ecstatic jumble of tears and hugs. The doctor set him onto Alyssa’s belly, as is protocol, and someone said, “Open your eyes! He’s here!” All she could think in that moment was, “He needs to be with his mother.” Seconds later, finally, he was.

Sixten Gerald Palmer Hansson. Photo by Jonathan Chapman.

It’s tradition in Sweden for babies to receive four names, and so he was christened Sixten Gerald Palmer Hansson—Sixten, Swedish for “victory stone,” and Gerald for his grandpa, the man whose death inspired his life. As fate would have it, Sixten was discharged from the hospital on Mother’s Day. Alyssa gave Sarah her first Mother’s Day card, along with two books she’d made: one a pregnancy journal she started for the baby on the day her at-home pregnancy test came back positive, and the other filled with stories, photos, and hand drawings of his grandpa. “People say you can’t see love, but you can,” Sarah says. “He’s proof. Tangible evidence of the love in this family. He’s here because of that.”

The long-awaited Sixten Gerald Palmer Hansson plays with aunt Alyssa while his parents look on. photo by jonathan chapman.

Editor’s Note: 3 Things You Should Never Say to a Pregnant Woman