MURRAY — The tears came late at night when the hospital room was quiet and she was alone for the first time in months.
There were tears of happiness for the couple who were finally cuddling a baby of their own, the boy she had given birth to just a few hours before. And there were also tears of sadness — not because she regretted her decision to become a surrogate mother, but because one of the most wonderful experiences of her life was over.
"When you've been the focus of somebody's life for nine months and that suddenly ends, it hits you hard and it hurts," says Ryley Eaton. "The couple whose child you carried has lived and breathed you for months — your life and well-being has been their entire focus. But once the baby is here, that all ends. Before you can blink, the journey is over."
Eaton, 29, was relieved to find a small support network of women who have also made the emotional journey as surrogate mothers, or, as they're legally known in Utah, "gestation carriers." Once a month, about 20 members of Utah Surrogates gather at a restaurant or park to share tales of what it's like to give the gift of family to couples unable to conceive on their own.
"Our conversations definitely raise a few eyebrows in restaurants," admits Eaton, who wanted to meet for a Free Lunch of chili verde burritos at Restaurant Morelia in Murray with Jen Holt, another surrogate who has become a good friend. "There are so many misconceptions about what we do that it's nice to have somebody to talk to who understands."
The emotional highs and lows of surrogacy are worth it, says Holt, 32, to pass along the same joys she has experienced while raising her four children, ages 3 to 13.
"To see the look on (a couple's) faces when their baby is handed to them and they become parents after so many years of heartache — nothing can compare to that," she says. "It's a life-changing moment.”
A volunteer photographer for "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," a charity that provides keepsake photos of infants who were stillborn or died shortly after birth, Holt appreciated seeing a happy outcome for the parents whose child she carried after in vitro fertilization.
"I saw an aunt struggle with infertility for years, so this is something I've always thought about doing," she says. "After I was done having kids, I decided, ‘Why not go through another pregnancy — this time for somebody else?’ ”
After meeting with an attorney who specializes in reproductive law, Holt was put in touch with a local couple and became pregnant through IVF a few months later, at about the same time as Eaton, who had agreed to carry a child for an infertile couple from China.
As the mother of a 3-year-old son, "I love every aspect of service," says Eaton, "but I don't have a lot of money and I'm not handy with a saw. However, I love being pregnant and I do have a uterus that works. This is something I could do that would make a lasting difference in another family's life."
Although their spouses were supportive of their desire to become surrogates, Eaton and Holt became accustomed to shocked reactions from people wondering how they could "give away” the babies they were carrying.
“It’s hard to explain,” says Eaton, “but from the very beginning, I knew that he wasn’t mine, so I wasn’t as attached. Once he was born, he felt more like a nephew or the child of a close friend.”
Today, she and Holt carry photos of the boys they delivered and they hope to fill up several photo albums in the years to come.
“They’re not required to keep in touch with us, but we’re each lucky in that we’ve developed a lasting connection,” says Eaton, who plans to go through IVF again so that the boy she brought into the world can have a sibling. “We’re in their photo albums, too. Playing a part in giving them a family has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime Western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.