When I began trying to get pregnant five years ago, I assumed it would happen easily, quickly, without too much expense. I come from highly fertile stock: My mom got pregnant after her tubes were tied; my sister got pregnant again three months after giving birth. As a single woman, I knew it wouldn’t be free, though. I’d need to get sperm and, since I didn’t plan to attempt the process at home, turkey baster style, I’d also have to involve medical professionals. But it wouldn’t take long to get pregnant, right?
I started with intrauterine insemination (IUI), the baby step of fertility intervention. Before you ovulate, a doctor deposits sperm in your uterus. It takes a minute, is painless, and only cost me a few hundred dollars a pop. IUI doesn’t always work the first try so I was mentally and financially prepared for a few attempts. After the sixth try also resulted in a negative pregnancy test, my doctor suggested IVF. Whoa. Crap. Unlike IUI, IVF is complicated and expensive. Between weeks of injectable hormones that cost thousands, frequent appointments, and a surgical procedure to remove your eggs and create embryos, an IVF cycle can easily cost upward of $15K.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship to money. I hold it tight. When I go to a restaurant I scan down the menu’s price list first and find the cheapest item. My lower-middle-class parents — TV repairman, secretary — were always worried about money and used it sparingly, convinced we’d lose everything at any moment. I inherited anxious money genes from both sides.
But I really wanted a kid and had imagined being a parent my whole life. I’d waited for various reasons: because of grad school, because of living overseas, because “the right partner” hadn’t yet materialized. I couldn’t wait anymore and made peace with doing it solo. If IVF was my only option, I quickly swallowed that reality and barreled forward. I had enough money saved and found other ways to bring the cost down: I sweet-talked my doctor into reducing his rate, and used a friend’s IVF meds since she’d gotten extra for free (she’s one of the lucky few whose health insurance covers IVF). I’ve always been scrappy. Infertility was making me scrappier.
Cut to three failed IVF cycles later and I had nothing to show for it but a handful of frozen embryos and a hammered savings account. There’s an old adage that the more someone tries to get what they want, unsuccessfully, the more desperate their tactics become. With infertility, this is a truth on steroids. There are always lines you don’t think you’ll cross (“I’d never do IVF”; “I’d never do more than one IVF”; “I’d never do more than two.”) And then you do.
For most people, surrogacy conjures images of the wealthy and of celebrities. I was under this assumption too when, after I’d tried everything possible to get pregnant, underwent every test imaginable, my doctor sat me down and said my only shot for having a biological child was surrogacy. I burst out laughing. I didn’t have $100K laying around. He might as well have told me to spin three times until I turned into a unicorn. The absurdity was the same.
Surrogacy had always been the definitive baby-making line I wouldn’t cross. The expense seemed unfathomable and I desperately wanted to carry my own child. Having another woman do that task felt, well, weird. But once the debilitating sadness that I’d never be pregnant passed, that I’d wasted years and gobs of money trying, I found myself Googling surrogacy. Casually. Tentatively. And I could feel the won’t-cross line nudging further afield.
Infertility is a vortex with a wildly strong current. Once you dip your toe in, it’s hard to pull yourself out. The more money, time, and emotions you invest, with still no baby in your arms, the more you think, Well, I’ve spent this much, I’ve come this far, I might as well go a bit further, and a bit further, and… It snowballs. The end goal always feels just around the corner. Plus, I still had embryos leftover from the IVF cycles. My frozen kidlets. Could I actually give up at this point? Throw in the towel? What’s another $500? Another $5,000? Another $50,000? At some point it starts to feel like Monopoly money.
I’m often asked: Why not just adopt? If I didn’t have frozen embryos ready to go, I might have considered it. But adoption can also be difficult, surprisingly expensive, with no guarantee you’ll get a child. I know people who, before turning to surrogacy, tried to adopt only to have the baby’s birth parents change their minds at the last minute.
When I began pondering surrogacy, my first question was how the hell did people afford it. So I joined online surrogacy groups and learned that the majority of IPs (intended parents: people trying to become parents via surrogacy) are financially “normal” — middle class, sometimes even lower — not rich. So if IPs aren’t wealthy, how do they make it work?
The upshot: they scrimp and save hard for that longed-for kid. The nitty gritty: They take on second and third jobs, and snag all the overtime. They stop eating out, forget what “vacation” means, sell everything they can live without. They coupon to the extreme, crowdsource, ask relatives for money, eat soup for months. They sell houses if they own them, downsize, rent, rent out rooms if they have extras, move into their parents’ basements. They raid 401Ks, take out home equity loans, max credit cards, apply for grants, drive crappy old cars until they fall apart. They change jobs for better paying ones, hustle for promotions, stop going to movies, end gym memberships, cut their own hair. They halt cable accounts, hold yard sales, radically pull back social activities, buy generic everything, sell Tupperware, shop at cheaper grocery stores. They hold silent auctions, take out second and third mortgages, move to less expensive cities, add baby funds to wedding registries, don’t give significant others Christmas or birthday presents, sell engagement rings, and, still, it can take many years to cobble together enough money.
There’s a misconception that surrogacy is buying a baby. It’s not. You’re paying someone for the use of her uterus, whether a live baby issues from it or not. It’s a gamble, though. Intended parents could spend tens of thousands of dollars only to have a surrogate miscarry, or for the baby to be born premature and not survive, or be stillborn. The stakes — financial, emotional — are immense. There are few situations like this in which the concepts of money and family are so deeply intertwined.
Surrogacy does not have a set price tag. There are too many variables. Besides creating embryos, the biggest surrogacy-related expenses are a surrogate’s compensation and, if you use a surrogacy agency, its fee. For $15-25K, an agency matches you with a surrogate and oversees the entire process, through birth.
When I decided to pursue surrogacy more seriously two years ago, I also decided not to use an agency and to handle the logistics myself, independently, known in the surrogacy world as “going indy.” Cutting out the middleman would bring this process closer to the realm of the financially possible. And if I could find a no-comp surrogate in a family member or friend, that would be cheaper, too. My sister would have done it but because she’s a breast cancer survivor, she’s not allowed to take surrogacy’s required hormones. When I couldn’t find someone I knew, it became clear I needed to work with a paid surrogate.
Compensation comes down to this: It’s what a surrogate wants to receive and what an IP agrees to pay. In most of the US, average comp for a first-time surrogate is $25K, reaching $30K+ for an experienced surrogate, although those numbers are quickly rising. There’s a slew of additional fees a surrogate receives and hefty amounts that go to doctors and lawyers. If a surrogate doesn’t have health insurance that covers surrogacy, I’d have to buy that, too. The expenses are endless.
So as I began searching for a surrogate I started saving like mad, ticking off many saving strategies other IPs use and adding others: taking on extra work, hustling raises, not socializing if it involves spending money, buying nothing except bare essentials, taking no vacations, getting rid of my car, moving across the country for six months to live rent-free with friends, funneling everything I can into the “vagina fund.” It’s hard at times, certainly. But no pity party. It’s a choice — my choice — with a clear target. Others save for down payments on a house. I’m saving for a baby. Saving is now a way of life, a game, even, to see how much, and how quickly, I can. I finally matched with a surrogate independently a few months ago and have begun all the lengthy medical screenings and legal contracts that must be done before we can try transferring one of my embryos into her uterus.
While surrogacy costs still makes my stomach clench, they haven’t made me wave the white flag of surrender. And my brain now subconsciously translates non-surrogacy costs into surrogacy ones. That order of pancakes? One-twentieth the cost of an ultrasound. That concert ticket? Two vials of progesterone. That car? Half a surrogate’s comp. There’s a calculator veil over everything. It’s made me even more aware of people who get pregnant for free, without realizing that luck. A friend recently complained about the price of organic formula; she’s breastfeeding and considering a change. When I told her it will cost me $1K/month to buy breast milk for my baby, she was shocked. And shut up. No doubt if I wind up with a child I’ll have financial concerns like hers too, valid ones, but the immense costs of surrogacy will always put them into perspective. Organic formula? What a steal.
Most people who get pregnant without medical intervention only think of kids being a financial drain once they arrive: diapers, child care, allowances, college. But my kid will be a money pit before it’s even born. I’ve joked with other IPs that we’ll tell our kids how much they cost every time they act like little assholes. That we’ll wallpaper their room with receipts and expense spreadsheets if they throw a teen-angst fit. Although we’re kidding, I do wonder about thorny questions the financial aspect of surrogacy might raise. Will I resent my kid for eating up my savings? Will my kid resent the fact that I spent its college fund on its existence? Will my kid feel like it owes me because I spent so much to give it life? Will I feel like my kid owes me?
I plan to be transparent and celebratory about my child’s origin story. My kid will know about the many players that helped bring it into existence. The doctors. The womb of another woman. The DNA of another man. The many cheerleaders. What I don’t know is if I’ll reveal how much money it took, how much stress, how much sadness, how much difficulty. I’m not sure how my kid would feel knowing what I went through, and sacrificed, to get it here.
As much as money is an enormous component of my path to parenthood, I don’t want to obsess about the finances. And I absolutely do not want it to impact my relationship with a future child. I hope to normalize, as much as I can, this experience. At some point I stopped keeping track of what I’ve spent so far. That reality is overwhelming. I don’t want to know.
I’ve wondered, throughout this infertility journey, if there is ever an amount of money to which I’ll say, “No more, I’m out.” When I went in for my first IUI, years ago, if the doctor said, “You’ll eventually get a child but it will cost you $100K. You still want to proceed?” I would have said no. But here I am, deep in, saying, again and again, yes. ●
Kelli Auerbach is a writer based in Los Angeles. Her other surrogacy-related essays have recently appeared in the New York Times, Glamour, Refinery29, and OZY.