Emma Williams first became involved in New Zealand’s surrogacy community in 2014, though it was not until 2017 that she matched with her intended parents. She carried twice for a gay couple, birthing Yavi and, a few years later, Yana. Both times, she benefitted from the expertise of not New Zealand but US IVF and embryology.

The emotional support available to Emma from her recipients was limited, not just because they had no experience themselves of pregnancy, but because of distance. Emma is in Whanganui, and her recipients six hours away in Auckland.

Instead, Emma would reach out for virtual support from other surrogates online. After the birth of Yavi, Emma expressed milk for three months, shrugging off the common fear that this would lead to a maternal bond.

Emma Williams
Emma Williams

Emma has observed that in New Zealand, the new ‘in thing’ amongst young women is surrogacy. Prospective surrogates will set up Instagram accounts to attract intended parents. These newer arrangements seem to be more transactional, Emma observes. There is much less time spent getting to know each other.

As well, given traditional surrogacy remains popular, surrogacy teams often skirt around psychological counselling altogether. With such a DIY model, in-depth conversations and counselling sometimes never happen.  ‘What happens if there needs to be a c-section delivery or (worse), a termination? How will it work if I need time off work’ Emma queries.

What also frustrates Emma is the disparity of information circulating amongst intended parents around crucial issues such as surrogate expenses. Increasingly, intended parents are choosing general lawyers to advise them on their surrogacy arrangement – a family friend or a lawyer who represented them with a house sale. Sometimes based on a cheaper quote, sometimes purely on naivety.

Surrogate expense reimbursements are vital’ Emma argues, but too often, an in-experienced lawyer will advise their clients they cannot reimburse this or that expense which can leave surrogates seriously out of pocket. Emma has seen the same misinformation from IVF clinics. There is also professional confusion about a surrogate’s ability to access paid parental leave.

New Zealand clinics, counsellors, and lawyers acting in the area need to ‘get together’ Emma believes, ‘and agree on what is and isn’t allowed.’

‘There needs to be more education around the fourth trimester,’ Emma argues. This refers to the three months following birth, which surrogates tend to find most challenging.

Emma herself suffered postnatal depression after the birth of her second surrogate baby. Her recipient parents felt helpless.

Post-birth, surrogates ‘can feel a sense of abandonment’, Emma observes, ‘like they’ve been used as a vessel’. Having focussed so much on the surrogacy process, they are left with far less contact with their intended parents. Some start to question, ‘What’s my purpose?’

One New Zealand surrogate I reached out to for this story, who gave birth to a son for her gay brother and his husband in November last year was clearly inadequately prepared for what she went through.

“I don’t know if I’m ready yet to open that can of worms, especially with the whole impact on my life as I’m still struggling to overcome lots of things.”

Bringing New Zealand clinics, counsellors and lawyers who specialise in the area together to reach consensus should not be difficult, given there are so few, but that too is one of the problems – under-resourcing.

Growing Families invited an Auckland surrogacy counsellor to attend and moderate a panel at New Zealand’s annual surrogacy seminar coming up on 10 June. She had to decline – not for lack of interest but because she was overcommitted.

So it is unsurprising that so many intended parents reach out to international experts who are better resourced to educate and support their family-building dreams.

Whether it is US IVF clinics specialising in Donor IVF with in-house donor databases, or psychologists focussed on screening and supporting gestational surrogates. Canadian Jan Silverman is one such psychologist who has devoted 25 years to supporting, educating and advocating for surrogates and intended parents.

For the first time, Jan will be speaking at Growing Families Auckland event on 10 June, on how surrogacy teams can support each other, the role of the counsellor, the pros and cons of unloading online; and how and when professional counselling can help.

As well, the 10 June seminar will feature panels of NZ parents, surrogates, and young adults via surrogacy, as well as lawyers, IVF professionals and a Growing Families expert discussing the medical, legal and psychological considerations in this complex path to building a family. More information here.

Sam Everingham is the Global Director of Growing Families and the author of Surrogacy Stories – Twenty Extraordinary Journeys to Parenthood.