My Pregnancy Struggle Came to an End When My Cousin Agreed to Be My Gestational Carrier
Andrea Syrtash wasn’t positive she wanted kids, but when the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based author and on-air personality met her husband, she began to change her mind. What she never expected was the impact that trying to conceive would have on her body, or just how it would change her life. More than seven years and 18 fertility treatments later, she launched pregnantish, an online platform for others experiencing fertility challenges. It’s the first lifestyle site dedicated to helping people navigate infertility and fertility treatments. Fortunately, she finally has her eye on the prize: The miracle baby her cousin offered to carry is due Jan. 2. Below is Andrea’s story, as told to PEOPLE.
I didn’t always know I wanted to have kids, or even get married. I’m an independent, free-spirited type — but something changed when I married Michael. He’s an amazing teacher and I loved seeing him with kids; the thought of starting a family together excited me. We first started “trying/not trying” soon after we got married at 31, but I told Michael we may have issues; at 14 years old I had been hospitalized with endometriosis. I thought getting pregnant might be a challenge and figured it could take a year or two to conceive. I never imagined it would take close to a decade, or that we wouldn’t use my body to carry the baby.
We tried on our own for a while but around 2011-2012, I went to the doctor and found out I had a massive fibroid tumor covering my tubes and ovaries, and there was no physical way I could get pregnant without having open-stomach surgery to remove it. So, I had the surgery in 2012.
My first fertility treatment, IUI (intrauterine insemination), was 6 years ago. I got pregnant in September 2013 from my third IUI. I lost that pregnancy around week 8 or 9, after we heard a heartbeat. We sent the tissue away for genetic testing and it came back “healthy.” A year later we moved on to IVF (invitro fertilization), and I got pregnant again in September 2014. That pregnancy ended, too.
Between 2012-2016, I did approximately 18 treatments — countless IUIs (because it had once “worked” and was covered by my insurance) and four full IVFs before a doctor suggested that I stop putting embryo(s) in my body without genetically testing them. He suspected my body had been rejecting healthy babies. As it turned out I still have fibroid tumors, some endometriosis, inflammation, scar tissue from my surgery and high natural killer cells (which may or may not attack healthy embryos). Bottom line: I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — get pregnant naturally.
I joke that I’ve been around the world and back through this experience of infertility. When you go through it for so long, you try everything: Chinese herbs, acupuncture, Indian Auravedic work, Western medicine. I stopped eating this and tried that! At one point, I worked with a fertility nurse/coach I met through a TV show I hosted for the Oprah Network. She was a viewer and wrote me to say that she was a fan. Her knowledge and support was definitely helpful. I also went to a few group infertility support sessions and did a little counseling.
Between 2016-2017, I did a few more egg retrievals to create embryos to send for PGS (genetic) testing. We learned we had two healthy embryos. I’m grateful to the centers that created these healthy embryos: Dr. Bentov in Toronto at Anova and Dr. Zhang and Dr. Yang at New Hope Fertility Clinic in New York City.
In the winter of 2016-2017, the doctor told me that our best shot at having a baby would be to use a gestational carrier. We put in a surrogacy application with a Canadian agency and found a ‘match’ a few months later. While I had to mourn the loss of carrying, I knew I was too terrified to actually be pregnant again.
The process of working with a gestational carrier/surrogate is expensive and time-intensive. You and your partner, and the surrogate (and her partner if she has one), have to go through all kinds of lead-up procedures, including medical testing, counseling and legal negotiations and contracts. Two carriers ended up dropping out; one left us right before the embryo transfer. We were so devastated. We started to feel like nothing would ever work out.
My cousin, Elana Syrtash-Ochs, had known about our struggles to conceive. She has two kids, and a few years prior she had written me an email asking how she could help. We didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I was grateful she asked. Then, after she heard about our second carrier dropping out, she texted me to ask if I ever considered working with a family member. I was crying so much when I read her note that I could barely respond. I never thought to ask my cousin or anyone I knew. It’s such a huge undertaking!
We hired a lawyer for ourselves and a lawyer to represent and protect Elana, too. While we weren’t worried about legal issues, it’s mandatory and I’m glad we had to do the preparation. Sometimes this part takes many many months.
When my cousin offered, she mentioned two things that I’ll never forget. First, she said, “What’s one year of my life to help you guys have a lifetime with a child?” And, she said she wanted to help grow our family. My dad was born in hiding during Word War II. My father and her father — they’re brothers — lost so many family members during the Holocaust.
My dad was born in Budapest in 1943; his dad was in a camp. After the war, my dad’s family learned that a number of relatives didn’t survive, including his grandparents. In 1956, when my dad was 13 and Elana’s dad was 3, they escaped Budapest during the Communist uprising. My dad literally carried Elana’s dad on his back when they escaped. I think it’s amazing that Elana has my back now. She is not only helping me personally, but also extending the Syrtash branch of our family.
My cousin practices modern Orthodox Judaism and consulted her Rabbi before offering to carry the baby for us. This is significant because in the Orthodox (or very religious) world, infertility isn’t always talked about or understood. While I’m not religious, I revere my family’s history and traditions. There’s a Hebrew word “B’sheret,” which means that something is meant to be. I really feel like this arrangement is “B’sheret.” I couldn’t have written this chapter better.
I wouldn’t wish this journey on anyone, but I will forever be thankful for the blessings I’ve received. I’ll never be able to convey in words what Elana’s generosity means to me.
What I’ve learned through all of this is that there are so many misconceptions about fertility and infertility. Oftentimes, people believe that whatever worked for them will work for you. But one size doesn’t fit all. We all have different bodies and responses, and it’s not all about age. If you have a physical issue (like blocked tubes, fibroid tumors, endometriosis), you may need medical intervention to help you conceive. Infertility is a disease, according to the World Health Organization and the CDC. I once heard a fertility nurse say that nobody tells a patient with arthritis to “just relax” and the arthritis will go away. We need to approach infertility in a similar manner.
Pregnancy loss affects so many people, but it is rarely talked about. The experience of infertility is a taboo topic, and the grief of pregnancy loss can be isolating. But it’s important for people to know they’re not alone. For this reason, I launched pregnantish, a media site with more than 30 contributors, including a few New York Times best-selling authors. The welcome video, “I Faked It On National TV” is about all the years I was on-air and in front of an audience while struggling to get or stay pregnant. Not everyone going through this is on national television, but many people who navigate it feel like they’re putting on an act. They may feel this way at work, at baby showers and at family gatherings.
I’ve published a number of articles and videos on pregnantish about how to better support people through infertility. One of my favorite sayings is, “The best thing to say to someone struggling with infertility is … to listen.” I don’t like giving advice to people struggling to conceive but I’ll say this: Knowledge is power. Don’t be afraid to investigate, ask questions and get more than one opinion. Through these years, I’ve had some bad experiences with treatment, and I wish I listened to my instincts. It’s easy to be overwhelmed during this process, but nobody will care as much about your body and the results as you will. Be your own advocate.
We’re really lucky that in April a PGS-tested healthy embryo implanted in Elana on the first try. We’re in the second trimester now, and the doctor recently said that everything looked beautiful with the development. If the baby were in my body, I’d be a nervous wreck. But, I’ve felt nothing but joy and comfort since Elana got involved. We text pretty often and talk whenever there’s ‘news’ or something to process. I’ve gone to important appointments with her, and I’ll be in the delivery room with Elana! The baby’s due date is Jan. 2. I keep staring at the ultrasound pictures in our kitchen. I love her already. I’m used to being infertile, and it’s surreal that this baby may finally arrive. It’s still hard to wrap my brain around it.
Elana also had to speak with her children about the baby in her belly. She didn’t want her kids to think they were getting another sibling! She shared that Cousin Andrea can’t grow a baby and so she was going to help. Her daughter loved the story and kisses her belly often to say “hi” to Cousin Andrea’s baby. I’ve learned that kids accept things as normal that you normalize for them. I imagine we’ll see Elana often-ish when our daughter is a baby so she’ll know her cousin, and we’ll likely share the story with our child when she’s old enough (maybe 4 or 5?) to understand that Elana carried her. I love that our child will know how wanted she was, and how many good people helped us.
Because of all the baby baggage, I’m having a tough time planning too much before the baby arrives. But I’ll probably have a baby shower with Elana closer to the due date. And while sure, it’s nice to have the occasional guilt-free glass of wine, it’s tough to let go of the experience of carrying a pregnancy, carrying your baby. At first, when I saw Elana pregnant, I felt less connected to our baby because it seemed like it was my cousin’s baby. I had to remind myself that she’s the carrier. I also feel a little left out in pregnancy and “winter mom” groups in which women compare pregnancy notes and stories. That said, I’m so thrilled and lucky, but it’s not always easy and fun.
This many-years chapter of infertility and loss was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. Over so many treatments, I’ve probably been poked a thousand times, between shots in my belly and backside and bloodwork at the clinic. We drained our savings. It’s not cheap to make a baby with the help of science! We had insurance for some of the treatments, but not all. We could’ve put a down payment on a home with the money we spent trying to make this baby. But, I’m also grateful for the blessings we’ve received along the way. I’ve learned to be more patient, compassionate and how to keep hope alive. I’ve learned that I’m more resourceful and resilient than I ever knew. I launched pregnantish out of this experience and have amazing new friendships with people in this community. That’s been incredibly gratifying.