When Jeannette Ziobro decided to become a surrogate in 2010, she says, money was the main motivator. “At the time, I was a single mom, and I wanted to set up a college fund for my daughter,” Ziobro explained to TODAY Parents.
But her entire outlook changed after she was matched with Jessamyn and Ryan Hall. “It became so much more,” Ziobro revealed. “We bonded instantly.”
The Halls felt the same connection. Going into the initial meeting, Jessamyn, who battled uterine cancer, was struggling with a range of emotions. “I felt like I had failed because I couldn’t do it myself,” the Melbourne, Florida, teacher recalled to TODAY Parents. “And the idea of trusting a complete stranger to carry our child was scary.” But Jessamyn’s worries quickly vanished as they swapped stories over a nearly two hour lunch.
“I liked Jeannette right away,” Jessamyn told TODAY Parents. “She was so warm and kind and I remember looking at her and thinking, ‘This woman is going to make me a mom.’” Adds Ryan, who is a pastor: “We were immediately comforted by her.”
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In June 2011, Jessamyn, 44, and Ryan, 45, welcomed twin daughters Jenna and Evelyn. It was also a life-altering event for Ziobro. The following year, she founded Life Through Surrogacy, a Florida-based agency that matches intended parents with gestational carriers. To this day, the three remain close friends.
Here are things Ziobro, Jessamyn and Ryan wish they had known before embarking on their surrogacy journey.
Surrogates are required to undergo a thorough medical and psychological screening process. “There are so many different steps in order to be cleared for surrogacy,” Ziobro told TODAY Parents. “There’s also therapy that is available before, during and after the pregnancy.”
Though Ziobro became emotional when the journey was over, it had nothing to do with separating from the babies. “Jenna and Evie aren’t my daughters,” Ziobro said. “But I formed such an emotional bond with Ryan and Jess. When I got home from the hospital, I had this moment where I was really sad because I knew I would no longer have regular contact with them.”
The Hall’s cried when Ziobro was discharged. “She was such a huge part of this journey,” Ryan told TODAY Parents. “We were sad to see her go.”
Music lovers Jessamyn and Ryan made a playlist of their favorite songs for Ziobro to play in the car. “We also recorded ourselves reading stories,” Jessamyn told TODAY Parents. “Jeannette would attach speakers to her belly every night.”
Ziobro became pregnant during the initial embryo transfer, but it doesn’t always happen that way. “There is never a guarantee it’s going to work,” Ziobro revealed. “I’ve had couples come to me saying they’ve been through this process before and used their entire savings.”
Jessamyn found that some of the older members at her husband’s church didn’t understand surrogacy. “I had people tell me I was being selfish and would demand to know why we weren’t just adopting,” she told TODAY Parents. “One woman kept referring to Jeannette as the ‘Mom.’”
There was a brief moment where Jessamyn debated keeping the surrogacy a secret from her kids. “It sounds silly but I was worried they would question if I was really their mom,” she said. When Jessamyn expressed her fears to a psychologist, she was given an analogy about baking cookies. “Our therapist said, ‘It’s your and Ryan’s ingredients, you’re just using someone else’s oven,” Jessamyn told TODAY. “Hearing that made me feel better.”
Jenna and Evelyn, who are now 8, know all about their “Aunt Jeannette,” and understand what she did for them. “The girls will tell you my tummy was broken so we took a piece of mommy and daddy and put it inside of Aunt Jeannette,” Jessamyn noted. “It’s pretty cool that they are able to grasp that.”
“As difficult as it was to go through the contracts and the lawyers, it helped us to get ready to communicate as needed with Jeannette about anything,” Ryan revealed.
Ziobro’s longtime partner, Jeffrey A. Kasky, who is a Florida surrogacy lawyer, stresses the importance hiring a knowledgeable attorney. “Like adoption, surrogacy is a specialized area within family law which requires a specific type of experience,” the American Bar Association Guide to Assisted Reproduction co-author told TODAY Parents. “When push comes to shove, there are eventualities in which the legal work can be what saves you from disaster and heartbreak. You don’t want to trust that responsibility to just anyone.”
Jessamyn lost her parents and wanted her children to have a blood tie to them. “When Evie came out, she looked exactly like my dad,” Jessamyn said. “I wasn’t prepared for that. It was pretty incredible.”
The Halls, who have fostered a child, are also open to adoption. As Jessamyn told TODAY Parents: “If God opens a door for a us, we’ll go.”
Rachel Paula Abrahamson is a TODAY.com contributor who writes for the parenting, health and shop verticals. She was previously a senior editor at Us Weekly. Her bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and elsewhere. Rachel lives in the Boston area with her husband and their two young daughters.
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