If there’s anyone who knows about birth and nurturing, it’s Stacey Ashe. The Fort Mill mom is raising two biological sons, has carried six babies as a surrogate – three sets of twins – and a year and-a-half ago she and her husband Jeremy Ashe adopted a little girl from China.
Ashe said she wasn’t sure what she was getting herself into when she signed up to be a surrogate in 2008. The couple’s sons Gavin and Noah were 4 and 2, respectively, at the time.
“Jeremy, of course, thought I was nuts,” Ashe said. “I think he thought it was one of those things that would go away, that I would stop talking about it.”
She didn’t. Stacey Ashe was living in Pittsburgh at the time, contracted with an agency in Boston, and gave birth to twin girls in 2008. She used the same agency the second time and delivered twin boys in 2010. She then moved South and gave birth to boy/girl twins for a couple in Holland in 2012.
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The couple underwent extensive psychological evaluations and had to prove marriage and financial stability. But while Ashe had three successful experiences as a surrogate, it isn’t for everyone, she said.
“So many women tell me, “Oh, I could never do that. And I say, “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t,” Ashe said. “If you think you can’t do it, you probably can’t.”
But Stacey found joy in the experience.
“Stacey has always had a giving spirit,” Jeremy said. “When we went through the process the first time it was such a joyous experience for her, she said, that I knew if she could physically do it, she would do it again and again and again.”
While few statistics on the prevalence of surrogacy are available – there’s no national database, for instance – it is estimated that nine children are born through surrogacy in each state each year, according to the Council for Responsible Genetics.
When Ashe became pregnant each time, she would tell her boys’ school teachers first, so as to avoid the raised eyebrows when they would say things such as, “Yeah, mom’s pregnant, but they’re not hers,” Ashe said. Her sons do not yet understand how different surrogacy is from traditional ways of having children, Ashe said.
“They just assume that if someone can’t have babies, someone else has them for them,” Ashe said. “Nothing is abnormal to them.”
Ashe said her pregnancies with her sons and her pregnancies as a surrogate were completely different. With her two sons, Ashe would dream about what the babies would look like and be like. Not so with her subsequent three pregnancies.
“I never had the nesting thing or the urge to go out and buy baby clothes,” Ashe said. “Most of the time I forgot I was pregnant.”
While Ashe said she can’t quite put her finger on what it was exactly that made her pursue surrogacy, she felt lucky that she had had such an easy time getting pregnant and giving birth to her two sons and she knew that many women do not have the same experience.
“For me, it just breaks my heart that people can’t have babies,” Ashe said.
Ashe said her experiences as a surrogate were all positive which she attributes to several factors – not being a surrogate for a family member, having lawyers and contracts every step of the way and finding like-minded couples. For example, Ashe and her husband were not willing to entertain the idea of aborting a baby because of a chromosome defect such as Down syndrome. The agency brought couple profiles to Ashe to review that stipulated the couple’s wishes to abort in such a case and she declined.
In the end, she was paired with couples who shared her convictions.
Stacey Ashe keeps in contact with two out of three of the couples. She flew to Boston to attend the christening of the first set of twins, and the families have visited on several occasions. The family wanted their daughters to know Ashe and the role she played in bringing them into the world.
“We got very attached to the intended parents,” Jeremy said. “They were very sweet and loving through the process.”
Stacey Ashe is close to the third couple, who live in Holland, texting near daily and talking often via Skype. The couple recently invited her to speak at a surrogacy conference in Holland this week. The couple has started the process of searching for a surrogate to expand their family for a second time. Ashe said she considered carrying for them again, but ultimately decided her surrogacy days are over. She developed pre-eclampsia during her final pregnancy and gave birth to the twins via C-section. She said she gained 80 pounds during the pregnancy, 40 of which she lost soon after delivery.
Ashe said she will never forget the feeling of seeing the children’s parents holding them after delivery. As she watched them together she thought, “This is why I did this.”
Ashe enjoys receiving Christmas cards from her surrogate families and seeing how the children have grown. She stops short, though, of calling herself a surrogate mother.
“To me, the term mom is very sacred. Mom is earned by being up at 2 a.m. cleaning vomit off the carpet or when your children have a bad dream and they climb into your bed,” Ashe said.
“I carried them, but that’s all I did,” Ashe said. “I am not their mom, in any way.”
Ashe said her feelings toward her surrogate babies are like that of a proud aunt.
“You love them, but they’re not yours,” she said.
During her final surrogacy pregnancy, Ashe said her heart was pulled toward adoption in a way she could not ignore. It started on Orphan Sunday at her church, a day designated to bring awareness to the plight of orphans worldwide.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” Ashe said. “I had never thought of (adoption) before.”
Jeremy did not accompany her to church that day and when they discussed it later, again he was hesitant. Stacey gave him the paperwork and asked him “to look over it and pray about it.”
Soon they were applying to adopt from Russia – in advance of Ashe’s final surrogacy delivery. Because of the adoption agency’s policy that a family can only adopt after a certain time has passed since the last baby in the family was born, Ashe had to send documentation that the babies were not hers.
“It was weird doing adoption paperwork while you’re pregnant,” Ashe said.
Nearly a year into the adoption process, Russia abruptly halted all U.S. adoptions indefinitely. Ashe’s adoption agency went bankrupt and they lost $25,000. With only a few months before they were supposed to be matched with a child, the family was devastated. Despite the turmoil, there was never any doubt that they would continue their journey to adopt, Ashe said.
When the Ashes looked into China, they were told the wait list for a healthy child was seven to 10 years. They also found that children with special needs were on an expedited list. The thought of adopting a child with special needs scared them but ultimately, they couldn’t resist the pull toward adopting an orphaned child.
“We’re doing this not because we can’t have kids but because we feel called to it,” Stacey Ashe said.
The special needs adoption process was daunting, she said. The family had to fill out a checklist that considered every possibility and every range of severity when considering a child with special needs.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “I feel like I’m at McDonald’s ordering my child.”
Because they had two boys already, the Ashes knew they wanted a girl. Stacey scoured adoption agency websites every night, looking for a child that might possibly be her daughter.
“It was like a job for me,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m going to find her.’”
And one day she did. She came across a video of a little girl playing. She read the girl’s medical chart and saw a significant special need. The Ashes said they prayed about the girl in the video and decided to adopt her. Four months later they brought their daughter, Lainey, home. They later discovered that Lainey’s chart had been translated incorrectly and she had been misdiagnosed. Today, Lainey is only a little behind her peers developmentally, according to her parents.
“To see the kid we brought home and the kid we have now, she’s adapted amazingly well,” Stacey Ashe said.
“I honestly can’t remember life pre-Lainey,” Jeremy said. “I can never repay Stacey for feeling led to adopt and leading this family through the process of bringing our daughter home.”
Ashe said that while the adoption process tested their faith in ways she never thought possible, she wouldn’t change anything.
“I never knew (Lainey) was missing from my life until she became a part of it. Only a year and a half before she was first put in our arms, and now she couldn’t be anywhere else.”