Svetlana found it difficult to believe that what she was watching on the news on the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was actually happening.
Bila Tserkva, a historic city on a winding river 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Kyiv, was calm.
Then came the explosions.
Svetlana and her husband dragged their mattresses into their apartment building’s corridor, where they huddled with their three children. The sirens were never-ending, and they didn’t sleep for days.
Emma Micallif, thousands of miles away in Australia, was frantically messaging. Because Svetlana is pregnant with Emma’s second child, the two women are inextricably linked. Emma felt angry and helpless as rockets fell on Bila Tserkva.
The two mothers had been communicating via a translation app for six months. They shared photos of their children, talked about what they liked to bake with them, and lamented the stress of pandemic homeschooling.
They were now attempting to organize an evacuation.
“I used to think that having cancer was stressful, or that having a baby while undergoing treatment was stressful, or that going through round after round of IVF and it failing was stressful,” Emma says. “However, it simply does not compare.”
Emma was put in touch with two other parents who had surrogates in Ukraine through the surrogacy agency. They found a bus that would take the three women and their ten children to the Moldovan border in 18 hours.
They were crammed into a small apartment when they arrived in Moldova’s capital. When Emma learned that there weren’t enough beds, she was shocked. She says, “Our lovely, pregnant Svetlana was sleeping on the floor.”
Svetlana, on the other hand, was too distraught to care. Her mother had fled to Germany after leaving her husband in Ukraine. She just cries down the phone when her mother calls.
She told me, “It hurts so much that this war is tearing families apart.” “My heart is in Ukraine, but I feel safe in Moldova.”
Surrogacy gives birth to over 2,000 children in Ukraine each year, the majority of whom are born to foreign couples. There are approximately 50 reproductive clinics in the country, as well as numerous agencies and middlemen that match couples – known as “intended parents” – with surrogates.
Because of the way its surrogacy laws are written, Ukraine is a popular choice. When a surrogate gives birth in many European countries, including the United Kingdom, she is listed as the mother on the birth certificate. Her husband will be listed as the father if she is married. The intended parents are listed as mother and father in Ukraine. As a result, obtaining a passport for the child and bringing them home will be much easier.
Emma and Svetlana’s agency is small, managing nine surrogacies at the moment, but Ukraine’s largest agency currently has 500 surrogates in various stages of pregnancy.
Forty-one babies in its care are stranded in Kyiv because the war has prevented their intended parents from collecting them from all over the world. While Russian forces sit outside the city shelling it, many of these children are being cared for in a basement nursery in Kyiv.
Every day, more children are born, but only nine sets of parents have risked traveling to Kyiv to pick up their children since the invasion. Five more have arranged for pick-ups from afar. “If nothing changes in the near future,” Denys Herman, the agency’s legal adviser, says, “we may have 100 babies under our care.”
The company has been debating whether or not to relocate the babies from Kyiv to a safer location in western Ukraine, but transporting them in a war zone comes with its own set of risks.
Denys Herman isn’t the only one who has to deal with stranded children.
Nastya was nearing the end of her second surrogate pregnancy and saving up to buy a house in Kharkiv, where she lives with her two young boys. She was only weeks away from giving birth to twins when the war broke out, and she went into labor a few days later.
She explains, “We spent the entire time in the hospital in a bomb shelter.” Kharkiv was being shelled heavily, and the hospital’s basement was crammed with mattresses and baby cribs. She and her two children camped out in a storage room, sleeping on sofa cushions on the floor beneath shelves piled high with files and paperwork.
“However, the doctors were fantastic, and I am grateful to them,” she says. She had two healthy boys as a result of her pregnancy.
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She was released from the hospital a week later. Kharkiv was still under siege, and the twins’ foreign parents were unable to collect them.
Nastya, her two sons, and the new-born twins traveled across Ukraine with some staff from her agency. She looked after the babies until they were delivered to their parents at the border. It’s been more than a week since she heard from them, and she hasn’t heard from them since.
Emma imagines the drive from her home in Canberra to her parents’ home in Sydney when she imagines the family she wants. Looking into the back seat, she imagines seeing a swarm of children. She, on the other hand, has one. She says, “It just feels like a hole in my life.”
She was diagnosed with cervical cancer five years ago, while pregnant with her son. The tumor was rapidly growing, aided by the hormones she had produced during pregnancy. Doctors crowded into the delivery room to watch her son’s birth because it was a rare medical event.
“He came out perfect, and I didn’t have to take him to the neonatal ICU,” she says. Her reproductive organs were damaged by intense radiation and chemotherapy when her son was only five weeks old.
“At the age of 29, I entered early menopause. So that was enjoyable, “she quips wryly
Emma’s every waking moment has been consumed by thoughts of how to conceive her second child in the five years since her cancer diagnosis. She and her husband went through 13 IVF cycles, all of which were painful and expensive, but none of the embryos took. “Surrogacy is never someone’s first choice,” she says, “but it often comes as a result of a significant loss.”
In Australia, where only altruistic surrogacy is permitted, Emma and her husband, Alex, struggled to find a surrogate. They were hesitant when they first heard about the option of visiting Ukraine, but were reassured by other Australians who had had a positive experience.
Two attempts at pregnancy with their first surrogate failed, causing even more heartbreak. It seemed like the battle was finally over when they were matched with Svetlana and she became pregnant right away.
“It was a huge relief to be able to stop fighting. As husband and wife, we’d been in a constant state of fight or flight for so long.”
The entire family had planned to visit Ukraine prior to the war. Emma had hoped to spend time with Svetlana in order to tell her new child about her biological mother. That’s unlikely to happen now, with the baby due in a month.
However, the war is bringing some intended parents and their surrogates closer together.
Christine (not her real name) felt sick the morning of the invasion. Her surrogate was in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine’s south-east region, which would make headlines a few days later when Russia attacked its nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest.
Her surrogate, Tatiana (not her real name), flew to Poland with her six-year-old son the next day. Christine is awestruck by her strength.
Christine wasn’t sure how Tatiana would react when she asked if she wanted to visit England. But she was overjoyed. She said, “We can come next week.” She is one of only four or five women applying for a specialized visa for surrogate mothers created by the Home Office.
“In what has already been a traumatic year, the past few days have been unbearably traumatic,” Christine says.
She and her husband lost a child last January, a daughter who was born prematurely and died at the age of five weeks. Her husband was told at one point during the delivery that he might have to choose between Christine and the baby. She was told not to try again, but she did, and this time she miscarried. “We looked abroad because I was impatient, grieving, and desperate for it now.”
Tatiana’s pregnancy was discovered in January of this year. “It seemed almost too good to be true,” she admits.
Christine flew to Poland on Sunday for the first time to meet Tatiana. When a Polish doctor said the results of the first scan were good, they were both relieved.
They’re now putting in a lot of effort to get to know each other, aided by Google Translate. “We had a discussion the other day about our spiritual beliefs, whether or not we believe in clairvoyance, and other such topics. It’s not just about the baby “she explains.
Christine and her husband have invited Tatiana to stay with them for as long as she wants, beyond the birth of their child, on a three-year visa.
Surrogacy is legal in the United Kingdom, but under English law, the surrogate’s name, as well as Christine’s husband’s, will appear on the birth certificate. Tatiana’s legal parenthood will have to be transferred to Christine.
There are even more legal complications if the baby is born in a third country. As a result, Svetlana, Emma, and Alex are in a pickle.
In Moldova, surrogacy is not permitted. Svetlana will be the legal guardian of the child if it is born there. She could put it up for adoption, but Emma and Alex might not be able to take their child home for years.
As a result, they’ve devised a scheme for Svetlana to deliver the baby in a city near the border.
Svetlana has conflicting feelings about returning to Ukraine. “There’s gunfire everywhere, houses are being demolished, and Russians are shelling maternity hospitals, kindergartens, and schools,” she says.
On the other hand, she is desperate to see her husband, who is unable to leave Ukraine due to the country’s martial law.
Svetlana’s return to a war zone is difficult for Emma to accept. “‘No, I wouldn’t do that,’ I would have said a year ago. It’s simply not what we should be doing. This isn’t how things should be done “she explains.
One potential snag is that the birth certificate for the baby could take weeks to arrive. Emma and Alex are unsure what they will do if this occurs.
Thousands of surrogates and intended parents have been placed in similar precarious situations as a result of the war.
After the invasion, Cyrille, a Frenchman, struggled for two weeks to contact his surrogate in Kharkiv. When he did, he assisted her in traveling to Paris, where he hopes she will remain until her due date in August. However, she has left her children with their father in western Ukraine, who did not want them to leave.
Natasha, a Cherkasy surrogate, is 10 weeks pregnant with the child of a couple from the United States. Sirens, shelling, and morning sickness torment her. “This isn’t life; it’s a nightmare,” she expresses her dissatisfaction.
I spoke with another surrogate a few days before the war who is expecting a baby girl for a couple in Spain. In the town of Uzyn, Maryna lived near Svetlana. She was getting ready to move to Kyiv for the last two months of her pregnancy when we spoke.
“Because it’s so far from the Donbas,” she said, “Kyiv will always be a safe place.”
She struggled to imagine how bad things could get even after Russia invaded. “I sincerely hope that Putin’s brain will appear and he will begin to withdraw his troops. Because Ukrainian and Russian mothers did not have children in order for them to fight.”
Emma felt a pang of bittersweet relief shortly after Svetlana arrived safely in Moldova.
“She sent me a photo of her youngest daughter, who was wearing a balloon and eating soft-serve ice cream from McDonald’s. And I’ve just had a nervous breakdown “Emma expresses herself.
It reminded her of what every child should be doing: having fun with her family in a safe environment.
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