Potomac native Randi Fishman was 28 when she found out she had breast cancer. After treatment and then a recurrence, doctors advised her not to get pregnant. That’s when her sister offered to carry a baby for her.
When Randi spoke to her family about the idea, Erin, Jamie and Zach’s sister all casually told her they’d be happy to be her surrogate one day. “She’s my sister, my best friend, and she’d been through a horrible experience, so of course I was going to do it,” Erin says. “It didn’t seem like a big deal to take a few months to do this for her.”
But Erin wanted to have her own kids first, which was just as well. Medical guidelines set by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommend that a woman deliver at least one healthy baby of her own before carrying someone else’s child, so Zach’s sister and Jamie didn’t qualify, either. In January 2013, after Randi’s radiation treatment ended, she and Zach hired Meryl Rosenberg, a surrogacy attorney in Potomac, to vet other potential candidates, preferably on the East Coast or in the Midwest to cut down on travel. Eight weeks later they found the right match—Jodi Maher, a mother of two in Madison, Wisconsin. (Maybe it was karma, Randi still muses. She met Zach in Madison in 2003, when he was a senior at the University of Wisconsin and she was there visiting a friend.) Maher underwent medical and mental health screenings, signed the surrogacy contract and started taking a series of hormone shots to prepare her body for the embryo transfer. The first attempt failed, but the second was successful. In February 2014, Maher got pregnant using one of the embryos Randi and Zach had frozen.
Randi and Maher texted daily. “Randi and Zach were so super easy, no crazy demands, no checking on what I was eating,” Maher says. “Randi’s mom even sent me matzo ball soup in a huge box packed with ice because she knew I liked it.” The couple flew to Wisconsin to attend doctor visits, and they were on Skype during the sonogram when the obstetrician told Maher the baby was a girl. When Maher developed high blood pressure toward the end of the pregnancy, her doctor decided to induce labor. Randi and Zach arrived in Wisconsin two days before the scheduled birth. They were in the delivery room when Parker Madison Fishman arrived on Sept. 20, 2014. Randi was the first to hold her.
About 4½ months before Parker was born, Erin gave birth to her first daughter, Ryan, now 4. Her second daughter, Cori, now 2, arrived 18 months later. Of all the women who had volunteered to be a surrogate for Randi, Erin was the first to have children. “I had no hesitation about going through with another pregnancy just one more time for Randi,” she says. There was no family meeting, no drawn-out formal discussions. The sisters just decided between themselves that they’d start the process in November 2016, after Jamie’s wedding. Erin’s youngest daughter would be a year old by then. “I wanted to be done,” Erin says. “I didn’t want to wait for years and get pregnant again.”
Erin’s husband, Evan, was on board from the start, especially when he understood that having Erin carry the baby would substantially ease the financial burden on Randi and Zach, who had paid more than $100,000 the first time around, with help from Randi’s parents. That money covered legal fees, the surrogate’s compensation and related medical costs, including $7,500 for each of the two embryo transfers. (Randi says her insurance didn’t cover anything related to the surrogacy.) When Erin was the surrogate, Randi and Zach spent about $60,000, mostly to pay her medical bills.
“Now it’s like we’re starting all over again financially,” says Randi, who works part time as a personnel director at a creative agency in Rockville and also sells jewelry that she makes. “But the girls are worth every penny.”
Looking back, Erin says she has no regrets, though perhaps she didn’t fully appreciate what the commitment entailed. She didn’t realize, for instance, that even though Randi was her sister, she’d need to deal with the same paperwork and mental health evaluations required of any other surrogate. Nor did she understand how painful or disruptive the hormone shots would be. The shots, given for 10 weeks to build the lining of the uterus and sustain a pregnancy during its early stages, are injected straight into the gluteus muscles every three days for the first two weeks and then every day for the next eight weeks.
“Evan doesn’t do needles,” Erin says, so her mother or Zach usually administered the shots, alternating sides each time. “It really hurt,” she says. She had to get the injections between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., when Evan was often still at work, so Randi would give Erin’s kids dinner and keep them occupied down in the basement.
The transfer of the embryo, when it finally happened, was easy by comparison. But after four weeks of shots, it didn’t take. Erin knew it wasn’t her fault, but she still felt slightly guilty. Randi felt panicked. She and Zach now had only one embryo left that was free of the BRCA1 mutation. “That was our last chance,” Randi says. Given her history, she was sure that doctors wouldn’t want her to go through another round of fertility treatments. Maybe, if all else failed, she’d consider using one of the remaining frozen embryos that carried the gene defect. But she desperately hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
The routine started all over again, the shots and disruptions. After the second embryo was transferred in April 2017, the two-week wait seemed endless. But it was worth it: Erin was pregnant. When Randi got the news from the fertility specialist, she immediately called Erin, who was at the dentist’s office with one of her daughters. The sisters then crossed paths in the dentist’s parking lot as Randi was heading in for an appointment with Parker. “We hugged, of course,” Randi says. “But I was nervous. There was always one more hurdle. One more blood test or something. I’d say I didn’t allow myself to feel very excited until the last trimester.”
The pregnancy was uneventful at the start, with only a few minor issues—like when Erin, in the first trimester, wanted to order dessert at a restaurant and Zach wouldn’t let her because all of the choices contained alcohol or raw eggs. “I hadn’t eaten dinner because I was nauseous, and all I wanted was dessert,” Erin says. “They were making it a joke, but I knew he was totally being serious.” She passed on the dessert, and they laugh about it now.
But as the pregnancy progressed, it took an unexpected physical toll on Erin. Six months into it, her placenta ripped and the doctor advised her not to lift anything heavy, including her children, she says. A few weeks before Austyn was born, Erin was put on bed rest due to high blood pressure. She hired full-time help and relied heavily on family when the nanny left for the evening.
“That was hard for me because I’m a stay-at-home mom and I’m used to doing things for myself,” says Erin, who started an at-home business selling a line of kids apparel when she was pregnant with Austyn. “Ryan would say, ‘When there’s no baby in your belly, you’ll hold me.’ ”
When doctors decided to induce labor on Dec. 8, 2017, Erin expected the delivery to be as easy as it was with her own two children. Evan was by her side. Zach was supposed to cut the umbilical cord, and Randi would hold the baby moments later. But nothing went as planned. When Austyn’s head appeared, her face and neck were tangled in the umbilical cord. A nurse cut the cord and rushed to check the baby’s vital signs before handing her to Randi.
“Once Austyn was on me, I just wanted to bring her to Erin, but I couldn’t,” Randi says. By then, doctors and nurses were swarming all around her sister, who had developed a complication because she couldn’t deliver the placenta. “I was freaking out,” Erin says. “A doctor had to manually go in and pull it out.” Five weeks later, Erin had another complication and was rushed to the emergency room.
Erin is fine now, and her childbearing days are over. Randi had a hysterectomy earlier this year. They can now retell the saga with smiles on their faces. “I’m done,” Randi says. “For me to have two beautiful daughters who are healthy and without the BRCA mutation is nothing short of miraculous.”
Erin and Randi’s older daughters don’t ask any questions about all that’s unfolded. Ryan understood that her mother was carrying a baby that would go to Randi’s house after she was born, and Parker knew that her aunt was carrying her sister in her belly. “It didn’t faze them,” Erin says.
The cousins now see each other a few times a week. The three oldest girls attend the same preschool and share some of the same friends, like their moms did. They fight once in a while, too, just like sisters.
Dina ElBoghdady spent more than two decades as a journalist at several newspapers, most recently The Washington Post.