Alaina Yoakum woke up one morning and knew without a doubt that she wanted to carry her younger sister’s baby.
It was October 2008, and Heidi Sanders, who would be undergoing a radical hysterectomy in the next month, was having her fertilized eggs frozen prior to her operation. She and her boyfriend, Jeremy, wanted a child someday, but now they would need to have it carried by a surrogate.
Yoakum, then 40 and with two daughters of her own, couldn’t see a reason not to help her sister.
“It always surprises people, because they ask if it was a really difficult decision, and … you know what? It wasn’t at all. It just made sense,” says Yoakum, a Marin native with a throaty laugh and a head of dark brown curls.
“So I woke up my husband and I said, ‘I’m thinking about doing this, is this going to be OK?’ And he said, ‘I already knew you were going to.’ He had had a dream that I was pregnant with her baby. It was just one of those moments where I just thought, you know, maybe it’s beshert [fated].”
Yoakum says her sister never really needed to ask — from the moment she knew Sanders would need a surrogate, she was up to the task.
Two and a half years later, the decision makes more sense than ever. Lounging at the dining room table at their parents’ home in Mill Valley, taking turns recounting their story over tea and chocolate cake, both sisters clearly delight in the telling. Though they’ve had ample opportunity to discuss it over the past nine months, the sisters are still in awe of their shared journey, and of each other — not to mention the sleeping 8-day-old child in Sanders’ arms: the “miracle baby,” also known as Abigail.
Born March 9 by caesarean section — with Sanders holding her sister’s hand the entire time — Abigail is at once a testament to the strength of a family’s bond and to the advancements of modern science.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” says Sanders, 10 years Yoakum’s junior, with lighter hair and an easy smile. “I feel like we’ve used technology to our advantage in every possible way … inducing lactation, everything.”
She gives credit to their fertility doctor at New York University, Dr. Nicole Noyes, for going “above and beyond” in caring for both sisters during the pregnancy; to Jeremy, now her husband; and to Yoakum’s husband, Charles, for being “rocks” throughout the process.
Sanders is also extremely grateful to Tiburon’s Congregation Kol Shofar; both sisters say the Jewish community in which they were raised has been completely supportive. Abigail’s naming ceremony will take place at Kol Shofar on Saturday, March 26.
“With all the various traditions that go along with bringing a baby into the world, you really sit down and think about which components are important to you,” Sanders says.
“My husband isn’t Jewish, but he appreciates the cultural aspects … and it means so much to us that [Kol Shofar has] been so welcoming.”
For Yoakum, it’s been joyful to watch her daughters Olivia, 7, and Sophie, 10, grapple with the concept of their mother giving birth to a baby who is somehow not their sibling.
“I’ve had people email me, almost concerned, saying, ‘Your daughter said a funny thing the other day. She said you’re pregnant with your niece!’ ” Yoakum says with a laugh.
On the other hand, she says, it’s nice that her girls are young enough that they’ve generally accepted the surrogacy as a routine act — something people who love each other can do to help out.
“I love the idea of instilling in them this concept that doing this type of thing is something that should be normal,” Yoakum says. “It’s like instilling tikkun olam in your kids: This is what you do for your family. I love that they don’t see it as extraordinary. Hopefully that’s something they’ll carry throughout their lives.”
For Sanders, the birth of her daughter is nothing short of a triumph — a wealth of good fortune after a couple of extremely complicated years.
Diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer in 2008, at 28, Sanders underwent fertility treatment after deciding she wanted to preserve her eggs. She then went through three surgeries and chemotherapy.
The eggs removed prior to the hysterectomy were fertilized to give them a better chance with a surrogate pregnancy. Last March, Sanders and Jeremy got engaged. They were married May 1; in June, Yoakum flew out to New York for the embryo implant.
“It’s been a big couple of years,” Sanders says with a laugh. “It was pretty much every life change that you can possibly have in one year. But now it’s all worth it.” She looks at Abigail for a moment, then appreciatively back to her sister.
Despite their age gap, geographical distance (Yoakum and her husband live in San Rafael, the Sanders reside in Brooklyn) and biological status as half-sisters (they have different fathers), Yoakum and Sanders say they have always been extremely close.
The sisters and their brother, Michael, grew up in Mill Valley with parents Ivan Silverberg and Rita Rosenbaum. It has always been a tight-knit family, they say, and the sisters have always shared a special bond: Yoakum vividly remembers being in the room when her little sister was born — and how, for the next few years, she took advantage of being able to dress her up like a doll.
“She was always around, always a huge presence in my life,” says Sanders of her older sister, recalling visiting Yoakum at college and getting to have all the sweet cereal and junk food her mom wouldn’t let in the house. “She wasn’t a maternal figure, really — it was something totally unique.”
To an outsider, the siblings seem as though they haven’t spent a moment apart since those days: The two finish each other’s sentences, pour each other’s tea and poke fun at one another with a loving ease.
Their deep level of intimacy made it that much easier for Sanders to trust Yoakum with the monumental task of carrying her child, she says.
Still, the most challenging aspect of the process for her involved relinquishing control.
“I’m a control freak,” Sanders explains. “And even though this was someone who’s a part of me, as I consider Alaina to be, even though I knew she was taking the best care of the baby while she was pregnant with her, it was hard not being able to do it myself.”
Sanders notes that Yoakum went out of her way whenever possible to make her sister and brother-in-law feel involved in the pregnancy.
“She’s been great about wanting us to have the experience for ourselves,” Sanders says. “She’s really been selfless in trying to remove herself from the equation wherever possible, so we could experience what we would as new parents.”
Yoakum says the hardest parts of the pregnancy for her were physical — regular hormone injections and the accompanying moodiness, not to mention the general physical toll of being pregnant at 42. But she never felt any emotional confusion about wanting the baby to be hers — something those around her, and perhaps those familiar with the “Friends” plotline involving surrogacy, might have been concerned about.
“I didn’t know how I was going to feel,” she says. “But when Abigail was born — first of all, you get to be this fly on the wall, with parents seeing their baby for the first time. Who gets to do that? It was beautiful to see.
“You have this whole rush of hormones after you give birth, and I’ve definitely been moody … but when this baby came out, it was not my baby. When the baby cries, there’s no emotional feeling that I need to rush to the baby and take care of it.”
“Whereas, I fall apart,” chimes in Sanders.
“That said,” says Yoakum with a smile, “they’re not going to be able to pick a preschool without consulting me.”
One understandable side effect of the past year’s events: The sisters, their husbands and parents all became veritable experts in the complex tangle of issues — medical, financial and always deeply personal — surrounding surrogacy.
Gestational surrogacy, which involves in-vitro fertilization (as opposed to traditional surrogacy, which utilizes artificial insemination), is on the rise in the U.S. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which tracks gestational surrogates along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,353 babies were born through gestational surrogacy in 2009, up from 738 in 2004.
But from personal experience, Sanders says even certain aspects of the medical field have yet to respond to the growing trend.
Seemingly straightforward aspects of a “normal” pregnancy became an uphill battle. The family fought for permission to have both parents in the delivery room with Yoakum during the caesarean section; at the last minute, the anesthesiologist heard their story and agreed.
Then, a stipulation in California state law required Sanders to sue Yoakum for custody of the baby.
“We really had to push, constantly advocate for ourselves the whole way through,” says Sanders. “There are so many aspects in which these institutions have not caught up to the scientific advancements … around surrogacy.”
And as for how to discuss the surrogacy with outsiders, things can get sticky.
Their story, with all its feel-good elements, has made its way around town: The Yoakums, who own Marin Running Co. in San Anselmo, are fairly visible in the community; Alaina also works as a program assistant for the Taube Koret Center for Jewish Peoplehood at the Osher Marin JCC and writes for Patch.com.
But well-meaning strangers still present a situation that’s proven tough to navigate. A few days ago, while out in Mill Valley with Abigail for the first time, the sisters walked into a store and found themselves inundated with admirers — and difficult decisions.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I’m very open about it,” says Sanders, “But talking about it with every single person — it’s personal, and frankly, it’s not everyone’s business.”
After hearing that Sanders — who is very petite — was the mother, one woman commented on how fit she looked for just having had a child.
“I’ve been advised just to say ‘Thank you,’ ” Sanders says. “So I just kept doing that, and I didn’t explain anything … but then later Alaina told me it made her feel really bad. It was a reminder of how important it is to continue to take care of each other, to check in and renegotiate it, that this process isn’t over.”
Though the Sanders haven’t yet returned to the East Coast — they’ll head back on March 28, a separation no one seems quite ready for — Yoakum’s girls have already begun asking when they can go visit their tiny cousin in New York.
Looking years ahead, Sanders says she’s thought a bit about how and when she’ll tell Abigail her unusual birth story. “It’s such a complicated situation, and I want her to be old enough to understand how unique it is,” she says.
But there’s no question in her mind that her daughter’s relationship with her Aunt Alaina will be special. “I’m not going to do godparents,” she says. “But I feel like Alaina and our fertility doctor are the reasons why she’s here. It’s always going to be unique between them.”
After nursing Abigail, Sanders hands her daughter off to her sister in order to clear dishes from the table; Jeremy has arrived and the group is taking a ride to pick up Yoakum’s daughters from school.
While it has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, it’s also clear that the unusual aspects of Abigail’s birth have quickly given way to a certain “it takes a village” group dynamic — just one more thing the family takes in stride.
“I can recognize on an abstract level that this is amazing, but it’s incredible how routine it’s become,” says Sanders. “This is our reality. Although I’m appreciative of Alaina, at the same time, it’s like — this is what we do. We’re a family, we support each other. If the shoe were on the other foot, I’d do the same thing, absolutely.”
She pauses a moment. “On the other hand, when I talk about it being normal, I don’t mean to minimize Alaina’s sacrifice,” she says thoughtfully. “She has the biggest heart of anybody I know, and she gave me the best thing in my life.”
Her big sister smiles, the baby sleeping in her arms. Then, after a beat: “I get your kidney.”
cover photo: emma silvers
Heidi Sanders (left) and Alaina Yoakum gaze at Sanders’ daughter Abigail, to whom Yoakum gave birth via gestational surrogacy.