Brent Bell is packing lunches for school, bologna-and-cheese sandwiches for his two boys, peanut-butter-and-honey for his daughter. Between asking 8-year-old Liam if he wants his orange peeled and chastising 12-year-old Klaire for not eating her last sandwich, he pulls down an ultrasound photo tacked to the fridge. The black-and-white image of two beating hearts is labeled twin a and twin b. Brent's wife, Lisa, 35, is about 10 weeks pregnant, and already her resolve is being tested.
She started out with triplets but lost one to an ectopic pregnancy. The embryo growing outside her uterus gave her such piercing stomach pains that Brent, 33, had to take her to the obstetrician and then to the hospital, where surgeons worked to repair a ruptured Fallopian tube. "I was shitting bricks," Brent says. He leans down and opens a drawer to retrieve a 22-gauge needle, which his wife uses for her daily injections. "Are you familiar with the needles they use on farm animals?" he asks. The twins Lisa is carrying do not belong to him. They're not hers, either, which means for the first trimester she has to shoot progesterone—in a liquid the consistency of honey—into her butt or thighs to help the placenta stick to the uterine wall. "She has to push so hard I can see her hand shaking," Brent says. When she's done, an imprint from the plunger is visible on her thumb.
All of this pain and suffering come with the job: Lisa is a surrogate mom hired by a couple in Sweden to carry the babies to term. Brent will tend to her aches and cravings along the way, just as he did when he was the one who had knocked her up. For their combined labors, the two will receive at least $20,000.
Shirley Zager, director of Parenting Partners, a surrogate service in Chicago, estimates that there have been about 28,000 such births in the United States since 1976. The women who make them possible are almost always married to guys like Brent, men who are comfortable pimping out their wives' bodies for nine months at a stretch.
Brent, who's six feet six and wears black wire glasses, isn't some hayseed with dollar signs in his eyes. He drives each day from his home in Joplin, Missouri, to nearby Baxter Springs, Kansas, where he works as a supervisor at a food-manufacturing company. He likes Johnny Cash and Metallica. He met Lisa at Missouri Southern State University, where the two shared an interest in theater.
It was bighearted Lisa's idea to birth babies for couples who could not do it for themselves. Brent didn't warm to it right away. He approached it as a business. "I wanted to know how much this was going to cost and what money was going to come in," he explains. But after speaking to the first would-be father, a man about 10 years his senior, on the phone, he changed his mind. "An hour into it, it was just two guys talking," he says, "one who wanted kids and one who had a wife who could have kids."
It's important for husbands to embrace the decision, says William D. Petok, a Baltimore psychologist who evaluates surrogates. He likes to meet with candidate couples to look for signs of reservations. He's never seen a case in which surrogacy was the guy's idea. "A husband wouldn't wake up and say, 'Honey, I think this is what you should do,'" he says. "That's almost inconceivable."
Two months into Lisa's pregnancy, Brent went on his first vanilla-ice-cream run for her. "The other night," he says, "she was eating a bowl of sugar and raisins that she had picked out of the Raisin Bran. When I walked in, she goes, 'Don't judge me.'" Other duties include making sure that her tea glass is always full and that the electric blanket has warmed her side of the bed. Six months later, when Lisa develops preclampsia, he steps up the pace. "She couldn't walk," he says. "From the knees down, her legs were bigger than mine." The household chores are now all his. "I come home from work, start the wash, take Liam to third-grade football practice, then cook dinner," he says. At day's end, he rubs Lisa's legs for an hour to help with the pain.
But guys like Brent also have obligations that extend way beyond What to Expect When You're Expecting. They're required to take STD tests. "I didn't like that I had to have something shoved where I didn't want it to be shoved," says 35-year-old Nick Bradburn of Columbus, Ohio, of his pre-surrogacy visit to the doctor. They undergo criminal and financial background checks. And to avoid inadvertently impregnating their wives, they have to forgo sex for three months. "It's in the freaking contract," Brent says. "You have to sign a celibacy agreement."
The fees received by surrogates usually range from $18,000 to $35,000, depending on factors like the number of embryos and the number of times a woman has delivered babies for other couples. The would-be parents also pay doctor and hospital costs, travel expenses, any lost wages, and a monthly stipend for things like prenatal vitamins.
Most wives are reluctant to admit that the money is appealing. They speak instead of the wonders of childbearing, the "gift" they are able to bestow on less fortunate couples. Their husbands are more pragmatic. "I'd be lying if I said the money didn't matter," Bradburn says. "It was hard for me to picture her pregnant by another guy, and I thought a lot about the risks. With everything combined, money was one of the decisive factors." After his wife had delivered the baby, he was able to give up his job as a long-distance truck driver to spend more time with his kids. He's now a full-time student in culinary school. "It totally changed the way I live," he says. "If my wife said, 'Let's do it again,' I'd say, 'When do we get started?'"
For the Bells, this is the third go-round—the second with the couple in Sweden whom Brent affectionately calls our "parents." Two years ago, Lisa gave birth to a daughter, also named Lisa, for the couple. Lisa senior agreed to breast-feed the baby, which is frowned upon in surrogate circles because it creates an emotional and potentially legal bond between the surrogate and the child. But the couple in Sweden had requested it. "To put it coldly," says Brent, "the job wasn't done." Every day for two weeks, he drove his wife to the couple's hotel, and while she fed the child, he and the new father toasted her birth with shots of rum. When Lisa was too tired to go, Brent made the trip by himself, with a cooler full of breast milk in the passenger seat of his truck.
Now the Bells receive so many gifts from the couple that it makes them feel uncomfortable at times. Perfume for Lisa and vodka for Brent. Laptop computers for Klaire and their older son, Jake. A year ago, the whole family flew to Stockholm for a two-week vacation. "If Lisa wanted something, all she'd have to do is ask," Brent says. "If we called our 'parents' and said, 'Hey, we're at dinner and we want to buy the house a round,' they'd send us a check tomorrow."
But for every person who thanks a surrogate mom for being an unselfish life-giver, there's another who accuses her of playing God. The nurses in Columbia, Missouri, made their disapproval well-known when Joe Bitner's wife was in the hospital for bed rest. "When she'd get upset, they'd say, 'You get what you deserve,'" says Bitner, a 39-year-old church custodian. "I was afraid that if I made a big deal about it, it might be even worse for her."
The Bells' town is so conservative that the Catholic hospital was reluctant to allow Lisa to give birth there. Though it can make life easier, Brent doesn't like to pass the babies off as his own. "When she's seven months pregnant, we're not going to get into it with the guy in the grocery-store line," he says. "When he asks, 'Do you know if you're having a boy or a girl.' 'Boy.' 'Are you excited?' 'You betcha.'" With his coworkers, however, he tries to explain the situation. So far, the guys haven't given him any guff. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm a little above average in size," Brent says.
The people in Lisa's office took to gossiping about her first surrogacy, and Brent's parents and siblings viewed that nine-month adventure as a medical condition they dared not discuss. In the end, though, only members of the immediate family get a say in the matter. Before Lisa agrees to get pregnant, each votes on the idea. Klaire was the lone holdout the last time around. Or rather the one child who thought to remind her mother of what was at stake. After raising aloft a cell-phone photo of Lisa during her second surrogate pregnancy, her belly stretched way out, the Bells' daughter ultimately endorsed the idea. Brent agrees that he'd rather not see his wife go through the rough stuff. "I voted to support her 100 percent," he says. "But sometimes it sucks. It's in that eighth month, when I'm bringing her an all-white plate because she can't eat anything with flavor, that it hurts. During the last trimester, I'm saying, 'We're not going through this crap again.' But then, after the birth, Lisa is glowing and the parents are glowing, and all of that shit goes away."
Alexander and Anna are born on October 15, about a week after the Bells made a ceramic cast of Lisa's bulging stomach. Brent, who was Lisa's "squeeze man" during the delivery, calls the couple in Sweden at about 4 a.m. their time to share the news. In a few days, they'll arrive in Joplin to pick up their son and daughter, Brent explains on the phone from the hospital. He sounds tired and stressed. "They couldn't get a direct flight," he says.