New York Times: ‘It’s a Terrible Thing When a Grown Person Does Not Belong to Herself’
Ukraine’s booming surrogacy business has become a logistical and ethical mess — and hell for the women at the center.
On Feb. 24, in the early hours of a cold, dark morning in Lviv, two phones in one apartment rang nearly simultaneously. The phones belonged to two women, Maryna and Nataliia, professional colleagues of a sort and temporary roommates; they were also newfound friends, both of them pregnant and near the beginning of their third trimesters. Just over a week earlier, they had come from Kyiv, where they’d both been living, on a kind of business trip. Lviv was around an eight-hour train ride away, a hassle of a journey even for someone who wasn’t pregnant, and it was especially unappealing in the heart of a freezing Ukrainian winter. But the American businesswoman who was working with them insisted — the clients demanded it. They would be away two weeks at the most, she’d told them. Their manager tried to sell it: See it as a paid vacation to Lviv! The town was well known to Ukrainians for its historic cobblestone streets and charming pastel townhouses.
Under different circumstances, the trip might have held more appeal. But the two women had already uprooted themselves once, moving from their respective homes in the country’s southeast, as was required by their contract. Their employers initially wanted them in Kyiv, the nation’s capital, so they could be near some of the country’s best obstetric care. That luxury was probably not one the women could have afforded if they were carrying their own children — but neither of them was. They were both surrogate mothers in Kyiv, two of 13 pregnant women working with an American company, Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency. That agency, as of mid-February, decided to move everyone to Lviv, a city that was far from any likely conflict and where it already had relationships with medical providers.
Starting in mid-January, many of the agency’s clients, many of them American, most of them anxious, had been listening to the news and worrying. Russian troops were gathering along the border of Ukraine, and the United States announced that it had intelligence that Russia would most likely invade soon after the Olympics ended in mid-February. Most Ukrainians did not put much stock in the American intelligence — what were the Russians going to do, roll tanks into Kyiv? It sounded absurd. Even if there was an uptick in hostilities, many Ukrainians believed, the fighting would remain confined to the same embattled regions in the east, along the border, where battles had been ongoing since 2014.
The surrogacy agency’s owner and founder, Susan Kersch-Kibler, who lived in New Jersey, explained to various intended parents, in an informational Zoom call in late January, that she did not think war was necessarily imminent. As an entrepreneur who had worked in Ukraine and Russia for years, Kersch-Kibler was well aware of local skepticism about the likelihood of an invasion; but given the volume of concerned messages she was receiving from the intended parents, and how potentially disastrous the consequences of war would be for surrogates and clients alike, she felt she had to plan for contingencies. She reserved apartments in Lviv for a month for the pregnant women working with the agency.
Many of the other surrogate mothers considered this trip an unnecessary disruption. But the agency told them they needed to pack a few things, including all their legal documents, and come to the train station on the evening of Feb. 15. Kersch-Kibler had her doubts about whether all of them would show up. In the end, they all did, including Maryna and Nataliia.
Maryna is a tall, stylish woman who had been a manicurist. After a friend of hers worked as a surrogate, Maryna started considering the possibility. Ukrainian law required that women who would be hired as surrogates had already successfully given birth, and she had two healthy daughters. By helping another family, she hoped to buy a home, a goal that would otherwise have been a significant stretch for her and her husband, who worked on cars. On Aug. 21, she was impregnated with two embryos for a couple in North America. Surrogates for Delivering Dreams typically earn around $18,000 a year, but because she was pregnant with twins, she would be paid a bonus of several thousand more. In Ukraine, a typical schoolteacher would make less than a quarter of that over the course of a year.
On the train, Maryna met Nataliia, a calm, warm woman with whom she shared a compartment. They were pleased to find they had a lot in common: They were both from the same region, and they both had two children, with some overlap in ages. Maryna’s husband and children had joined her in Kyiv; Nataliia’s were still back in the southeast with her husband. The two women talked easily on the train, with understanding and sympathy about their respective choices, and ended up sharing housing in Lviv.
And so they were together, nine days later, when their phones rang, waking them from their slumber. A family member was calling Nataliia to pass along news from a cousin, a border patrol agent: The Russians were invading. Nataliia called the cousin immediately to ask what he knew. “I can’t talk, I have a call on another line, but I’ll call you right back,” he told her. But he did not; in the following weeks, the family had no word of him whatsoever.
The moment Nataliia hung up the phone, Maryna emerged from her bedroom crying. Her husband had also called to say war had started — that Russian soldiers were in the area. He and the children were no longer in Kyiv, but were near the city of Kherson in the southeast of Ukraine, where he’d gone to take a driver’s test and where the children’s grandmother lived. They were supposed to return to Kyiv after a short visit, but now it would be difficult to get out: The fighting was fierce around Kherson, which would become the first city in Ukraine to come under Russian occupation. Maryna was distraught, her fears commingling with an anguished longing: If only her children were with her in Lviv.
Many of the other surrogates also came from the eastern part of the country, where the fighting was most intense. As they followed the news on Telegram and received harrowing messages from loved ones, the turmoil and sorrow among them was so powerful that Oksana Hrytsiv, the agency’s most senior employee and a longtime resident of Lviv, worried that some of the women might flee, leaving Lviv to be reunited with their children and families. She checked in on them frequently during those first few weeks of the war, trying to discern their intentions.
Maryna did not show signs of bolting, but her misery was apparent. When she spoke to her children, she sometimes heard the bone-chilling sound of explosions in the background, so loud that Nataliia, seated beside her, could hear it, too. “Mommy,” one of Maryna’s daughters once cried into the phone, “get us out of here!” Days later, Maryna broke into sobs when recalling the sound of her daughter’s desperation. “Just a little longer,” she told her daughter. “We’re going to see each other soon.”
Delivering Dreams, Kersch-Kibler’s agency, celebrates, in its name, the meaningful benefit of surrogacy to both parties in the arrangement — for the parents, the gift of a biological child; for the surrogate mother, a potentially life-altering sum of money. That arrangement is also, however, a business contract, which entails, for the expectant women, a job — one with managers, rules, oversight and risks to their physical health.
Susan Kersch-Kibler, owner and founder of Delivering Dreams International Surrogacy Agency. Nanna Heitmann/Magnum, for The New York Times
Even as reproductive technology has advanced, the number of countries that explicitly permit international paid surrogacy has dropped. Opponents of the practice argue that the transactional arrangement commodifies one of the most profound human experiences, the birth of a child. Feminists tend to divide on the ethical issue of surrogacy, with some seeing in the practice a means of financial autonomy, and others perceiving it, especially in less-developed countries, as a kind of reproductive coercion: Could a woman really be said to have choice in deciding to become a surrogate, if doing so was the only way to lift her family out of poverty?
Concerns about trafficking and exploitation led India to pass a law in 2019 that officially shut down what was once, according to a 2012 estimate, a $2.3 billion surrogacy industry. Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal also once served as frequent destinations for foreigners seeking paid surrogates until those countries, too, legally restricted the practice.
In those countries, as in many others, the only form of surrogacy allowed is among nationals, provided that no compensation is received. Altruistic surrogacy — in which only pregnancy-related expenses are covered — is legal in countries like England and the Netherlands; in heavily Catholic countries like France, Belgium and Spain, the intended parents of children born to surrogates often face challenges claiming their legal rights as parents, despite a European Court of Human Rights decision, finalized in 2019, that recognized children’s inherent right to belong to their biological families. In other countries, like Argentina and Albania, the law does not address the issue one way or another, diminishing the market for commercial surrogacy, as the ambiguity leaves all parties vulnerable in the event of a dispute. In the United States, legal protections vary state by state: Some states, like Illinois and California, allow surrogacy contracts; others do not recognize surrogacy contracts but do provide for judicial recognition of intended parents’ claims to children born with the help of a surrogate. In Michigan, paying a woman to be a surrogate is a felony.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia and Georgia are among the few countries that allow for legal, international surrogacy — a legacy, perhaps, of their shared history as former Soviet states, where the religion and politics are less entwined, and where reproductive rights are expansive (in Ukraine, for example, abortion is legal under various circumstances up until the 28th week of pregnancy). In Israel, where the government regulates international surrogacy, the price, around $75,000, is substantially higher than it is in Ukraine, where the cost usually runs between $40,000 and $50,000. In the United States, especially recently, the cost is between $100,000 and $200,000. Given the differential, many parents desperate to have a biological child travel to Ukraine, which has the additional benefit of clear guidelines that explicitly recognize the intended parents as holding all legal rights to the child, with their names immediately listed as the parents on the birth certificate, provided they can show they have exhausted other means of carrying a baby to term on their own or a pregnancy would put the intended mother at risk.
Ukraine does not allow gay couples or single parents to contract with surrogates, so would-be parents in either category have often turned to Russia. There, single parents have hired surrogates, and gay couples have found a path to parenthood by having only one parent sign the contract; the other subsequently adopts the child in their home countries, explains Nidhi Desai, the director of the American Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys.
Since various countries have restricted international surrogacy, agencies have rushed in to take advantage of Ukraine’s relatively well regulated market. One Ukrainian embryologist has estimated that before the war, roughly 3,200 implantations were performed in the country each year — creating, through the fees and also the associated tourism, a new, thriving economic sector. Typically, parents who opt for surrogacy fly into the country and work with a local clinic, conceiving embryos that are subsequently implanted in the wombs of Ukrainian women whom they have interviewed (usually by video call) or chosen from descriptions the agency provides. In some, but not all, cases, the parents choose to build a relationship with the woman carrying their child, texting regularly, even flying in to visit her; almost always, the parents fly back into the country nine months later, either to be there for the birth, if all parties agree, or to receive their newborn and take the child back home.
Even under the best of circumstances, the arrangement can be fraught. Now, Ukraine’s surrogates are working under the worst of circumstances, forcing everyone involved — agencies, intended parents and surrogates — to make decisions based on imperfect information regarding matters of life and death. The starkness of war has laid bare the many ethical tensions that exist in surrogacy arrangements, casting into bold relief the power dynamics that underlie a contract in which a woman signs over the whole of her physical self.
For Kersch-Kibler, Delivering Dreams is the latest in a series of businesses she started in the region in her 20s. In 1991, right out of college, she traveled to St. Petersburg, where she fell into the booming real estate market and soon became a developer. She returned to the United States in 2002, and eventually adopted a baby from an orphanage in Kharkiv, an experience that inspired her to start her own business facilitating adoptions from Ukraine. That business shifted to surrogacy when new rules in that country and the United States restricted those adoptions.
In February, as Russia bombarded Ukraine, many of the intended parents were insistent that Kersch-Kibler exert her will to make sure that their surrogates leave Ukraine altogether — to leave Lviv and go to Poland, for the surrogates’ safety and the safety of the children they carried. The emails came in every day; but it had been hard enough to persuade the women to go to Lviv. Now that the war was on, many were reluctant to abandon their country and travel even farther from their families. “You cannot put her in a trunk and force her to go over the border,” Kersch-Kibler says she told an intended parent. “That is human trafficking.” Some of the intended parents were pressing for the families of their surrogate to be moved to safety, and were frustrated by why it hadn’t happened sooner; according to Kersch-Kibler, some surrogates felt their children were in less danger if they stayed where they were than if they took to the road.
Kersch-Kibler faced another logistical concern: Surrogacy was not legal or straightforward in many countries near Ukraine, like Poland and the Czech Republic. If she moved the women to Poland and any of them went into labor and delivered there, the surrogate would be considered the child’s mother. The intended parents would have to undergo lengthy legal proceedings to adopt their child. If they moved the women outside the country, they could always try to move them back into Lviv or elsewhere in Ukraine for the delivery; but sending a woman nearing her due date across the border was not easy or desirable.
Kersch-Kibler and Oksana Hrytsiv in Krakow, Poland, organizing documents and preparing money to take into Ukraine, in March. Nanna Heitmann/Magnum, for The New York Times
Kersch-Kibler and Hrytsiv, her senior employee, talked frequently, weighing the various considerations. Hrytsiv helped navigate the considerable bureaucracy involved with international surrogacy. A mother of two herself, Hrytsiv had green eyes that could convey helpless innocence or steely resolve, depending on which approach she thought would be more effective under the circumstances. But now the women had to work through the sorts of logistics that they never before imagined they would need to think about, the most pressing question being: At what point would they have no choice but to move the surrogates across the border?
On March 11, after Russia bombed two airfields to the north and south of Lviv, Kersch-Kibler suddenly had clarity: It was too dangerous for the surrogates to stay where they were. What they had assumed about Lviv — that it would remain untouched — was no longer a given. It was impossible to predict where the Russian military would strike next and how aggressively.
Scrambling to rent apartments in Krakow, Poland, they resolved to move four surrogates that evening. By then, Maryna had been checked into a maternity hospital in Lviv and placed on bed rest after the doctors had deemed her at high risk for premature labor. This meant that Hrytsiv, who was from that city, would remain there with her, rather than go as she’d hoped to her family home in the relative safety of the mountains. Kersch-Kibler would be in Krakow to oversee the transition, but in the meantime, she promoted a surrogate mother who was already doing some administrative work for the agency to a more senior role, as a surrogate coordinator. Liubov, who was seven months pregnant herself, was now in charge of overseeing and assisting her peers.
Liubov was management; but like many of the other women, she was upset with the agency’s decision to move them across the border. “They said they wouldn’t make us leave — but then they decided for us,” she said, a few days after the move, speaking in the living room of her new home in Krakow. “They called us and said, ‘Pack up — we’re leaving.’” A photo an agency employee took on the bus to Krakow shows Nataliia and Liubov, both of them bundled up in winter coats, their bellies slightly wedged into the space. Nataliia smiles dimly for the camera; Liubov is looking away. Neither looks comfortable.
The apartment Liubov was moved into, along with Nataliia, was light and airy, suitable in every way for two very pregnant women except for its location up four flights of stairs. She and Nataliia were washing and rewashing in the bathroom sink the few pairs of underwear and socks they brought with them from Kyiv, back when they thought they’d only be away for a short time.
Liubov was unusual among the women working as surrogates — she was an educated person from west of Kyiv. She favors a glam-rock look, with jet black hair and red lipstick; in photos taken before the war, she wore a black leather jacket, choosing a slightly shellacked aesthetic that projected an air of invulnerability. For some women in Ukraine, being a surrogate provides a fast track to financial stability; but Liubov, who lived with her 13-year-old son and his father, previously worked in a government job and already had a house. They even had a car, albeit one that her partner was always using. What she wanted was her own business, a storefront where she hoped to sell shashlik, a version of shish kebab. What she wanted was a second car. What she wanted was not to have to supplement her government job, which paid the equivalent of $300 to $400 a month, with side hustles; she wanted to get ahead, instead of scraping by. Nine months of pregnancy seemed like a small price to pay in return for a nest egg that would support the next phase of her career. Surrogacy, for Liubov, was not an act of desperation, but an affirmative act of self-improvement, even independence. But now she felt she was being moved essentially against her will.
It had already been months since she had seen her son, although they spoke often on the phone. She told him she was going away on business, but left the details vague. Surrogacy was considered a step down for someone like her, and a shameful choice among many Ukrainians, even for women in more desperate straits. She couldn’t bear to tell her son why she was away and what she was doing. Liubov’s son, a soccer fiend who was always posting TikTok videos of his flexed muscles and dance routines, attended a sports class with the children of doctors and lawyers, and she also didn’t want them to know how she was earning the money for the family’s advancement. Her partner’s work sometimes took him to Kyiv, so her son was staying with Liubov’s sister, who doted on him, in a village that was calm and quiet.
The intended parents with whom she corresponded every day had been among those advocating for her to be taken to Poland, which Liubov knew (she’d seen the text, courtesy of a colleague) even though they couched the idea to her as the judgment of Kersch-Kibler and Hrytsiv.
Liubov understood why the parents wanted her to move — and to some degree, she felt they had the right to decide. She’d signed up for a job, which was to carry a baby to term, and if her employers thought the safest place to do that was Krakow, ultimately, she felt she had to defer to their wishes. “This child is my constant concern,” she said, occasionally rubbing her belly slowly, as if trying to discern the shape of the living being inside. She cared about the safety of the child she was carrying — but she wanted desperately to be back home, fighting for Ukraine. “I have a hunting gun, and I know how to use it,” she said.
Generally, the text exchanges between her and her intended parents were affectionate, with floods of heart and prayer-hands emojis and questions about everyone’s health and the weather. As a rule, the exchanges between the surrogates and the intended parents were fairly superficial. The surrogate and the intended parents were not allowed, by contract, to communicate without a member of the agency also present on the text exchange or Zoom call, a measure, the agency said, meant to avoid miscommunications or demands outside the contract from either party. Once Russia attacked, Kersch-Kibler strongly urged intended parents to keep things light, for the well-being of their surrogate, and therefore their own future child — not to ask any upsetting questions about the war or the safety of the surrogate’s own children. Liubov gladly shared monthly updates in the form of photos of her belly.
But when the decision came down that she would be leaving for Krakow, Liubov wrote to the intended parents with a red-faced crying emoji and said exactly what she thought. “It’s a terrible thing when a grown person does not belong to herself,” she wrote to them. “And has no opinion.” She acknowledged that there was no one good decision to be made by anyone — but because the decision was being made for her she felt, as she put it, “like a hostage of the situation.”
Among the many intended parents who were writing to Kersch-Kibler almost every day were Marilyn and Antonio Hanchard, a couple in Florida. When the war started, their surrogate was still in Ukraine, a situation that was causing them great stress. Sometimes Marilyn, a nurse, drafted emails to Kersch-Kibler that were overtly angry, but Antonio, a sales manager who often played the role of peacemaker in his large extended family, usually stepped in to tone them down with an edit. Kersch-Kibler was grateful that the emails she received from the couple were respectful, if insistent.
Antonio and Marilyn were not demanding people; they were, however, people who had been through a series of losses, miscarriage after miscarriage. “I kind of stopped counting,” said Marilyn, a 33-year-old nurse from Coconut Creek, Fla., a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. “I drown it out.” But she estimated that she had had about nine miscarriages over the course of six years. The never-ending mourning and the hormones she took to try to sustain the various pregnancies laid her low emotionally and physically. The expenses were stressful, too, and she started working as a traveling nurse to supplement the costs that insurance didn’t cover. She had gained 30 pounds, from the hormones and short-lived pregnancies, and she no longer recognized herself — she was starting to forget what hope even felt like.
She and Antonio began working with Delivering Dreams in 2021, traveling to Ukraine for six weeks to conceive embryos for implantation in a surrogate. They were thrilled to get to know via Zoom a surrogate they chose. But that young woman’s hormone levels at the expected time of implantation indicated that the odds were not favorable for the pregnancy. Almost numb, at that point, to failure, they resolved to try again with surrogacy — but they realized that if they did move forward, they needed to detach as much as possible from the process. They chose a surrogate named Lilia but declined to build a relationship, trying to limit any emotional involvement or investment or even hope in the outcome, for the protection of their own mental health.
“Your surrogate mother Lilia is PREGNANT!” they learned in an email from Hrytsiv on Nov. 22. “Congratulations!” Marilyn wrote back immediately: “We will keep her health and well-being, and baby’s also, in our prayers.” Antonio wrote as well, to thank the team: “This is the best news we’ve had in years.”
On Dec. 14, Marilyn was walking down a hospital hall on a day shift in Berlin, Wis., when an email popped up on her iPhone. It was from Hrytsiv with a dire subject-heading: “ICU — critical change in condition of Lilia’s health.” For reasons that were never clear to Marilyn, Lilia had started bleeding, and her life was at risk, which required the termination of the pregnancy. Marilyn ducked into the bathroom to try to maintain her composure, then raced to her car, in the parking lot, where she burst into tears and called Antonio. “I can’t go back to work,” she told him. Even worse than the loss of the pregnancy was the fear that a woman’s life was now in danger on their behalf.
Marilyn and Antonio Hanchard, intended parents to the baby carried by Olya, in Rothschild, Wis., in April. Erinn Springer for The New York Times
After the surrogate recovered, Marilyn and Antonio decided to try one more time with another woman, and on Feb. 22, they were told by the agency that a young mother named Olya had just received a positive result on a pregnancy test. They chose not to build a relationship with Olya, but Kersch-Kibler sent them a photo of her, smiling sweetly, her daughter, then 6, solemn-faced in the crook of her arm. They had already been advocating for her to be moved to Lviv; but when Russia attacked two days later, Olya was still living in her hometown, in the region of Sumy, in the northeast of the country. The town was safe, far enough from the front; but in order to get to Kyiv, and then to Lviv, she’d have to travel through more dangerous areas that had been subjected to heavy shelling.
That was when the insistent emails started coming in full force from Marilyn and Antonio to Kersch-Kibler: Wouldn’t it become only more dangerous the longer she stayed? They were watching millions of Ukrainians make the flight to safety on the news every day — why couldn’t Kersch-Kibler arrange that for Olya?
In mid-March, as Russian bombing continued around Sumy, Olya understood, through the agency, that the intended parents were eager for her to go to Lviv. She did not know them, which pained her — she would have liked, during those first few weeks, to have their support, the sweet emails back and forth she enjoyed during a previous surrogacy, a chance to tell them what she had done that day with her own daughter.
She appreciated their concern for her safety, but at home, she was comfortable — the air-raid sirens rang in her city only the first day of the war, and she heard no shelling. She read only light local news and kept her television viewing to the cartoons she watched with her daughter. The shops were open. Her friends were all staying put. Whenever she thought about leaving, she wasn’t sure she could summon the nerve — especially as the mayor advised against it. Without a green corridor, she had no intention of leaving, she told me, on Zoom from her house, a Hello Kitty calendar in the background. Olya was a single mother, who had steady work as a cleaning woman but turned to surrogacy for the sake of her daughter, to make sure she could keep her well fed and clothed, in a home that was cozy and comfortable. Her daughter occasionally showed up onscreen to smile shyly and put her head on her mother’s shoulder. Olya had not just her pregnancy to protect, but her daughter too.
On March 17, she received a call from Liubov, who explained that she’d been researching drivers from the various Facebook pages, with names like “Escape From Sumy” or “Evacuate Sumy.” Liubov personally spoke to a driver who said he had a microbus that he had used to make several safe trips to Kyiv; from Kyiv, Olya and her daughter could get on a train to Lviv. After speaking to him herself, Olya resolved to make the trip.
Before she left, Kersch-Kibler wrote to Antonio and Marilyn, letting them know the plan: “Do we have your permission to do this?” she wrote them. The responsibility she was laying at their feet was overwhelming, but they gave their consent.
That night, Liubov didn’t sleep — she had found this driver, and now she, too, felt she had some responsibility for everyone’s well-being. “Good morning?” she wrote to Olya at 5:20 a.m. from Krakow. “Write to me and let me know everything is OK.” Marilyn was at work on a night shift, in Wausau, Wis., trying not to think about anything but the jobs in front of her: the patients, the paperwork, the IV hookups.
At 6 a.m., Olya and her daughter boarded the microbus with six other people, all of whom were immediately charmed by her daughter — for the young girl, this trip started out as an exciting excursion. But it wasn’t long before the girl fell silent, along with the rest of the passengers. As the driver took circuitous routes, on unpaved roads and even through fields, Olya took in with her own eyes, for the first time, the full force of the war: The road was littered with burned cars, vehicles sometimes sheared fully in half, their twisted steel guts exposed, the roads, at times, choked with debris. Liubov texted her often. “I’m trying to keep my [expletive] together,” she admitted, sitting at the table in her apartment in Krakow, staring at her phone. She was checking it every five minutes. “I’m really worried,” she confessed to Olya by text.
“Yeah, so am I,” Olya wrote back. “What’s on the roads here is scary.”
Liubov sent back an emoji with its eyes downcast in distress, then three prayer hands. “Everything’s going to be fine,” she wrote.
The group drove through towns where the Russian flag flew. “Maybe we should stop to take it down,” the driver said. “It’s still our territory.” He was trying to lighten the mood, but no one spoke; Olya felt a chill. And then deep in her belly, she felt an ache — she worried she was bleeding. The pain got worse with the bumpiness of the road all along the way. They drove around a crater in the road so vast, so deep, at one point, they could only imagine the kind of artillery that caused it.
The train to Kyiv from her home usually took about four hours, but that day, the drive stretched on — they had been on the road for nine hours and they were still not close to Kyiv. For an interminable two-hour period, neither Hrytsiv nor Liubov heard from her, when she was driving through locations with no cellphone service. Olya had not brought enough food or water to sustain herself and her daughter for that duration of time. Her daughter accepted the driver’s generosity, but Olya could not eat — the pain in her belly was severe. Hrytsiv and Liubov were texting her, advising her to take various medications, but they did not help.
Finally, they drew closer to Kyiv, and Olya heard, also for the first time, the sound of shelling close by. “Get out of here fast,” a Ukrainian soldier told the driver with urgency. He had no time to suggest an alternate route to Kyiv with any real specificity — he just needed the vehicle somewhere else, immediately. Olya started to despair that they would ever arrive, except that the driver seemed to know what he was doing — or at least gave the impression that he would figure something else out.
Hrytsiv and Kersch-Kibler were in a hotel room in Krakow, where Hrytsiv had traveled for the day, when her phone rang. She looked up at Kersch-Kibler, her face breaking into a smile: “She’s in Kyiv!” she whispered, with evident joy. The drive had taken close to 12 hours.
Olya, a Delivering Dreams surrogate, and her daughter in Lviv in March. Oksana Parafeniuk for The New York Times
In Kyiv, now Olya was on her own, exhausted, in pain, with an equally tired 7-year-old, needing to call something like an Uber to take them to the train station, but her phone was at 1 percent. It was as if the phone had run out of energy at the moment she did — but it lasted just long enough for her to get the ride they needed. In the bathroom of the train station, she learned that what she feared had come to pass: She was bleeding, or at least there was discharge. She and her daughter got on the train to Lviv, at long last, and tried to sleep. “Can you schedule me an ultrasound?” she wrote Hrytsiv. “I’m really scared.”
She and her daughter arrived in Lviv at 4 a.m., but no one was there to meet them. Hrytsiv, who planned to pick them up, was on her way back from meeting with Kersch-Kibler in Krakow and ran into the problem of curfew. No one could be on the roads until 6 a.m., so that Hrytsiv and her driver ended up sleeping in the car for three hours, pulled over near the border. Finally, Hrytsiv made it to the train station, where Olya had been resting with her daughter in a separate room set aside for mothers and children. The two women, who had never met, embraced.
Just after 1 a.m., Marilyn, at work on a night shift, realized it was morning in Ukraine — she should have heard from Hrytsiv by then. She ducked into a tiny private room and reached out to ask if the agency had any news. Moments later she received a text from Kersch-Kibler: “She has arrived and is at the apartment.” The next day, an ultrasound revealed that the pregnancy was still stable. For the first time in a long while, Marilyn and Antonio felt something like tentative relief — maybe even hope.
Across town, at the hospital in Lviv, Maryna, on bed rest, talked every day to Nataliia. Maryna spent much of her time worrying about her family in Kherson. They went without power or water for 13 days. At times, food was hard to come by. On top of everything, her husband kept telling her he wanted to join the army. “Who’s going to take care of our kids?” she’d ask him. She spoke and texted with her family many times a day, which made the pain all the more excruciating when two days went by without any word from them.
She frequently went down to and back up from the hospital basement, which served as a bomb shelter, the sirens whining insistently in the area, a sound she came to loathe. She was rattled one morning in mid-March when she found herself in the basement, this time just feet from a bed where the doctors were performing C-section on a fellow surrogate. They had already started the procedure when the sirens sounded, and they were now completing it in a space crowded with other patients who had nowhere else to go. Maryna was close enough to hear doctors talking, making requests for stitches and more light. She was anxious for the well-being of the woman undergoing the surgery and concerned for the baby as well, while feeling intensely the discomfort of proximity to such an intimate moment. She could see the intended parents standing nearby, their faces pale.
The stress of the war heightened the anxiety of her pregnancy and forced new decisions on the agency, which created tensions with Maryna’s intended parents. That couple desperately wanted Maryna moved out of Lviv to Poland, but Kersch-Kibler explained to them that the doctors’ advice was not to move her because of the risk of premature labor. Both parties were concerned for the well-being of Maryna’s children, and Kersch-Kibler proposed one possibility for their evacuation; the intended parents, who judged that option unsound, rejected her proposal out of hand, insisting they’d handle it themselves. Over the course of March, the urgency and anguish fed resentments between the two parties until the relationship between the intended parents and the agency, and between Maryna and the agency, broke down over questions of her care. (Maryna and Nataliia declined to continue communicating with me.)
Maryna remained in close touch with her intended parents and hoped that they would be in Lviv for the delivery. They were in Warsaw; was it too risky for them to come? She knew they were anxious about the war, and about everyone’s safety; and she was not sure she wanted to subject them to what she was experiencing every day. “The air-raid sirens destroy you, emotionally and psychologically,” she’d said via Zoom from her hospital room.
In the end, when Maryna delivered the twins, both intended parents were by her side. Hrytsiv had been part of many bruising phone calls with them; but she had to admit, when she arrived at the hospital not long after Maryna delivered, that she admired the parents’ dedication. They had made it for the birth.
As her own delivery date grew closer, Liubov and her partner discussed what she would do after the baby was born. Her partner was urging her to stay in Krakow — he would send their son, somehow, to meet her, and at least the two of them would be safe. Kersch-Kibler, who was desperate for help with the surrogates, was encouraging her to stay in Krakow and continue to work for the agency. Despite the war, the agency was not shuttering its doors. Clients were still calling looking for women to carry their children. There would be future surrogates to be screened, and Liubov could help with that too. But Liubov longed to return to her hometown, to be with her extended family and to support her fellow Ukrainians.
She had taken a few days to conduct research on various hospitals, considering carefully where she should give birth. Poland was out of the question because of the lengthy adoption process. A hospital in Ukraine on the border of Hungary was situated somewhere safe — but from what she could glean from her research, the doctors’ reputations were not as strong as she would have liked. Lviv, she resolved, was where she would go to deliver. She was 37 weeks pregnant and in pain: The baby’s head was creating intense pressure in the small of her back. She wanted to give birth the following week, during the first week of April — if the doctor said the baby was big and healthy enough to do so. But the intended parents did not agree; they wanted her to wait until at least Week 39.
How much suffering should her body — should she, as a person — have to endure, beyond what was necessary, Liubov wondered. She suggested that the intended parents meet her in Lviv on Monday, April 4, when she had an appointment with a doctor for an ultrasound; together, with the doctor, they could all make the final decision about whether the baby was ready for delivery.
The family agreed to the plan. The week before, when she reached out to the parents to confirm that she’d see them on the 4th, to her surprise, they didn’t respond. Usually, they wrote to her within minutes — now, the hours ticked by. By their silence she knew: They weren’t coming to Lviv. That day, the couple only corresponded with Kersch-Kibler. They forwarded her an email they had received from the U.S. Embassy that advised strongly against their entering Ukraine. Finally, Liubov got a response from the intended parents. Yes, the message conceded, if the doctors were fine with inducing labor on the 4th, they were, too — that way, Liubov would be less uncomfortable, and she could get home sooner. They added with regret that they would not be there as they might be busy in Warsaw applying for an emergency passport for the baby.
Liubov had always expected that the intended parents would find a way to be present at the birth for her sake and the baby’s. Now she knew that wasn’t true. For nine months, she felt she had done her best for this child — she never went anywhere someone was smoking, she stayed away from soda and sweets, and most important, she even left the country she wanted to stay and defend. Liubov tried to be professional about her job, and she did not feel about this baby anything close to the way she did about her son when he was in her womb — when her partner rubbed her belly lovingly, when she sang lullabies to the boy she was growing into being. But even still, she said, three days before she’d head back to Lviv, “I’m not a stone. I have a heart.” And she felt for this baby: It would be left for some period with strangers at the hospital — she was not expected to spend time with the infant, for her own mental health, to make the separation easier. “I have no words,” she wrote back to the intended parents.
They responded gently: This was very difficult for them, and they were sure it was difficult for her as well. They tried to assuage her feelings — they recognized all she had done from the beginning. “Maybe I won’t answer now,” she replied. She knew she was feeling emotional and was afraid of what she would say. If the doctors felt there was some flexibility about when and if to induce, she determined, “I’m the one who decides.”
She had already resolved she would never be a surrogate again. She was filled with regret for the choice she had made, which had ended up having such enfeebling consequences — taking away the very reason she’d engaged in surrogacy in the first place, to amplify a sense of autonomy. “And what did I do it for?” Liubov wondered aloud. “A second car? I had a car.”
Liubov left Krakow on Saturday, April 2, for the hospital in Lviv. The doctors decided, in the end, that it was, in fact, best to wait a week before inducing. On Thursday, April 7, Liubov, alone in the hospital in the evening, felt sick to her stomach. Flashes of heat came over her body, but she could feel cold exhaling off the wall of her room, and standing, she pressed as much of herself against its cool surface, moaning from the pain. She forced herself to make it to the hallway, where she flagged down a nurse and informed her it was time: She was finally giving birth to the baby inside her.
The delivery took five hours. Once it was over, she was drained, so exhausted that when the air-raid siren sounded, she informed the medical staff still hovering nearby that she had no intention of going anywhere. One doctor insisted on remaining by her side for 15 minutes, but Liubov finally persuaded her she should go. And then she was alone. Even in her fog of fatigue, Liubov could feel it: relief. Freedom. When she had recovered even a little, it was as if she could finally breathe for the first time in months — the way it feels when you go into the mountains, she thought, and it’s almost more oxygen than you can take in.
Even though she advised other surrogate mothers not to visit with the babies they delivered, for their own well-being, and she had assumed that she would not see this baby, in the end, she changed her mind. She was able to take delight in that beautiful, sweet new life — and yet the child represented to her, more than anything, a job well done, and a temporary job at that. Her past and her future were waiting for her at home.
Four days after giving birth, Liubov boarded a bus that would take her home, heading east, away from Krakow, away from Lviv, on roads that showed, as she grew closer to her city, crumbling cars, bombed buildings, a maternity hospital that had been pummeled to pieces. The road was bumpy, hard on her tired body, and yet her overall feeling was elation. When she arrived home, there was her partner, waiting for her at the bus station, a man whom she had sworn many times, since the start of the war, she’d never again take for granted. She couldn’t stop touching him, his solidness, his thereness.
The same week that Liubov headed east, the baby she’d carried was heading west, first, to the border of Poland, in a car with Hrytsiv, a baby nurse and a driver. Liubov made Hrytsiv promise she would tell the truth after she brought the baby to the border — did the couple strike her as people who would be good parents? The report came back: She sensed strongly that they would be. The mother had remained in Poland, but when Hrytsiv met the father, right there in the car, on the Ukrainian side of the border, he instantly knew to change the diaper as soon as the baby cried. “He’ll be a great father,” Hrytsiv assured her. Liubov described all that had transpired in mid-April by Zoom from her own kitchen, a picture of sunflowers behind her; she looked lighter in every way.
By then, Nataliia was deep into her third trimester; and Olya was nearing her first-trimester mark. After a missile attack in Lviv took at least seven lives, Marilyn and Antonio requested that Olya be moved once more; Olya and her daughter prepared to pick up and relocate to Krakow for the remaining six months or so of her pregnancy. Liubov, who had worked out an arrangement with Kersch-Kibler that allowed her to keep working for the agency from Ukraine, was keeping an eye on both situations.
But that day in mid-April when we spoke, Liubov had only one future event in mind. The next day, she said, she would get in her car and drive two hours to surprise her son on his 14th birthday. He was meeting friends for a party at a gazebo; she’d bring fresh vegetables and a beloved banana cake from a well-known shop in the city. She intended to show up early in the morning, before his friends arrived for the party, so he could react privately to the unexpected reunion. When the weekend was over, she would take him back home, where they would remain with her secret intact. In a war full of terrible sorrow and stories, it was for the best, she thought, that this story remain her own.