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The Nightmare of Being a Surrogate Mother in Wartime

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.

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