A Steady Bow: Month One

It is the 28th of December 2022, right in the heart of that delicious limbo week between Christmas and New Year.  Most people are (hopefully) home with loved ones, satiated and resting. Many, who like me, live in the southern hemisphere are planning to head to the beach or find any body of water where they can be cool on this gorgeous summer’s day. Today I am in a clinic though, in a darkened room with no windows – and there is no place I would rather be.

TOWARDS A PATH WITH HEART

To get to this day of embryo transfer has taken over a year, and I am even more sure that this is what I want to do than when I first offered to be a gestational surrogate in October 2021. I have started this blog so that you can come on this unusual journey with me, both the one that led up today and the mystery of what lies ahead. 

I imagine that there are many things about which you are curious, and I hope that I can answer your questions. Many wonder, out loud or to themselves, if it is wise to (help to) bring a child into this world when everything seems especially precarious and fragile. 

Our country and our world are in a tight corner. Politics gives scant cause for hope, evidence of inequality and injustice abounds and anxiety about climate change climbs as yet another COP summit has forged no real commitment to making the sacrifices that are clearly necessary…. 

It is in this context that I have kept this quote from Vaclac Havel close for a while now. He observed that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the conviction that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” So what is worth doing? I wonder. How and who do I want to be? And what in particular is mine to do? What makes sense in a world that often leaves me feeling powerless and overwhelmed? I know I am not alone in asking these questions.

2021 was a tough year for me. I experienced many losses, including separating from the father of my two girls and moving out of our shared home. Midway through the year I wrote this poem that I initially called Brokenheartedness. But then I changed the title to Wholeheartedness, the quality which, along with generosity, I was realising was more important to me than anything else:

   I am learning to live with my heart constantly broken open.

   Because this is how I choose to be.

   Because this is how I grow.

 

   Like a farmer, or a teacher, or a parent,

   I keep reaching inside myself and sharing what I find.

   I offer my being, sometimes just a simple smile, as shade and water.

 

   Some seeds send down shoots into the fecund earth,

   the mystery of their growth still invisible to me.

   Some emerge – oh joy! – reaching for the sun.

   

   And some stall or wither on arid soil, 

   taking dreams and hopes of mine with them.

 

   Could I have prepared the ground better?

   Absolutely.

   Could I have tended with more care and patience?

   No doubt.

 

   I learn.

   I till the soil a little better.

   I pay more attention.

   I forgive myself,

   and I keep on sowing.

 

   It’s the only thing I know to do.

   It’s the only thing I can do.

   It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

 

   To love. To believe. To share. To participate in Life.

   To give thanks when seeds grow, and when they die.

   To be grateful to feel closer to God.

 

At the time of writing this poem, the idea of being a gestational surrogate and nurturing another human’s seed within my body had not occurred to me. I just knew that I was done numbing myself in order to live as I thought others needed or expected me to and that, even through heartbreak, it was possible to keep my heart open. I was committed to following what Carlos Castaneda calls “a path with heart”. About this he counsels, “All paths are the same, they lead nowhere… but one path has heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey, as long as you follow it, you are one with it… A path without heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard to even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy, it does not work at making you like it.”

And so it was that in October of last year I arrived on time (hence early by Cape Town standards) for the 70th birthday party of a dear mentor of mine named Judy. Not many people were there yet, and I fell into conversation with two very good-looking men. I learnt that they had married recently and both done rites of passage work with Judy and her wife, Valerie. I remember being struck by their kindness with each other and a real sense of beauty about them that was more than skin deep.  I moved on, had fun on the dance floor and two weeks later came across an image of the same couple on Facebook in a poster a friend of theirs had shared. They were looking for a gestational surrogate, and the criteria included someone who was motivated by altruistic reasons, had at least one child already and was employed or earning an income. The poster stipulated that age was not a factor, providing a health assessment was clear.

“Now there’s an experience in generosity,” I thought… I closed my eyes and felt into my body. It was a clear, “Yes”. Everything in me felt aligned and alive. Having lived most of my 42 years thus far disconnected from my body,  learning to check in like this was a new practice I had been honing for 2 years since discovering Zen Coaching. In this approach one directs attention into the sensations in one’s body in the moment, establishes a sense of connection and then discerns just one action – the next right step. 

For me, the next step was to write to the men, which I did. I told myself that I would just keep taking one step at a time. If the way was easy and flowed, I would consider these “green ticks” and keep proceeding. Meeting them the following week was one such tick. Their home was as gorgeous as they were, and there was a real sense of substance about them too. I was struck by how thoughtful they were about parenthood and how prepared they were. Bunk beds and a treehouse had already been built, difficult conversations had been broached…

We discussed many things that night, our families and backgrounds especially, and how we might be connected through the pregnancy and beyond. They would come to all the doctors’ appointments, visit the baby regularly while I was pregnant and be present at the birth. But the baby would go straight into their arms and I would not be involved once born, unless along the way we decided to revise that. I asked that my girls and I could meet the baby when they were about a week old and that we could get a picture every year on their birthday after that. We recognised that, especially as we had mutual friends and lived near to each other, we might bump into each other occasionally and that we would not make rigid parameters for contact.

Discussing the surrogacy with my ten year old was another green tick. We were walking on Cape Town’s glorious Sea Point Promenade in December 2021 when an opportunity presented itself. She was talking about how her father’s girlfriend wanted children and she asked me if I wanted more children. I told her how doctors had told me I would not be able to have children (because I had polycystic ovarian syndrome) and how deeply grateful I was that, to my surprise, I had conceived and carried both her and her younger sister to term easily. 

I explained that some people could not have biological children for various reasons and that I had recently met the Dads who were so ready and eager to be parents, just like her father and I had been. I explained to her how surrogacy worked and that the Dads would use a donor egg so that the baby that I might carry would not be her sibling. I told her that this felt like a way I could pay it forward for the deep gift that my children were in my life. Being naturally curious and scientifically orientated, she had lots of questions and then became thoughtful and fell into silence.  A few hours later, when we were back home, she lifted her head from a book and announced,

“Mom, I think you should do this.”

“Why, my Darling?” I asked.

“Because it will bring more joy into the world!”

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THE PATHS THAT LEAD ME HERE

I work as an advocate for hospices and an end-of-life companion. Many tell me they do not understand how I work so close to death and dying consistently, but I love my work, as do so many in the palliative care sector. It feels like a privilege and sacred work. Death and loss are realities that we often shy away from, but living up close to this and talking about this often feels real and sane to me. It grounds me and keeps me facing in the right direction, though sometimes it does get heavy. So the idea of cultivating new life while continuing to work in this space, feels like both good medicine and a stretch.

The writer and mystic Andrew Harvey contends that in the face of loss and grief it is imperative that we adopt a “rigorous discipline of joy” and I love this. Life’s tragedies, injustices and losses can close us or we can allow them to make us more tender and compassionate. My consistent prayer is to be opened so that I can be with life exactly as it is, with all the joy, terror, pain and beauty. 

I was initiated into loss early in my life. My friend Damian died by suicide when we were both 15 years old. I had seen him that morning. It was the first day of the Spring holidays, and we discussed our plans. He told me he was “going to lie in the grass” and invited me to the movies that night. I was dismissive, holding the hope that I might see his older brother instead. And as it turned out, his brother was at my home that evening when their mother called, wailing. My Mom drove us across town in the dark that night and I will never forget how, as we approached their farmhouse, a solitary candle was burning in the window. In that moment a surreal sense of peace came over me that I had never felt before. I found that I intuitively knew what to do and how to be with Damian’s family. I stayed with them for most of the next week, providing comfort where I could, up until his funeral, at which I spoke. His body had been found in a patch of grass up by the dam just behind their home, where he had shot himself and his father had found him lying.

I returned to school after that week-long holiday, grappling with guilt and so many questions. I was probably his closest friend and yet I had missed his cues. I had not listened well. In addition, many things were changing in that October of 1994. South Africa was a fledgling democracy and, having grown up privileged and white, I felt my world expanding at an exhilarating rate. I wanted to get to really know the peers from which apartheid had forcibly kept me separate. I wanted to figure out what our role as young people was in our promising new country, and I wanted to listen this time, really listen. I formed my first NGO – called Youth with Vision – left school half way through Grade 11 and began homeschooling myself so that I could condense the last 18 months of my schooling into 6 and begin a university programme on leadership early – but that is a story for another day.

Whether it has been starting and growing organisations, teaching myself and beginning university at 16, retooling my career in education to work with those who are dying or offering to be a gestational surrogate, people have often remarked on how courageous I seem. But it has never felt like that to me, it is more like a madness, a kind of otherworldly certainty that seizes you when you know what is yours to love – whether that is a place, a project or a person. I have felt that feeling many times in my life and I have come to trust it. I have also learnt to wait and be patient if I do not feel what the poet Mary Oliver refers to in a poem called West Wind #2 as, “that unmistakable pounding.” Of this she writes:

“You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life toward it.”

If anything, that might be what makes me a bit different and seemingly courageous – it is that, mostly, I have heeded this sincere injunction of hers. Choosing a “path with heart”, many times over, has required me to face my greatest fears – something I may write more about in time to come. The paths I have chosen and want to keep choosing lead, I trust, to increasing open-heartedness and wholeheartedness. And so we return to the story I began with…

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DECISION TIME

Having engaged with the Dads and decided to take the next step, my following conversation was with their lawyer, a specialist in fertility matters. He explained to me that South Africa has progressive and thorough laws for surrogacy and that the three of us would need to submit an application to the court that included medical, psychological and criminal checks. 

I asked him whether I should provide the baby with breastmilk as well, something I was leaning towards as my role was to give them the best head start that I could. Interestingly, he advised against it saying that a) the quality of some formula milk is very high these days, and b) it was probably a bridge too far for my children. He recommended that there should be a line in the sand, a time when my children got me back just for themselves and that this should be when I returned from the hospital. To return without a baby but still be expressing milk a few times a day for them would probably be hard for them. Rather express colostrum for the baby whilst still in hospital, take medicine to dry up my milk and return home and give my girls my full attention. Torn as I was, this made sense to me and provided some comfort even. I would give and do everything I could up until the baby was born and that would be the line, for my girls and myself.

The next step was to have blood tests done and have a physical examination at the fertility clinic. Happily, as a dear friend remarked afterwards, my “geriatric uterus passed the test”. Then I had to fill out a 27-page questionnaire for the psychologist and go and meet her. I passed that test too, as well as the criminal checks – phew! The Dads had to have similar assessments done, and we remarked wryly at the time that it is a pity that all potential parents are not screened as thoroughly. 

The last thing that I wanted to make sure of, before I signed the Surrogacy Agreement that the lawyer had drawn up and we submitted our extensive paperwork to the courts, was that my daughters were both comfortable to proceed. So in January 2022, I took them to meet the Dads. The girls warmed to them as quickly as I had, and it helped that they had extremely cute dogs. As we drove away, I asked them, 

“So girls, how do you feel about the surrogacy now?” 

My matter-a-fact ten-year old answered,  “Well Mom, I was worried about how they would afford a child, but now that I’ve seen their home I am not worried about that anymore!”

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TALKING THE WALK

This was something I had been pondering: It is well and good to be generous, but I am doing this for two men who are already resourced in many ways. Their child would have two fathers in a country where so many children grow up without any. Was there any way that this act of mine could reach further, and touch other lives? 

I discussed documenting our journey with the Dads but, for many good reasons, they were reticent about participating. As the months went on I kept mulling this over. Years ago as I was shifting out of the education sector and training to be a “death doula” I started a website called Soulfullness, a reflection of my own exploration and inspirations as I sought to live with meaning and connection. I have been so busy transitioning in many ways since then that there is not a lot of content on this site yet, but in the year ahead I intend to change this. 

I reverted to the Dads to ask if they were comfortable for me to share my own experience of helping to bring new life into the world whilst protecting their privacy, and they graciously agreed. My intention is to weave this through with reflections on other themes that I keep returning to – like dying and grief, spirituality, parenting and climate change. These are heavy topics (none of which I am an expert on) but, as I began, my inclination is towards mature hope and a rigorous discipline of joy and my aim is to share this with those who want to come along with me for the next year, whatever it may bring.

So from here on I’ll share a monthly post, called ‘A Steady Bow” that is inspired by these lines from Khalil Gibran’s prose On Children,

“Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself

They come through you but not from you

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you…For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves the bow that is stable.”

If you have young people in your midst, or not, and care deeply about our future as humans on this planet, you might, like me, be interested in this question of how we step forward as stable bows in times that are likely to be increasingly turbulent. This is what I am exploring in many ways in my life, including quite literally by availing my body as a vehicle for a child who is not mine. If you would like to come with me on this journey over the next year, you will be invited to contribute to my crowdfunding campaign to raise money to build a home for a fatherless two-year old who lives in a township in Cape Town. More information can be found below but for now, back to our story once again…

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GETTING THE GREEN LIGHT

Finally in October 2022, a full year after I first felt that first “Yes”, we learnt that our court application had been approved. I checked in with my body again and there was no doubt at all. I consulted with my girls and they were slightly nervous but also excited, and so I stepped up my preparatory measures. Often a lazy eater, I sought to improve my diet and started taking high quality vitamins, in addition to the daily supplement I had been using. I became more disciplined about doing either yoga or walking each day. I also began writing to the little one and one of my poems for them is included at the end of this post.

The fertility clinic checked to ensure that the anonymous egg donor the Dads had chosen was still available and, as she is a student currently, plans were made for her eggs to be retrieved after her end-of-year exams. On the 5th of December 2022 I visited the clinic for an injection that shut down my own egg production, temporarily kicking me into early menopause a few months shy of my 44th birthday! Thankfully, they gave me hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and I started taking high doses of oestrogen the next day. Most likely because I started HRT so quickly, I experienced no side effects over the following weeks and, I have to admit I felt a bit robbed as I really was hoping to experience a hot flush. But my friends who have tell me that was very foolish of me!

It was on this same visit that the nursing sister explained to me how the process of embryo transfer would work. It sounded like a special moment in the process, something I had not appreciated, and so I invited the Dads to come with me, but they had plans to be out of town that they could not change. Any family representative that they wanted to send then perhaps? I asked. 

They pondered this and proposed, “How about Valerie and Judy?”

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TRANSFER DAY

And so it was that my beloved mentors – who have been in my corner ever since I was 15, who sponsored my very first Youth With Vision camp and are the reason that I met the Dads in the first place – were both with me when embryo transfer took place today.  They arrived at the clinic with glee, introducing themselves to the medical team as the “honourary grandparents”, and all three of us were mesmerised by the careful explanations that unfolded. 

We learned, for example, that the embryologists looking through a microscope can only tell if an embryo is beautiful looking but not if it is nice i.e. healthy. In this way, it is much like meeting a person and going on appearances. But our bodies know. Once an embryo is in the uterus, scientists have witnessed the lining literally reaching out and embracing the embryo and drawing it in. This is called implantation and it takes place between 24-48 hours after transfer. If, however, the embryo is not “nice”, my lining would not engage at all and, about a week later, the embryo and the lining leave my body as menses.

“The uterine brain…” Judy marvelled out loud. 

Next, the gynaecologist took us to the laboratory where we could see live images of the three eggs that had been fertilised on a screen – exactly 118,8 hours before according to the counter that was running. It was clear that one of the eggs had not developed, and the embryologists ran an astonishing video sequence that showed how the other two eggs had multiplied and changed dramatically over the  previous five days. They explained why they had chosen the embryo that they would place inside my uterus, leaving the other one to be frozen for use if this transfer did not work. 

Then I was taken to the “transfer room”, asked to lie down on a bed and position my legs in stirrups. Once a blanket was demurely over my bottom half, the doctor and her assistant came in with Valerie and Judy. What followed was like the process of preparing for a pap smear and then a thin catheter was inserted into my uterus. On another screen above us, the chosen embryo came into focus and we watched as it was picked up from the petri dish it was lying in by a tube and washed through the catheter into my body. This was the moment, one of many along the way, and I reached out for Judy’s hand. The microscope image came back into view and we could see that the embryo was no longer in the tube. And that was that. The doctor said I could do flick flacks if I wanted to, the precious embryo was now safely inside me.

Unsure of what to do with ourselves after such an eventful half hour, the three of us emerged into the sunshine and decided to go and enjoy lunch at the venue where Judy had had her 70th and I had met the Dads for the first time. I sent them a picture of the healthy food I was eating and the non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice I was toasting with, and Valerie sent them the many videos she had made during our time in the clinic. Later, the Dads sent a voice note to say how included they felt throughout and how, like us, they were amazed by the process and what we had witnessed.

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WAITING

A few people have asked me if I am prepared for the disappointment I might feel if this first attempt does not work. It is hard to know how to prepare for this but, after today at least, I appreciate that it will be for the best and indication of my body’s wisdom. Either way, something incredibly miraculous is taking place inside me as I write this and my job is simply to wait – a topic I might write about next month. 

I hope that you will join me on this journey.

Details about how you can do so can be found below.

Until next month’s update, when we will know whether or not I am pregnant, I leave you with a poem I recently wrote for the little one to be:

I have been praying to you for just over a year now.

Asking you to guide me if you wanted my help to come into this world.

What a crazy contract we have, dearest Beloved Being,

as your fathers call you.

 

I think I will call you BB for short.

 

I, who hope to have the privilege of feeling you manifest physically first.

Oh the outrageous joy of that initial, almost indiscernible flutter,

that steadily becomes a rolling feast in my belly!

Of having another’s heart beat, quite literally, in harmony with mine.

For nine full months, we trust.

 

How I will weep when you are released from my body and received into your parents’ arms!

And how, strangely perhaps, I long to feel so utterly bereft…

My body spent from being so thoroughly well used.

My soul and my heart stretched as wide as they can possibly be.

 

Dear imperceptible BB,

who exists nonetheless,

who has yet to be conceived outside of my womb,

whom l dream might come to make me bigger in every possible way…

Know that I will envelop you in warmth and cradle you lovingly,

so that so many more than just I

may experience the unimaginable gifts you can offer….

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NB: In the future monthly updates will be password protected on this site. To follow A Steady Bow over the months to come please visit https://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/zintle-moko-5482201978217026531 and make a donation of any amount (modest donations will be appreciated as much as big ones). Please be sure to include your email address in the box that asks you too “Please enter a short message.” I will then send a password to you via email so that you can access the updates to come.

Kindly note that unnamed / anonymous donations will be difficult to track. If you have any questions, please send an email to leigh@soulfull.co.za 

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While we wait, you can join us in listening to the some of the music that the Dads and I are currently playing for BB:

  • Morning Sun by Melody Gardot
  • Lost Words Blessing by Spell Songs
  • We Might As Well Dance by Madeleine Peyroux
  • The Thula Project: An Album of South African Lullabies