A large chalkboard in the kitchen of the Sherman Oaks home of Sam and Rachel Simkin proclaims, “Please excuse the mess, we are making memories.” Those memories are being made with their children: Jonah, 9, Penina, 7, Vered, 4, and their 12-year-old golden retriever, Nagy.
Rachel, 38, is finishing pumping breast milk for the fourth baby she gave birth to in November. He was nicknamed “Baby G” while in utero. However, he is not the Simkins’ son. Rachel was a gestational surrogate, implanted with an embryo created via in vitro fertilization with Mr. and Mrs. G’s egg and sperm.
The G’s (who asked not to be identified for this story) have been good friends with the Simkins for six years. The two families live four blocks from each other and Penina and the G’s 7-year-old daughter are best friends. Unfortunately, shortly after she gave birth to their daughter, the G’s learned that Mrs. G would not be able to carry another child.
However, while Rachel says the surrogacy path that brought them together was ultimately bashert, it was not one either couple ever envisaged. The Simkins had no idea that the G’s had attempted to find a surrogate for years via an agency but had given up on the idea. The couple was daunted by both the finances involved (surrogates via agencies are compensated anywhere between $100,000 and $150,000 for their services) and halachic concerns about the surrogate needing to be Jewish.
The desire to be a surrogate was something that Rachel felt strongly about. An occupational therapist who works in several Los Angeles Unified School District schools, she’s surrounded by children on a daily basis. “I know that my body works,” she says. “I can be pregnant. I enjoy it and I’ve had really amazing successful pregnancies and births, and I feel like it’s this gift that I didn’t do anything to receive.”
Sam also had no problem with the idea. “We both looked at it from the beginning as something we could do for someone else,” he says. “It was more about the logistical questions of who we would want to do this for.”
The Simkins ultimately decided to take the private surrogacy route, also known as altruistic surrogacy, partly because Rachel felt uncomfortable being paid. They drew up a list of friends and family members whom they knew were struggling to have children.
Then, in November 2015, Rachel invited a few close friends, including Mrs. G, to celebrate her 36th birthday at the Arboretum. “I was walking with [Mrs. G] and she asked me how I felt about turning 36. I said, ‘I feel like I’ve reached this point in my life and there’s something I’ve really been wanting to do and that’s be a surrogate.’ And [Mrs. G] almost fell over and then told me their story.”
It took several months and lots of legal paperwork and contracts and medical decisions before the deal was sealed with the G’s. “I cried,” Rachel recalls. “It felt like a huge relief that we had finally made this decision and [the G’s] were just over the moon with gratitude.”
Throughout the pregnancy (which took on the first attempt), Rachel says there was a definite psychological shift. “I didn’t have the same kind of emotional attachment to the baby that I had to my own kids. I felt a commitment, but with our children, Sam and I would lie on the bed and feel the baby and there was a connection between us — but in this case, that just didn’t exist.”
“There’s just so much taboo about it in the Jewish community. People are uncomfortable with surrogacy unless it’s for a gay couple.” — Rachel Simkin
One of the biggest conversations the couples had was whether Baby G’s father would be in the delivery room. “We just wanted whatever he would be comfortable with,” Rachel says. “I mean, what would it be like for him to see me giving birth and then see me as a friend afterward?” In the end, Mr. G was in the delivery room (“he took tons of pictures”) Rachel says, “and I could hear him saying over and over, ‘Thank you so much, Rachel.’ ”
Mrs. G was sitting at Rachel’s feet and when the doctor delivered the baby, the umbilical cord was long enough to reach Mrs. G. Baby G was immediately placed on her chest.
An hour after she gave birth, Rachel held Baby G. for the first time. “I was excited to hold him,” she recalls, “but I did not feel like I was holding my baby. I think there was this cognitive override.” She pauses, struggling to describe her emotions. “[His mother] was standing next to me as I held him, and I could look up at her and see this overwhelming joy that she had, and that just spilled over. It felt like I could actually, physically hold joy in my arms.”
As to possible concerns that she might feel a sense of loss and emptiness after she gave birth, this was something the Simkins had discussed at length with a therapist when they started the surrogacy process. “My therapist warned me I might feel these things and that it was normal. Knowing I was allowed to feel those things made it OK.” But, Rachel says, she never did feel them. And three months after giving birth, she still doesn’t. Rather, she says, the loss she feels is of no longer being a surrogate. “It’s not my identity anymore and I have to let that go.”
However, she says she feels that her next step in this process is to go out and become an advocate for surrogacy. “There’s just so much taboo about it in the Jewish community. People are uncomfortable with surrogacy unless it’s for a gay couple.”
Rachel mentions how she knew of one family that left its synagogue community because it was simply too painful for them to watch their friends have children when they couldn’t. “I would like to see more people embrace being a surrogate or wanting to find a surrogate,”
For now, life has returned to normal. The Simkins still see the G’s regularly and Rachel is delivering breast milk to the family every couple of days. The G family now knows her as “Auntie Rachie.” “We wanted something that wasn’t, ‘the surrogate’ or a name that other family members would call me.” she says. “And overall, our relationship with the G’s is even more full and enriching than we expected.”
As for the Simkin children? How to make everything clear to them was also discussed with their therapist. “Kids are resilient,” Rachel says. “We were clear so there were no gray areas for them. The baby was never ours to begin with and they never thought he was their brother.”
Just then, Sam returns with Vered from preschool. She launches herself into Rachel’s lap, wanting to know who the visiting reporter is. “We’re talking about Baby G,” Rachel says. “OK,” Vered replies. “It’s time to go to ballet. Where’s my tutu?”
With that, she wriggles off the sofa and runs to her room, ready to create more family memories with tulle and tights.