Family & Education

A mother's surrogacy story

Sophie Beresiner's journey to motherhood was long and difficult, after cancer treatment left her infertile. She told Gaby Wine how, with the help of a surrogate, her dreams came true


On an unusually peaceful morning in Sophie Beresiner’s south-east London home, she is telling me about the last time she was interviewed over Zoom. “Marlies was meant to be napping, but she had other ideas and was climbing all over my keyboard.” We laugh about how babies invariably put the kibosh on parental ‘me time’. Marlies is now in nursery, so our interview — and the keyboard — should remain intact.

With a different interviewee, chit-chat about their one-year-old would be little more than pre-interview small talk. But in this case, we’re talking about Marlies’s arrival into the world after many difficult years of fertility treatment.

Readers of Beresiner’s award-winning Sunday Times column, The Mother Project, will know that cancer ten years ago left her infertile. Her wish for a baby took her on multiple journeys to Russia, where she underwent IVF using donor eggs and suffered two heartbreaking miscarriages. Beresiner and her husband, whom she affectionately refers to as “Mr B”, then embarked on surrogacy, firstly in the States, before having their much longed-for baby via a UK surrogate.

The 41-year-old has now put everything down in a book of the same name, dissecting the complex and often conflicting emotions that can come with fertility treatment. She writes vividly about the process of finding an egg donor, what IVF involves and the agonising “Two Week Wait” before each pregnancy test. The book also sheds light on two very different surrogacy models — altruistic surrogacy in the UK, where fees are illegal, and the hugely expensive practice of commercial surrogacy in the States.

While writing the columns was cathartic, the book, written after events, was harder than anticipated. “I would go back and reference emails I had with the Russian clinic, and it would fill me with the same feelings of dread and anxiety.”

The Mother Project isn’t a guide for people undergoing fertility treatment. “I think it’s a book about womanhood, ”she says, describing it as a “memoir meets manifesto.” But it’s not just for women. “Anyone who’s even considered parenthood, whether they’re a parent or not, I think it talks to them.”

It’s not a “misery memoir”, she insists. “I know this topic really lends itself to that, but I can’t describe it as a miserable experience. It was hugely incredible and joyful and amazing at lots of points, as well as the total opposite at lots of points.” Indeed, even when capturing moments of immense sadness, the book is buffered by her sharp wit, protecting the reader — and perhaps also the writer — from feeling the depth of pain behind it. “I would say that I have quite a dry sense of humour and I’ve always found that’s naturally how I deal with situations. I would rather kind of brush them off. I don’t know how healthy that is!”

After each unsuccessful round of IVF at the Russian clinic, within a few days, she would book another trip back to St Petersburg. One wonders if that inner strength comes from having fought a previous medical battle. “Until I had cancer, I hadn’t — and still haven’t — had a filling, so I wasn’t equipped with this super strength. I have a few friends who have sadly been diagnosed with cancer since then and I say to them: ‘You don’t even know what you’re capable of until you have to go through something and you will be amazed at how you just keep going. You just have to.’”

But she says her pursuit of motherhood wasn’t born out of resilience, moreover out of near desperation, the kind experienced by a gambling addict, “I kept saying, ‘What do we do?’ It’s more and more money and more and more emotion and more and more time. And the longer it goes on, the more we have to lose, so we just can’t stop because we’ll never come to terms with it.” It was only on doctor’s orders that she stopped IVF treatment so she could restart her cancer prevention medication.

Having previously rejected the idea of surrogacy, once the decision was made, there was a surprising sense of relief. “I felt, ‘It’s going to happen now, and I’m not responsible for it happening or not.’”

Surrogacy falls into two categories: traditional, where the surrogate’s own egg is used and gestational, where the egg of the intended mother is used or a donor egg. Beresiner and her husband went down the latter route with a donor egg.

Under UK law, the woman who carries the child and her partner are the legal parents at birth and the intended parents must apply for a parental order. The surrogate is given a six-week window after the birth to decide if she wants to keep the baby. The fear of a devastating about-turn was why Beresiner firstly decided to seek surrogacy abroad.

But after several unsuccessful surrogate matches in America, a mum-of-two from London called Rebecca got in touch, having read about their plight: “I would give anything to help someone struggling deeply to be something most of us take for granted.” Beresiner recounts the two women’s instantaneous connection and the strong bond the two couples formed. “It’s our intention to be in touch forever. It’s like they’re part of our family.”

Now looking into having a second child, Beresiner is delighted that a new organisation, My Surrogacy Journey, has been set up. “They offer a really, really good surrogate support process, and I’m hoping that they’ll be a vehicle for change in the UK. We have a long way to go here in terms of making surrogacy a better supported process for everyone involved and better regulated, but I wholeheartedly feel that the commercial model is not the best model.”

Beresiner says that the most testing times ultimately brought the couple closer. “They reinforced our relationship and our capacity to love each other and love this baby, who feels astoundingly special.”

They had the rare experience of both going through the pregnancy “from the outside. We would lie in bed and look at the Pregnancy Plus app and get all excited imagining this foetus on the other side of London, rather than in my belly, that he couldn’t experience. So, in a way, that was really special.”

Between 2011 and 2018, the number of babies born via surrogacy in the UK tripled from 121 to 368. According to the charity Chana, which provides fertility support to Jewish couples, the rate of surrogate pregnancies within the community is likely to reflect that of the wider population. “It’s fair to say that fertility treatment in general has become more accessible, and surrogacy is one of the avenues people use to achieve the dream of having a family,” says Dr Veronique Berman, scientific advisor and community development manager at Chana.

In her book, Beresiner describes a particularly poignant scene between herself and her father. Just before flying to America with Rebecca for the embryo transfer, he presented her with a mezuzah on a chain, which he had been given before volunteering with the Israeli army. He had placed a small piece of rolled-up paper inside with the words mazel tov “and said that this time I could take a part of him along with me.” But en route to the airport, Beresiner noticed the paper was missing. “I thought, ‘This is a bad sign. That’s it.’ I was so upset. I called him and he said: ‘Don’t be silly. It’s just a silly piece of paper. You’re taking me there. I’ll be there in spirit and it’s all going to be okay.’”

Her Jewish heritage made another appearance when deciding on names. “We had about four years of thinking about babies’ names and we found it really hard to settle on one we both loved.” In the end, they stumbled across the name Marlies and loved it. “Much later, when I looked up the meaning, I found out it’s of Hebrew origin and means: ‘Wished for child’. Isn’t that crazy?”

The book ends just as they find out that Rebecca is pregnant with their baby, which may leave readers wondering how she felt when Marlies was finally handed to her. “I really worried that, particularly witnessing the birth, I would feel like I was holding Rebecca’s baby. But (in reality,) there just wasn’t space for that feeling in my heart or in my consciousness. I felt absolute joy. Joy isn’t even the right word— relief, calm, joy, terror, everything all at once.”

While lockdown was not the parental experience they had anticipated, it did give them precious time to cocoon with their new baby. “We just have to look at her and remember she represents so much of both of her parents, which is really lovely because I could perhaps feel that I wasn’t as instrumental in making her. But because of everything that we went through and who we are on the other side, I really was.”


The Mother Project is published by HarperCollins


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