Sarah Short remembers being 19 years old, staring at the bill from the hospital where she gave birth to her daughter. It added up to about $10,000. "There's the anesthesia, the hospital stay, and the doctor—and I just laughed," she tells me. "I was like, 'I can't pay this.'"
Sarah had health insurance, but it didn't cover obstetrics. And she'd waited too long into her pregnancy to apply for Medicaid. She felt guilty about bringing so much debt into her new marriage—she married her boyfriend right before her baby was born—and when the bill went to collections, the dollar amount climbed even higher.
"I would just get so overwhelmed and I would be like we're never going to be able to get out from under this," Sarah told me. "And it felt like it was all my fault." So, she started researching ways that she could make money to pay off her bill. She tried to sell her eggs, but says she wasn't what the clinic wanted in an egg donor. "But you're a great candidate for surrogacy," she remembers being told. Soon after Sarah filled out an application at a surrogacy agency, she met the parents she'd be working with—a lesbian couple who turned to surrogacy after years of trying to adopt.
Sarah ended up having twins for the couple, although this pregnancy and childbirth were very different from what Sarah went through giving birth to her own children. "When my son was born I looked at him…and it was a huge profound moment in my life that I remember," Sarah says. "When the twins were born they didn't look like me, and they weren't mine. I wanted them to get to their parents."
Even after giving birth, Sarah's work wasn't over. For several months, she pumped breast milk for the twins, which she also got paid for. Still, she's careful when she explains how much money she made from surrogacy: around $40,000. "I'm always reticent just to tell people just a flat number because it sounds so high and it sounds like I sold these babies for this amount of money," she says. "When in actuality I had a part-time job for two years."
That part-time job helped Sarah pay off her medical bills and make a down payment on a new house. She describes her life today as "a life that I could have never pictured for myself a few years ago." But when Sarah recently tried to become a surrogate again, she realized that the process might not go as smoothly the second time. "Why is this not working? This doesn't make sense," Sarah told me. "It felt like I'd been fired, because I'd had this thought of, I have this job, I'm gonna have this income, and then I didn't."