An English couple, a Ukrainian surrogate and a baby: the extraordinary story of how war united two unlikely families | Surrogacy

One cold day in December 2021, a former primary schoolteacher in Suffolk opened her laptop, clicked on a Zoom link and was introduced to a beautician in Ukraine who would carry her baby. Dorothy, then 43, and her husband Charlie, 44, who worked for a printing company, had been trying to conceive for eight years. When the last attempt ended in miscarriage, a consultant had suggested surrogacy.

The agency had sent a number of women’s profiles to choose from. Among them was Anastasia. She had a young son called Alexander, a pet hamster, and didn’t like fish or aubergines. She had a soft round face, dark hair down to her shoulders and a way of looking at her child that Dorothy thought was tender.

Dorothy asked if she could meet Anastasia on Zoom. She had no illusions about the surrogate’s motivation: of course, it came down to money. “But I wanted to check she was happy to work with me.”

When she dialled in, Anastasia was in the agency’s office in Kyiv, with the agency’s “parent-coordinator”, acting as her translator. Both women felt nervous. Dorothy was touched by Anastasia’s empathy. Anastasia thought Dorothy had “good energy”. They agreed to work together: Dorothy and Charlie’s DNA, Anastasia’s body, at a cost of £43,000. They thanked each other and said goodbye, fully expecting never to see or talk to each other again (the agency recommended this “for their own protection”).

But even as they spoke, the world they inhabited was spinning out of control. Approximately 100,000 Russian troops were gathered on the border of Ukraine. When Russia invaded, on 24 February 2022, 42 British babies were being carried by Ukrainian surrogates. Anastasia was one of them. This is the story of what happened to the surrogacy industry amid that chaos – and the extraordinary steps Dorothy and Charlie took to keep Anastasia and the baby safe.

Ukraine is one of the few countries where commercial surrogacy is legal, along with Russia, Mexico, Iran and parts of the US. The Czech Republic and Cyprus neither legalises, regulates nor prohibits surrogacy, and the UK permits only “altruistic” surrogacy, where a surrogate can be paid “reasonable expenses”. Surrogacy policies in Ukraine are permissive, especially with respect to the “intended parents” who are regarded as legal parents from birth. In addition, the price is competitive. In the US, surrogacy can cost up to $300,000 (£235,000). In Ukraine, before the war, the cost was £23,000 to £47,000, around £17,000 of it paid to the surrogate (the average wage in Ukraine before the war was roughly £495 a month).

The boom started in 2015, when Thailand and India banned commercial surrogacy for foreigners. Financial instability, triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, meant there were plenty of Ukrainian women willing to be surrogates. By 2018, the country was believed to account for a quarter of the global surrogacy market. One Kyiv-based lawyer estimates that, before the war, 2,000-2,500 surrogacy contracts were being signed every year. The scale of the industry was revealed during the pandemic when Ukraine closed its borders and couples were not able to collect their babies. In April 2020, BioTexCom, the country’s largest reproductive agency, released a video showing 50 stranded newborns lined up in trolleys in a giant makeshift nursery. The clip sparked a backlash. Mykola Kuleba, then commissioner of the president of Ukraine for children’s rights, called such surrogacy “child trafficking” and said the country had become “an international online store for babies”.

The business is ethically complex. Birth is one of the most intimate human experiences, and critics argue it should not be bought. Feminists say surrogacy makes women vulnerable to exploitation, especially if they are poor. Surrogates in Ukraine have accused companies of underpayment, providing substandard accommodation and poor healthcare, and making reckless use of risky procedures, including transplanting multiple embryos to maximise the chance of success.

Supporters, however, say surrogacy is life-changing for both parties. For the parents, the gift of a biological child after many years of miscarriages, failed fertility treatment and painful losses; for the surrogate mother, financial empowerment, maybe even a house.

Dorothy is tall, with a mane of honey-blond hair and a gently emphatic manner. She is sensitive, quick to tears. She met Charlie in a pub in Suffolk in the spring of 2013 and they soon became a couple. By the end of the year, Charlie had moved in. They started trying for a baby soon after. Dorothy already had a son, conceived when she was 24 and living in New York, where she was running a chain of hair salons. She had brought up Theo, now 21 and a student, as a single parent. “I’d had a child and saw no reason why I couldn’t have another,” she says.

What followed was multiple miscarriages, expensive fertility treatment and, on 19 December 2020, the premature birth of a baby daughter, who weighed just 1.5lb. Marcella Madix died in Dorothy’s arms five weeks later. “I’ve never felt pain like it,” Dorothy says.

When a round of IVF failed the following summer, “I felt like my life had ended.” This is what takes people to Ukraine, Dorothy says. “You go after unbelievable loss and grief and heartache. It’s not an easy decision.”

In 2013, Anastasia, then 23, was working in a cafe that sold fast food, beer and cigarettes, in Zaporizhzhia, an industrial city on the banks of the Dnipro River, south-east Ukraine. She worked 24-hour shifts, one day on, one day off, for not much money.

During one break, the women joked as they passed around a magazine article about a surrogate mother. “You do it!” one said. “No, you!” said another. “You’re strong. You do it!”

Anastasia was born in Zaporizhzhia, the younger of two sisters. Her mother worked in a jewellery shop; her father was a member of Berkut, an elite riot police force. “I’ve had a very strange and hard life,” she tells me. Aged three, she tipped over a pot of boiling cooking oil and burnt 40% of her body. She spent the next five years in and out of hospital, and as an adult would style her hair to hide the scar on her cheek. When she was 12, her father, then separated from her mother, was murdered by his new partner. Her mother remarried and, when Anastasia was 17, asked her to leave home because having her around didn’t suit her new husband.

Anastasia met Alexander’s father in the cafe where she worked, in 2013: “A thief stole some cigarettes and he chased them and got everything back. I thought: my hero.” But after fighting for Ukraine’s armed forces after Russia annexed Crimea, he changed. “He became very angry, drank too much and hit me,” she says. These experiences forged a survival instinct – “I’m strong,” she likes to say – and gave her a deep distrust of people.

Alexander’s father threatened to take him. “He said, ‘I will win. No one can help you, because you don’t have a job or a home of your own.’ I felt very scared. I thought: where can I get a lot of money and in a short time?”

In 2018, aged 28, she boarded a bus for Kyiv, a 10-hour trip. Alexander, four, stayed with his grandmother. It was Anastasia’s first time out of Zaporizhzhia.

She met the criteria: aged from 19 to 32, in good health and already a mother. (Mothers, the agency reasoned, would worry less about possible side-effects – including whether manipulating their reproductive cycle might affect their ability to have their own children later.) After a physical assessment of her eggs, uterus and heart, she was approved. When she got home, she felt on a high, and told her friends. “You’re crazy,” they said.

Anastasia knew better. She liked being pregnant. The hormones made her feel good. Besides, surrogates made a lot of money. Here was a chance to do “something good for other people”, buy a flat and shore up her future with her son. “I thought: maybe I will feel bad. But I felt bad living in my flat and my son was not safe. I can fight this feeling. It’s not my child, not my DNA. It will be OK.”

On 13 November 2021, Dorothy and Charlie flew to Ukraine for the first round of treatment at the World Center of Baby (WCOB), a small surrogacy company in Kyiv. Dorothy chose the clinic because it had good reviews, responded promptly and seemed supportive.

Surrogacy depends on IVF, where an egg is fertilised by sperm in a test tube or elsewhere. The resulting embryo is transferred into the uterus. Surrogates in Ukraine do not use their own eggs; the genetic material comes from the intended parents, or a donor.

In order to qualify for treatment, Dorothy and Charlie had got married three weeks earlier: Ukrainian law is staunchly against surrogacy for unmarried couples, same-sex couples and single parents. They also had a letter from their GP confirming that they had exhausted other means of carrying a baby to term, and that a pregnancy would have put Dorothy at risk.

They’d paid €49,000 for an “unlimited programme”: repeated IVF and embryo transfers, with all the money refunded if it didn’t result in a child. “We really liked Kyiv, but didn’t spend much time exploring it because we thought we’d be back,” Dorothy says.

On the evening of Wednesday 23 February 2022, Anastasia, then 33, was cooking supper for Alexander, seven, in her flat in Zaporizhzhia. The flat, on the fifth floor of an apartment block, was on the outskirts of the city centre and had a view of a park and nursery.

Now single, Anastasia had set up a sugaring hair-removal business, which she ran from her flat. Though the news was filled with talk of a Russian invasion, she wasn’t concerned. “I never thought it would happen.” Besides, she was nearly eight weeks pregnant and feeling sick.

This was Anastasia’s second time as a surrogate. In 2020 she had given birth to twin boys for a couple from France. Alexander had been staying with his grandmother as surrogates were separated from their families for the last three months of pregnancy. Typically, surrogates don’t see the baby after the delivery. But it was lockdown: no flights were permitted, due to Covid. For two weeks, Anastasia had to care for the babies on her own until the parents arrived. She changed their nappies, soothed them, gave them bottles. After they were collected, “My friends call me all day, all night. All the time, I cry.” She found it hard to hand them over.

The French couple paid her £15,700 through an agency, nine times what she earned as a beautician, enough to buy half the flat, plus a sofa and washing machine. Now she planned to buy the other half, as well as put money aside for Alexander’s education and to fix her teeth.

In the early hours of the next day, Russian troops entered Berdiansk, a port city in the south of the Zaporizhzhia region, and many other parts of Ukraine. Anastasia tried to stay calm but it wasn’t easy: later that day a battle broke out close to her house. The government announced plans to distribute weapons to civilians. “Putin has attacked,” she told Alexander. “There is a war.”

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles away, Dorothy was trying to process the earth-shattering news. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be an invasion,” she says. Her biggest fear was that Anastasia would disappear and WCOB wouldn’t be able to find her: “There was talk of phone lines and internet services going down.”

Between the surrogate and the intended parent there is a peculiar bond. “They’re doing this life-changing thing for you and receiving a life-changing amount of money in return,” Dorothy often says. The position suggests equality, but it is a fine balance, dependant in part on distance. Now the war was about to uncouple them from the organisational rules that kept them apart.

Dorothy found Anastasia on Facebook. The agency had told couples not to contact their surrogate on social media, and vice versa, for mutual protection against, say, surrogates asking for more money, and intended parents suggesting diet and exercise regimes. But some couples still snooped on their surrogates, scouring Facebook and Instagram for evidence of smoking or drinking. On the afternoon of 24 February, Dorothy sent Anastasia a supportive message: “I hope you don’t mind me contacting you. I just want you to know we’re thinking of you and hope you and your son are OK. If there is anything we can do, please let us know.”

Anastasia replied straight away. “I’m so glad you contacted me. Don’t worry about your baby. I’m looking after it.” Anastasia would tell herself throughout the pregnancy: “It’s not my baby. I am just the babysitter.”

Anastasia’s mother and brother, then 14, lived a half-hour drive away. When war broke out, they decided to go to Poland. “You come, too,” said her mother. Anastasia felt a profound attachment to her flat and Zaporizhzhia. But it soon became apparent she didn’t have a choice. She was taking an oestrogen tablet to help thicken the uterus lining and maintain the pregnancy, replacing the hormones that would, in a typical pregnancy, have been produced by the ovaries. She needed to take the tablet daily until the 12th week of pregnancy when the placenta took over hormone production. She only had a week’s supply left and all the pharmacies were closed. “I thought, ‘I’ll lose this baby if I don’t take this tablet.’” She called her mother. “Mum, yes, I want to come.”

Dorothy started corresponding with Anastasia. News reports warned that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe and only 7km from Anastasia’s flat, would soon be under attack. Around 100,000 Ukrainians had fled into Romania, Moldova, Poland and Hungary, according to the UN refugee agency. On the morning of 27 February, Anastasia sent Dorothy a message. “I’ve been in touch with the agency and, if it’s OK with you, I’m going to Poland.” Dorothy couldn’t have been more relieved. She gave Anastasia £500 for travel costs.

Anastasia packed hurriedly. One bag for her, one for Alexander, one for food. Alexander took Hot Wheels cars and his toy monster Godzilla. She met up with her mother and brother, made it on to a packed train bound for Lviv, a city 45 miles from the Polish border in western Ukraine. The journey took 38 hours. “The train had to wait for three hours for bombing to stop. I tried to listen to music with Alexander on my AirPods. I didn’t want him to hear anything.” At Lviv, they took a bus, then had to cross the border into Poland on foot, which took 70 hours. “There were thousands of people, all pushed together.” She was scared Alexander would be trampled. “One woman fell down and five people stepped over her before someone helped.”

A friend drove them to Szczecin in Poland. The 1,000-mile journey took more than four days. Dorothy texted throughout: “Are you OK?” Anastasia always replied, “Fine.” She wasn’t. “I carried heavy bags, it was very cold, I didn’t eat for two days. I was scared I’d lost the baby.” The journey is still vividly present months later. When she describes it to me, she starts to cry.

Once in Szczecin, the family headed to a friend’s apartment. From there, Dorothy and Charlie, now in direct contact with Anastasia, moved her and Alexander into a flat. Anastasia’s mother and brother remained with friends. On 8 March, Dorothy arranged for Anastasia to have a checkup with a local doctor. Only when he said the baby was healthy did Anastasia relax.

Surrogacy agencies had to adapt quickly. BioTexCom moved recently born surrogate babies into a bunker on the outskirts of Kyiv. It posted a clip online and sent pictures of the babies to their biological parents. It took at least a week for infants born in Ukraine to be granted an emergency travel document, according to Sam Everingham, global director of Growing Families, a non-profit organisation that gives free advice to parents, surrogates, families and experts.

On the day of the invasion, WCOB had 37 pregnant surrogates and 130 intended parents, all at different stages. The agency closed down its operation in Kyiv and set up offices in Lviv and Prague, in the Czech Republic, where surrogacy was not prohibited. It also offered options in Georgia, Mexico and Cyprus, shipping “biomaterial and embryos” there free of charge.

In normal times, surrogates spent the final 10 weeks of their pregnancy with other surrogates in shared accommodation in Kyiv. WCOB began instructing families on alternatives and additional costs: in Prague, for example, €9,000 for housing, transport, medical examinations, follow-ups, lab tests and childbirth.

“We’d have found the money somehow,” Dorothy says. But Anastasia didn’t want to go to Prague, or to expose Alexander to the world of surrogacy.

Anastasia (on left) with her son Alexander, Dorothy and Matilda on a trip to the beach in the summer. Photograph: Elena Heatherwick/The Guardian

“If coming to England was an option, would you want to do that?” Dorothy asked Anastasia in a message. “No pressure, only if you want to. We’d be happy to have you and your son, your mum, your brother – anybody.”

“It felt like the right thing to do,” Dorothy explains. “She was carrying our child. We were contracted to one another. We had a responsibility to look after her.”

She was delighted when Anastasia messaged back: “My mother and brother will stay here, but my son and I will come.” Then, Dorothy says, “I realised it wasn’t that simple.” At that time, the Ukraine visa scheme only allowed Ukrainians to join family members in the UK.

Dorothy and Charlie opted out of their agreement with WCOB, on the grounds of force majeure. “We decided to pay Anastasia directly,” Dorothy explains. WCOB claim the couple still owe them €8,000 for week 12, the next instalment of the payment schedule. But the agency has never attempted to recover the balance. And Dorothy and Charlie argue they have paid for all the services they used before Anastasia came to stay with them.

Dorothy and Charlie live in a Victorian villa on the outskirts of a town in Suffolk. It has four bedrooms and a large back garden with apple trees. They are a sociable couple, with friends always dropping in. Theo comes home for holidays with his girlfriend. They rent out their spare room to foreign students in the summer.

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In mid-March 2022, Priti Patel, then home secretary, had agreed to issue special visas to Ukrainian surrogates carrying British children who wanted to come to the UK. Five were issued, including Anastasia’s. The big wave of Ukrainian refugees was yet to arrive under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which had launched on 14 March.

Dorothy and Anastasia met for the first time on 20 March. Dorothy flew to Poland and stayed next door to Anastasia and Alexander in Szezecin for a few days. Anastasia was due to have a 13-week scan at the hospital and Dorothy wanted to be there.

She was also worried about the emotional toll their situation was having on the pair. She brought things for Alexander to do: Lego, drawing sets, an excavation kit. “He thought I was like Santa Claus,” Dorothy says now. She and Anastasia greeted each other warmly: “We were both a bit nervous.”

At the scan, Anastasia asked Dorothy to pretend to be her translator because surrogacy is banned in Poland. “It was crazy!” Dorothy says. “Neither of us spoke Polish, the doctor barely spoke English.” Dorothy tried not to cry when she saw the baby on the scan. “It would have looked odd, the translator crying.”

On 7 April Dorothy flew to Berlin, hired a car and drove for three hours to collect Anastasia and Alexander from Poland. The return journey – via Berlin and Eurostar from Brussels – took two days. They had to stop often because of Anastasia’s morning sickness.

Anastasia, by then 17 weeks pregnant, spent the first two weeks in Suffolk in her room, coming down only to eat. Alexander, on the other hand, explored the house and garden. Dorothy thought Anastasia was resting, sleeping, on her phone. This was true. But Anastasia was also scared – of being in a new country, her lack of English, of how Alexander would react – and anxious to return home. “I love my city so much,” she tells me later. “I knew I had to go, but when you stop, you cry.”

When I meet Anastasia and Alexander for the first time, in June 2022, the house is in chaos. Charlie is away for a month with work. Anastasia’s mother and brother arrived, under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, at Victoria coach station in London, the day before. Dorothy drove to collect them because their sponsor – Charlie’s sister, who lives nearby – had Covid. Dorothy suggested they stay with her for two weeks until Charlie’s sister is better. Anastasia’s mother has spent the night on the sofa.

Their stay here is a stopgap measure, as far as Anastasia is concerned. “When we are apart we are very loving. When we are together we argue,” she says. Today she is hanging out washing in the garden. She is dressed in shorts, her pregnant belly hidden under a loose top. She has a quiet smile and an obliging manner. But she is strong-willed. When she’s not in the mood for company, she stays in her room.

Her mother has brought news of her flat back in Zaporizhzhia. “My roof got bombed and water is coming in,” Anastasia says. The place is pervaded by a rotting smell as Anastasia had turned off the electricity when she fled and there was food in the freezer. But lots of her friends are still in the city. “Their husbands are not allowed to leave and they don’t want to be on their own.”

By now Anastasia is 27 weeks pregnant and has been living with the family for over 10 weeks. “We never expected to have any involvement. So it’s been amazing to be close, to go to the appointments, scans,” Dorothy says. “When the baby is born, I will be a familiar voice.”

Black and white photo of a baby crawling in the sand on a beach, two women with her, hands in shot but faces out of view
Anastasia (on left) with Matilda and Dorothy …
Black and white photo of a mother and young son sitting on the grass, snails on their legs
and with Alexander. Photographs: Elena Heatherwick/The Guardian

Nevertheless the shadow of Dorothy’s previous losses hangs over Anastasia, the dread that something will go wrong. She reassures Dorothy: “It’s OK, relax. I’m sure everything is 100% all right.”

Otherwise, the household has assumed a rhythm. Alexander gets up early and hurtles around while Dorothy makes him breakfast. Anastasia sleeps in and appears early in the afternoon. She likes to cook and is doing more of this for the family: meat and potatoes, soup, dumplings, salad with peas and fish fingers.

Charlie has been spending time with Alexander; he has taught him to swim and given him a Liverpool football shirt. In return, Alexander has been teaching him Russian. In the evening, Alexander does online lessons sent by his school in Zaporizhzhia. At night, Anastasia and Alexander, who share a bed (their choice because of Alexander’s bad dreams), watch dispatches from home on Facebook. “He likes the videos of soldiers – he sees himself as the big man protecting me.”

But there is one obstacle: Anastasia doesn’t want Alexander to know she is having a baby. She concealed the previous pregnancy from him – a fiction made possible because the agency separated surrogates from their families near the end of the pregnancy. “Alexander loves little babies and often says he wants a brother or sister. When we go home, he wouldn’t understand why the baby has to stay here,” Anastasia explains. Instead, she has planted the idea of adoption. “Dorothy wants a baby, is going to adopt a baby. Sometimes when I go to the hospital, I talk about adoption and he is so excited.”

As for the unavoidable evidence of her ever-growing tummy, she tells Alexander she has got fat and needs to have liposuction at the hospital. “It’s not the way I would handle it,” Dorothy says. “I won’t hide the truth.” But she has respected Anastasia’s wishes.

By the end of August, Anastasia is the only one of the five Ukrainian surrogates issued with visas to still be living with the intended parents. One didn’t come. One came and went straight back. The other two were accommodated in homes near the intended parents. One of these women has since returned to Ukraine, having had the baby.

“It’s hard,” Dorothy admits on my next visit. In many ways, Anastasia is a “daily reminder” of her failings. She can do what Dorothy is unable to do: bear a child. She starts to cry. “I’m getting the man’s experience,” she laughs, through tears. Then there is the “awkwardness” of sitting in the hospital waiting room together. Dorothy says she sometimes jokes about it: “We’re lesbians! I’m the mum! I’m Grandma!” Lots of women couldn’t cope with that, she adds. “It’s easier having everything at arm’s length. You go to Ukraine and bring the baby back. You’re not letting the unknown into your life, the unexpected.”

Anastasia walks in, also churned up. Zaporizhzhia had been hit by 17 bombs in one day and the battle over the nuclear power station had escalated. Ukraine’s state energy operator has warned there is a risk of a radioactive leak. The EU has just donated 5m potassium iodide tablets to protect locals from potential radiation exposure. “If something happens, they have two hours to take this tablet,” Anastasia says.

Which is harder, I ask: being a surrogate mother or being away from home? “Living away,” Anastasia says. “I never thought I’d be away so long.” Alexander, however, seems to be flourishing. He has just caught a butterfly in their room, and has some water bugs in a jar. Charlie and Alexander have been spending more and more time together. He’s taken Alexander to see the Red Arrows. They have collected prawns on the beach. “It’s going really well,” Charlie says. “Exceeded my expectations. Anastasia is babysitting my child in her tummy and I am babysitting Alexander.”

On 16 September, Matilda Madix is born at 6.40pm, in hospital. She weighs 6lb 1oz. Anastasia was induced early as she had pre-eclampsia, a condition that causes high blood pressure and can lead to complications for the mother and baby. When labour failed to progress, she had a caesarean. Dorothy was with Anastasia throughout. They both cried when Matilda was born. “I couldn’t believe it had actually happened,” Dorothy says. “She was healthy. It was joy, complete joy.”

Matilda was alert, strong, but when Anastasia saw her, she felt sad. “She was so little. I thought, Dorothy will be in shock. I thought maybe I did something wrong. But the doctor said it’s because of the pre-eclampsia.”

After the birth, Anastasia was taken from the theatre to the recovery room. Dorothy wheeled Matilda in her hospital cot to the delivery suite, where Charlie met his baby daughter and trimmed her cord (which had been left long). Anastasia was then taken back to the delivery suite, where she stayed with Dorothy, Charlie and Matilda until 3am.

She had been promised a room of her own on the maternity ward, but staff, who had no experience of surrogacy, refused. All four were put in one room for 24 hours. “There was also lots of confusion over what paperwork was required,” Dorothy says.

Two weeks later the health visitor arrives for a routine mother and baby review. Anastasia and Dorothy sit together in the sitting room. Dorothy is feeding Matilda with a bottle. The health visitor looks confused. “How are you feeling, emotionally?” she asks Anastasia, having established that she is legally “the mother”. (Legal parenthood is eventually transferred to Charlie and Dorothy in the family courts, in London, the following June.) “Emotions?” Anastasia repeats, not understanding. “Like, sad,” Dorothy clarifies. “Oh, I cry because I am happy! Everything is finished!”

At first, Anastasia hadn’t held Matilda. “It’s your baby,” she’d say to Dorothy and Charlie. “They were so happy, skin-to-skin,” she tells me. She admits that she did some online therapy after the birth and has watched “many psychology videos”. She is dealing with any difficulty, trying to carry on with the rest of her life.

Dorothy had expected to feel emotional. She had what she most wanted – a baby. But Matilda’s birth also triggered grief for Marcella and the life she hadn’t had. “You realise all the things you’ve missed out on,” Dorothy says, starting to cry.

It’s 21 April 2023. Anastasia and Alexander are entertaining Matilda, now seven months old and crawling, in the garden, while Dorothy has a piano lesson. They have been living with Dorothy and Charlie for more than a year. There has been a succession of transformations in the household. Anastasia’s English has improved and she has a job cleaning Airbnbs for a friend of Dorothy’s who runs a housekeeping company. It suits her – she likes to keep herself to herself – and she wanted to get out of the house: “I am not happy to sit at home.”

The bond between her and Matilda isn’t remotely like mother and daughter, or even niece and aunt, but there is a connection. She likes to hold her (especially if there has been bad news from home) and is happy to look after her if Dorothy goes out. “She is special because I have seen her grow, but I don’t feel like she is mine.”

She had felt anxious when the baby was delivered and her role was done.

“I hate having guests in my house,” Anastasia says, “but they are different people. Sometimes I feel closer to Dorothy than to my mum. Dorothy is mum to all of us.”

Later, Dorothy admits, “Obviously, it was a worry that Anastasia would develop maternal feelings for Matilda. But she never tried to be a mother.” She speaks of her with tenderness and affection. On a practical level, it is useful to have “another pair of hands”.

Alexander, now eight, has settled into the local primary school, which he joined just before Matilda was born. At first he kept asking Charlie, “Who do you love more, me or Matilda?” When he asked Dorothy, she said, “I love Max [the dog] and I love Matilda and I love you because that’s the beauty of the human heart, it has the capacity to love lots of people.” Charlie and Dorothy have just bought a seven-seater family car, so they can all go out together to the beach or into the city.

Surrogacy clinics are still doing brisk business in Ukraine. More than 1,000 babies have been born to surrogate mothers since the invasion, according to recent reports. BioTexCom clinic was responsible for 600 of those children. WCOB reopened its clinic in Kyiv in 2022 and now has offices in Cyprus and Mexico, where it caters for same-sex couples. “Many are now choosing Ukraine again,” says a spokesperson for WCOB. “We are now experiencing a baby boom. Undoubtedly, there are many risks associated with the ongoing war; however, despite these challenges, many intended parents continue to choose Ukraine over other available options.” In August, the UK government announced that it would no longer be issuing emergency travel documents for British surrogate babies born in Ukraine.

In the end, surrogacy has cost Dorothy and Charlie more than £47,000: £25,000 to WCOB (of which Anastasia received £1,500); £18,850 to Anastasia. This included extra money for having a caesarean. In addition, they gave her £500 to help her leave Ukraine. They paid £1463.45 for her accommodation in Poland and £1,835 for emergency dental treatment in the UK. Her visa did not qualify for the “thank you” payment from the UK government of £350 a month for hosting refugees, such as those on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

There are more changes ahead, Dorothy says when we speak in August. Anastasia’s visa expires in March 2025. But she is no longer sure if she wants to go home: “I don’t have a plan. I’m like a river, I go with the flow.” Her mother and brother are no longer living with Charlie’s sister; her mother said she felt like a “caged animal”.

In the summer Russian bombs killed four in an attack on a Zaporizhzhia aid station. Anastasia’s flat was further damaged, but still standing. She had taken out a bank loan out on it and the bank recently reinstated the monthly repayments after freezing them for a year. “It’s very hard. I have a flat I cannot live in and I still have to pay for it and for electricity, water, heating.” She plans to visit Spain next spring. “Flats are cheap there.”

By staying with Dorothy there is the risk the secret of Matilda’s birth will surface, threatening Alexander’s perception of events. “I will not lie to Matilda,” Dorothy says. “I will drip-feed her the truth from an early age. So we’re walking a tightrope.”

They know they can’t stay in this configuration for the rest of their lives. But there is a great familial warmth in the household, despite the unconventional setup. “We are like a big family,” Anastasia says. Dorothy agrees: “We believe Anastasia saved our life and Anastasia believes we saved hers.”

Anastasia and Alexander moved out at the beginning of December and now live nearby with her mother and brother. Names and details have been changed.


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