We've been profiling Ashley Katzen's surrogacy journey in a series of posts - ICYMI, you can find them here: Meet Ashley, Holiday Gift, Surrogacy Through a Global Pandemic, Long Distance Surrogate, and Welcome Baby Jonathon 🎉.
Ashley was accompanied on every step of this journey by her husband, Harrison. Ashley and Harrison always knew they wanted to have a child, but shortly after they began dating, Ashley had to tell Harrison that she wouldn’t be able to have children. Diagnosed at a young age with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH), a disorder that occurs in females and mainly affects the reproductive system, Ashley struggled with the knowledge of how difficult both emotionally and physically it would be for her to have a baby. In Ashley’s case, it meant that while she still carried eggs, her body didn’t develop a uterus or cervix. Harrison took the news in stride and as the couple discussed options to build their family, surrogacy came up in conversation and started their adventure into parenthood.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Harrison about his family’s surrogacy journey, and discussed how he’ll be spending his very first Father’s Day.
When did Ashley first tell you about her diagnosis of Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) and what were your initial thoughts?
Harrison: Ashley first told me about her diagnosis a few months into us dating. I vividly remember the conversation in our apartment as Ashley was understandably very nervous to tell me about it. I can only imagine falling in love with someone with whom you want to marry and spend your life with, and then being paralyzed by the fear of potentially losing that person due to something being completely out of your control.
It was a lot to take in at once to be honest. My first thought was with Ashley, and the emotional duress that she had endured thus far in her life. In addition to the physical pain from the rehabilitation, the mental anguish that she had to experience at such a young age was terrible. I then realized that I needed to educate myself on surrogacy and what our path forward would be to have a family. The thing that made it easier to understand was Ashley’s capability to clearly explain that we DID have the ability to create a family via surrogacy.
What types of conversations did you have surrounding building a family and leading up to choosing surrogacy?
Harrison: We are both family-oriented people and knew that we wanted to have children of our own. Ashley knew what our path forward would be, so for me, I just needed to educate myself on what surrogacy would entail, the challenges we would face, and what would be required for us to bring a child into this world. We talked about the importance of finding the right agency to work with, as well as deciding what things were going to be deal breakers for us in the process. I knew that this was our option to have a family and that it was important to embrace that fact. As opposed to being upset, or doubting ourselves, I chose to look at the unique path that we would have in creating our family.
Walk us through your surrogacy experience.
Harrison: When we started the agency search process it was a little daunting and similar to dating. We met with representatives from various agencies and got to know the process. By the time we met a representative from ConceiveAbilities and learned about their unique process, we knew immediately this was the most professional organization we had spoken with and that we would be using them to help us find our surrogate. Once we reached this milestone, Ashley and I felt so much better because we knew we were on our way!
Our agency helped us navigate the search of finding a surrogate and what was especially helpful was that we had a dedicated counselor who helped us figure out what was most important to us in finding our surrogate. There are difficult decisions that each family must make as to what is most important to you. Our counselor was there for us in every question we had and navigated us through that initial period.
A few months later we heard back from our counselor that they had a potential surrogate whom they thought was the right match for us. We set up an interview and spoke with Jenna and her husband for an hour or so, getting to know them, what their priorities were, her pregnancy experiences, and why she was doing this. We had an amazing first meeting, and then spoke with our counselor about what would be the next steps. Our counselor informed us that we had 24 hours to make a decision if we wanted to move forward with Jenna as our surrogate. At the time, we were overwhelmed. Jenna was the first potential surrogate we had been introduced to, and we couldn’t understand why we had to make a decision so quickly, nor why we weren’t allowed to meet another potential surrogate during that time.
Looking back, it’s a testament to the process that ConceiveAbilities has implemented. The 24-hour rule, as I’ll call it, is done for both the protection of the intended parents as well as the surrogate. This is an emotional process, and there was a lot of thought put into implementing this policy from a mental wellness perspective. After discussing the decision in front of us, we knew Jenna was the perfect fit.
Did you know right away that Jenna was the right surrogate for you and Ashley?
Harrison: We instantly knew that Jenna was an amazing human being! Meeting your surrogate is similar to dating, and so meeting your surrogate initially over Zoom can be tough... you are taking a huge leap, and naturally there are feelings of wanting to make sure you make the right decision because it is so important. Jenna was the first surrogate that we met, and the only reason I think we did not know immediately if she was the right person for us is that we had no frame of reference.
Jenna is family to us now. We experienced a unique connection with her and her family, and they have been such a blessing to us. Our son is truly a miracle baby and we have Jenna to thank for that! We have so much gratitude for what she has done for us; it’s very difficult to put into words. Saying thank you to someone who has provided us with the ability to have a family of our own, is an understatement to say the least. We are forever indebted to the sacrifices she made for us and she will always be dear in all of our hearts.
Welcoming Baby Jonathon
Jonathan’s birth story didn’t quite go as planned - How did you feel when you got the phone call from Jenna’s husband?
Harrison: That was a crazy experience! We had already made the decision to travel to Minnesota when Jenna was 37 weeks - before the scheduled birth date. Our son was a few days ahead of schedule in terms of growth, and we just had a feeling he would be coming early... what we didn’t know was how early he would come. The night before we were set to fly out there, I got a late-night call from Jenna’s husband, Tony, who explained that Jenna was experiencing heavy contractions and had been admitted into the hospital.
What emotions did you experience being long-distance during Jonathan’s birth; what was it like watching his birth via FaceTime? How was your journey as an intended parent impacted by this change in your birth plan?
Harrison: I was really sad at first because I knew how important it was for Ashley to be there for the birth of our son. She felt as though she had been robbed of the experience of being able to carry our child on her own, and she wasn’t going to miss the birth because that was all we had. That feeling is completely natural and expected – but I want to let all other future intended mothers know to embrace the unexpected. Everyone’s journey is unique and there is no magic path.
Once we realized that Jenna was definitely going into labor, we had to quickly adjust our mindset and prepare for the birth of our son. We wanted to be in a positive frame of mind for when Jonathan came into this world. And that’s exactly what we did.
Watching Jonathan’s birth on FaceTime was such a surreal experience, and it all happened so quickly. Jenna and her husband were simply amazing – they made sure that we experienced the entire birth and our connection to the two of them grew stronger through that experience. Jenna did skin to skin for us in our absence, and her husband cut the umbilical cord which was an honor. The doctors and nurses at the hospital were also so unbelievable. They knew we were missing the birth in person and were so accommodating given the situation. Although it was not our ideal situation, there was so much beauty in that experience and seeing the best in humanity.
We were on a flight a few hours later and arrived at the hospital within 12 hours of his birth. It was a wild ride to say the least.
What was it like seeing your son for the very first time?
Harrison: It was the happiest day of my life. Other than when I married my wife of course! The nurses actually videotaped Ashley and I walking into the room so we could remember that experience forever. He was just sleeping so peacefully and it was amazing to be able to hold him in my arms knowing that we had finally completed our journey.
What plans do you have for your first Father’s Day?
Harrison: To enjoy the day with my family and to embrace that I have started this new chapter in my life. I just want to hang out with my son, and enjoy this time when he is an infant because it goes by so fast. It will be nice to slow down for the day, that's for sure!
How has becoming a father changed you?
Harrison: I am no longer just responsible for myself. The power of fatherhood comes with true responsibility and that in of itself is so empowering. Also, the simple joy of seeing your child smiling back at you fills your heart. Purpose is an important part of living a fulfilled life, and there is no greater purpose than providing the best life possible for your children.
What would you tell other hopeful dads who are considering beginning a surrogacy journey?
Harrison: It’s important to educate yourself about the entire process and what it entails. Everything from IVF to finding the right agency, to having those hard conversations with your significant other. It’s definitely not an easy journey, but it is so unbelievably rewarding. Make sure that you are dedicated to the process and that you have an open mind. And that not everything will go as planned, because I can attest to the fact that it does not.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Harrison: I would like to thank our surrogacy team for matching us with Jenna who will be in our family forever. There are so many variables and unknowns that it’s impossible to have a certain answer for everything. However, the process and support system that is in place for intended parents is truly best in class!