Samantha Drossner isn't your average sister-in-law. She's a 36-year-old superwoman camouflaged in the body of a stay-at-home mom.
Samantha is the reason that my beautiful 6-month-old daughter is celebrating her first Hanukkah this year.
Some background: My wife, Abby, and I struggled for years to have a baby. We tried infertility treatment - the transfers, retrievals, implantation, achieving the proper hormonal levels - each time suffering through the wait-and-see period that tore at our patience. Abby, 33, got pregnant twice, but miscarried twice. Tests were inconclusive. We kept trying: no luck. With each failed attempt, another bit of our dream withered and the tension between us rose.
Enter the sister-in-law who now warrants our never-ending thanks.
Abby's only sibling, Samantha, is married with two kids. She lives in Blue Bell, driving distance from our Philadelphia home. One night at a family dinner after the first miscarriage, Samantha told Abby, "You know, I would always carry a baby for you if you needed me to. I would love to be able to do that for you."
In 2007, this seemed like a nice gesture made in passing. But in 2009, when our fertility doctor told us we were unlikely to conceive without a surrogate, we knew where to turn.
"Let's ask your sister before we do anything else," I said to Abby after that appointment. Infertility treatment makes things that might have once seemed outlandish seem normal. Asking another woman to carry my baby? It wasn't at all strange to me at that point.
I was 26 when I married Abby, a corporate lawyer, and I barely knew what fertility was. My work as a sports writer and Web editor certainly didn't prepare me for the indignities of infertility treatment: the invasive questions, the daily tests my wife endured, the conversations about sperm counts and uterine linings. But when it came to asking Samantha to be our surrogate, I knew I couldn't be the one to ask. This was between Abby and her sister.
"You have to be the one to ask her," I said to Abby. "And it needs to be in person."
"You're right," Abby agreed. As per her wifely duties, she ignored my suggestion. Her parents acted as uncomfortable intermediaries.
As we waited for Samantha's answer, time stood still in our house. The tension was palpable. Abby worried about alternatives: Without Samantha, we might not find a qualified surrogate for months or years. It might not even work when we found one, and it would be expensive. I wouldn't allow my mind to go there. Not yet, at least. At that point, the only way I could imagine having a biological baby with my wife was with my sister-in-law's help.
When you sit in health class, and they're teaching you about having a baby, none of this is in the books and videos they show you. You spend your whole life trying not to impregnate someone, and you don't realize it could be the exact opposite. "We're going to get there," I kept telling Abby, trying to believe it myself. "It doesn't matter how we get there, as long as we get there."
Samantha's daughter Haley, a curlicued 6-year-old with wisdom beyond her years, unknowingly decided the issue for her family. In the car one day, she asked her father, "Daddy, you think I'll be a good mommy when I get older?"
Eric, a levelheaded guy who's a vice president at an investment firm, fast-forwarded 20 years and envisioned his daughter in a similar situation. What if Haley couldn't carry a child and her brother's wife was willing to be her surrogate? How would he feel for his daughter, her plight?
As soon as Eric returned home, he said to Samantha, "If you're on board, I'm on board." Samantha nodded. There was no turning back. Samantha called Abby to relay the news: "We thought about it and want to do it," she told her sister. "We are in."
I was hovering next to Abby, waiting to hear the verdict. Abby's jaw dropped and she raised her free hand in celebration. Still, she told her sister, "Take your time, think about it. Are you absolutely sure?" Surrogacy was a major commitment. The process would be long and arduous, and would certainly affect their relationship. It would be Samantha's third C-section, which posed a reasonably substantial health risk. A baby was important to Abby - but so was her sister.
"We've thought about it, discussed it, and we're all in," Samantha said without hesitation. "We are doing it."
Eighteen months later, after a total of four years and a cupboard full of disappointments and setbacks, Abby and I finally had positive news. Samantha was pregnant; the baby was due in June.
Next hurdle: how to tell the extended family. Speaking about this subject to anyone had become difficult. Even though it appeared we were finally close to becoming parents, Abby and I were still emotional wrecks. We had been let down too many times before to believe we were in the clear. Any time either of us talked about the situation, our eyes filled with tears. Still, we had to tell our extended family sometime. The family Hanukkah gathering seemed ideal: Fifteen relatives would be gathered around the table at Abby's parents' house in Lafayette Hill.
In my head, it sounded simple. "Everyone, Abby and I are having a baby, and Samantha is carrying the baby for us." Wait. Would anyone understand that? Could such an unorthodox situation possibly be explained in one sentence?
I realized it was not going to be easy. All I knew heading to that holiday dinner was that it would be important to mention that it was our biological baby; Samantha was simply our surrogate. And savior.
At dinner, as the moment of disclosure approached, my vocal cords didn't cooperate. Overcome by the roller-coaster that is infertility treatment and the joy of the impending announcement, I couldn't say a word. Neither could Abby. Our eyes welled with tears of joy and thankfulness.
Our niece Haley again came to the rescue.
"Everybody, Aunt Abby's belly isn't working, so mommy's carrying the baby for Uncle Jordan and Aunt Abby," Haley told the family-filled room.