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A 'grand' parent: Utah mom to give birth to daughter's daughter

Published January 8, 2014 9:09 am

Families • A 58-year-old Provo woman, acting as a surrogate, is carrying her 32-year-old daughter's daughter.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Provo • Like many an expectant mother, Julia Navarro speaks tenderly to the baby growing inside her.

"Oh, little girl, good morning," the Peruvian mother says daily, while stroking her belly. "Don't worry. I have to go to work now."

And each night she whispers, "Thank you, little one. I love you."

But the bundle of joy due to emerge from 58-year-old Navarro's body in early February is not hers — it is her daughter's and will be Navarro's granddaughter.

Though this is hardly the first such case, Navarro's willingness to act as a surrogate for her daughter and son-in-law remains rare.

It is an unexpected gift, says 32-year-old daughter Lorena McKinnon, one she cannot begin to repay.

Mother and daughter sit side by side on the beige couch in the modest Provo living room, hands frequently joined on the protruding tummy.

"As a family, we have to help each other," Navarro says with a shrug — as if her altruism is nothing extraordinary.

The surrogate says she thanks God for the chance to do this and insists on giving to others.

"I was praying, 'If this baby works, I am going to help others,' " the future first-time grandmother says, with emotion. "I would like to donate some of the money from my baby shower [Jan. 12] to children in Peru who don't have parents or moms or dads who need help."

All in the family • The Peruvian twosome never imagined this surrogacy arrangement would be their destiny in 2001, when Navarro, who was divorced, joined her daughter in the Beehive State, where McKinnon was an international student at Utah Valley University (then Utah Valley State College).

Eventually, one would become a permanent resident and the other a U.S. citizen.

The younger woman came to study graphic design and soon had met Micah McKinnon, a lifelong Utahn from a big Utah County family.

They became a couple in 2002, married in 2005 and about three years ago began to think about having a child.

Lorena McKinnon, who works as a flight attendant for SkyWest Airlines, got pregnant easily but suffered miscarriage after miscarriage. Most of her pregnancies lasted six to seven weeks; one went 10 weeks. In all, she calculates she might have been with child a dozen times. Doctors were mystified, she says, by the failures.

Eventually, the couple sought out fertility specialists, who suggested an in vitro procedure to see if that might work. The clinic harvested nine embryos and implanted the first one in the eager mother-to-be. But that effort ended as well.

That left two solutions: adoption or surrogacy.

According to the 2005 Utah Uniform Parentage Act, the contract between a surrogate and the intended parents must be approved by a judge before any medical procedures begin. The couple must be married, and the surrogate must be older than 21, be financially stable and already have had at least one pregnancy and delivery. The couple can offer the surrogate a "reasonable payment." The potential parents and surrogate must attend counseling and meet the "fitness" standards of adoptive parents.

All in all, the legal, economic and medical process can prove daunting.

At first, McKinnon turned to a friend as a potential surrogate, not even thinking about her mom, but when the friend realized all that she might have to endure in the process, she regretfully withdrew her offer.

Julissa Gonzales, Mc­Kinnon's 27-year-old sister, thought about volunteering to carry the child, but didn't think she could go through with it.

"Not having any children of my own and starting to feel baby hungry, I didn't feel strong enough to go through the wonderful experience of being pregnant and knowing that at the end of it all, this beautiful creature would not be mine to keep," Gonzales wrote in an email. "I talked to my sister about it and she was so great. She had never thought of asking me for this same reason. She knew I had good intentions but she wouldn't let me do it."

Gonzales could see their mother crumbling under the pain of seeing McKinnon suffer.

That's when Navarro insisted, "Why not use me?"

Her offer overwhelmed a grateful McKinnon, knowing just a little about the obstacles — including financial — they all would face.

Surrogacy is expensive.

McKinnon estimates that the total tab typically reaches $60,000, including payments to the surrogate. Her mother carrying the child has saved them around $30,000, the couple figure. For the rest, they've had to take out loans, including from Navarro.

The first step was to ensure the future grandmother's health would be up to the task. She underwent a full physical, paying special attention to the condition of her heart and reproductive organs.

Navarro, a nurse's aide at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, was deemed fit, but she had been menopausal for about 12 years so had to give herself hormone shots every day for three months before she could be ready for implantation.

"My bum was bruised and bleeding," she says.

McKinnon felt horrible to see her mother suffer, so when the shots were finished, they all went out to celebrate.

They also had to sign contracts about parental rights and go through three months of state-mandated counseling.

"The psychologists wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting into — that we were mentally prepared," McKinnon says. "Mostly, surrogacy contracts are with people you don't know. It was weird to have a contract with my mom."

Finally came implantation.

Smooth sailing • Doctors told the family that, at Navarro's age, there was a 45 percent chance that it would take. But, voilà, the first one took hold and the embryo started to grow.

The exuberant young couple moved into the mother's small house to help her during her incubation.

The pregnancy has not been particularly difficult, Navarro says. No morning sickness. No cravings. No discomfort. She continued until recently working three 12-hour shifts a week at the hospital.

For the most part, it has been an exquisitely bonding experience, but there has been the occasional conflict between a woman who has already given birth and one who has only read about it. While her mother lay on the couch, the daughter searched the Internet for tips about pregnancy and baby paraphernalia.

"I told her to drink more water," McKinnon says, "not to eat peas — I had heard they were bad — and not to cross her legs because it might hurt her circulation."

Navarro gently remind her daughter that she has given birth to two healthy daughters and "knew how to do it, thank you very much."

But this time around it has felt different, she says. No sense of possession, just a profound responsibility to deliver for her daughter.

Now, the family members are within weeks of getting their new addition, whom they plan to name Myla Juliette McKinnon.

"It's worked out better than I ever expected," says Micah McKinnon, a technician at Intel Micron Flash Technologies. "I didn't want to get my hopes up, but we haven't had any complications. I'm pretty happy about it."

As the seventh of eight children, he notes there are numerous nieces on his side of the family. But they have all assured him that their child will have a treasured place in the McKinnon clan.

On the Navarro side, Baby Myla will be the first grandchild — and the extended family from South America plans to be on hand shortly after the birth.

"There is not one person we have told about this that hasn't gotten teary-eyed or fully shed a few tears. They can't understand how brave and selfless love can be," says Gonzales, McKinnon's sister. "I hope one day I can have a love so strong like the one my mom has for Lorena and me. The day I get it, I'm sure will be the day I become a mother because now I'm certain that there is no bigger love than a mother's love."

If all goes well, will the McKinnons go through this again?

Yes, says the hopeful mother-to-be. "We still have five embryos left."

But they'll probably have to find a new surrogate.

Grandma will be busy — being a grandma.

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal