Sandwiched in the third row seat, between 11-year-old Nathan and 5-year-old Lyla, on our way to Monster Jam and Disney on Ice, respectively, she catches me off guard with her 5-year-old curious love.
"You're like our family, but not our family, but still family," she says while looking up at me with her big blue eyes.
"That is why we say you are our chosen family," I try to explain.
Her big blue eyes focus in on me with a confused tender smirk as she tries to figure out what that exactly means in her 5-year-old brain.
Nathan, her big brother, interjects trying to explain how we all came into each other's lives in a way she can understand. "Justine can't have babies, so Mommy was going to carry their baby for them. But it didn't work, and we got Tipton instead, but they are still our family."
Bright blue eyes glazed over, she leans in closer to me as we have completely lost her. I reassure her that sometimes we aren't related to our family like she is to her brothers. She didn't get to choose Nathan or Tipton to be her family, but we all got to choose each other as family.
5-year-old brain satisfied for now.
We set forth to conceive our own children, with Michelle's help, or at least the help of her healthy body (and uterus). However, neither Chad and I, nor Ben and Michelle, could have ever imagined the destined family that would eventually be the result of our IVF journey.
They have been in our lives for three years, and yet it feels like we have known each other forever. We all began our journey with the hope of babies for Chad and I when Michelle answered my ad on a surrogacy website. We did two transfers, three embryos, never to get pregnant. And now, we continue our journey with us learning to accept a child-free life and the unexpected expansion of Ben and Michelle's family with their new son, Tipton.
It isn't exactly what we all had hoped for.
It isn't exactly what we all had expected.
Hell, it isn't what we paid thousands of dollars and put our bodies through synthetic hormonal hell for.
But always better.
And, without a doubt, exactly as it is supposed be, as I've been able to consider it pure joy.
When I look into Michelle's eyes and I hear her voice, I am reminded of that powerful moment in the operating room during the first transfer. We looked into each other's eyes all gowned up with her on the table ready to become the home to our babies for the next 40 weeks. Tears of complete fear with unbridled joy filled both of our eyes, and in that 30 seconds of life, we held each other and hoped and loved with every cell of our bodies, hearts and souls.
Never could we have imagined what was ahead for us. Never could we have imagined the ups and the downs we've survived through together. Never could we have imagined we would have the story we have, or the one that has yet to be written.
And never could I have imagined I would find myself, my home and my destined chosen family all from a woman I met online.
In her, I have found my ever upward family.
You can read more about our surrogacy journey in Chapter 1 - Conceiving Our Chosen Family in Ever Upward: Overcoming the Lifelong Losses of Infertility to Own a Childfree Life available now here or Amazon in April!
Ever Upward: Overcoming the Lifelong Losses of Infertility to Own a Childfree Life is the hopeful story of what one woman did to change her life for the better after the heartbreaking, devastating and life-long losses of infertility. Ever Upward begins with Justine's incredible story of surviving life through two back surgeries, a year in a body cast and two rounds of IVF with a gestational surrogate. Justine guides the reader through the strategies she used to overcome the loss of her dream of motherhood and chose to thrive thereafter to ownership and acceptance of her childfree life. Ever Upward is more than a story about infertility, it is a story of recovery. It is our story, the story of life.