When Carole Horlock confided in her youngest daughter that she yearned to have another baby, the reaction was one of barely concealed dismay and anxiety.
‘She said I was crazy, and way too old,’ she recalls.
It’s a sentiment with which most of us would instinctively agree. At 52, Carole is at an age when most women are battling the menopause or taking on the mantle of grandmother.
With two daughters well in to their 20s, you might safely assume she should be grateful the days of nappies and sleepless nights are well behind her.
Then again, if Carole does fall pregnant, she won’t be facing either of those particular hurdles: the baby she hopes to carry would be handed over to someone else at birth — something she’s done countless times before.
When Carole Horlock confided in her youngest daughter that she yearned to have another baby, the reaction was one of barely concealed dismay and anxiety
The world’s most prolific surrogate, her own daughters aside, Carole has given birth to 13 babies for eight childless families — among them one set of twins and one set of triplets.
It’s an astonishing figure and one which even Carole assumed would be her final tally.
In April 2013, after handing over baby number 13, she announced she was drawing a line under the prospect of any future pregnancies due to the health risks associated with her age. At that stage, she was 46.
Yet that underlying need to feel another baby inside her — and to help another childless couple — has never quite gone away.
So, last year, buoyed by the fact that she still hasn’t reached menopause and having read about a number of successful and healthy pregnancies among women her age and even a decade older, she started to wonder whether she might, after all, have one last pregnancy left in her.
It’s a decision which crystallised when she started to correspond with a childless British couple she met on an online forum, who were struggling to find anyone to help them realise their dream of becoming parents.
First: A boy in December 1995
‘This couple really touched my heart when I spoke to them, which made me decide I’d like to try one more time,’ she says.
‘The reason for laying it to rest in the past was my age — I felt I had done enough and, particularly turning 50, I felt it would be difficult to find someone to help.
‘But the severe shortage of surrogates means I have always known there are people out there who would like me to help them.
‘I know my body, my cycle is the same as it’s been for decades and I’ve always been incredibly fertile, so I know I will get pregnant again. My argument is plenty of older women have given birth to babies for relatives, the only difference is I am a commercial surrogate.
‘Having met this couple, we felt like the perfect fit. Now, having been given a full bill of health, I am raring to go.’
So certain is she that this is the right thing to do, Carole is soon to start taking the drug treatment required to prepare her body for implantation with a single embryo — her age means she does not want to risk a multiple birth — which she believes will happen in the next couple of months at a private clinic. Any subsequent birth will take place in an NHS hospital in the south-east of England.
Twice as nice: Twin sisters born in February 1997 were number two and three
‘I’m just about to start taking the hormones. The embryos are already made and they are very good quality and my uterus lining is always very good, so there’s no reason for it not to work first time,’ she says.
‘With most of my pregnancies, it happened first time so I don’t see why this one should be any different. I can’t wait to feel a baby inside me one more time.’
It’s peculiarly impossible not to be touched by Carole’s enthusiasm for her unorthodox and altruistic passion. Naturally warm and motherly, she and her husband Paul Brown divide their time between their home in Colchester, Essex, and a tasteful six-bedroom antique-filled farmhouse near Bordeaux in France, where geese and chickens roam the grounds alongside her four Border Collies and two cats.
Special delivery for number four: And it’s a girl!
Sweetie: This tot was born in July 1999 as number five
Clearly comfortably off, their circumstances lay to rest any lingering suggestion — always present in the perennially complex and controversial territory around surrogacy — that Carole is motivated by money.
Because while payment to surrogate mothers is illegal, they are allowed pregnancy ‘expenses’ of up to £10,000 from the couples whose baby they carry.
It is, Carole says, a drop in the ocean. ‘Believe me, the money in commercial surrogacy is not worth the bruises from hormone injections and the varicose veins alone,’ she says firmly. ‘I do this because I love it. Seeing a couple hold their baby for the first time is a feeling like no other. It’s that which motivates me to keep doing this.’
Carole’s surrogacy journey has lasted nearly a quarter of a century, sparked by the simple act of reading a newspaper article about the then relatively unknown practice.
Safe arrival: A smiley girl as number six
Despite then being a 27-year-old single mother to Steffanie, now a 29-year-old translator, and Megan, 25, a shop manager, it struck an immediate chord.
‘I’d loved being pregnant with my two daughters, and could imagine how devastating it would be not to be able to have children,’ she recalls.
‘I knew I was very fertile, so thought I could probably do something to help others.’
After contacting the surrogacy agency mentioned in the article, Carole was given a number of physical and psychological assessments to establish her suitability.
Big yawn for number seven: A sleepy little boy
A few weeks later, she was given a list of prospective couples, and chose a married British couple in their late 30s who weren’t able to have children.
She fell pregnant on the second insemination attempt, and in December 1995 gave birth to her first surrogate baby, handing him over the moment he was born with, she insists, not a single pang of regret.
‘When I saw how happy they were, I felt elated,’ she says. ‘When the couple goes home with their baby, there is a period of grieving, but if I’m completely honest, the grieving is for the loss of the intense relationship you have shared with the mother. I knew I wanted to do it again.’
Even she admits, however, that she couldn’t have guessed the extent of her surrogate career.
Wide-awake: A girl in April 2003 was number eight
Among those 13 surrogate babies was a daughter born to a couple who had suffered multiple miscarriages, a son for a couple who had tried for 23 years to have a child of their own, and a child for a Greek couple whose previous surrogate had decided to keep the baby she’d carried for them.
In some cases, the babies were the result of embryos implanted in her — known as gestational surrogacy, meaning the baby wasn’t biologically hers — while in others, she used her own eggs. Either way, Carole says she never sees the babies as her own.
‘It doesn’t worry me that my genetic offspring are being brought up by someone else. Biology is the easy bit; motherhood is the nurturing,’ she insists.
Nonetheless, at one point biology did play one devastating card. In 2004, a terrible mistake nearly destroyed Carole’s surrogacy career when, following her ninth surrogate baby, a DNA test revealed that Paul — who she met several years after starting her surrogate journey and who has always firmly supported her — was the biological father of the baby she had carried and given up.
The revelation led to both a huge public backlash and immense private strain on her relationship, the memories of which she struggles with to this day.
‘We always used contraception, but somehow it failed,’ she said, her voice trembling. ‘There was a lot of soul-searching, but the couple adopted him — they’d loved, nurtured and cared for the baby for ten weeks. He’d bonded with them. It was very difficult.’
Triplets: A boy and two girls, March 2008, took the total to 10, 11 and 12
Paul subsequently had a vasectomy so it could never happen again.
Carole went on to give birth to triplets — two girls and one boy — using a new couple’s embryos, followed by a 13th baby in April 2013. At that point, closer to 50 than 40, she vowed to stop.
Only now for the first time does Carole reveal that, in fact, she didn’t — she fell pregnant again three years ago shortly before turning 50, following IVF treatment in Greece.
‘Sadly, the donor egg turned out to be a blighted ovum — this means the pregnancy failed not because of my age, but because the embryo wasn’t viable,’ she reveals.
The process itself, meanwhile, had not been as joyful as others.
‘I didn’t click with my last couple. I felt I was just a baby-making machine to them,’ she says. ‘They didn’t come to the scans and it was much lonelier than the pregnancies I’d gone through before.’
Latest: A boy in April 2013 for number 13
It’s one of the many reasons she’d seemingly fully reconciled herself to retiring as a surrogate — that is, until reading a slew of recent headlines featuring older mothers. ‘Every time I saw them, I felt an intense pang,’ Carole confides. ‘Although I’m in my 50s and with 15 babies behind me, I desperately long to carry another child.
‘I’m not exactly ‘clucky’ as I have no desire to keep the baby. But I do like the physical act of being pregnant and nurturing a new life inside me.’
However, there is no question that carrying a new life now comes with heightened risks, no matter how fit she is: classed as a geriatric mum, there’s an increased chance of conditions such as post-birth haemorrhaging.
It’s one reason Carole admits that Paul — who she married last year after 21 years together — is inherently ambivalent about her recent decision.
‘Paul would prefer I was not a surrogate any more, because of the risks,’ she acknowledges. ‘His feeling is no baby is worth your life. But he supports me and ultimately knows it’s something I feel I have to do.’
Both Steffanie and Megan took some convincing. ‘Megan particularly initially said she was worried, but both have come round as they know how important it is to me,’ says Carole.
With their blessing, Carole placed an advert on a surrogacy website, and was contacted by a childless British couple in their late 30s, who initially approached her for advice.
‘They have tried for a family for years, had a lot of miscarriages and suffered anguish and heartache,’ she says. ‘They told me what they had done so far and how they were struggling and I knew that, without my help, it’s unlikely they would ever have a baby, as there are so few surrogates in the UK.’
Carole said she was willing to be a gestational surrogate if the couple — who she has since met several times — could find a clinic to help: although there are no hard-and-fast rules, most have an age limit of 50.
Two months ago the trio also agreed to appear before an ethics committee regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embyology Authority (HFEA), who, after studying her case in detail, agreed any clinic they approached could make an exception to the rule due to Carole’s ongoing fertility and astonishing track record.
There are some, of course, who might believe Carole’s desire to be pregnant again borders on the compulsive, although it’s a sentiment she robustly refutes.
‘I do love feeling a baby move inside me and the feeling of doing something so wonderful, so maybe that is a compulsion?’ she says. ‘But that word implies something negative while I believe what I do is something wonderful. How many other people can say that they truly change people’s lives?’
It’s a fair question, arguably outranked by just one other: should this pregnancy go ahead, will it be her last? Carole insists it will.
‘This will be my third caesarean so this will definitely have to be my last,’ she says.
It seems churlish to point out that she’s said that before. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that Mother Nature will be required to have the final word on this one.