Nicole Hillmon — preschool teacher and loving wife — wanted a baby, but her body let her down. As she grieved the possibility of never being a mother, a surrogate unexpectedly stepped forward and volunteered her womb. A most perfect surrogate, as it turned out.
Hillmon’s sister, Haley Monson, carried the baby for her.
Tinley Faith Hillmon was born at 3:07 a.m. Aug. 29. She was 7 pounds, 6 ounces with a lot of hair that Hillmon blamed for giving her younger sister heartburn during the pregnancy.
“I tell her, ‘You’re my angel,’” Hillmon, 31, said of her sister.
A family’s team effort brought Tinley into the world. The delivery room at Shawnee Mission Medical Center was awfully crowded.
Hillmon was there with her husband, David, 33, a physical education teacher for Tonganoxie schools and boys basketball coach at Tonganoxie High School.
Monson’s husband, Shahn, 29, was there, too. The Monsons live in Kansas City, Kan.
The women’s mother, Roxanne Murray of Mission, was also in the room. So was photographer Cate DePrisco of InstaBirthStory Photography, who documented the birth, posting photos and updates to Instagram in real time.
“I think having been through it once, your dignity kind of flies out the window,” laughed Monson, 28, whose daughter Aliza is 2.
It had been difficult for Hillmon to learn that her sister was pregnant as endometriosis and ovarian cysts prevented her from having a baby of her own.
Even after surgery to remove the cysts, Hillmon still couldn’t get pregnant. So she and her husband began a long, expensive journey with a fertility specialist.
Given only a 1 percent chance of conceiving naturally, they took the 30 percent chance of getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization. But it didn’t work.
Hillmon, who had convinced herself that she was pregnant after one of her eggs-turned-embryos was placed in her womb, was devastated when told days later that she wasn’t.
“It was a complete blow,” she said.
While she and her husband lingered in limbo trying to decide whether to try again, her sister, living in Colorado Springs at the time, got pregnant. Both sisters remember that phone call — news that was hard for one to share and hard for the other to hear.
“Afterward I told her I didn’t even want to call and tell her, and she said, ‘Haley, why? I want this for you,’” Monson said.
“At the time she just showed so much joy for us. I know she had to work through feelings of sadness, but she was so awesome and didn’t show any of that.
“She was just so excited for us despite the fact that they were in a place where they couldn’t get pregnant.”
Hillmon threw herself into her sister’s pregnancy, researching the right foods for her to eat. co-hosting a family baby shower. She went to Colorado and stayed with the Monsons after the baby arrived.
“It was like I was living vicariously through her,” said Hillmon. “It was hard, but once her daughter Aliza came, I was so in love with her. I treated her like she was my own.”
Hillmon went back to graduate school to work on a master’s degree in special education/early childhood to “focus on something else.”
Meanwhile her sister, working as a missions assistant at her church in Colorado, felt a stirring as she thought about her sister.
“My mom and I, when we’re upset, we can’t hide it,” said Monson. “My sister is very good at keeping herself composed and not wearing her emotions on her sleeve.
“During all that time when she was trying to get pregnant she didn’t talk to me about a lot of it until later. I didn’t realize the amount of heartache and pain they were experiencing until she had worked through a lot of it.
“I guess for me it took me a while to understand the kind of pain that comes with infertility ... that’s probably when God started figuring to put that on my heart.”
It all comes back to God, is what Monson tells people who ask why she did this.
When she started feeling the tug to have her sister’s baby, she prayed: “Oh man, what? Are you sure, God?’”
“He was just tugging on my heart,” Monson said. “It was not a choice that I probably would have made on my own had God not been prompting me.
“I had to get over a lot of my own selfishness to get to a place where, ‘O.K., God, if this is what you want me to do ...’”
Monson didn’t know that, about the same time, her husband had a dream that she was a surrogate for her sister and brother-in-law.
They took that as a cue that God had them on the same page.
So in February 2016 Monson and her husband placed the FaceTime call to the Hillmons that changed all their lives.
When Monson asked her sister to go get her husband for the call, Hillmon knew something was up. She was sure her sister was calling to say she was pregnant again.
“We want to be your surrogate,” the Monsons said instead.
“They looked like they had seen a ghost,” Monson recalled.
Are you serious, are you joking, Hillmon asked her sister several times.
“Nicole, I wouldn’t joke about this,” Monson said.
David Hillmon began to cry, the first time Monson had ever seen her brother-in-law weep.
Hillmon never thought to ask her sister to be a surrogate because they’d had a casual, passing conversation about it years ago, a conversation that had stayed with Hillmon.
If I can’t have kids, would you be my surrogate, Hillmon asked her sister.
No, her sister said.
“I was 19!” Monson said when her sister reminded her of that chat.
Hillmon wasn’t sure she wanted to tell a lot of people about their plan. Her sister, though, wanted people to pray for them.
“I wish I would have been more in the moment of it all,” said Hillmon. “Haley would get so excited about things. It was just hard for me to go all in from the get-go. I didn’t want to have to feel the way I felt that first time.”
But they decided to share the news. Hillmon wrote a letter to the parents of her Head Start students explaining why she would be out on maternity leave even though they didn’t see her pregnant. Her husband told his students and their parents.
Someone set up a GoFundMe page for them. (They were still paying off the loan they took out for their unsuccessful IVF attempt.)
“We got the most overwhelming amount of support, from strangers and everybody. And it was so nice,” Hillmon said. “I was so excited but I was still very guarded because things can happen. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, I guess.”
In December she went with her sister to KU’s Women’s Health Specialty Center in Overland Park for the transfer of the embryo. She held her sister’s hand during the procedure.
They had to wait 10 days to learn whether Monson was pregnant.
“God’s got this baby, Nicole,” Monson told her sister. “It will work out.”
They were warned not to take a home pregnancy test because the tests can give false positive readings, and false hopes. But Monson couldn’t wait. She took a pregnancy test before they got the official results and showed her sister.
Still wary, Hillmon tried not to get excited until they got the doctor’s results.
Yes. They were pregnant.
They couldn’t wait to tell David Hillmon. He had just ended basketball practice when his wife walked into the gym with the news. Phone calls were quickly made, text messages sent. Soon the news began to spread, a gift for the families just two days before Christmas.
The pregnancy flew by with few complications, save for some early bleeding that prompted a trip to the emergency room.
There, on an ultrasound, Hillmon got the first look at her daughter, tucked inside her sister’s belly. “I remember going, ‘Oh my gosh, she has arms,’” said Hillmon. “I was so in awe of her looking like an actual baby. It started getting real.”
They called her “Baby H,” for Baby Hillmon. Monson’s daughter, Aliza, knew from the get-go that her mommy was having a baby for her aunt and uncle.
“She’s a pretty smart 2-year-old,” Monson said. “She just accepted that. So from the beginning if you would ask her, ‘Who’s Baby H,’ she would say, ‘it’s Auntie Nickie and Uncle David’s baby.’
“I think when she gets older there will be a lot of conservations about it. But Tinley and her are going to have such a sweet relationship. I think they’re going to be very close.”
Aliza was just about the only person in the family who wasn’t in the delivery room.
Monson’s water broke at home around 10:30 on Aug. 28. Tinley arrived just hours later, but those three hours of labor were “really rough,” Monson said. “It was really rough.”
DePrisco has the photos to prove it.
Team Tinley was attentive.
Gowned and gloved up, Hillmon stood ready to take the baby, who came out face down.
David Hillmon cut his daughter’s umbilical cord.
“It just didn’t feel real to me,” said Hillmon.
She sat next to her sister’s hospital bed in a chair and held Tinley next to her bare chest. Skin to skin. Mother to daughter.
David Hillmon cried again.
When Monson took her turn holding the baby, she felt like she was holding her niece, not her daughter.
“I think we were all kind of nervous about how, emotionally, she was going to feel after this, because we didn’t know. This was uncharted territory,” Hillmon said.
Monson said having her sister’s baby made more sense than being a surrogate for a stranger.
“It’s neat because I get to be a part of Tinley’s life still. I get to be her aunt,” she said. “Some people might think that might be more difficult, but I feel that’s a huge blessing that I get to love on her as a niece and I get to see her grow up.
“I don’t feel like she’s mine. There is no confusion or doubt for me about who she belongs to.”