Annie Grace and Charlie Grayson Sheppard turned 15 on Sunday. But this is not your average birthday story about a couple of kids who can’t wait to get their learner’s permits and start driving.
The fraternal twins plan to be in line at the Department of Driver Services when it re-opens at 8 a.m. Tuesday. No doubt, they will insist their mother have them there early. Punctuality could be their middle names.
“They despise being late,’’ said their mom, Angie. “They get that from their daddy. If tennis camp starts at 9 a.m., they want to be there at 8:30. It’s the same way for school. It starts at 8, and they want to be there at 7:15 when the doors open.’’
Annie and Grayson certainly were early on the night of June 9, 2004. The Sheppard twins were born six weeks premature. The babies were delivered by an emergency C-section — without anesthesia — and spent their first two and half weeks in the hospital.
Surrogate is a big word, even for rising high school sophomores. But, if it ever is a vocabulary word on a test, Annie and Grayson will have their pencils sharpened and ready.
Angie and Robbie Sheppard started dating in 1998 and married two years later. Already in her late 20s, Angie realized her biological clock was ticking, and they were anxious to start a family.
Those hopes were dashed by a series of heartbreaks and doctor’s appointments. Angie’s mother, Mary Ann McCrary, had once taken DES (diethylstilbestrol), a drug prescribed to millions of women between 1938-71 to prevent miscarriages. Later, the daughters of many of those women were determined to have an increased risk of developing abnormal reproductive tracts, infertility and other health issues.
The Sheppards visited fertility experts. They tried in vitro fertilization. It often made them sad to be around other young couples with children. Holidays such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were difficult.
In the summer of 2003, after an in vitro procedure was unsuccessful, Robbie’s younger sister, Stacy Townsend spoke up.
“Well, if y’all can’t carry it, I’ll carry it for you,’’ she said.
It was a loving gesture, even if nobody in the family gave it another thought at the time. After all, Stacy had just given birth to her second child, Addy, in March. Why would she want to be subjected to another nine months of wild mood swings and food cravings?
“I was probably half joking when I said that,’’ Stacy said. “I don’t know if I threw it out there for them to take seriously, but there never was any question I would do it if it was presented.’’
It wasn’t long before it was on the table. Their fertility doctor suggested surrogacy as an option. In gestational surrogacy, the mother’s eggs are mixed with the father’s sperm through the process of in vitro fertilization. The embryos are then transferred to the surrogate’s uterus. The surrogate simply serves as a “carrier’’ or “incubator.’’
The family was thrilled when Stacy conceived. Angie and Robbie were so excited they would drive over to her house and talk to her womb.
Living in a small town, the Sheppards wondered what the reaction might be. There were times when Stacy decided to have fun with it. Someone would ask why she was pregnant again so soon, and she would grin and tell them it wasn’t her baby.
“We were like a sideshow going into Walmart,’’ she said. “If the three of us were ever together, and people knew it, it was like we were a circus because they wanted to know everything.’’
Robbie and Angie were committed to full disclosure in telling their children about the surrogate birth. They included photos of a pregnant Stacy in the baby books. There were ultrasound images with Stacy’s name on it.
Annie once asked: “Is Stacy our mama?’’
They didn’t set a time, pick a place or wait until their children were a certain age. It came together in pieces. Robbie said they wanted to “make it where they could understand.’’
“I don’t think we actually had a time when we sat down and said, ‘Here’s your story,’ ’’ he said. “But we never hid it from them.’’
“As little kids, they always ask you questions like, ‘Mama when you were pregnant with us did you ...?’ “ Angie said. “And I would always say, Y’all know I didn’t carry you.’ We never tried to avoid it, but they asked questions.’’
Annie now can appreciate her story. She even informed her health teacher that she was a “surrogate baby.’’ She once told a friend she was a “petri dish baby.’’ That led to a bit of misunderstanding.
“She thought I said, ‘Peachtree dish baby,’ ’’ Annie said, laughing.
Grayson and Annie are straight-A students and have never missed a day of school. They play on the tennis team at Upson-Lee High School. They are faithful members of the First Baptist Church in Thomaston and volunteered with Vacation Bible School this past week.
Annie holds the title of “older” sister by 23 minutes. Grayson has hit a growth spurt. At 5-foot-7, he is now 4 inches taller.
The Sheppards have used their experience to counsel others who are going through fertility issues.
“I tell them there is no shame in infertility,’’ Robbie said. “It happens to a lot of people.’’
For Stacy, who had her third child, Cooper, in 2008, it is meaningful to see her brother and sister-in-law experience the joys of parenthood.
“I already knew what it was like to be a mother and a parent, so to be able to watch Annie and Grayson grow up and be healthy and happy and have super supportive parents that are involved in everything … it’s just been great to be able to be close by and be involved,’’ she said.
And since she carried her niece and nephew inside her, there always will be a special bond.
“I’m just proud of who they’ve become and what they’ve accomplished,’’ she said. Then she laughed. “And how smart they are … because I’m sure they get that from me.’’
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.