Britain's most prolific surrogate mother is calling it a day after handing over 10 babies. She'll miss it, she tells Judith Woods.
What sort of woman offers to be a surrogate for a childless couple? An incredibly altruistic one, of course. And what sort of person goes on to offer three more women the chance of a baby they could never have naturally? Most would agree that when she did just that, Jill Hawkins, a 48-year-old legal secretary from England, entered the realms of living sainthood.
But what about when she popped out two more? And then another four, including twins, bringing the grand total to 10?
Hawkins, from Sussex, is Britain's most prolific surrogate mother. She says that what she does is unusual, but that "a great many people do unusual things".
"When couples meet me, they're often taken aback by how normal I am," she says.
I'm quite a selfish person. I'm just not prepared to make the compromises demanded by parenthood ... but I love being pregnant and I will miss it
"I'm very fertile, I get pregnant easily and I pop out babies like shelling peas, so it seemed obvious that surrogacy was a way of listening to my biological clock while helping others."
Jill Hawkins is seven months pregnant with her third baby. But, like her previous two, she will not be keeping this child.
Commercial surrogacy is illegal in Britain, and women like Hawkins, who is only paid to cover her costs, are exceedingly rare. Infertile couples, perhaps inevitably, look abroad.
"I can understand why most women in this country might find the idea of an organised 'baby farm' abhorrent," says Hawkins. "But I don't have a problem with it. These women are host surrogates, they aren't using their own eggs. I know from personal experience that it's perfectly possible to detach yourself and not feel as though it's 'your' baby.
"I used my own eggs for the first seven babies and thereafter I was a host. But even when I am pregnant with my own eggs, I see the baby as my responsibility. But I don't bond with it or love it the way a mother does," she says, matter-of-factly. "It's hard for someone who really longs for a baby to understand that I don't, but this whole journey began because I personally wanted to experience pregnancy, not be a mother."
There is no doubt that Hawkins, a single, statuesque woman with a delicate nose-piercing, is eccentric - she freely admits it. Alongside the framed photographs of her babies - she knows every date and birthweight down to the last ounce - her home is crammed with cat knick-knacks. There are pussy cats on the lavatory seat, cat cushions, cat portraits. More extraordinary are her cat tattoos; slinking the length of her right arm, practically purring on each calf.
Yet, oddly, she has just one cat. The reason, I suspect, is that she doesn't like to be too tied down - by animals or children.
"Kids are so time-consuming," she says. "Being pregnant is great and people make a fuss of you, but if you see a mother pushing a buggy she usually looks tired and bloody miserable.
"I'm quite a selfish person. I'm just not prepared to make the compromises demanded by parenthood - but I love being pregnant and I will miss it."
Hawkins's most recent babies, twins called Jacob and William, were born in June, two months premature, by emergency caesarean. She suffered complications during the pregnancy when she developed placenta previa, where the placenta lies too low in the uterus. She lost five pints of blood and nearly died.
She vowed her surrogacy days were over, as she couldn't risk a baby's life again - or indeed her own. It's a pledge she's made repeatedly, but even though this time she insists she means it, I doubt whether her resolve will hold.
"I love doing this," she says. "I meet amazing couples who are heartbroken and I want to make them happy. It will be hard to walk away."
What they get from the arrangement is obvious, but Hawkins's gains are more complex. She receives £12,000 ($18,630) to cover expenses, a fraction of the £100,000 ($155,257) a US surrogacy arrangement can cost.
Her motivation is bound up in her background. Deaf in one ear owing to a childhood infection, her disability distanced her from other people, fostering a certain self-sufficiency. Her working-class roots taught her the value of hard work. She had her first part-time job aged 13, and after leaving school, slogged her way up from office junior to legal secretary.
"I didn't have a boyfriend, but I have always been utterly fascinated by pregnancy. When Kim Cotton became Britain's first surrogate mother [in 1985] it seemed the perfect solution," she says.
"My mother wasn't the least bit maternal. Maybe I've inherited that from her. When I told her I was going to be a surrogate, which was quite a big decision for me, her only response was 'I could have done that."' Later, she tells me that her controlling mother never showed her physical affection, called her "fat" and "a stupid freak" - yet Hawkins adored her - and another piece of the jigsaw falls into place.
Back in 1985, Scotland Yard investigated what was referred to as Cotton's "baby for cash deal". Five years later, Hawkins approached the Cots surrogacy charity set up by Cotton, but had to fight to convince her that she should be allowed to become a surrogate. "The usual scenario is a woman who has completed her family offering to have a baby for a couple, so because I was childless and single there was suspicion about my suitability," she recalls.
"I was motivated by selfish reasons. I've never understood the despair infertile women feel. Maybe because I had never wanted anything that much in my life."
She was finally accepted, and chose a couple who had tried - and failed - to have a baby for 15 years. The fact that she was, then, paid £7000 ($10,863) for expenses took her by complete surprise.
"I always wanted to have a connection with the couple, because I was using my own eggs so it would be my biological baby," she says. After seven months of trying to conceive through artificial insemination, she fell pregnant and was beset with morning sickness. Lucy came into the world in September 1992. After the birth, Hawkins never held the baby, believing it wasn't her place to cuddle a child that wasn't hers.
"I didn't want to keep her, but I did have all these hormones sweeping through me, which was hard. Subsequently, I knew what to expect and I was able to hold each baby and hand them over, which is the best feeling imaginable."
She had told her work colleagues that it was her boyfriend's child - and when she returned to work after maternity leave, she explained away the baby's absence by claiming it had been stillborn. "What else could I do?" she asks. "I was horribly emotional after the baby was born, so it explained why I was crying."
Lucy, who will be 20 this month, stays with Hawkins often. After her came Bertie, now 18, then Jamie, Sam, David, Alexandra and Isobel. Oliver was born in 2010. The children and parents meet up for a picnic with Hawkins - and their half-siblings - every summer.
But beyond the happy family snaps, there is a dark side. Hawkins, who has never had a boyfriend, was diagnosed with depression after her third pregnancy, and her condition is now managed with anti-depressants.
She took an overdose in a suicide attempt in 2004, but plays it down as "a classic cry for help" prompted by weight gain. Family and friends rallied round and supported her through a £7000 ($10,863) gastric band operation, which helped her lose seven stone in eight months.
"I've always struggled with my weight," she says. "When you're pregnant you're allowed to be fat!"
She is only half-joking. Her words add another uneasy dimension to her surrogacy and how she will cope if she really does abandon it.
"My job is complete; the children all have their own lives to get on with," she says, philosophically. "Now it's my turn to do the same.
"People talk about the gift of life, but surrogacy has saved mine so many times. It has given me purpose, a vocation that brings happiness. I become part of a couple's life and, if I'm honest, it's been a way of distancing myself from my own life, my own problems.
"The newspapers called me a baby factory and said I got depressed because I gave up my babies. But they weren't mine - having them was the best thing I've ever done."
Earlier this year Hawkins appeared on television to talk about her pregnancies. A fellow guest, a medical expert at the US Centre for Surrogate Parenting, expressed shock.
"I cannot imagine in my wildest dreams why anyone has a psychological reason for doing this eight, nine, 10 times," said clinic director Karen Synesiou, who suggested that Hawkins needed intense therapy and should never have been permitted to have more than three babies.
That may be so, but who could look at the pictures of solemn-faced Sam, Alexandra's cascade of Titian hair, or the twins locked in a sleepy embrace, and hand on heart, say they should never have been born?
The Daily Telegraph, London