Any decision to use a third party to create your family demands serious soul-searching. Not only have I been supporting couples in this quest for 35 years, but ironically, my own daughter was faced with the decision to use ovum donation due to the chemotherapy and radiation that she needed as a 17 year-old to win her battle with Hodgkins Disease. We’ve had a very happy ending as you might surmise, as you look to the right at the lovely faces of my 3 ovum-donated granddaughters: Jaden, age 11 & 1/2 and her twin sisters, Macy and Reese almost 10 years old.
Anyone considering this route to parenthood commonly faces (at least) two stumbling blocks: 1) The sadness of losing a genetic connection, which must be metabolized and 2) fearfully anticipating how and what to tell a child conceived in this manner.
My daughter, Kimberly Cohn, has written a piece which she calls “My Little Story” in which she captured the sentiments of the second issue with style, grace and humor. Her words follow below. I’d like to provide some inspiration that may help couples get beyond the first issue.
It could feel easier to shift from the loss of a genetic connection if emphasis is put on two aspects of carrying a child in your womb, namely the environment in which your baby is nurtured, and epigenetics.
Many years ago, one of my friends adopted a daughter. As the years went by, I became more and more amazed—stunned even at times—at how alike mother and daughter were. Since genetics played no part, it was clear that environment was exercising a huge influence on the child’s development.
Similar to adoption, and at the risk of sounding simplistic, the environmental influence on the child’s life through the love and security and values provided in the environment figure in large. Really large.
Different from adoption, the phenomenon of epigenetic modification is an additional and potent influence. The word epigenetics comes from the Greek, the prefix “epi” meaning over or above genetics.
A baby conceived using a donor egg gets his/her genes from the donor; she gets the “instructions” on the expression of those genes from the woman who carries him/her to term. The uterus is more than an oven in which the baby is cooked. The most important aspect of all pregnancies – including egg donation pregnancies- is that your future child is literally fabricated and influenced in and by the mother’s body The uterine lining becomes the placenta through which protein, sugars, calcium, nitrates, and fluids from the mother’s body go into the growth of the child. In addition, the birth mother influences how the child’s genetics are expressed.
(For more of the science of epigenetics, have a look at the Donor Conception Network.)
But now back to my daughter’s generous contribution to create solace for you from someone who has been there. Here’s her “little story.”
What happened when we had THAT conversation…
I have 3 daughters via egg donation, an 11& 1/2 year old and twins who are almost 10. I have always believed that my children should be aware of how they came into this world. I never wanted them to remember being told that they were conceived via egg donation, I wanted them to feel as if this information was something they always knew, like how you always know your parents love you and how you always know that the sun will come up in the morning and set at night. When my girls were younger, especially when a friend or relative was pregnant, and the inevitable “where do babies come from?” question arose, I always told them simply that when a mommy and daddy want to have a baby they get together and love each other very much and the mommy gets pregnant. Sometime they need help. Mommy and Daddy needed help and a doctor and a very nice lady helped us out so that we could have you. As they got a little older this progressed to telling them that the lady gave us a “cell” so that we could get pregnant. However, I always knew I would eventually have to give more information, and that eventuality inevitably arrived.
Last year when Jaden, who is very physically mature, was about to enter 5th grade, the time came for the class to watch “the movie.” I told her that I wanted to be the one to tell her all that she would need to know before she saw the movie. I tried to separate the puberty/period conversation from the sex conversation. At the end of what I though was a great conversation I asked, “Do you have any questions?” She said “Yeah, when are you going to tell me about THE SEX?” And so it began. I explained intercourse and how you make a baby. This was the 1st time I used the words egg and sperm, and explained that mommy and daddy had used an egg donor. She took it all in stride (as well as an 11 year old can). I wasn’t quite sure she understood the magnitude of the conversation, but she seemed satisfied. I had a cocktail and called it a night.
Fast forward one year. Sitting at the dinner table and I guess because my husband was not at dinner that night, Jaden says “Mom – I think you should tell the girls about what they are going to see in the movie next year.” I paused, waiting, hoping that the two little ones didn’t hear her. Then she says, “Wait, I’ll tell them!” She then proceeds to say: “So girls, the PENUS goes into the BAGINA and SPERUM comes out and makes a baby!” Now my twins, while the best of friends, with many similar interests, are very different. Macy is more interested in boys, more interested in her body and learning about sexual things, and very easy going. She worries about very little. Reese, on the other hand, is very physical, always doing back bends and cartwheels and flips (everywhere) and is also very anxiety prone. She is also my most honest child. She tells me EVERYTHING, for which I am very grateful, especially since Macy is very sneaky!
So I proceeded to tell them the real story about sex. How it works, how a baby is made, everything. During the conversation, Jaden is piping in her two cents. Macy is sitting close to me, wide eyed, very attentive, taking it all in. Reese’s anxiety is elevating before my eyes, as exhibited by the back bends, leg extensions, and cartwheels she is doing around the kitchen table where we were all sitting. So this is the first time I have used “egg” and “sperm” in a conversation with Macy and Reese and the first time that I have very clearly told all three that the very nice lady I have been talking about all of these years actually gave us several eggs and that is how I was able to become pregnant. And this is the first time I heard the question I have been dreading for 12 years: “So wait a minute, you are not actually our mom!?!?”
I have to say, the dagger through my heart that I have anticipated for 12 years didn’t cut as sharply as I had thought it would. And here is why. I explained that while this very nice lady (whom we lovingly refer to as Mrs. X) gave us cells/eggs, it was mixed with daddy’s sperm and put inside of me and that I was pregnant with all of them and I got to nurture all of them since the moment of conception (well 5 days after conception, but who is counting?). And that I got to give birth to all of them. I have raised them since the day they were born. And that I know that they are all 100% my children. And while they may not look like me, they all have pieces of my soul in them. That my blood ran through their little developing bodies while I was pregnant, and that I have put my heart and soul and every ounce of love I have into raising them since the day they were born.
Jaden responded to this explanation with a look of content and understanding, although I’m sure I saw behind her eyes a glimmer of: “okay – I’ll hold on to this for use at a future date when you really piss me off…” Macy sort of dismissed the sappiness of the conversation and while I know she heard me and understood the magnitude of what I was saying, she responded by asking if there was a video she could watch to learn how to do THE SEX correctly. I quickly told her no, because I was not yet ready for the porn conversation. I’m sure she’ll google that on her iPad soon enough! (Now you are about to understand why I am so grateful for Reese’s honesty.) Reese, who had been quiet for most of the latter part of the conversation, albeit twisting her body into all sorts of various contortions, spoke up. She said: “I do not care what anyone says, YOU ARE MY MOM, 100%!” I agreed and smiled, more in my heart than my face, and with that the conversation ended and the dinner table quickly emptied and we resumed our normal busy, crazy, chaotic life. And I would have it no other way!
I’m very proud of my daughter, Kim, for her clarity about choosing this path and handling it with such panache. This is not to say that adoption or surrogacy or choosing to live child-free is by any means inferior. The bottom line is that whatever path we choose in life there are challenges to navigate. It’s not that we are on a certain path, but how we are on that path that matters.