Navigating the uncharted

I’d like to tell you about a couple of amazing people.

He’s a CPA. She’s a child/adolescent therapist. They live a few states away. She is a talented seamstress. He makes her laugh. Like us, they wanted a family but faced roadblocks. Their first IVF cycle resulted in their precious son and two cryopreserved blastocysts. A couple years later, they had a precious daughter. They knew they did not plan to pursue fertility treatments again, and so they had a decision to make.

They are our embryo donors. I don’t know exactly what went into their decision to donate. Jon and I had just a small taste of what they must have faced when we began our IVF process and considered the possibility of extra embryos. We know it wasn’t an easy choice, but our donors felt a sense of responsibility to those tiny blastocysts. And so they made an incredibly unselfish decision, and in so doing, gave us a gift of incalculable value. We have this opportunity to again become parents because of them, and I am still floored by that kind of generosity.

I mentioned in my earlier post that we felt a surprisingly strong connection with this family from the time we first began to learn a little more about them. In the early stages of our process and FET cycle, the counselor served as go-between and provided updates and photos to the families. Not long before our scheduled transfer, the counselor forwarded a note written directly to me by Lauren*. I was crying before I’d finished reading her words.

It was a simple note that said she was thinking of me every day. She said it was eerie how much we reminded her of her own family. She talked about what a good feeling she had about our transfer and how excited she was about the possibilities. If the note had been written on paper, I probably would have worn it out with rereading.

That same day, I sent the counselor a return note for Lauren*. We communicated by proxy several more times up to and after the transfer. Then, on the same day, without knowing the other had asked, we each suggested exchanging contact information. The counselor passed along our email addresses, and messages have flowed back and forth fairly regularly ever since.

I wasn’t sure when we first chose embryo donation what to expect in the way of a relationship with the donor family. Would it be weird or painful? Would we feel threatened or insecure about the donor family’s involvement? Would it somehow make our baby less ours? Jon and I both started out wanting our commitment to be fairly limited, although we were open to more if the conditions were right. Then we connected with OUR donor family, and it was no longer an abstract exercise. Now these were the generous, unselfish people who had given us our baby. We instinctively trusted them and trusted our collective ability to navigate this uncharted territory.

I don’t want to oversimplify. This is a relationship without an existing definition. We forge ahead without a map. It’s probably safe to say that for both the donors and for us, there are still joltingly emotional moments when we come face-to-face with the truly unique nature of what we’re doing. There will probably be more of those as this baby enters the world and becomes a part of our family. We don’t really know what this relationship looks like a year or five years from now. We play it very much by ear, and obviously, there are boundaries. Jon and I both already feel incredibly possessive and protective of this baby. If ANYONE dared to hint she is anything less than 100 percent ours, the parental lions would roar. But that has not happened. Both families understand this baby’s unquestioned place in our family, as our child. We also acknowledge the unique role her biological family has played, and we know they will continue to be a part of our lives as our daughter grows. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but the sense of trust and openness has served us well through this process. I believe it will continue to be a great strength in the experiences ahead.

On Mother’s Day, Lauren* and I were thinking of each other, and we exchanged notes full of gratitude. It occurred to me that day that our baby is twice blessed, with two women who will have helped shape her life in very different ways. That thought might have made me uncomfortable a few months ago, but now, it makes me happy. The amazing thing about love in its best form is it multiples rather than divides.

In fact, with this baby, WE are twice blessed. We are richer for the incredible gift of our child and the presence in our lives of her remarkable genetic family.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons. 

Transfer!

The medical protocol for a frozen embryo transfer – whether using your own embryos from a previous IVF cycle or donor embryos, as in our case – is much simpler than the process for a full IVF cycle. When you are starting from scratch with in vitro, the mother has to take injections to induce her body to develop as many eggs as possible. Once the eggs are mature – which happens with the aid of another injection – they are then surgically retrieved and fertilized in the lab. For a frozen embryo transfer, that part of the process has already occurred. In our case, the embryos had matured to blastocyst stage (which usually takes around 5 or 6 days) before they were frozen and stored.

There is still a fairly lengthy process to prepare the mother’s body for potential implantation of the embryos once they are transfered, however. First, the body’s natural ovulatory process is suppressed through birth control pills and subcutaneous injections of a medication called Lupron. Then oral estrogen is added to build up the uterine lining.

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The collection of meds and syringes, in all its glory

At least two monitoring appointments, which involve blood work and ultrasound, are necessary to make sure the body is responding to the medications and everything is ready for the transfer. Our actual transfer would happen at the clinic in Knoxville, but we had our monitoring done locally at the clinic in Nashville.

Our transfer date was Tuesday, January 17. We left Corin with my parents, traveled to Knoxville the night before and stayed with friends in the area overnight. The transfer was scheduled for mid-morning. I’ll admit: even having been through the process twice before, I was nervous. It’s a strange thing, the mix of hope and fearful reservation that becomes so familiar during fertility treatments. About half an hour before our transfer, we were taken back to the preparation area, where I got into my lovely hospital gown and cap and the nurse took my vitals. I was disappointed to find out Jon would not be coming into the room with me for the actual transfer.

We were both anxiously waiting to talk with the embryologist. She came into the curtained area after what seemed like a longer wait than it was. This would be the moment we found out how our embryos had fared in the thawing process and which ones would be transfered. As soon as she started with, “Both the embryos from your primary donors thawed beautifully,” we broke into smiles, and the anxiety faded. We would not need to thaw any of the embryos from the secondary donors. She showed us a picture of our two beautiful little blastocysts.
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Every fertility clinic has its own internal system for grading the quality of embryos at the time of transfer. It’s subjective, and they always tell you the quality grade doesn’t necessarily predict the outcome. It does give a sense of the odds, though, so when the embryologist told us we had an AA and an AB, we were ecstatic. They were the highest-quality embryos we’d ever had.

From that moment, both Jon and I had an underlying sense of confidence. We felt God at work. Of course the doubts would creep in over the excruciating 10-day wait for that first pregnancy blood test, but the nervousness faded and we came away feeling more excited and hopeful than we ever had after a fertility cycle.

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Just before the procedure

It wasn’t long before I was wheeled into the small procedure room, which was kept dark and cool. It had a sliding window directly into the lab, through which the embryologist passed our precious cargo. The transfer itself went beautifully and was over in about 10 or 15 minutes. I watched the ultrasound image on a big-screen TV as the tiny embryos were placed in exactly the right spot in the uterus via a cervical catheter.

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The white spots just below the cursor are the embryos after being transfered. 

I rested back in the waiting area, with my feet slightly elevated, for about 30 minutes after the procedure, and from then on, it was mostly business as usual.

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Immediately post-transfer

We headed to IHOP for some lunch and tried not feel frightened at how high our hopes were. I was instructed to stay in town and rest the remainder of the day. We stayed again that night with our friends and headed home in the morning. Jon bravely administered twice-daily intramuscular shots of progesterone, and we waited.

Ten days later, I headed to our local clinic for the quantitative hCG blood test that would tell us whether we were pregnant. Make no mistake: Regardless of our sense of confidence, those 10 days CRAWLED. They always do. But by that evening, we knew: I was pregnant. The number told me it was probably one baby, although we wouldn’t know for sure until our first ultrasound at 6 weeks. I had a second blood test three days later to make sure the numbers were climbing as they should be. They were. We were thrilled. My official due date is October 4, 2012.

We had two ultrasounds, at 6 and 8 weeks, at the local fertility clinic and were then released as “normal” obstetric patients. The intramuscular progesterone shots continued, with repeated blood tests to make sure my hormone levels were where they needed to be. All went smoothly, and my poor, sore bum could finally begin to heal after the 12-week mark. (Truthfully, it’s still a little sore.)

This was our beautiful baby (our sweet girl, we know now!) at 8 weeks:

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Really, what can I add to that?

Eenie, meenie, miney…

It’s probably safe to assume that most couples, before choosing to procreate, do not sit down at the kitchen table and write out a full family medical history and personality profile for each partner. For most of us, the decision to have children is not so much an evaluation process as an instinct to pass along our genetics, with all that entails, to the next generation. It’s a natural desire, and for most families, what you have is what you get.

Choosing embryo donors was an entirely different world. Before we even began looking at donor profiles, we had decisions to make. Did we want a closed or open arrangement with the donors? If open, how much contact did we want to have? Did we want our children to have contact?

We chose an open arrangement. In the end, we both felt it would be important for our child to have access to complete information about his or her biological family and even to have the option of eventually meeting them. Traditional adoption has moved to more open arrangements in recent years, and research shows the adopted children have benefited. It just seemed we would want to be able to answer any questions our child might have about the family whose genetics he or she shared. As it has turned out (and as our counselor predicted), the openness has already benefited us, as well.

Once we made that decision and outlined the type of communication we envisioned, the NEDC coordinator emailed us the first set of anonymous profiles to review.

I don’t know if there is really an effective way to describe the experience of shopping for your child’s biological make-up. How do you prioritize health factors, personality traits, talents and interests? Did it matter if we related to the donors’ taste in music or movies? How concerned were we about a history of clinical depression? What about diabetes or heart disease? We knew the single biggest predictor of IVF success is the age of the mother, so that was another factor.

As silly and shallow as it sounds, I had a terrible fear of ending up with an ugly child. I worried about the same thing before Corin was born. The counselor we have had access to throughout the process suggested it was related to fears about bonding. In any case, I was disappointed that most of the donor profiles didn’t include photos. But perhaps it was for the best. The one profile that did have photos sounded good on paper, but – there’s no kind way to say it – the children were homely. I couldn’t get past it. I felt like an awful person, but I just…couldn’t.

We passed on the first set of profiles, and the coordinator sent us a couple more. We passed on those. And so the winnowing continued. It was harder than either of us expected. There was really nothing wrong with any of these donor families. (Well, there was this one, but I won’t go there.) It was just incredibly hard to look at a few pages of anonymous information and decide definitively whether this was the biology we wanted for our child.

The NEDC coordinator actually had quite a task before she even selected profiles to send us. First, she had to choose from donors whose openness preferences matched ours. Then, she had to consider the number of embryos the donors had available, and at what stage the embryos had been frozen. In order to proceed to transfer, we would need 5-6 embryos. Because few donors have that many embryos, we would likely need to be matched with TWO donor families. To further complicate matters, not all embryos are frozen at the same stage of development. Some are frozen as blastocysts, some as 3-day embryos, and some even earlier. Our embryos needed to be at a similar stage of development in order to all be ready for transfer at the same time. The coordinator also tried to factor in physical similarities, although we eventually told her that mattered less to us than other factors.

There were a couple donors earlier in the process that had potential, but it was maybe on the fourth batch that we found two profiles we really liked. One had two embryos available, the other four, giving us our total of six. Predictably, I was ready to commit and Jon wanted to keep looking, just in case. I emailed the coordinator about more profiles, and that’s when we realized exactly how demanding we were. Her reply essentially said, “Yeah, that’s pretty much it. We’ve exhausted all the donors that meet your parameters.” So, here we were. These were the donors.

I don’t know that I could tell you exactly how we chose these donors. There were factors that weighed heavily, like levels of education, career choices and skills and hobbies. The medical histories were pretty clean. Both couples were relatively young. Aside from the concrete factors (or perhaps because of them), we felt a connection, as if these were people we could relate to. All of this came with a lot of prayer.

Once we made our choice, the NEDC contacted both donor families for their approval of the match. It was a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before both approvals were in, although the coordinator assured us donors approved the match 90% of the time. After they received the approvals, the NEDC provided all our contact information to the counselor, who was responsible for helping us finalize the legal contracts. After speaking to each of the donor families, the counselor was able to tell us more about them: their first names, their children’s names, a bit about their story and a little about how they felt about the match.

I’ll never forget the counselor’s call after her interview with the first family. As she told us about them, I felt an overwhelming connection. I remember thinking, “I love these people!” I don’t know what it was, exactly. Perhaps God was giving us the confidence that these were the people, this was the child He had chosen for us. We named this family as our primary donors. The second family would be our secondary donors; their embryos would be used if needed. We exchanged photos with both families, and I was amazed at how much our primary donors reminded me of us. Their two children – a boy and a girl – were adorable.

We had decided on a January 2012 transfer. All parties settled on the terms of the legal donor agreements pretty easily, and I mailed in the last signed, notarized contract on December 9. That was also the day I began the first step in my medical protocol. The train was leaving the station.

The road (WAY) less traveled

It’s been a big week in the Sharp household. Yesterday marked the 20-week half-way point in my pregnancy, and on Monday, we learned we are having a baby GIRL. My heart is full; our bank account is a little emptier. I confess, the shopping has begun. This having a girl is going to require real self-restraint.

But I suppose I have a lot more history to tell.

I am the researcher in our family. Vacations, major purchases, new medical diagnoses: I’m on it. Jon seems to appreciate my ability to dig until we have answers, which has been particularly necessary through our infertility and family planning forays. I’ll admit, though, that sometimes I have an itchy trigger finger. I want to be done. I want to make a decision and have a plan. (I mentioned I am a planner, right?) I struggled the most in our infertility experiences when we came to a crossroads. I hate being in limbo. I always felt better once we knew what our next steps were.

It was no different as we explored our options for Baby the Second. I was a research machine. And honestly, I felt ready before too long to go the traditional adoption route. I found an agency I liked. I had the initial paperwork in hand. I wanted a plan. So when Jon first brought up embryo adoption, my initial rejection was at least partly about resistance to more research…and more limbo.

We knew Bethany Christian Services offered embryo donation. (I should pause to explain terminology. I have been casually using the term embryo adoption because it may be less confusing. However, this process is not technically an adoption. Adoption law does not apply to embryos. Embryo donation is really the more accurate term.) I did a little online research, wrote out some questions and put in a call to our local Bethany office. I connected with the young woman who handled embryo donations. She provided some basic information, and with every minute of that phone call, my interest grew.

I’ll admit: The initial motivation for my interest was financial. That probably sounds terrible. But anyone who’s been through it knows how much of the stress of infertility is financial. By the time we conceived Corin, we had spent the equivalent of a decent year’s salary. Thankfully, we had a lot of help from incredibly generous family and friends. Even so, by the time we were looking to have a second child, we had precious little in savings, and we were now living on one salary. The cost range the woman on the phone gave me for embryo donation was about one-third what it would cost for traditional adoption or the shared risk IVF program. So yeah, my ears perked up.

The local Bethany office directed me to the National Embryo Donation Center in Knoxville for more information. The NEDC manages embryo donations for donors and recipients from around the country. I spoke for a long time with the embryologist, and by the time I got off the phone, I was pretty certain this was going to be our new plan. Jon was predictably a little more cautious, but we both had a growing sense of excitement.

It’s hard to talk about our reasons for choosing embryo donation without seeming to criticize other options. We are probably also opening ourselves up to criticism of our own motives. All I can say is that infertility and the choices couples make as a result are incredibly personal. We prayed hard and made the decision we felt was best for us. I believe God led in that process, but clearly, these decisions are not easy. All I can tell you is how we made our choice.

We ultimately felt embryo donation had several advantages over our other options:

  1. The lower cost.
  2. The profile of the biological parents. We felt that embryo donors were likely to be relatively stable, to have taken care of themselves and to have done all they could to ensure the health of their embryos.
  3. The opportunity to experience pregnancy and childbirth again. This might be a downside for some people, but there were several reasons this was a positive for us. Perhaps the biggest was that it put us in control of the prenatal environment and offered us that time to bond with our child. It also allowed me the potential opportunity for the natural birth I still hoped to experience.
  4. The potential to provide life to a child who otherwise might not have that opportunity. The number of embryos available for donation currently outweighs the number of recipients by a significant margin. This is a different scenario from traditional adoption, where couples wait for months or years to be chosen by a birth mother and know their selection means another couple is still waiting. The ratio of embryos to recipients also meant we would be able to choose from available donors, again giving us more control of the process.

There were risks and drawbacks, too, of course. We would once again be spinning the medical roulette wheel, with no guarantee of a baby. We talked at length about the type of relationship – if any – we envisioned with the donor family and about potential challenges for the child. We grieved the loss of another biological child, of seeing ourselves in our offspring. But in the end, we both felt an undeniable pull. The advantages, for us, outweighed the risks.

Once we processed all of this, we decided one more step was necessary. We talked to both sets of parents to gauge their feelings about what would certainly be an unusual route to a new grandchild. We were pleased but not surprised to get their full support. Our families have been an invaluable source of strength for us through the ups and downs of our family building adventures, and they seemed to clearly understand why this option was so appealing.

And so just a few weeks after Jon first raised the subject of embryo adoption, I found myself sitting at the computer, filling out an online recipient application form for the NEDC. From there, the process moved fairly quickly. We had an initial medical consult at the clinic in Knoxville in September 2011 and were medically cleared to proceed. Although embryo donation is not legally an adoption, most organizations who offer it require recipients to complete an adoption home study. We found a wonderful local agency to handle ours and had the final home study report in hand by October 2011.

Once the NEDC received the home study report, we were ready to be matched with a donor family. But I think that part of the story deserves its own entry.

A beautiful surrender

I am a planner. I remember writing out a timeline, sometime around three years of marriage, of exactly when I wanted to have our first, second and third kids (at ages 28, 31 and 33, for the record). Yeah, I know. I realized even at the time that this was pretty silly. Somehow, though, it made me feel as if we were progressing toward the goal of parenthood.

You can imagine, then, that having parenthood delayed by years of infertility required an adjustment. I had some lessons to learn.

I want to be clear: I don’t believe difficulty originates with God. Heartache and loss come because we live in a world of sin, so far from God’s ideal. We live, for the moment, in the enemy’s territory. But I believe God DOES use the troubles that come to help us grow and to eventually weave the circumstances of our lives into something beautiful.

I kept a personal journal, in the form of letters to our unborn child, during those years. I remember writing an entry at one point that said something like, “I want a child more than I’ve ever wanted anything.” The next morning, I read in my Bible the story of Elijah fleeing for his life after Mt. Carmel. His dramatic self-pity at that low point in his life suddenly seemed uncomfortably familiar. I read how God lovingly cared for Elijah’s physical needs. And then He provided a reality check, for Elijah and for me. There were things more important than Elijah’s comfort or even his safety. God had bigger plans, and Elijah had an important role to play. It dawned on me that having a child was not the thing I wanted most. I most wanted my life to matter in the way it can only when God is in control. If God chose to give us the child we prayed for later than I’d hoped – or never, I forced myself to face – I still trusted Him. I knew, but needed to be reminded, that what He could do with my life was better than anything I could plan for myself.

That reality check came back to me over and over again in the many months still ahead before Corin became a part of our lives. And it came back to me yet again as we faced difficult decisions about our next child. What is faith if we stop trusting the moment we can no longer see the future clearly? God was teaching me to let go of my need for control and to trust completely in His love for me and His ability to make something of my life. I wish I could say that I know now exactly what His greater purpose was – or is – for me. That part still isn’t entirely clear. But I do know that in His time and in His way, He is giving me the desires of my heart. And along the rather winding trail, He is teaching me to see beauty I might have missed had I rushed by on the direct route.

How the story begins

A new blog. A blank page. Where to start?

My life is ordinary in so many ways. Grew up in a loving Christian family, went to Christian schools, stayed the path (for the most part – but we won’t go into THOSE stories). After finishing college with a journalism degree, I married Jonathan, the handsome red-headed boy I’d been dating since my senior year of high school.

We moved to the Nashville area, found jobs, bought a house in the suburbs. I worked in PR for a healthcare company, he eventually founded a technology start-up with a business partner. The life plan was chugging along. But then… Then came that first dash of the unexpected.

Jon and I both very much wanted a family, and about four years into our marriage decided it was time. Biology said otherwise. Many, many long months and several doctors later, it was clear we would not have a family without availing ourselves of all reproductive science had to offer. Thankfully, we live in a time when science does offer options to people like us. For a small fee, of course.

The process was not an easy one. Our first in vitro cycle brought the dubious gift of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which left me very sick, bloated, short of breath and unable to walk even to the end of the driveway. I required a tap to drain the fluid that had built up in my abdomen. OHSS also meant we would have to freeze the resulting embryos for a later cycle rather than transferring fresh embryos as planned. The follow-up frozen transfer cycle happened in January of 2009, and we found out the day before my 30th birthday that it had been unsuccessful.

To shorten a long story, we ultimately decided to travel to a well-respected out-of-state clinic with a shared risk program that would provide a full refund if we were unable to bring home a healthy baby. It meant three weeks living out of a hotel and a financial investment that still makes my head ache. But nine months later, we were holding our miracle: Corin William Sharp, born March 18, 2010. He was worth every moment and every dollar.

It’s been 26 months since the day we became parents. Corin is a talking, running, climbing toddler who fills our days with more joy (and greater challenges) than we could have imagined. Parenthood has been everything we hoped and imagined and so much more.


November 2010


April 2012

Thus we found ourselves not too long ago beginning the conversation we had known was coming. From the day of our successful IVF transfer, when the doctor told us it was unlikely any of our other embryos would survive to freezing, we knew there would be difficult decisions ahead. And so late last year, we started talking about The Next Child.

We had not taken the decision to proceed with IVF lightly the first time. This time, it required total reevaluation. We knew what that investment required, financially, emotionally and physically. I quit my job in January 2011 to take care of Corin full-time, which left little room for the financial investment IVF would require. And emotionally and physically, I wasn’t sure I was interested in restarting the arduous medical process. I knew Jon was disappointed with surrendering the pregnancy and childbirth experience, but we began researching adoption. The up-front cost was as much or greater than IVF, but the sizable adoption tax credit left us with hope we could finance the initial expense through short-term loans. But we continued to wrestle with our fears and doubts. Were we really ready to let go of the pregnancy and childbirth experiences and embrace the factors of adoption that would be outside our control? We were sending a lot of prayers heavenward, for guidance and for peace. It wasn’t long into my research when Jon raised the question, “What about embryo adoption?”  My knee-jerk reaction was, “No. Too weird.”

We’d come across embryo adoption several years earlier, during an informational class on adoption. We knew the basics: Couples who, like us, had gone through IVF and had completed their families might have embryos left in storage. They could choose to donate those embryos to an infertile couple. The medical process was exactly the same as a normal (is there any such thing in reproductive science?!) frozen embryo transfer, which we had experienced before and knew was much simpler than a full IVF cycle. But other than those basic outlines, we knew very little.

A conversation with a girlfriend got me thinking. She asked how the cost compared to traditional adoption. I didn’t know, and I realized this thing might be worth a little more research. A phone call to our local Bethany Christian Services office, and suddenly, the idea was growing legs.

I’ll talk more soon about the details of our experience and where we are now. Our story is really just beginning to unfold. I’ve thought often about starting a public blog, but I’ve never been sure exactly what I wanted to offer. The blogosphere is plenty crowded, and I don’t want this to descend into narcissism. Ultimately, this story is about so much more than me. It’s about learning to really trust a God of love who holds me in the palm of His hand. It’s about learning to live in the present, to see the beauty of the now. It’s about the humbling generosity of others. It’s about embracing the unexpected, about the joy of the imperfectly real versus the expected ideal. That’s what I intend to share here.