For the shared love of a girl

Back when I first started talking about the Buddy Walk, Laurie – you may remember being introduced to her family last August – contacted me to say they were thinking about making the trip to Tennessee to join us for the event this year. I was thrilled, and the planning commenced.

Unfortunately, their family has terrible luck with air travel. They got stranded in the airport for hours last year trying to get home, and this year, storms and horrible flooding swept through their area just as they prepared to leave and threw flight schedules into chaos. They finally arrived in Nashville 16 hours later than planned, meaning they were able to catch only the tail end of the Buddy Walk. The delay was very disappointing, but we honored their determination to get here by soaking everything we could from the too-short visit. That meant a couple fun outings, but mostly a lot of hanging out together.

This visit felt different than last time. We were more immediately comfortable with each other, and the kids are a year older and able to really play together. Watching them interact was the highlight for all of us, I think. I have wondered how they will relate to each other as they grow older. Andrew and Corin hit it off fantastically, and Claire and Lina adored each other.

There is no definition for the relationship our families have. This is the uncharted water we entered when we chose embryo donation as the path to our second child. In a sea of the unexpected, this relationship with Lina’s biological family is a gift. It probably sounds crazy to a lot of you, and it probably would have to an earlier version of myself. But now, Dan and Laurie and the kids are family, and we are so grateful to have them in our lives.

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Best we could do for a costume photo

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Bowling!

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Corin directing the ball after his roll

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Playing in the matching jammies requested and chosen ahead of time by Claire

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“Ring around the rosie…”

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“We all fall down!”

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And time for a break, with the requisite hair rubbing and finger sucking

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In closing, I’d like to share what Laurie posted last night about our weekend together. Some of you have seen it already, but it seems important to have the other side of this experience represented here, as part of this family story.

Every time I tell this story of how Dan and I donated a frozen embryo to a couple in Tennessee, I hear “oh what a gift! That was so generous of you!” And I never understand why people would say that. It never felt like giving a gift. It felt like a terribly painful decision to do the responsible and ethical thing while pulling all my heartstrings out of my body across three states. It felt like tons of tears and therapy. It was sleepwalking for months, looking for a baby in my sleep that I was afraid I had forgotten to take care of. My proudest accomplishment is being a mommy and it went against everything inside me to think of a blonde munchkin being raised in another family. Jon and Jolene are the ones who gave us a gift. Peace of mind that we did the right thing. Their willingness to share their lives with us has made this a million times easier. And they gave Claire and Andrew a sister. Even if she’s a sister that lives with her own family, they still get it. Andrew has a new friend in Lina’s big brother. He was too busy playing with Corin to let me take many photos of him, so this weekend felt like a bonding of the sisters. When the girls were playing ring-around-the-rosies and Claire told Lina “you’re my baby sister,” it’s when I knew this was also a gift that would keep on giving. Forever.

Invisible strings

My heart is full.

We spent this past weekend with family of a new kind. Four people already very dear to us flew all the way from San Antonio so we could meet in person for the first time. Dan and Laurie and their two children, Andrew (who is five) and Claire (who is almost four), are Lina’s donor family.

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Yes, that’s my son resisting photos with all his might.

The weekend surpassed our hopes. The time we spent together was amazing. It’s staggering to realize that a profile containing a few pages of personal data was the basis for a connection like this. We had fun together, taking the kids on adventures, hanging out at home and staying up until 1 a.m. talking every night. Lina took beautifully to Laurie and the family, and the kids had a blast together at the splash pad, playing in mud, roasting hot dogs over a Saturday night bonfire, and catching fireflies with plastic bottles in the back yard. It was a lot of quality time with some truly lovely people.

That’s not to say it was all exactly easy. It was emotional for all of us, but particularly for Laurie, I think. I put myself in her shoes and imagine what it would be like to hold Lina, to see my older children in her, to love her deeply, and then to head home without her, knowing she belongs to another family. I certainly had fleeting moments of wondering, “What if Lina decides she prefers her biological mom?” Perhaps in some ways, it would be easier to keep a greater distance. But we have collectively decided that for us, the benefits far outweigh the risks. Our time together proved that we are all richer for the relationships that have grown out of this crazy-weird situation.

Laurie and Dan made the decision several years ago to donate their two remaining embryos because they knew they didn’t want to go through fertility treatments again but recognized the value of those tiny clusters of cells. They gave Lina the opportunity for life, and now our families are connected in a way that defies explanation or definition. We are grateful to them, and I know they are grateful to us for being the right family for Lina.

After our guests departed yesterday morning, we found they had left us a book. It’s called The Invisible String. It’s the story of a mother who explains to her frightened children that they are never really separated from her because they are connected by an invisible string made of love. The children realize how many invisible strings connect them to all the people they love. There was a note for us in the front, and I barely avoided tears as I read it to the kids.

I am truly grateful for this particular set of invisible strings.

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Our guests shared a fun Mexican tradition with us: cascarones.

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Pictures continued here

For anyone reading this blog who might be exploring the option of embryo donation, I want to be clear that our arrangement with Lina’s donor family is neither required nor typical. This relationship has grown over the course of long correspondence. This kind of arrangement will not be right for everyone, and donors and recipients are able to determine how much – if any – contact they wish to have with each other. We can personally recommend the National Embryo Donation Center for anyone interested in learning more.

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. 

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.