What if you could help a friend who’s struggling with infertility? Not just with a shoulder to lean on—what if you could actually give that friend a baby?
In the not-too-distant past, my husband and I struggled through two years of infertility treatments. We now have two beautiful babies, a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy, both the result of in vitro fertilization. You can read about our journey here.
Three embryos remain in frozen storage.
We have no plans to use them, and our family is complete. That pull to have more babies—the one I felt after my daughter was born—just isn’t there. I’m beyond happy with my Family of Four.
When you start IVF, you don’t even think about what you’ll do if there are leftover embryos. There are a few options: use them, discard them, donate them to research, or donate them to an infertile couple.
For us, discarding was never an option; I’m too pragmatic to let anything so valuable go to waste. Pre-kids, I figured we’d donate them for stem cell research. After those two little humans entered our world, however, we changed our mind.
I could give someone a child. I could help a couple become Mommy and Daddy.
Donating is an emotionally charged decision. A 2011 survey estimated over 612,000 embryos in frozen storage; now, the total is probably closer to a million. Most will sit in the freezer for decades, because deciding their fate can be paralyzing. Couples tend to kick the can down the road: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
It’s hard to close the door on the baby-making chapter of your life. It’s also difficult if your heart wants more children but your sanity/bank account/spouse does not. Some women feel strong ownership over their embryos and struggle with the thought that another mother would be raising their genetic child.
For us, it’s not so momentous. I have great insurance, and could do IVF again if necessary. For me, another woman kissing my genetic children good night isn’t really a concern. They aren’t my babies in that freezer; they’re not babies yet. I call them baby starter kits. We got them started, but without a mother to carry them, they’ll never get to experience life. Their biological mother will be the one who gives them life, not me.
I can tell some people think we’re crazy. They begin their questions tentatively: “So… this woman is going to have a baby that’s technically yours. Isn’t that, um… going to be weird?” I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. Of course it is. There’s no instruction manual for how to feel about this. At every step of this process, I’ve stopped to take my emotional temperature, to ensure I’m still all in. Maybe it’s the science nerd in me, but I can’t get attached to the idea of my embryos as “my babies.” I already have two babies: beautiful, unique little people that amaze me daily. If a child results from our donation, it won’t be a carbon copy of my daughter, or my son. Just as if I had a third child, he or she would be unique and different in their own way. Remembering that does make donating easier emotionally.
For us, one question drove us: could we live with ourselves if we didn’t donate? Could we sleep at night knowing we could have given someone the world’s most amazing gift, but didn’t because it made us uncomfortable? We choose to donate not because it is easy, but because it is the right thing to do.
Sometimes families donate their embryos anonymously; not knowing if a child results from their donation is more comfortable than knowing details they can’t un-know. For us, uncertainty was a no-go. I could easily picture myself running down the produce aisle at the grocery store, accosting a mother whose little girl looked just like my daughter: “Excuse me, is that the embryo I donated?!”
I do not handle ambiguity well. I know that about myself.
We decided we wanted to know the couple that would receive our embryos, and moreover, we wanted to choose them. We’re both a little quirky, and wanted our genetic child to feel right at home with his/her biological parents. We went looking for a couple who reminded us of…well… us.
(An infertile couple receiving donated embryos is informally considered to be “adopting” the embryos. But the term ‘adoption’ is not legally accurate—frozen embryos are considered property. Technically it’s a donation of human tissue, and legally, no money can exchange hands for them. Children born from our embryos will be our genetic children, but not our biological children.)
There are big agencies around the country whose mission it is to match embryo donors with recipients. In our view, the amount they charged couples (most of whom had already laid out huge sums of money for infertility treatment) was exorbitant. I sought out a small agency, and within a few days of contacting Samantha Fife from Blessed with Infertility, we were reviewing profiles of hopeful parents. It felt like online dating, and was a little creepy at first. But then she sent us a couple we absolutely loved.
Lauren and Jesse were Midwesterners and just like us in so many ways. We asked a few questions, ticking off a few boxes that were really important to us, and loved their answers. Everything clicked and we knew within a few days that we’d found our family.
With embryo donation, a legal contract is encouraged, to protect everyone. We spelled out expectations for contact between us adults and between our children. I admit I fantasize about a moment 25 years from now, when our kids meet over a beer to compare notes: “No way, you like ketchup on pizza? ME TOO!!” How cool will that be?!
We finalized our donation in September. Lauren and Jesse will do the transfer here in Iowa City, where the embryos are stored. We are incredibly excited, and I’m soooo nervous. I want my embryos to do a good job. Lauren and Jesse been through so much, and tried for so long. Their time, heart, and a ton of their money is tied up in this (their insurance doesn’t cover any of it; they’re paying just over $10k). It’s up to nature now (plus an embryologist and a couple doctors at UIHC—do a good job you guys!).
When a friend is struggling to get pregnant, there’s usually nothing you can do to change their fate. For us, with these three embryos to gift, there is something we can do.
We’re giving up our embryos, yes. But we’re not losing anything. We’re gaining—two friends, hopefully for life. And we’re gaining the chance to give two people the greatest gift imaginable.
For more about their embryo donation journey, including making the decision to donate, choosing anonymous vs. known donation, and finding their recipients, visit Lydia’s blog.
**Special thanks to our Guest Blogger, Lydia Fine, for sharing her story with us!!