Grandparents and donor conception

When people donate their gametes, it feels like a personal decision. But their parents don't always agree: grandchildren are grandchildren, and they want to know them.

Times are changing. Wendy Kramer, executive director of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), tells me that grandparents are increasingly coming to the DSR for advice. Sometimes it's for help in understanding what DNA results mean. Or to know what the "protocol" is for making contact. Other times it's to say thank you or to share stories of connections gone right. 

But I am also aware of families still struggling with the grandparent issue. It can hurt to know you have grandchildren out there who you may never be able to meet.

I first published the piece below 11 years ago. It's still one of my favourites, because it illustrates just how complex and tender family connections can be.

My scattered grandchildren

When Kathie Harris spotted an ad in the newspaper recruiting egg donors, she passed it on to her daughter. “I was kind of joking,” she says. But her daughter, Melissa Braden, ended up donating six times.

Now Harris has mixed feelings about it all. “It’s kind of hard,” she admits. There are grandchildren out there that the family will never meet, she says. “They’re a part of you. Because they’re Melissa’s eggs, they’re a part of everybody in Melissa’s family.” 

“The practice has grown up in a consumer context,” says Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University of Calgary. “You think you're purchasing a factor of reproduction, but you're not — you're receiving the genetic heritage of a family.”

And grandparents, often the oldest surviving progenitors, can feel quite differently about trading away the family code.

This feeling intensified for Harris recently, when one of the couples Braden donated to offered to send a photo of the new baby. At first, Harris didn’t want to see it. Braden has two boys of her own, but this couple had had a girl. When Harris did finally look, she was overwhelmed. “That little girl looks exactly — I mean exactly — like Melissa,” she says. 

Braden insists that she has no maternal feelings for the little girl and that the recipient mom is the only mom. But her own mother feels differently. “In my heart, I think of her as my granddaughter,” says Harris. “I carry her picture in my purse.” 

Shana Harter had a similar difference of opinion with her mother. She donated eggs twice when she was in her early twenties. She felt good about helping infertile couples, not to mention earning some extra cash. But her mother was not happy with the choice. “I caught a lot of flack,” says Harter. 

Almost a decade later, her mother still thinks about them. “I wonder all the time what they look like, if they look like her, what they’re doing, where they live,” says Lynn Corcoran, Harter’s mother. “It’s just that feeling of knowing that I have other grandchildren out there. I’ll never see them. I’ll never know them. I hope they went to good homes.” 

For a long time the two women stopped talking about it altogether. But when Harter got married and had trouble conceiving herself, it was the elephant in the room. What if the only genetically-related children she ever produced were all born to other people? 

In the end, after IVF, Harter gave birth to a little boy in January [2009]. Becoming a mother herself did not weaken her views on having donated. On the contrary, her own struggle with infertility made her even more understanding of couples who long to have children. “I have a new appreciation myself,” she says. “I’m very happy to know I helped make that happen for one or two other couples out there.” Corcoran admits it gave her some insight into the plight of childless couples too. 

Kirk Maxey, who donated sperm for almost ten years, says he now sees that grandparents are the overlooked piece of the whole donor puzzle. “There’s a set of fully legitimate grandparents out there, who’ve missed seeing grandchildren, usually all the way through teenage years,” he says. His own parents were delighted when two teenage donor daughters surfaced a few years ago. “It impacts grandparents in ways that people didn’t really imagine it would,” he says.

For some, the relationships are surprisingly warm. Christine Striegl, for instance, has discovered that she’s closer to her donor granddaughter than to any of the grandkids born through her son’s marriage. She met her son’s teenage donor daughter, Virginia, about 18 months ago and they immediately hit it off. “She calls me her grandmother,” says Striegl.

For others, it stirs feelings of regret. Diane Wilkins, of Ottawa, will probably never have the chance to meet any of the children born through her daughter’s egg donation, though she’d love to. “Even if I just got to see them, just to see what they look like,” she says. But shortly after the donation, the relationship with the recipient couple soured. 

“Grandparents are vulnerable, on the sidelines, waiting to be invited in,” says Guichon. But she also turns the issue around: a recipient couple, she believes, has a moral obligation to consider whether a child would benefit from knowing their grandparents. It could be important to their identity, she says.   

Perhaps no one feels the bond more intensely than grandparents whose own children have died unexpectedly. 

Marjorie Smith’s daughter died before she’d had kids of her own — but she’d donated eggs three times, and Smith (not her real name) knew children had been born. She was ecstatic when a recipient family got in touch. “When I heard from that family, it was like a gift from heaven,” she says. 

They are hoping to meet soon. “These kids are part of my daughter. They look like my daughter. I hope to become a real grandma to them.”

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See the artwork that originally accompanied this story.

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Updates:

The two teenagers did meet Maxey’s parents. They flew out for a visit. “I wasn't even there for it,” he says. At least one other of his donor children has met and formed a relationship with his parents as well.

The grandmother in the final paragraph did end up meeting children born through her daughter’s donations. “Over the past decade," she recently told the DSR, “I have been so grateful to have ongoing relationships with these children, who are now young adults. Like most grandparents, I very much enjoy having grandchildren, visiting them and having them visit me, interacting with them, and watching them grow up. And in addition, they are my strongest connection to my daughter — their genes, their physical resemblance, their interests, and abilities. Knowing them has been a major blessing in my life.”

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