Take time to grieve. Tell kids early and often. Be open. Advice for families created via egg donation from two women who've been there.
Most of my writing on the topic of egg donation has been about donors and health. Today I share part of a conversation I had with two women who are mothers through egg donation and who have each spent years helping others deal with the unique challenges it brings. Earlier this year, they co-authored a book on the subject, called Let's Talk About Egg Donation: Real Stories from Real People.
Carole LieberWilkins is mother to two sons, one via adoption and one via egg donation. She is a licensed therapist, who specializes in helping parents talk to their children and others about how their families were created. She is based in Los Angeles, California.
Marna Gatlin is mother to a son via egg donation. She is the founder and executive director of Parents Via Egg Donation (PVED), a non-profit educational and support organization based in Portland, Oregon.
8 minute read
What don't people get about egg donation?
Carole: One thing that people don't get is how significant genetic loss can be. The doctor tells you your eggs are crap and you might as well go buy someone else's. But it feels inside like there's been a death in the family. And in essence there has been. But it's not recognized by society that way. People don't bring you a casserole. They don't tell you to take time off work.
It can go forward into our parenting if we don't address it. We need to grieve. The exercise I recommend, and that I use with all my clients who have had reproductive loss, is to create something — often it's a letter — that brings to life the child that they will never meet. There's no body, there's no birth date, there's no death date. It's so hard to say goodbye to somebody you've never said hello to. When they write a letter to this child that they've been carrying around in their fantasy for so long, they often find it's a very specific child, with a very specific gender and a specific personality.
Some people go the beach and read it to the fish and the seagulls and then rip it up and throw it into the water. Or they'll go for a hike to their favourite mountain top and leave the letter there. Or what a lot of people do is plant a tree or a bush in their yard and bury the letter along with the tree. And then they can watch the plant flourish. And there's something about digging a hole that's very funereal.
This idea came out of miscarriage work, and I adapted it for genetic loss. It's not a panacea. It doesn't solve everything. But it is a way of recognizing the significance of the loss so that we can make a space for the child that we will have instead of the child that we originally wanted to have.
What are the questions that people contemplating egg donation most often ask?
Marna: 'Will I love my child?' 'Will my child love me?' 'Is my family going to accept my child?'
How do you advise people to handle that last question—about whether their family will accept their child?
Marna: Face it head on. Talk about how there are different ways people create families. Let them know that you need extra help — your eggs aren't working. Let them know you are creating your family with the help of an egg donor. If you have to do a little Biology 101, then do it. But make it simple. You lead with the topic and let them ask questions. You don't have to overload them at first. They will always come back and ask more. You certainly don't need to ask permission. This is your decision.
What is the biggest fear parents via egg donation have?
Carole: The fear is that they won't be viewed as a real parent. That the child is going to say or feel that you're not the real mother.
The terror that every intended parent has is hearing a child say, 'I don't have to listen to you, because you're not my real mother.' I always tell my clients to expect it. Because kids say all kinds of things when they get angry, and that's one of them. If your kids are born to you the easy way, they'll say to you, 'I don't have to listen to you because you're stupid, old, whatever.' 'Sally's mother lets her go to that party and you won't let me go.' Being prepared will help you realize that in that moment that this is not a donor conception conversation — it's an I'm-really-pissed-off-because-you-won't-let-me-do-what-I-want conversation.
Marna: Sometimes other people also ask, 'Are you the real mom?' too.
Carole: It comes up a lot in what we call 'resemblance talk.' Maybe you are just taking your kid to the park. If there's a feature that either one of you has that doesn't match both of you, people are going to notice that. I was very dark and had black hair and olive skin, and I had two very blond children. And people always noticed. If you have a redhead and you don't have red hair, they're going to notice that.
In those scenarios, they might say, 'Where did they get their red hair from?' If you hear it enough times, it will feel like a reminder that you needed assistance to have your child. If you haven't done your psychological work, it can be very painful. If you have, then you just develop a repertoire of responses and keep them in your back pocket.
'I don't know, we just got lucky.' Or 'Her grandmother has red hair.' Or 'Isn't she beautiful?'
Marna: I have also heard 'Are you the real mom?' from well-meaning extended family members. I have said things like 'Well, I carried him and I threw up every day that I was pregnant and I had a 58-hour labour and a pretty yucky C-section, so absolutely I'm the real mom.'
But I often ask, 'What do you mean by that? Do you mean genetically, biologically?' I mean, I'm raising the child. Of course I'm the real mom.
What is the most common thing people ask for help with?
Marna: They want to know how to talk to their child about donor conception. Our advice is to tell them early and often. If you don't make it weird, they're not going to make it weird.
When my son was nine, some people in the PVED forum asked me to ask him if he was mad at us for the way he was created. They wanted to know what advice he had for the people who were afraid to tell their children because they were afraid their kids would be mad. So I asked him.
He said, 'Mom, I have so many other things to be mad at you about.'
I said, 'Really?' And I'm thinking, 'You live a pretty charmed life, my child.'
He said, 'I don't get to stay up as late as I want. You make me go to bed every night at eight o'clock, and kids my age are staying up till nine or ten o'clock. It's ridiculous! And I don't get to play as many video games as my friends, even though I do great in school. You won't let me drink soda pop. And what's with you making me sit and watch a PG 13 with you? It's not like it's going to kill me. And you make me wear a helmet when I ride a scooter...' He had this laundry list of stuff that he was mad about. And they were all regular things.
I think you need to be open and honest with your child about how they came into the world. On PVED, probably 65 per cent agree. Australia and the UK are very, very open. Most agree with transparency. In the US, it's lower. The west coast is very open. People are more closed on the east coast. They are super-closed in the southeast. Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri — those places are super closed. There's a lot of shame that goes with this in the Bible Belt.
What's the one thing you'd like readers to think about?
Carole: The message that I'm continuing to work on is that it is normal and natural for human beings to be curious about genetic connectedness, as witnessed by the 45 million people who have done ancestry tests. If we can embrace that curiosity in our children and help them with whatever feelings they have about it, we will all be better off for it. But unfortunately a lot of parents feel threatened by that curiosity, and it sets up a sort of separation between parent and child. Sometimes people can't empathize with that need or desire because it hurts.
Clearly, a genetic connection to a child is so important that people will do multiple IVF attempts or multiple insemination attempts to try and use their own gametes. But then somehow when they have a child who expresses interest or curiosity, the parent feels rejected or hurt by that. They might think, 'Am I not enough?' And they don't make the connection. It can't be that you spent ten years doing your IVF treatment to try to have a child with your own eggs, but then tell your child that it's not important because all she provided was the cell. It comes from fear.
Marna: Egg donation is just another way to create your family. Love — not genetics — makes a family.
Marna Gatlin and Carole LieberWilkins. Let's Talk About Egg Donation: Real Stories from Real People. 2019. Available on Amazon.
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