Since Squeak’s birth back in July, there’s been a monkey on my back. Three monkeys, to be exact.
Three little frozen embryos, sitting in a freezer at the hospital, waiting to see what their fate will become.
Okay, that’s not really fair. They aren’t waiting. They don’t even have brains, so I shouldn’t ascribe human qualities to them. They’re clumps of cells, potential human lives, but they will not become life without a great deal of intervention by someone. And it won’t be me.
Here’s the thing: our family is complete. (I mean it this time. After Peanut, I said I was satisfied, but come on, we all knew I really wasn’t. This time I am.) My husband wants no more kiddos, and neither do I. I’m grateful for and lucky to have two little babies, and I’m very happy with my little family-of-four.
Sometime after Peanut was born, we decided that any leftover embryos would go to a couple in need. Prior to that point, we’d planned to split them between stem cell research and donation, but changed our tune after our own little miracle arrived. Now, all the embryos will go to a couple who drew a crappy hand in the game of reproduction. For a couple like this, we would give up the embryos for adoption.
But to be honest, I take offense to the term “give up.”
Giving up typically means that you tried and failed at some task or project, and don’t want to try any more. It’s a descriptor for the unmotivated, or the hopeless.
So why do we attach that term to people who selflessly give the gift of children to others? I dislike the terminology of embryo adoption muchly. I’m not giving up on anything.
I am, however, “giving” something to another couple — the gift of a baby. There’s nothing better. I’m not lazy and I don’t lack motivation to be a parent. I simply had the good luck of creating more embryos than I needed. It’s not something I could control. No IVF parent can.
Plus, it’s wasteful – and in my opinion, fairly selfish – to throw them away just because the decision of what to do with them makes me uneasy.
I’m giving my remaining embryos to a family in need. Donating them. Just like you’d donate a kidney, or bone marrow, if someone needed it. So let’s remove the term “give up” from this whole discussion.
But I digress.
A friend of mine has just finished her second unsuccessful cycle of IVF. Her body doesn’t respond well to the stimulation drugs, so her egg retrievals have been modest, and both times she had no leftover embryos to freeze. The infertility limit set by her insurance is fast approaching, and my husband and I have decided that we’d happily give any or all of our embryos to this friend and her husband. She’s amazing, and they would be phenomenal parents.
But the concept of donating an embryo is full of emotional traps. While I can say with certainty that we will donate the embryos, I cannot predict how I will feel about it. The process is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and requires me to take control in some parts while relinquishing control in others.
Just like a normal “adoption,” as the donor, we will decide who receives our embryos. You might wonder why it matters, or why we care.
My personal belief (backed up by science) is that temperament is a combination of nature and nurture. Say that one of our embryos grows into an adult. Because of nature, they’re likely to be tolerant, open-minded, and socially if not politically liberal. Their nature will likely be to embrace all kinds of people and believe strongly in equal rights for everyone (just like my husband and I do). But what if our embryo was born into a family of Duck Dynasty xenophobic anti-gay right-wing extreme-Christian nutjobs? He’ll spend his life feeling like an outcast, because while he shares an upbringing and history with his adoptive family, he does not share their genetic makeup. Genetics influence how we think.
Are there exceptions? Sure; we all have that “weirdo” family member that doesn’t think the way everyone else does.
Yet I can’t ignore the fact that nature matters. For that reason, I want to choose an adoptive family whose morals and beliefs are in line with ours, so our embryos will feel right at home.
On the other side of the coin, I tell myself that donating our embryos isn’t like a typical adoption. We aren’t giving away our unborn children… or maybe we are. Regardless of the semantics, I cannot allow myself to think of it that way, or I’d never be able to donate them. I tell myself it’s simply a gift of human tissue, no different than a kidney or some bone marrow. (Except it is different. We all know it is.)
The only frame of mind I can take is this: it’s not our baby. I won’t be the one to give the embryo life. I simply gave it potential. I provided some DNA, as did my husband. But its mother, in whose uterus it will thrive and grow, who will give birth to it and sustain it with her love… she will be the one who gives it life. I will simply open the first door to allow it to happen.
These two ways of thinking aren’t compatible. It’s “mine” so much that I want to make sure it’s born into a family where it fits in… but it’s not really mine, and I must train myself to think as if it never was.
This is not easy.
Nothing worth doing is ever easy. I know with 100% certainty that this is the right thing to do.
I wonder what the experience is like for moms of adopted embryos. I assume they feel a heart-splitting and overwhelming love for their babies, just as I do. Are there complex feelings around raising a child that you birthed from your own body, and sustained with your own breastmilk, but with whom you share no genetics? I imagine there is a grief period, where you mourn the fact that your child will never resemble you or your spouse. A period of letting go of the “ideal” child picture, a little cherub with mommy’s nose and daddy’s hazel eyes.
Will the parents tell the baby that it was a donated embryo? (I was surprised to learn that many families with donor embryos choose not to disclose.) Is it fair to keep that truth from them, especially once they reach adulthood? Don’t we all deserve to know what medical conditions we’re at risk for, and what ailments our parents and grandparents suffered from? Don’t we all deserve to know our story, however surprising it may be?
There are questions on both sides of this equation. How will I feel after it’s done, when our little embryo(s) becomes a living, breathing human? Will I look at it and see “my baby”? Or will my heart feel no maternal pull toward that little one, recognizing it as theirs and not mine? Will I regret donating? Or will I be so happy for the couple that I won’t care one bit that this baby shares some of my DNA? (Does any of this even enter my husband’s brain? Are men wired to care?)
I have nothing but questions, and no answers. But I know one thing.
I love my children. Being a mother is a hard but incredibly rewarding job. With these embryos, we have the power to change the lives of two people for the better, forever. If I choose not to, simply because “it’s difficult” and “I don’t know how I’ll feel about it,” I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.
I lied earlier when I said I wasn’t giving up anything. I’m giving up the idea that these embryos belong to me. I’m giving up the idea that they ever belonged to me.
So long, little monkeys. Go change someone’s life, and go change the world.