Here at Fertility Help Hub we know personally just how difficult and heartbreaking is the decision about what to do with remaining embryos. We chatted with Podcast Host, Natalie Silverman about it earlier this summer, as part of our #fertilityexpertslive series.
So, we’ve decided we want to know more about the pros and cons of embryo donation. Read on as we hear from Nationally Certified Counselor, Jennifer Vesbit about her personal embryo donation experience and why she gave up her last remaining embryo for adoption.
Jennifer founded Embryo Donation Support, a web-based community for embryo donors, and co-founded EM•POWER, an education company dedicated to increasing awareness, empowering choice and fostering understanding around embryo donation.
This blog about embryo donation is Jennifer’s personal story as an embryo donor, discussing what she has experienced, her feelings and how it has affected her and her family’s life.
Words by Jennifer…
www.empowerdonation.com | @empowerdonation
I was asked recently whether I regret donating my one remaining embryo — now a 3-year-old boy, and a genetic sibling to my 8-year-old twins. My answer? That would be an impossible thing to regret. It doesn’t matter that I’ve had my moments of fear, my moments of jealousy, my moments of heartache. My answer is that these are not my moments, they are his. What matters most is that when I see him, I see joy. I see joy in his eyes. I see joy in his mother’s eyes. I see joy in his grandparents’ eyes… and I see joy in the eyes of the world because I truly believe he makes it a better place. So the answer is: No, I don’t regret it. Ask me a question about vulnerability, next time, and I will have a longer answer.
Listen To Your Mother 13/05/2017
I’m sitting in the back of my minivan – five of my best girlfriends are with me. We’re six moms travelling away from our families on Mother’s Day weekend. I’m looking out the window at the spectacular Columbia River Gorge and soon we’ll turn north and drive into Washington, towards Spokane. I am cast in a show called Listen To Your Mother that is taking place in Spokane this weekend. It’s a national storytelling event celebrating motherhood. The mission of the show is to “take the audience on a well-crafted journey that celebrates and validates mothering, through giving voice to motherhood–in all of its complexity, diversity and humor–in the form of original readings performed live on-stage by their authors.”
I attended Portland’s Listen To Your Mother last year around this time. On the day of the show, I received an email from my embryo recipient with the subject line, “Two pink lines this morning.” Oh my goodness. She was pregnant! The range of emotions that I felt overwhelmed me. A part of me dreaded going to a show that night that celebrated motherhood. I was afraid that the content would be too painful on that particular day.
I was wrong.
The show I witnessed took me on a beautiful journey exploring the many diverse facets of motherhood. I laughed, I cried. I related. I admired. I grew. I sat in the audience and thought about my own story. Could I write something for next year’s show? I’m not a writer. I’m not a performer. I had never auditioned for a cast before. But I challenged myself to do just that. I knew exactly what I would write about. The universe made it very obvious that day.
I have always loved listening to good storytellers. It is a craft that I have long aspired to. For nearly a year, I thought about telling my story. I just needed to sit down and start writing, right? But how would I tell my story? And when would I feel inspired to do it? It was the morning that he was born that I began writing. At that point, I wasn’t doing it to be cast in a show. I was doing it for myself. Writing became my therapy. It was such a vulnerable experience that getting my thoughts out on paper helped me navigate the vast range of emotions that I felt. I didn’t revisit that writing for months. It was too painful. I was scared of returning to the raw emotions I’d felt on that day. But then it became time to audition. I knew I had to work on my piece. I had to read and reread it. I had to edit it. I had to read it aloud. I had to time myself. It needed to be a five-minute story, so I worked hard to shave it down.
The day of the audition was the first time I read my story aloud to another person. I told the producer/directors the title of my piece, and I began crying before I could even begin. I somehow made it to the end of the essay. I was happy that I had followed through on the challenge I had made to myself. I was aware of how therapeutic the experience had been. I was thankful for the opportunity.
One week later, I found out that my story was chosen as one to be read on stage this year.
Since getting cast in the show, I have asked myself many times why I am doing this. Why did I challenge myself that day when I sat in the audience? Why did I write my story down? Why did I follow through with an audition? Why is this story important to tell? Am I doing this for myself? Is it a dedication to my family? Is it a way to say thank you to my friends who have been with me through this journey? Is it for the strangers in the audience that will hear this very personal story? Or is it for the one person I may touch because my story resonates with them or they’ve been through a similar journey? Yes. That’s it. It’s for all of the above, but mostly for this: my story is important to tell because, in going through the embryo donation process, I have learned that there is very little support out there for women who have donated and/or are trying to make a decision about what to do with their frozen embryos. I believe there is such an opportunity for voices like mine (and others!) to be heard so that we can help support one another.
Just as I felt that donating my embryo was my calling to give my painful journey to motherhood a purpose, I feel that telling my story now, and helping/supporting others, is my calling to give my current pain a purpose.
Related Article – Navigating Donor Conception: Fertility Springboard Podcast
My Son Shine (14/05/2017)
(As read on stage) On January 7th 2017, my genetic son was born to another woman. She gave birth to him on a cold winter night, in a hospital in New York City, while I laid in my bed in Portland, Oregon. I’m not sure I’m supposed to call him my son. She gets to call him that. She’s his mom. And she is with him while I am 3000 miles away.
When my husband and I decided to donate our frozen embryo to a woman in New York, we weren’t even sure it would become a pregnancy let alone a living baby boy. It was the toughest decision we’ve ever made. After 7 years of battling infertility when trying to conceive and two rounds of IVF, we were left with one painful miscarriage, the birth of beautiful twins, and one frozen embryo. The twins were born 5 years ago, and every day since then has been both a joy and a challenge. Once a year, amongst all that challenge and joy, we got a notice from the fertility clinic reminding us that we had a frozen embryo and asking us what we wanted to do with it. We could pay for another year of storage, we could have the embryo disposed of, we could donate it to science or we could donate to another family.
For years I felt too overwhelmed to make the decision, so I kept paying for storage. In the end, and after much soul searching, I chose to donate to another. If I wasn’t going to try for this baby on my own (which, believe me, a big part of me wanted to do), I felt a strong need to provide fertility help to someone else who had been through her own pregnancy struggle. I felt as if all the pain that surrounded my journey trying to conceive to become a mother could be given purpose, if only I could try to help relieve someone else’s pain. This brings me back to the middle of the snowy night in NYC. I was about to go to sleep when I got a text from her saying he’d likely be born soon. I wrote back to her and let her know that I was still awake. After a few exchanges, it occurred to me that I was her person that night. I lay in bed and texted her words of strength through my tears; “Once you see him, the rest won’t matter. I promise,” I told her.
“Please don’t feel alone, I am with you in spirit.”
The news of his birth came early the next morning, and a range of emotions overwhelmed me. I imagined how perfect he must be. I just knew he was perfect. And then it happened. A photo of him came via text. As it flashed on my screen my heart shot down into my stomach and I threw my phone across the room. I only saw him for a second, but I knew exactly what he looked like. He looked like my other son, with a touch of my daughter. He had my husband’s nose and mouth and my forehead. His eyes were closed so I wasn’t sure whose those were yet. When I picked up my phone to look at the photo again, I could not stop staring. I had been right. He was perfect. And you know what? I wanted him. I admit it. I wanted to fly to New York and take him. Forget generosity. Forget kindness. Forget doing the right thing. I wanted him back.
The sounds of new texts on my phone brought me to reality. Her loved ones’ responses began rolling in. “Congratulations!” “He’s perfect!” “I’m crying with joy!’ “He is wonderful and so handsome!” “You both look so beautiful cuddling!” The final text simply said, “God is good.” As I sat there, alone, in my bedroom I thought. What? God is good?
No. I AM GOOD.
I wanted someone to acknowledge me. I wanted someone to thank me. I wanted someone to tell me what I had done was beautiful. I wanted to be held on the shoulders of a parade of women and have my own version of For She’s A Jolly Good Fellow. Perhaps my song would go, “For She’s a Heartbroken Mother. Please tell her she did the right thing.”
A journey like this teaches you about strong relationships, about the strength of your character and the limits to that strength. I had my inner circle of fellow mothers that I chose to share with. From the moment I decided to donate, to the moment I found out she was pregnant, to the moment I found out he was a boy, to the moment he was born, the women in my life listened. Although none of them could’ve known exactly how I felt, I could see the reflection of my emotions in their eyes and hear the reassuring tone in their voices that said, “I understand.” To those women I say, “thank you.” On the day I found out she was pregnant, I went for a drive. I find that sitting behind the wheel of my car on a country road is one of the best places to cry. I’ll never forget the moment that day when my car slowed to stop at a stop sign. I looked out the passenger side window at the sun shining on a field of grass. In that moment, I had an epiphany. In that moment, my heartache cleared. My fear vanished. My sense of loss was no longer. In that moment, I was sure that I had made the right decision. I knew that I had given someone the ultimate gift: the opportunity to love unconditionally. And in that moment, I was sure that that is what life is all about.
Related Article – Embryo Donation: Mother and Author of Book Series ‘You Were Made For Me’ Shares her Story
The Most Difficult Letter I’ve Ever Written (17/09/2016)
Our embryo recipient asked me to write a letter to her soon-to-be born son. She wanted it handwritten and planned to have it printed in a book she was creating for him about where he came from. It was the most difficult letter I have ever written.
Here are some of the challenges I faced:
This letter would be in print – forever, for him to read and reread as many times as he wanted to. That was intimidating.
He would be exposed to the letter at a young age, so it needed to be simple and I needed to use plain language that a child could understand.
How could I possibly say everything I wanted to say to him in one letter?
How could I convey the difficulty of the decision I made (make sure he knew that he wasn’t unwanted) while also getting across the confidence I had in his chosen mother?
I sat alone in a park and wrote my first draft. I let the words flow freely. I left nothing out. I wrote and I wrote (and I cried and I cried). I knew that no one else would ever read that letter. I included everything: my fears, my wishes, my sadness, my joy. All that I hoped he would one day know. It was exhausting, and therapeutic. On the second draft, I wrote something I might actually send. After reading it, however, I realized it was too clinical and cerebral for a child to understand. My husband and I were originally going to write separate letters but once we collaborated ideas, everything came together. We sat down and made a list of what we wanted to convey in the letter:
We wanted him to know a little bit about us.
We wanted him to know that we wanted to give him the gift of life.
We wanted him to know that we wanted to give his mom the gift of parenthood.
We wanted him to know that we loved him, and that we hoped to watch him grow and become a part of his life.
Once we had that foundation set, the words came quickly. Here is the final draft:
Our names are Jennifer and Tom. We wanted to write you this letter to tell you a little bit about where you come from. We donated an embryo to your mom. From that embryo, your mom gave birth to you.
First, a little bit about us. Tom sings and plays guitar. He loves science and music. He is an engineer and a lawyer. He’s also really tall – six feet five inches tall! Jennifer is a counselor and enjoys helping people. She loves to dance and laugh and spend time in nature. We live in Portland, Oregon. We have twins: a girl named _____ and a boy named ____.
We donated the embryo that you came from to your mom because we wanted to give you the gift of life. We also wanted to give your mom the gift of parenthood because we know how special that is. Before we donated, we searched and searched for the right parent and the right home for you. It was a hard decision that we took very seriously. When we talked to your mom, we could tell how much she wanted to have a child. We knew that she, her friends, and her family could give you care and support to help you grow and thrive. We are confident that you will be part of a loving family.
We look forward to the opportunity to get to know you and seeing you grow and develop.
Love, Jennifer & Tom”
Related Article – How to Speak to Donor Conceived Children
Meeting Him (20/07/2017)
When I awoke on July 20, 2017, I knew that the day would be different from any other. I was to meet my 6-month-old genetic son. I had so many questions. Would I feel a bond with him? Would he sense who I was? Would I see my twins’ faces in his? Would I feel regretful? Joyful? Sad? Proud? Would it feel like I was holding someone else’s son, or like I was holding my own?
I was to meet his mother for the first time in person, too, which brought another set of questions. Would I see a bond between the two of them? Would I like her parenting style? Would I like her? I had imagined the moment and what it would be like to meet both of them hundreds of times. Today all of my visions would be brought to life. My eyes would witness their world, their interactions, and their love. It was safer to have them in my imagination, but I was ready for 3D and Technicolor. I spent the hours leading up to the meeting searching for signs, as I often do when I’m feeling uneasy. As I ran through my neighborhood in Southeast Portland, I looked to the sky. It’d been a consistently sunny, hot summer, but this particular day was a mix of sun, clouds, and rain. I couldn’t help but wonder if the weather was symbolic of my complicated feelings.
How fitting that it wasn’t all sunshine. How fitting that it wasn’t all rain.
As I ran, it felt like my body was moving through mud. I wondered if the emotional heaviness of the day could really take a toll in that form. I had never experienced anything like that before. I turned up the hip-hop playlist that I’d selected. I’d wanted something hard-hitting and real. Give me Kanye, Drake, Kendrick Lamar. Give me angry, gritty, poetic angst. Give me police brutality and race relations. Give me problems bigger than mine. When I returned home, I logged on to an embryo donation support group on Facebook that I’d recently joined. I posted a note to the group letting them know that I was going to meet my ‘biological son’ that day, and that I was seeking words of advice and sources of strength. One of the comments was unsettling. A woman suggested that if I simply changed my terminology, and called him my recipient’s son instead of my biological son, I’d have an easier time. I’m certain she meant well, but her response made me feel worse.
I do call him and think of him as her son. In this particular case, I simply, momentarily, did not. I thought that of all places, an embryo donation support group would be a safe space where I could call him that. I did not want to be corrected. I did not want to be made to feel bad for occasionally slipping into thinking of him in that way. I took this feeling into the therapy session I’d scheduled for my husband and me right before we were to meet our “son”. I wanted to spend the hour just crying, to deplete my mind and body of all emotion and apprehension. Unexpectedly, however, it was my husband who took on that role. And as I watched him cry, my own need to cry subsided. I reassured him and I called on my counseling skills to actively listen and reflect back to him what he was sharing.
Directly after the therapy session, we drove to the park where we were to meet them. I chose a park over a cafe as our meeting place because the expansiveness of the grounds felt more akin to the vast emotions I would likely experience. As I scanned the park, I immediately saw them. I felt a sense of peace wash over my body as we took the path to our meeting place. I made a mental note of the fact that people sitting near them had no idea of their proximity to the profound moment that was about to take place. I walked toward them with my heart open and my head held high.
I was no longer nervous. I was confident. I was ready.
We walked closer. There HE was. Although I was focused on greeting his mom, he mesmerized me. He is one of the most beautiful babies I have ever been in the presence of. I had seen pictures, so I knew that he was a happy boy, but I had no idea how full of joy he was. I had no idea that his smile could light up an entire park on a now sunny day. His mom immediately asked me if I wanted to hold him. I gratefully said yes and took him into my arms. As I looked into his eyes, I realized that this was the exact moment I had imagined hundreds of times. This was the moment when I was supposed to cry. But I didn’t. I just sat there with an overwhelming feeling, that I don’t know exactly how to describe, other than to say I’d never felt so many different emotions at once before. I passed the baby to my husband and watched them beautifully interact. He passed the baby back to his mom. The adults talked. The baby breastfed and slept, then cooed on a picnic blanket. We all marvelled at the surreal situation in which we found ourselves, and at how simultaneously beautiful and difficult the world can be at times.
In perhaps the most profound moment of my life, I looked over at him lying on the blanket. He had been looking at me and smiling, waiting to catch my eye. As I made eye contact with him, I had a strong sense that he had a message for me. He looked me in the eyes and told me, simply, “Thank you.” I looked back at him and silently nodded my head and said, “You’re welcome. I’ve got you.”
I’m not sure what he was thanking me for. Maybe it was for giving him the gift of life. Maybe it was for choosing such an awesome mom for him. Maybe I seemed familiar to him. Maybe he could sense how much I truly, deeply care. Maybe he knows how much I love him. I left the park thinking, I hope he knows. And the tears finally came.
Related Article – Fertility and The Mind: The Truth
Hopefully this embryo donation blog has given you a deeper understanding of the positives and negatives that come with donating an embryo. If this is something that you have been considering, and you want to find out more about what it involves, then visit Jennifer’s website. You will find all sorts of fertility help and advice, and hopefully feel confident enough to take that next step.