Journey of a Donor Gamete Mom
I just put my kids to bed. I can hear the twins playing instead of sleeping and our daughter is reading the book we gave her for her birthday. She turned eight years old today. I can’t believe the time has gone this quickly. I can’t believe all three of those little miracles are mine. I can’t believe the journey that got us here. And most importantly, I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything in the world.
I remember the near panic with each failed month when trying to conceive our daughter. I look back at the audacity of being deeply depressed because it took seven whole months to conceive her. Afterall, we were using ovulation sticks and I was only 31. But an unsubstantiated fear of infertility had plagued me since my mid-twenties, so each unsuccessful month seemed to confirm that fear. Yet seven months was all it took and the following nine months were pure bliss. The only thing nauseating about that pregnancy was how unbelievably perfect it was. I was the kind of pregnant woman that all other women hate: healthy, radiant, never felt better. My husband and I relished every minute of it and the end result was, and continues to be, equally as perfect. My fear had been banished and replaced with a new arrogance; I believed myself to be a gestational goddess.
One year passed and we celebrated the first birthday of our beautiful child. Dizzy with joy, we began family expansion efforts. This time it only took one month to get pregnant. Of course this seemed entirely natural. And why shouldn’t it? I had recently proven that I was good at pregnancy, that I enjoyed hosting a human in my womb, that my belly is a good place to grow people. So I didn’t take it too seriously when the spotting started a few weeks later. The subsequent bleeding, however, caught my attention.
An early sonogram revealed an empty yolk sac, a molar pregnancy. But there was some optimism that a fetus may yet develop as it was still quite early in the pregnancy. However, serial labs confirmed a failing gestation and a surgical D&C was scheduled. Strike one to my inflated fertility ego and empty womb. One year and several ovulation kits later, the entire scenario repeated with the exception that the bleeding started sooner and the structures of pregnancy were even more disorganized. The pain of a second surgery to evacuate my uterus was matched only by the pain of that second blow to my child bearing dreams. My medical chart was stamped “recurrent miscarriage” and I was forever relegated to the other side of the waiting room, the side for reproductive medicine patients. Oh, how the tides had turned with no room for audacity, arrogance, or assumption. All that remained was sorrow, emptiness, and a little bit of hope.
And so began the litany of tests and frantic research. It would be weeks before we received all the labs results, providing me ample opportunity to scour the net. I became a home-grown expert on recurrent miscarriage and infertility. I learned about Factor V Leiden, MTHFR, X-linked recessive disorders, and various treatments such as heparin and IVIG therapies. Some labs such as thyroid and prolactin hormone levels provided immediate results: negative for any deviation. Some others, responsible for diagnoses that are typically more difficult to treat, took considerably longer: also negative. The tests that required DNA analysis of both me and my husband, precursors to the most difficult and sometimes untreatable diagnoses, came back last: positive. It seems that my husband and I both carry a particular immune marker known as DQ alpha allele 1.2. Throughout my weeks of research this was the only diagnosis that made sense given my reproductive history and types of miscarriages I endured. I knew in my heart, in my soul, in my womb that this was going to be our diagnosis. But it still didn’t prepare me for the emotional devastation of hearing it from our infertility doctor. Every part of me ached; every part of me wailed.
There are zero, yes I said zero, reported cases of second live births for couples like us. Although I carried our daughter successfully, that gestation served as the initial exposure which triggered my immune system to produce antibodies against any subsequent children bearing our troublesome allele. Since we both carry this dominant marker, there is no chance of conceiving a child without it. Each pregnancy that followed prompted and actually strengthened my immune response, further guaranteeing the failure of the next. The good news: I apparently have a killer immune system. The bad news: those were our children and dreams that it killed.
Again, there is yet to be a single successful treatment that would allow me to carry another child genetically linked to us. Thus, our options were few and complex: enlist a friend or family member to be a host uterus to our genetic offspring, carry a pregnancy myself with a genetically unrelated child, conventional adoption, or resign ourselves to the idea of not having any more children. Knowing immediately that the latter was not an option we would even begin to consider, we began to examine the other three.
Our belief that a family is created by love and shared experiences, not genetics, coupled with our desire to enjoy another pregnancy made the option to carry a child genetically unrelated to us the obvious choice. However, we did not start with donor gametes. Rather, we tried adopting donor frozen embryos. Despite greatly reduced success rates in comparison to fresh embryos, this was our initial chosen route. Finally, our optimism returned and we were once again excited about our family planning options. Sadly, three unsuccessful transfers over the course of six months shattered our hopes. Once again, we were down—way down, but not completely out.
Our determination remained strong, but our emotional stability was waning. There are a finite number of times a couple can sustain this type of heartbreak. Maybe we didn’t fully deserve to feel such despair since we were among the minority of infertility patients with the good fortune of already having a child. But watching our one child mope around the backyard all alone, wanting to give her the gift of a sibling, wanting to give another child the gift of knowing her only served to heighten our sorrow and desperation. It was time to get off this roller coaster, to better our odds, to lay it all on the line. We decided to progress to IVF with fresh embryos using both donor sperm and donor eggs.
We selected our sperm donor from a bank immediately and waited patiently for nine months until an anonymous egg donor became available. A few weeks after signing the appropriate consent forms, things started moving forward. Our egg donor and I both began our hormone injections and frequent monitoring to sync our cycles. Egg harvest day was met with cautious optimism on high alert, as the egg count was unusually low. But they were lovely eggs, so we pressed on. Fertilization results in the lab were 100%. Embryo progression results in the lab were at 75%. All three surviving embryos were transferred into me three days after harvest and we began our twelve day wait to check for the first clinical indications of successful implantation—again, cautious optimism on high alert.
It had been two and a half years since our first miscarriage by the time our perseverance was finally rewarded. I was pregnant, very pregnant with twins. I wish I could say that my second viable pregnancy went as smoothly as the first, but neither the pregnancy nor the delivery were without serious complications. All of that is irrelevant though, as our sons finally arrived healthy, happy, and ready to receive the love that mother, father, and sister had been waiting so long to share.
So that is the story of our family, a family of which I am tremendously proud. Our particular story may be uncommon, but family development in which members do not share a common genetic history is not. Families of differing genetic backgrounds are created every day through varied means: adoption, foster care, second marriages/relationships, donor gametes, and surrogacy. And each and every one of these families is valid. We have one child who shares our DNA and two who do not; but make no mistake, they are all our children.
Although our family expansion endeavors are complete, our journey is not. To quote Carole Lieber Wilkins, M.F.T., we have an obligation to be “fierce protectors and advocates for the family we created and how we created it.” I have authored a children’s book to help other genetically diverse families begin discussions with their children. Birds of a Different Feather is designed to foster self-esteem by illustrating the joy children impart on their families while encouraging them to embrace their personal identities and means of family inclusion. This book is featured, endorsed, and distributed by PVED. To learn more, please visit: www.kelleywendel.tateauthor.com
—– Kelley Wendel, RN, BSN, & most importantly, MOM