Options in Open Relationships between Donor and Recipient Families

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First of all, I would like to point out that there is no one formula as to the type of relationship between an embryo donor and the embryo recipient when they have chosen to have an open relationship.

Many donors want to have a relationship with the recipient family with whom they have shared their embryos.  The reasoning may be that they, as well as their biological children that they are parenting, may desire to have an opportunity to know one another.  Because they donor’s children are full biological siblings, they, as they mature, may also desire to have a relationship with the children who were donated as embryos to another family.

These relationships may cover the spectrum from very open with the families visiting each other’s homes to only periodic correspondence between the two parties.  Typically the donor families and the recipient families grow these relationships as it feels comfortable for each party.

Of course, the personalities of the individuals have a great impact as to how the relationships develop.  Individuals who are more cautious may not take risks to allow the relationship to develop as fully as those who are willing to take more risks.

As I have spoken with families who desire an open relationship, both the donor and the recipient families have verbalized that they desire an open relationship for the benefit of the child or children.

Prior to making the decision to donate embryos to a specific family with an open relationship, a social worker will counsel with both the donor and the recipient families to assist them with establishing a plan for the relationship that meets both families’ needs.  Typically a document is developed, reviewed by both parties and signed.  In many situations, both couples find their compatibility comfortable enough to grow their relationship beyond the initially outlined relationship.

I have seen embryo donors and recipient families who have embraced one another as new extended family members.  There has not been language to define this particular relationship.  Even though the children of the donor and the recipient families are genetically “sibling,” their relationship is logically more like “cousins.”  Many couples have used the term “cousins” to help the children understand and comprehend the unusual relationship.  Most children are open to this relationship and welcome the other parties without needing to “define” why these individuals are in their life.

When the adults are at peace with and embrace this unique relationship, the children accept this as normal for their family.

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Heartbreak of Infertility During the Holidays

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For many individuals and families the pain and heartbreak of infertility is so much greater during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

During this time of year, many families gather to be thankful and share the blessings of their lives. However, for those families facing infertility the pain is ever present and keen when friends and families gather.  Other family members may inquire about any medical treatment they have undergone or inquire about adoption plans.  Often remembering their struggles and losses brings the pain to the forefront for everyone.

Some couples find comfort in inquiries from others whereas other couples may find it to be an intrusion to their pain and loss.  For those who care deeply for the couples experiencing loss, asking them if they would like to talk about it gives them the option of opening the discussion or choosing to leave it closed.  For some, a gentle reminder that you are thinking about them may bring more comfort than inquiries about their situation.

A number of couples who have experienced infertility, report that they find peace in being with other couples who are experiencing the same obstacles; as one woman wisely said, “When we are with others who are experiencing infertility, we feel  “normal” because everyone in this groups understands the pain of infertility.”

While we cannot remove the pain of infertility at any time, being attuned to the losses felt during the holiday season is so very important.

Why is a Family Assessment (Home Study) Recommended for Embryo Adoption?

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Many people view embryo donation and adoption as a medical procedure rather than an adoption family-building option. When examining the process of receiving embryos from another family a little more closely, it mimics the traditional domestic adoption process with many of the very same issues. Because receiving embryos from another family is the result of a great gift from one family that is unknown to the other family, it is important to prepare the receiving family through the process of an adoptive family assessment.
Families may dread and fear the adoptive family assessment process. However, by considering that the overall purpose of a family assessment is to prepare the family for a child to join the family and to assure that this family is ready in every way to parent a child, hopefully these families will grow more confident through the process. Also, by working with an adoption agency for this service, the donor family is assured that this particular family is ready in every way to parent and meet this child’s needs in every way.
Rightfully so, many adoptive families are discouraged because families who are able to have children naturally are not required to complete a family assessment. Social workers who serve these families desire very much that the process is helpful and a learning experience for the families.
A family assessment is a means by which a family has the opportunity to think through their preparedness to add a child or children to their family, discuss with a trained social worker their strengths and limitations and receive feedback as to their readiness to parent. Each family is unique and may not recognize all that they have to offer a child through adoption. By considering their family situation from a relationship, stability and financial point of view, the family builds confidence that they are ready to parent a child.
Additionally, it is so important to be aware and ready to parent a child that is not their genetic child, but a child of their hearts. With embryo adoption, there is the blessing of a pregnancy with the adopted child or children. It is a time to fall in love with the baby (or babies) that they are carrying and for the families to realize that they are as prepared as they can be to the parents of these wonderful bundles of joy!

Bonding with a Baby Adopted Through Embryo Donation

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Much is written about pregnant women bonding with babies in a traditional pregnancy. However, have you thought about the process when the baby you are carrying is not your genetic child, but an embryo that another family has generously donated to you?
It is a wonderful miracle when that embryo or embryos donated to you settles into you uterus and begins to grow. As the mother, you must feel so blessed to be pregnant with this baby or babies.
As you carry this child, your body provides the blood that courses through this precious little life. This little one becomes adjusted to the rhythm of your body and your life. Your heart beat is also heard by this precious life. Have you thought about the fact that your baby also hears your voice and the voices of those around you? This baby feels the “motion” of your life and picks up on your pace and energy.
It is a miracle that, as you bond with your baby, your baby is also bonding with you and your life.

Deciding to pursue embryo adoption

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Many couples choose to seek the services of a reproductive endocrinologist upon acknowledging their inability to conceive.   At this point, many couples consider either domestic or international adoption to build their family.  Because of the strides made in creating embryos and ability to store them safely, as well as fewer newborns being available for domestic adoption, couples today are considering embryo adoption.

Embryo adoption “ticks many of the same boxes as domestic adoption” with the added benefit of the adoptive mother having the joy of not only carrying but also the beauty of giving birth to their adopted child.  The couple has the blessing of having nine months to bond with and anticipate the infant’s addition to their family.

Much like domestic adoption, couples who are pursuing embryo adoption, will want to explore the type of relationship they would like with the donating family.  Coordinators in embryo adoption seek to find donor and recipient families who have the same desires as to the level of openness in their relationship.  For some families this is a very difficult decision as they are approaching embryo adoption with a heavy heart because of the great losses that they have experienced.  Very often recipient families learn that the donor families well understand their loss as  the donor embryos were created because they, too, were having  troubling conceiving.  Repeatedly, embryo donors voiced to me that they “wished someone had offered me embryos as we probably would not have created our own embryos.”

Recipient families come to embryo adoption out of loss, but embryo adoption becomes a solution for their own desire to have a family as well as giving the donor’s embryos an opportunity for life.

Making the decision to donate embryos

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Over the years as I counseled with donors who had remaining embryos after they completed their family, I became keenly aware of the emotional challenges that donors face as they explore the options for their embryos.

Donors repeatedly voiced to me that they did not want their cherished embryos to remain in frozen storage.  Donors often spoke passionately that their embryos were created for life and that so long as they remain in storage their potential would never be achieved.   Likewise, many donors chose not to donate their embryos to scientific research.   Additionally, a frequent comment that I heard was……”I wish someone had offered me embryos as I probably would not have created our own.”  More often than not, the decision to donate is one that is made after much soul searching.

Many donors would like to be involved in choosing the family to receive their donated embryos whereas others feel that the decision is too painful and choosing the family makes it “too real” for them.  These families may choose to know about the family, but may not desire to know their identity.

For those families who choose to have an open relationship with the recipient family, there is a wide spectrum in the relationship between the two families.  Some may choose to know about the family, but have no identifying information or to desire any on-going contact.  Others, on the other end of the spectrum, may want to meet the recipient family and have an on-going open relationship.  I have helped families design relationships between the two families initially limited to email contact.  Many of these same families agreed that they would like to begin an open relationship and watch it grow to the comfort level for both families.  As you can imagine, each relationship is very unique just as the combination of families is unique.

As with any healthy relationship, it is important that each party explore the spectrum of options and come to the decision that is right for each party.  Through an open discussion and use of a supportive counselor, many families have found the right level of respect and understanding for both parties.

The Beginning of Embryo Donation and Adoption

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As more and more families sought treatment for infertility through in vitro fertilization, there were a growing number of embryos remaining in frozen storage following successful completion of their families.  Families who had created the embryos were reluctant to destroy the embryos as they represented success for the creation of their families and lives with potential.  Likewise, many of these families did not want to donate their embryos for scientific experimentation.

As the number of embryos in storage increased, reproductive endocrinologists began to realize that there was an excess of embryos in storage.  With the permission of the families who had created the embryos, the medical profession began to make these existing embryos available to other infertile patients within their practices.

In the early 2000s, some infertility specialists felt that there needed to be a better way to transfer existing embryos of families who desired to share their embryos with a family who would like to use these embryos to create their own family.  It was determined that these embryos should be identified, permission given by the families who created the embryos and a process by which these embryos could be transferred to the receiving family.

Social workers who were involved in the planning process, recognized that the transfer of these embryos from the family who had created the embryos to a receiving family mirrored the traditional adoption process.  These professionals recognized that the needs of the family who created the embryos were the same needs and desires as a placing family in traditional adoptions.  Likewise, it became apparent that the families desiring to receive the embryos could benefit by the same preparation as traditional adoptive families.  As the needs of each entity in the transfer of the embryos from the donating family to the receiving family became obvious, the process began to be called embryo donation and adoption.