Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meditation on Genes

There's a lot of online discussion in other blogs about different surrogacy programs, but there's been less discussion of the issues of using donor material. This is a very real issue for many starting the surrogacy process. On the Chai Baby blog ( Charliecat posted an excellent discussion about the dramatic fall-off in fertility for women in their late 30's and early 40's, and about her decision to use an ED. I started to write a reply to her post, but realized that I have more-than-post-it-sized feelings about having had to use an ED. I hope my thoughts are useful to any couple facing the decision of using donor material.

A fertility doctor at one of the World's Greatest Hospitals quickly dashed my hopes of being able to bear or provide the genes for a baby. It was like pulling a band-aid off a wound, painful but quick. In retrospect, I'm glad he saved our energy, emotions, and wallet from going through a lot of procedures that had little chance for success, though at the time I certainly had to go through a process of mourning for not being able to bear a child myself. But at the time (about 4 or 5 years ago), I didn't know about the option for surrogacy overseas, and knowing that would certainly have helped some, but not all, of the pain.

My desire to have a baby was way stronger than my desire to carry on my genes, anyway. We considered using a family member as an ED, but she was nearing 40 as we started the process, and the agency we were in discussions with at the time discouraged us from using her. Frankly, this was a little bit of a relief, since I felt like I'd be putting her through a lot of discomfort and inconvenience by making her give herself shots and leave her family for a week or so to go to India.

The biggest part of using an Indian ED was uncomfortable for us was the lack of any medical or personality information being made available to us. We could only assume that some screening had been done by the agency (although we had little details of that.) Given the lack of information, we made our decision solely on the basis of the donor's looks and a gut feeling. She looked very energetic, warm, upbeat, and very pretty. There was something about her face that reminded me of my grandmother's family, and that helped my decision.

At the time, we didn't realize that there were other agencies in India that could provide more detailed information about their donors. Although so far our child is perfectly healthy, I regret accepting the agency's offerings without trying to find one that could provide more information on their donors. I recently filled out some medical forms at the pediatrician's office, and felt terrible when I had to enter "unknown" next to every line of maternal history. I know Micah faces a lifetime of answering these types of questions, and hope that it doesn't cause him too much pain.

I also wish that there was better language for his situation; something to differentiate between "his mother's (my) side of the family" and "his maternal genetics." If anyone has any linguistic suggestions for how to talk about that, I'd love to hear them; saying "your egg donor" sounds so sci-fi. I wonder if Micah will one day want to go find his "real" mother and be disappointed that he can't.

The option of using a Caucasian ED was introduced a bit too late for us to consider, although it did play a role in our last-minute hesitations about going forward with our Plan A. Would we have done it if we had known about it in time? We might have considered because it would have provided peace of mind in having more medical information and more information about our child's potential personality traits and intellect, and because my husband had a picture in his mind of having a blue-eyed redheaded baby like his mother's side of the family. But there are no guarantees when you're playing with genetics -- even a PhD could produce an incurious child, and even the most physicially beautiful woman could produce a baby that looks like her ugly uncle. When it comes down to it, though, cost was a factor. I feel really lucky that one thing we didn't have to worry about was our child being more or less accepted by family or our communities based on looks.

What we learned when we met Micah for the first time is that genes are really random. We ended up with a baby who shares many characteristics with his dad. And the traits he inherited from the donor -- his thick head of dark brown hair, olive skin, and face shape -- make him look he could come from my side of the family. I didn't think I would care about having a baby that doesn't look like me, and I'm proud of Micah's unique story, but I admit that I feel some relief that we'll have the opportunity to share it when we choose to, and not because we're forced to by curious questions from strangers.
Do I feel any different raising a child that's not genetically related to me? I don't think so. Certainly it doesn't matter one bit in the middle of the night when I wake up to feed him, or when I hold him in my arms and marvel at how much I love him. I do feel a bit of a pang when his father points out traits that they share, but I already can see that Micah is temperamentally different from his father. I intend to make sure that Micah learns ethics, ways of thinking about the world, and and interests from me. I know we'll share an emotional connection. And unlike his father, who has some expectation of having commonalities with Micah and may be disappointed when they aren't the same, I have no such illusions and that may be very healthy.

Now that we've found the answer to the question that we'd wondered about for over a year -- what will our baby look like -- the most interesting question to me is "what kind of personality does our baby have?" And in this regard, we're very much like every other new parent. As it was so well put by a character in my favorite TV series, Mad Men, in speaking about a brand new baby, "We don't know who he is yet or what he's going to be -- and that's a wonderful thing."


  1. Great post! We are using an Indian ED and I've struggled with the missing genetic link. It helps me to hear your perspective since you are living the experience. To be honest, we chose our donor not solely on her past performance. Physical appearance definitely played a part. She is someone who looks so familiar that she could be related. Hopefully, some of that gets passed to our baby. Regardless, we will create an environment to influence our child's upbringing so that maybe nurture will outweigh nature.

  2. tjudle, I believe that nature plays a strong role in people's capabilities and personality. However, as a parent you can have a huge influence in directing your child's use of those capabilities. That "looks familiar" appearance is a big bonus! Good luck with your process.

  3. Wow! I am glad to hear a post like this because we used DE (Indian) + surrogate. I'm Irish-German decent (green eyes, fair, blonde). My husband is Spanish and his sisters could almost pass for Indians (but that is really not important to me but a coincidence). The donor we chose had my big cheeks (which my husband's family does not have) as well as a lovely, happy smile (one reason I chose her were her big cheeks and general "brightness" and attractiveness because as you comment, there isn't a whole lot more to go on). We looked into flying over a caucasian donor (from the US and South Africa) but we were looking at 16.000+ euros just for that (and each time if necessary because frozen embryos, from all I've read, are not much of a GO). We figured we would at least need to do this process 3 times so a Caucasian donor was not financially viable. I do not need my child to look like me. I just don't. I'm more concerned about your check-list at the doctor's office, or explaining to the child why he/she does not look like me. For starters, we've kept a detailed written journal of this whole process to give to the child when we feel it is appropriate so that he/she can read our day to day thoughts, worries, etc. Although I have time to think of how I will explain to my child the reason we do not look alike, I haven't worked it out yet. The truth, of course, but it is "the how, the wording". The world is changing though, and when my parents divorced when I was 12, it was taboo! Or, an out-of-wed-lock child was a nasty affair. Now, families are potpourris of kids, 3rd step-dads, etc. So, maybe the world will catch up with IVF possibilities. We just got our first 4 wk sonogram on Wednesday, and I am perhaps jumping the gun, but I am already thinking about these things. I really do look at it like I have my "baby angels" and that they will be born through a surrogate and DE (as you can see we plan to go for more than one). They were always my babies, but were meant to come to me this way because I could not have them by myself and two other very kind women helped me to get them here ("I couldn't have babies and wanted you so much so one woman carried "you" in her stomach and the other gave her "egg" because I asked them to and they did so that you could be here with me today because I am your Mommy and I love you"). Well, that is a rough sketch, but you get the drift. If anyone has anymore approaches, I would be appreciative but honestly, this is actually how I really see it as we have been TTC 7 years and this explanation is the "truth" in my heart. Yes, when they are older, in stages, you explain you paid money. But that comes in phases, I hope. I just think they need to see that this was sort of a "beam me up, Scottie" thing where what was to be your baby though natural birth, was re-routed somehow through DE+ Surrogate but that they are here because of you (MOM) first and foremost because you were the catalyst and not because of, but yes, thanks to DE + surrogate. I would really like for people to develop all that was touched on in "Meditation on Genes" because it is hardly talked about in blogs and it is an issue for discusion. Astrocat88 - Spain

  4. Beautiful post Stephanie. I relate to so much of it. I wonder how I will feel when we're pointing out similarities between daddy and babies, but not mummy and bubs.

  5. Funny, Mike and I never even thought about anything but getting an Indian ED. Our main goal was a genetic commonality between the siblings. It was a way for us to bridge the obvious gap.

    We did struggle with the lack of more in-depth knowledge about the ED, and it is still a little scary. Thankfully, like Micah, both girls are very healthy. But I think in general, it's a little different for us.

    Regardless, great post. It's something that doesn't get talked about a lot.