If you’re a hopeful parent beginning your journey to family building through egg donation, this guide is for you. I am a Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years working with families just like yours — here’s everything I want you to know about how to work through the process.
Turning to donor eggs
After trying for what feels like a lifetime of treatments, listening to well-meaning but unhelpful advice, and countless negative pregnancy tests, your doctor gives you the news that using your own eggs is no longer an option. Donor eggs, your doctor says, will significantly increase your chances of having a child. You are told that this is not only practical but also the only real viable solution.
Although intellectually you understand, emotionally it may be gut wrenching to hear and something you are not ready to accept. Maybe you mull over the idea of changing clinics or asking your doctor for a more aggressive medical protocol. You are ready to do and try anything. How can this be happening? You look around and see all your friends and family easily having babies. You retreat inwards and start to feel completely alone.
You are not alone
The first egg donor pregnancy was delivered in Australia in 1984. Since then, approximately 3400 frozen donor eggs are used to have a family. Although egg donation was first intended for women with primary ovarian insufficiency, it is now used for a variety of medical and non-medical reasons such as men without a female partner.
It can be surprising to learn how many people have problems with conception. One out of every eight heterosex couples has problems conceiving or carrying a child to term. Even though egg and sperm donation and surrogacy are becoming more mainstream topics, many couples are still not open about their troubles. There can be a feeling that you are the only one which can create feelings of embarrasement, failure or shame.
This journey is not easy and having a strong social support system is very important to help create resiliency. Lean on friends and family. Find others also on this journey — through our community or your clinic. Learning you are not alone can give a sense of peace and camaraderie in sharing your experience.
Before making any type of decision, the first step is to educate yourself. Take the time to learn about egg donation. Our “Learn” section is a great place to check out factual information regarding the science and history of egg donation. Being armed with solid and accurate information will help you be more confident and comfortable when making decisions.
Give yourself space to grieve the loss of not having a biological child
Learning that you need to turn to egg donation to conceive your family can create feelings of loss, sadness, anger, and possibly even shame. You may feel a deep sense of grief over not having a genetically linked child. Even though the child was never physically there, it is the loss of that dream that can create an anguish that only those on this journey can truly understand.
After learning that you may not have a biological child of your own, you may walk through different stages of grief, such as the ones listed below (proposed by British Psychologist John Bowlby.) How might this grief look or feel?
During this first phase of grief, the idea of not being able to have a biological child does not feel real and seems impossible to accept. This stage may feel especially difficult for those who have worked hard their entire lives and have always set and met their goals. This loss can send shock waves through the body which can even result in somatic symptoms, such as physical pain or fatigue.
In this second stage, you begin to acknowledge the significance of this loss and realize that the future you once imagined is no longer a possibility. You may turn to unhealthy outlets to try and fill this void and you may become preoccupied by feelings of emptiness.
In this stage, you accept the fact that a biological child is not possible and things will not be the way you imagined. You might now feel a sense of hopelessness and despair. There may be anger, questioning and withdrawal from others. You may find yourself avoiding friends with children, birthday parties or family events.
- Reorganization and recovery
In this phase, you start to realize that your longing for a child is stronger than your desire for them to be biologically related to you. You start setting new plans on how to grow your family.
Some things you can do to help you during these stages of grief include:
- Write in a journal to process your thoughts and feelings
- Join a grief / loss group
- Write a letter to your child and include all the hopes and dreams you had for them, and then let the letter go
- Lean on family and friends
- Speak with a therapist
- Learn relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, meditation and yoga.
You may find yourself cycling back and forth during the different stages and in different orders. Just remember, you need space to express your feelings and time to process this loss. Avoidance and distraction can only be helpful for so long. Allow yourself to sit with your feelings. Give yourself permission to move forward at your own pace.
Remember, DNA is a small part of who we are
Although you may not be genetically linked, you may still have the option of carrying your child, chest-feeding your child, cutting the umbilical cord, or having skin-to-skin the moment they arrive. Remember, DNA is a small part of who we are. All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in their genetic makeup and nurture plays an enormous role in who we become and who we bond with.
To help you psychologically come to terms with building your family through egg donation, seeing a piece of yourself in your donor can alleviate some anxieties. So you may decide to work with a donor who had an upbringing similar to yours, someone with similar appearance, hobbies, interests, education, culture, or religion.
If you have any worries about attachment or bonding to your baby conceived through the use of donor eggs, know this: I have worked with thousands of families and not one of them regretted their decision. Once you hold your baby in your arms, you will not only see the love in those eyes, you will feel the love in every part of your being. Any idea that they are not yours, forever disappears. Family is based on relationships you create and develop and not solely on your DNA.
Supporting your donor-conceived child
Most experts agree that it is best to be open about how your child was conceived as early as possible. Telling your child early on about their conception story helps normalize it for your child. Start early. While up for those midnight feedings, start telling your baby the story of how they were conceived. The more you practice saying it out loud, the more comfortable and confident you will become. The more comfortable and confident you become in your role as a parent, the more you will impart these feelings to your child.
If you are hesitant to share this information with your child, ask yourself why? What makes you hesitant or afraid? Play the tape forward and imagine two scenarios. One where you are open with your child and one where you are not. How do the two scenarios play out? Which situation do you believe is the best for you and your child?
One study out of Cambridge found that in families in which parents disclosed donor conception to their children before the age of seven showed more positive mother–child relationships and higher levels of wellbeing at age 14.
How to help your child when they get curious
Questions about their conception, especially questions about their donor, are normal. Questions do not necessarily mean that they are looking to meet and build a relationship with their donor. And it doesn’t mean they love you any less. All of us are curious about the make-up of our family background. This is why at-home DNA testing has become a billion dollar industry.
Try your best to create a loving and open family dynamic so your child feels comfortable openly discussing their questions. If you normalize their origin story as part of a bigger family narrative early on, they won’t feel any shame or confusion. Children are more resilient than we give them credit for. It is us adults who complicate things and make them more difficult than they need to be. Be open and honest. The old adage that honesty is the best policy, is undoubtedly the case when it comes to egg donation.
The despair that comes from learning that you are not able to conceive your own biological child can forever change the story of your life. However, it does not mean the end of your story. With egg donation being just one chapter, Family by Co can work with you to keep your dream of having a family alive.
Dr. Saira Jhutty is a licensed clinical and industrial organizational psychologist in private practice specializing in fertility. She is also a Founding Medical Advisor for Cofertility, and has spent the last 11 years focusing on assisting people build their families using third-party reproduction. Dr. Jhutty’s expertise lies in the evaluation of and consulting with potential surrogates and egg donors, and meeting with intended parents to discuss their decision to use alternative methods to build their family. In the past, Dr. Jhutty worked as Director of Surrogacy and Egg Donation at Conceptual Options, previously leading all gestational carrier and egg donor assessments there. Through her work with Cofertility, Dr. Jhutty provides guidance to ensure Cofertility remains at the forefront of ethical standards, including egg donor screening, intended parent counseling, and support for donor conceived children and families. For all members of Cofertility’s Freeze by Co egg freezing programs, she also makes herself available for office hours, through which members may ask questions directly within our private community.
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