The Extended Donor Family: It’s All About Connection
In Dr. Aimee’s new Freeze and Share program, there are many different options for the Freezer / Sharer relationship. In this article, Dr. Mary Coleman Allen, explains how to make the best choices when it comes to egg donation.
By Mary Coleman Allen, Ph.D., LPC
Over the past fourteen years, I have worked with many families who have conceived their children with the help of egg donation, and I have worked with the egg donors who have helped families achieve their dreams of becoming parents. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of these amazing family building journeys.
“the field of third party reproduction has been changing, leaning toward more of an “open” relationship between donors and recipients, as the voices of donor conceived children have been calling for more access to their genetic information.”
During my years of clinical practice, I’ve come to better understand the hearts and minds of the women who donate their eggs and the women who receive donated eggs. It is a continual learning process of how these roles play out for each individual. I have worked with egg donor recipients who have received eggs from sisters, friends and co-workers. I also have worked with egg donor recipients who have received the gift of eggs from an “anonymous” donor, someone the recipient doesn’t have ready access to in terms of personal contact or identifying information. In all of the cases, the recipients have expressed feeling thankful and blessed to have the opportunity to receive the eggs donated to them.
Open Donation Versus Anonymous Donation
Anonymous donors and their egg recipients have not had the choice to decide on that relationship. Traditionally, fertility clinics have offered anonymous egg donation programs. Some clinics give the donor the option of being “open identity,” which essentially means that she is open to being contacted after any children born through the help of her donation when they turn eighteen-years-old or older. Parents and children would be the ones initiating this contact, not the donor.
In more traditional anonymous egg donation, parents receive medical and sometimes personal information about the donor, such as hobbies, area of study in college etc., but the parents do not have the option of personally knowing their donor.
Open egg donation is very different from anonymous egg donation. When I’ve worked with donors who have matched with a recipient through an egg donor agency, the egg donor and egg recipient typically have had the choice of whether they want to meet and have a relationship or not. The relationship with agency donors and recipients can be everything from the donor having complete anonymity to the donor having a completely open relationship, more typical of an open adoption, in which the donor may play some role in the recipient family’s life. Known donors (also known as “directed donors”) who are family members or friends, are of course, already in a relationship with their recipients, and these relationships can also vary in degrees of connection.
Both arrangements can lead to the wonderful dream of giving birth to a child and becoming a parent. The “becoming” for parents is a sweet, longed for, hard fought reward, and they remain thankful for the opportunity provided to them by their egg donor.
More recently, however, the field of third party reproduction has been changing, leaning toward more of an “open” relationship between donors and recipients, as the voices of donor conceived children have been calling for more access to their genetic information.
The Best Interest of the Child
The values around anonymity are changing, especially as more people are embracing the opportunity of egg donation and as it becomes more the “norm” than in previous decades. Research about gamete donation has continued to grow and studies suggest that families who have conceived through egg donation are as psychologically healthy as those who have conceived with their own gametes. Research also suggests that children who have been told of their donor origins are doing just as well as those who have not, and in some cases, are even closer with their parents.
Growing research validates what the mental health professionals have suggested for years, that it can be very healthy for the child to know how he or she was conceived. This does not mean sharing all the information all at once, but starting to share at an early age little “bits and pieces” of their story. In this manner, by the time a child begins to fully understand the biology and genetics of reproduction and parenthood, the conception via egg donation is not a shock or a surprise. Instead, it’s part of their story that has been thoughtfully and lovingly woven into the fabric of their life from an early age.
There’s No Such Thing As True Anonymity
With all of the advances in the field of genetics and facial recognition software, there really is no such thing as true anonymity anymore. Ancestry companies are encouraging people to connect with their heritage, and DNA sampling is becoming increasingly more routine. There are donor registries established to connect children and their genetic donor siblings and donors, and increasing numbers of people curious to find out more about their anonymous donors.
Even with parents who are adamant about not wanting to tell their child about the special help they received from the egg donor, I still explain the easiest way and most recommended way to talk to a child about their conception. A donor-conceived child may stumble upon the information that his or her genetics are different than he or she originally thought. That could be very confusing for a child. This possibility, however, can be avoided by sharing the story of your child’s egg donation in an appropriate and non-threatening manner. Again, it is easier, for parents and for children, to share their special story in little bits at a time, organically, as they grow.
“I have seen a dramatic change in my practice in the number of parents who are now open to sharing about egg donation with their children, versus ten or so years ago.”
If family members or friends have been told, but there are no plans in place to tell the child, this can become a challenge if the child finds out later. At that time, the issue is much more about the “family secret” than about the egg donation, if one is not up front from the beginning. That is where the sense of betrayal can come in, and it’s important to understand the interests of the child in these scenarios.
There is a likelihood that parents, who initially state that they do not wish to share, may change their mind in the few years between their egg donation and the recommended time to begin sharing with the child. They may meet more people who have received donor eggs to start their families and decide that they are more comfortable with sharing than they were at the time of their fertility treatment. I have seen a dramatic change in my practice in the number of parents who are now open to sharing about egg donation with their children, versus ten or so years ago, when most parents I saw mostly said that they did not wish to share the information with their children.
I believe that giving donor-conceived children the option of knowing their origins, being able to reach out to their donor or have some sort of potential contact can be very helpful. The child or recipient parents might want to ask them historical, genetic or medical questions, and having the option of knowing the donor allows for this.
The Freeze and Share Program offers both donors (freezers) and recipients (sharers) the opportunity to connect in a way that each party feels comfortable from the beginning.
The Desires of Donor: Good Will Prevails
In my clinical interviews with egg donors, two of the first questions I ask are, “How did you learn about egg donation, and how did you personally become interested in donating?” Most all of the time, the donors that I have worked with have known someone who has gone through infertility issues or they have a child and realize how amazing it is to become a parent. They sometimes say that they have heard or seen an advertisement and thought how great it would be to help someone with eggs that they themselves are not even using. Sure, they know it will help their finances, or in the case of the Freeze and Share Program, it will help them preserve their fertility. But almost always, in my experience, there is altruism and goodwill in the mix. They often state that it is a “win-win” experience that they can help others and be helped at the same time.
Even with anonymous donors enrolled in donor programs that do not allow for contact with the recipients, I always ask a donor whether she would be open and willing to meet or talk with her recipient parents when the donor conceived child reaches adulthood. We discuss that, while it is not an option at this time with anonymous donation, things may change, and having them think about this question is important.
Most donors I have met say they are open to being contacted by the recipients or the future child if they wished to reach out. It is rare, in my experience, that a donor says she doesn’t think so, or would prefer to remain anonymous. I know most eggs donors are young, focused on school and building their lives, so it’s not typical that they will want to become part of a whole new family helped along with egg donation. But some donors wonder about how the family who received their eggs is doing, and they are open to connection.
The Desires of Recipient: Set Your Expectations
More and more, egg recipients that I see are interested in the option of having access to their egg donor in case they or their children have questions about their genetic origins. The trend toward open donation versus anonymous donation is shifting as well, with more focus on open donation being a desirable option for parents who prefer to have contact with their donor.
“Most recipients want boundaries that make it clear that they are the mother and the donor is the genetic helper
At the same time, I also understand that most recipients want boundaries that make it clear that they are the mother and the donor is the genetic helper. Some recipients fear the potential of donors making a claim on their child, and sometimes the recipient parents fear that getting to know the donor may create a rift between the recipient mother and her child.
Supportive counseling before moving forward with the process can provide an excellent sounding board for these concerns and fears.
Leaving the Door Open
Social norms around these relationships are changing, and there are now wonderful examples of beautiful, healthy relationships happening between donors, recipients and their children. It’s all about how the expectations of those relationships are managed.
It seems to be human nature that, when a door is closed, many have a desire to open the door, simply out of curiosity because it is closed. If the door is closed on donor access, the child may be even more curious to know more about their donor. But if the door is open, they may not even have curiosity about it, because they know the access is there if they want it.
Often, in a known donation relationship, the recipient parent(s) are the ones who suggest building a relationship between the child and his or her donor. In other cases, when the parent does not promote the openness, the child may be the one to express a desire to connect with the donor with questions. So in open donor situations, donor-conceived children may just not care to reach out to their donor, but it’s nice to know they can. I think it is super helpful for a child to know that his or her parents have not closed any doors, and that the choice to make the connection is within their control.
In Dr. Aimee’s new Freeze and Share program, there are many different options for the Freezer / Sharer relationship.
The donor “freezer” and the recipient “sharer” would have minimal contact, but the child would be able to meet the donor when he or she is 18. The donor would have to be open to this kind of relationship.
In this family scenario, the sharer would have the option to connect with the freezer from the beginning. They might meet before conception happens just to gain a better understanding of each other and answer any questions each has. This meeting may also help to clearly establish boundaries about the kind of access the sharer mother has to the freezer donor. The relationship may develop into a friendship over time, or it may remain somewhat distant, and this may be dependent upon the contact needs of the recipient parent(s) and child. The freezer donor and sharer recipient(s) will always have access to each other.
Some people may decide that they want to be in each other’s lives on a regular basis. The freezer donor in this case may be like a family friend or special aunt. I’ve seen this relationship more commonly among two sisters, or among two dads and their donor, or a single dad and his donor. Again, as in the other scenarios, the relationship is established at the beginning and can blossom into whatever scenario works best for all parties.
Freeze and Share and Social Media
Today’s technology offers so many platforms to share information, and to include others in what one is sharing online. Freezer donors and recipient sharers should set clear boundaries around social media from the beginning. Issues of privacy are more important to some and less important to others, so a clear distinction of what is “ok” in regard to posting online in regard to their relationship is critical to all parties.
About the Author
Mary Coleman Allen, Ph.D., LPC has been in clinical practice in fertility counseling psychology for over fourteen years. The majority of her clinical practice involves third party evaluations for donor eggs, sperm, embryos and surrogacy, and working with recipient parents of these services. She received her B.A. in psychology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,and she received her Master’s degree and Educational Specialist certification in Professional Counseling and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Georgia State University.