In June 2013 I found myself scouring the internet nightly searching for terms like "sibling egg donation" and "psychological effects of gamete donorship" and "egg donor success stories." There were precious few search results but I read through the content of each result multiple times. I wished there was more. I wanted to find stories of sisters who had teamed up for egg donorship to create a life despite the hand they were dealt. There were a pair of chummy sisters in England. And another cute sister team on the east coast who had been interviewed and shared their story with an accompanying photo of them standing triumphantly over a fluff-headed toddler. And then vast amounts of clinical studies which discussed the various types of lab-assisted baby making and the potential impact but each study concluded that there simply wasn't enough data to analyze. I also found all sorts of infertility chat boards where hungry hearted women wished endlessly that they had a sibling willing or able to donate. None did. I couldn't find a single discussion board for potential donors, just potential moms. What I found was that sister-to-sister egg donorship is either very rare or people just weren't talking about it. I definitely wasn't able to find an answer to my question: Was giving my sister one of my eggs going to ruin everything?
She hadn't asked for one. I had been emotionally supportive of their long journey to conceive but it had been almost seven years and they had no dirty diapers to show for it. One afternoon while chatting with my dad on the phone, he had vaguely mentioned to me something about "a really big disappointment" with my big sister Maisy's latest invitro cycle. I made up an excuse to end the call, stepped out into the backyard where Spike was mowing the lawn, motioned for him to cut the engine and yelled out, "can I offer Maisy one of my eggs?"
"Uh...if you want to."
I stepped back inside, the door swung shut, and I texted Maisy and said I had something to run by her and would she please call me. She called back the next morning on her way to work. I'm not one for small talk so I just let her know I'd heard she'd hit another obstacle, and my eggs were farm fresh should she need any. I was pretty surprised when she replied that they had actually just met with her doctor the day before and had discussed for the first time the option of finding an egg donor. Three days later I was in a fertility clinic getting a sonogram to see just how good an offer I had made. The results came back that I was plenty fertile and met the preliminary requirements for donorship. I scheduled a trip to the east coast for more screening.
After the initial appointments made and potential timeline laid out, I finally started really thinking about the offer I had made. Spike and I have two beautiful, healthy, smart daughters but had hoped for more. Between the two of us we make great fajitas, inappropriate jokes and campfires, but doctors agree that our baby making days are over. I'd spent the first two years after we found out moping around our house struggling to redefine my sense of purpose. It took a while, but I'd truly come to peace with our reality. I've jumped headfirst into a fulfilling career, indulged in my hobbies and soaked up all the time possible with my children. I now know better than to take them for granted and our family time has increased dramatically in quality. We are rich with the joy of our children. Why ask for more? But questions surrounding my offer began bubbling up faster and faster.
What if going through this process brought back the feelings of loss I'd worked so hard to heal?
What if I became angry seeing my sister with a baby I wished was mine and our relationship suffered?
What if got too attached to their child and freaked them out?
What if my husband took this hard emotionally and felt negative feelings towards my brother in law?
What if I had only offered because deep down I just wanted another baby myself and this was a twisted way to do it?
What if the baby had a birth defect?
What if the procedure caused some sort of long-term internal damage in my body?
What if the baby turned out to be the blond haired boy I'd always dreamed of for myself?
What if none of the eggs take and I let my sister and her bank account down? Just another failure for us all?
What if ... what if... what if... and the internet provided no answers.
The "what if" I kept ending on was "what if this actually works and my sister gets to experience motherhood like I've been able to?" In the end, this was the question I kept landing on. No other experience in my life has been nearly as rewarding as the creation and parenting of my Pixie and Cher. When everything else fails, they keep my heart warm and safe. It was undeniable, I was blessed beyond belief and had blessings to spare so Spike and I packed our bags for Boston for additional testing and evaluations by Maisy's medical team. Spike had been a steady source of support and enthusiasm from the moment I asked him and I was very happy to have him by my side on this adventure. His easy sense of humor about the whole situation helped me relax on that long plane ride.
Honestly, the part I was most nervous about was seeing Maisy's husband, Ravi. He had been in our family for almost 7 years, but because we lived on opposite sides of the country, I'd never spent much time with him and, let's face it, this had some massive "awkward" potential. Additionally, he's from Hyderabad, India and I didn't know if there were any other culturally significant issues I should be aware of. Was he secretly against this whole thing and was just trying to please his wife? I simply hadn't spent enough time with him to even begin to estimate what he was feeling. My sister's hospital-appointed therapist had suggested we all read a book to prepare us for the process called, "Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families." The book had promised that all four of us adults involved would be having very unsettling dreams about each other and had also detailed many worst-case scenarios for third party reproduction. To my great relief, I just kept dreaming about chicken eggs but many of the stories had made me nervous. I drummed my fingers all the way from the airport to their home where Ravi waited. When we arrived, he was the one to fling open the front door to greet us. As soon as he saw us, Ravi gave me an impossibly large grin, grabbed me and we hugged like excited children. There was not a second of awkwardness and never has been. When I asked him about what his family in India might think of this arrangement, he told me that his grandfather had actually given one of his newborn sons to his childless brother to raise. There was a precedent in his own family. Baby sharing among siblings had been going on for generations.
|During my preliminary visit to Boston for screening. Left to Right: Maisy, Hollywood, Ravi|
As a point of interest, both my sister and her husband have Ph.Ds in molecular biology and genetics and have worked specifically in embryo development, manipulation and testing. They met each other in a lab at Cornell, fell in love, and have been making sweet science ever since. Maisy had even taught a class at Harvard about embryo development - a cruel twist of fate considering their personal struggles. So it turns out the idea of some petri dish mad science was all right up their alley.
Once in Boston, part of the process required by insurance was for the lot of us to get together for a good old fashioned counseling session with a professional. Best to discover any emotional land-mines before it was too late. I'd never been to any sort of therapy/counseling before and braced for a jarring session where my deepest, darkest secrets were extracted through my nose and bottled up to go on display. Luckily this was not the case, but the therapist did bring up some new points for me to "what if" about.
I was reminded by the therapist in this group session that the minute the egg was out of my body, it was not mine. I had signed legal paperwork to this effect. Any parenting choices Maisy and Ravi had were theirs to make and I should not assume I had any impact on the decisions they made for the baby's future. The therapist threw out some scenarios. How would I feel if they decided to physically punish their child? Would I get upset if they raised it in a different faith? What if there were extra frozen embryos that they decided to throw out, sell to other women or donate to science? What if they got a divorce? What if they didn't provide their child with a good education? By the end of the therapy session, I had even more questions but my resolve was strengthened. I could handle it.
I also had to visit with a nurse and learn about all the different shots I would be giving myself at home prior to the egg-retrieval procedure. She pulled out a case full of vials and needles and proceeded to give impossibly hard to understand instructions for about 15 minutes about the different doses. "Is this all written down somewhere?" I asked? She handed me a stack of paperwork. "I have to know whether I can do this on my own before I leave. Can I do a test shot right now?"
"Sure hon." She filled a syringe with saline and showed me how to pinch a roll on my belly. "Just flick it in!" she said. I flicked and suddenly the needle was back out in the air and blood oozing from a prick on my stomach. "You have to keep it in," she chided good-heartedly. I tried again to flick it in, but my hand would always stop stubbornly about half an inch from my belly and I couldn't get it to break the surface again for a good 5-6 attempts. Finally I just turned my head and channeled my inner karate kid. Hy-YAH! The needle was in and it was staying in. I injected the saline, pulled it out triumphantly, and knew I'd be able to pull this off. We were going to do this. I could give myself shots, we could make a baby, we could all live happily ever after. I bragged to the others for the rest of the day about my awesome injection skills.
A really helpful thing I learned from all the therapy and reading I did was to think about my contribution of the egg as completing a genetic blue-print. A single cell does not a baby make. But it would provide Maisy's body with the missing instructions she needed to create an amazing life, which grew from her body, was nourished by her blood and nutrients, and would be 100% hers. Of this, I felt confident. The doctors even told us that as sisters, the baby may very well have just as much of her DNA as it would of mine. Since siblings share roughly half their DNA, probability suggested that one fourth of the DNA of the baby would be the same as Maisy's.
The final egg retrieval wasn't for another month so I went back to playing "what if" for a few weeks in Las Vegas. We decided rather than keeping this a secret, like there was any sort of shame or scandal in it, we would be very open with family and friends. I was very relieved Maisy had chosen this because I'm notoriously bad at dealing with emotions that I can't express out loud. Not surprisingly, the family was excited for us. My other siblings approved. My parents were over the moon. Spike's family took it in good stride. The good-will of the people we loved was behind us and now we had the power of dozens more earnest prayers to carry us along our way.
When the time came, Spike and I packed up the girls and the four of us flew back to Boston to help make a cousin. My daughters were fascinated with the whole idea. We had explained to them that my sister was just missing a teeny-tiny piece to get the ball rolling and I was giving her mine. Cher, my six year old, was concerned that I would be hurt during the process and very anxious about the procedure. I carefully explained that I was in no danger. I outlined the procedure of how the eggs would be taken, how the baby would be made, and how my sister would take the blueprint that Ravi and I provided to create the actual finished product. We explained that while my daughters had many cousins, this cousin would be unique. My girls were going to have a special responsibility to love and care for this cousin in a way that they may not with other cousins. The genetic half-sibling relationship was mentioned, but not emphasized. They took it all in with wide eyes and joined in the adventure with us.
|Playing dress up at Ravi's lab at MIT to document the adventure the week before the egg donation. Trying our best to look like hard-core scientists. Adults left to right: Spike, Hollywood, Maisy and Ravi|
Once we arrived back in Boston, Maisy and I did our shots together during the days leading up to the procedure. We enjoyed our time dreaming with their family about the possibilities of what this trip could mean. On the day of egg-retrieval I was briefly put under for the simple outpatient procedure. I spent the next day in bed with a little soreness but was back on my feet soon after. We were surprised to find that I had very few eggs during the particular month that they were retrieving eggs, less than half of what we'd seen from prior months. They had expected to be able to take at least 20 mature eggs, they got only 10. That was hard news to get. Only ten eggs. And of those ten, only seven were fit to be fertilized. Now we needed to wait and see how many eggs were actually fertilized and developed to embryos. The call from the lab came, they had successfully created three embryos. Just three. I felt a bit panicked. I watched their faces so see any signs of regret. Had I failed again? Were they disappointed in me? Had I accidentally messed up my shots? I knew how much money this had cost and what a high-stakes game we played. We all discussed our feelings of frustration that this particular cycle had been so low-yield and conjectured reasons why that might have been so. My family flew back to Las Vegas two days after the egg retrieval and I couldn't shake the feeling that it was all for nothing. That this was all going to be one spectacular, expensive, emotionally draining failure.
A few days later, a doctor implanted two of the embryos in Maisy. They tried to freeze the third, but it failed and was not fit to freeze. During pregnancy testing a few weeks later, they found that only one embryo remained in the uterus. One. Just one chance. Both Maisy and I have experienced failed pregnancies and this was going to be a very long nine months. We talked frequently during the pregnancy and she at one point expressed to me her concern the she felt like there was an alien growing in her womb. She struggled to feel attached to a growing baby that she felt may not be her own. Luckily, those feelings faded as the pregnancy progressed. I consistently tried to downplay my excitement in case things went south, but it was hard not to get giddy at the photos she sent of her growing belly. Could we really pull this off? Was it foolish to indulge in hoping?
The One. That's what I thought of the growing baby since there were no second string embryos in the sidelines. If this singular life failed, the insurance wasn't going to cover another attempt. Our one egg was in one basket. A few months into the pregnancy, Maisy and Ravi started referring to their baby as "Boots" so I switched to calling it that which proved much less stressful. "It" eventually became a "she." I spent the nights googling images of what Indian/Caucasian babies might look like. I'm short and blonde, Maisy tall and brunette. I kept scouring the internet to find previous voyagers who had taken this journey but found that Trip Advisor just didn't have the information I needed for this particular destination.
The week of Mother's Day 2014 I got a text that Maisy was heading to the hospital. Another text that the baby was born. Another frustrated text from my mom saying nobody could get Maisy to send a picture or call. I waited nervously then at 12:30am on May 8th, my phone rang. Maisy. We cried and celebrated together and I even convinced her to text me a picture of her prize.
Her name is Mia. And she is amazing.
Her full name in Sanskrit means "Magical Gift." And it was fabulously magical what we did - from two families who had struggled with the depression and pitfalls of infertility, we were able to band together and create this amazing, beautiful, magical child. I wanted to see her! I wanted every little detail! But on the opposite coast, I could only think about giving my sister her space to bond with her new baby. I had read in my internet searches about a woman who had used her sister as a donor, and after the baby was born, the donor sister had crowded her, been at the house all the time, and was suffocating the new mom. I didn't want to be that donor so I waited. I watched as my parents and other siblings descended on Boston to meet the baby and soaked up all the photos they posted. Maisy was the luckiest of new moms and Mia was a great sleeper, didn't cry much, and was born with fantastical amounts of dark, curly hair that made her instantly crush-worthy (and I should note the dark hair was a huge relief to us all!). I waited quietly but finally cracked after most of my family had been to Boston to see her. When Mia was a few weeks old, I timidly asked Maisy on a phone call if it would be okay for me to come, "yeah, it's kind of weird that you're not here!" she said. I felt such relief and booked a ticket that day for the weekend.
A plane ride full of "what ifs." This was it. This was when I found out my real intentions and what my deeper feelings might be. Would I be jealous? Angry? Overbearing? How well did I really know myself? Spike had stayed home to watch the girls so I spent the five and a half hour flight on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trying to practice deep breathing and reminding myself that there was no going back. I needed to step up and be the emotionally mature person my family hoped I could be. The person I wanted desperately to be.
After the seemingly endless day of travel, a taxi dropped me off at Maisy's house. My sister answered the door and lead me back to the nursery where Mia lay asleep. Maisy gently roused her and picked her up tenderly from the crib. My sister the mother, standing in an elegant nursery, with this little miracle pressed against her chest. As I looked at them both, I had a feeling unlike any before and can only equate it to how grandparents must feel towards their grandchildren. Mia was definitely a part of me, and I craved being with her, but the actual gift from this whole endeavor was seeing my sister as a mom. Seeing her so naturally tuck and arrange and sooth this tiny baby with the inborn instincts of any mom. Seeing the bedset and quilts that Maisy had sewn for Mia to welcome her to the world. Seeing my brother-in-law turn into a puddle of mush with love for their daughter and trying to translate his wild baby talk. Watching as Mia wrapped her tiny fingers around Maisy while she fed, gazing up with trusting eyes. I loved watching them love each other, probably just like grandparents must love to see the family cycle continue. Mia was definitely more than just another niece to me, but it was crystal clear who her mother was.
Maisy wanted nothing more than people she could talk to about her experience. For the past seven years, she had spent much of her time bonding with other moms who were also infertile but now that she had a baby, she felt almost like she'd been kicked out of the club. She was hoping now to find those who could honestly share her excitement in motherhood. Of course she naturally wanted to share them with me and so for the first time since we started this wild endeavor, I gave myself permission to fully release my fears of the unknown future and to simply be a part of the miracle. All that was left was joy. I allowed myself to join the celebration, to stop trying to downplay or minimize my feelings for fear of putting anyone off. I spent the week watching Mia's mother and father step into their roles. I easily fell into my role of the doting auntie who happily passed the baby back to mom when she started fussing.
Mia is eight months old now. She cut her first tooth this week and is learning to crawl. My little girls and I eagerly check Maisy's photostream each night before bed to see the latest images and videos of this little miracle and we cheer with each new milestone. Helping my sister was the best thing I could have done to heal my own bruised story of motherhood and strengthen it in a way I never dreamed possible. The joy this has brought not just me, but my husband, children, Maisy, Ravi and their family is infinite. At this point I have a lot of things I'm curious about, such as once Mia grows older, what will she think of our arrangement? Will she be as excited about it as we are? But the plague of questions that made my stomach roil are gone. There will inevitably be awkward moments to come but I'm confident calling this "magical gift" a success. And I never would have guessed that part of the gift was for me.
My sister and I decided to put this on the internet in hopes that anyone searching for more stories about sibling donorship finds it. We have still not yet been able to actually meet or talk to anyone else who has done a sister-to-sister donation and would be more than happy to talk to and share more of our experiences with anyone who has questions or concerns. Or even better, if you have done a sibling egg donation and are so inclined, please contact us, we would love to hear your experience as well, we know our story has still just begun! We hope in the future this isn't such a rare occurance as the world embraces the amazing technology available and the options for infertile couples continue to grow. Parenthood is worth the "what ifs!"