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Building a relationship with your Embryo Donor Family

Maintaining a relationship with the embryo donor’s biological family does not mean you will be sharing your child. It just means that your child will be surrounding by that much more love and support. Families who want to donate their embryos often do so because they want their biological children to have biological siblings. Building a relationship between the embryo recipients and embryo donors, especially those with children already in the donor family who would be full genetic siblings to children born from embryo donation, is important to consider. Approaching questions of how and why it is important to build a relationship with donors should be from a place of what's best for the children.

It is important to consider that most donors will insist on having an embryo open adoption. It is imperative to seek education, training or counseling on open adoption before any agreements are discussed to understand what that will entail for both the donor and recipient. It is not uncommon for recipients to feel uncomfortable about open adoption at the beginning because they imagine it is the same as co-parenting and/or they feel threatened by the biological parents’ presence in their lives. Education in embryo adoption helps calm this fear. Embryo donors have no desire to interfere with recipients who are the child’s legal parents and have no interest in co-parenting with them.

Donors and recipients regard the genetic link between donors and donor-conceived child as significant and as building extended family networks in order to manage genetic, gestational and social aspects of reproduction and family-building. There are similarities between embryo donation/adoption and open adoption practices; both draw on extended family constructs in order to describe their relationship to each other. Open communication may include sharing information about any disorders that have a genetic origin, such as an allergy for a medication or food (which sometimes are life threatening) or medical history, which is done for the sake of children and goes both ways: from donors to recipients and from recipients to donors.

Benefits of maintaining open communication between adopted embryo families and donors are numerous. Some positive examples for the child are: he or she can establish a sense of connection and belonging to biological siblings, can develop a deeper understanding of their identity and a greater sense of wholeness, have access to important genetic and medical information, preserve biological connections including their cultural and ethnic heritage, develop a better understanding of their ‘beginnings’ which can help build a healthy sense of belonging, can relate to biological areas of strengths and weaknesses and create a foundation for lifelong relationships similar to extended family.

Sometimes embryo donors may feel loss and grief as they donate their embryos, however most become involved in embryo donation/adoption to help a family to become parents and for their biological donated embryo who will be related to their own biological child(ren). Openness from the earliest stages of the process can help donors gain a sense of control over the decision-making related to placement of their donated embryo. Over time, openness also may help donors to gain peace of mind and comfort in knowing how the embryo is doing during gestation and then how the child does following birth, develop personal relationships with the recipient family and the child as he or she grows and foster a relationship between the donated embryo and their siblings. Agreements can help make sure that everyone has a shared understanding of the expectations for openness. Benefits for the child by maintaining a relationship with the embryo donors far outweigh any risks. Once the boundaries and relationship is discussed and agreed on, most adults involved find a comfort level with their individualized arrangements. Building a healthy relationship with their child’s donor family provide lifelong connections for their child which allows direct access to biological family members who can answer questions can improve accuracy in family history, develop positive attitudes about biological relatives, and can increase confidence and a sense of permanency.

Children who come from embryo donor adoptions have similar questions regarding background and personal family history as children who were traditionally adopted such as “Who am I? Who do I look like? Why do I have this (talent, strength, weakness)?” Through openness, children gain access to birth parents, grandparents and siblings which removes the need to search and helps provide needed answers to compelling questions. Regular contact during childhood creates a base of familiarity and normalcy so that they may connect more easily with their donors throughout their lives. Openness in embryo adoption can provide a child with valuable connections to his or her past. No single open arrangement, however, is right for everyone. As with any relationship, there may be bumps and challenges along the way in the relationships between donor and recipients Moreover, these relationships are likely to evolve and change over time. Through careful consideration of options, a clear child-focused approach, and a strong commitment to making it work, all involved can decide on what level of openness is right.

A relationship between embryo donors and recipients is similar to that of any family, it is delicate and needs to be maintained in the long run. The building and maintaining of relationships looks different for every family. Throughout the embryo journey, both families will rely on each other for comfort and peace of mind. Both the donor and recipient families will want to be involved in each other’s lives in the best interest of the children in both families. Although constant contact is not required, it will still be beneficial to know major details of each other’s lives. In some cases, the child may not want a relationship with their donors or their family. But for those who do, parents can set an incredible example through establishing a healthy relationship with the donors and their family. All relationships change and evolve as the individuals involved reach different stages in their lives. Communication and contact may increase or decrease at different times due to life events, schedules, etc. Donors and recipients may have more time to spend with each other at certain times and less at others. It is important that donors and recipients let each other know when they need to change the frequency or form of contact. Unexplained changes in contact can have negative consequences, particularly for the children involved who may not understand the surrounding circumstances. Both the donor and recipient families may need to help their child/children understand the behaviors at those times when it is disappointing or hurtful.

Building and maintaining relationships with the donor requires commitment and effort. While it may seem awkward at first, over time it typically becomes more comfortable not unlike working out relationships with in-laws or stepfamilies following a divorce and remarriage. Setting clear boundaries of what is and what is not acceptable in terms of contact and communication and respect the limits requested by the other parties help build healthy relationships between the donor and recipients. Some will arrange openness informally and some will do so through formal agreements. When a challenge or disagreement occurs, mediation or other forms of support may be helpful. Maintaining flexible and open communication that reflects the family’s commitment to maintaining a strong connection is important for all.

Some suggested books on this topic:

Treasure Babies: How Tow Under-The-Sea Families Came To Be by Whitney Williams

Made With Love: The Sweetest Allegory For Embryo Donation And Adoption by Whitney Williams

From The Start: A Book About Love and Making Families by Stephanie Levich & Alana Weiss

Experiences of Donor Conception: Parents, Offspring, and Donors Through The Years by Jessica Kingsley Publishers

A Tiny Itsy Bitsy Gift of Life: An Egg Donor Story by Carmen Martinez Jover

Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families by Diane Ehrensaft

Experiences of Donor Conception: Parents, Offspring, and Donors Throughout The Years by Caroline Lorbach

Training Wheels: How Did I Get Here> National Embryo Donation Center, 2011

Before You Were Born… Our Wish For A Baby: The Story Of A Donor Embryo by Janice Grimes


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