My husband and I had tried for four years to get pregnant, including three rounds of in vitro fertilization and six intrauterine inseminations. I got pregnant four times, but for each, I miscarried in the first trimester. Tests showed I don’t have many eggs, and the ones that I do have are not genetically normal — the doctors called it “diminished ovarian reserve.”

But the doctors also said I would have no trouble carrying a child — if I had a healthy embryo. They suggested we use donor eggs paired with my husband’s sperm, but I was hesitant. I felt like he would be having a baby with someone else. Many families don’t see it that way at all, but I wasn’t comfortable.

Not giving up on our dream of a family, we turned to adoption. First, we attempted to adopt through the foster care system, but that didn’t work out. Then, we tried a domestic adoption. Three times a birth mother chose us. Three times the mother decided to raise the babies themselves after giving birth. I knew there had to be a different way, so we took the reigns ourselves.

We found a birth mother on our own and built a great relationship with her that we still have today. When our daughter Julah was born in March 2011, her birth mother graciously allowed me to be the first one to hold her in the hospital. I looked at newborn Julah and thought, “You’re a gorgeous little girl, but your birth mother has 48 hours to change her mind, which no one could fault her for.” We’d gone through so much, so I couldn’t give Julah my whole heart — not until I knew for sure she was going to be my child. Still, we were thrilled with the way we had done the adoption and grown our family.

Discovering “Snowflake Adoption”

Months went by and although I was happily raising a newborn, I often felt left out of a lot of conversations with other new moms because I didn’t have a birth story or experience pregnancy. Around that time, a friend mailed me a package with a short note and a CD about embryo adoption*.

The materials called it “snowflake adoption” — these embryos are frozen, unique, and made by God. There are about 600,000 embryos created for IVF right now in the U.S. People generally create more than the number of children they want, so once they finish having kids, the other embryos remain in storage. Many couples donate them to other families — or, open them up for “adoption.” I thought it was really intriguing, but my husband didn’t see why would it be necessary for me to be pregnant if it wasn’t our genetic child. But it stayed on my heart.

At the time, only a few programs offered embryo adoptions, and the fees were all pretty substantial. They ranged from $6,000 to $15,000 — and that doesn’t include the medical procedure. You can’t buy embryos, they have to be donated, but agencies charge for finding them and handling the paperwork. I called the lawyer from Julah’s adoption, and asked, “Is there a way for me to find embryos by myself?” He explained we just needed to find a family who had done in vitro, was finished having kids, and was willing to donate their embryos to us. So I began my search.

I started looking through blogs and chat forums, and connected with a family in Oklahoma that had created six embryos and had welcomed twins. They agreed to give us the other four.

My husband still wasn’t keen on the idea. So I printed a couple emails from the family, brought them to him, and said: “I’ve found this amazing family that wants to give us their embryos. And if at the end of these letters, you’re not interested, I will drop this. Because there is no better family in the whole world for us, and if you don’t like them, you’re not going to like anyone.” He said, “You’ve got a deal.”

After I read the letters outloud, I looked up, so scared to see his face. But he sat there with the biggest smile. He went from being totally against it to being 100% on-board. He just wanted me to make sure there weren’t any additional medical risks for me to carry an embryo that I wasn’t genetically related to.

After talking to my OBGYN, we learned there was no additional risk. If anything, embryo adoption provides benefits because I could control my diet and prenatal care versus relying on another birth mother. And because it was done privately, I didn’t have to pay an agency fee — just costs for the shipping, the medical procedure itself, and the legal contract, around $4,000. Everything went quickly because it’s considered a property transfer, not a legal adoption. Our lawyer came up with a contract, everyone signed it, and notarized copies were sent to her clinic and mine. The embryos were sent through a shipping company via FedEx. The whole process took about six weeks.

Finally Pregnant

Gearing up for an embryo transfer is different than other fertility treatments I’ve done — there’s a lot less involved medically, a lot less monitoring and it’s a lot less expensive than IVF. Instead of trying to get my body to produce eggs, doctors just rely on your body to do what it does every month with your basic cycle.

Right after Julah turned one in March, we did our transfer, thinking we’d probably have to do multiple tries. And it worked!

But for someone who had moved heaven and earth to get pregnant, I hated it. I was sick and threw up every day; I was extremely anemic and was trying to keep up with a toddler. It wasn’t at all like the donor mother’s pregnancy; she ran and exercised until 30 weeks pregnant with twins. I couldn’t even get out of bed at 12 weeks — just like my own mom, who got sick with each of her pregnancies.

Still, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Pregnancy was exactly what I wanted. I got to feel a baby kick, see my stomach grow, buy maternity clothes, decorate her nursery and hear her at the sonograms — all those benchmarks I had dreamed about for years. For the first time in my life, I felt sure that a baby was coming and that we’d get to keep it. I finally felt like I got to experience a little normalcy in the whole fertility journey.

At 38 weeks, on November 9, 2012, I got induced because of hypertension. That, and I think my doctor was afraid I might kill him. (I was a very angry pregnant woman.) And after what seemed like forever of pushing, I delivered my baby girl. They put her on my chest, and it was surreal. From the second Zoe was born, it was like, “You’re mine. I get to keep you!”

The Difficult Road Ahead

A year later, we were ready to grow our family again. We planned to transfer the remaining two embryos (a.k.a. have them placed in my uterus). On the day of the transfer, I got a call, fully expecting it to tell me to come in for the procedure. Instead, they said, “We’re so sorry. We don’t know how, but the vial that was holding your two embryos somehow got broken and they were both destroyed.”

Time stood still. You might as well have told me that two of my children were killed in a car accident. We were so excited to have another child — and to have the new experience of a full genetic sibling for Zoe, which now wasn’t possible. That was one of the worst days of my life, hands down. Embryos sometimes naturally don’t survive thaws because they’re fragile. But to have it happen from human error was devastating.

We didn’t give up on having more children, and since then, we have adopted embryos three more times. A week after that loss, a friend reached out about the last one from her friend’s batch of embryos. Those typically don’t have good odds, but we believe every embryo deserves a chance at life, so we transferred this one in January 2014. I didn’t get pregnant.

Because there aren’t many ways to find an embryo donor privately, some friends (who had embryos to donate from their IVF) and I started a website: the National Registry for Adoption. It’s like but for families who want embryos or have ones to donate and for adoptive families and birth mothers to help find each other without paying an agency fee.

Last August, my husband and I matched with a wonderful family who gave us five embryos. We even got to have dinner with them on a business trip. But after the embryos were shipped to our clinic, we learned that they had been frozen on the wrong day and stored in a nonstandard container. Transferring two didn’t result in a pregnancy, and the other three didn’t survive the thaw.

It was a disheartening time. Our first embryo adoption was so easy. We eventually matched again — this donor mother and I really connected. And we just adopted 11 embryos from her. With Julah’s birth mother, we have an open adoption and see her once a year. We also have a relationship with Zoe’s genetic family. So we are giving this donor mother the freedom to have whatever contact level she wants. We’re set to do another transfer this summer. Hopefully this is it, and I will be due sometime this winter.

More than half of the frozen embryos in the U.S. are still earmarked for the people that created them to grow their own families. But for an estimated 40%, their families are complete and these embryos are indefinitely frozen in time. For some people, the decision of what to do with them weighs heavily until they find the right family to donate them to. Other embryos have already been donated anonymously and are in essence sitting in frozen orphanages, waiting for someone to come get them.

Now that I know this is an option, I’m doing everything I can to share it with other couples who struggle with infertility — and try to give them a renewed hope in their journey towards growing their family.

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