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Biography of an Embryo



Artwork by Fontaine Capel



By Karin Jones April 30, 2024

(This piece appeared originally in The Delacorte Review)



People often comment when they meet my son, He has your eyes. His eyes are blue, like a clear sky at dusk, outlined with the dark vignette of encroaching night. It’s this eye color that hides the truth of our connection. It’s a fluke, really, the unlikely outcome of genetic probability. I think of our shared eye color as my small reward for bringing him to term inside my body, laboring thirty hours to get him out, and ultimately delivering him through an incision that is my rightful battle wound of motherhood. But my son does not share my DNA. 

***

Fifteen years ago I told my husband, after reluctance and indecision on both our parts, I wanted to have a baby. Until then, we’d spent years poking along the smaller roads of the world with our possessions on our backs or in a vehicle. We worked as contractors in our respective fields and took long breaks from our jobs to satiate a wanderlust. But travel, for me, had become tedious.  


By the time we were well into our thirties, people in the places we loved the most, those towns or villages where they seemed connected to each other and the land, often looked at us with pity when we told them we didn’t have children. Women appeared visibly pained, as though aching for my unused uterus. At times, conversations that began with animated gestures and smiles went suddenly quiet when they discovered we were childless. It hardly mattered to them that we had advanced degrees, could survive in the wilderness, or could bake bread on a camp stove. No amount of travel or professional success was giving me a sense of belonging in a world of families. I wanted us to join the tribe of parents.


We need to raise a child, I said to my husband more than once. It’s the ultimate adventure. 

It was a night in a tent where, by my calculations my husband and I spent nearly a quarter of our lives together, I insisted we have a baby, all prior uncertainties gone and replaced by the confidence that a third travel companion would add a more grounded objective to our wanderings, an opportunity to experience a parent-to-parent connection wherever we went. We won’t regret this, I assured him, hoping I was right. I was forty and he was forty-three. We were old and naive. 

***

At the outset of our pregnancy attempts, we felt undaunted, having spent the better part of our lives believing it was perilously easy to get pregnant. I had my IUD taken out – a procedure I can best describe as having your tonsils removed through your belly button. Our lovemaking was fun and funny, followed by pelvic tilts and shoulder stands, moments of hilarity between us that unwound the clock on a long marriage. But month after month with no pregnancy to show for it, sex became less fun. We went to work. I cried. I bargained with the uncertain powers running the universe that blessing us with a child would be a good thing for humanity, that our kid might offer a significant contribution to the problems of climate change. Or he might simply be a good person and well loved.


Though we were data-driven people, I avoided looking too closely at the rates of conception in women over forty. We hadn’t yet experienced any significant consequences of aging. We both had thick bones and beefy thighs and took on physical challenges as though we could improve our personal bests forever. We skied up hills, not just down. We massaged our kale with olive oil and garlic. I wanted to believe my eggs were every bit as capable as the rest of my body regardless of how many years they had been deteriorating inside my ovaries. That’s one downside of taking care of yourself; you become reproductively deluded. 


I went through a phase of baffled disbelief that I couldn’t get pregnant after trying so hard. My life thus far had felt like a succession of doors I’d chosen to open after completing the tasks required for admission and held steadfast to a belief that I could achieve what I wanted with enough persistence. The irony of age-related infertility is that effort over time results in diminishing returns, not better odds. Getting pregnant doesn’t conform to any of the outcomes we’ve come to associate with hard work. We are not rewarded with a child through our diligence. For some women, getting pregnant is like falling off a log. But for others, the inability to do so is an indignity that belies all enterprise.


And I really wanted the physical experience of pregnancy. There was nothing more fascinating to me than growing another human inside my own body, an experience even my insatiably curious husband could never have. But the statistics were against my getting there. An average 30-year-old woman has a 20% chance of becoming pregnant each month. A 40-year-old only a 5% chance. “Getting pregnant after the age of 40 is possible without fertility treatment, but it’s more likely you will have a harder time,” gently state the websites of assisted reproduction clinics. Yet I was of the generation of women who were told we were more likely to be killed in a terrorist attack than marry after forty. That statistic was debunked and retracted. I wanted the same to be true of fertility.


Thirteen months after dispensing with birth control, while unpacking the weekend camping gear, I said to my husband, “It doesn’t make sense for us to use my eggs. I’m too old. We need to get an egg donor.” He looked at me without speaking, as though I’d just told him I was tired of being married.

“Are you sure?” he said.

“Yes. The chances of us having a healthy child with my eggs are dismal. We’ve been trying for over a year. It’s not gonna happen,” I said, holding back that emotion unique to the infertile; sorrow and rage wrapped up with a bow of shame.


At forty-one, I had simply waited too long. Ninety percent of my eggs were considered chromosomally abnormal, my DNA like a beat-up zipper with a bunch of missing teeth. New sperm cells are created every hour of the day. But the ticking clock of an egg cell’s life span begins the moment a girl is born. Any significant glitch in the thousands of cell divisions required after an egg and sperm unite would shut down the whole process. Some embryos make it a few months to the fetal stage. But the successful initiation of life doesn’t guarantee its delivery. What sat like a boulder in my gut was that the miscarriage rate for women over 40 is 50-90%. 


Emptying the cooler over the pink Saltillo tile of our kitchen floor, noticing the dark freckles of age on the backs of my hands, it was as though a switch inside me flipped. The decision to try getting pregnant with the assistance of science was more logical and more urgent than tracking my ovulation and having imperative sex. It no longer mattered to me if our child was a combination of my mouth and his nose, or his smarts and my personality. I was so very weary of spending hours on the internet looking for new ways to boost my hopeless fertility. I tried meditation, ate progesterone-boosting yams and swallowed pellets of deer placenta after acupuncture treatments. We had an alternative; modern medicine. Another woman’s eggs. Using younger eggs increased our odds of having a baby to nearly 50%. Hopelessness exited the room and guarded excitement took its place. We didn’t need to crawl across the desert on our hands and knees. We had an air-conditioned car just waiting for us. 

“We still use my sperm, right?” he asked.

“Of course.” I said. “I want any kid of ours to have your logistical skills.”

***

Scrolling through the photographs and personal statements of women on an egg donor website felt like online dating if you were looking to date yourself. We wanted to be attracted to her in a familiar way, as though she and I could have been sisters. We scrutinized the look in her eyes (genuinely kind?), her body type (fit but not skinny?), and her coloring (pale and brunette like my younger self?). Choosing an egg donor became an oddly familiar exercise in consumer culture. Do I want a sports car, sedan, or SUV? All wheel drive or hybrid? Tinted windows and leather seats? All these women to choose from suggested we might create a similar but better version of ourselves. Our child could look something like me even though I wouldn’t be the genetic parent. And because we would be spending many thousands of dollars on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), the sentiment that “I just want a healthy baby” became qualified with, “Though they should look like me and wouldn’t it be great if they had long legs and beautiful teeth as well?” I wanted to erase the evidence that I wasn’t the biological mother. To a point. And then, indeed, I wanted something better than myself. 


We didn’t scrutinize an egg donor’s health history too closely. The ones who make it through the vetting process have all claimed pristine health. I knew this, having been turned down as an egg donor when I was in my 20’s because my parents and grandparents possessed every major medical condition for which our society pays dearly: cancer, diabetes, depression, heart disease, hypertension, thyroid disease. Even spinal disc herniations. We were a family of physical train wrecks. No upstanding egg donor agency accepts a woman who has relatives with significant health problems, though with the payout for egg donation being, on average, six to seven thousand dollars, you have to wonder if there is too great an incentive to lie. Ultimately, assisted reproduction with a donor requires trust. Or at least the willingness to accept risk. My husband and I had both. Plus, good health insurance.

***

I liked Alex’s look. Her photographs suggested she modeled professionally. Some images were pouty and sultry, a few exuberant and cocky. I was amused and compelled by a woman willing to post her Come f*#k me face on an egg donor website. She was fairer and more angular than I was, with large hazel eyes like my husband’s, though she and I shared a certain thickness in our eyebrows. One of her photos was the spitting image of my younger mother and I kept returning to it. Here was my mother, had she been brash and confident. I wanted that for my child.


Alex’s personal statement was as affecting as her looks. I was the kid who directed the show. I learned how to program a VCR before my parents. I love to dance and I model. I have really good genes and I’m not sure I want to have kids so it would be a waste of my eggs if someone else can’t use them. I want to travel to Japan with the money from egg donation.

Her cheeky honesty, far from putting us off, only strengthened our sense that Alex’s eggs would best represent the two of us. None of the other potential donors had written about what they would do with the money from egg donation. But why would anyone endure the process of donating her own eggs to a stranger were it not for the compensation? Alex’s esteem for the quality of her eggs, and her choice to become a donor was certainly an act of generosity, but only to a point. We understood our relationship would be a transaction, pure and simple, and I wanted a woman who called it like it was. I wanted a no bullshit child.


Normally, all a recipient couple will see of their egg donor are photographs. After a donor is chosen, she confirms her availability, everyone signs paperwork releasing each other from future indemnity, the agency is paid, and all proceed on parallel tracks with a clinic specializing in assisted reproduction. All communication would be handled by the agency or the clinic. Most egg donor agencies, like those that deal in sperm, stress the anonymity of donation. “Egg donors will remain anonymous as much as possible.” Though in some rare instances “both parties will agree to reveal their personal information or even have an in-person meeting,” state a few donor sites. 


After requesting that Alex be our egg donor, the larger questions of what it means to reproduce weighed on us. If we weren’t having a baby the “normal” way, were there issues we were missing? If half our child’s genetic material was coming from a stranger, would there be a void within ourselves and that child around an understanding of their family history? How much should heritage matter? In our minds, we were about to embark upon a procedure that would essentially make us all related. My husband’s sperm cell would combine with the donor’s egg cell. Their combined cells would be in my body. My cells would nourish and grow the embryo she helped to create. The more we thought about it, the more absurd it seemed. Not that we would go forward. Absurd that an egg donor, the biological mother of our child, would never be known to us. So, we asked to meet her.

***

We have an engineer friend who spent a winter in the 1980’s running ski lifts in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He worked six days a week in exchange for a season pass. At least once a week he ejaculated into a sterile cup at the local sperm donor clinic and was paid enough to cover his food and beer. He never had his own kids but guesses he probably has at least a few children walking the earth. “I bet they’re all good skiers,” he quipped. It was the first time I imagined the possibility a person could sire several humans that might someday meet a half sibling and experience a nagging DeJa’Vu. 


When I was younger, I wanted to donate my reproductive cells without caring whether they would result in one or more functioning members of society, or if I would ever see their faces. This didn’t bother me at the time. Like our ski friend, I was motivated by money and not sure I wanted my own kids. Men can donate their sperm starting at age 18 and women their eggs around 20. This is five to seven years before, what we understand now, is the age at which our brains are fully developed. 


The U.S. is still rather Wild West when it comes to egg and sperm donation. Currently, there are no laws governing who can donate nor how often. The U.S. regulates and tracks bovine inseminations and outcomes, but not human ones. There are a few guidelines set out by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine – they advise a sperm donor should be limited to 25 live births per population of 850,000 – but this is simply a recommendation and is not enforced. No centralized database exists for tracking sperm and egg donations, and it is estimated that only forty percent of live births involving sperm or egg donation are even reported as such. In contrast, most European countries do not monetarily compensate sperm donors, and anonymous egg donation is banned in many of those countries, the reason given that all children have the right to know who their biological parents are. Others argue the removal of anonymity puts too much emphasis on the importance of DNA when parents should be viewed as the people who raise a child, not those who donated their genetic material. 


The idea that our egg donor would remain anonymous became unsettling. I can understand the potential emotional fallout of meeting the donor who helps a woman get pregnant and why she wouldn’t want us to know her. If we didn’t like our donor might that affect the relationship we had with our child? Assisted reproduction, for a heterosexual couple, is usually the path of last resort and infertility so emotionally debilitating that I struggled with the conversation over whether we would seek the removal of anonymity from this already difficult process. We wanted to get the conception part completed, to emerge victorious with a securely implanted embryo inside me and leave behind the humiliation of being unable to get pregnant in the first place. I wanted no reminder that there was a third person, and a laboratory, involved in our becoming parents. But the part of us that prevailed was the one that wanted to be able to tell our child at least something about the woman who made his or her life possible. Other than she could, way back in the 20th Century, program a VCR machine.

***

The agency was hesitant to consider our request to meet Alex. No one, up to that point, had ever asked. After giving it some thought, they said meeting her could not be an interview and we would need to pay their fees first. I wasn’t expecting anything more than a brief interaction, maybe a cup of coffee and a better sense of her personality so I could prepare myself for its appearance in my own child. Was I hoping for accountability and cooperation at a higher level than if she had never met us? Or maybe I wanted to humanize the transactional nature of this process and removing the curtain of anonymity seemed like the most effective way. It was possibly a misguided maternal assumption, thinking our donor might be better off down the road knowing a little about the couple who were raising the child that was hers on a cellular level. The bigger benefit might be that we would all like each other. That we might even continue to know each other. It would be a team effort even if it ended poorly. We offered to buy lunch for the agency representative and Alex. They said yes.

***

When I first laid eyes on Alex sitting at our clinic’s conference room table, I knew in my gut we had made a good choice. Despite her moody photos portraying a youthful angst, Alex was a radiant young woman, bright in every way. Smooth ivory skin, platinum dyed hair cut into a pixie, and hazel green eyes framed by dark eyebrows and a smile that shimmered. Her handshake was firm and her voice kind. She seemed to possess the fearlessness that had come through in her photos and a confidence without bravado. Where we wore the battle fatigue of infertility, Alex embodied luminous fertility. 


We fell into easy conversation. She felt familiar, as though we were distant relatives who hadn’t seen each other in a decade. The three of us were so relaxed with each other, the donor agency representative sat quietly at the head of the table, offering nothing more than an appreciation of the Butter Chicken. When we told Alex we were traveling to Burning Man in a few months her eyes got wide. I guessed we weren’t anything like her parents, even though they weren’t much older than we were. Her parents lived on the east side of Seattle, home to Microsoft, McMansions and most of the area’s libertarians. “But my mom had me over here at the university hospital,” Alex said. “They’re old hippies. She didn’t want me to be born in the suburbs.” As it turned out, Alex lived in the same part of the city we did, a bit further south, dominated by loft apartments above shops selling vintage clothes and fetish gear. If I got pregnant, I would deliver at the hospital where Alex was born. 


Alex advised us to always hide the Christmas presents because she had been a sneak, and if our child was born in July we’d have to brace ourselves for all the exuberance and vanity of a Leo. Then she asked if we could wait until after her 22nd birthday to start the process. I felt a twinge of ownership over her body now that we’d paid our fee. But she was our best chance at a baby, and though I felt clawingly impatient I wanted her to feel ready to put her body through the difficulties of egg retrieval, a much bigger ordeal than mine would be. “Of course,” I said. “Let’s all have some fun before we get serious about making babies.”


We never told our families or friends we were trying to conceive, let alone had turned to a lab and a donor egg agency. We didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for us as the months ticked by without good news. Failing to get pregnant is hard enough to share. Admitting you’ve created your embryos using someone else’s DNA seemed to me, at least initially, almost unspeakable. Would there be judgements or parental disappointments we’d have to absorb into our own? Couldn’t we keep this a secret, just one of the many small intimacies between a couple that is theirs alone? We were finally feeling a sense of control over our pursuit of parenthood and didn’t want to explain to anyone that we had become pregnant through anything less enjoyable than a moment of conjugal bliss.


But before we could go forward with the process, before we would attend our respective parties, we all had to be tested and evaluated; for gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, hepatitis, endocrine disorders, and genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Alex had to go through an in-depth psychological assessment, her passing of which was some small assurance that we wouldn’t sire a serial killer, or she wouldn’t regret her decision. In real life you roll the dice with your chosen mate hoping the crazy uncle gene doesn’t show up in your own baby. But with assisted reproduction, the tests and assessments, the data and due diligence, suggest everything about this process will be controlled and flawless. You would be wrong.

***

A donor/recipient protocol requires that two women artificially suppress their monthly menstrual cycles in tandem. After her July birthday, we would await Alex’s August period (and my own) then both pinch the flesh of our bellies at home and inject ourselves with a drug called Lupron, suppressing the pituitary hormones responsible for stimulating the ovaries to prepare an egg for ovulation. We were both, essentially, put into a state of temporary menopause. Then Alex would switch her injectable to a gonadotropin, a drug that would stimulate her body to mature multiple eggs in both ovaries instead of the typical one or two, while my system remained in suspended animation.  


My own impatience to get things rolling meant I was suppressing my cycle while still in the Black Rock Desert at Burning Man. The cessation of my ovarian function meant a huge drop in my libido. I was roaming the most sexually charged festival in America wanting only to sit in a camp chair knitting a baby blanket. While half naked bodies gyrated around me, I daydreamed of decorating my future baby belly with paint and glitter. I sequestered the Lupron vial and syringes in plastic baggies to protect them from the alkaline dust and biked my bloated body past desert art, gazing enviously at young couples who looked as though they could conceive through nothing more than locking lips. I dreamt of a future child dancing with glow sticks. The day a man approached me in the wee hours of the morning wearing a button on his lapel that read, Have you had your orgasm today? and attempted to engage me in a conversation about the health benefits of a daily climax I nearly screamed, Dude, my orgasm is irrelevant. All I want is a baby!


When we returned from the desert, Alex was well into her ovarian stimulation and I began a medication that would thicken my endometrium, the blood-rich uterine lining that acts as the receiving ground for an embryo. As Alex matured eggs, I popped estrogen pills at a dosage high enough to trigger concern from an uninitiated pharmacist, who called me at home after the prescription was dispensed to ask whether I understood the risks. But this was the protocol. High doses of any hormone can have negative consequences, though I didn’t spend any time investigating those risks. I did what I was instructed, and risk was relative. I would have sooner ingested bleach than question the steps I was told to take to get pregnant.


When Alex’s eggs were considered mature, they were suctioned with delicate precision from both ovaries using a slender needle passed through the vaginal canal. On the day I knew she would be undergoing the procedure, I visualized her eggs as robust cells being transferred to a pillow-soft petri dish, quickly followed by the injection of a single sperm, from my husband’s morning contribution, into the center of each egg. Sitting on a yoga bolster at home, twelve miles between me and Alex’s eggs, I went into a meditative state, envisioning the quivering sequence; the cleavage that marks the beginning of cell division, the split into two separate cells, then four, then eight, all hearty and apple-cheeked and on their way to becoming an adorable blastocyte, an embryo in its earliest stage. These were the imaginings of a reluctant agnostic, desperate to gain some divine intervention.


What I didn’t envision was that while these embryos were developing in the lab over several days, Alex was lying at home with a distended abdomen, shortness of breath and an encroaching anxiety that something was very wrong. She had been told complications were possible, but in the same way everyone knows it’s possible but unlikely you will get into an accident on any given car ride. It hardly ever happens, right? But sometimes it does.

***

From the point of view of a couple who wants to have children and can’t, the women who donate their eggs will never get anything less than our unwavering gratitude, no matter how much their compensation. I couldn’t thank Alex personally after her donation because, despite our having broken the barrier of anonymity, we hadn’t exchanged contact information. It felt like closure to have met, looked each other in the eyes and felt good about what we saw. We parted thinking we would never meet again. I was no longer her concern, nor she mine.


But what is the role of the friends and families of the women who donate? What are they thinking when their loved one calls in tears to say she is in terrible pain after putting herself through hormonal hell to give a stranger her reproductive future? What does a mother do, faced with an only child who says she may never want to have her own children, when that child asks to be driven to the hospital because she is in a fetal position and can’t get off the floor? At first, they say, We don’t understand. Haven’t you put yourself in this position? Didn’t you know this could happen? She may suffer in solitude because what she has done seems selfish to them. Her friends may look at her in agony and offer ibuprofen and a glass of water, but little else. She’s done something questionable, in their minds, for money. She’s potentially stolen the dreams of her parents. We don’t get it, they say. Shouldn’t it be ok for you to feel a little bad? Might the only people truly equipped to offer help and understanding – when she feels as though she’s dying after her ovaries have been shrunken but somehow her abdomen has ballooned – be the people for whom she’s sacrificed her health?


The day I went to the clinic for an ultrasound to assess the thickness of my uterine lining in anticipation of the embryo transfer, I asked our doctor how Alex was doing after the egg retrieval. A look passed over his normally gentle face that was uncharacteristically cold and annoyed. She had been “naively unprepared” for the side effects of retrieval he told me.

“Did she get OHSS?” I asked, knowing from another friend’s experience during her own egg retrieval procedure that the phenomena, though rare, makes a woman circle the drain of bitterness over having to endure such misery in pursuit of becoming a mother. My friend described it as feeling like suffocation and evisceration at the same time.  And my doctor was disparaging my donor’s experience. I wanted to grab him by his starched white collar and growl, How dare you call her naïve!


“Yes, but she’ll recover,” he said curtly, pulling the ultrasound probe from my vagina and announcing my endometrium “Excellent!” I left the clinic and immediately called the donor agency. 


“Send Alex flowers. Today, please,” 


With her eggs soon to be in my body, and her suffering dismissed, who was this woman’s family, anyway?

***

Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS) can occur with varying severity as a result of drug-induced ovarian stimulation and egg retrieval. Because a mature egg follicle releases estrogen during ovulation, when the ovaries are forced to mature multiple eggs at the same time rather than the one or two of a normal cycle, a flood of estrogen from each harvested follicle enters the body. Alex had produced over thirty mature follicles in response to the medication she was given, the ideal number being no more than fifteen. Even though the gonadotropin is adjusted for each patient in an effort to prevent this kind of overstimulation, sometimes the outcome is out of their control. Too much circulating estrogen can lead to blood clot formation and a hyperpermeability between the spaces in the body, and fluid collects in places it wouldn’t normally be contained. It’s like drinking a glass of water and having it show up in your lungs. 


Ten to fifteen percent of women going through ovarian stimulation will experience mild to moderate symptoms of OHSS such as bloating and nausea. Only one to three percent will experience a severe case. As Alex told me later, her case was so frightening, so extreme she wasn’t sure she would make it through the night. Her abdomen swelled as though she were the one at the end of a pregnancy. She could hardly breathe and, after finally getting herself to the hospital in a taxi, the emergency room provider drained nearly three liters of fluid from her abdomen. The nurse by her side told Alex this kind of reaction was so rare she might want to go out and buy a lottery ticket for a chance at the same odds.  


I didn’t tell my husband immediately about the complications, that Alex could have ruptured an ovary, experienced kidney failure or a life-threatening blood clot because too much estrogen makes the blood viscous. I didn’t want both of us to experience the guilt and the worry over initiating this process. I was the one who should have been suffering for my fierce pursuit of motherhood.


I wished briefly we had never met Alex. I rationalized the intended anonymity of the egg donor meant her condition, her experience, was never supposed to be my concern. But we had met. And I was like a small animal later that night, a scared and timid thing faced with the possibility that my drive to have a baby had endangered another woman, despite her having accepted the risks. What if she had died? It’s rare but it happens, though rates of OHSS continue to fall as reproductive technology improves. How would I feel about the child that would result from this imperfect contract if Alex had suffered permanent disability?

When my pregnancy test came back positive, I asked the donor agency if I could have Alex’s email address. We’ve told her you’re pregnant, she replied, as though her company had something to lose if we were to remain in touch.


‘I know. Just ask her.’

And so, our acquaintance with Alex continued. 

“Are you ok?” I wrote.

“OMG!” she replied. “You wouldn’t believe what happened.” She poured it out to me and I took it all in, more sorry and more grateful that I could put into words. 

***

A few months before our son was born, shortly after I turned 43, Alex sent us a few of her baby photos courtesy of her mother. And when our son was lifted out of my body, he was every bit her baby double. He had her nose and her large almond-shaped eyes. Yet our son’s eyes were the color of wild blueberries, dark and sweet. We were told his eyes would likely change to the hazel color of his genetic parents in six months to a year. But they did not. Brown or green-eyed parents can have a blue-eyed child if both parents carry the recessive blue eye gene from one of their own parents. My husband has a blue-eyed mother and Alex a blue-eyed father. Though I had made no genetic contribution to my son’s eye color I reasoned, under a good-humored delusion, that our nine months of intertwined existence had activated this recessive gene. He would be spared my sausage fingers, my stocky legs, my predisposition to back pain. But he would have my eyes.

***

I no longer shy away from telling people my son was born from egg donation. Being transparent about the third person in our conception story feels less shameful and more like an interesting detour that still got us to our destination. It’s well known that fetal cells circulate through a mother’s vascular system starting around six weeks of gestation and can persist for decades. My son, his father and Alex are still within me at tiny levels. Maternal DNA is also found in her children meaning that even without having used my own eggs, there is a small bit of me inside my son. Recent research even reports vestiges of our grandmother and great grandmothers within us. We mothers are all, at the cellular level, human chimeras, fantastic creatures possessing the parts of many animals through the process of pregnancy. My body has been the repository, and likely still is, of our collective efforts. Had we never met or maintained contact with Alex our story would be fragmented by the missing piece, the unknown donor, and I never could have told her that her suffering had resulted in both great joy and a true sense of now belonging in the world.


There are more of us every year; women who have delayed childbirth because of our ambitions or circumstances and women who have helped them in pursuit of their own. In 2021 there were over 20,000 IVF transfers using donor eggs, up nineteen percent from 2020. Of these nearly 10,000 resulted in a live birth, meaning 1 in 373 births in the US in 2021 were from donor eggs. Yet this may be an underrepresentation. The Society for Reproductive Technology has tracked data given voluntarily from 449 U.S. clinics, but not all assisted reproductive clinics participate. In 2022 the National Reproductive Surveillance System, or NASS 3.0, was launched, bringing the number of reporting clinics up to 500.


Alex and her parents arrived on our doorstep when our son turned one. Her mother and I walked in the park and spoke together as mothers, my son strapped to my chest, while Alex chatted with my husband and her father. Before Alex left for Japan, we met again when our son was three. He wasn’t interested in her. But then, she wasn’t interested in him. We all got what we wanted and nobody died. She gave us the collected works of Calvin and Hobbes saying it was a favorite when she was younger. Our son has now read it many times over.

Alex still lives in Japan, making visual and performance art, connecting with her own tribes without children of her own. Initially, we simply wrote to each other every year and she watched my child, her child, through the photos I occasionally post on social media. Now that my son is a teen, we’ve visited Alex and her parents several times at his insistence. Our son is particularly interested in the ways he takes after Alex’s father; tall and thin, a lover of Scientific American and outer space. They share a calming disposition, something neither his biological father nor I possess, being insatiably, sometimes aggressively, opinionated people.  


Alex has thousands of followers on Instagram. Sometimes I show our thirteen-year-old son glimpses into her life. “Look, your egg donor mama has a beautiful home in Japan.” He looks and says nothing, as though he’s the one worried Alex might pose a risk to our relationship. But I bring her up every once in a while, wanting to remind him I will never be reluctant to acknowledge this other woman who made his life possible. 


He still hugs me every night even though he has inched past me in height. Sometimes he chides my demands for attention to his chores by saying, You’re not really my mom. But we both smile at this. The words he’s used with greater weight are, You’ll always be my mom. And I look into his blazing blue eyes and see the truth of that.


Karin Jones wrote the ‘Savvy Love’ column for the UK’s Erotic Review magazine from 2016-2023. She is the recipient of the 2021 International Amy MacRae Award for memoir and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Times of London, Huff Post and Cascadia Magazine, among others. She has practiced medicine for over eighteen years as a Physician Assistant. She also works from her dining room table on memoirs about menopause, motherhood and midlife dating in Bellingham, Washington.


Copyright © 2024 The Delacorte Review


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