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Reimagining Family: Our Donor Conception Story

June 8th, 2022 | 13 min. read

By Sierra Dehmler

When most people decide they're ready to become a parent, they typically envision bringing a biologically-related child into the world - a little "mini me" to carry on certain physical and personality traits. But what happens when that vision is turned upside down by fertility challenges and you consider using an egg donor to grow your family?

In this story, one Illume Fertility patient shares her and her partner's donor conception experience with honesty, exploring the raw emotions that surfaced when they were forced to reimagine their dreams for the future.

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Let's Start at the Beginning...

I met my partner on the later side of things and got married after all our friends had already grown their own families. We'd both had long term relationships before, but never felt like we were with the right person - until we met each other.

From the moment we met, we knew that becoming parents was a dream we wanted to pursue together, and felt excited that it was now something we could actually make happen. 

We started trying to conceive our first baby when I was 33 years old (my husband was 39 at the time). We had been married for less than a year at that point, and I remember us feeling stressed that we might actually get pregnant quickly. We hadn't been married for very long and we struggled with wanting to enjoy our first few years of marriage together while knowing that there wasn’t much time to waste, given our ages.

When we first started trying to conceive, we were fairly naive and casual about it - not timing or tracking things carefully, but simply not preventing pregnancy to see what would happen. And then nothing happened. For a while.

Recognizing Signs of Infertility

During a regular visit to my OB/GYN, I remember mentioning that we had been trying for a baby for over a year (at that point). I was 34 years old, but my OB told me not to worry, saying "eventually, it will happen." Knowing what I know now, I wish I'd been more insistent about asking for a fertility specialist referral. Unfortunately, that referral only came 6-7 months later.

My OB's initial referral was to Illume Fertility, but I stubbornly went with another practice (after a family member sold me on it), which ended up not working out for us. I finally knocked on Illume Fertility’s door on January 3, 2018, with two failed IUIs, two miscarriages, remaining scar tissue and an unknown future under my belt, pun intended.

I met with Dr. Josh Hurwitz, who came highly recommended. From the get-go, Dr. Hurwitz was very realistic but incredibly compassionate. I was about to turn 35, and after our prior experience, he told us that there was no time to waste.

He took my age into account, but also considered my fertility testing results (which I knew so little about at the time). He helped educate us so that we could get up to speed with my fertility challenges and make the best decisions for our future.

Learn more about fertility testing:

Why Fertility Testing is Essential

Our Fertility Treatment Roller Coaster

Even with Dr. Hurwitz' expert guidance, the following two years were filled with an overwhelming number of interventions, hopes, disappointments, and doubts - all while my husband and I held our breath and hoped for the best.

After going through two hysteroscopies, a third failed IUI cycle, four rounds of fertility medications resulting in three rounds of IVF, one ectopic pregnancy, and two rounds of chemotherapy (to resolve the ectopic pregnancy), we ended that second year completely exhausted, feeling nothing but desolation and complete despair.

None of our efforts up to this point gave us any hope that we would, one day, become parents.

As our insurance plan benefits and savings started running out, we saw the end of the year approaching and couldn’t comprehend why we were having such a difficult journey.

Related: Why You Should Have Hope After Failed IVF

With a diagnosis of unexplained infertility and diminished ovarian reserve, there were so many questions, yet so few answers. Why us? Why me? What did I do wrong? I kept thinking: “I may have indulged too much in my twenties, maybe I'm paying now for it in my thirties…"

Dr. Hurwitz was very quick to let me know that in no way did I do this to myself.

There was simply no explanation for my diagnosis. 

What I Wish I'd Known Sooner

I wish I had been more aware early on of the importance of reproductive health education, how to interpret and navigate test results, and better understand the urgency and importance of having a plan.

For instance, I believe that Anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels should be checked as part of a woman's routine exam at the OB/GYN office. Had I been made aware of my fertility situation earlier, I would have been able to make a better plan for my future and avoid the layers of physical and mental trauma that will take years to heal.

Exploring Donor Conception

At the end of 2019, we received a call from Dr. Hurwitz who broke the news to us that none of our five embryos from our third full round of IVF had made it to Day 7. So there we were again. Not only were our hearts shattered, but we felt broken from every angle. We agreed that we needed to sit down and talk “next steps” together - if there were any.

Related: Why Don’t All Eggs Create Embryos?

We met with Dr. Hurwitz the following week, right before the holiday break. He was very compassionate and understood how difficult our situation truly was.

Together, we reviewed everything we had gone through during the last 24 months. Of course, I knew the direction it was taking. I was about to turn 37 in a few months, my ovarian reserve wasn’t looking good, and I was out of options. Or so I thought.

Consider another pathway to parenthood:

Your Donor Conception Options

Dr. Hurwitz asked us to open our minds and take the holiday break to consider the possibility of donor conception. At first, I was in complete shock and utter denial that we were having this discussion - even though I'd seen my test results and knew our many attempts with my own eggs hadn't been successful.

Each attempt was feeling more torturous, and I knew I needed to find a different way to move forward. I had to open my mind and my heart to a different way of building our family. So we decided to pursue donor conception.

What is donor conception? In short, donor conception refers to any journey to parenthood that involves a donor - whether it be an egg, sperm or embryo donor.

Step 1: Switch Care Teams

First, I had to switch from my "regular" care team to a "third party" care team, which was a tough transition! “Graduating” from the care of my regular team to the Third Party Reproduction Team was somewhat of a shock for me. I had been working with the same team for two years. They'd been through all the ups and downs with me and I had become quite close with all of them.

Now, I was being asked to build trust and work with a brand new team, and I felt quite reluctant at the thought of having to start over. But once introductions were made, I started feeling better. The Third Party Team couldn't have been more warm or reassuring. They gave me time to process each step, from being introduced to the egg donor "pool" to actually choosing our donor.

I only have great things to say about this highly knowledgeable and compassionate team. 

What is a donor pool? At Illume Fertility, we have a group of in-house egg donors (referred to as our "egg donor pool") who have been meticulously screened (both medically and psychologically). Patients pursuing donor conception have access to this pool of candidates, and can match with a vetted donor this way.

Step 2: Choose an Egg Donor

The process of choosing a donor is not an easy one, as you can probably imagine. 

It involves a lot of thought and processing, even more than I initially anticipated. Emotions were running high during that time - anything and everything could trigger a burst of tears. Whether I saw a photo of my younger self on the mantel at my parent’s lake house or saw a mom and a daughter crossing the street, looking very much alike and holding hands, it was difficult, to say the least. 

The transition to using an egg donor felt like it happened relatively quickly. I had to work hard to be able to adapt and accept my newfound reality. Let’s be real, I didn’t think much of our egg donor’s photo when I first saw her in the donor pool. I was so numb from the emotional intensity of the past few months and years.

I think I may have also hoped to see myself in the donor pool and I didn’t, of course. There was a feeling of disappointment that my carbon copy wasn’t in there - but what was I expecting, right?! I had to reprogram my brain and go back to all the preparation my Illume Fertility counselor Melissa Kelleher and I had done together (yes, we did a lot of therapy prior to this).

I was ready, but now I actually had to do it.

Find coping strategies for your own journey:

11 Ways to Manage Fertility Stress

I took my time, studying every candidate that fit our list carefully. Yes, there was a list. It would be dishonest to tell you there wasn’t one.

A friend of mine who had recently gone through the donor conception process herself gave me some very useful advice while trying to decide which donor to go with. She said she needed to feel like the donor was a good person she would want to hang out with. I thought that this could be a great starting point, and it did help.

We matched with our egg donor on March 9, 2020.

Step 3: Begin Donor IVF Cycle

I showed up at Illume Fertility on March 11, 2020 to pay for our cycle in full, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit two days later, on my 37th birthday. This stopped us in our tracks - for months - and was incredibly difficult.

Imagine finally finding the strength to do something you never thought you'd have to do, then having that momentum suddenly halted with no idea when you'd be able to move forward.

Related: Infertility is An Emotional Roller Coaster & Other Truths

We waited a couple of months before we were able to restart fertility treatment, and our IVF cycle officially started in the middle of May 2020. This is where I found my silver lining. After years of trying to conceive and facing devastating hurdles, we had our embryo transfer in June 2020, and things started getting better.

We finally welcomed our son the following winter. He is the very best thing that’s ever happened to us.

The Emotional Challenges of Donor Conception

Although the first waves of emotion were dominated by defeat and helplessness, I had to learn to open my heart and soul and find a way to embrace this journey in a whole new way.

One thing I never doubted was the future connection I would be building with my child. In a way, I focused on that to get me through the hard parts. My biggest hang-up was always the absence of a genetic link between me and my child. I felt like it was such a waste. I felt like I was "ending."

It’s hard to explain, but I felt like I was facing my own death, the end of my genetic line. I recognized it was a very selfish emotion, but a valid one, triggered from a raw and torturous situation to process.

What I decided to do next was to focus on the love I'd have for this yet unknown child that would be created from this uncommon union. I knew in my heart that I already had the love I needed to give them, regardless of who they were going to be related to.

Working with my counselor Melissa helped me overcome the defeating feelings that kept surfacing throughout this process. She gave me tools and helped me rebuild trust in my own future. I firmly believe I wouldn’t have the family I have today had I not worked with her during what I consider the biggest pivotal challenge of my entire life.

How I Faced This Difficult Journey

In the middle of it, what helped me the most was talking about my emotions with my counselor, my close relatives, and a very small group of carefully-chosen friends. The more I talked about it, the more I felt like I was normalizing my situation and this allowed me to embrace this different way we were going to build our family.

My Advice to Others Considering Donor Conception

My best piece of advice is to TALK. Don’t keep your feelings to yourself. This is already such a hard and lonely road to be on. I think the biggest gift you can offer yourself is to surround yourself with people who can listen. For your own sake, don't be shy about being selective in who you share this vulnerable process with.

Feeling like you are alone through this is totally normal, but making sure you have the right channels that allow you space to vent and share your darkest emotions is essential. I would also suggest exposing yourself to different perspectives about donor conception.

Want to connect with our community?

Join a Support Group

Instagram has been a great source of community for me: I found other women and families going through similar situations. Some were in the early stages of processing donor conception, others were seasoned families sharing amazing advice that I still turn to regularly, and some were actual donor-conceived persons who helped me see and understand the full picture of donor conception.

A Note on Healing and Acceptance

For many people, infertility and the emotions surrounding it don’t automatically or magically disappear after you successfully conceive a child - especially when it comes to donor conception families. It is a continual labor of love that takes time, hard work, and gradual healing.

It's okay to mourn the fact that you aren't able to build your family in the way you expected. Grieving this loss will take time. Some days are better than others, but on the toughest ones, it is important to go back to these core principles: love, resilience, and support. Other things that may help:

  • Remember the love you and your partner have for each other
  • Cherish the journey that brought you here
  • Recognize the challenges you have faced and overcome
  • Go back to your support circle for extra help whenever you need it

Remember: This may not be a straight, predictable road, but it can still be a beautiful one.

Cherishing the Family We've Built

I am now embracing this new life of mine with my husband and our son.

I have taken it upon myself to advocate and educate people around donor conception, and how it can make families' dreams come true. I have decided to remain open about our journey in the hopes that it reaches someone who needs to hear it.

If I've learned anything throughout this process, it's that love doesn’t stop at genetics.

Take the first step on your own journey:

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More Resources

Want to explore donor conception or other fertility treatment options further? Click through the links below to see what Illume Fertility offers, join a community of patients on similar journeys, and find support for your own.

Sierra Dehmler

Sierra Dehmler is Illume Fertility’s Content Marketing Manager - and also a fertility patient herself. Combining empathy gained on her personal journey with her professional experience in marketing and content creation, she aims to empower and support other fertility patients by demystifying the fertility treatment process.