Adopting an Embryo

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here’s a very rare experience we haven’t seen in our reader series yet: embryo adoption. It’s a middle ground between having your own biological child and adopting one: You adopt an embryo created from a donor egg and sperm and bring the fetus to term in your own body, thus experiencing the biological aspect of motherhood when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. But let our reader tell it:

My husband is infertile and didn’t know it when he married his first wife (college sweetheart). Her sadness/bitterness was a leading cause of her leaving him after 13 years of marriage.

When we met several years later, he told me early on about his infertility “in case it’s a deal breaker.” I said it wasn’t, given our ages (36 and 45). Fast forward five years to today, married four years now, and we have a beautiful son born of “embryo adoption.” We met our son’s genetic parents through friends of friends and have an open adoption relationship (even though legally, it was just an embryo “donation”). They had leftover embryos from their own IVF and we adopted all three (and we’ll give our last one a chance at life next year). The four of us have become good friends and are like an extended family. We are ALL thrilled with this arrangement.

Success factors: (1) Embryo adoption/frozen embryo transfer is much less expensive than full IVF because the embryos already exist. (2) Neither my husband nor I are genetically related to our son, so it feels like “equal footing.” (3) We got to experience pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding like genetic parents. (4) It aligned with our ethical beliefs that embryos are humans; we didn’t create more to be discarded. (5) We are not overly enchanted with our own genes; we were happy to adopt others.

More stories of embryo adoption, and donation, are here.

The beginning of our reader’s note mentions how her husband’s first wife ended the marriage due to his sterility. We’ve previously heard from readers on how infertility has variously ruined marriages and strengthened them. Below are three more readers along those lines. The first one attests to how struggling to have a child forged an even stronger bond with her husband—partly because both of them have infertility issues:

I take strong issue with the urban legend that IVF can destroy a marriage. IVF is simply one of those major life events that will test the depth of a relationship and the maturity of the people involved in that relationship.

My husband and I feel that we were both very lucky but also very smart in our IVF process. When we started trying to conceive, because I was in my 30s and my husband in his 40s, my OB-GYN told me that if nothing was happening after four months of trying, get into a fertility clinic and have tests done. I also had an amazing herbalist/acupuncturist whom I worked with to regulate my cycles who gave the same advice. Furthermore, I had watched several friends struggle through IVF, and I knew that it was better to be proactive rather than waiting and trying and waiting and trying for years.

(By the way, it is infuriating when someone flippantly suggests, “Have you thought about adoption?” Adoption is not the panacea, and it is not a simple—or cheap—process, and IVF is usually cheaper. Adoption is simply a different means by which to have a child with its own particular challenges that may be different or similar to the challenges of going through IVF.)

After eight months of trying, we had fertility tests done. It turned out that we both had issues, which, honestly, was a relief in the sense that neither one of us could feel like it was our “fault.” We were even, and in it together.

Our issues mean that it is extremely unlikely that we will ever conceive naturally. I think that diagnosis was a blessing, because I know of other couples who don’t have a clear diagnosis and who go through IVF but secretly hope to conceive naturally. That is not a possibility for us, and it was a relief to be able to return to having sex as a form of relational intimacy and to let go of the pressure on sex to make a baby.

Because of our particular issues, we skipped over IUI and IVF and started straight away with ICSI [intracytoplasmic sperm injection]. I was grateful for this, because it would have been very hard (and expensive) to go through so many failed rounds. Our first round of ICSI worked, and we are expecting a baby girl in only a few more weeks.

Throughout the process, IVF brought my husband and I closer to each other. Going through IVF is a very intentional process. There’s no “magic” in it, like you see in the movies where getting pregnant seems to happen so effortlessly and is often used as a cheap plot device. Our process of having a child forced us to talk about things that some couples never talk about. We had hard conversations. These conversations can, yes, test a marriage, but our marriage was strong to start, and making these choices together only made our marriage stronger.

We also continuously reminded ourselves that we are a family with or without children. We told ourselves that if IVF didn’t work, then we would buy a scooter.  Stupid, maybe, but it helped keep our perspective clear that our family and our life together is about more than having children, no matter how badly we want a child.

My husband administered all of the shots to me, and we went to every single appointment together. Actually, we didn’t do that once, and there was bad news, and we learned after that just how serious and vulnerable the process of fertility treatments is, and we made sure to do everything together from that point on.

Even if we hadn’t gotten pregnant through IVF treatments, the process was still very positive for us. It opened our eyes to a world of medical professionals who do incredible work everyday. It also gave us an appreciation for how unique each person’s experience with fertility is.

Finally, it forced us to get very clear about what our marriage means to us and what it means to have a family together. It made us acutely aware that if we want something in life, we have to go out and try to get it. There is nothing passive about IVF. Everyone’s experience is different, but for us, it was a very good experience, and I remember the closeness that we felt as we were preparing for the treatment as a time of deep love and togetherness.

This next reader’s marriage also survived infertility issues, but their infertility nevertheless had a powerful ripple effect on her extended family:

I was 25 when I married and we tried starting a family right away. I had normal periods but never could get pregnant. When I saw my gyne a year later, she found my FSH [follicle stimulating hormones] to be slightly elevated and sent us to a RE [reproductive endocrinologist] right away. That led to numerous IUI attempts and two IVF attempts, lab draws, and lots of tears and heartbreak. I remember getting up one night just sobbing so hard I could hardly walk at the thought of never being pregnant, giving birth, looking at a copy of me and my husband.  

It is now 12 years later, we have since given up, but we are better emotionally now. Our marriage was in a rut for a long time, and needs of all kinds were not being met. We both stuck through it and have a stronger marriage now.  

Along with my own heartbreak though, my sister also dealt with infertility and IVF treatments. Nothing worked for her either, and her husband expressed a desire to have “his own kids.” Sadly, their marriage did not survive. This is doubly hard on our family because my parents will never have biological grandchildren, so they are struggling with acceptance as well. My dad’s family ends with my sister and me.

Infertility affects more than just the infertile couple; it really affects a whole family. We are all still grieving over all the losses infertility caused and will one day, hopefully, move on.  

Another reader also reconciled with being childless:

My wife and I pursued increasingly aggressive treatment for infertility necessitated primarily by what we eventually discovered to be my azoospermia [low sperm count]. We faced the feelings many couples experience of stress, personal failure, loss, jealousy, worry about the future, concern about the financial burden, questions about the consequences of donor sperm, and horror stories about adoption. It was a very difficult time in our lives, but we worked extremely hard to keep communicating our feelings with each other and to be supportive of those feelings, no matter how complex or mixed.

In the end, after receiving treatment for more than a year, we decided to remain childless, and we’re not sorry at all. What got us through dealing with infertility—communication, respect, and mutual support—has made our marriage stronger. We also feel that we tried as much treatment as we were comfortable with, and therefore that our choice not to have children is just that: our choice, made deliberately. Lastly, infertility treatment diagnosed a separate health issue I didn’t know I had, and treatment for that problem has improved my quality of life.

Two years later, our marriage is stronger than ever, and we’ve found a world of opportunities and experiences that fill whatever hole may have been left by the lack of children. I’m saddened by how many of your readers and others have had overwhelmingly negative experiences that destroyed those relationships. I know it’s a very hard situation, but not all experiences with infertility lead to the end of relationships.

Update from a reader:

I’ve been reading your series on infertility and am having a really hard time with these entries. Why? Because I am an adoptee. I was born in 1971 to a young woman who struggled with drug use, and after a month in foster care, I was adopted by a family who has given me everything in the world.

So when I hear language from your readers like “... her husband expressed a desire to have ‘his own kids’”; “This is doubly hard on our family because my parents will never have biological grandchildren, so they are struggling with acceptance”; and “my dad’s family ends with my sister and me”—well, perhaps you can’t imagine how hateful and hurtful that feels to someone who is adopted.

My grandparents were thrilled to have a new grandbaby, no matter how I got there. My parents definitely thought of me as their “own” kid, and their family line did not die out simply because they couldn't have biological children.

I would never say to a couple “just adopt,” because it’s a long and challenging process. But being a parent is about a lot more than just having a baby. It is utterly insulting to adoptees to imply that we are not a “real” part of our families. I heard this stuff a lot when I was a kid; I really didn’t think I’d still be hearing it into middle age.

For dozens of personal stories from readers on adoption, check out this Notes thread. For quick reference, here’s a chronological list of entries: