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.

This reader’s story of building a family has a dramatic series of ups and downs:

At first I wanted to be silent about my story, but I realized I want to live my truth out in the open. And if I speak up, it might help other families that are struggling in a similar way.

In 2004, I had an unplanned pregnancy and did not want to have children. I was going to a Bioengineering Ph.D. program in Hawaii after my graduation and also getting divorced from my first Russian husband (I am Russian too). So I considered terminating my pregnancy.

Luckily, I decided to keep my baby, and now I have a loving and musically talented 11-year-old son. But I had to give up Hawaii, choosing to become a single working mom (though my degree in biochemistry helped). I always felt guilty that I almost chose to end his life. That is how I became pro-life.

I re-married in 2008 and had two biological children, followed by a miscarriage. I wanted to adopt and was devastated when our adoption did not work out. It is a long and very painful story in itself—one that others judge me for, and some of my friends became my enemies.

Below is an excerpt from that blog post, which chronicles her agonizing process of un-adopting a pair of destitute and deeply traumatized—and traumatizing— young kids:

[My adopted daughter] constantly pushed her boundaries and challenged my authority. She pooped and peed on the floor, destroyed her toys and made holes in her clothes with teeth. She seemed to thrive on chaos and our family’s unhappiness.

Being an intelligent and social little girl, she was getting a lot of attention from strangers, and without any reservation, she would hop on their lap or kiss them. I explained to her that those behaviors are not safe and appropriate, but she continued doing it just to make me angry.

I also noticed that my daughter started hurting my baby behind my back. Once I was in a different room and heard strange noises, and when I walked into the living room, I saw her covering the baby’s mouth and nose. After that, I always carried my baby in a carrier on my chest.

Read the whole story here. (If you have your own experience with a failed adoption you’d like to share, please let us know.) Back to the embryo adoption:

After my failed adoption and miscarriage, and witnessing my father’s death, I was in a very dark place. We tried to have a biological baby again, but I was not conceiving—probably due to all the stress and grief. I went to a fertility clinic and was given a few options.

I chose embryo adoption for multiple reasons. A year after our traditional adoption failed, I wanted another child, and embryo adoption gave us a chance to adopt again but avoid the trauma of mother-child separation from a traditional adoption—which clearly did not work for us.

I did not consider egg donation because my goal was different; I wanted to adopt an embryo that was already created. There are more than a million embryos in storage in this country and, of course, there are ethical questions as what to do with them. I believe that frozen embryos are alive and have a human potential. So my solution would be: Fertilize only as many eggs as women want to transfer and keep the rest frozen. After all, it is a lot less ethically problematic to discard non-fertilized eggs than embryos. (Though yes, it might lead to a lower success rate of pregnancy.)

I chose an anonymous adoption, and the embryo had been frozen for a little less than four years. I am very happy with my decision; I felt it was “meant to be.”

A few weeks prior to the embryo transfer, I had to do a mock transfer, which is exactly the same as a real transfer except no embryo is placed in the catheter. I also had a lot of blood work done and a saline sonohysterogram to make sure my uterus looked normal. I had to take progesterone for about a week, to get my lining thick and ready. Then I took the steroid Medrol for five days to suppress my natural immunity so my body wouldn’t reject the embryo.

Medrol was the worst, as it gave me high blood pressure, chills, and insomnia. In some clinics, Lupron is mandatory to suppress your ovulation to make it convenient for the doctor to schedule a transfer date. I’ve heard horror stories about side effects from Lupron, so I asked my RE (reproductive endocrinologist) to do a “natural” cycle without it, and he agreed as long as I monitored my cycle with a kit and came for multiple ultrasounds to check my lining, to know when I would be “ready.”

When my lining was sufficiently thick, the doctor told me to come the next day for transfer. In the morning he told me that my selected embryo survived the thaw and was still a healthy grade B/B embryo—a five-day blastocyst. (Here is a better explanation of embryo grading.)

I saw the transfer on the large screen as I was laying down and not moving. I was very nervous, cold, and shivering. I had no anesthesia, so it was uncomfortable for a couple of minutes when they placed the catheter.

I silently talked to my baby. I remember saying that he/she has a free will and I invited him/her to be my child. I said I would love to be your Mom, but it is up to you if you want to be born to me. I also said I would understand if he or she chose to go to Heaven instead. I would be very sad, but I would understand.

After the transfer, I stayed in bed for a day and took it easy that week. I had to take estrogen pills and progesterone injections twice a day. After five days I took a pregnancy test and it was faintly positive. It was an amazing feeling—such an incredible joy! The success rate of the procedure is about 50 percent, so I feel the baby chose to stay with me. I like to think we were meant to be together.

But a few days after the positive test I got nauseous, and it got progressively worse: vomiting 5-10 times a day and barely able to keep any food down. For the first three months of pregnancy I subsisted on Ensure, water, chicken broth, and prenatal vitamins. I lost about 25 pounds and was very weak. I stayed in bed and slept a lot. My husband had to take vacation days to care for our other children.

In the second trimester, however, it got better—starting around the time I stopped taking hormones, which I only needed until the placenta takes over around 12 weeks. I would say my pregnancy was very normal in the second and third trimesters; I had no complications.

It was a pretty tough pregnancy, with hormonal injections and severe morning sickness and multitude of other problems, but we made it! My little one was born healthy and beautiful. We immediately bonded, and I see my son as an absolute miracle. He’s a very sweet and loving little guy. Everybody in my family is in love with him. He in many ways healed my heart—if that’s possible after all that happened!

He is now 17 months old, and I have three other children: 11, 8, and 4 years old. I do not consider my youngest child adopted, even if he is genetically not mine—because he is biologically mine, 100 percent. After all, I carried him for nine months and gave birth to him; how much more “biological” can it be? Genetics really don’t matter in attachment; it’s the pregnancy hormones, breastfeeding, and loving interaction that is responsible for mutual bonding.

Interestingly, my baby son even looks a little like me. I heard it from other moms who adopted their babies as embryos that they resemble them, strangely enough. Must be epigenetics!

I’m so happy it was an anonymous adoption, because I would’ve had a hard time sharing my baby with his genetic parents. When he turns 18, he can get the donor information from the clinic if he is interested. He will certainly know his story.

Update from that reader, Inga:

Thank you for publishing my story, Chris. Sadly, my disrupted adoption is far from unique; I have met multiple families who have suffered a similar heartbreak—at least two who adopted from the same agency and the same country. This topic has become an elephant in the room in the adoption community.

Yet, these stories need to be told to avoid needless suffering for both children and parents and to better prepare families who want to adopt children with a history of trauma. I still strongly believe in adoption, however, with full disclosure and understanding of what your child’s needs are and whether or not you can meet them based on your life’s circumstances.

Our family did a lot of healing over the past three years and still, both my older sons and I have symptoms of PTSD that sometimes can rear its ugly head when we least expect it. I started pursuing my graduate degree in Psychology to help people who were once in my situation, to offer them hope, understanding, and healing, because everybody deserves it.

If I knew then what I know now, I would not have disrupted the adoption. I do not recommend disruption, because it is way too painful for everybody, but I do advocate for support for struggling adoptive families. I want to dedicate my life to finding that hope and healing for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder and their families.

If you have also adopted a child with that disorder, or another condition caused by severe trauma during infancy, please send us a note: (Inga chose to use her real name, but we publish all stories anonymously by default.)

Speaking of Reactive Attachment Disorder, I highly recommend listening to “Love Is a Battlefield,” a 2006 segment from This American Life profiling a couple who adopted a son who had been raised in horrible isolation in a Romanian orphanage, “unable to feel attachments to anyone.” It’s painful to listen to at times, but the family ultimately triumphed over a desperate circumstance of violence and fear, using a “controversial therapy to train their son to love them.”