Sarah Humphreys

@sarah-humphreys | contributor
To connect with others through soul bearing vulnerability and courage. To practice what I preach as a therapist. To use my voice to add to the love in the world.

Egg Donor Recipients Who Are Questioned About Being a Real Mom

I was 12 hours into labor when the nursing staff change of shift occurred. The induction process had been grueling with minimal progress. I vowed that I would show myself grace during this process and had been successful thus far. I listened intently as the nurses exchanged my medical information to one another at my bedside, often deferring to me for information. I obliged, content in feeling a part of the process. “Do you know your blood type?”  the nurse asked. “Yes, B +.” I replied. She turned back to her colleague and whispered, “Her blood type is B+, dad’s is O- and the real mom’s is O+.” The real mom, the real mom, the real mom…it echoed. The legitimacy of my motherhood being a question triggered shame deep in my bones. Outwardly, these women were preparing for the safety of both my son and I incase of an emergency (an act I surely don’t diminish). Unwittingly, they were exchanging what they believed to be a secret…one that I hadn’t asked them to keep. The recognition that she wasn’t referring to me as the real mother took no time at all. It wasn’t the first time someone had made such a reference. I wanted to disprove her claim, but the words to negate it were seemingly stuck. Holding them back felt like a fire boiling the tears behind my eyes, and simultaneously acted as a wall prohibiting them from escaping. It wasn’t shock that stopped the words from flowing. It was fear; fear that my speaking up would cause discomfort for a person who had zero ill- intent. Fear that I couldn’t get through the words, “But I am the real mom,” without melting into a puddle or having the next contraction. Fear that not only would I have to find the words to justify my realness, but that someday my son would be the one fielding this question. If I couldn’t answer it, how could I teach him to? Two days after my greatest love was born, one of the obstetricians came to do her rounds. “ So, did he get your dimples?” she asked. Having already had this conversation with her more than once, my vow to remain in grace was being tested. I anticipated these questions from strangers, but not from my medical team. “No. I used an egg donor,” I said. “Oh my gosh, I forgot again,” she replied. “You know…you could have just said ‘no.’” There it was again. The insinuation our story should be a secret. The shame washed over me.  Shame that was not mine to own. Our realness had triggered her discomfort. Her discomfort triggered my shame. I wanted out of this vicious cycle. By one-month postpartum, there had been three occasions in which someone had referred to our egg donor as the “real mom.” By that third time I was tired of not knowing how to respond. I reached out to a confidant who many times over was my saving grace in this process. She was a little over a month ahead of me in her “real mom/ egg donor recipient” status and validated that I was not alone. She had been practicing her response; bravely asking people how they defined the word “mother” in retort. It was a peaceful, raw and honest way of asking people to look at the question they were asking. One question lingered in my mind, “What does it mean to be real?” As a self-admitted lover of words, I am often torn by the importance of our language and the opposing danger of labels. Processing the legitimacy of parenthood for donor recipients and parents who have adopted their children is a very intense part of development into parenthood. The language we use to describe the varying parts of these processes is crucial. It is with this in mind that I decided to answer what it means for us to be real. My realness as a mother is not defined by DNA, nor by labels created with strung together syllables. It is in the series of actions strung together with love. Real is in the heaviness beneath my eyes from very little sleep. Real is the scar permanently tattooed on my body from my baby’s birthday — the “realest” day of my life. Real is housed in my worry as I listen to the cold that has taken up residence in his tiny chest. Real is the air underneath my feet as I rush to answer his cry. Real is tucked inside the notes of the lullabies I sing to him; the same ones my mother sang to me. Real breathes with each forward and backward rock of the chair that lulls him softly into sleep. Real rouses life between us during our morning snuggles, and survives the space he closes as he burrows his head into my chest before reconciling into day. My motherhood is not determined by the box checked defining his ancestry as different than mine. It will endure in our determination to provide that information to him when he desires it.  His realness as my son is present in my persistence to do right by the choice we made to give him life. Real is not in the absence of dimples on his beautiful chubby cheeks, but in the million kisses I have laid on them and the countless ones to come. Real is in the fear of the day someone asks him if I am his “real mom,” or who he looks more like, or the insinuation that our bond is anything other than real. Real is in being the first to hold his hand to forge connection with our egg donor, should he so choose. I will be his cheerleader, his fire starter and his biggest champion when that day comes. So please pardon the woman who looks away briefly, takes a deep breath and fumbles over her words before sharing the sentiment, “No actually, she is the beauty and joy that came from a difficult adoption process,” or, “Yes, his eyes are the deepest blue I have ever seen, but no they come from a uniqueness not born from me.” It is not to shame, and it is certainly not meant to cause discomfort. It is however to ensure that the tiny ears and the wide-eyed child carefully watching soaks up every ounce of pride and unconditional acceptance their (very real) mama has for exactly who they are — and how they came to be.

Community Voices

Infertility: Our Road to Diagnosis

The delicacy of time was not lost on me as I watched the words fall out of our doctor’s mouth. He was careful, he was direct, and he was sincere. His words were deliberately chosen for me. His eye contact didn’t waiver which I appreciated more than he knew. I needed to breathe in the truth that was pouring from his lips and exhale the rising heat of hesitation burning within me. I was swallowing tears faster than they could form. I had prepared myself for this meeting. I knew what was coming after he had called to let us know that our second round of IVF had failed. I refused to allow #Grief to stop me from being fully present and from leaving that office without an understanding of what was to come.

He had prepared me for the possibility of this moment with subtle intention over the course of the last nine months. Each mile marker gingerly shared with me as it came to his awareness paving the way to unchartered territory. Knowing we could never get the first year back that we spent with another fertility clinic he was cognizant that what we needed was to be truly seen. This change in providers was the correct choice regardless of how my world was about to shift.

After our first round of IVF failed I pleaded with our first Reproductive Endocrinologist yet again to order a genetic test called karyotyping for my husband due to a heredity chromosome abnormality we had learned runs in the family. With some coaxing, she agreed. Three weeks later she called to confirm my husband was being diagnosed with a rare chromosome abnormality called a balanced paracentric inversion on chromosome #7.  We knew it to be a possible cause for #Miscarriage and were unsure of its impact on conception.  She admitted, “this type of male factor #Infertility is over my head,” yet asked us to try IVF again under her care. Given a history of repetitive oversights, lack of trust in her diagnostic information, and an overall lack of attention to our treatment, we chose to seek alternative care. We found another doctor specializing in genetics and reproductive endocrinology who came highly recommended from a family member. He would eventually lead us to answers. Lesson learned, I will never second guess advocating for my medical care again.

After reviewing all of our records I became acutely aware that our new specialist’s line of questioning wasn’t directed at my husband as we had anticipated. He compared our information to that of an IVF round of an in-law who carries the same abnormality and quickly realized that DNA was not our only problem.  We were batting zero and he would have expected twenty-five to fifty percent of our embryos to have been viable.  New blood tests confirmed that two indicating factors of female reproductive potential, and , were not only markedly different than what was reported from the last clinic but placed me smack on the border of too low and too high respectively.  We would need to try IVF again with a few changes in protocol and his careful observation.

We agreed, knowing for the first time on this journey that we were no longer just a number at a clinic. We had a story and this doctor was trying to help us write our final chapter. He saw us exactly as we were, two people with our life plans on the line and he was willing to take the wheel.  Out of the ten embryos that were created, most arrested development between day three and day five after fertilization. One of them, though lagging in a usual developmental timeline, made it far along enough to be genetically tested for a possible embryo transfer.

I spent the two weeks waiting for those results existing in a bubble of pure love. As far as I was concerned I was granted permission to be entirely hopeful. I relished living in that space.  For the first time since we began trying to conceive in 2016, this fragment of my husband and I existed in the world. It was cryopreserved and couldn’t be harmed.  Now this was a world that made sense to me. One where disease wasn’t dictating my body’s ability to do what it was supposed to do, where my simmering frustration at the lack of affordable women’s healthcare could take a breather (albeit temporarily), and tenderly where science and faith could coexist peacefully.  I loved this space where I could savor the idea that our baby was on the way to finding us.

Devastatingly our embryo was not viable.  There was no embryo to transfer as it was deemed abnormal due to an added chromosome that would prevent it from development into healthy live birth.  It was not related to the genetic abnormality my husband carries and this in addition to all signs leading to this point solidly confirmed our fears of severe female factor infertility due to

It was with that call that time stopped. I laid there, willing the earth to please stop turning just long enough to give me a chance to catch up. This was when God, or the Universe, or something higher power-ish was going to show up. I was open and raw and wanted to be found. I was the closest I had ever come to having a faith in something that I could verbalize fully.  I had worked hard at getting there. The greatest writers, creatives, and spiritual teachers I had invested myself in over the last few years, the ones whom without knowing it helped prepare me for this exact moment, had shared those awakenings; dropping to their knees on a bathroom floor and holding space for the stillness where they would hear the voice telling them what to do. I waited. And cried. And waited more. I couldn’t hear anything.

Maybe I wasn’t really still. In hind-sight, maybe I wasn’t really listening.

There are pieces of that day that are etched in my memory forever and pieces that I don’t think I will ever remember. I knew that I was grieving the loss of what the last two weeks had given to me but even more so because of a knowing that was clawing at my stomach; that all of the last two years were leading me to the understanding that I may not have the ability to create our child in the way that we all often just assume a woman can.  I hadn’t even consciously realized that I had existed with the belief that conceiving our child was my right. As it turns out it is a privilege; a phenomenal and miraculous privilege.

In that moment, we became part of the  coping with male and female factor infertility.

Our doctor’s words hovered over me. “I will support you if you feel you need to try IVF one more time with your eggs but I want to be clear… and I believe that you understand this already, I am no longer medically recommending that course of treatment. I do not believe we will have a different outcome. We will not be able to use your eggs to create a healthy live birth. Are you prepared to discuss using an egg donor?”  Our vision of what it means to create a family took on a whole new world of understanding.

As the days began to pass I caught myself studying my own features. My smile, my eyes, the knees I have always oddly disliked, who did I get them from anyway? The hair I colored over the years because it irrelevantly was “too dark.” It had been passed down to me from the family I was genetically linked to, did that have any meaning?  I do resemble my grandmother at certain times in her life, don’t I? I was no longer able to share highs and lows of hoping for a little one with my dimples and my husband’s kind blue eyes with the strangers who had become friends in this battle. Where did I fit?

The “what if’s “and the “how’s” and the “should we’s,” flooded my mind.  If we do this: who would be the woman that would give our daughter the wrinkle in her nose? Who would be the woman whose genes contributed to our son being right handed instead of left like me?  How many people would accidentally ask me who the ‘real mom’ is?  I couldn’t help but notice the subtle yet heavy emphasis others placed on their children being like them in either looks or personality. Would these same people understand my bond would be built entirely on our souls getting to know one another? Would my son bond more with my husband because they would have the opportunity to share the same nose and propensity for science? Would my teenage daughter someday scream to me that I wasn’t her real mom?  The flood didn’t stop, how can anyone afford this process? Why doesn’t health insurance help with any of this?  Would my child love me less?

The biggest questions of them all:

Would this child feel any amount of pain as a result of a decision I would be responsible for making?

How will I ensure that they know they, exactly as they are, exactly as they came to me, are fully and
wholeheartedly, enough.

It is interesting thinking about parenthood from this perspective before it even begins. It affords me a view that I am not sure people outside of this purview are privy to seeing so early on. The genuine knowing that as parents doesn’t dictate the ability to protect or shield a child from all pain but rather a vulnerable willingness to stand directly in front of the fire next to them and teach them how to walk through, even when we aren’t entirely sure ourselves.

Those last questions burn tears behind my eyes some days and yet ironically, it is also how I know that I am supposed to become their mother.  So, until then, I just keep showing up.

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What I Didn’t Know Before the Word ‘Infertility’

Eighteen months ago, I had absolutely no idea that pineapples had anything to do with fertility, conception, or embryo implantation. This knowledge wasn’t taking up any space in my brain. It was never a random trivia fact I could pull out of my back pocket. It was never important. Should I have known that little factoid? Should I have started eating pineapples earlier in life? What if I start eating them now? Will that help? I certainly didn’t know there were rules to eating it either. Obviously, you can only eat the core of the pineapple. And it must be cut into five pieces… oh and you absolutely cannot eat it in one sitting; you should eat it over the course of five days. One piece each day, no more, no less. Didn’t you know that? Didn’t you know that ritual makes babies? Should I have known that? Eighteen months ago, I didn’t know I would follow the rules of the pineapple to the T, more than once. Did I know I would I have an intense desire to believe I tried absolutely everything I could? Did I know I would do anything to take the words, “at this point we consider this unexplained infertility,” out of the air? The words that were fogging up my space and making it difficult to breathe. Did I know that in that moment I became part of the one in eight couples in the U.S. and the one in four couples worldwide facing the possibility of being childless? Apparently, I should have eaten more pineapple. Eighteen months ago, I had absolutely no idea how my husband and I would manage one of the most intensely intimate and vulnerable grieving processes two people can ever share. Nor could I have imagined how we, as newlyweds, without a major crisis as a married couple under our belt, would work together. Eighteen months ago, I didn’t know I could love him more. I didn’t know that some days I would be so incredibly grateful to him for living and breathing the exact reasons I married him. I didn’t know I would need to thank him for being such an unbelievably kind and gentle human. For protecting my heart so fiercely that I could fall apart without fear there wouldn’t be help to pick up the pieces. To want him to know how aware I am that he works tirelessly to make sure I never go a second without knowing how incredibly loved I am. How was I to know we would prove ourselves as a team? Eighteen months ago, I never would have known. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know how much physical distress I would force my body to endure. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know “it will just feel like slight cramping” actually means, “brace yourself, this is going to make you want to rip your insides out.” Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know what it meant to have to do three to four injections a day. I certainly didn’t know that repeated subcutaneous injections cause bruising. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t use the words subcutaneous or intramuscular on a daily basis. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know I had three large intrauterine fibroids renting space free of charge in my body. I didn’t know the intense cramping and pain I have experienced every month, and worsening as the beginning of my 30s passed by, wasn’t normal. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know there would be a human being who would deliberately choose to crawl inside of my emotional pain pit and live there with me for moments at a time. Never was I aware another person existed in the world who felt as deeply as me. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know what it was like to know I have another soulmate friend on this earth. Seven procedures ago, I didn’t know I would want to hug her until all of the pain she has helped me shoulder came flowing out of her so there would never be anything weighing her down from beaming joy every single step of her own pregnancy. Five embryos ago, I didn’t know that embryos not surviving to day five in their petri dishes would be devastating and world-shattering. Five embryos ago I didn’t know we would see the passing of our soul-touching and devastatingly sweet 4-year-old pup, Harley, quickly and without warning. I didn’t know the rapid succession of these events would challenge my emotional health and my commitment to self-care. I didn’t know I could feel all of that loss piled on top of each other and live while barely able to breathe. I didn’t know I could grieve so intensely that everything looked dark and hope seemed too far out of reach. Five embryos ago, I didn’t know how to discern one loss from another. They were piling up. I didn’t know they would forever be connected; intertwined for all of eternity. Five embryos ago, I was struggling to write. I couldn’t hear my own voice amidst the crashing waves of grief. Five embryos ago, I was setting my sights on embryo transfer day. I was setting up the next thing I would allow myself to be hopeful for. Five embryos ago, I wanted to believe the end was in sight. The poking, the prodding, the daily visits to the fertility clinic needed to be over. Five embryos ago, people knew what to say to me. Five embryos ago, I couldn’t say: I am one in eight in the United States.I am one in four worldwide. Post-five-embryos ago, I have witnessed firsthand how each of the closest female friends I have manage grief. I have been privileged to the wide array of reactions, feelings, processing, strange words, beautiful words, all of these empowering women have shared. Each so uniquely different. Each so incredibly fragile. I intimately saw the way grief shows up as fear just as many times as it shows up as hope. I got to see the balancing act that is our universe. For each one of these women that senses the despair, there is another one who perceives only hope. Sometimes their roles switch. Sometimes they disappear. Sometimes they use humor, sometimes they only tell the positive-ending stories, sometimes they crawl inside the pain pit and stay and sometimes they leave. But gone is never forgotten and they will return. In time and with love. I am humbled to know your hearts in this way, my friends. Post-five-embryos ago, I’m connecting with my voice. I’m far away but in there somewhere. I’ve been there beneath the estrogen haze and the progesterone fog. I have been in there burrowed behind the clomid agitation and the menopur burn. I have been immersed in this foreign, “trying to conceive” (TTC) community of women who hope together and who virtually hold each other’s hands through loss after loss. My voice sounds different, even to me. It has changed. It has evolved in some way. I am connecting with my voice and will have to learn who I am in this next phase of my journey. I will find my authentic self again but this time because of the crashing waves of grief. I will emerge (possibly) to do it all over again. Maybe not. Surrendering to living in the unknown openly, vulnerably, and with tremendous love and tremendous sorrow. In reality we have lived in the unknown since the day we were born. We are all professionals. Today I am a childless mother. Today I am four days post failed IVF cycle with 16 months of battle under my belt. Today I am following the only guiding rule I swear by in my life: There is beauty in the pain I experience. One does not exist without the other. I know joy because I know sorrow. Find the beauty. Follow this journey on Chasing Peonies. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock image by tixti