The day I told my son he was conceived from a donor egg

Photo: Caren Chesler
Photo: Caren Chesler 

As my eight-year-old son and I drive past the cow pasture near our house, he asks, "Why do they have to have bulls in there?" "So the cows can have babies," I say. "They need a boy and a girl, a male and a female," I correct myself, "to have babies."

Borrowing what little I know about human anatomy and applying it to the animal kingdom, I tell him how women have eggs and men have sperm - which are like tadpoles - and that the sperm try to bust their way into the egg to fertilise it so the cow can have a baby. Humans are much the same, I say.

"So girls lay eggs, like chickens?" he asks.

Photo: Caren Chessler
Photo: Caren Chessler 

"Well, they don't lay them," I say. As we travel down this path, I sense an opportunity to tell him something I've been meaning to tell him for some time. "Sometimes the girl's eggs don't work, so they have to use eggs from another girl."

And then I tell him I am one of those girls.

I had my son using a donor egg. We used my husband's sperm, and we tried to use my sister's eggs to keep my DNA in the mix, but it didn't work. So we used the eggs from a 20-something ballerina. The fertilised embryo was then placed inside me, and nine months later, I had my son.

Fertility clinics advise parents to tell donor egg children how they were conceived by the time they are four or five, but I refused.

I already thought my son and I had a tenuous - OK, nonexistent - biological bond, given that he has none of my genetic matter. I feared that telling him another woman had provided the egg from which he was made would make him feel like she - and not I - was his real mother, even though I carried him in my belly like any other "birth mother."

For me, the notion that my son might view me as the adoptive mother and some other woman as his "real" mother is so dizzyingly painful, I haven't wanted to tell him how he was conceived. (Honestly, until now, I couldn't imagine how he would even understand it).


Some women are good with situations like that. They have open adoptions and encourage their kids to have a relationship with their birth mother.

I'm not. I'm aware this doesn't say much about my self-confidence. I blame it on birth order. As the oldest of four, I was never satisfied to have my parents love all of us the same. I wanted them to love me more, because to love me equally was somehow the same as not loving me at all.

Is it really about identity?

I almost got into a fistfight with a friend last year when she told me that the husband of a couple she knew - who also had a child by donor egg - wanted to tell the child the identity of a woman he believed was the egg donor. He didn't know for sure, but he thought he'd figured it out. His wife didn't want him to say anything.

My friend agreed with the father: The child was now old enough and "has a right to know," she said.

A right to know a donor egg was involved, I replied. But the child "doesn't have a right to know the donor," I argued, unless the child "wants it - and the donor wants it. But that's not what's happening here."

Besides that he might be wrong about the donor's identity, I argued that the father had no right to drag the woman into their family, particularly when, as was apparently the case, the child had shown only minimal interest and his wife was averse to bringing the donor into their lives.

It was a matter of biological background and identity, my friend countered.

"Identity? What does that even mean?" I asked.

I went to bed, all riled up, my heart pounding, a part of me knowing what she meant. We've all heard the stories about twins separated at birth who find each other and instantly see similarities in their personalities, or the mother who reunites with her son and feels that bond of love instantly, as they are united by their sameness.

I earned the honour of being my son's mother

But I put my 47-year-old body through the ringer to have my son, subjecting myself to biweekly blood tests and weeks of daily injections of progesterone to prepare my womb and aid implantation of the embryo, even though I'm afraid of needles.

Once pregnant, I was utterly exhausted. I threw up Indian food on the street in Toronto. I was stung by a bee at a county fair, blowing up like a balloon and fearing it would hurt the baby. I developed placenta previa and had to have a Caesarean section at 38 weeks. During that surgery, my heart rate fell and I was given ephedrine, which made me puke and my heart rate spike. One of my ovaries was so misshapen and covered with endometrial tissue the doctors sent it for a biopsy.

Carrying and delivering this child may have been the hardest thing I've ever done.

Once I got my son home I had a difficult time breastfeeding, as my son wasn't gaining enough weight, so I would breast-feed during the day and stay up until 2:30am, watching Frasier reruns and pumping, to keep up, or increase, my milk production.

And I sidelined my writing career while I took care of a little boy, who would repay me sometimes by crying, stomping his feet and lashing out if he didn't get what he wanted. And after all that work, he may want to go find his real "egg donor mother" anyway?

It reminded me of the poem by Billy Collins, called The Lanyard, where he writes about how his mother gave him life, "a breathing body and a beating heart, strong legs, bones and teeth, and two clear eyes to read the world," and in return, he gave her a lanyard that he made in camp.

After the heated conversation I had with my friend, I looked up the word "identity." The Cambridge English dictionary defined identity as "who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others." No mention of genes.

Regardless, I knew I'd have to tell my son one day how he was conceived. He had a right to know, and not just for medical reasons. A person has a right to know how he came to be. And after seeing the bull in the pasture, that seemed like a good opportunity.

A time for him to know

I told my son about how I wanted a baby so badly, but even though I tried very hard my eggs didn't work, so I used some eggs from someone else, mixed them with daddy's sperm, and we had you.

"So I was adopted?" he said.

"Why do you think you were adopted?" I asked.

"Because if you didn't need the egg, she would have had me," he said.

Children have the clarity of a box cutter.

"But the egg isn't you," I said. "The egg needs a sperm, too."

I was using my husband to bail me out.

"She would have had a sperm," he said. He only learned the word sperm today. I'm not sure how he was such an authority.

"Right, but that sperm wouldn't have been daddy's. Did you ever hear people say you look like daddy? Like you're a mini-him? That's because we used daddy's sperm," I said. "She would have been with somebody else and used her eggs with that person's sperm. That would've made a whole different person."

I was using semantics not even I could follow.

"The baby is just as much where it grows up in the belly, too. You grew in my belly," I said. "We just used different seeds. Or eggs. Adopted kids don't grow in their mothers' bellies. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah," he said weakly. "I didn't really get it at first."

He yawned.

"Do you get it now?" I asked. I had more invested in the conversation than he did.

"Yeah," he said.

"So what do you think?"

"You didn't adopt me," he said.

I felt like I'd beaten him into submission.

That night, I sat on the porch and looked out onto the lake behind our house. A family of ducks glided over to my neighbour's raft and climbed on top. There was a mother and five babies. I wondered if all those babies were from the same mother, and what would happen if a duck from another mother climbed on top of the raft. Would the mother duck accept him? Would he accept the mother?

It's love that matters

A few weeks later, some friends took me out to dinner for my birthday. When I got home, there was a sign on the front door in my son's distinctive hand that said: "Mum, folloe the messeges."

I walked in to find a path of cardboard signs that ran along the floor and up the stairs, leading to his room, each with a note that read either, "I miss you, Mum," or "I missed you," followed by a little heart. I loved both. I ducked my head into his bunk bed and kissed him several times on his forehead.

It seems the problem is not how much he loves me. It's me finding that to be enough.

The Washington Post