By Becki Melchione
They were striking: two matchsticks on fire dancing, melding, rushing down the subway stairs together. Their flaming hair, freckled noses, and infectious smiles lit up the dark underground labyrinth. One was thin and spry, a crimson braid down her back, her hair a lighter shade than the other’s which was auburn and cut sensibly, shoulder-length. They headed across the platform, arm in arm, chatting like best friends.
That undeniable mother-daughter pair sits on an unattainable pedestal in my mind. When two in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles failed and my own eggs were determined not to be viable, the hope that one day I would have my matching flame died. The only option was an egg donor. My first inclination was to find a donor as close as possible to my own genetic background. Who better than my two-and-a half-years younger sister, Cara? We share similar genes; I know her medical history and her family’s medical history, and more importantly for the future, I would know the second it changed. My husband was reluctant, worried that she would feel that the resulting child was hers. “Are you kidding? They’re eggs, cells! The baby will be yours; I already have my own two kids,” she laughed. But upon initial fertility testing, we discovered that she suffered the same problem as I did, low ovarian reserve. Her eggs were just as damaged as mine. We could try, we thought. Perhaps she would produce more than the one delicate egg I had. But the cost was a factor. We could not afford to try again and lose.
Plan C, then, was to find an anonymous egg donor. But how should I choose the woman whose genes would be a replacement for my own? Should I look for my doppelgÃ¤ngermy unrelated twin in the world? Should I search for someone with dark curly hair, brown eyes, petite but curvy body, and olive skin with freckles across her nose? Or should I look for someone with the characteristics that I would have liked to have, height more than my 5’4″ frame, straight hair, a decent singing voice or artistic talent? And what about personality or spirit? How could I possibly determine strength, courage, generosity, loyalty, empathy, determination, curiosity or perseverance from an online profile? Initially, I decided to search for my look-alike, but as my husband and I viewed hundreds of profiles, we began to rate them in four areas: health, personality, physical appearance, and experience.
As a young adult cancer survivor myself, I wanted to know that the egg donor and her family (siblings, parents, grandparents) were free of hereditary cancers, mainly ovarian and breast, and other serious genetic diseases. Grandparents who were in their 90s and still alive, or parents in their 60s and 70s without serious health problems were a definite plus. (Full disclosure here: my husband is a doctor and reviewed the medical information for us, noting what diseases and medical issues could be hereditary and therefore potentially problematic for our offspring.)
Although there is definitely a nature vs. nurture argument to be had about personality (several studies I found indicated that nurture is stronger than nature), I do believe that all people are born with innate personalities. Some are fussy, some relaxed, others hyperactive. Some are blasé about the world, some interested in everything around them, and others want to touch everything within sight. The question was how to determine a donor’s personality based on a seven page questionnaire. Few of the questions offered room for philosophical insight, so I looked closely at the potential donors’ answers to questions such as “What goals do you have in life and have you achieved any of them?”, “What do you like to do in your spare time?” and “What is your philosophy of life?” Answers that were thoughtful, honest, open, and positive gave me confidence in the donor.
I couldn’t help it, but I wanted my child to look somewhat like me, so I looked for donors with olive complexions and dark hair. If the prospect had an Italian heritage, that was a plus in my mind because, I imagined, somewhere in her gene pool were traits similar to mine. But I also dreamed of my child’s having my husband’s crystalline blue eyes — eyes that have compelled even muggers to comment on them while robbing him. So with my vague fifth grade recollection of a Punnett square of recessive and dominant genes, and the higher likelihood of a particular outcome if a recessive gene comes from both parents, I also searched for blue eyes in the hopes that our child might inherit them.
One part of this whole process that feels uncomfortable is the financial aspect. I am going to pay someone a considerable amount of money for her “pain, suffering, discomfort, inconvenience, and the medical risks assumed” (according to the contract), but to be honest, what I am really paying for is the amount of viable eggs that I would like to receive. If a finder’s fee, donor’s fee, and in vitro fertilization cycle costs somewhere in the vicinity of $25,000, I want as many viable eggs for that investment as possible. If a donor cycles and only produces 10 eggs, that is it. Others donors produce 30. The average is somewhere in between. There are hormone tests to estimate the ovarian reserve (or amount of eggs in the ovaries), but they aren’t a guarantee of the outcome and I will have already spent a considerable amount of money by the time I get to that point. So we decided to lower our risk by searching for someone who had cycled before and had produced a good number of eggs. If the donor’s eggs resulted in a live birth, even better.
When we finally narrowed down our potential donors to two, we were torn. One looked almost exactly like me with olive skin, long, dark curly hair and an altruistic vibe I just loved (one of her profile pictures was of her volunteering on a farm feeding a baby goat). But she had never cycled before. The other woman had a similar facial structure with straight, dark hair. Most importantly, she had cycled successfully before. At that point, it had been over fourteen months since we started on this long detour to parenthood. We chose for the donor who had cycled before.
A few days later, we received an email from the egg donor agency with the message “Good News! Donor 783 would like to work with you!” and eight images attached, photos of our donor from birth to adulthood. Like a high-speed slideshow of her life, the images skipped every few years. From a sleeping cherub with cherries on her pink pajamas to a one-year old with a Mickey Mouse birthday hat and a piece of chocolate and vanilla ice cream cake, her blue eyes staring directly at mom behind the camera. At age four or five, she stands with her hands on her hips in a little blue sundress, bright white teeth gleaming from her smile, like she could fix the world. A few more years, at maybe eight or nine, wearing a luscious blue velvet dress with a lacy bib, she looks more demure, looking to the camera with calm, confident eyes, her smile peaceful. For prom, she wears an ice blue gown and that same glorious grin.
From an adorable little fairy to a beautiful young lady, she has always had dark hair and crystal eyes, cheeks that plump into giant pink gumballs when she smiles, and a smile that reminds me of the Mona Lisa’s, not because hers has that slight mischievousness quality, but because you can recognize it anywhere. It is iconic.
As a woman, donor 783 looks to have a relaxed style, wearing a black sweater and jeans with her hair tied back in a ponytail, bun or twist, that highlights her face. She wears no make-up, but is radiant. For years in high school, college, and beyond, this was my look, jeans and a black sweater, turtleneck or t-shirt, my hair tied back in a loose bun. In this one photo, she looks like a version of me, living the same life, ten years later. She is a kindred spirit. If I’m completely honest with myself, this photo of her is the reason I am confident with her as my genetic stand in.
Thinking of that mother and daughter set and my egg donor’s photos, I feel that the pieces of the genetic puzzle I’m trying to assemble are falling into place. With her dark hair, blue eyes, build, and personality, mixed with my husband’s genes, we’ll produce a similar-enough looking whole. Although my child and I won’t look exactly alike, it is my hope that strangers glancing at us won’t doubt for a second that we’re related, just like those flaming matchsticks.
Double Take: Read another perspective on this topic: The Girl With the Levantine Eyes
Author’s Note: It took a medium-sized village, many small miracles, and unbelievable generosity on the part of total strangers for my twins to be born. Delivered into this world on April 2012 through a wonderful gestational carrier with donor eggs and my husband’s sperm, my daughters are pure joy. Now that they are almost five months old and have inherited my husband’s striking blue eyes, people always comment how much they look like him. Thus far, I don’t mind, but I hope that as they grow, they’ll look at least a little like me.
Becki Melchione lives with her twin daughters and husband in Baltimore. After spending years in arts administration and non-profit management, she is quickly becoming an expert on baby management. She writes about motherhood, technology and culture and is working on a memoir about the hope and courage it takes to face young adult cancer, infertility and twin motherhood. You can visit her website at http://www.beckimelchione.weebly.com