I just watched George Cukor's 1944 gothic masterpiece Gaslight, starring the luminous Ingrid Bergman. She won that year's Best Actress Oscar for her taut, unnerving performance as a Victorian woman being driven slowly mad by...well, that would be telling.
A couple of months ago, we watched SciFi Channel's Earthsea, starring Bergman's daughter Isabella Rossellini. Regrettably -- because Ursula K. Le Guin's novel A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels are so outstanding -- Rossellini's performance was the only memorable one in the miniseries. Perhaps that's why I thought of her as I watched her mother on screen. Film is a time-flummoxing media. Before my eyes was a mother, younger by years than the daughter I remembered from another film. I was struck by the echoes of the one in the other. Their voices, their eyes, that distinctive shape to the mouth....
It hit me hard, a hammer blow: I will never see in my donor egg child those echoes of myself. The genetic link is lost.
Grief, the experts tell us, comes from loss. Any sort of loss, though death is the most commonly discussed type. When I think of the grief I feel at not being able to have a genetic child, I also feel guilt. As if I should be so happy and grateful to have a child by any means, that I have no right to these feelings. As if, by feeling this grief, I label my donor egg baby as "not good enough." And so I thrust the grief away from me. I try not to own it.
Yet it is still here, like a piece of furniture I keep tripping over in this house of infertility. And, all experts in the field agree: A woman must "work through" her grief at the lost genetic link before she is ready to be a donor egg mother.
Madeline Feingold, a clinical psychologist with a specialty in reproductive medicine, offers this: "...couples must grieve so that the loss of their genetic child does not cast a shadow that negatively interferes with parenting and loving the child that will be their own" (Disclosing Origins: Children Born through Third Party Reproduction).
Oh, my God. I'm already a bad mother. One look at Ingrid Bergman and all my grief work is unraveled. I am crushed. Amputated. Something vital is gone, and can never be regained. But what is it? I can get neither my hands nor my head around it. I have to ask myself: What have I lost? Who died?
Many proponents of donor egg insist there is no loss, or none that matters. I will have the experience of pregnancy, that some call the "gestational link." I will give birth. I will breastfeed at 2 a.m. and hover anxiously over the crib while my baby sleeps, making sure that little chest rises and falls. I will churn through rolls and rolls of film, create silly Web sites devoted to my offspring, and someday join the homework and soccer-practice grind. I will be the only woman my little one knows as "Mom." I will love my child like a lioness, fiercely and without reserve. If I consider only the act and experience of motherhood, then I will have lost nothing by being a donor egg mother. Thank God.
Yet, for me, there is a loss. I have lost the ability to pass on my genes, and to mingle them equally with my husband's in the creation of our child. My body has failed to do its full duty in this process of conception. Because of that, what should be emotionally simple, even joyful, becomes complex and fraught with doubts and fears. I would not be human if I didn't wonder, "Will I bond with this child as I should? Will my child resent me for my choice?" And a whole host of other worries that I can come up with in the wee hours of the night. These are not the concerns of a mother who conceives with her own eggs, and the loss of that simplicity is grievous.
Recently, I found the article Infertility and Aftershocks, by Patricia Irwin Johnston. In it, she writes beautifully and sensitively of the impact of unresolved grief for the lost genetic link on the lives of adoptive parents and children. I hope Ms. Johnston would forgive me for quoting from her article and substituting "egg donation" for "adoption," because I believe the issues are the same:
"It's like this. Egg donation makes us parents, but it doesn't make us fertile. Much as we might wish differently, egg donation, despite giving us parenthood, cannot change the facts of those several other losses associated with infertility -- the loss of control over many intimate and practical aspects of our lives; the loss of genetic connection and immortality; the loss of the opportunity to create a new person who is the genetic and symbolic blend of love we share with our life's partner. . . . Egg donation can't give us these things that infertility took from us."
When I first realized what diminished ovarian reserve meant, there was black terror in knowing that when I die, I am extinct on this earth. Genetically, I am a dead branch. I will not continue. That reality scared me, deep in the gut. I am far from superb as a genetic specimen, and in my rational moments I know that I will leave my legacy in other, more important ways. But the loss is still felt.
It helped me to realize that it's a two-way street: We grieve that we will not pass on the traits we like about ourselves or our birth families, but we may feel a (guilty) sort of relief that we can avoid bequests such as alcoholism, depression, or--believe me, I've pondered this one--a genetic predisposition for early menopause. And "traits" are not all passed on genetically. Values, habits, mannerisms . . . all these come with family, and will be available for good or ill to my child.
Another element of the genetic loss is familial. I have a nephew who is the spitting image of his grandfather. That will never be, for my baby -- unless he looks like my husband's dad. My family is proudly Irish and has a 200-year history in one Southern city. It saddens me to think of taking my child there, or to Ireland itself, and having those places mean nothing to him. I ache at the thought that my child, no matter how much loved and welcomed by me and all my family, will be different than her cousins. I don't want that difference for her. I want her to merge into our family like a raindrop into a river and never worry or wonder about where she "comes from." That is simply not to be for my child. I feel as if I should take her in my arms right now and say, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry I could not give that to you."
It helps to realize that grieving a lost genetic link is not unique to donor egg mothers. Adoptive parents and children have struggled and made their peace with it for years. I have a friend whose husband was adopted, and he has none of the issues I fear will afflict my child. He looks on his place in his family as "adopted into the clan" in the Scottish sense: "...the chief of a clan would 'ingather' any stranger, of whatever family, who possessed suitable skills, maintained his allegiance and, if required, adopted the clan surname." Now, that's the right idea.
A last and somewhat ignoble loss is this one: It just wasn't supposed to happen this way. If in fact Change = Loss = Grief, then I have sustained a heavy loss: The idea of my life as it was supposed to be; as I expected it, dreamed of it, worked toward it. The hard part was supposed to be finding someone to be a father to my children; I never imagined that I would have to go to such unusual measures to have them in the first place. There's a not-very-grown-up person inside me who wants to be just like everybody else, with a mate and a cottage in the suburbs and 2.5 adorable children who may someday say to me after a tussle over curfew, "I hate you!" but who will never say, "You can't tell me what to do. You're not my mother." The woman who strove for that life will never achieve her goal, and I feel badly for her, even as I have to tell her, "Oh, grow up."
It occurs to me to measure my progress against the famed Five Stages of Grief. Am I still in denial, refusing to acknowlege my loss? No, I don't think so. How about anger; am I still asking "Why me!" or wailing "This isn't fair!" I must plead guilty on that one. I will probably be angry about my reproductive fate until love for my donor egg baby makes that feeling meaningless. Am I still striking bargains with God, promising to cure world hunger if he will only give me a baby? No. My miscarriages cured me of that one. If God were going to come through with a genetic child, surely it would have been one of those. My personal favorite -- depression, suffered while we mourn not just the loss but our dreams, hopes and plans -- still dogs me every day. Without it, I don't think I'd be writing this.
And so we come to acceptance, the state of finding comfort and healing from grief, and the ability to reframe the situation to see its positive aspects. Here I would have to say, "I'm getting there." The truth is, I will cycle through these stages of grief many times as my donor egg journey continues.
The one thing I cling to, that I read over and over again on one support board that I visit, is this: Once you have your baby, all the doubts and fears go away. Amen, wise sisters.