I’ve always yearned for a daughter, even through the period of my life when I absolutely refused the idea of having children. My mother says when I was a kid, I vehemently told her that “I’m not a baby factory,” as we were perusing a garage sale and poring over worn baby clothes. I don’t remember that comment, but I can definitely see myself saying it. Regardless of how I felt about kids intellectually, I craved the same bond my mom and I have.
But while I put motherhood on hold for myself (I’m nearing 40 years old and just now considering having a child), I was happy to support friends, family and even strangers who wanted to have their own bouncing babe. And that’s how I decided, in my 20s, to become a baby factory for someone else.
My First Donation
I lived in Chicago at the time, working at a pizza place. I had recently graduated from an expensive art school with a journalism degree and had dreams of being a food reporter for the Sun-Times. Every day on the bus to work, as I drowned in student debt, I worried about spending money on transit fare just to get to work. I was only 23, and had recently married someone who wasn’t making enough money to even consider being able to help me out with the bills. My parents helped when they could, but I was tired of calling them in tears because I was struggling to pay my rent for another month.
One day, I happened to glance up at the row of ads lining the top of the bus and noticed one looking for egg donors. If I donated my eggs to a childless couple, I could make $5,000 cash in just a few weeks, it said. I called the number as soon as I got home.
A few days later, I was in the egg donation service’s airy office, going through my medical history and taking personality tests, getting all my information down into a donor binder. They wanted to know my hobbies, how I respond to conflicts and my dreams for the future. I was excited. Not only would I get to help someone else, but my short-term debt problems were about to be solved.
I was surprised to learn that the egg donation process is actually rather straightforward. The worst part? Injecting myself with hormones twice a day for a few weeks and following up with regular internal ultrasounds. Eventually, I underwent a twilight-sedated outpatient egg harvesting procedure. Physical side effects were cramping and a little moodiness — my harvested eggs were then sent along to hopeful parents. As for emotional and psychological side effects, there weren't many. I was just glad to be done giving myself shots.
I never thought of those eggs as being a child. We would have a genetic connection, but that was about it. A baby from a donated egg is biologically the mother's because she carries the child, but Mom and Baby don't share genetic material because the egg first developed inside someone else, alongside their genetic material.
My entire process was done anonymously, but according to Janene Oleaga, an attorney specializing in fertility and parenthood issues and owner of Maine-based Oleaga Law, some donations are done with the knowledge of who each party is. In every case, though, the donor has no legal parenting rights.
“As far as contract terms go, I see a lot of egg donations between friends or sisters,” Oleaga tells me. “They might draft an agreement where there are contact provisions that allow them to figure out what future contact looks like, and that they’re going to have some sort of relationship, just not a parental relationship. I also see the opposite. They’re not friends with the egg donor, but they do know her. They might promise pictures or something like that.”
Every contract — and every donation — is truly custom according to who is donating or accepting the donation, Oleaga explains. The state you’re in can also make a difference; some states require a genetic relationship between the donor and the recipient, and some states (like Illinois) have no such law. The payment donors get generally ranges from $5,000 to $10,000, but can go even higher (or lower) depending on the contract specific to each donation. The money is typically held in escrow until the donation is complete.
Scarring My Ovaries
My first donation went fine. It was so easy that I immediately signed on for a second one, also anonymous, with my doctor’s permission. That one was not so easy.
As I injected myself with hormones, I was sick and often passed out. The doctor doing the retrieval botched it and scarred my ovary. It turned out that I was allergic to one of the hormone shots. That put my egg production into overdrive and caused my fainting spells. As for my scarred ovary, it will likely make it more difficult for me to carry a child to term safely in the future.
This recovery was painful and exhausting; it was difficult even to walk up the stairs to my third-floor apartment. I began to get ovarian cysts regularly, something I started taking birth control to prevent. But I believe it was still worth it to give someone their dream of parenthood.
After the donations, though, I went back to work again and carried on with my life — with a little less debt and a lot less stress. The donation company called me once to let me know that the couples I donated to were pregnant, and I got a lovely thank-you card from one of the couples that I still have stashed away.
I can't help but tear up for them when I look at it, even now. They were so grateful, and I could feel their joy and excitement through the card. It helped me understand how important what we did together was for them, and put a stamp of closure on the entire process. And that was it; I went on with my life as usual.
An Unexpected Phone Call
In 2020, I was divorced and living in Milwaukee, firmly on a successful path in my career as a full-time writer. I rarely thought about my egg donations. Then I got a call from a vaguely familiar number. Normally I’d let it go to voicemail, but something told me to pick up. I was surprised to hear my old contact at the egg donation center on the other end of the line. And I was floored by what she told me next.
My eggs had produced a daughter. She was 13, and because of a class ancestry project at school, her parents had told her she was born from an egg donation. From what I was told, the teen was totally cool with the whole situation.
The timing was good for me, too: I had developed a heart condition they needed to know about and had my gallbladder removed like nearly every other woman in my family (something I didn’t know about at the time of the donation). I passed along details about my health to the family who had received my eggs, a practice that has become pretty common, says Oleaga.
Revealing more details behind this backstory could help the child emotionally, too. “There are so many studies that show it is beneficial to one day [know] their genetic origin,” she says. “Sometimes it’s put in a baby book, sometimes it’s told as a story from very young. There are even children’s books that talk about being born from different genetic material.”
Eventually, I went back to the egg donation center — sending along an earlier photo I had just shared with friends to admire my new Blackhawks jersey — with my permission for the family to contact me. I asked if I would be able to see a photo of the girl, too. I was happy for the family (and secretly proud of my egg for doing such a good job). And from a purely scientific standpoint, I wondered if using a donor egg meant the child would look like the donor (The answer? Sometimes).
From a more emotional standpoint, my mind was going wild. What were her hobbies? Do we enjoy the same things? What was her favorite food? Was she an athlete? A musician? Maybe we could talk on the phone! Would I get to meet her?!
After my request, I sat back and waited. And waited. And waited some more. My excitement faded into an odd depression over the next week that I couldn’t quite understand. She was not my daughter, and I knew that, and I was happy with the fact — I was in no way ready to have a child when I donated my eggs, but so glad to help someone else. Maybe it’s the journalist in me that always wants to know everything about everything. I was left with lingering questions, and it bugged me.
I have yet to hear back — it’s completely up to their daughter if she wants to one day reach out to me on her own.
“The unborn child is not a party to the contract,” Oleaga explains. “They didn’t agree to anything. So while you may agree to not contact the donor at any point in the donor’s life, or you may agree to not do 23 and Me on a baby that’s two months old, that child has their own free will and did not agree to any of that."
It does happen, Oleaga says. Donors and resulting children can sign up for registries where they can connect if they want, and ancestry tests can reveal them to one another as well. I’ve done ancestry testing (without the egg donation in mind), but have not signed up for a registry; I didn’t know they existed until recently.
I’ve moved on since that unanswered exchange in 2020, but there’s still some part of me hoping for a message from a slightly familiar number with a picture to share with me. If I never hear from them again, though, that’s fine — there’s not much I can do, unless they reach out to me first.
Embracing the Unknown
It’s a weird feeling to miss a child you’ll likely never get to meet. It’s like staring at an empty doorway hoping someone will walk through… but you don’t know who they are, nor do you have any idea what they look like.
Oleaga says with directed and known-donor arrangements, it’s expected that the donor will be in the child’s life. But for anonymous donors like me, it is not — though the amount of Google searches related to meeting an anonymous egg donor child leads me to believe it’s a commonly asked question. I believe it’s based on curiosity; most egg donors, like me, don’t have an emotional attachment to the child because we handed over our eggs and were done with it. Until the donation center reaches out with new information that ignites our curiosity, that is (at least for me).
In fact, a friend of mine who also donated eggs feels the same way. “I can't help but wonder what happened to my eggs,” she tells me when I ask. “I’d like to get a picture and know from a distance how they are doing. I wonder if they would want to know me at all.”
Like many others, she has no way of finding out, as the center that organized her donation is no longer in business.
One day, I’d love to just see a picture — any picture at all. I’ll never push it or reach out directly again unless she or her family does first. But it would answer an everlasting question of what a child my egg produced really looks like, and provide a salve for this tiny odd empty hole I feel in my heart. Life is moving on, but I can dream about a shift in my reality down the road, after she has become an adult.
Donating my eggs had a roundabout way of an exploration into motherhood I never expected; my first moments of really, truly considering having a child of my own clicked just a few days after my missed connection. I have no doubts that how I felt after learning of this young woman's existence ended up influencing my current journey to motherhood. So if I never get to see her at all, I will be okay — she's already given me a gift.