Our Embryo Adoption: You Can’t Pick Your Family…Or Can You?

They say you can’t pick your family. But that’s exactly what we did in the adoption matching process.

On Valentine’s Day 2020, when most couples were making their babies, we were picking ours. It sounds weird to even say. And it felt weird too. I mean, we were set up at the kitchen counter with a glass of wine and a bunch of PDFs and we were essentially picking our future children.

Adoption: What is the matching process anyway?

In an adoption, the matching process is the process whereby an adoptive family and a placing family are connected, and a match occurs if both parties agree to move forward.

Yepp, I have purposely given a very vague explanation, because this process can look very different depending on the type of adoption. The agency/clinic, the type of adoption (domestic, infant, international, embryo, etc.), and the type of agreement (open, semi-open, or closed) all play a role in determining how the matching process unfolds.

Before we entered the matching phase, we needed to be home study approved (read about the five things we did that made our home study a breeze!) and have medical clearance from the NEDC (check out this post on our first appointment with the NEDC in January 2020 where we received that clearance—there’s some good stories in there!).

When we completed both of those items, our matching process with the National Embryo Donation Center (NEDC) for our embryo adoption began in February 2020.

February was already a special month. God had shown Himself and spoken to us in some truly amazing and personal ways during our infertility journey, one of which was sending me a bunch of rainbows to gently remind me of His faithfulness and His promises. (In fact, God was so kind and spoke to us in so many miraculous ways that I even wrote an entire post reflecting on a few of the many signs and miracles we’ve seen in our story. Keep your eyes peeled—He’s speaking to you too, because He’s a personal, specific, and intimate God!)

So when my mom got me a 2020 calendar as a Christmas gift and I saw that the month of February had a beautiful rainbow, I knew February was going to have special meaning for us.

February 2020 with a rainbow on the calendar. Rainbows have been a reminder of God's faithfulness all along. We matched with our donor family and adopted our embryos in Feb 2020!
This month was so special to us. We started the matching process early in February and officially matched on 2/25/20! And now, we’re expecting our first baby on 1/30/21… but I have a feeling he might wait to come out until February 😉

When we received word that we were ready to enter the matching phase, I was both thrilled and terrified. Each step of the embryo adoption process made everything just a bit more real, and this was going to be a major step. We were actually going to start looking at the profiles of real donor families and find the real embryos that God intended for Brian and me to adopt.

Our Matching Process with the NEDC

As I mentioned above, each adoption matching process will look very different, so please know that I’m only sharing this so y’all (all my many readers, lol!) have a sense of our experience. Here’s a brief summary of how the matching process worked for us (I’ll go into some more specifics with our experience a little later):

  • First, we had to decide if we wanted to pursue an open or closed adoption. In an open adoption, we would have some level of ongoing communication with the donor family (specifics to be mediated after a match was made). In a closed adoption, there would be no personally identifiable information and no communication. Every situation is different, but we believe it will be very important for our child/children’s growth and development to know who they are, where they come from, and who their genetic parents/family are. As such, we’ve chosen an open adoption. You can read more about our decision on this in my FAQ: Embryo Adoption post, but we plan to tell our children their story in an age-appropriate way from the very beginning. And, our son and any other future children with whom we’re blessed already have full genetic siblings out there in the world, and we want them to have the chance to know each other if that’s what they want.

  • Then, we received a huge zip file of one-page PDF profiles of all the donor families who also requested open adoption. (Conversely, if we had chosen closed adoption, we only would have received profiles of donor families who also wanted a closed adoption.) The information on these one-pagers included basic physical characteristics of the donors like eye color, hair color, height, weight, etc. It also listed their occupation, education level, etc. Finally, the PDF showed the number of embryos the family had and what stage the embryos had been frozen in (2PN, multicell, or blastocyst). These are the PDFs we were going through on Valentine’s Day. Sexy.
  • From there, we had to choose our top 10 profiles and request their extended profiles from the NEDC. An extended profile could include things like health history, hobbies, and maybe even photos. (Though as we learned, some extended profiles had a lot more information than others. It’s basically up to the donor family how much they want to share.) Honesty, narrowing down to our top 10 was really hard. I’ll share more in a minute about our thought process, but there is so much to consider!
  • After we requested extended profiles, the NEDC sent back those that were available, which usually ended up being around 2-4 profiles out of the 10 requested. (Because donor families weren’t removed from the pool until all embryos are transferred, that means that some of the requested profiles were already reserved for other adoptive families. That part was a bit of a surprise to us, and definitely felt a little frustrating to do the front-end work to “narrow down,” only to be told that those embryos were not available.)

  • We reviewed the extended profiles that we were given, and we could hold them for a bit if we were considering moving forward. If we did not want to move forward with any, we released them back into the pool, and we would request a new batch of extended profiles. For us, this back-and-forth happened a few times.

  • Then, when we were ready to move forward with a donor family, we notified the NEDC and they contacted the donor family, sending them our information (we had written a letter to the donors as a part of the application process and we included some photos of ourselves).

  • Finally, the donor family had to choose us back. If they agreed, we would move forward with the mediation process to negotiate our contact/communication in our open adoption agreement (again, only for open adoptions). If they did not agree, we were back to square one, reviewing profiles again.

So basically, we had to pick our future children from some one-page PDF files.

No pressure.

Choosing Donor Profiles… And Getting a Real Gut Check

As began the process, we had to come up with some “must haves” to help us narrow down the profiles, otherwise we’d be drowning in a sea of options for a long time. What were our non-negotiables in a donor family? What was most important to us? What profiles could we weed out?

To start, we were hoping to adopt at least five embryos from one family so that we had a chance at having full genetic siblings, so that became our first sort of “criterion” in looking at profiles. If they didn’t have 5+ embryos, we put them aside. From there, we decided that we wanted to look at donor families who had similar physical characteristics to us. Ya know, brown hair, brown eyes, similar height/weight proportions. (This was a completely personal choice; not every family adopting embryos looks for donors with similar physical characteristics. For us, as we obviously had to make choices with relatively little other information, we decided it would be fun if our embabies had a chance of looking a little something like us!)

But from there, it got kinda tricky. And surprisingly convicting.

We found ourselves making judgments and coming face-to-face with expectations for children we didn’t even have yet.

Obviously we already wanted for our children to have the best chance at a healthy, long life—as any parent would. But we quickly came up against some very real and very difficult feelings and biases we didn’t even realize we had.

This donor parent is a little too overweight and that doesn’t sound healthy. We don’t love the mental health background on these donor parents. I mean, we really want our children to have “good genetics” on their side.

We really like these donor parents because they have strong educational backgrounds or good occupations, and we certainly want our children to be smart and successful.

We’re not really seeing much here about any special talents or athleticism. Not sure about that; we’d really like our kids to be good with sports, or music, or something creative.

The grandfather on the woman’s side had Alzheimer’s? Do we want to take our chances with that?

Look. We all want the very best for our children. I think we can all agree that no one wants their child to be born with a health issue or a disability or to struggle in school or to battle insecurities or to have any kind of disadvantage, perceived or real, throughout their life.

But if I’m being really honest… how much did I want the best for my children because I felt like, in some way, it would be a [good] reflection on me as a parent and as a person? How much would I let the culture in which I live dictate what is good and desirable in children and in life and what is not?

Right For Us v. “Good Enough” For Us

These were the questions we had to confront. As we reviewed these profiles, we also had to review the state of our hearts. And we realized that our hearts needed redemption.

Not every one of these embryos were meant for us, and that’s okay. But every single embryo was worthy of life. Our selection process and the criteria we created to separate what we wanted from what we didn’t was a real gut check on whether we truly believed that.

Saying, “These embryos are right for someone, just not us” is different than saying, “These embryos are good enough for someone, just not us.”

The difference is subtle, but it’s there. Were we putting aside profiles because we didn’t believe the embryos were right for us based on discernment and direction from our loving Creator, or were we putting aside profiles because the ugly, fleshly nature of our hearts didn’t believe the embryos were good enough for us?

Even our desire to find a donor family with similar physical characteristics to us had to be checked. Why did we hope for these children to look like us?

I’d say most couples dream of this perfect little combo of genetics: his deep brown eyes and your cute nose, his dimples and your curly blonde hair. We like the idea of a “mini-me.” Or better yet, a “mini-us.” This sweet mixing of something we created together, evidenced by a physical resemblance. We love talking about how we see so much of so-and-so from the family line in the baby, because it’s this source of joy and legacy that our blood carries on.

For the most part, that’s okay. But as we considered, deep down, why we wanted our children to look like us, we were confronted with hard questions. Was it a pride issue? A desire to avoid tough conversations later about other families who look alike if ours doesn’t? Yeah, we know DNA does not make a family, but does a baby that looks like us at least make it feel like we’ve won an infertility consolation prize—some sliver of “normalcy?” Does it make us forget (or at least temporarily distract from) the fact that we couldn’t have genetic children? Does it soothe some of the aches and griefs that come along with adoption?

As we unearthed and wrestled with these previously hidden (or at least able-to-be-ignored) biases, judgments, and expectations, I began asking God to cleanse my heart. Clearly, I needed to partner with the Spirit to renew my mind and my perspective. I began asking Him to see the way He sees and to love the way He loves.

A Biblical Take on Adoption: Made in the Image of God

As I began to consider the eternal over the temporal, God first reminded me that we are all indeed made in His image (Gen. 1:27)—but not His physical image.

God created us with a personality, morality, and spirituality; He put eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). He made us for community with Him and with one another (The Gospel Coalition). He created us to do His good works and to move forward His creation (The Bible Project, Eph. 2:10). He created us to know Him (The Gospel Coalition) and allowed us the self-determination to choose Him. And He created us with this incredible capacity to love (Smith).

My babies don’t have to look like me to be my babies. They have already been crafted in the image of God, and my job as a parent will be to cultivate that image and to help them see and live out the goodness of God (Ps. 34:8).

My job is not to make a “mini-me.” In fact, my job will be to do everything I can to make my children look less like me and more like Jesus (Jn. 3:30).

A Biblical Take on Adoption: Adopted by God

The other piece God has begun to reveal to me is what it truly means to be adopted by God, and how that connects with our human adoptions—embryo, international, domestic, infant, or otherwise.

In fact, adoption is so central to Christianity that John Piper (theologian, pastor, and founder of Desiring God) shared a message at an adoption seminar literally titled, “Adoption: The Heart of the Gospel.

His message explores eight similarities between biblical adoption and human adoption in a way that’s so profound and enlightening that I strongly encourage you to give it a read. I can’t share everything he covers, but there were a few highlights for me that really started to expand my idea of what it means to be adopted by God and how that relates to my adopted son growing inside my womb right now.

Adoption is Costly

John Piper’s first point was that adoption was costly for God and it is costly for us. God paid the price of His only Son’s life—sending Him to earth in human form to redeem His people through His ministry, brutal death, and ultimate resurrection. In our human adoptions, we too pay a price financially, emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically (PIO shots, hello!).

When I think about how much this process has cost us in many ways and how much it will continue to cost us in caring for and raising a child as well as pursuing additional transfer attempts for future siblings, I wonder at times why we pushed through. After all, with a diagnosis of severe male factor infertility to the point where we could not have children on our own, in some ways it certainly would have cost us less to simply accept our diagnosis and move on with our lives, childless yet hopefully fruitful in other ways.

But this quote from Piper’s message is a soothing balm to my too-often-worried heart, reminding me that though costly, adoption is good. Because although it was unimaginably costly for our Father, He did it anyway:

There are huge costs in adopting children. Some are financial; some are emotional. There are costs in time and stress for the rest of your life. You never stop being a parent till you die. And the stresses of caring about adult children can be as great, or greater, than the stresses of caring for young children. There is something very deep and right about the embrace of this cost for the life of a child!

John Piper, Adoption: The Heart of the Gospel

(A note: Please do not mishear my heart on this. I am not insinuating that anyone struggling with infertility should simply adopt, and I’m not insinuating that anyone who has made a personal choice to remain childless is living in sin. Those are two very damaging narratives that assume black-and-white decision-making and circumstances, and I do not subscribe to them. For me, as we have chosen to pursue this messy and redemptive process of embryo adoption, I simply am encouraged by these reminders that my Father is good and that His heart for adoption is very real, and therefore I can know with full confidence that He will equip and sustain us as we move forward in this day by day.)

Adoption is Planned

Another big takeaway for me was that God truly planned to adopt me as His daughter (Eph 1:4-6).

Adoption in God’s mind was not Plan B. He predestined us for adoption before the creation of the world. … In our lives, there is something uniquely precious about having children by birth. That is a good plan. There is also something different, but also uniquely precious, about adopting children. … Your choice to adopt children may be sequentially second. But does not have to be secondary.

John Piper, Adoption: The Heart of the Gospel

How good is that?! Embryo adoption may not have been my original plan. But it was God’s all along, in much the same way that it’s always been His plan to adopt me. With full confidence, I can know that these are the babies God had planned for us. This boy was always meant to be our son, and any other future children were always meant to be ours as well. Therefore, I can rest assured that I don’t have to “pick” just right.

We are freed from the bondages of self-reliance and control and forging our own path, amen?! We can simply trust—fully surrendered—that God brings the children to us that He had planned all along. And what He initiates, you better believe He sustains.

Adoption is Messy

As I considered these expectations and pre-conceived judgments I already seemed to have for my children, God also reminded me through this message that I was not cute and wonderful and easy when God adopted me. Quite the opposite.

I was a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). I was ugly, messy, and rebellious. And yet God pursued me and loved me unconditionally, through no effort of my own (Eph. 2:8-9).

Remembering this has helped me to reset my heart when fleshly thoughts and desires and judgments creep in.

The pattern is set: adoptions do not just come from nice, healthy, safe, auspicious situations.

John Piper, Adoption: The Heart of the Gospel

Adoption is Hard

Lastly, I’ve been reminded that there is present suffering in adoption. I know, what a great one to end on, right? But the truth is that adoption is hard. Parenting is hard. And I’m saying these things without even knowing the half of it yet.

But it all points us back toward our promised eternal redemption.

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

2 Cor. 4:17-18, ESV

John Piper gets real about this in the article.

This is especially relevant for parents of children with disabilities. They know the ‘groaning’ of this life [Rom. 8:22-23]. … All of this groaning in hope because we are adopted by God and destined for a resurrection and an eternal future of health and wholeness and joy. It will be worth it all.

John Piper, Adoption: The Heart of the Gospel

So, is it okay for us to still hope and pray that our children will be as healthy as possible and able to live a full, joy-filled life as we might know it on this earth? Absolutely. But making decisions on the basis of avoiding present suffering is futile.

There will be suffering. But there will also be good. Not because of anything we see, but because of who God is. (And if you’re wondering if it’s really possible to have both a good God and painful suffering, I encourage you to check out this post I wrote on that very topic. But the short answer is yes, it absolutely is, and here’s how.)

Ultimately, I cannot pretend to know what it will be like navigating each day with our adopted children. All I know is that I’m learning that it’s not really genetics or parenting that determine a life. It’s God. And so right now, we’re just incredibly grateful that He’s entrusted to us our son and the remaining four embryos we have waiting for us to bring them home. And we pray that He will bless us with His wisdom and discernment to love them well and train them up in the ways of Jesus, no matter the cost or the present sufferings.

So… How Did We Pick?

For those that are still curious about how we actually ended up with our embryos, I’ll briefly share that story. As we began the matching process, we prayed that the right family for us would “jump off the page”—that there would be something about them that we would just know.

I distinctly remember reading their extended profile in my office over my lunch break. As I scrolled the information, I kept getting more and more excited. I remember my heart beating faster as I began to think, “Oh my… this could be it.”

They had so many things in common with us and their profile just resonated with me more and more. I had been a gymnast growing up, and so had she. Brian played soccer, and so had he. And it was one of the first profiles we reviewed where music was listed as a hobby; he played the drums! (If you don’t know me well—music is a huge part of my life. I’ve been singing since I could talk and now serve as a volunteer worship leader at my church. Check out some of my videos if you’re interested!) This profile also had pictures of the children the donor family already had, and I mean… they.were.cute.

Much like our embryo adoption process in general, Brian wasn’t totally sure at first. We had narrowed down our extended profiles to this one and one other family.

So we prayed and prayed and prayed. And prayed some more.

More signs of God's faithfulness and provision in this adoption, speaking to us through devotions as we reviewed donor profiles.
God truly guided us each step of the way. This was one of my daily devotions during the process of choosing. (Devotion: Jesus Always, Sarah Young)

And finally, we both had this overwhelming sense of peace that this was our family. These were our babies. And in God-like fashion as we’ve seen on this whole journey, He confirmed that to us over and over with incredible kindnesses and miracles. Because I’ve said it once (okay, definitely more than once) and I’ll say it again: what He initiates, He sustains.

Some amazing things that happened:

  • We later found out that this donor family had already denied two other couples earlier this year. God literally had them wait for us, and they chose us back within three hours, telling our social worker that they just felt that we were “the one.” Um, okay God, YOU ARE AWESOME!
Email to begin our mediation process after we had matched with our donor family in our adoption process.
The email we got when we officially matched! It was time to move forward with mediating our open agreement through our social worker!

  • Sometimes with embryo adoption, multiple adoptive families can adopt the same embryos over time. If a family adopts embryos and then later decides their family is complete without having transferred all the embryos, they can release those embryos back to the NEDC’s pool of embryos. When that happens, the one-page donor profile sheet will usually have a number at the top crossed off showing how many embryos there were before, and then a new number showing the remaining embryos now that they’re back in the pool. This can actually be a pro for a couple reasons: 1. The first family to adopt the embryos pays all the donor fees (shipping, storage costs, etc.) and 2. If some of the embryos from the same batch already resulted in children for another adoptive family, that can be a good sign! (Though it certainly doesn’t guarantee anything, and just because another family transferred embryos and then released the remaining embryos back into the pool doesn’t necessarily mean the transfer ended in pregnancy.) When we picked this family, all we knew about the embryos is that we were adopting 5 multicell embryos and 1 blastocyst embryo. There were no numbers crossed off at the top. But, we later found out that another family had already adopted this family of embryos previously, resulting in the birth of a little girl! What an unexpected gift it was to learn that we did not have to pay any donor fees, and our children have yet another sibling out there!
Letter from the NEDC showing we owed no donor fees. Another unexpected blessing with this donor family in our embryo adoption.
I remember getting this letter, seeing $0.00 as the donor fees, and just thanking God for this unexpected blessing!
  • We also learned that our donor family actually had a natural pregnancy after going through IVF for their first two children, which was also a good sign in terms of health!

  • Our mediation process was incredibly easy with them. In order to stay in for the May 2020 transfer cycle, our open adoption agreement needed to be mediated by March 31. Even with COVID, we all were able to get everything signed and notarized, and we were officially approved on March 31!
Email letting us know our donor family had signed the adoption agreement and our mediation was complete!
One of the best emails we’ve received!
After our open adoption agreement was mediated, we were able to check that off the list! Mediation went very well with this family.
Brian checking off another checkbox! We matched with our donor family on 2/25/20, and we finalized the open adoption agreement on 3/31/20! Next step was the frozen embryo transfer on 5/13/20!
After our open adoption agreement was mediated, we were able to check that off the list! Mediation went very well with this family.
After we successfully mediated our open adoption agreement!
  • Finally, I’ll share more about this in a future post, but we had no idea the grading of these embryos. When we traveled to TN for our first transfer in May 2020, I felt so attacked by fear. We were crying out to the Lord, asking that if this was His will for us, that He would make our embryos strong and healthy and that they would survive the thaw. When we arrived for our transfer, we found out that they had thawed two of our embryos and both had survived (multicells have about a 75% thaw survival rate) and both were grade 1, the highest quality for multicell embryos. (One had even almost developed to the blastocyst stage upon thawing!) Thank you Jesus!!
Our embryo adoption: showing our two embryos who survived the thaw and were grade 1, right before our first transfer.
Right before transferring these two sweet embryos in May 2020. Such a special day.

God’s Snowflakes

I want to close out this post with something so beautiful that I came across in the same Chuck Smith commentary I referenced earlier. As I considered what it means to be made in God’s image and adopted by our Holy Father and what I am to learn from that regarding our embryo adoption, this paragraph I’m about to share sums up everything in a way that speaks straight to my heart. And, as frozen embryos are fondly referred to as “snowflakes” who are also often viewed under a microscope, I think God may have spoken through Smith here in a way that even he didn’t realize:

God evidently likes variety. He makes every snowflake different. Every one of them is a perfect geometrical pattern, but no two snowflakes alike. Of the trillions of snowflakes that fall every year, God just likes variety so much. He doesn’t make any two of them alike. And yet, they are so exquisitely beautiful when you look at them under a microscope.

Chuck Smith

Indeed. Every snowflake is different, but good. Intimately crafted by a creative and intentional God. And oh so exquisitely beautiful when you look at them under a microscope, or on an ultrasound, or with your very own eyes.

No matter who these babies turn out to be, they’re ours. God chose us to be their parents. And though we “picked” them, we know He really planned them.

The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.

Prov. 16:9, ESV

And so we trust in Him to continue to refine us and equip us to love these babies fully and unconditionally, just the way He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19).

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