Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Phyllis Lowinger, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker. Phyllis has been a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City for over 30 years and specializes in Infertility, adoption, and third party reproduction. She is a parent of two adult daughters: one by adoption and one by birth. Like most people, she did not seek emotional support untill tree years into her treatment, when she joined a RESOLVE support group. Now, she is a seasoned Resolve group leader who can speak about complex issues in shorthand. You can see Phyllis in the documentary “Adoption: We Can Do Better” in the segment “Infertility: A Complicated Loss.”

The Cycle Relay: Phyllis, It’s a familiar refrain for family and friends to offer the advice “Why don’t you just adopt”. While the intent is to be supportive, it usually feels insensitive. As people who have experienced infertility, we know that adoption satisfies the need to be a parent, but doesn’t alleviate the sense of loss. With 3rd party reproduction (egg or sperm donation) entering the market, contending with outside genetic material is no longer a stuff of science-fiction, it is an everyday occurrence.  On some level parents forming families through adoption or 3rd party reproduction face similar dilemmas. What can we learn from years of adoption practice in 3rd party reproduction?

Phyllis Lowinger: It is my opinion that while there are differences between families formed by adoption and families formed by third party reproduction, not enough appreciation has been given to the similarities.

Both adoptive and 3rd party parents come to parenting from the experience of Infertility.  Infertility is much more than the sum of medical procedures. It is a major crisis in an individuals and couples life; it affects every aspect: psychological, social, sexual, work-related, and financial.

While there are commonalities in terms of the impact of infertility on an individual and couples life, there are also differences in how each individual and couple responds to this major life crisis. Multiple factors play a part.

  • Has the individual/ couple had prior crisis’s in their past?
  • Do they understand the impact the medical treatment and infertility is having on their life emotionally?
  • Do they accept the limitations of how much they can control the outcome of this experience?
  • Have they accepted that life is not fair?

Too often individuals do not let themselves feel the impact of the infertility experience, bottling it up inside. It’s only when the internal pressure produces damage, do they recognize the toll it is taking and start looking at the alternative family building options.

Adoption and Third Party reproduction are solutions to becoming parents. They are not solutions to infertility. The losses of infertility are major psychological losses and include:

  • The loss of a jointly conceived biological child
  • The loss of control over a major aspect of your life
  • The loss of the belief that life is fair

It is important to resolve the losses of infertility before moving on to creating a family. Each individual or couple resolve these losses differently.

Oftentimes prospective parents fantasize about who their biological “fantasy” child would be. They imagine their child would have the best features and qualities of each of them. Parents who have children through adoption or third party reproduction will never know who that child would have been. If they haven’t mourned and grieved for that “fantasy child”, their adopted or third party child will forever live in the shadow of the fantasy.

It’s not fare to the parents, and it’s not fare to the child. I have suggested to individuals & couples to create some kind of ritual to mourn their losses. Think about your “fantasy” biological child. How would you describe them physically, their interests, your relationship with them…etc, etc …and then symbolically bury that child. Allow yourself time for grieving. In general as a society we don’t deal well with appreciating the impact of a loss. We allow a certain amount of time and then we expect the person to move on. Infertility is a more difficult loss to grieve and mourn …it is not the loss of a person but rather a psychological loss. The impact of the loss of infertility is not visible to “others” – there are no set rituals, thereby I encourage individuals to make their own rituals that have meaning to who they are.

The Cycle Relay: It’s so important to respect and if necessary, defend the need to mourn the loss of your biological child. There is no language or a protocol to send condolences or grieve together with the couple, so very often people going through infertility feel ashamed to even have these feelings. Yet, it’s paramount for the couple’s and individual’s health to express them. Infertility is very common in our time, every 8th couple of childbearing age is experiences it. Most likely people in your own close circle of friends or your colleagues have been through it, yet chances are, they didn’t tell you.

After the mourning time is over, new family building options become a lot more attractive. While the biolink is permanently gone, capacity to experience pregnancy as in 3rd party reproduction or capacity to get renewed through forming a bond with an adopted child emerges. Canadian filmmaker Barry Stevens explores his identity as conceived through a sperm-donor in his recent film Bio-Dad and points to similarities to closed adoption cases where children wonder about their origins and possible other siblings. Anonymous Father’s Day, a film produced by Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, also speaks about the identity quest 3rd party conceived children have in their adulthood.

Phyllis Lowinger: Yes, I believe the important similarities are the following:

  • Both adoption and 3rd party reproduction are the second choice in family formation, but understand that second choice does not mean second best
  • Appreciation of genetic connection is not the primary ingredient for bonding and attachment
  • The need for parents to have a way to contact birth parents and donors for the purpose of medical information
  • The need for children to have a way to contact birth parents and donors at the age of maturity for identity information

Families formed thru adoption and 3rd party need to deal with telling their child, and others, like pediatricians, about their child’s background. This issue is important especially for medical reasons: as birth parents and donors tend to be young, their medical problems that would impact the children will not surafce till later on in life. Both need to consider the role the birth parents/ donors may come to play as the child becomes of majority age.

For children not linked to their parents biologically, the understanding of the bond changes throughout their lifetime. The issue of who “I look like” is part of one’s identity and becomes particularly important during adolescence. Wendy Kramer’s son Ryan excelled in math (Wendy created the donor sibling registry,  ) and wanted to know his biological father, wondering if that is where he inherited this ability. Adopted adolescents in closed adoption often wonder if they are dating a sibling. This issue in families formed by donor would appear to have a possible greater reality since more commonly sperm donors but also egg donors are involved in more than one donation.

It is important to accept that the challenges of families formed both through adoption and 3rd party reproduction last throughout the lifetime of the parents and children. Being aware and accepting the challenges is what makes one ready to pursue either adoption or 3rd party reproduction!

The Cycle Relay: Thank you Phyllis for this amazing interview! The challenges we face when struggling with infertility do not disappear overnight, but as we get more familiar with the stages one is likely to go through on the journey from infertility through treatment to recovery, we sense that one day it will be alright, regardless of the outcome.

As always, I would very much appreciate your feedback. Direct connection goes a long way and makes my day. I see a lot of people visiting this blog on a daily basis, and I would love to know what brought you here, what you found to be of interest. Feel free to agree or disagree.  Thank you!!!