After several failed attempts at in vitro fertilization, Melanie Thernstrom and her husband, Michael, chose to have children with a surrogate. So that their kids would be the same age, they chose two surrogate mothers to carry eggs from a single donor. She calls her son and daughter “twiblings.”
Melanie Thernstrom, author of The Pain Chronicles
Fie McWilliams, gestational carrier for Thernstrom’s daughter, Violet
Liza Mundy, Washington Post staff writer and author of Everything Conceivable
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
After six failed rounds of in-vitro fertilization, Melanie Thernstrom worried she might never start a family. She visited a high-risk pregnancy doctor who asked this question: Is your goal to have the experience of being pregnant, or is your goal to have the best chance of having a healthy baby?
At that point, she decided to involve third parties in a very intimate act. She and her husband began the search for an egg donor and a gestational character, a carrier. In the end, they hedged their bets with two carriers. They both gave birth five days apart to, well, not twins exactly, but more than siblings.
In last week’s New York Times magazine, Melanie Thernstrom shared the story in an article called “Meet the Twiblings.” If you’ve been involved in third-party reproduction as a parent, a donor, a carrier, tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, [email protected] You can also join the conversation on our website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program: Is “Huckleberry Finn” without the N-word still Mark Twain? But first, author Melanie Thernstrom joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.
Ms. MELANIE THERNSTROM (Author, “The Pain Chronicles”): Thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And how are the kids?
Ms. THERNSTROM: The kids are wonderful. They’re 14 months now and into everything, and they’ve learned their first word, which is hi, said in a very breathy way. So they say that 100 times a day: hi.
CONAN: Get used to it. Get used to it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You decided to be transparent about this whole process, tell everybody exactly what was going on. In some cases, you had to do a lot of explaining. Do you understand why someone might go the other way and keep it all under wraps?
Ms. THERNSTROM: I absolutely do understand someone might. For us I think it is a much more positive decision to be transparent about it, because for me being open about it makes it simply a fact. It’s a fact that they came to be this way, and there really should be nothing secret or shameful or stigmatized about it.
In some way there should be nothing private about it. It’s – any more than I think that adoption should be secret. You know, when I was growing up, a lot of people felt that they should be secret about whether their children were adopted, and certainly the generation before mine really believed that.
And that turned out not to be of benefit to the children, and I think it is not – I personally feel that it’s not a benefit to children born in these ways not to be open about it, because it’s a wonderful way to be born, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of gay families having children this way.
CONAN: It also, though, exposed you to a lot of, I think, hurtful dialogue, people saying, well, you’re not the biologic – you’re not the real mother.
Ms. THERNSTROM: It does, it does, and that is something that you have to take with the territory. But in some way the vehemence of people’s response to that makes me realize that it’s all the more important to be open about it, because that is actually the process of normalizing it.
I don’t think that anyone nowadays would say that to an adoptive mom, you’re not the real mom. And people, I think, in 20 years are not going to say that of children born of egg donation or surrogacy. It’s simply because it’s new.
Gay families are still very controversial, and I believe that one day they won’t be controversial.
CONAN: There was one moment of doubt you describe in the story. It’s the night before you’re about to meet the woman who will turn out to be the egg donor.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yes. I mean, meeting an egg donor, having this opportunity in some sense to select a genetic replacement for yourself is a very strange thing to do. It’s a very momentous and confusing thing, and we had looked at websites of donors and felt completely overwhelmed. Like, what are we looking for? And the qualities – you know, what is it that you actually want?
And the qualities that you hope to pass on to your children are these very intangible qualities like – you know, that you’d like your children to have – are matters of temperament and sensibility and goodness and intelligence, and these aren’t things that you can discern on a website, and these aren’t things that have any, also that have any clear genetic link.
And so finally we were saved from this kind of hopeless quest of the sort of Internet dating egg donors. We were saved by – our fertility doctor said: I know a young woman who I think will be a perfect match for you, I think you have a tremendous amount in common with her personally. And we flew to meet her.
CONAN: You also chose to then engage her in your family after the kids were born, and you did the same with the women who carried your daughters, your children.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yes, and again, these are very, very personal decisions, and I certainly think there are many ways to handle these things, and some families might feel that they don’t want to have a continuing relationship with the donor or the surrogate, and that’s fine.
For us, the process of having our children this way was so positive, it was really, for both my husband and I, one of the most positive, if not the most positive, experiences of our lives, and we felt so grateful to these three strangers who came forward and so radically changed our lives.
And we are very attached to them. It would be a loss for us to lose touch with them, and we believe it will be very valuable for our children to know to know them and to know that they came about through the benevolence of strangers and that they themselves may have the opportunity to pay this forward and to do radical things themselves to help other people.
To me it’s just a very positive birth story and one I want to be open about with them and I want to be open about period.
CONAN: One of those women was Fie McWilliams, and she joins us now on the line from New Jersey. Fie McWilliams, nice to have you with us today.
Ms. FIE McWILLIAMS: Thank you, it’s nice to be with you.
CONAN: And I have to ask: Do you feel like a stranger anymore?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: I do not feel like a stranger anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. McWILLIAMS: We spent a lot of time getting to know one another before we went through the surrogacy process, and I think that was just so incredibly beneficial. You know, we spent a lot of time exploring what Melanie and Michael were looking for, and you know, what my dreams and hopes were for doing this journey as well, to make sure we were on the same page and that we were in agreement how we all, you know, wished for this journey to go.
CONAN: And had you ever done this before?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: I had not done this before, no.
CONAN: And would you do it again?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: Yes, I would. If the situation was right, and it was the right people, then I think it would be a beautiful thing to do.
CONAN: And why did you decide to do it?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: Well, I think there is a myriad of personal reasons why I did it, but some of them were I had some experience with infertility through some family and also through some friends.
I have never experienced infertility myself, but I do know what a miracle it is to be a parent, and my husband and I were very fortunate in that we had our three children when we really wished for them to be born, and I really wanted to be able to give this joy of parenthood to somebody who wasn’t able to achieve that on their own.
CONAN: And do you enjoy the experience of pregnancy?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: I do. I do. I had three wonderful pregnancies with my own children, and the one with Violet was equally as wonderful.
CONAN: And I have to say there was – there was a lot involved in this, this agreement. Certainly money changed hands, but there was also, well, decisions to provide breast milk and continue to provide it so that the child could get the benefit of that as well, and then legal agreements, guardians, if something happened during pregnancy, all of that. There’s a lot of paperwork.
Ms. McWILLIAMS: There was a lot of paperwork, and I think going through the contract stage of doing a surrogacy is very intimidating. I mean, that’s a lot of things that you have to consider, and there’s a lot of things that you want to have in this contract.
However, the contract is really just a formality. I feel very important and very strongly that unless you would do this, you know, and feel comfortable about the whole agreement without the legal contract, you probably shouldn’t move forward.
The legal contract is obviously there for protection, but I think you need to feel very confident with the family you’re moving forward, that you know, you can trust in them and that everybody is working towards the same goal.
CONAN: And how did your children react to the idea that their mom was carrying a child for somebody else?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: They have been very open, and they have been very wonderfully supportive. Before we went into this, I discussed it with my older two. My little one was only three at the time, so he was a little too small to understand.
But with my daughter, I explored it a lot because I wanted to make sure she felt okay, and she had been very involved with my pregnancy for her little brother.
And I put it to her in terms of that Melanie had a broken belly and told her all my reasons why I wanted to help her, and she kind of came to her own terms that that was a good idea to help the lady with the broken belly. And it has just been a really good experience for them as well.
CONAN: And is Melanie’s daughter your daughter as well?
Ms. McWILLIAMS: She is not my daughter. She is Melanie and Michael’s daughter. But she certain will always own a piece of my heart, and I think about her all the time. But it’s – you know, she is home where she should be.
CONAN: She’s home where she should be. Well, thank you very much for sharing your time today, and we appreciate it.
Ms. McWILLIAMS: Great, thank you very much.
CONAN: That’s Fie McWilliams, gestational carrier one of the twiblings, Melanie’s daughter Violet, with us on the phone from New Jersey.
I have to ask, Melanie Thernstrom, does the other gestational carrier feel the same way?
Ms. THERNSTROM: Oh, yes. The other gestational carrier, Melissa, who -Fie and Melissa and I all live near Portland. Fie just happens to be in New Jersey today. But she’s also a wonderful person and I think feels very much the same way. The three of us were really on the same page.
CONAN: One of the most difficult parts of your search was finding these women, not just the egg donor – you described that – but the women who would then carry the children.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yes, this is an enormously important decision, and when people ask me for advice, I just say really take your time to get to know the surrogate over – I keep using the word surrogate because it comes more naturally, but the technical medical term is gestational carrier. A surrogate technically is someone who uses their own eggs.
But take your time to get to know the carrier over a number of months because this is someone you need to trust as much or more than you’ve ever trusted anyone in your life. They’re carrying your baby. You will not have control over them. And if you have any doubts, you will be miserable.
CONAN: And you’ll stay up all night wondering if they’re out drinking or doing drugs or something else terrible and, well, heaven knows what would happen then. Stay with us, if you would. Melanie Thernstrom, the author of “Meet the Twiblings,” which was published in the New York Times Magazine. We want to hear from those of you who’ve been involved in third-party parenting. 800-989-8255. It’s TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
Our guest is Melanie Thernstrom. She shared her story of the process and challenges of surrogacy in an article in the New York Times Magazine. If you joined us late, she and her husband turned to a donor and two gestational carriers. They now have two children, a boy and girl. She calls them twiblings. You can find a link to her article at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
If you’ve been involved in third-party reproduction, as a parent, a donor, a carrier, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is [email protected] You can also join the conversation on that aforementioned website. That’s at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let’s bring another voice into the conversation. Washington Post staff writer Liza Mundy joins us here in Studio 3A. She’s the author of “Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Our World.” Nice to have you with us today.
Ms. LIZA MUNDY (Staff Writer, Washington Post): Thank you so much.
CONAN: And it’s interesting – Melanie Thernstrom and her husband elected to try to have two at the same time, in part well, there was a long history of some difficulties in the past and maybe one would not make it. It’s interesting – in the article they called them drafts until they were pretty sure that they were going to make it.
Is there an impulse more to have multiple births through surrogacy?
Ms. MUNDY: Yes, there is, and there were a number of things that I admired about Melanie and her husband’s approach to having their children. I admired the way in which they developed their relationship with the other parties. I particularly admired the fact that she took seriously, when she spoke to a perinatologist, about the risks associated with multiple births. She took that seriously.
And there is, I think – there are understandable reasons why people going through IVF often wish for twins. The process is expensive, and it’s difficult, and often people hope, you know, for two children in one pregnancy.
And with surrogacy, which is much more expensive and often fraught, the pressure is even greater, and it is riskier. Multiple births are riskier, and, you know, it’s quite something to expect or ask a surrogate to bear multiples.
And I really admired the lengths to which they were willing to go to avoid, if possible, a multiple birth.
CONAN: And fraught not just because of the medical risk, which you just mentioned, for multiple births, but with any surrogacy – gestational carrier in this case – there are all kinds of problems that can ensue.
Ms. MUNDY: Sure, and you’re managing various relationships, and they were actually managing and developing quite a few relationships at the same time, and that’s quite something to pull off.
CONAN: Let’s see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. I’m sorry, Melanie, you wanted to say…
Ms. THERNSTROM: I just wanted to add that I was influenced, as I write in the article, by a conversation about the risks of multiples with the perinatologist, but I was also influenced by Liza’s wonderful book, that I would recommend to your listeners, “Everything Conceivable,” which I read when I was in my second round of IVF and really provided a huge amount of information, including information on multiples that was very valuable for us.
CONAN: Bill is on the line calling from Kansas City.
BILL (Caller): Yeah, thank you for taking my call, Neal.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.
BILL: Whenever topics like this come along, I often am just curious, I think. Given the thousands of children already out there who are born, from newborns to teenagers, why do people choose to do this, given the risks and the relationship issues and the cost? Why not just take care of a child who’s already here?
CONAN: Why not adopt?
BILL: I’ll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: All right, Bill, thanks very much.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Right. That is a question that betrays, I think, a very profound ignorance of the difficulties of adoption. Absolutely, when my sister-in-law was adopted 30 years ago, there were a great many babies in need of homes, and due to many social factors – the rise of birth control, abortion, and the decreasing stigma against single motherhood -many fewer women give up babies now.
And so infertility has risen in the decades, and the number of babies available to be adopted has fallen so drastically that parents like us face huge uncertainties, years of waiting.
We did, in fact, look into adoption and were very discouraged and spoke to an adoption agency and were told that our prospects were very poor. Couples…
CONAN: In part because of your age?
Ms. THERNSTROM: In part because our age, in part because you are – I have some health problems, and you are supposed to be in, you know, perfect health as an adoptive mother, despite the fact that biological mothers have children, you know, when they have health problems all the time.
The domestic agency encouraged us that we’d be better candidates for foreign adoption. So then we began looking into foreign adoption, and that too sort of turned into a series of rabbit holes. We looked into Chinese adoption because they’re friendly to older parents, but they have this rule that you have to be married to your partner for five years if either of you have ever been married before, and my husband was divorced. So we hadn’t been married for five years, and so sort of et cetera, et cetera.
There’s just enormous obstacles and competition and uncertainty, and increasingly, because of this, couples are going to need to find alternatives to adoption, and I think third-party reproduction really will fill a growing need, does fill a growing need.
CONAN: Let’s go next to Rosemary(ph), Rosemary with us from Phoenix.
ROSEMARY (Caller): Yes, hi, thanks for taking my call. I just want to say how wonderful I think it is that everyone was so open in Melanie’s situation. And I have, you know, I had a pregnancy through an egg donor, and it was through an agency where everything was kept anonymous.
And even though we let the agency know that if the donor, the egg donor mom, had – you know, ever wanted to contact us or get pictures, she hasn’t so far. And I always feel like we’re kind of missing this third person that, you know, helped create this beautiful little boy, and I’m hoping someday she will contact us.
And, you know, I would love to get to know her better because, you know, my son is a part of her. So I just really commend you for being so open about it and doing it the way you did.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Oh, thank you so much.
CONAN: Liza Mundy, is that the normal procedure, agencies recommend that you do not get in touch with the donor?
Ms. MUNDY: You know, it varies. There are a lot of agencies out there. But I think it’s fair to say that parents are often not encouraged to develop a relationship with the donors.
And one thing adoption versus reproductive technology – adoption is typically a nonprofit arrangement, and there are years now of studies and research and there’s counseling, and there’s way to facilitate relationships with the birth mother.
And third-party reproduction is often facilitated by profit-making agencies that don’t necessarily devote the time and the research to figuring out how to help people develop relationships when they want to, and I think that there is quite a bit of interest.
You know, many, many parents would like to thank the donor and possibly have a relationship with the donor, at least be open to that, and there is a growing interest among parents for relationships with an egg donor or a sperm donor.
CONAN: And Rosemary, how’s your child doing?
ROSEMARY: He’s fantastic, a very busy, active little three-year-old boy.
CONAN: Well, congratulations. Thanks very much for the call.
Ms. THERNSTROM: I think that before – I think that before you are involved with egg donation or sperm donation, you imagine that the donor is a threat to the family, and you won’t want to know them because in some way they’ll have a claim on your child.
But I think the experience of being a parent is so overwhelming, you bond with them so profoundly, you love them so completely, there are no threats to your parenthood, and you simply do end up feeling very grateful to the people who helped. And I think it’s natural to have a desire to want to know them.
CONAN: There’s a moment in your article – one of the gestational carriers, the moms, was over delivering breast milk in a cooler, and you could see that she was responding to the presence of the child and -well, why not – and yet this caused outrage among some.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yes, there is a lot of taboo in our society about the idea of breastfeeding a baby which isn’t yours, and I do write about the sort of amusing moment of our wonderful nanny sort of saying: You can’t let Fie breastfeed Violet, it’s just not proper. You know, it would seem as if – if someone walked in, they would imagine it was Fie’s baby.
And I understood that in her mindset, because she had breastfed her own four children, it was such a symbol for her of exclusive maternal bond and that most women would feel this way.
But because I had had my children in this very unusual way, and I had never bonded with them by breastfeeding them, I didn’t feel that sense of this is the expression of my maternity and someone else is taking it away from me. I felt simply happy that Fie would be so generous that she would want Violet to have the best nutritional start in life and provide breast milk.
CONAN: Let’s go next to Dan, Dan with us from San Jose.
DAN (Caller): Yeah, thanks, Neal, for taking my call. I wanted to add to that situation, that I am the husband of a woman who was a gestational carrier for some friends of ours. And what ended up happening is that my wife, one day came home and said I want to have our friend’s child. And I was like, are you crazy? Where did you (unintelligible)?
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAN: And it was like this dilemma, and I had to talk to someone who I trusted about it and say, okay. Well, we’re going to go along with it. And it’s been the most incredible experience ever. The wife – the mother of the children has no uterus and so she could not carry kids but she had eggs. So my wife was a gestational carrier, and I now have a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old daughter. And they were five and three at the time and trying to describe to them what mommy was doing, that…
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAN: …what she’s carrying is not her kid but kind of the best way we could describe it to our children was saying to them, you know how you’d help someone carry their groceries to the car and their not your groceries? And that’s how we described it. But it’s been an incredible experience, because we’re still friends with them. As a matter of fact, I spent New Year’s with the twins that my wife carried. And it was a two-year experience because it’s took two rounds of IVF and we had a lot of stress. But all six of us, meaning the two – the four parents and the two – four children, we have a bond that I can share with no other people on Earth.
Ms. THERNSTROM: That is such a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing it. I just feel that you and your wife are extraordinary people. And you have just made such a difference in this couple’s lives. And I’m sure it was confusing to explain to your children, but I think that it’s such a positive model. They will grow up knowing that helping people is not about, you know, writing a tax deductible check once a year, or giving your old toys to Goodwill. You can really, really make a difference.
DAN: Oh, and it was – when I think (technical difficulty) also was – it was a crazy experience. I had to, like, go whoa. (Unintelligible) the amount of paper work, like they’re saying, from the legal standpoint, incredible.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yes.
CONAN: Dan, thanks very much for the call. And good luck.
DAN: Oh, no problem. Have a good day.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yeah.
CONAN: Good luck with all of the kids.
DAN: I really enjoy this conversation, because it’s something that doesn’t happen very often, this discussion.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. THERNSTROM: Thank you for calling.
CONAN: Melanie Thernstrom is with us. She wrote “Meet the Twiblings” that was published recently in The New York Times Magazine. Again, there’s a link to that at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Also with us, Liza Mundy, a staff writer at The Washington Post and the author of “Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing our World.” And you’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let’s go next to Liz(ph), and Liz with us from Sacramento.
LIZ (Caller): Hi. Nice to talk to you.
LIZ: Hi. Well, I wanted to share a bit of our story. We have 9-year-old twins, boy-girl twins from egg donor. And what happened to us was that we went to a clinic that had anonymous donors. And we – there was one donor that was very popular, so several couples used her in the small area that I live in.
And so through a series of circumstances, I discovered that someone that I know from work actually ended up using the same egg donor that we did. And so, her twins are probably about four years younger than our twins. And so it’s kind of a strange but interesting situation on deciding, do we actually introduce our twins to her twins because they’re actually half siblings. And then I wonder how many other half siblings are running around and should we be able to get them in touch?
Ms. THERNSTROM: That is such an interesting question. And, obviously, since we didn’t do anonymous donation, it isn’t actually one (unintelligible) tell us more of your thoughts on it.
LIZ: Well, you know, I want to be very open with my children. And we have been, to some extent, telling them about having an anonymous egg donor and everything. But we haven’t really gotten to the part about the complications involved, you know – well, not complications but the complexity involved in terms of having other brothers and sisters. And to be honest, emotionally, I haven’t quite gone there yet to – I met the children once by coincidence in public, but I – you know, I’m -emotionally, I’m not quite sure if I’m there, you know, to actually meet them myself.
CONAN: Let me ask Liza Mundy about this. I know this has come up with sperm donors. I’m not so sure with egg donors.
Ms. MUNDY: Yes. It is more of an issue with sperm donors. And I – but just as you say, I mean, egg donation is growing every year and it certainly is an issue with the egg donation as well. And, you know, this woman should Google the name Wendy Kramer, who is the head of an organization that deals with questions of openness. And people actually can sign onto her website and put up their donor number and find out if anybody else has had the same donor, and so they meet each other this way.
And because Wendy is trying to encourage that research be done on this issue in terms of how to deal with the issue of half siblings and how to manage those relationships for parents. And, again, this is an area in which there hasn’t really been enough research done yet for people to have a lot of guidance.
CONAN: Wendy Kramer, conventional spelling?
Ms. MUNDY: K-R-A-M-E-R.
CONAN: All right. Liz, you might try that.
LIZ: I will. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.
CONAN: So long.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Good luck.
CONAN: Let’s see if we can go next to – we have time, I think, for Linda(ph), and Linda with us from Hernsdale(ph) in Minnesota.
LINDA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I’m actually talking from a different point of view. My mother just shocked me two months ago with the fact that she found a surrogate, which wouldn’t be an issue. But my ethical issue is the surrogate is 20 years old. She’s never had a child. My mom’s been very desperate. She’s tried fertility treatments. You know, her body kind of took a toll with eight miscarriages, so I could understand her desperation. And she’s only ever had me.
And I guess I would like – you know, your point of view from the process emotionally as well as, you know, just this woman is so young. So, in my point of view, nobody should have to give up their first child. But what kind of conversations have you had about any regrets from the surrogates or, in this case, the gestational carrier’s point of view?
LINDA: And, I mean, if you could just enlighten me a little bit about the process, because my mom and I have a difficult time with this conversation.
Ms. THERNSTROM: Yeah. No. I mean, I think that you’re right to be extremely concerned. I think it is deeply inadvisable. And I think that any fertility clinic would tell you this to have a gestational carrier who has not had her own children – and for many reasons. One of which is, you don’t know if she’s going to have a good pregnancy. You don’t know if she will like being pregnant or hate being pregnant. You don’t know if she’ll have a healthy or unhealthy pregnancy. And she simply is in no position emotionally to make the decision of whether she will be able to give up the child. If she – if her family is not complete, if she’s not had children, then she can’t imagine how she would feel about it.
So I think it would be wonderful if your mother would find a surrogate, but the surrogate that she is talking to – and I think 20 is much too young – is not suitable.
CONAN: Well, thanks to you. And good luck to our caller. And thanks to Melanie Thernstrom and to Liza Mundy. Stay with us. When we come back, we’re going to be talking about rewriting Mark Twain. This is NPR News.
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How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Our World
by Liza Mundy
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