Grafting a New Branch Onto the Family Tree: Let’s Begin with Language

Words are powerful. Anyone who has ever had a friend or family member adopt a child knows how important it is to use what is commonly known as "Positive Adoption Language." Adoptive parents bristle if you say to them, "What do you know about her real parents?" or "Do you know why she was put up for adoption?" Although trying to "get it right" sometimes makes people feel awkward or uncomfortable, most quickly realize that "Positive Adoption Language" is important. Words matter. They evoke feelings. They convey messages. They are powerful.

I have long been puzzled by what I see as an absence of positive language regarding egg donation. Let's start at the beginning. All too often people will say, "We're thinking of doing donor egg." I've heard it often enough that I know what they mean, but I wonder how such an awkward, clumsy phrase, "doing donor egg" applies to the amazing process in which three people come together to create a child that two will parent. My hope, in writing this brief article, is that readers will feel encouraged to develop more optimistic and confident language regarding egg donation. I am always reminded of a meeting I had several years ago with a local couple and their donor. They are two Boston area physicians. She was raised on a ranch in the West. During the meeting she told stories of life growing up in South Dakota. Afterwards the couple turned to me and said, "we feel like we just grafted a new branch onto our family tree."

"We're thinking of grafting a new branch onto our family tree" sure sounds better than "doing donor egg." Yes, it is long and not suitable for all occasions but it is also more dignified. My hope is that parents through egg donation can develop their own ways of talking about their experience, finding phrases that convey feelings of pride, appreciation and wonder. For some, a simple, "we're building our family through egg donation" might work. For others, "we're so grateful that nowadays three people can come together to create a baby."

"Doing donor egg" is one clumsy mouthful, but from my perspective, talk about "disclosure" is more troubling. According to the dictionary, disclosure means "the action of making new or secret information known." Here is an example of the power of words. When the word "disclosure" is used in reference to egg donation, it conveys the message that there is a secret to be revealed or not revealed. Secrets convey shame and sometimes, hint of wrongdoing. Is this how people who build their families through collaboration and trust and the kindness of strangers want to characterize their choice?

Egg donation, collaborative family building, grafting a new branch onto ones' family tree-all refer to something that is a private matter. Everyone who becomes a parent through egg donation quickly realizes that he/she has the responsibility of distinguishing privacy from secrecy. In many ways, this is no different from other parents. Privacy is an important part of all family and social life. One purpose that it serves is to preserve and fortify family boundaries. We all keep certain things to ourselves or within our families or in a small circle of friends. It is not that these matters are secrets but rather, we consider them private. For example, if we are offered a new job, we tell our spouses the salary, but we probably consider it inappropriate to announce it to our friends. If our child has a learning disability, we tell his/her teacher but consider the information private when we first meet his/her friends' parents. These decisions about privacy may change as circumstances change and if we find there is a reason to talk openly about something that was heretofore private. This is how it is with egg donation. Here's an example…I have a client who has two year old twins conceived through egg donation. She has a beloved babysitter who cares for the girls often. Until recently, there was no reason to mention to the sitter that the girls were conceived with the help of an egg donor. Then my client began doing more public speaking about egg donation. She was going out often, seeing the sitter more and growing closer to her. One evening she realized that it made sense not to simply say, "I have to go give a talk, " but rather, to say what the talk was about and why she was giving it. It was with pride that she spoke to her sitter about how her daughters came to be.

My hope is that "Positive Egg Donation Language" will become as accepted and respected as "Positive Adoption Language." Hopefully, those who lead the way in making these changes will recognize that this is not about being politically or socially correct: it is about being proud. Choosing words and phrases that convey a sense of pride regarding egg donation will go a long way towards diminishing the sense of shame and secrecy too long invoked by the word "disclosure." Here are some words and phrases that I feel represent "Positive Egg Donation Language."

"Architects" as in "parents are the architects of their family story."

"Collaboration" as in "this pregnancy was very much a collaborative effort."

"Gift giving and receiving" as in "we were fortunate that someone was willing to give us such an incredible gift. We are proud of our ability to ask for help and to be able to receive it."

"Grafting a new branch on to the family tree" as in "When we chose egg donation we were choosing to graft a new branch on to our family tree. Having that new branch makes the tree more beautiful. Our new branch does not diminish the integrity of the tree; it makes it stronger."

Words are powerful.

Ellen S. Glazer, LICSW is a family building counselor in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. A mother through adoption and birth, she is the author or co-author of six books on infertility, most recently, Having Your Baby Through Egg Donation (co-authored with Evelina Sterling).

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