We are very excited to bring you a three-part interview series dedicated to discussing and raising awareness for embryo adoption, a unique option for anyone desiring to start a family but unable to do so on their own.
To begin our series, we first spoke with Rebecca Henderson, a woman who has battled through years of infertility, IVF, and then choosing to participate in embryo adoption. Her story is the first chapter in a truly remarkable tale of joy, hope, and selfless love.
4word: When did you first learn about your infertility?
Rebecca: My husband Chris and I were high school sweethearts and became engaged early in my freshman year of college, and married that summer. Since we knew we were getting married, the idea of having children, and trying to determine how difficult that might be, was on my mind quite a bit. We didn’t want to start a family until after college, but it was very important to me to know what kind of challenges we were likely to face.
My cycles were always abnormal, infrequent, and heavy. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) when I was a freshman in college and had my first laparoscopic surgery a little over a year later during our first year of marriage. The doctor confirmed PCOS and told us then that we could expect it to be difficult to get pregnant. We found that to be a massive understatement! It would take fourteen years of marriage and eleven years of infertility drama to bring about our miracles.
4word: What were your thoughts going into IVF and your pregnancy?
Rebecca: Over the years, I developed many more reproductive issues which added to the infertility struggles. Just a few of my issues were endometriosis, fallopian tube damage, glucose issues, and miscarriages. Early on in our infertility journey, we had made the “I never” statement of, “I will never go so far as going through IVF…”
By the time we were in our thirteenth year of marriage, and with a host of additional challenges being identified, we were faced with a choice to make. IVF was now our only safe alternative for a successful implantation and pregnancy. Thankfully, God provided immediate peace and direction to both Chris and I that IVF was in fact the method God was going to use to bring about His promise (which He had provided me years ago) that we would have a child. It might not have been in our initial wheelhouse of ideas, but it was certainly in God’s perfect plan for us and (unbeknownst to us) other couples too!
4word: How did the arrival of your daughters affect your professional life?
Rebecca: I have always been a task-oriented, career-minded woman. I started working as soon as it was legally allowed and always knew that I wanted to be in leadership and administration in some form or fashion. I was a work-a-holic and loved it! I always planned to work after we eventually had children.
When I was seventeen weeks pregnant with our twins, my husband and I moved across country on military orders. I was put on bed rest at my very first doctor’s appointment after the move due to a shortening cervix, but I continued working remotely as much as possible. Unfortunately, I went into preterm labor at twenty-four weeks and spent the better part of the next two months in the hospital, where the hospital firewalls didn’t allow me to continue working. To add insult to injury, I developed a severe case of postpartum depression after the birth of the twins that left me marginally functional for several years…yes, years. This was also the start of a string of four military moves in four years, with my husband working twelve-hour days or being deployed for months at a time. So, the lack of good health and help (by my husband, family, friends or church) put a kibosh on returning to paid professional work for awhile.
Right when it seemed all facets of life were beginning to stabilize and the twins were going to be starting kindergarten, we were floored (I do mean, floored) to learn five days before a needed hysterectomy that I was two months pregnant. Pregnant! I had been told a natural, healthy, live birth pregnancy was supposed to be 100% impossible, and yet, our third little girl is further proof that miracles do happen!
God has used the last few years to show me how to find balance between being a mom and being able to tailor my professional knowledge and experience to benefit volunteer organizations, churches, schools, and community groups in the areas we have lived. My time as a stay-at-home mom has been rewarding, and necessary; but I’ll also admit that it has absolutely been hardest job I have EVER had! I’m thankful that returning to a professional career is in the immediate future.
4word: What led you and your husband to embryo adoption? What was that process like?
Rebecca: We were thrilled that God had used us to create thirteen strong embryos. Two of those embryos were placed inside me in early 2006, and became our beautiful fraternal twin girls. My pregnancy with the twins was full of challenges and took its toll on my body. Our clinic was encouraging us to at least start the process of deciding what our next best step should be for our remaining eleven “snowflakes.”
Prayer, discussions and further testing over the next two years made it evident that it was not a part of God’s plan for us to use our snowflakes. So, the question then became, “Now what?” The only options we were aware of at the time was to donate the embryos back to the clinic (blind donation) to implant as the clinic felt appropriate, to let them thaw and fizzle out, to donate them to scientific research, or to use a surrogate. We just knew that none of these options were viable for us. We felt stuck and again had to ask the question, “Okay, God, now what?”
In 2009, not knowing what else to do, we Googled “what do you do with remaining frozen embryos.” A few links appeared in reference to embryo donation/adoption. We were intrigued and started doing more research. Chris and I really loved the idea of helping another couple going through the heart wrenching struggles of infertility to start a family. This was a win-win for us. While our original plan was to use all our embryos, it was evident to us that it wasn’t God’s plan, and that we needed to trust His calling to release our snowflakes to another couple.
We (mostly me) struggled emotionally and mentally for two years with the idea of “letting go.” We knew it was the right thing to do, but it was hard. God gave us a huge kick-in-the-pants in 2011 and let us know it was time to release our snowflakes into His hands and let them go.
There were a few clinics, websites and agencies with whom frozen embryos could be anonymously donated to another couple. We also noticed that there were options for couples to go out and find their own family match. While we respected these options, it wasn’t for us. We liked the idea of having a say in which couple received our embryos and wanted the support of an agency to do the administrative work, help match us with another couple, do the legal work, and to walk us through the process in general.
We decided to place our embryos with Nightlight Christian Adoption’s Snowflake Program. The process is rather like the “e-Harmony” for embryos. The donor families and adoptive families each complete a profile and have a checklist of things to do. The donor family receives the profiles of potential family matches based on the criteria they selected. If approved, the donor’s profile is given to the adoptive family to review and approve or disapprove. If both families agree, the agency moves forward with the contract and finalization phase.
4word: Why is embryo adoption not widely known about?
Rebecca: Embryo donation and adoption is an emerging topic. With the increase in infertility struggles, use of IVF, donor eggs, donor sperm, etc., the numbers of embryos frozen around the world continue to climb. The entire topic of embryo adoption is a controversial one, for many reasons. Embryo adoption creates strong reactions, because of religious reasons, legal reasons, ethical reasons, and moral reasons, to name a few.
Every couple or individual with frozen embryos must eventually face the decision of what their next right step will be. Many couples and individuals tend to keep the information and decisions to themselves because the decision is deeply personal, painful, and often seen as controversial. In the United States, embryos are not legally considered a life and are legally called “personal property.” Individuals or couples who donate their embryos do so by transferring “ownership” of the embryos. There is generally no cost to the donor family, and they should not receive money from any agency, clinic, or adopting family for the embryos.
Having a strong support system during difficult decisions is exceptionally important. However, there are still few doctors or psychologists who know much about it, and they certainly don’t know how to properly counsel an individual or couple. The increased amount of information and support for donor couples through websites, blogs, discussion forums, media coverage, medical knowledge, and the number of clinics and doctors offering services has grown exponentially since we first started looking at options for our snowflakes six years ago. There is plenty of room for improvement, but these are good steps in the right direction.
4word: What was it like to meet your embryos’ adoptive parents for the first time?
Rebecca: My husband and I had felt a solid connection to our first adoptive family (Dan and Kelli Gassman) right away from their profile, and we were really excited when they decided to have direct communication with us as well! The Gassmans called and said they wanted to meet us (and the kids) when they flew out to do the embryo transfer, since we had just moved back to that same area.
Now, I won’t lie, we were nervous…really nervous! We fell in love with them on paper and had signed over our eleven little snowflakes to them, so we sure hoped that we also loved them in person! Only the four adults met first for dinner. It was like getting ready to show up for your arranged marriage. The arrangement had been made and the contract signed, so you REALLY hoped that you got along because now you’re stuck for life. Well, our fears were massively short lived because all four of us hit it off immediately! We had such a great time that we left the restaurant and went to a coffee shop until it closed, then we went to another café place to hang out some more. The kids also got along great with the Gassmans a few days later. It was like getting together with long-time friends, and each time we have the chance to get together, it continues to feel that way!
We are now blessed to know another adoptive couple, Jeremy and Misti Sanders, who adopted the remaining five snowflakes after the Gassmans had completed their family with the birth of their son and daughter. The initial process of getting to know and meet the Sanders has been more relaxed and less stressful. I will say that we have been more deliberate and patient in our connecting with the Sanders, in terms of being sure the level of communication is done at their own pace and comfort level. We have such a fantastic and completely open relationship with the Gassmans that we’re intentionally mindful of the Sander’s privacy. We have been exceptionally blessed that they, too, desired to have direct communication, and we just recently had the opportunity to meet them.
Chris and I think it is phenomenal that God has used our infertility struggles to bless two other couples, and created lasting friendships among us as well. We might all live in different sections of the United States, but we still connect frequently and have formed friendships that transcend time and space.
4word: You said that God had you and your husband go through the process of IVF to ultimately bring hope and joy to now two other families. What is it like to see your genetic children in this world?
Rebecca: The emotional and mental process of letting go and giving your child(ren) to someone else to raise is not for the faint of heart! Most women who have donated, or are considering donating, their embryos (whether anonymously or through an agency/adoption) struggle through the process of letting go and grieving. Whether it makes sense to someone who has not walked this road or not, it’s a highly difficult and emotional process full of fears, doubts, and questions. The great news is that the fears and doubts are temporary compared to the eternal joy and rewards of letting go and seeing those precious little faces (and the families) that would not have otherwise been given a chance at life!
I’ve been asked, “Was it hard to see pictures of your genetic children when they were born?” The answer is yes and no. Was it tough? Yes – temporarily. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel some pains, doubt, etc. But some of the absolute best things in life have bittersweet components. We were not supposed to go through another IVF transfer. So looking at our two (for now) biological children and knowing that they would never have had a chance at life if we had not given them up, and the joy we were able to give to another family, is truly PRICELESS! We had to look past our own desires, struggles and doubts to see what a blessing the gift of life could be to another family who has also struggled. Looking at the immense joy and huge smiles on the faces of our biological children and our adoptive families make every bit of the process worth it for Chris and I.
Another question I hear is, “How about your own daughters? Do they know about the adoption, and how does it affect them?” We told our daughters about their brother (in a very simplistic way, of course) a few months after he was born. Our daughters were only six and one at the time. The girls listened excitedly and were totally THRILLED to have a little brother! I started a sibling scrapbook for them while Kelli was pregnant and continue to add to it regularly so that the girls can look at it whenever they want.
The girls just LOVE their little brother and sister! They talk about them all the time to anyone and everyone, look at photos, enjoy having Skype calls together, and ask about them frequently. Any chance the girls get to actually see their younger siblings, they absolutely gush and fawn all over them!
4word: Looking back at your journey up until now, what has the act of “getting out of God’s way” allowed to happen in your life?
Rebecca: I am a control freak of the highest order, so the process of letting go of the control panel of my life and getting out of God’s way has been a lifelong struggle. I’m exceptionally grateful that God is patient! I have never questioned that God’s plans are always best and His timing is perfect, because it is absolutely true. Why couldn’t His plans and timing be the same as mine, right?
God has done a great work in my life to temper my natural tendency to want to control things, for which I am very grateful. My biggest heartaches and pain in life have come when I have tried to make something happen in my own way and my own time. It has only been through surrendering control and getting out of God’s way so He could move at the right time and in the right way that I have received the biggest blessings; and found true contentment in life. This is certainly true in living a military life, which comes with frequent moves and the need to release control to God over the stress of moving, finding a new job, new friends, new church, new schools, new doctors, etc.
There is no better example, however, than with our infertility walk. I spent most of the years we were struggling with infertility trying to put God on my timetable. It was only in my complete surrender and willingness to get out of the way so that I could actually listen and hear what God was saying that I experience true guidance and direction. From that point on, plans really fell into place, and it became evident what His guidance and direction was for us.
I had to go through a similar process of surrender when it became evident that God was leading us to donate (or adopt out) our little snowflakes. As I mentioned earlier, it was not easy to let go. But when I was willing to get out of my own head and let go of the fears that gripped me, and to let God be in control, did He really open the doors to healing and release.
And, oh my goodness, look what God did when I got out of His way and plan for our embryos! He helped me understand that they were not created just for me. It’s one thing to have God work miracles through your own trials and tribulations. It is beyond measure for us to have not only received miracles, but to also be used to provide miracles to others!
It never ceases to be amazing what God can accomplish when we let go of our plans and let Him show us His perfect will for our lives. Rebecca’s story is a perfect example of this! Next week, we will talk with Kelli Gassman, the first woman to adopt Rebecca and Chris’ embryos, and learn how the beautiful gift of embryo adoption changed her life forever.
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Rebecca has always had a passion for leadership and management, and worked toward her goals starting at age 15. She received her BS in Business Administration from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC and continued her education by earning an M.A. in Management degree in 2003 from Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA. After graduating college, her husband joined the US Coast Guard which began an exciting life of seeing new places, and gave Rebecca the opportunity to work in a variety of administrative roles where she loved being able to affect change and help departments and companies run more efficiently and effectively. Since having children, God shifted her focus to raising her three daughters to be world changers and using her administrative skills to lead many volunteer groups across the country to improve those organizations and communities in the areas she has lived.