Liz Krainman and 4-month-old Sammy are your typical happy, healthy mother and daughter. Strangers stop to ask, “How old?” and comment on how much Sammy looks like her mom.
They’d never guess the extraordinary journey it took to bring Sammy into the world.
Krainman, 33, has severe diminished ovarian reserve, a condition that leaves her unable to have genetic children. So she and her husband Kevin, 37, turned to the little-known option of embryo adoption to start their family.
And Sammy? In 2006, 1,700 miles away from the Krainmans’ Austin, Texas, home, she was just a newly fertilized, 6-day-old embryo – the product of another couple’s IVF cycle – put on ice in a storage facility. Seven years later, that very embryo would be thawed and transferred into Krainman’s uterus. Nine months after that, Sammy was born.
Follow all that? It’s a mind-boggling process, even for the new mom herself.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how boggled my mind is,” she says. “I can’t even wrap my head around it.”
In the IVF world, unused embryos are typically discarded or donated to science, but a third option exists and is slowly gaining popularity: embryo adoption.
Krainman found two donors, Vicky Rauchle and Libby Kranz, on the Internet.
First, she found Rauchle on Miracles Waiting, an embryo donation site, and she found Kranz through a traditional adoption forum online. Krainman underwent three attempts at pregnancy with the donated embryos. The first two attempts ended in early miscarriages.
On her third attempt, one embryo from each donor was transferred into her uterus, and she maintained a healthy pregnancy. But until her child was born, she would not know which “batch” the baby came from.
Here, in her own words, Krainman and her husband tell PEOPLE exclusively about her unique road to motherhood.
What appealed to you about embryo adoption?
I had always been open to traditional adoption, but when I learned embryo adoption existed, something just clicked and felt right for us. I wanted to experience pregnancy. I wanted to offer love to a child who needed it. I wanted to experience birth. Embryo adoption seemed like such an interesting and unexplored path to parenthood, and it seemed like an amazing and exciting thing to be a part of.
With so many unwanted children in the world, why not adopt that way?
I believe life begins at conception. Therefore, these embryos are life. They deserve an opportunity to grow and live and be loved just as any child deserves. These are little humans who happen to be nine months younger. And secondly, while those who have not struggled with infertility may think traditional adoption is easy, it’s not. This notion that “just adopting” is as simple as going to the corner baby store to pick up one of thousands of unwanted babies is simply untrue. There are families on long waiting lists for newborns in the U.S., and many times international adoption is riddled with bureaucracy, extraordinary expense, fraud, etc. Sadly, there are no guarantees on any path to parenthood. It’s just about choosing what is right for your own family.
How did your husband feel about the idea of embryo adoption?
KEVIN: I knew very little of embryo adoption in the early days of our infertility. The ironic thing is that we actually said that if we had any remaining embryos from previous IVF cycles of our own, that we would want to donate them to a loving couple unsuccessful in IVF. Little did we know that we were going to be that family. In the end, we matched up with two incredible, selfless and amazing families. Unlike traditional adoption, my wife would experience pregnancy. I would feel my baby kick, go on late night ice cream runs and watch my wife give birth to our child.
LIZ: Before infertility, we started with the mind-set of, “We will be able to have kids whenever we want to.” Then: “Maybe it will take more time than we thought.” Then: “We might need IVF, but at least that will be the answer.” And finally: “IVF won’t even work for us.” Each step takes acceptance. And coming to terms with having a child who is not genetically related to us was no different. But as with most things in life, everything was meant to happen the way it did so we could have this little girl we have today. We wouldn’t change a thing.
Why was being pregnant so important to you?
I’d always thought in the back of my mind that if I couldn’t have children, I’d adopt. I always felt that family wasn’t about genetics, it’s about love. When the reality came true for me that I couldn’t have genetic children, I had to grieve the imagined moments when I’d let my husband feel those first kicks or when I’d wake him up in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. That was a hard pill to swallow. When I learned that I could both adopt and experience pregnancy, I can’t even describe the overwhelming feeling I had.
Being pregnant with this miracle has made everything so much sweeter. I’d lie in silence in the mornings and feel the baby move and would feel overwhelming gratitude and joy. I know that this way of building a family may not be for everyone. But to me, every single aspect of pregnancy, the good and the bad, was not taken for granted because I had faced the reality that it might never have happened at all.
You refer to Sammy as a “snowflake.” Tell us about that term.
In our embryo adoption community, we sometimes lovingly call our frozen embryos snowflakes. It fits them perfectly! Each is a tiny, delicate, frozen being, and no two are exactly alike. They are God’s gift from heaven! Even though Sammy is no longer frozen, she is always going to be my Sammy Snowflake.
How much does embryo adoption cost?
It isn’t nearly as expensive as one might think. It’s usually much less than a typical IVF cycle. With IVF, you are creating embryos from scratch and it’s much more involved, therefore expensive.
In general, it costs $3,500 to $12,000 per attempt. For us, it cost between $6,000 and $7,000 per attempt and we had partial insurance coverage. Some clinics will do the whole process anonymously for closer to the $3,500 point. We did it all on our own. Donors typically ask for reimbursement for the storage, so that’s one cost, plus the medical cost for the transfer, shipping costs to get the embryos sent, and a contract between the parties. You don’t actually pay for the embryo itself – it’s illegal. [Editor’s note: Technically speaking, an embryo adoption is a transfer of property, rather than a traditional adoption, which makes the contract a relatively simple one, stating that the genetic parents have no rights to any resulting children.]
Some people may think this process is immoral or goes against God. How do you feel about that?
I very much disagree with this. I have a firm belief in God and know He always has a hand in this process. Man may put the pieces of science together to form an embryo and to freeze it, but God puts the life and soul into these babies, just as He does any other baby. If man were in charge, it would work every time. I think it’s incredibly arrogant to think that we actually create the life itself. We perform the miracles of science. God performs the miracle of life.
I strongly believe that this is not immoral or inappropriate. It is beautiful and the answer to prayers for both donor families and recipients who feel these embryos deserve a chance.
How do you plan to explain to Sammy the process by which she was born?
This was one of my main concerns when we first started thinking about embryo adoption. I did a lot of research and felt that open adoption would be right for us. I wanted our future child to have the option to know the family where she came from, and ideally have open communication with them. We talked to a psychologist who specialized in children born of donor gametes. One thing she reinforced for us is that these children deserve to know they came from embryo adoption and there shouldn’t be a time they didn’t know. We have decided we always want her beautiful story to be her “normal.”
We decided to capture her story in a personalized book we will read to her. We will describe her as a baby seed. Something like: All families need baby seeds to have babies, but sometimes a mom and dad need help. A nice family with baby seeds gave us theirs to help us grow you in my tummy. We will further illustrate this with growing a garden and have regular discussions around it. As Sammy gets older, we will openly answer questions about it. We don’t want it to be a secret. Secrets imply shame and her origins are anything but shameful. It took the love of so many people to bring her into this world and it’s something to be celebrated.
What is your relationship with the embryo donors?
We love them as though they are our extended family and couldn’t be more proud of where Sammy came from. No one could have predicted that Sammy’s genetic family would endure the tragic loss of their eldest daughter, Jennifer, during my pregnancy with Sammy. But Libby and Tony have been incredible in not only making this possible for us, but in giving us their support and love despite their family tragedy. We are grateful to them beyond words. I get teary-eyed thinking about my gratitude – it’s a level I never even knew was possible.
Did you have any concerns about having a child this way?
KEVIN: The only real concern I had was that I thought I may feel like our child was “on loan” from our donor family. Would this child truly be our own? I think this is a fairly normal feeling for any parent-to-be who goes through either the traditional or embryo adoption route. You quickly realize that this is just not the case. Throughout Liz’s pregnancy, genetics played less and less of a role in my mind. This baby growing inside of her now had a heartbeat that was being sustained by my wife. What she ate, what she did.
When the morning came to meet our little girl I was both nervous and on top of the world. I knew that from that day forward our lives would never be the same. Then I saw my precious Sammy for the first time. Saying that the birth of a child is the happiest day in a person’s life doesn’t even come close. At that moment, all the years of sadness, hopelessness and loss vanished in an instant and when I heard my daughter’s first cries I followed suit. The only word that can describe that moment is “sacred.” This was the little girl that we were supposed to have and whom we had been waiting for our entire lives.
What do you want others to know about embryo adoption?
I think that many times couples who have leftover embryos don’t wish to donate them to science or destroy them, yet they don’t even know this third option exists! Not every embryo will result in a living, breathing child. Sadly, many of them do not. But it’s important to both the donating families and the recipient families they are given this chance. For the people who struggle to build their family but cannot, I would like them to know this option exists too.
Infertility and loss has produced some of the harshest pain I have ever known. And the saddest part to me is that there is a huge community of those who suffer in silence. I want others to not only know that they are not alone, but that there is another family-building option they may not be aware of. I hope that others can find success and joy in it just as we have. Even if I make a difference for just one person, it’s all worth it.
For much more on Krainman’s embryo donor, Libby Kranz, and the relationship the women share today, check back on PEOPLE.com Tuesday