This blog addresses various emotional aspects of experiencing infertility. It is written by a clinical psychologist who specializes in infertility counseling. Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your journey!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Our emotional relationship with embryos created in IVF: some thoughts

I have been having a problem lately keeping the pet fish in our tank alive. Despite my best efforts at following all of the rules (feeding properly, changing the water often, etc), watching the fish closely, and medicating them if necessary, I have somehow become the fish equivalent of the Grim Reaper. All of this has been upsetting, but also has felt eerily familiar. When I noticed the latest victim floating at the top of the tank at 4 am today, it occurred to me that this is because this is very similar to how I have felt about the many embryos my husband and I created through our IVFs--despite all my best efforts, I couldn't seem to keep most of those alive either.

In some ways, the argument about when life begins seems like a nonstarter to me. I know all too well that an embryo is not necessarily a person. True, it contains the potential to become a person--perhaps, if all the conditions are right. But I also know that an embryo can break your heart. When people bemoan the thousands of embryos that are frozen in storage at IVF clinics around the world, it shows me that they haven't spent enough time hanging around with embryos. I know that many of those embryos would never have a chance of becoming a baby in the first place.

It is a interesting side effect of our modern age that we can now develop an emotional relationship (albeit a probably one-sided one) with embryos. During an IVF cycle, it is very easy to develop fantasies about the embryos we create. Looking at their pictures, we can imagine them growing into our beloved children. We pin all of our hopes on them. It seems to be almost a universal psychological aspect of IVF, especially in the first couple of cycles. A friend of mine, during her first IVF, created 24 embryos. She celebrated, sure she would get pregnant with that kind of haul. "It's enough for a baseball team!", she exclaimed, as we popped the champagne. She didn't get pregnant, though, and none of those embryos survived to Day 5. She didn't get pregnant in any of her ensuing IVFs, either. Not to worry, she and her husband adopted two incredibly smart, lovely girls, and are completely happy with their family, as they should be.

As for me, my first IVF was not so fruitful. I had 4 embryos that had any serious chance of success. I remember planting four plants in my garden to commemorate them. The plants later died. One of the embryos got me pregnant, only to miscarry at 7 weeks. To honor him (chromosomal testing revealed it was a boy), I planted a shrub in my garden, only it didn't take root. The next spring, I kept waiting for it to start to grow again, to no avail. I think I finally gave up in July. I planted St. John's Wort in the same spot instead--for its antidepressant properties if nothing else.
It did just fine.

Such experiences, along with the experiences I witness among my clients, make me wonder if getting emotionally attached to embryos is at all wise. However, the same experiences also make me wonder if getting attached to embryos is somehow unavoidable. Even the most veteran, jaded IVF patient seems to harbor secret, unspoken fantasies about his or her embryos, although they are long past the point of celebrating them or commemorating them in a garden. What makes this so hard is that although not all embryos are going to turn into babies, some indeed do--and it's hard to definitively tell which ones are capable of doing that at the outset. In contrast to my first IVF cycle, my last cycle was with our one last, remaining, frozen embryo, created four years ago. We cycled to complete our infertility story, but without expectation that it would result in a baby. Now, at 33 weeks pregnant, it appears this embryo had other plans, and we are hoping for a good outcome in October. But to be honest, I never would have guessed it was possible.

If you are undergoing IVF, I would caution you to try to remember that an embryo is a possibility, not a promise, of a child. However, if you find yourself having lots of feelings and fantasies about your embryos, I think that's probably par for the course. The important thing is to acknowledge how you feel and give yourself permission to process these feelings, no matter what happens in your cycle.


  1. Lovely post as usual Lisa although have I missed something? I never realised you were pregnant!

  2. What a great post that speaks to so much of what I felt about my embryos. I truely did believe that life began at fertilisation until I have produced 6 embryos over three cycles none of which stuck around. It was at that point that I realised that for me maybe life was oly beginning once it embeded in a womb? So harrd though and now as I also sit here pregnant with twins from our 4th IVF from embryos 7,8&9 I still can't figure out why these one's stuck around while the others just broke my heart.

    A great post, thank you.

  3. Great read. The part "an embryo is a possibility, not a promise" really touched me. I had 16 embryos, one son, and still have 5 left. And while we have decided not to pursue any further treatment, I have developed some sort of attachment to them, and the thought of "getting rid" of them, makes me feel in way that I am not giving them a chance at life.

  4. Lisa - I think it is good to have a relationship with the embryos. You can still practice detachment from the process/ outcome, but I think if these are being made from you and your partner, of course there is going to be a relationship.
    By the way, congrats on the pregnancy! Wonderful!

  5. OMG congrats Lisa! I am at 32 wks, so we r close :) A great post as always.