The Search for My Egg Donor: The Katie Show’s Feel Good TV With Not So Good Labels

Did you catch Wednesday’s episode of the Katie Show?

Katie Show Search For My Egg Donor

No, I wasn’t on it.*

But the first half of the show was entitled “The Search for My Egg Donor” and focused on a young, remarkably poised 16-year old, Brittan Gilmore, reuniting with her mother’s egg donor, JoLana. Here’s a clip with their story (an ad might play before the clip):

If you’re a parent via egg donation or considering the egg donor path, you may have noticed a couple of red flags in this clip.

Right off the bat, the classic “reunion” story makes for great TV. It’s a feel-good puff piece from a very cursory understanding of the situation. Some people find these reunion narratives a bit icky and voyeuristic and in some ways, they are. Their egg donor, JoLana, has two other daughters of her own; Brittan was under the impression that she was only meeting JoLana but was surprised to find out she was also meeting her half-siblings.

Personally, I was uncomfortable watching this unfold later in the episode – not because it didn’t go well or was bad TV – far from it. I just felt like I had no business witnessing what is otherwise a private moment between families. Again, that’s just my personal opinion on it.

But let’s get into some more specifics about this episode of the Katie Show.

What the Katie Show Got Right About Egg Donation.

Compassionate open donor relationships.
Brittan admitted that her parents were candid and open with her from day one about her donor conception. She recounted how her parents used a children’s book to talk about egg donation with her. (If I had to guess, I bet it was probably Mommy, Was Your Tummy Big? by Carolina Nadel.) For Brittan’s parents, Janet and Jim, their use of an egg donor in their family building journey was not a point of shame or something to be hidden. As someone who also shares a very open relationship with our donor, and especially considering since it is a known relationship, the level of compassionate openness in Brittan’s family is very empowering to witness.

Empowering donor-conceived families to explore openness.
Their expert guest on donor-conceived families was Wendy Kramer, co-founder and director of the Donor Sibling Registry. A mother via anonymous sperm donor herself, Wendy created the DSR to connect donor-conceived children to their egg and sperm donors. The DSR seeks to provide a safe, secure avenue for contact and eventually exchange of direct contact information if both parties agree. To date, the DSR has provided over 11,000 matches.

I really appreciated what Wendy had to say about those seeking to reconnect with their donors:

“It’s an amazing journey… you go slow, like you guys, you’re very respectful of each other’s boundaries and I think that’s really important – and then you just have time and patience. And then nurture it. And don’t be so connected to the results and the end result of what you’re going to have, but just enjoy the journey.”

Validating the needs of donor-conceived children to know their complete identity.
It was clear that Brittan felt a need to know more about her identity and how she came to be. I think it’s instinctual for us all to feel that way when we’re young and figuring out who we are, our place in the world, and what we might set out to accomplish with our lives. When you dig deeper, this egg donor reunion story is more than just good TV: it paves the way for donor-conceived children to ask their parents about their origins, and for parents to respect a very real need for their children to know more about who they are.

Beyond mere existential value, it’s important too for donor-conceived children to know more about their donors for the purposes of building complete medical histories over time. Like I said, at face value, this was a great feel-good piece on egg donor reunification.

However.

What the Katie Show Got Really, Really Wrong About Egg Donation.

Egg donors are not “biological mothers” and should not be referred to as such.
Parental labels within third-party family building are a wealth of loaded language: donors, birth parents, first parents, surrogates, “real” moms – it can get complicated.

The use of “biological mother” in this egg donor context was kind of a biggie that stuck out for me within the first three minutes of the show. Brittan herself refers to JoLana as her biological mother in the intro piece before the segment above with Katie, as she describes a card she got from her mom: “…and it told me that she was my egg donor and that she was my biological mom.”

Katie then follows up with this line of questioning on stage: “And there was a time, a time did come Brittan, when you got more and more curious about your biological mother. Obviously I know Brittan you adore your mom and dad, and they love and adore you as well, but why was this important? What did you feel was missing?”

And then there was this:

sothatjusthappened

Oh, and in case you missed it on the show description page on the Katie Show website:

No Katie Couric, An Egg Donor is Not a Biological Mother

What’s the issue here? An egg donor is not a biological mother. Period. End of sentence. Calling an egg donor a donor-conceived child’s biological mother is a simply incorrect statement. Let’s have a quick lesson on some basic terminology in the donor egg community, shall we? At best, an egg donor could be labeled a “genetic mother.” The woman who carried the pregnancy is the child’s biological mother. Janet, not JoLana, is Brittan’s biological mother.

Genetically, JoLana is Brittan’s “mother” – and yes, the use of quotes is deliberate. Mother is a very loaded word. JoLana isn’t Brittan’s mother the way Janet is her mother: she didn’t carry the pregnancy, birth the child, or contribute in any way to her raising. JoLana may not have even known that that particular donation cycle resulted in a positive pregnancy. There’s far too many degrees of separation for JoLana to be considered Brittan’s “real” mom.

Oy. “Real mom.” See what I mean about loaded language?

The fact that Brittan’s family considers JoLana and her family a “second family” to Brittan isn’t a problem. In fact, that’s awesome! But repeatedly calling JoLana Brittan’s “donor mom” or “biological mother” is not only wrong, it’s just off-putting to parents via egg donation or couples considering the egg donation path who may have been tuned in.

Let’s look at it another way. There seems to be a misunderstanding that language commonly associated with the adoption community is somehow interchangeable in a donor conception situation, when in truth, it’s not. One represents the legal transfer of care of a living, breathing human being; the other represents a legal transfer of human tissue. We don’t call birth mothers “child donors” the same way we don’t call egg donors “biological mothers.” It’s an inaccurate and patently false label.

I’ll be perfectly candid: as the mother of a child via donor conception, I struggled with the idea of replacement. Was I really going to be my child’s mother? Granted, I felt this fear of replacement well before Judah ever got here and it’s a common fear felt by women considering egg donation. Once I found out I was pregnant and especially so once Judah was born, that fear all but vanished. If you think about it for a moment, it’s not unfounded: an egg donor replaces genetic material we would have otherwise provided. This fear taps right into Darwinian evolutionary theory: our genes aren’t making it to the next round.

Calling an egg donor a “biological mother” reinforces that fear. Again, I can say confidently that fear pretty much vanishes once you have your child, but it seems so all-consuming at the onset of the donor egg journey.

In that regard, I find the Katie Show’s repeated use of the term “biological mother” irresponsible at best and sloppy research and reporting at worst. Seriously – a segment producer could have verified the fact that “donor mom” isn’t even a term with a ten-minute Google search.

The Takeaways from Wednesday’s Show.

Openness good. Incorrect family labels bad. Smiles, hugs and tears for all.

What do you think? Did you watch the Katie Show “The Search for My Egg Donor” this week? Sound off in the comments.


*For folks that have been asking, “Hey, what ever happened to that time you were supposed to be on The Katie Show?” well, here’s the backstory…

In August 2012, just before our IVF cycle, the Katie Show contacted me about having me as the lead patient narrative for a show on infertility. We talked several times on the phone and a few weeks later, a Katie Show producer came to my house with her assistant. They spent ten hours taking over my house and filming me and my husband, including interviews and a shit ton of B-roll footage. Granted, this was the same day our egg donor arrived at our house for the week leading up to her retrieval at my clinic. (Brilliant timing.) They had me do a ton of video diaries on my own for weeks and even wanted me to wait to announce the results of my cycle live on the show. The timing was too much of a shit show, so that never happened. Instead, we filmed our clinic calling us with our beta results.

They promised me I’d go to New York for taping in late October. Then early November. Then they kept pushing the segment back. And pushing it back. And pushing it back. We got all the way into early 2013 and my contacts at The Katie Show had long since stopped answering my emails and phone calls. I found out a few weeks later that the producer I had worked with didn’t even work there anymore. I figured they had no interest in me anymore (despite some great footage and interviews) so I stopped calling and emailing. Shame is: they’ve had multiple shows on some aspect of infertility and a guest already keyed up with expository footage ready to go for almost two years now. Their loss.

That’s showbiz, I guess.

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Comments

  1. says

    I didn’t watch the show because in the 15-second “teaser” about the segment, the donor is referred to as the teenager’s “donor mom,” and Katie herself introduced the donor as she comes onto the stage in this fashion: “Meet your biological mom.”

    I have no problem with the child being curious about her donor or with the family having whatever relationship with the donor each side feels is appropriate. However, as a mother of two children conceived with the use of donated ova, I felt that if the show couldn’t bother to be factually accurate in the terminology used about a topic being highlighted, I couldn’t be bothered to watch.

    • says

      I struggled with watching the show myself, to be honest. Not just because of my awkward history with the show, but because of the sensationalist tone to the whole reunion. It really was a lovely show, but again – the terminology piece is huge for the donor egg/sperm community. Thanks for commenting!

    • says

      Perfectly said.

      I also don’t want to give any more traffic to her site; and it’s kinder to myself (18 weeks pregnant via egg donation) to stay away from the doubly ignorant comments that will ensue…

  2. says

    I didn’t see the show, but I’m disappointed to learn they didn’t take more care in being accurate about relationships and terminology. It’s too easy to get things wrong and reinforce existing misconceptions about complicated situations like egg donation.

    • says

      It’s true. That was my biggest issue is that even outside of the donor egg/sperm parent community, there are people in the general audience tuning into the show who were just getting introduced to the subtleties of egg donation. Repeatedly using the wrong terminology was a real missed opportunity for accurate reporting and information sharing.

  3. says

    I didn’t see the show, but I had the same reaction to the use of terms. It isn’t just that “donor mom” and “biological mother” aren’t the accepted terms, they are also wrong from a biological perspective. Biological motherhood can only be achieved in mammals if gestation occurs. Human mothers are not fish, and we’re also not men (i.e., egg donation is not equivalent to sperm donation). Without gestation, no baby. Those are the facts of biology. In fact, biological motherhood in mammals involves the production of genetic material, the epigenetic modification of genetic material during gestation, physiological support for the growing embryo, birth, lactation (or an alternative feeding method), and infant care. All of those are necessary for reproduction. Most are usually performed by a single woman (perhaps with some community help with infant care). In the case of egg donation, the donor did the first thing, whereas the mother did everything else. It is really interesting seeing how obsessed our society is with DNA to the exclusion of everything else.

    • says

      I just take a step back for a moment on the use of the word mother at all. Neither myself nor our donor consider her my child’s “mother.” And it would appear in this particular donor and family dynamic, maybe they do. The unfortunate thing is that the Katie Show decided to present this as the “standard” when it’s incredibly far from the norm in the broader donor egg community.

  4. Kelly Clements says

    I think this is taking the show way out of context and making a stance about something virtually irrelevant. All professions, industries, etc have their own language and terminology. These get interchanged and overlooked on television everyday. The segment on Katie was a feel good piece and education on the donor registry. I can only hope that the segment gave more families access to their donor if they so need or desire. Regardless of terminology each family has to do what works for them. Best of luck to them all!

  5. JoLana Talbot says

    My hope is that the “terms” used did not set aback any parent, IP, donor or more so children from understanding the basis behind the show. I get that it’s a sensitive subject, I obviously am very emotional about it. Not just my story, everyone’s.

    Are there really industry wide terms that are standard and or used? In our story the terms used were those of the family. If they felt comfortable in using them, who is anyone to say otherwise.

    In our story, we fully know who Brittan’s Mom is. Janet is mature and secure enough not to feel threatened by me. We are not taking away the fact that she carried her, birthed her, raised her, and nurtured every single day of Brittan’s life. Trust me, other than genetic looks, Brittan’s life is nothing like mine. I prefer to be a wallflower, cannot sing, dance and definitely not musically inclined in any way, shape or form. Janet and Jim made her who she is. We as a family do share very close morals and beliefs.

    I fully understand my role in Brittan’s life as well as Jim and Janet’s. We are a family. It’s not just Brittan and I. If, I didn’t fully understand and respect this, I would have never donated in such a way or made myself available to be found.

    What Janet and Jim are doing is allowing their daughter to come to terms with the way she was conceived. I can think of a few other words I would choose not to be called other than “mom”

    We have all agreed from the first contact, even before we were a confirmed match- my role was to be a positive and healthy role model for Brittan and likewise for my daughters. I would not have it any other way.

    I donated hoping and praying to give families a chance at being parents, not to have them feel threatened that I would ever be a “mommy”. I donated so that others could feel the overwhelming love for a child as I had my own. These women and men gave everything financially, mentally, emotionally and physically to bring these children into the world…I am honored to be a part of that.

    Please know this is our story, it may not be the same for the next or even should I ever get the chance to meet others families I have helped. I have and still maintained the fact that I will always respect the parents wishes. I would never want anyone to under-mind me in my role with my two daughters.

    Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better- Maya Angelou

    I couldn’t imagine life without my two daughters; now I can’t imagine life without my new family.

    • says

      JoLana, I’m honored that you have come to this space to comment! Thank you so much and welcome here! :)

      First, as a mom via egg donor myself, I have to say a huge thank you to you for the kind of selfless contribution that you and thousands of other women like you make as egg donors. Without women like you, women like me wouldn’t be able to be moms. The well of gratitude is deep and overflowing.

      Second, I think the openness with which you were able to share with Brittan, her family and yours is marvelous. Our donor was known to us (and I invite you to sit through my blog archives to learn more about my journey), so I am a huge advocate for openness when it comes to donor conception.

      I hope you didn’t feel that my post minimized the amazing contribution you’ve made to Brittan and her family; I realize a day removed from this post, it could come across that way. I apologize if that’s how I came across bc I certainly didn’t mean that.

      There is no set Dictionary of ART Family Language, obviously. But within the donor parent community, there tend to be standard labels. Calling an egg donor a biological mom isn’t part of the group norm and is factually wrong. Now, if this is language that is shared by you, Brittan and her family as a point of self-labeling, that’s fine. That’s what works for your family dynamic and that’s great!

      “Katie” is a wide-reaching show produced to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. When presenting your egg donor story, repeatedly using terms outside the cultural norm can be problematic for our community. You’re right in that language like “biological mom” undermines our roles as parents, however irrational that may seem; but remember too, as women who are faced with a Darwinian exclusion, it comes from a place of deep instinctual self-preservation and perpetuation.

      Like I said, it was sloppy research and I would have expected better from a journalist like Katie Couric (if anything, this speaks volumes of her producers and staff).

      I absolutely applaud you, Brittan, Janet and Jim for bringing awareness not only to the donor egg path as a beautiful way of building ones family in the wake of infertility, but of also raising awareness to the beauty of open donor relationships. Anonymous egg donation is still very much like the 1950s adoption world: closed and secretive. Stories like yours show that openness is possible and productive, and that families shouldn’t be ashamed or secretive about their child’s donor-conceived origins.

      The Katie Show got a lot right, but it was this one piece that was reiterated throughout the show and on the show website that was unintentionally damaging and illustrative of poor research on the part of the show – not you or Brittan’s family.

      Thank you again for commenting here and I welcome the opportunity for more discussion!

      • JoLana Talbot says

        Thank you!

        Our intentions in going out for the world to see was never bring negative to the process.

        We wanted to show that families can join together in a healthy mature way. Kinda take the “scary” out of it.

        This goes w there is a lot more education needed.

        I am here in any way!

  6. says

    (I am obviously late to the party because I didn’t realise, Keiko, that you were a mom thanks to egg donation!)

    I’m 18 weeks pregnant thanks to our egg donor and am learning that the language is very tricky. So much is innocently (perhaps understandably) borrowed from adoption. I don’t know how we will refer to our donor’s role with our kid/s–she’s my and my husband’s donor, but not our kids’ donor, technically–but I know that “genetic mother” is not going to be one of them. It sure as hell ain’t gonna be “biological mother” — that’s me!

    Were I not on this particular path to motherhood, I’m sure I would have used similar inaccurate language. But I wholeheartedly agree that the media needs to do their research and consult with the experts, something Katie Couric did not do. For example, where was the psychologist to walk Brittan and her family through this process? What if it had been even slightly traumatic for these families? Once again, the media has treated egg donation as a sensationalist issue and exploited two families’ stories.

  7. says

    One of the reasons why you say the terminology used is so important is that using the term “biological mother,” while incorrect (“genetic mother” is more apt) it’s also “off-putting to parents via egg donation or couples considering the egg donation path who may have been tuned in.”

    I concur with the accuracy notion, but I don’t agree that we should avoid using terminology that may make people considering parenting via donor eggs uncomfortable. In fact, I think they need to find all their areas of discomfort and bring them forward to be dealt with. Because if the parents don’t resolve their issues, the child may have to face those (as well as her own).

    And one thing I’ve learned from being an adoptive mom is that we can talk about labels and terms of endearment all we want, but once the child begins to come into her own, SHE will decide what to call the various people who make her her, sometimes experimenting along the way.

    I really like how Janet embraces a Both/And heartset with Brittan and JoLana. As Katie pointed out, we seem somewhat wired for the Either/Or mindset (I discuss the Both/And heartset extensively in the book I wrote with my daughter’ birth mom, “The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole”).

    Very thought-provoking post, Keiko!

  8. Bren says

    Giving birth to a child does not a mother make. Our donor conceived child was brought into this world via gestational carrier. Make no mistake. I am the mother. And while I sincerely acknowledge the selflessness of those who helped us build our family we gave up a great deal to build that family including genetics and the experience of pregnancy. Anyone who suggests that anyone other than myself is the biological mother threatens the one thing that is truly mine in this journey.

  9. marilynn says

    I think first I want to compliment the poster who is raising donor offspring herself. I’m pretty much the last person to compliment people raising donor offspring because, very often they are not dialed into the lack of equal rights that donor offspring and their relatives are subjected to. I think you are very much in tune with them being treated justly. I don’t understand why you would say that a gamete donor who has offspring was something other than a biological mother though. A biological mother does not need to give birth she just needs to be the source of another person’s biology no different than would a bio father. You said that she could be called a genetic mother but not a biological one which in fact does not make sense. What part of genetics is not biological and what part of biology is not genetic? It means the same thing. Now a woman’s pregnancy experience is her own and her own biological pregnancy experience but the pregnancy (ie the fetus) and the born individual will not be hers biologically. They will be biologically that of whomever was the source of the biology.

    I do understand how pregnancy is a biological experience for the woman gestating and that belongs to her alone but the fetus she gestates is not hers biologically nor is the person she delivers since the biological source is not her but someone else. You show tremendous compassion and are far more in tune with the needs of separated families than most women raising donor offspring. I just hate to see you get the science wrong. I’m afraid many women lie to the kids they delivered by claiming to be bio mothers when they are birth mothers of record and that’s where it ends. Social mothers of course but I mean in terms of being a bio mom, they lie and the kid finds out and then just can’t have an honest relationship with someone whose that deep in denial about her role in their life.

  10. marilynn says

    Hey you may not consider her a mother but any woman who has offspring is a mother at the very least biologically. There is no way around that. Her child will know that as well when they get to school if they learn it different at home it will make the people raising them seem shifty.

    Please check out what the ASRM Says. http://www.asrm.org/topics/detail.aspx?id=3634

    Keep in mind that they are very much in favor of promoting gamete donation – but facts are facts.

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