"Reach Out and Do Something for Somebody Else"
This article originally appeared on Thrive Global
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gail Sexton Anderson.
Gail is a Harvard-trained counselor with over 20 years of experience helping intended parents, and one of the fertility industry’s leading innovators and creative thinkers. After doing postgraduate research at Yale, she started two egg donor agencies, became the executive director of one of the top surrogacy programs in the United States, and founded Donor Concierge. Gail is a past Executive Director of the Society for Ethics in Egg Donation & Surrogacy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
My background is in psychology. I have a master’s in counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Twenty-five years ago, I started working in what is often referred to as Third Party Fertility, which basically means when it takes more than two people to create a baby.
Typically, No one grows up thinking “I can’t wait to pick my egg donor so that I can have a baby.” It is a very emotional and difficult decision. Often the medical community approached it like a mathematical equation; if you don’t have good eggs just replace them. But for the intended parent (the future mother or father) who could not be genetically connected to her/his child it is far more complicated.
As I started working with intended parents through egg donor and surrogacy agencies, I found my passion was to help intended parents find what they wanted rather than saying here: want what I have and move on. Eggs are not just widgets in a manufacturing process they are half of what will create a future child and it is easiest for a future parent to make this decision if they feel like they like and know the person.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
I think my most interesting case was helping a transgender woman to create her family. Before she transitioned her mother encouraged her to save her sperm so that someday she would be able to have a child who was genetically related to her. She married and she and her husband were ready to create embryos so they could start planning their family. She and her husband were very supportive of each other and we had the honor of helping them to find an egg donor.
I’ve helped so many couples to create families over the years and this was really no different from the perspective of their desire to form a family. The biggest difference was the intended mothers fear of possible rejection by the donor, and the surrogate. Here is someone who has found love and as a couple they want to share that love by creating a family.
I’m happy to report that they didn’t face any rejection at all. We believe in total transparency and didn’t want to take a chance that anyone involved in helping to create this family might later feel misled. Everyone should be comfortable with who they help to create a family, The donor, surrogate, medical team were all very supportive and the couple are now happy parents.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early days of launching Donor Concierge I knew I needed to get some traction in AdWords so that couples could find me. That year I earned 30,000 dollars. I had spent 25,000 dollars on AdWords. I learned it costs a lot of money to be seen on the internet and I needed to find someone who understood online marketing better.
I reverted to the strength of building relationships by calling on clinics and talking to doctors and clinic staff about the importance of choice for intended parents. There is a balance between finding a donor who feels right to the future parents and also has good ovarian reserve. It is a very nuanced balance.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would have to say that I am most grateful to my husband, Terry Anderson, the Co-Founder of TULIP. He supported me at every step in my desire to be an advocate and liaison for intended parents. I could not have done this without his unwavering support.
I also have an amazing team of women who work for me — most of them have struggled with fertility issues and they sort of ‘found’ this career after realizing that helping others through this journey becomes a passion. My team consists of women who have worked as attorneys, television producers, marketing executives — and three of them speak fluent Mandarin! We’re like a family — we support each other and our clients with as much love and respect as we can.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
There are thousands of individuals and couples each year who are looking for the right egg donor to complete their family. Finding a donor is extremely disjointed. Many people are not even aware of their options. They leave their fertility clinic devastated by the news that they need an egg donor and are handed maybe a few agencies to review or the limited options of their clinic’s in-house donor database. This can work for some people, but in my experience, it’s important to find a donor who feels like she’d fit into your family — if there are things that are important to you, like religion or ethnicity, it’s not always an easy task.
Before TULIP if you were looking for an egg donor you would have to register on each egg donor agency, log in with a password and learn how to navigate each site which are all a bit different. Then they would need to keep track of who they liked and what site they were on. This is a hugely emotional decision and having to go from site to site is overwhelming for most people.
It has been my dream for many years to help people to find what they need with a supportive and less chaotic process. Many couples walk away from fertility treatment if they can’t find the right egg donor — someone who looks like they could fit into their family.
I wanted to take that frustration and emotional turmoil out of the donor search. TULIP has aggregated donors from 90% of the agencies in the U.S. (close to 20,000 egg donors) on one site. They can set up a portfolio of their favorite donor candidates and collect all of the donors they like in one place and even rank them in order of preference. They can communicate with the agencies through a portal without ever leaving the TULIP site.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
Get support from a mental health professional, and more importantly, someone who specializes in assisted reproduction and fertility issues.
Restructure your perspective on family building in a positive way.
Don’t be afraid to grieve — letting go of your genetics is a loss and it’s okay to feel sad and angry. It’s a necessary step to accepting the egg donation process.
Learn to let go. None of us are in control.
Reach outside of yourself and do something for someone else — it’s very easy to get lost in your own struggles. Helping others can also benefit your own healing and help you to move forward.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
If I could start a movement it would be one of transparency and support around donor conception and gestational surrogacy. Egg donation is sort of the last ‘taboo’ in fertility treatment. I would hope that those who need a donor would feel more comfortable sharing their stories to help others. I believe that there is so much to be gained from openness and honesty. That’s why I lean toward the idea of having a national registry of donors. We need to think beyond conception. When a couple is trying to conceive it is their story. Once they have that baby in their arms, it is their family’s story and their child may want or need more information in the future. With the availability of DNA testing, there is no such thing as anonymity. And there’s also no shame in having a different sort of family creation story.
I encourage families to be open with their children right from the beginning and start talking about how their family was created. Practice while you are pregnant so that you get comfortable with your family origins story. Create a book where you and your child are the stars and the grandparents, doctors, nurses and the donor are all supporting characters. Children love to hear stories about themselves and they don’t have preconceived ideas about what is “normal.” There are so many ways that families are created, and each family is complete and perfect just how it is and there is nothing missing. You might have a two-day family, a one dad family, a mom and a dad, two mom’s or one mom. We need to change our lexicon on how families are formed to embrace reality.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
Network Network Network — it’s the only way to build up relationships. I visited hundreds of fertility clinics, multiple times, until people started to understand what I do. Many of them had never considered the idea that their patients might want support through this journey.
Don’t get discouraged! When you have a clear vision and keep listening to that little voice that’s shouting ‘you’re on the right path! It may take longer than you think it will — sometimes it may seem like the timeline for startups is ‘idea, development, success’. That’s misleading. Ignore what you THINK you SHOULD achieve and focus on what you CAN achieve.
Don’t keep looking over your shoulder at who you think is coming up behind you. Keep looking forward and don’t look over your shoulder at who you perceive to be the competition.
There are always new ways to look at any problem. Third party fertility is always a twisty road — when you’re dealing with so many people from the fertility clinics, to egg donors, agencies, surrogates — things don’t always go according to plan. I tell my staff that we’re in the business of solving problems and no problem is too great to solve.
Do the right thing and people will come — take care of people. Don’t focus on the money. I remember thinking, if I could pay for just one semester of my son’s college tuition, I would have accomplished something. I didn’t go into this to make money; I went into it to help people. Success isn’t just monetary — it’s the birth announcements and testimonials that make it so satisfying.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Mental health is, and always will be my passion. Infertility is a silent plague that people don’t talk about and the more secretive the infertilite are the more alone others who are also suffering from infertility feel. Many people try to work through their struggle to become parents in a vacuum without realizing that they are far from alone. Infertility is quite common. The fact that one is having difficulty conceiving is painful not shameful.
Natural conception at its peak is about 20% if all things are optimal. By the time a woman is in her late thirties’ early forties her chances of conceiving naturally with her own eggs are down to 5% or less.
If more people were willing to speak up about their fertility challenges and admit they needed to use an egg donor to create their family they could be encouraging to so many women who are struggling rather than saying well this famous person had a baby at 45 I can too. Very few women (less than 1%) are conceiving with their own eggs at 45.
— Published on December 25, 2020