I’m not sure if I differ from any other donor egg recipient mums. The wrong side of 35 (I put my career first) my husband and I started trying for a baby and assumed we’d get pregnant naturally. Well… we did after a few weeks but unfortunately, we suffered our first loss at eight weeks.
After eight years of trying again (and again!) unsuccessfully to get pregnant, we went to our GP then waited a year to be referred to an NHS fertility clinic.
Having been put through one too many invasive tests (you know the ones!) we were told our infertility was “unexplained”. What? After all the prodding and poking, we still had no answers and no solution to becoming parents? What next? Give up?
The specialists told us they couldn’t help as I was too old (and overweight for the Scottish IVF rules) and there were no options open to us. We didn’t want to go down the IVF route but that’s when it was *our* decision.
We decided to go private instead. After more tests, we met the consultant who told us we had a 23% chance of IVF working with my eggs. I was really disappointed with the results but my age was a major factor, I was 42 at that point. He gave us the choice of going on the egg donor waiting list, as our success rate would be higher – 50/70%. We decided there and then to choose the donor route, as we saw the chance of becoming parents slipping away from us. We also figured it would cost a lot of money and emotional stress to keep trying with my eggs with only a small chance of it working and couldn’t go through it time and time again. I suppose we’ll never know if it would have worked using my eggs and it’s best not to wonder.
As we made the decision really quickly we hadn’t done much research on donor conception, anonymous/anonymous identifiable or the complexities.
After six long months, we finally reached the top of the recipient list. Then things moved really quickly! One counselling session later, it was time to make decisions.
My main objective was to choose a lookalike donor to me (to avoid questions). Well, as much as I could! I felt this would help me to feel an even greater connection to the baby. We bought six eggs from one donor as we figured it was better to get more, as it gave us a bigger chance of the eggs surviving the thawing process, thinking we could keep some in reserve.
Days later, I found myself sitting in the waiting room while Rob was “making his deposit” I witnessed the metal box arriving that stored our eggs. Our clinic has an on site storage facility. It was amazing to see but surreal. I was quite emotional, as our hopes and dreams were caught up in this small metal box!
After a very hard few days, and more waiting! I worried about how many eggs would defrost. Would they be viable? Get to blastocyst stage? All words I never knew about a year ago! I even broke down at work in front of our chief executive – very unprofessional, but he was amazing!
Then… transfer day arrived. We got the news that two embryos had reached day five blastocysts. I worried about transferring two and having twins but decided to transfer both. Rob and I had a bit of a laugh afterwards, as it turns out he was looking at my bladder during the transfer not my womb. So, missed the whole thing by a few inches!
A week later, getting the positive pregnant result was the “easy” part. Believe me, I use this term very loosely! I had eight weeks of spotting and worrying that I’d miscarried (again), so I paid for lots of private ultrasounds just to check the baby was still there. I had so much anxiety throughout my whole pregnancy… then after 38 weeks, three days of labour and a traumatic birth, we welcomed the most beautiful baby boy into the world, Milo. What a rollercoaster!
After an hour, we were separated from “our little miracle”, as he had to go to the special baby unit for breathing issues. This really didn’t help my anxiety or bonding issues, as I’d struggled throughout my pregnancy with the fact that I may not bond with the baby or that I wouldn’t feel like the baby’s “real mum’.
Rob (and my close friends) said that of course I was Milo’s real mum, but it’s hard. Rob said – and still says when I’m having a tough day – that I carried Milo for nine months, felt him kick and that surely as biologically I must have influenced his development as he grew inside me.
Fast forward to a year and a half later and we have the most energetic, amazing toddler who I love more than life itself. And I honestly didn’t think I’d ever feel like this or this strong a connection.
Milo’s currently going through a “no mumma” stage and preferring his dad over me, which I’ve found really hard. But everyone I know with a toddler is experiencing the same thing. I just need to remember it’s not because I’m a donor mum – Milo’s just an independent and headstrong toddler!
Reflecting on my journey, I can’t pinpoint the exact day/time I bonded with Milo. Something just clicked for me. I have the strongest feeling that he’s mine, words can’t describe how much I love him, and I always will. Maybe it was one of the 2am feeds watching re-runs of Grand Designs, or just the way he looks at me or calls me “Mumma” It just melts my heart and I’m so proud. I know using a donor was absolutely the right decision for us.
I’m so grateful to the woman who carried out the most selfless act of donating her eggs so we could become parents. We used an anonymous identifiable donor, and I’d be lying to myself, and you, if I didn’t say I worry she’ll turn up one day. I know that Milo may want to meet her and I worry that he may reject me – I hope this isn’t the case.
I suppose it’s down to Rob and I about how we tell Milo about how he was conceived. I won’t hide the truth from him, he needs to know about his genetic background, as I don’t think it’s fair to keep it from him. I hope Milo reads this one day and knows we could never have imagined our lives without him and that we love him so much. We were given a pen portrait of our donor which explains who she is and why she became a donor. I’ve kept a copy to share with Milo when he’s old enough.
I’d also be lying if I said I don’t have major anxieties about when we need to open Pandora’s Box and tell Milo. No one truly understands how I feel unless they’ve chosen the same path to becoming a mum. I’ve read so many articles on the best age and how to tell – any tips gratefully received!
Part of me does really worry about what other people think and about being gossiped about. I suppose this is just human nature but I’m proud of the path we chose. Hence why I’m sharing my story.
Even writing this blog… it’s so personal to Rob, Milo and I… but I hope I can help you if you’re swithering about what to do. I don’t think using a donor is widely recognised in the UK or that most people truly understand it. But the more we talk about it, the more accepted it will become.
In my experience, there’s no after-care or support from fertility clinics and that’s why I’ve found the DefiningMum blog so helpful and supportive as I know there are others like me out there. It would be good to meet others who have chosen the same path to motherhood/parenthood.
In the end…
There are so many ways people become parents these days. Some of my good friends aren’t “traditional” parents. I’m thankful we made the decision to use a donor to give us a chance to become parents. The most important thing is seeing our beautiful boy develop and grow every day is just the best present anyone could have given us.
I hope you’ve found our journey helpful.
“To love and be loved by you is a privilege I am eternally grateful for and each and every time you wrap your arms around me and tell me so, you give me the only confirmation I will ever need that I am Mum.”
Today I’m honoured to share an extract from a recent blog post written by Frances, a wonderful Mum I met recently as we both talked on BBC Radio 5 Live about our alternative routes to parenthood, in particular about how it made us both redefine what it means to be a Mum. Despite our journeys being different, we shared so many parallels. Whilst I carried my girls without sharing genetics, Frances does share genetics with her girls but needed a surrogate to carry for her. I have so much admiration for her bravery and courage, and couldn’t agree more with her sentiments about what motherhood truly is…
BABIES OF MINE
A few weeks back I met with another mum, Becky, who had gone through her own fertility struggles. Her experience, like ours was a little unconventional and like myself she has documented her journey to motherhood. Her blog is called Defining Mum and she writes to give hope and support to so many others that are struggling to become parents and challenge the traditional notions that being a mum is dependent on DNA and giving birth. As I listened to her talk about how her own preconceptions were shattered once her children were born, so much of it resonated with me and I thought back to the day I made the one of the biggest decisions of my life and in doing so gave up the ability to carry a child.
I met my new consultant Mr Bultler Manuel two days before I was scheduled to have surgery. I had a rough idea of what it would involve but we needed to finalise the details and I wanted to meet the man who would be operating on me. I felt I was in safe hands almost immediately, he had just the right balance of care and attention without being at all patronizing, he knew I was well aware of all that was going on. He went through the options in detail. The first was a radical trachelectomy, this would remove my cervix, the top of my vaginal tissue and also the surrounding lymph nodes. It was the least severe option and choosing it would leave me with the ability to carry a child, although to give birth would require a c-section and there was also a much higher chance any baby I had would be premature. The second was a radical hysterectomy and the removal of pretty much all of my reproductive organs, it was extreme but he explained with it came a slightly higher chance of the cancer never coming back. He spoke of two ladies he had treated in the past who had opted for the first option and in both cases the cancer had unfortunately returned before either had the chance, or made a decision to try and get pregnant. He said I didn’t have to choose right now and that I could go away and think about it but to be honest I didn’t need anymore time. If he had said that by taking my legs it would have been less likely to come back I would have opted to have those removed too. Right then my only thoughts were of survival and giving myself the best possible chance. Finally we spoke about my ovaries and whether they should be removed too. For the staging I had, more often that not they were left alone but he explained that by removing them it would increase my chances of survival ever so slightly. I told him I wanted them gone too.
I wonder sometimes what you’ll think of how quickly I made that decision, whether you’ll question my choice. I know that for so many women that carrying a child is a fundamental part of being a mum. In a perfect world I would have loved to carry you both and I cant pretend that in so many ways it would have been wonderful. I missed the excitement and awe of my own flesh and blood creating life, I missed those first tiny kicks and never got to talk to you when we were alone together in those first few months. Your dad never got to put his head on my belly as we cozied up on the sofa wondering if it was a boy or girl, I didn’t get to wander the maternity clothes isle, never got to ‘eat for two’ and didn’t get to lie back on a chair while my tummy was covered in cold jelly and gaze at a screen while the baby wriggled around inside me. Sure I missed out on those things and it makes me sad, but I don’t regret my decision for one moment. It may well be controversial to say so but for me all those things would have been for my benefit only. To have experienced all that and to have brought a child into the world only to increase the risk of leaving them when they were so little was out of the question. That was risk was I was not willing to take and I knew right there and then as long as I survived I would be a mum and we would be a family however we managed to get there.
Less than three years later we did just that. And instead of giving birth I had a totally unique experience that most mothers don’t. I watched you Evelyn being born, every part of it, from the business end. I got skin to skin contact with you both, without going through labour first so I wasn’t exhausted by that or nine months of sickness, lack of sleep and carrying around another person. I was elated and petrified all at once and totally present for every last second. From the moment you were placed into my arms I felt as much of a mum as anyone else ever has. From that moment on you were mine and I would do anything and everything to keep you safe, protect you from harm and love you with every part of me. You can give birth and share DNA and maybe according to science and the Oxford Dictionary that makes you a mother but for me that is in name only. To become a real mum everything that you’ll ever need is found only within your heart, it is the creation of an unbreakable bond that once formed you’ll feel forever. To love and be loved by you is a privilege I am eternally grateful for and each and every time you wrap your arms around me and tell me so, you give me the only confirmation I will ever need that I am Mum.
Forever and Always
Thank you so much to Frances for allowing me to share the story of her beautiful family, you can find their full story and ‘Babies of Mine’ blog by clicking here.
I’m Ally and I’m donor conceived. When I found this out in my late twenties, there were so few resources for people like me, so few voices that echoed my experience. This is why I now like to share my story – talking about donor conception lifts the shame off of something that has been shrouded in secrecy for decades. In the processing of my news, I often wondered what my parents went through. Since then I’ve sought out voices of recipient parents to hear their stories, to see donor conception from their perspective and compare that viewpoint with my own experience. Becky and I were introduced via Instagram and I have found through her blog and community not only a sense of understanding of the emotions that my parents went through when deciding upon donor conception, but also a space for me to share my thoughts and perspectives with other recipient parents that have always been very welcoming and eager to talk about ways to support their donor conceived child. These times to share perspectives are so important, and I’m glad to know and to be able to have these conversations with Becky and other parents like her!
Living life as an only child for 28 years, I have often wondered what life would be like with siblings. I imagined family vacations, Christmas parties, fights, sharing bedrooms, and having someone to talk to about shared childhood experiences. After 28 years, though, I assumed odds were that I’d never have a sibling. Life has a funny way sometimes of laughing at you when you make assumptions, though.
In January of 2019, my world changed forever when I realized that my “close family matches” on Ancestry DNA were a hint towards my genetic origins. The amount of DNA that I shared with these 8 or more individuals was higher than the amount of DNA I’d share with a first cousin, and similar to amounts that I’d share with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. When I realized that I couldn’t account for these people in my family tree, I started asking questions. Spoiler alert: these DNA matches were to my donor siblings, of which I now can count fifteen.
After some prodding, my parents admitted to me that they used donor sperm to conceive me. I remember my mom asking me if I ever wondered why they were a bit older when they had me – my mother was 33 and my father was 40 when I was born. It never really crossed my mind that their ages would indicate that they had fertility issues, but indeed my parents tried to conceive naturally for ten years and went through several rounds of artificial insemination with donor sperm before my mother fell pregnant with me.
Learning that I was donor conceived at age 28 was a shock. My parents were very concerned that learning that my father was not genetically related to me would lead to an identity crisis. This is the reason they gave for never telling me in the first place. Research has told me that this was common for other recipient parents 30ish years ago. Doctors actively advised their patients to go home and forget that the insemination procedure ever happened; some doctors even mixed donor sperm with the father’s sperm to encourage the myth that the child is genetically related to the father.
I can’t say that what I went through over the next few months, and still currently deal with, was an identity crisis. Learning that I was donor conceived didn’t force me to think about how that changes my sense of self. Instead, the revelation brought up a lot of emotions for me about family. Some days, even now, almost a year later, I feel like someone is punching me in my stomach when I think that my dad is not biologically my father. I have said out loud more times than I can count “I wish my dad was my dad.”
I work often in therapy on that idea – on defining family. I’m also working to define this newfound family of fifteen half-siblings and the donor himself. Who are these people to me? How can I incorporate this new information into my life? Some days this is easy – when I’m texting back and forth with a half sister or when we shared one too many beers at my half brother’s home. Other days I find it more difficult, a reminder of the question marks that now take up half of my family tree.
If I could sum up the lessons I’ve learned since January of 2018, the most salient one thus far is that I am grateful, and this carries me so far. I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the best childhood I could have asked for; I forgive them for hiding a secret from me as I know their motivation was to protect me. I’m grateful, too, that their secret has not caused me harm. I am acutely aware that this is not the case for a subset of donor conceived people. I do believe that the healthiest pathway in donor conception is to tell your child early and often, and I encourage parents to practice openness and honesty with their children.
I’m also grateful for these newfound connections in my life and opportunities to get to know people that I now find myself genetically connected to. I can’t say for sure that I know how these new sibling relationships will pan out – will we have family vacations and Christmas parties? I hope we won’t fight, and sharing bedrooms now seems absurd… but the best part I’ve found is that I have someone to talk to about these shared childhood experiences that up until a year ago we didn’t even know we shared.
You can find Ally’s podcast by clicking here. To listen to my episode with Ally and Jana Rupnow – follow the link here.
The HFEA reports that 1 in 6 couple are affected by fertility issues. This isn’t a negligible figure by any stretch of the imagination. It affects everyone regardless of how much money you have, how popular and beautiful you are, which country you live in or what social circles you move in. It has no boundaries.
I didn’t want to be one of these 1 in 6 statistics; nobody does. But I was; and so was my husband and like the majority of people in our situation we were and still are employed. Since my experience of having fertility treatment, I have spoken to so many people who have very varied experiences of how work handled the situation of them going through treatment. Some were great positive examples, but in the main they were treated quite badly (and this was even if their employer was aware of what they were going through).
For my first cycle of IVF I told nobody in work what I was going through. Not even my closest friends. I chose to sneak around and deal with it on my own and my husband was under strict instructions to do the same.I made that decision; me. I look back now and still wonder what my motivation was for this and I think I was just bloody scared. I consider myself fairly intelligent, but with extensive reading when being told of the procedures and the process I wasn’t prepared mentally or physically for that first round and when it didn’t work I felt the biggest failure in the world. This invariably affected both my confidence and ability at work.
For the second attempt, a few people in work knew, but whispered conversations in rooms occasionally didn’t really count as any comprehensive support and I truly felt I was entirely alone in this journey. At this point my boss still didn’t know. It is only now after the event that I see people around me having the same struggles with IVF and this has been my motivation to make a change. Attempt 2 then failed. My husband, who had continually worked split shifts to support me and to attend appointments and pretty much bent over backwards to ensure his employer wasn’t ‘inconvenienced’ by our infertility decided he too was not going to work for a few weeks. It was his first absence in 12 years.
The majority of people having fertility treatment are employed. This is a fact. Education is the key factor here in changing employers’ mindsets in how to approach and support this growing group of people. This challenge is not going to go away nor is it going to reduce and as time goes by this will be more commonplace so provision must be considered in how to best support. Employers ‘don’t know what they don’t know’. Those myths about infertility need to be eliminated especially where work is concerned which is why there needsto be a clear shift in perception on infertility in the workplace. This is a validreason to support employees. Infertility can often be caused by cancer diagnosis or another illness such as PCOS both of which may well be covered by the equality act yet infertility itself isn’t a protected characteristic even though the W.H.O define it as a disability; ‘ a disease of the reproductive system’.
As an HR professional I have never seen a provision made for fertility treatment and my experience is no exception. Apart from an occasional nod to fertility treatment in the ‘flexible working policy’ where paid time off for treatment is usually ‘discretionary’. This translates to- if you have a good boss you will probably get some support (but ‘undefined’ and ‘unguided’ support) and if you have a bad boss you won’t. There are plenty of articles and support wrapped around about parents returning to work, flexibility, well rounded and carefully written maternity policies outlining your rights and support you will expect to receive from your employer but none really for infertility. Infertility could last well over 20 years which is a significant amount of someone’s working life, yet it is not identified as a work affecting issue or supported with guidance for employers and employees. There needs to be guidance and policies as well as educational training for organisations so they can understand the impact both on their employees and their organisation. Being an ‘employer of choice’ has never been so important so it is vital that organisations recognise the need to have fertility treatment as an emerging trend if they are to attract and retain the best staff.
I have sadly met people who have been dismissed for the time they have taken off for treatment and a whole raft of others who have called in sick with some made up illness for egg collection/ embryo transfer. My advice is to be honest with your employer and work collaboratively with them to identify how you can both work differently to help you attend appointments such as flexible working or moving days off to support. It may be that you ask for a temporary reduction in workload if feasible to support the treatment. It is advisable that you think carefully as to what support you require before this conversation takes place as what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. Make sure you know what Occupational health support is available to you via an E.A.P (Employee assistance programme) or any other route such as counselling as you may need some physical or emotional support along the way. If you feel you are being treated unfairly there will be a complaints/grievance procedure that can be followed but this really is a last resort for both you and the business. Most workplace issues are resolvable, the key is to talk.
If you wish to share your experiences of having fertility treatment whilst working or an an employer who champions this for their employees you can get in touch with me on Instagram: @ivfatwork Twitter: @IVFwork1 or e mail Claire on firstname.lastname@example.org
With the majority of those experiencing fertility struggles being actively employed, how is there so much silence about these issues within the workplace? I’m exploring what can be done to change this, drawing on my experiences from both sides of the fence…
From an employee perspective, I struggled to cope with the all-consuming nature of treatment and the prospect of not fulfilling my lifelong dream to start a family. The endless disappointments and devastating loss hugely affected my mental health and, whilst I desperately tried to maintain focus and still give 100%, it left me feeling like a burden to my employer and that I was struggling to be the person they initially hired.
From a Human Resources perspective, prior to my own fertility struggles, I had zero understanding of the impact fertility treatment can have on an individual. Of course, I would have shown empathy to the situation, but I most definitely wasn’t aware of the reality – the time-consuming nature of frequent short-notice appointments, the impact of hormones pumped into the body, the invasive procedures involved and the inevitable emotional turmoil. In the 12 years I’d dedicated to HR, I never once had anyone ask about time off entitlements or employer support for fertility treatment. To me, the silence speaks volumes and is no doubt caused by the lack of awareness and apparent ‘taboo’ nature of this subject. With one in six couples experiencing fertility issues (the majority within the working population), how could I have worked in an area with such focus on people whilst never coming across this all too common problem?
Using both my experiences in HR and facing infertility, I wanted to share how I believe employers could better support those going through treatment. Not only because it’s the right thing to do to be a compassionate employer, but because it would inevitably lead to a more engaged workforce, attracting and retaining top talent as an ‘employer of choice’. By getting it right, it can help to avoid losing good workers and to negate the need (plus huge cost) to replace them. It’s about facilitating and supporting short term adjustments to promote longer term engagement.
Employees are often reluctant to disclose to their employer about the need for treatment, mainly because they’re unsure whether they’ll be supported and fear discrimination for the admittance that they are actively trying to get pregnant. Having a dedicated policy in place (or an explicit mention of fertility treatment within an existing policy) allows them to firstly know that what they’re going through is valid and recognised. A policy encouraging openness with managers (whilst maintaining confidentiality) could significantly reduce stress levels for those who may otherwise feel the need to hide their struggles, fearing that they are ‘imposing’ by asking for time off for this very valid reason.
There are three elements I believe are key – awareness, flexibility and support. The starting point for each of these sits within a written policy. I’ve never been a fan of a policy for ‘policy’s sake’ – we can sometimes become too prescriptive and limit a manager’s freedom to ‘manage’, but with so many misconceptions and implications that infertility can cause, we cannot simply leave it down to the hope that each manager would make a compassionate judgment on what is considered fair and reasonable. We also need employees to know that it’s OK to disclose this information and not suffer in silence.
From my experience across a number of organisations and many HR contacts, I’ve discovered a range of approaches.
- Those with no policy or mention whatsoever.
- Those with a mention of fertility treatment within another policy, but classing it as an ‘elective procedure’ – ignoring the fact that infertility is classed as an illness (by World Health Organisation) and fuelling the notion that IVF bears resemblance to a cosmetic procedure, for example.
- Those who mention discretionary entitlement within another policy. This tends to be within absence or flexible working policies but I’ve also heard of it being within a maternity policy (ironically a cruel reminder of what we desperately want).
- Those who have a dedicated fertility policy.
In fact, in my (not so scientific) recent Instagram poll only 17% said that they believed their employer had a fertility policy.
So, from my experience, what would I suggest goes into an ‘ideal’ policy?
- Firstly, recognition that fertility treatment is not a choice – it isn’t an elective procedure but something many have to go through either due to illness or social reasons – all outside of our control.
- A summary of what might be typically involved in IVF treatment as a way to raise awareness with managers about the reality of what to expect e.g. numerous scan appointments and their ad-hoc nature and the need for invasive medical procedures requiring recovery time.
- Guidance as to what might be covered as paid / unpaid leave and how it would be recorded, with reassurance that this type of absence (with proof if required) wouldn’t count towards attendance ‘trigger points’. Employees are only ‘protected’ by maternity legislation once they have had an embryo transferred, and so often employees can feel particularly vulnerable throughout fertility treatment. Workplaces will need to consider what is reasonable, but by giving employees an idea of what might be provided they can go a long way in removing the stress of the unknown.
- Allowances for flexible working, enabling the employee to still perform their role working around their treatment. For example, temporary adjustments such as working from home, lighter duties, adjustment to start / finish times to accommodate appointments – all around treatment cycles.
- The rights and potential flexibility for partners to attend appointments.
- Any reasonable adjustments that might be considered for a role if it is physically demanding during treatment and post embryo transfer.
- Recognition of the link to mental health – with suggestions of emotional support to consider such as Occupational Health and access to counselling services through Employee Assistance Programmes.
- Recognising miscarriage as an experience that qualifies for compassionate leave and emotional support – another taboo subject that can leave employees unsure of their entitlements in a hugely sensitive situation.
The absolute ideal would be the introduction of initiatives to support the written policy, raising awareness and starting some conversations within the workplace. The only way we can make positive change is to open up the dialogue, encouraging education and understanding.
I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts – through the power of sharing we can help others feel less alone and encourage positive change!