It feels like we’re approaching a significant change in childhood stages as Mila starts school in just a few weeks time. As I’m sure most parents are, I’m particularly apprehensive and emotional about it all, although I’m trying to hide my emotions as best I can so that she doesn’t pick up on it. On the flip side, I know she is so ready for it and I’m excited about seeing her develop even more – my baby is really growing up! I write about this on my blog today because it has brought back memories and has given me the opportunity to make decisions about disclosure.
Very early in our journey I remember listening to a mum speak at a fertility clinic donor conception information evening, as a parent to an older boy (conceived using a sperm donor) she talked about how each year she would write to all of his teachers at school to tell them about his conception, just in case it came up. At the time I was horrified at the thought, something that seemed to me to be completely over the top. In my eyes it appeared to make a ‘big deal’ out of his conception, which made me think about how defining that might have been for him as a teenage boy. This was back when I was uninformed, at least a year before we even made our decision, at a time where I was all-consumed by my own fears about this route to parenthood. Announcing it to the world outside of family seemed terrifying and while this lady spoke, all I kept thinking to myself was “why should it even matter how they were conceived if they have a loving family?”.
Nowadays, I’m much more comfortable with openness and believe it is important for us as a family. That being said, when it comes to telling people outside of our close network about our use of a donor to conceive I’m keen to get the message right. In doing this I’m often torn between my firm belief that it isn’t really a ‘big deal’, not wanting it to define them in any way, but balanced with the knowledge that it is still important. My overarching desire is for people to be in the know, so that if our girls bring up the subject they aren’t met with blank faces or unwanted reactions (as much as is possible, knowing that we can’t control every situation).
I faced my first dilemma of this kind as I completed Mila’s school enrolment forms recently. A question box, with limited room for explanation, asked “is there anything we should know about? (i.e. adoption, family circumstances etc.)”. I hovered over it but for some reason decided to leave it blank. The limited space to explain something so personal, important, and core to us just didn’t seem appropriate. Maybe there were some of my old fears resurfacing in some way, but as the week went on it played on my mind and, given everything I know now, it didn’t feel right not saying anything at all. I decided to contact Mila’s new teacher and have a conversation – a much easier way to convey such a personal story and how I’d like the information to be handled. As comfortable as I now am speaking about our use of an egg donor, I still felt nervous as I waited for her call – unsure of what the reaction might be, but also desperately wanting to strike the right balance between not making a ‘big deal’ out of it, whilst at the same time emphasising the importance. I needn’t have worried because she responded in the perfect way (it turned out she’s had her own IVF journey too which helps) and I was able to come away feeling totally at ease that if Mila starts to talk about “mummy’s broken eggs”, “the donor” or even “Miss Eggy Special”, she won’t be met with a blank face, but instead encouragement, discussion about how different families are built and acceptance of what is such a special, unique and beautiful story of how she came to be.
I share this to show how your emotions can change significantly over time, especially once your child is with you. I believe I have a responsibility to put myself outside of my comfort zone in times like this, enabling openness and acceptance for our girls as they grow in a world where what will always be their ‘normal’, isn’t necessarily something other people are aware of. One thing I am becoming more comfortable with is how to strike that balance between openness, being realistic about why sharing their story is important, but doing so in a sensitive, conversational approach, without it ‘labelling’ or ‘defining’ them in any way. It’s an important part of who they are, but it’s not all that they are.
I can safely say I won’t be sending out numerous written letters at the start of each term, but instead I’m going to keep the conversations going – if anything it will help towards continuing to normalise and raise awareness about this route to parenthood.
What does pride mean to me? An excuse for a party, dancing all night at my friends’ gay club night followed by an after party where I’d usually be first to fall asleep? Yup, that’s what it was for me in my early 20’s. Good times. But with every passing year it’s becoming more and more meaningful. I’m growing increasingly aware of the privilege I had by the bucket load; to safely dance with a progressive, inclusive and accepting bunch who I shared many great times with.
As the years go by, I am becoming more and more aware of the injustice that exists within the global LGBTQ+ community. Yes we have come so far, but we have a long way to go. This year in particular we have been rightly reminded of the wider inequalities, prejudice and injustice that exists in our world; they were always there – we’re just talking about them now! It’s shameful and we need to keep talking.
As I reflect over the past year, I am reminded of the privileges and opportunities I have been given as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I got engaged, planned a wedding, bought sperm off the internet, completed two rounds of IVF and signed paperwork with the intention of carrying my partner’s embryo one day. I am lucky to be living in ‘these times’ and I know it. But we have a long way to go. Has it been a positive experience for me? Overall, yes – because, well, privilege. But it’s not been and won’t be easy. It seems with every step there is a behind the scenes compromise. Yes it’s great I’ve been ‘allowed’ to have these experiences, but it’s far from perfect. Take the paperwork required for me to carry my partner’s embryo one day – yes it benefits us, but my understanding is this is only because we’ve fitted ourselves into surrogacy law meaning technically I’m her surrogate and she is donating her embryo’s to me. I’m the legal parent at birth and not her. A pain, but it doesn’t have as big an impact for us as it does others. There are ways around that (being married will help and being part of a recognised clinic will mean it’s not a big problem for us). However, that is certainly not the case for people in many other circumstances and must cause huge anxiety for people already experiencing fertility issues. Surrogacy law reform is so desperately needed. The current restrictive law means those resorting to surrogacy in the UK are not legally recognised as their own biological child’s parent at birth. The person who carried the baby – and their spouse – is! There are so many flaws in all of our systems, and the world still has a long, long way to go.
So where did the baby making begin? My partner and I were friends first and spoke passionately about wanting children one day, we just had no idea they would be with each other. It’s always been a massive part of my future and I wasn’t going to let being in a relationship with a woman get in the way of that.
I was, with no exaggeration, broody from birth. So it was a concept my family struggled with. I was a femme, clichéd ‘lipstick’ loving, heel-wearing teenage girl. My parents did not see this coming, and frankly, neither did I. It just happened, and here I am, 13 years later with 6 embryo’s in the bag and a wife to be.
For the most part we have felt safe, included and welcome. We have had some experiences of ignorance and lack of understanding but our experience of the IVF process within our Glasgow clinic could not have been more positive. They were utterly amazing with us at every stage. We felt safe, included and cared for. We know not everyone across the fertility world has this experience.
We agreed from the get go that we were going to try and embrace this experience and try to frame it in as positive a way as possible. Of course it would be great if we could make babies without a donor, but we had to try and take control of the parts we could. We wanted to take it slowly and try to manage our expectations.
Despite the careful balance of nerves, hormones, apprehension and stress (mainly work related due to unpredictable appointments) I can honestly say we enjoyed many of our trips to the clinic. We made them into date days, shared banter with our nurses and tried to make them as positive as possible.
We were going in at the deep end. We didn’t know anyone else doing reciprocal IVF. The clinic agreed it made sense, that it was a more complicated way of doing it (rather than straight up IUI) but in terms of preserving our fertility they understood. They never tried to persuade us, they just gave us the facts of our options. We were going in blind but it was far from reckless. We had spent years discussing the reasons for every decision and going over every possible eventuality. It was strange that we had no rule book or social norm to follow, we just had to make up our own way of making babies within the options we had available to us at the time. It was really daunting but we tried our best to just go with it, have trust in our decisions and… it was exciting! We felt guilty for finding it exciting at times. I guess for us, unlike lots of other couples who experience infertility, we weren’t grieving an idea of the way we would have children. We knew from the start we weren’t going to have babies naturally. We were excited whereas some of the people we knew had experienced such heartache and we were aware of the need for sensitivity. This did come with a sense of isolation as we didn’t really ‘fit in’ to mainstream services.
We had been planning and saving for years so we had a long time to come to terms with our choices. However, it took us 3 years to get to that point. We had lots of conversations about genetics, family reactions and questions like “Would we bond with ‘each others’ genetic children as much as our ‘own’?”, “Would our family’s feel differently?”, “What if it didn’t work?”, “What if we spend all this money and get nothing?” It took a long time and I think realistically we may always have some of these anxieties and whole new ones in our future – show me a parent that doesn’t have guilt, insecurities and worry! I guess ours might just be a little different sometimes, but that’s ok. We all have our vulnerabilities and differences in our family dynamics and make up. I think that’s the nature of having donor conceived children and very little representation of families like ours around us; there is no rule book, and that’s as equally daunting as it is freeing. We are only human.
I always wanted to carry a baby. My partner does not. We both wanted ‘our own’ genetic children. So after years of careful consideration we agreed we would both do a round of IVF with the same donor, freeze all embryos then come back when we’re ready in the future. Our theory was we would be taking control of as much of our future chances as possible at an early stage. We knew we were going to have to do it this way eventually so why not get it done earlier when we had the best chance.
We aimed to do it in stages to try and reduce stress. We intentionally tried to take it one step at a time. Doing one stage then waiting, catching our breath then moving onto the next stage. We went for our initial fertility tests and consultation in August and September 2018, bought the sperm in June 2019 and didn’t start IVF until September and November 2019. We knew we had time and age on our side, so wanted to aim for frozen embryos from both of us then freeze them so we could go back when we were ready. Taking some control over a situation that could easily feel out with our control really helped us. I think I always had the fear of what if it didn’t work or time ran out and we were too late, wishing we had done it sooner. We did it this way to try and minimise the impact of stress in the future and hopefully as an investment for our family whilst slightly reducing uncertainty. We were not entitled to this option on the NHS so had to use a private clinic. This was a minefield but thankfully one we had prepared for so we were happy with the choice we made.
I guess some of the hardest times came before we even started. Once we knew how we wanted to do it we went for it. Choosing the donor, although a big deal, we stayed quite matter of fact about it. When I think of our embryos thoughts of the donor don’t flood to mind. Instead I think of my partner’s genetics, her family, who our children might look like, her parents, her sisters and her nieces. Then I consider my genetics and my family, how our children will be a wonderful blend of us all. How lucky we will be to hopefully have children from both of our genetics and they themselves be genetic siblings. I can honestly say now that I can’t imagine it any other way. How grateful we are to the donor. He gave us what we needed to kick start our family; but they will be our babies regardless of their genetic make up.
We want to use one of my partner’s embryo first. This means I will give birth to a baby not genetically linked in any way to me. We feel this is the closest way for us to have a baby ‘together’ and is really important for our first child. We feel so grateful that this opportunity is available to us. All going well we would like for me to then carry my own embryo and that child will be genetically linked to our first. It took a long time for us to get our heads around this concept, but for us it just feels right. Everyone has different deeply personal views on what feels right for them, but for us this is how we want to make our family. Yes, technically they’ll only ever be half of one of us, but to us parenthood is not measured by DNA. When I give birth to my first child they will have no genetic link to me but that will not make me any less of a mother. They will be made from my wife. That sounds pretty great to me. Our children. We will be creating our family, completing the circle.
It’s easy to get carried away, but I think we’re allowed to dream of what we would like in our future. We know all the success rates and the odds but we want to be able to look forward. In time we may end up with other variations to this plan. For example, if my partner changed her mind about wanting to carry we might have that option available to us and that would be a whole new concept for us to get our heads around. We need to take our time and keep an open mind for what the future might hold.
It was tricky at times during treatment managing our parent’s expectations and excitement. They had a tendency to offer extremely optimistic comments which we knew was meant with good intention but we had to frequently remind them of the reality – for example, my father in law declaring “yass twenty grandkids!” after an egg collection..! We were so grateful for the years spent with our parents preparing them for our plans. The staggered staged approach we took helped not just their understanding of the process but their acceptance of it and their emotional understanding of how we were making our family. We are so proud of our supportive parents who have been on the journey with us from the beginning. They have put in the work to support and understand us, for which we are so grateful.
During our treatment however we felt we had to shut ourselves away and focus on each other. There were so many unknowns and we could definitely feel the pressure becoming overwhelming at times. I’m a positive affirmations kind of girl but hadn’t really properly felt the benefit of them until one sleepless night waiting for results. I turned to writing them out on my phone – visualising our embryos develop, trusting the process etc. It makes me laugh a bit now and who knows if it helped the process but it certainly helped me. Interestingly, watching my partner’s IVF from the side-lines made me more anxious than I was about my own. Maybe because she went first and it was all new to us or maybe just because watching from the outside makes you realise what a vulnerable and delicate experience it can be. Seeing her being wheeled in after her egg collection, sedated with wires attached to her made me very emotional. We had intentionally not ‘read the next page’ in an effort to avoid over thinking and manage expectations. This was a careful balance; we were informed, but not obsessed.
By the time it came to doing my IVF a month later though, we were experts on every detail of the process. My partner’s first injections carefully watched over by me with ice cubes. By the time it got to my turn I didn’t even get an audience! I injected between work, in public toilets and friend’s bathrooms. We were less protected in that sense. We knew the success rates and statistics by then so it was a different experience. I had very few symptoms compared to my partner, this made me realise how different two IVF cycles can be. Up until the first scan I assumed because I didn’t feel any different (I felt pretty good actually..!) that it hadn’t worked. Reflecting back on this I think finally being able to crack on with it probably gave me a boost and a focus. I had a job to do and I had to get it done. My treatment also involved the discovery of Endometriosis which made my IVF a little more complicated. But we did it and it worked. We got our embryos. Will these embryos be our future children? We hope so – but we don’t know. We need to live with that uncertainty for now, safe in the knowledge that they are snug in the freezer waiting for us to try and bring them home.
For now, we’ll happily talk about it to anyone who asks. Will I share with everyone the exact details of when we go for an embryo transfer? No, probably not. The same way your average heterosexual couple wouldn’t announce that they were away off home to have sex, but everyone knows how those babies are made (out with the fertility world of course).
The difference is I passionately believe LGBTQ+ fertility and parenthood needs to be spoken about. We need to talk about LGBTQ+ people having babies! The process and the normalising of creating families in lots of different ways. Visibility. The more I tell people how we’ve ‘done it’ the more they’ll be comfortable to ask me questions and develop more awareness and understanding for the next person. The same goes for all of us beyond the LGBTQ+ community making babies in non conventional ways (such as other forms of donor conception, surrogacy and solo parenting). But it doesn’t mean I don’t still have vulnerabilities; moments of self doubt and fleeting moments of sadness that it’s not straight forward for us. Difficult as it is to admit, I probably still have some deep rooted shame and fear that still exists creeping out during occasional vulnerable moments.
But as the years go by I am becoming prouder and I am becoming stronger. I am deeply aware of the importance of teaching our future children to be proud, to own their stories of how they came into the world and understand how longed for and planned they were down to every last injection. We will tell them every part of their story, after all it will become their story to tell not ours. We want them to feel secure and informed, with as many choices available to them as possible for their future. We will tell them how much we thought and talked about them for the months and years they were snug in the freezer just waiting for us to bring them home.
There’s lots of uncertainties and we know we need to manage our expectations. We’ll have to see what’s next in our journey to parenthood. It’s a long one, and already with COVID19 changing our plans and some surprise Endometriosis there have been some bumps in the road. But for now, we don’t have an issue celebrating the stage we have reached. We have 6 embryos in the freezer, 3 from each of us and we can’t wait to pick up where we left off when the time is right. Whilst we know very little about them, what we do know is that they’ll not be ‘donor conceived children’ to us, they’ll be our children who were made with love.
I don’t know what the future holds for us and it’s mostly exciting, some parts stressful and some parts terrifying. I know it won’t be easy for so many reasons. We are going into the unknown as we have been from the start – together as a team. Having children, becoming a mother and sharing that role with someone I love. A revolution was started 51 years ago to allow me that privilege, something still not afforded to so many. To have the future I have always wanted ahead of me. That’s what Pride means to me.
I want to say a huge thank you to Caroline for sharing such a beautiful and inspirational blog post, shedding light on some of the additional challenges faced building a family using donor conception within the LGBTQ+ community. You can follow Caroline on her journey on Instagram @PrideAndJoy. She has also created a LGBTQ+ fertility support group for Fertility Network Scotland to fill the gap in local support – check out the Fertility Network Scotland Facebook Page for more info.