Whether you are trying to conceive (TTC) right now or not, almost everybody is fascinated by an unusual TTC story and one of the most commonly asked questions on my social media is about how we came to create our family: were they the product of artificial insemination or IVF, do they share a sperm donor, how does one even go about sourcing a sperm donor?! Although I’ve written our children’s individual stories previously it occurs to me that I’ve never until now written the great big summary of how my family came to be. This still isn’t the great big summary, because I got to our pregnancy test with the boys and it was already over 2k, but it’s a start. I’m working on a guide of sorts for two-women families and potential single-mums-by-choice who are considering their fertility options. It’s taking time and research but should be ready soon! Anyway, this is my story of how we conceived the boys:
As you probably know by now if you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, Kirsty and I were childhood best friends and started dating when we were fifteen.
I had always wanted to have children. Kirsty was unsure – she had spent much of her own childhood caring for other people, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to sacrifice twenty years of her adulthood to the same. It was the source of great consternation to me and we actually broke up for a while over it when we were twenty-one. At the time I was absolutely devastated and flung myself into a new relationship with a man who was ten years my senior; I was desperate for stability and anchors. On the other hand, Kirsty experienced a sort of accelerated ‘growing up’ process where she enjoyed eighteen months of the sort of adolescence that she should have had originally. I wept every time I saw a status update on facebook because she was clearly having a superb time and not missing me at all!
Eventually she came to the decision that she wanted the same kind of future as I did, albeit on a different timeline. She broke up with her girlfriend and I parted ways with my boyfriend and we started ‘dating’ and within a very short space of time indeed, moved back in together. My ovaries were still emitting the sort of high-pitched squeal reminiscent of Rowling’s Mandrakes, but I tried my best to stifle them (and, in substition, acquired two elderly dogs and a puppy – the latter magnanimously gifted to my mother-in-law with the promise that he would remain small [naturally he is now about the same size as a shetland pony – whoops!]). We had a lot of fun reconnecting and learning to trust each other again.
We were twenty-four when Kirsty decided that she might be ready to explore the idea of having a baby. We didn’t have much money – in retrospect we were entirely underprepared to raise anything more costly than a fish together – so we started looking into how to conceive a baby as a lesbian couple on a budget. We found a website called Pride Angel where men ‘altruistically’ donate sperm, created a new email address and jumped right into finding a donor for our hypothetical baby. We met a kind man, whose name I don’t remember, and agreed to meet for a conversation at a pub that was equidistant to where the two of us worked. The meeting took about an hour and we had a very surreal conversation about ourselves and our motivation for starting a family, him and his family and his reasons for offering to donate sperm – “we’re definitely ‘done’ having children but I’m not sure that I’m ‘done’ spreading my genetics” – and trying to probe out an agreement with regard to what would happen if we chose to make a baby together.
This is obviously the most inexpensive way of making a baby as a lesbian couple but ultimately I’m so glad that it didn’t work out for us because we would have experienced very little legal protection had things gone awry – and likewise for the donor.
At the time it seemed like the internet had handed us a miracle, although I do recall remarking to Kirsty that I hoped that the hypothetical baby wouldn’t inherit the donor’s head shape.
We decided very early on that I would gestate the pregnancy and that the baby would be genetically ‘mine’. Kirsty suffers from a hereditary health condition that isn’t life-threatening but also isn’t pleasant, and we were keen to protect our children from inheriting it. Additionally, she has a horror of pregnancy whereas I very much wanted to experience it. We were both confident and happy about our decision that I would have a greater role as far as ‘nature’ goes and in terms of ‘nurture’, she would be the stay-at-home parent with the greater influence in shaping the little person that our baby would become.
Artificial insemination at home is not for the faint of heart and I have to say, I didn’t enjoy it very much. Sperm doesn’t survive very long outside of the human body so I had to take ovulation tests twice each day around the period that I was due to ovulate and, when it was imminent, I would meet at our would-be-donor’s hotel (he worked in London during the week). We would have a rather awkward drink in the bar together and then he would put upstairs to – ahem – ‘do his thing’ into a shot glass before returning downstairs; I would then nip up to his room with my syringe, suck up the semen and inseminate myself – slowly, so as not to damage the sperm – before laying with my bum on his pillow and my legs up the wall for at least twenty minutes and trying to make myself orgasm because studies have apparently shown a positive correlation between orgasm and a successful conception. Then I would nervously check this bed for pubic hairs, smooth out the duvet and make my way back downstairs for another awkward drink before heading on my way.
We did this twice and both times I was convinced that I was pregnant until a negative test proved otherwise. Both times I felt like a bloody panda.
It clearly wasn’t working out for us. Fortunately, around that time I stumbled across an advertisment for egg-share IVF on the internet. We looked into this further and discovered that we could get IVF ‘for free’ if we were willing to share eggs with another woman; the only fees that we would have to pay would be the cost of the donor sperm and having it couriered to the UK, the one-off ‘family fee’ to the HFEA (each donor is only allowed to create ten families in the UK, and each family has to pay a fee – ours cost about a thousand pounds, I think) and a small administrative charge to the clinic. This made IVF much more affordable to us, although we still had to sleep on my in-laws’ living room floor for about six months in order to save up for it all.
These days, I have mixed feelings about egg and sperm donation – I will elaborate on that in a separate post, at a later date. But at the time it was another miracle handed to us, another door that was opened.
We had a meeting, we signed the forms. There was a great deal of testing and a mandatory counselling session. We were approved for IVF and matched with an egg donor recipient, an older lady. Eggs from a younger woman was her last chance to create a family.
At this point we had to choose donor sperm. One of the tests had indicated that I was CMV-negative. CMV – cytomegalovirus – is a common virus that most of the population has contracted and once you had it, you have it for life. But if you catch it during pregnancy it can cause dreadful impairments to the fetus or even miscarriage, so it was important to use donor sperm that also tested negative. As about 90% of the world’s population have this particular virus it narrowed our selection pool considerably but at the very last minute we finalised our decision, paid for two vials of IVF-grade donor sperm (yes, it comes in grades!), the courier and the HFEA family fee, and waited for day one of my next cycle in order for our round of IVF to begin. We were full of nerves and excitement, which I frantically cautioned against because I had read somewhere that a first round of IVF should just be considered the ‘practice round’.
We started the IVF. It didn’t go well. They gave me the smallest dose of the drugs expecting my young body to overreact to them, and it didn’t. My follicles grew, but not many, and not by much. I felt as though I sat on an endless conveyor belt of blood tests and injections, needle sticks and bruises. The nurses and the doctor were all so kind but I had a constant sense of letting somebody down.
They extended the length of the cycle as far as they could and even on the day of the intended egg retrieval it was touch-and-go as to whether it would be cancelled. Kirsty and I held hands and didn’t speak. At last they decided to go ahead with the retrieval and I was prepped as though for surgery, taken away to the operating room and put under.
When I awoke, it was to the disappointing news that the retrieval had gone poorly; they had four eggs. Hospital policy meant that when there were fewer than six eggs, they all went to the donor. I cried on the phone to the coordinator and requested that they be given to our recipient instead, it was the fair thing to do. She told me firmly that the recipient had been given the news whilst I was still unconscious, she was disappointed but understood and there could be no reversal of the policy.
Her devastation was our gain. One vial of sperm had been defrosted as the retrieval took place and that afternoon, the sperm were introduced to the eggs and three of them fertilised.
After fertilisation, it takes a matter of days before the embryos are ready to be transferred back to the womb. On day two, we lost our little third embryo – it simply stopped developing. With only two left it was decided that they were at their safest inside of me and we agreed that I would return back to the clinic the following day for the transfer. I’ll be honest – I didn’t feel optimistic at all. Everyone else seemed to be producing dozens of eggs and tens of little embryos, enough for a transfer and then more to freeze for later – a whole family conceived in one cycle. We didn’t have that. We had one decent embryo and a wonky one, and all that I could see when I thought about it was a flashing neon ‘Game Over’ when my pregnancy test was scheduled in two weeks’ time and no way to pay for more fertility treatment.
I hadn’t told my employers that I was pursuing IVF and I think that by the point of transfer they were slightly concerned that I was dying. I kept disappearing for medical appointments and blood tests, had a day booked off for a ‘minor surgery’ and, on transfer day, my ‘lunch time’ appointment turned into another three hours out of the office.
I dared not hope that this round would result in a baby; in my mind it was our ‘practice round’. We had our two embryos, one of which was a decent quality for a day-three embryo (I had hoped to get to day five) and one of which was a ‘bit misshapen’, and we wanted to give both a chance. The clinic protested this strongly; they were concerned that given my age, both would implant and the cycle would result in twins. They made me sign a disclaimer that stated that I understood the risks of a multiple pregnancy – that I wouldn’t sue them. And the boys were put back inside of me.
You are told that an embryo transfer will feel a bit like a smear. I suppose that it is not dissimilar. The sensation to me is a bit like having your cervix held in a vice – you are very aware of it, the shape of it. It does hurt, but it’s not unbearable. At any rate, I was distracted by watching our microscopic balls of human potential on the screen as they were gently tucked into my uterus.
The scariest part of the whole process followed: standing up and walking away (and having a wee!), all the while terrified that our embryos would fall out!
I went back to work and didn’t tell a soul of the magnitude of what had just happened to me.
Days passed. I felt them implant; I always do. It’s a cramping, pinching sensation and with both sets of twins it happened on one side of me and then, a period of time later, on the other. It was February and as I walked the dogs through the park I was unbearably hot; I couldn’t stand to wear a coat. I didn’t dare hope, but I sort of knew.
I took a test in my in-laws’ bathroom one morning before work, brushed my teeth whilst I waited, my heart thumped in my throat. I steeled myself and picked up the test, looked down – positive.
We were going to be mothers.
And that is the boys’ conception story!
If you’d like to know what my first pregnancy with twins was like, you might enjoy these posts about my first trimester with a twin pregnancy, and my second trimester with a twin pregnancy. I was sure that I had written about the third trimester but I seem to have lost the post!
If you’re still keen for more IVF chat, I journalled my IVF story with my daughters (all three of them, as Vita was conceived in that round too). I also journalled the story of my frozen embryo transfer with Vita and a letter that I wrote her during that cycle, as well as a pregnancy announcement with a video showing the moment that second line appeared on the test.