'My wife and I used IVF to become mothers – this is what we learnt'

·13-min read
Photo credit: Christopher Hopefitch - Getty Images
Photo credit: Christopher Hopefitch - Getty Images

It's Pride Month 2022: a time to celebrate and applaud the influence that LGBTQ+ people have had around the world, as well as to reflect on the community's on-going struggle for true equality.

One space in which there is real cause for joy is the advances being made in helping same sex couples to reach parenthood.

Here, in a piece originally penned for Women's Health's print magazine, writer Lotte Jeffs details the path that she and her wife took to becoming mothers, and explores the myriad ways that women – both LGBTQ+ and hetero – are becoming mums, outside of the traditional paradigm.

When a colleague referred to the act of choosing a sperm donor as akin to the plot of a science fiction novel, I realised for the first time that other people might have an issue with the way I was starting a family.

This work associate had taken umbrage with news that a sperm bank had released an app allowing women to search easily for a donor. ‘Tinder for baby daddies,’ she scoffed. ‘Whatever next!’ I was silent, trying to temper the anger and sadness building in my body, but I could already feel the hot prickle of tears in my eyes. My wife and I had been using this very app to find our own sperm donor, so we could have a baby together.

My colleague wasn’t to know, of course, but I wonder how many other women are enduring similarly naïve, thoughtless and ignorant remarks over their own route to motherhood. While technology and legislation have given birth to a world in which there are more ways than ever to become a parent, the narrative that parenthood is exclusively the product of unprotected heterosexual sex persists.

We have multiple words for dad, but we don’t yet have a single one for the wives and co-parents in same-sex relationships, like me. While so much of having and raising a child – the tiredness, the anxiety, the joy – is the same for all of us, becoming a parent in a ‘non-traditional’ way brings its own challenging emotional landscape.

How more same-sex couples are becoming parents

Increasing numbers of same-sex couples are now having babies, and while there are no exact figures for the UK, the legalisation of gay marriage in 2014 and the fact that ‘other mothers’ like me can now be listed as the parent in lieu of ‘father’ on a birth certificate is making the process feel more accessible. Within my own friendship group, four lesbian couples have babies under two and another couple I know are about to start trying.

‘Five years ago, many IVF clinics in London wouldn’t take on same-sex couples. Now, a large chunk of the income of private IVF clinics in London is generated through same-sex couples,’ says Dr Mahantesh Karoshi, a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, who’s also on the board of the science-based parenting website The Journey.

But there are myriad reasons beyond the gender of the person you love that might lead a woman to consider other routes to motherhood. Dr Karoshi points to the fact that more women are delaying motherhood for social, professional or financial reasons as an explanation for the rise in births via surrogacy and adoption.

The number of parental orders – an application to become a child’s legal parent – tripled between 2011 and 2018, and the latest available data for solo adoptions reveals a year-on-year rise.‘The bond I have with my son is so strong that I don’t think anyone would suspect he wasn’t my biological child unless it came up in conversation,’ says Clara*.

The 37-year-old police officer from Manchester brought her son Max* home when he was 10 months old. Five years before, Clara was married and looking to start a family when she was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure.

‘I was told the likelihood of being able to conceive naturally was less than 5%,’ she recalls. ‘I’d thought having children would be straightforward, so to have to accept that as a hurdle was very difficult. Nothing can prepare you for being told you can’t have children.’

Clara’s marriage broke down under the strain; she threw herself into work, travelled and studied for a master’s before arriving at the point where her need to become a mother ‘outweighed everything’.

How it feels to adopt as a single parent

After doing some research online, she came across the adoption charity PACT and attended a local information evening. ‘A story I heard from a couple who had adopted two girls made such an impact on me that I knew this was the path I wanted to take. I applied through PACT to adopt and, over the next nine months, completed courses and meetings with a social worker before I was approved. A few weeks later, I was matched with Max. I was approved by a matching panel and, in March 2015, my son came home, and we’ve built an amazing life together.’

For Clara, the time between making the decision to adopt and bringing her son home wasn’t dissimilar to that of a pregnancy. But unlike those who conceive and are expecting naturally, an adoptive single parent or couple can’t know when – or if – they will get a baby.

In England and Wales, there’s a two-stage adoption process, which typically takes at least six months to complete; the same processes exist in Northern Ireland and Scotland, though they’re not as rigid. Social workers from an adoption agency will carry out various assessments via interviews and confidential enquiries to local services before an independent adoption panel considers the application.

Next, the agency will try to match you with a child, taking into account factors such as what that child’s needs are as well as what you can provide, which can take anywhere from a matter of weeks to upwards of nine months.

Once a match is found, it’s presented to the panel for approval. After a series of managed introductions, the child will move in, with social workers continuing to support the new family until an adoption order is filed, following a minimum of 10 weeks, making the arrangement legal.

‘It’s overwhelming to suddenly become a parent and be responsible for another human being,’ Clara recalls. ‘The matching process can be very quick and, in the end, I had less than a month to prepare.

'Once Max was living with me, I questioned everything I did, but I had amazing support with his transition from foster care to forever home, and the self-doubt that any new parent feels fades with experience and practice. I’ve now got 10-week-old twins – via IVF with my new partner – and I had the same overwhelming feelings. The only difference was, this time, I had nine months to get myself ready.’

What helped her embrace being an adoptive mother, Clara thinks, was the emotional preparation that came before; the years of soul-searching, travelling and saving money that delivered her to the point of making the decision. I can relate to this.

The emotional labour of choosing to become a parent

When the route to parenthood is more complicated than having unprotected sex, the emotional labour that goes into the decision is significant. By the time my
wife and I arrived at the app, we’d done enough talking to warrant years of couples counselling.

We’d spent hours discussing the moral implications of our choice; what it would mean for the mental health of our unborn child; the merits of opting for an anonymous donor or a known one; which one of us would carry our baby, and how the other would feel.

We chose our donor based on their appearance – since my wife would be the one to ‘try’ first, we wanted a donor who shared some of my characteristics – and ahead of the insemination, we did all we could to maximise the chances of my wife falling pregnant first time.

She quit drinking and started taking a pre-pregnancy vitamin supplement; we had fun together, relaxed and went to the gym a bit more than usual. It meant that even before we found out that she was pregnant, we were in a good place.

In the months that followed, I was proud to take on the role of ‘other mother’. I was an active member of the mums’ NCT WhatsApp group – more so than my wife – and I got to experience the pregnancy vicariously through her.

She had such a happy time being pregnant that it made me feel less scared of the process, if I do decide to try it one day. That I didn’t physically give birth to my daughter has done nothing to diminish my love for her; she is a part of me, and I see myself and my wife unfold in her joyful personality every day.

I do wonder, if I were ever to give birth myself, if that love would feel more viscerally intense, but right now I can’t imagine that’s possible. As for the rest of the world, on the whole, I’ve experienced nothing but interest in and acceptance of my experience, though I’ll never forget the health worker who inexplicably kept calling me ‘Daddy’. Thankfully, we found it funny – I think she got herself in a muddle trying to say the right thing.

Welcoming a baby with a friend, rather than a romantic partner

Carving out a role for yourself in a situation where there isn’t a well-trodden path is something Julia*, a 42-year-old film publicist from London, can relate to, describing her family as ‘funny-shaped’. She was on a walk with an old acquaintance – ‘a gay man I didn’t know particularly well’ – when talk turned to having a baby.

Then 36, she was reeling from a break-up with a man she thought she would marry, desperate for a child and at risk of making some ‘bad choices’. ‘I’d look at men and think, “You’re kind of revolting, but I can bear it if being with you means I can have a baby,”’ she recalls.

‘I was in a really dangerous phase when you’re under the cosh of the biological imperative. We were out for a walk and he said he might like to have a child, I said I might like to have a child and we went away and thought about it. We had two focused conversations and then we decided to do it.

He was effectively my sperm donor and I was his egg donor. Cue a lot of paper work...’ Several months later, Julia was inseminated – and she fell pregnant. They had their respective lawyers draw up a contract, setting out their values on how they’d raise their child, along with what would happen in the event of illness, bankruptcy and death.

He came to the big appointments, like the 12-week scan, while Julia did the rest on her own. While the staff involved in the conception were aware of their circumstances, their relationship with each other wasn’t mentioned during any other midwife appointments.

In April 2014, their son Oliver* was born. ‘For us, co-parenting isn’t a cosy friendship. We were and we continue to be very grown-up about it. It’s a shared business. Our arrangement is like a happy divorce. The father sees our son every other weekend and we try to spend Christmas and summer holidays together.’

How the early days of motherhood feel

When I look back on my own experience of those first few months, they were... difficult. My wife and I were both exhausted and trying to juggle freelance work with looking after our daughter. I ask Julia how she coped with becoming a new mother as a solo parent and she responds that the ‘weirdest thing ’ (she won’t call it hard) about having a baby with a friend and not a partner was dealing with her emotions alone. ‘I didn’t have someone
to share that experience of my growing body with, and you have to really manage your own tiredness.

'A lot of new mothers can get very anxious, and for me that was lonely because there was nobody to say, “It’s going to be fine.” But, on the other hand, there was no fear of the experience wreaking havoc on a romantic relationship – lots of women talk about how
they hate their male partners during early parenthood. The important thing about having a baby with someone you know is that it’s got to be the right person. If my donor says he’s going to do something, he does it, I don’t have that terrible feeling of chasing or nagging.

So overwhelmingly positive has her experience been that Julia has become an advocate for having a baby this way, and her journey has been an inspiration for some of her friends, who are currently exploring sperm donation. She hopes her story will show women that this is a viable alternative for those who happen to find themselves outside a relationship during their fertile years.

‘It’s easy to forget how traditional people are – they still want the ring and the bloke,’ she says. ‘But the thing that astounds me is the number of women in bad relationships who don’t want to leave their partner because they’re worried they won’t find anyone else in time to have a baby.

Women are being held hostage in relationships by their desire to have a child. Once I realised I’d found a way to make sure childlessness wasn’t going to be my own personal tragedy, I was filled with hope. This is normalising faster than anyone realises.’

Society needs to open up with what constitutes a family

As more women open their minds to unconventional routes to motherhood, my only hope
is that what society thinks constitutes a family will change along with it. We need more role models, more children’s books, more people sharing their stories of what other motherhood looks like to propagate this new normal.

And it is a new normal. Dr Karoshi points to the male fertility crisis– a 2018 meta-analysis of sperm concentration among European men reported a 32.5% decline over the past 50 years – as evidence for the fact that heterosexual couples, too, will increasingly be looking to reproductive technology to help them conceive.

How might motherhood look in 10 years time?

I ask Dr Karoshi what motherhood might look like a decade from now. ‘There will be more lesbian couples using “shared motherhood” – an IVF procedure where one woman contributes her oocytes and the other women contributes her uterus. It means motherhood is shared by both women from the start – one is the genetic mother, the other is the birth mother.’ I know a lesbian couple who have done this, and another considering it.

Dr Karoshi also talks about more trans men giving birth and says womb transplantation will advance medically.

It’s a brave new world for motherhood, and women like me are learning to navigate it as best we can.

*Names have been changed

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