Donor Conception and the Meaning of Life

‘What’s life all about?’ This was just one of the questions running through my mind in the weeks after I found out I was firing blanks.

Alongside it were ‘Do I really want to have kids?’ and ‘Does it matter if my kids aren’t genetically related to me?’ All mixed up with a liberal dose of, well, grief I guess – and anger, that such an unfair thing had happened to me. There was some serious thinking to be done. It had all started at the GP’s. ‘Well, Mr Cole, the volume of your semen is perfectly normal, but unfortunately the number of active sperm is very low indeed’. I looked at the lab results to discover that ‘very low indeed’ meant the sample I’d provided contained just one, solitary little wriggler. A lone tadpole, lost in the Atlantic. Poor little fellah. The odds against him, and any natural conception, were stacked high.

Off to the Bristol Centre for Reproductive Medicine to learn all sorts of new acronyms – PESA, MESA, TESE, ICSI, IVF, DI. It all seemed very complicated and very costly (thanks to an overburdened NHS). More tests for various conditions, all of which I was very reluctant to take at first. Why should I fork out several hundred quid to be slapped in the face with even more things that were wrong with me? In the end I did take the tests but, even when they all came back normal, they didn’t really get us any further along. The bottom line was I was infertile, no-one knew why, but it wasn’t likely to change in a hurry. So what were we going to do?

Trying to find some sperm at source, before they’d made their way bravely into the world of their own accord, was an option - but not one I was tremendously keen on. The pride of my testes had already been pricked, without needing to add further incisions of a more surgical nature. The prospect of someone waving a scalpel anywhere near them, whether they functioned particularly well or not, was not hugely appealing, and there were plenty of other negatives too. For starters there was still no guarantee of success, indeed the opposite was true given my poor performance in the sperm stakes. Even if the surgeon managed to hook one, it was far from certain that he’d be up to the job of fertilising an egg (the sperm, I mean, not the surgeon). And then there were the various costs – both financial and emotional – and intrusiveness of the whole IVF process which went with along with ICSI. All those injections, operations and nose sprays – it seemed an awful lot of trouble compared to what has, perhaps indelicately, become known in our household as the ‘turkey baster’ option. I admire anyone who has the courage to let a surgeon anywhere near their balls and try the ICSI/IVF combo, but for me it all just seemed too much. So was DI the way forward?

In search of answers I turned to the internet and, among others, to the webpage of the DC Network. I read Walter’s open letter to potential DI dads and cried – in fact I’m welling up now just thinking about it, though I still don’t really know why. It was ‘good crying’ though - maybe it just made me feel it was alright to be sad about the whole thing. Once I’d finally managed to get through the letter without needing a Kleenex break I found that it also contained some sound advice. ‘Take your time’, Walter suggested. So I said to my wife, Mirjam, that I wanted to have at least 3 months to just mull it all over. ‘Talk to people’ was the next one, and talk to people I did. It might not work for everyone, but being open about things has always been my way of coping, and it was no different with my infertility. Sure, it was a bit awkward at times, but everyone I talked to was incredibly supportive, and it was amazing to discover how many people had been through similar problems themselves, or knew others who had. It’s even lead to a few laughs, and even if some of them have been behind my back I don’t begrudge them at all – I’m certain that none were meant maliciously.

It was while discussing the whole thing, over various pints in various pubs, that I was stunned to discover that most of my mates had never actually made an active decision to have kids. Instead they’d (sometimes grudgingly) dispensed with contraception and left it to ‘fate’, generally with fairly unsurprising results and the ensuing sleep deprivation that goes with a new family. To my mind they were, to some extent, ducking out of the whole issue. But while they’d left this momentous decision in the hands of Lady Luck, I had to be pretty darned sure I really wanted to go ahead with it. There was still no certainty of success of course, but we could be sure that from the outset DI was going to take a big commitment from both of us, and conception would only be the beginning of that commitment. Did we really want to go ahead with this?

For Mirjam I don’t think it was a massive issue. I may be doing her an injustice here (not the first, and surely not the last) but my memory of it is that she was so desperate to have children that their genetic make-up was not of primary importance. For me, I wasn’t quite so sure. What if they were difficult at times? (Oh the naivety – to think that they might not be difficult at times) How would I feel if they were autistic, or had Down’s syndrome? Would the lack of a genetic bond make it more difficult for me to provide the extra care they might require without resentment? Parenthood is undoubtedly a gamble, but how much did a lack of heredity change the odds?

In once sense I was lucky. I had, at least, always been quite keen on having kids. It seemed to me, indeed still seems, deeply ironic that with so many blokes cursing their over-active sperm for landing them with regular demands from the CSA, here was I, a willing victim yet bereft of the necessary biological equipment. But my affinity to the idea of fatherhood meant this was one less bridge to cross, leaving the thorniest question of all. How much did a genetic link to my child mean to me. In a sense it’s a question that is impossible to answer in advance, if in fact at all. Barring a miracle, a major medical advance, or the discovery that it’s all because I’ve been wearing very tight underpants for the past 3 decades, I will never have a child who carries my genes, so I will never know what its like. But there were several things that helped give me the confidence to tick this most difficult of boxes too.

One was the strength of the relationship I have with my step-dad, who had the joyful experience of seeing me through my teenage years. He is a good man, and I have learnt a lot from him, as well as from my actual dad. They’ve both helped me through difficult times in different ways, so I had good first hand evidence that relatedness is only a part of the picture. The second was something my aunt said to me, ‘Your child won’t know any different when it pops out’. I suppose it’s obvious in a way, but it was a tremendously reassuring observation for me. We do intend ‘to tell’ from as early an age as possible, but before a full understanding dawns there’ll be a long period of bonding – a solid foundation from which to deal with any complications. And the third and final arose from a bit of personal pontification about why we have kids at all. While biologically we are undoubtedly reproducing to further our genetic lineage, it seems to me (if I might be permitted a brief moment of navel gazing) that this is far from the only reason. Its hard to express quite why else we do it, but surely its something to do with the challenges and rewards of being a family, whatever that means. And most, if not all, elements of this aren’t affected at all by any genetic relationship. It’s a very personal thing, but I came very firmly to the conclusion that parenthood was something I wanted to do.

The only remaining question was what our children-to-be were going to make of their own, slightly complicated, origins. If I’m brutally honest I’m not sure we gave this quite as much thought as perhaps we should have done - but we did talk about it. Our over-riding conclusion was that, whatever situations children have to come to terms with in life, the most important factor was that they were loved and cared for, and we both felt sure that this would always be the case. We would do whatever we could to support any of our children through whatever troubled them. We were ready for DI. And so we went, and yes it did, and now we are three.

I write this while our beautiful twelve week old baby girl sleeps soundly upstairs. I love her to bits. Bringing Rebecca Evie May Cole into the world has made me tremendously happy, and Mirjam too – and brought a whole wonderful new dimension to the relationship between us. For me the connection with Rebecca was immediate, though I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone whether a child carries their genes or not. And while of course its hard work, and of course there are times when I feel like banging my head against the wall, I have it on good faith that this is all a perfectly normal part of being a father. I can’t imagine feeling a stronger emotional bond with my daughter, something that really came home to me when a friend asked if next time I’d think again about trying the combination of ICSI and IVF. I answered with complete honesty that the thought had never even crossed my mind. That genetic link seemed just so trivial now we had our child.

And so the adventure really begins. Somehow the mechanism of Rebecca’s conception seems dwarfed by the magnitude of the task ahead of trying to make her life one of happiness and contentment. The decision to go ahead with DC may yet prove to be the wrong one, and my greatest fear is undoubtedly that it may hurt Rebecca at some point in the future. But in my heart I can’t help but feel optimism – that even if it does trouble her, she will come through it unscathed and secure in herself.

Only time will tell if that optimism proves well founded.

Oh, and defining the meaning of life? Have I answered that most profound question that had rung so loudly in my head when the whole process started? A work colleague asked just that the other day. It hasn’t of course – it surely isn’t that simple. But these days I’m just too busy changing nappies and wiping up sick to worry about it.

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