I got married in the midst of what felt like I was losing my mind. I was actually going through premature ovarian failure (early menopause) at age 29, but didn’t know it yet. I had a year of visiting GPs and a gynaecologist with awful symptoms that they told me were stress related, and finally diagnosed myself when researching why my ovulation test sticks kept saying I was fertile day after day.
I was overly open about my POF, maybe in an attempt to normalise it a little, talk it through; I'm not sure. At work, it was to justify my week off work. And then to justify the time off required to check my ovaries/womb with a laparoscopy. However, I had a very bad experience with my old employer in London where my line manager was particularly hurtful about why I had been signed off for the week. They were far from supportive and even telephoned my new job (my husband and I were relocating) to tell them that I was no longer allowed to come for the hand-over day that had been arranged, as I had had too much time off ill. My department had the best examination results in the school and I had hardly ever taken time off ill up until that point.
I was lucky enough to have a really lovely doctor after diagnosis, who took the time to work things out and talk things through. He started me on HRT, then antidepressants, then a higher dose of HRT, then a referral for CBT. He was almost casual about my ability to still have the family I had always wanted, but just by doing things differently. He advocated the clinics abroad where it was supposedly really easy to get pregnant via egg donation from an anonymous donor and suggested going straight ahead so that my life didn't feel like it had just come to a standstill. We had a Skype meeting with one of the clinics, but decided to wait to pursue things until after we had relocated out of London.
It was interesting which friends were most supportive during that time. A couple of best friends seemed to have no time for me and did not seem to realise the full blow of it, whereas another couple surprised me with their readiness to listen, take me out, be supportive. You couldn't have predicted it. Above all else, I was keen for people to understand that the main issue was my complete lack of self; I felt nothing like me anymore. It was an overwhelming feeling.
A short while after being diagnosed, we visited friends in Holland (my husband is Dutch and he had been friends with the wife since childhood). We told them what had been happening and they were very sympathetic. I spent the evening cuddling their 8 months-old on my knee as he was teething. On the way back to the airport on a bus, we received a text message from her saying that she was so sorry for us as she knew how keen we were to start a family, and that she thought we may find it too strange, but if we wanted to use her eggs 'they would be the luckiest eggs' as we would make such good parents. A bit of an overwhelming offer, mostly in reaction to her generosity, but one we began discussing from that point on.
At an IVF clinic event, my mother and I were lucky enough to chat to a Dutch doctor who was excited about our potential known donor. When we started treatment, she always made us feel like we had the best support and she even performed a couple of our friend's tests at a hospital in Holland to save her flying over too many times. We felt very lucky indeed.
Unfortunately, during pregnancy, my sister in law was quite hurtful in some conversations with me, without meaning to be I am sure; asking me about whether I am worried that my husband and our egg donor friend were developing a deeper bond because of the situation, and then whether I knew whether our friend was having any second thoughts! So I did question my openness with people. A friend from work was, I think, trying to tell me how lucky we were to have our friend be our donor, but in doing so said something quite hurtful too: that she would never be able to do that herself as she would always be watching and thinking 'that is not how I would have brought my baby up'! I tried to explain that it would not be her baby, and she said that's how she would have felt and that I was lucky our donor friend didn't.
While pregnant, we visited the country where our donor friend lived. During our time there, I just felt so lucky that we could discuss things so openly, and that our friend and her husband were so excited about what they considered was very much our news. They have never faltered in their support for us and in the way that they see the donation: as them being able to help us have children of our own. They still remain pragmatic: they talk about similarities between our children and theirs for example, but in a way you might also discuss genetic similarities between cousins.
One thing did really knock me sideways, and that was our donor-friend's mother saying that she had our scan picture on her computer desktop (my mother in law had sent it to her) and that she wanted to visit when the baby was born. Now I am not as vulnerable, or hormonal, I can see that she felt a connection, was a family friend, was interested... but at the time it just made me feel insecure about the identity of my child and connections and relationships I hadn't even considered.
We went to a hugely useful weekend session about being donor conceived parents with the Donor Conception Network. Bit heavy going, but really useful for us, particularly as a couple as it made my husband and I to talk about our feelings through facilitation. All the participants’ situations were really very different, despite us all having the huge fertility loss as our one reason for being there, but it made me feel less isolated and the concept of donor conception less wacky.
The single biggest thing I that weekend made me think carefully about was the potential child we were going to bring into this world. That may sound really obvious, but I was so wrapped up in my own grief and need to have my own family that I was only thinking about what was best for me. The DCN weekend introduced me to thinking about what it would be like for my child to be donor conceived. The easiest thing for me would be to go to Spain as my lovely doctor had suggested and have treatment and carry on with my life as I had always dreamed it would be. But I started to think about questions a potential child of mine would have and how, for them, knowing all the answers to their questions might be important to them. Knowing their heritage would also be less panicky for me, as I am a huge worrier and go round and round on things I cannot control. I began to think that to be able to meet, talk and know. To know any medical conditions that develop and to be able to identify where features come from.
She said that of course she would have more interest in my children than she would have done should we not have gone through this together, but it would be in terms of feeling more connection with them and looking for genetic links
Our friend who donated her eggs to me wrote me the most amazing letter whilst I was pregnant about how much she saw my motherly nature and wish to be a parent. I felt this was as important as the donation itself. She said she liked to think of it as giving me a cell which would be a building block to start my baby I so dearly wanted. She said that of course she would have more interest in my children than she would have done should we not have gone through this together, but it would be in terms of feeling more connection with them and looking for genetic links between her family and my children. I treasured that letter and have been very lucky in that she and her partner have never wavered in the way that they see the situation.
Breastfeeding to me was even more significant than carrying the babies. Their need for me, the obvious bond that it creates, the symbolisation of ‘mother’, the way I was helping them grow and build immunity was priceless. When a GP and my gynaecologist both told me I had to choose between HRT and feeding when my youngest was tiny still devastated me. I think members of the DC Network will understand when I say that I have learned not to take no for an answer. I tried a second then third GP before she did some research and sorted me out with patches and the relevant studies that had been done. I so appreciated her time and understanding.
The biggest hurdle for me since giving birth to two healthy boys is how much I hate the trepidation I feel about seeing our friends and their children. How could the fact that our lovely friends who did the single most generous thing we have experienced also be part of an anxious feeling? It makes me feel so sad that I cannot summon all the gratitude and respect I have for them to overcome this entirely and just focus on how lovely it is to see our good friends. But life is complicated, and feelings can be untangled pragmatically, but that doesn’t mean that you can then switch them off. I will never be free of the anxieties surrounding my lack of biological connection with my children, but think it’s more important that I face them so that they don’t become burdens for my children. As soon as I see my friends, the gladness I feel to see them does completely outweigh my concerns, but of course they never completely disappear, which just seems so unfair to the people who saved my life in terms of what I most wanted.
One of the main challenges I have had to deal with so far were our donor friend’s children when they were much younger. One of them was about 7 when she was still processing and getting her head around the situation and thought Max had been with her and her brother in her mother’s tummy so felt as if we had taken him away from them. That was very hard, but soon after that she started understanding it all a little more and still loves to talk about it and feels a real affinity to my children, which can feel quite intense but is equally very endearing. She has a lovely relationship with me and clearly feels I am a special part of their family too, which is nice. She would have always found us special as we live in England and that is exciting. But obviously there is a whole more important level to that now.
Our friends’ children look like and feel like cousins and the similarities are interesting. I used to feel a bit choked to see the similarities when Max was a baby, but as soon as he grew up a bit and was so completely my son, I started to find the similarities interesting and I can honestly say that I don’t find it unnerving when I see my children’s features in my friend’s, or vice versa. We are family of sorts, and they are genetically related to each other. But they are not brothers in any similar sense to my two, who are growing up together every day, learning from each other, us and themselves, a shared family experience, and a very tight one at that!
We are family of sorts, and they are genetically related to each other. But they are not brothers in any similar sense to my two, who are growing up together every day
Max is very proud of a book that I made him. Its because it is about him so makes it and him feel very special. I am so glad I finally made it! It took me forever as it’s hard to find time as a parent and I just wanted to get on with being one instead of dwelling on the harder stuff. But it explains everything simply and is me talking to them; our journey to make them and I think the obvious significance of every step of the journey makes them feel even more wanted and loved. The fun and loving photos of them post birth are still their favourite bit though, as their individual characters are what they still identify as the most special part! As they feel noticed and celebrated!
A couple of friends had warned me that they hadn't felt an instant connection or love for their baby and if that happened to me, not to read anything into it. However, I felt instantly more love than I could imagine possible for this little baby who was absolutely mine. So much so that I couldn't imagine how I could possibly find any love for my second child as my love for Max was so overwhelming, but I did and now just feel so unbelievably lucky to have my boys. And one kind friend made it happen for us. And what is strange, is that I never feel that i wish that I had children that were genetically my own; in fact, I hope that I don't miraculously get pregnant (as it is a tiny possibility) as that would be so weird for my sons. I only wish that these incredibly beautiful and cheeky boys that I have could be related to me. But they are 100% my sons and I would never wish that things had been any different, as then I wouldn't have these two boys.
The first time Max brought up his conception story himself was when we were hunting for the Gruffalo in some woods! From nowhere he said: ‘You had no eggs left to make a baby. So Ties gave you some.’ Well, Ties was my donor friend’s (at the time) 4 year old son, so that needed correcting! There was then a very long pause as my son stopped still in his hunting tracks to think. Then he asked, tentatively and carefully: ‘When I was in your tummy, did I have a blanket in there for when I wanted to sleep?’ For him, the miracle of growing in my tummy and being born still outweighs the miracle of where his DNA comes from. I am sure things will change at some point, but it did make me think that what are my preoccupations are just a tiny part of what he is growing up to understand about himself and this world we live in.
With my second, I have to keep reminding myself to talk about it occasionally, or read a relevant book. It is so busy with two, and all the uncertainties had diminished since having Max as we had been through the ‘how will it be’ with our donor friend and her family, so I hardly think about it! Luckily, Ruben still chooses to have the story book I made about his coming into this world, so he gets that as a bedtime story sometimes!