Like most little girls, in my early years I’d play with my dolls and dream of one day being a mum. I was never quite sure where I wanted my career to take me in life, but the one thing I was always certain of was that I would have children. After Matt and I made the decision to start our family I was more excited than I’d ever been. I couldn’t wait to bring our baby into the world and start the next chapter of our lives.
Excitement soon turned to fear, as over the months that followed I realised something wasn’t quite right. Tests showed that at the age of 27, I had the ovarian reserve of someone in their late 40s. My eggs were already running out and I was approaching menopause.
Being told you may never conceive naturally is very hard to hear.
Being told you may never be a mum at all is one of the hardest things anyone can be told.
Being told you may still be able to carry a child, but that they wouldn’t be genetically related to you, is a hugely complicated piece of news to process.
We discovered our best chance of conceiving would be using an egg donor, but also that it wasn’t impossible with my eggs, with doctors suggesting that age gave me an advantage with 'quality over quantity'. The following years were a lonely time as we embarked on our less than conventional ‘path to parenthood’, which is now a story I feel compelled to share. I want to open up conversations about the complex emotions that are often experienced (but rarely talked about) during this time, as we struggled to find reference points or external support to relate to.
Initially the idea of using eggs from another woman, fertilised with my husband’s sperm to create a baby that I would carry, felt like such an alien concept. It wasn’t something either of us could get our heads around and so we pushed it to the back of our minds.
Throwing myself into Google, I ignored the stories of failure that I didn’t want to hear and completely focused on looking for hope. I’d spend hours scouring fertility forums and social media for narratives of those beating the odds. Denying the statistics given to us (5% chance with my own eggs and over 50% chance with donor eggs), we believed that we would just make it work and eventually get lucky. We jumped straight onto the IVF rollercoaster, with fingers-crossed but time not on our side, never really allowing ourselves to consider the alternatives following a failure. That’s one of the huge myths about IVF – that it will work – when in reality there are absolutely no guarantees.
After an initial period of elation, our first IVF cycle ended in a missed miscarriage of our one and only embryo, which is when the grief truly hit. Having been fuelled by adrenaline and hope, the reality of losing what may have been our one and only chance of a genetically-related child began to break me down. It was only then that I started to grieve the loss of my fertility, the loss of the simplicity of trying to conceive naturally, the loss of any control over our future and the very real loss of a dream I’d always held.
By the time IVF cycle number three had failed, I’d started counselling and met someone else who had been through a similar experience, eventually growing her family using an egg donor. Having previously denied this as an option, I now allowed myself to actively listen to these stories and began to become more open to the idea. For the first time in a while I started to feel some hope, but on talking to Matt I realised that he still wasn’t anywhere near that place. It’s only now I realise that even though we were both on this journey together, we grieved, processed information and considered how to move forward at a completely different pace.
As we ploughed on through IVF cycles four and five, clinging onto what hope was left, I was forced to start listening to some of my very real worries about this potential next step. In making the decision to move to donor eggs I had to face many fears, which at the time I felt very alone in, but now realise are incredibly common in this path to parenthood.
Would I feel like a real mum?
How will my child feel?
Will I bond with my child?
Will they be more attached to my husband because they’re genetically related?
What will people think?
Will our family accept our decision?
What would our child look like, if not a combination of my Matt and I? (I felt very shallow for fearing this, but the worry was very real).
Just before IVF No.5 Matt and I agreed that if the next cycle didn’t work, we’d go down the path of donor eggs. Relieved that he was now on the same page, suddenly I felt hopeful and even excited at the prospect of it actually working. I was cautiously optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless and filled with hope! That’s how I realised we were making the right decision, the excitement began to outweigh the fears, when just a year earlier we were in a very different place and wouldn’t have even entertained the idea. I’d redefined in my mind what it really meant to be a mum, beginning to focus not solely on what I would be losing in a genetic connection but instead on what I would be gaining with this incredible opportunity to become a mother.
Believing the hard part in making the decision was over, the next stage I found completely and utterly confusing. As we embarked on donor egg treatment, our donor was selected, our menstrual cycles were synced and we were informed throughout of our donor's progress. Expecting to still be filled with excitement, in reality I felt that many stages of this process increasingly triggered my fears. The sadness of not sharing a genetic link resurfaced as I read our donor’s profile, reminding me that as much as her physical characteristics were similar to mine – it still wasn’t me.
As she approached egg collection I felt guilt for feeling envy, that she was able to do the one thing I desperately wanted to. I felt detached due to an even greater lack of control, feeling left out of a process I’d previously been so involved in, whilst at the same time bursting with immense gratitude towards an unknown woman undergoing an intensely physical process to allow us the chance of having a family. Occasionally I’d wonder whether I was really ready to take this step, experiencing such a mix of emotions, but I realise now that these are again completely normal emotions as a result of my grief resurfacing.
Sitting here five years on, as I reflect on our story whilst listening to the sound of our three girls playing outside in the garden, I realise the sheer enormity of the journey we’ve been on and remember just how alone I felt. I’m delighted to say that emotions today centre very much around joy and gratitude, with the odd small (and perfectly natural) anxiety still creeping in from time to time. So, what would I advise someone who is now looking at this path to parenthood with the same fear and trepidation that I once did?
Advice to those considering using an egg donor
Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to grieve: This is a complex set of losses that are core to us as individuals and shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s important for us to heal enough so that as parents we don’t project our grief onto our children.
Know that people will make these decisions at a different pace: Some will feel at peace relatively quickly, some will take time and for some it may never be the right option.
Seek professional counselling if you need to: Something as complex as this often requires expert support. Understand that there is no shame in reaching out for help.
Find your tribe: Connection with others who truly ‘get it’ is incredibly important in helping you feel less alone. Allow yourself to find hope within the stories of others, ask questions and talk about your fears.
Educate yourself: One thing I’ve learned is that using a donor to build your family is not just a one-time decision, as not only does it form the story of how you came to grow your family but also the story of how your child came to be. Consider how you will talk to your child about their conception and listen to different perspectives, including from those who are donor conceived themselves.
Know that many of your fears may well turn out to be unfounded: There’s nothing quite like raising your children through the laughter, the tears, the firsts and making memories every single day to show that being a mum is more than just genetics. I couldn’t love our girls any more and I wouldn’t change them for the world.
National Fertility Awareness Week 2020
Although everyone will feel differently when faced with this news, I wanted to share my insights and reflections as part of Fertility Week 2020, as many will be looking for stories to connect with.
I’m determined to make sure that anyone needing to look towards donor conception as a family-building option doesn’t have to navigate this alone, which I why chose to share my story through my DefiningMum blog and Instagram page and have more recently created Paths to Parenthub.
Providing all of the support, information and connection I would have wanted, I’ve created an interactive platform for people at any stage of the donor conception journey, from making decisions right through to ongoing parenting.
Paths to Parenthub combines access to webinars with experts, focusing on the emotions, implications and complexities of donor conception, personal stories with differing perspectives, educational resources, along with a private and safe space to connect with others on this path to parenthood.
Becky Kearns is the founder of Paths to Parenthub****.
READ MORE: 'I Donated My Eggs To A Stranger'