The Mom Who Didn’t Expect Using a Known Sperm Donor to Be So Hard

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Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email gotbaby@thecut.com and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

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Carla and her wife had an ideal situation for becoming parents: They each wanted to experience pregnancy, and they wanted a good friend of theirs to be the known sperm donor. After their friend offered his sperm without even being asked, the couple was elated, and was hopeful about getting pregnant without medical intervention. Carla discusses trying to get pregnant “turkey-baster style,” the extra steps in using a known versus an anonymous sperm donor, and the moment at the hospital when her wife Googled “Lamaze.”

On the sperm donor who offered without being asked. It was about four years ago, when we decided to start talking seriously about kids. My wife and I had been together for about nine years by then. Even before we decided to get serious about having children, we’d been discussing what to do in terms of sperm.

We had one friend we both thought would be the perfect sperm donor, but we had no idea how to start the conversation. Then one day, out of the blue, he just emailed us and offered — he said he knew we were thinking about it and said he could help us out in the gamete department.

We really liked the idea of going with a known donor so any child we had wouldn’t have this big mystery in their life. But what we didn’t know was that a known donor was a lot more logistically difficult and a lot more expensive, for us, than if we’d gone with an unknown donor. We knew a lot of people who’d had great success doing it themselves, “turkey-baster style.” That can be very uncomplicated and cheap — but it has to work first.

On trying at home, with a bottle of wine. It was so hopeful and naïve! We all got together, our donor, plus another good friend. We had dinner, a bottle of wine; everything felt very exciting. There were special sample cups, even. He did his thing into one, and my wife inseminated me. It just didn’t work. We tried that way for about six months. By the end, it was a lot less exciting.

We’ll never know why it didn’t work. It just didn’t. We needed to go the medicalized route, to get doctors involved. Once you get doctors involved, with a known donor, it becomes a million times more complicated. Our doctors sort of acted like we were crazy, even — I really felt like they were pushing us toward an anonymous sperm donor.

On the hurdles of using a known sperm donor. Compared to using a known donor, an anonymous sperm donor is a very well-trodden path — everything is already figured out legally and logistically. For example, they won’t do an insemination with a known donor with fresh sperm, even though they will inseminate you with fresh sperm if it’s your husband. We would have had to lie and say our donor was my romantic partner. It’s because of liability surrounding sexually transmitted infections, which I can understand, but we had already done extensive testing for both of us — and we’d already tried, six times, with his fresh sperm. But despite all that, it was not an option.

Freezing sperm is a multi-thousand-dollar process. Plus, they require the sperm to be quarantined for six months — again, for STI reasons. It takes six months to show you really don’t have any infections. All anonymous donors do that for sperm banks, which makes sense. But we weren’t allowed to skip this step, even though he was our trusted friend. It was so frustrating to know that we could have skipped that step if he were my husband or boyfriend.

Throughout this process, no one really sat us down and explained what it was going to be like, from start to finish. We’d be ready to start, then come up against another hurdle. For us, timing was important because I’d had a fibroid surgery, during which the surgeon discovered I had a bad case of endometriosis. I was told that getting pregnant could be really difficult, so the sooner the better — which made all those bureaucratic rules all the more frustrating. I just had this sense of my reproductive system atrophying with every minute we spent waiting. If we felt like the delays were accomplishing something, that would be one thing — but instead, they felt pointless.

On what it felt like to be “evaluated.” Once we finally got to the point where we thought we could make an insemination appointment, they were like, “Oh, by the way, have you passed your psycho-social evaluation?” We were like, “Our what now?” Then they explained that my wife and I, plus our donor, needed to pass this evaluation. We’d been seeing these doctors a year, and this was the first time we’d heard about this — seeing a psychologist in person to make sure we were all on the same page.

Basically, they put our donor in a room, us in a room, then asked us a bunch of questions. They asked us things like, “What would we do if the fetus had Down syndrome?” These felt like very important questions — ones we’d already addressed with each other — but it didn’t feel like the doctors’ place to enforce these conversations, or to even be present for them. The way it was structured was like a test that we had to pass. It started to feel really undignified, like we had to prove that we were worthy. Luckily, we “passed.”

On finding out about another step, another expense. Then we learned we had to get lawyers involved. We’d researched this, and found out that contracts for sperm donation are not legally binding in New York. We’d already asked our donor whether he wanted to have some kind of official agreement and he said no. We knew each other and trusted each other, and still, the doctors required us to get lawyers involved. We had to have our own lawyer, and our donor had to have a different lawyer — the lawyers had to draw up this non-legally-binding contract. It felt so paternalistic, as though they were the gatekeepers of this process. The legal aspect caused another delay, of a month or two.

We never kept a really good tally of what everything was costing financially. I think it would have been too depressing, to see it all at once. In some ways, having everything spread out over years was a blessing — there weren’t huge hits at one time. And as hard as this process was for us, we do know we were so privileged to be able to do it. Affording it wasn’t easy, but it was something we could do.

On beginning the medical version of what they’d already tried. An IUI is basically a doctor-assisted turkey baster. I was like, Great! We’ve done all this stuff, and now I’ll get pregnant. You go through a lot of testing and monitoring, having blood drawn. You have a two-week wait to find out if you’re pregnant. You don’t drink, because you might be pregnant. Every time, I would get my period. We didn’t know if it was my endometriosis, or our donor’s sperm count, which had taken a hit because of the freezing process.

Our doctors were saying we could do IVF if an IUI didn’t work. But because of my insurance, we had to try six IUIs before moving on to IVF. This felt like another mandate from on high about what we could do — it was just more waiting. I started to get really, really down.

On the emotional effects of infertility. I’d always pictured myself having kids and being a mom. But I didn’t realize how very deeply I longed for kids until we started trying. The more you try, the more you start thinking about it — and realize you really want them. At least for me, the more I was told it might not happen, the more I realized I really, really wanted them. It became an obsession. I couldn’t stand to read or hear about babies.

Fairly early, we knew we were going to get to the point of trying IVF. At some point during the IUI process, I did think, Maybe this is crazy … maybe my wife should get pregnant. Maybe she could get pregnant on her own, with the turkey baster. I was feeling so guilty for wasting time and money because I wanted to try getting pregnant. But she was so wonderful and supportive and determined, throughout everything. She always thought I should try. Our fantasy, our ideal situation, was that we would each carry one pregnancy. I felt like I couldn’t give up without really trying.

On moving on to IVF. They were able to get eight eggs from my retrieval. Only six were mature. Then, of those, four fertilized. After five days, they see which is the best — I ended up with one good one, one fair, two dead. It was so nail-biting, experiencing these diminishing returns each time.

When they did the transfer, I remember thinking, This is it. This is my shot. I’d discovered these meditation podcasts that were specifically for IVF. They sound a little silly — you visualize your uterus as this warm and welcoming space. But really, I think they saved me. I was going so crazy that I think I would have lost my mind without them.

On the end of the two-week wait. This two-week wait was the worst one. I’d had 12 already. This was my 13th. They were going to do the blood test on a Monday, to see if I was pregnant. On the Thursday before, I started having cramps and pain, exactly the way I do when I’m getting my period. I came home from work and just sobbed.

You’re not really supposed to do an at-home test because they want you to wait for the blood test. But I just couldn’t wait. The next morning, I took a test — and it was positive. I stared at it for a long time. I’d taken so many tests before; they’d all been negative. Seeing a positive test was an out-of-body experience.

Still, I wasn’t letting myself get too excited. It could have been a chemical pregnancy. But even then, seeing a positive for the first time was a defining moment. I took pregnancy tests all weekend. Every test came back positive; the line kept getting darker. We were starting to feel hopeful.

On waiting for the results of the first blood test. I never knew what it would be like if they called to tell me I had a positive result on a pregnancy test. I guess I had expected there would be something like a congratulations. But there wasn’t — the woman on the phone just told me some numbers. Luckily, I wrote them down and when I looked them up online, I found out they were good hormone levels. This isn’t considered a positive test, however — you have to come back again and what they’re really looking for is evidence the numbers have risen. That’s what they’ll consider pregnant.

Right afterward, I called my mom and told her. She just burst into tears. At that point, so many people had been waiting right along with us. I know the common wisdom is to wait until you’re 12 weeks pregnant to tell anyone — but that felt like another luxury we just didn’t have. All these people knew we were trying, and there was no way we were going to wait 12 weeks to tell them. Still, I knew enough not to get too excited. There was never a sigh of relief — there was tempered optimism, very hopeful excitement, but very measured.

On being pregnant and anticipating birth. When people would ask how I was feeling, I’d say, I’ve never been more physically miserable but emotionally overjoyed in my life. But the sick feelings were a constant reminder that I was pregnant — I was throwing up at work, falling asleep on the couch at 8 p.m. I think it was very typical sickness for pregnancy. I loved it: My body was doing something that I really hadn’t thought it could do.

Because of my fibroid surgery, I knew I’d have to have a C-section. It was scheduled ahead of time, and I felt at peace with that.

On feeling unprepared for labor pains. One night, three and a half weeks before I was due, I woke up in the middle of the night and didn’t feel great. At that point in the pregnancy, though, that was typical — I was so uncomfortable during the last part that I was barely sleeping anyway. Then I started noticing that I had this pain that was coming and going. I realized that it was happening about every five minutes. When my wife got up, I told her what was going on and called the doctor, who told us to definitely go to the hospital. At the hospital, they were like, “Oh yeah, you’re definitely having this baby today.”

I was completely unprepared for the pain because we never thought I’d be in actual labor. I’d never taken a childbirth class. I’d never gotten to that chapter in What to Expect. I was lying there, waiting for my C-section, in unbearable pain, with my wife Googling “Lamaze.” She was like, “Hmm, it says here you should try relaxing all the muscles in your body.” I was like, “No.”

Finally, they got me into surgery. I was in so much pain that I was just desperate for them to cut me open and get the baby out. But it was exciting — at that point we still didn’t know the sex of the baby. Our doctor had a whole thing where he wasn’t going to tell us the sex — he was going to show us. It sounded good, but in reality, I was strapped down to a table without my glasses on. The doctor held up the baby and opened its legs wide and tried to show us what kind of genitals it had, but the umbilical cord was hanging in the way. I could barely see and even my wife was like, “I have no idea what that is!” We finally asked them to tell us, and the doctor said, “It’s a girl!”

On early parenthood and the future. I don’t know what it would be like to have a baby and not feel like you’ve crawled through fire. I’m sure it would just feel different. I don’t want to say that it wasn’t extremely hard in the first few months — because having a newborn is extremely hard — but I think what we went through gave us some perspective. I had visions of where we were the year before, and where we were then, holding this perfect little baby. I felt so lucky.

We’re excited to see how our daughter’s relationship to our donor evolves. It remains to be seen what kind of relationship they’ll have — but we’re excited that they have one. We’re hoping that her origin story will be something she’s always known, that we give her more and more information about it as she gets older. We call him “Uncle”; we point out the ways she looks like him. I don’t know what language we’ll use going forward, but I think she’ll learn in bits and pieces, just as one part of her life story.

The Mom Who Used a Known Sperm Donor