The Mom Who Spent More Than $11,000 on Sperm

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Katie and her then-husband planned on starting a family by their late 20s. Instead, the year she turned 27, Katie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
By 30, Katie had no evidence of disease — and was no longer married. Though doctors had assured Katie her fertility might be intact after cancer treatment, when she met her now-wife, she was unsure whether she could have biological children.

Below, Katie discusses the difficulty of choosing a sperm donor, buying and then throwing away What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the financial barriers to the fertility industry, and the realities of early parenthood with twins.

On having her plans for a family derailed. I got married, initially, when I was 24, to a man. We had lots of plans to get pregnant pretty fast — I wanted to get pregnant by the time I was 27. But when I went to the doctor to get a prescription for prenatal vitamins, they found a lump in my breast.

I wound up getting diagnosed with breast cancer instead of pregnant: The day I had marked on my calendar that I was going to start trying to get pregnant, I was in chemo-induced menopause, totally bald, with no idea whether I’d ever be able to have a baby. I spent that day crying on the sofa drinking wine, as any good cancer patient would.

After four and a half months of chemo and a double mastectomy, there was no evidence of disease. But my plans for having babies got derailed by cancer — ultimately, my marriage did too. I wound up 30, no longer married, and not totally sure how I’d ever have kids.

On making a new plan. I’d decided to go get a Ph.D. because I still wasn’t sure if I was going to die, and I thought I could never have children. I thought, Okay, I won’t have kids. I also thought, If I start a Ph.D. — a really, really long project — the universe won’t let me die in the middle of it. This was so stupid; there were a lot of days where I was like, I’d rather have cancer than do this stupid Ph.D. But while I was doing it, I met my now-wife, and we had a whirlwind romance.

She’d always known she wanted to have kids. I was still recovering from the trauma of my divorce and cancer, but I still had it in the back of my mind that we’d want to try. Fairly early on, we talked about how we might do it: She didn’t want to be pregnant, I kind of did. We knew we weren’t getting any younger, so we decided to start trying when we were 33. Thinking, Okay, we’ll have a baby at 33, another at 37, maybe another at 39

I was 27 when I had chemo. Because my cancer was so aggressive, I wasn’t allowed to have fertility preservation before starting treatment — they needed to begin right away. Which ultimately was good: Had I done fertility preservation at the time, I would have had a bunch of embryos left over from my ex-husband, which would have been super-complicated. But they said, given my age, they thought I would have a normal reproductive life after cancer. I have a lot of friends who’ve had cancer and gone on to have babies; it’s very common. I was just one of the unlucky ones.

On picking a human from a catalogue. If I could give anyone advice about choosing a sperm donor, it would be: More information does not make the choice easier. One donor, for example, we were sure we wanted to go with — until we heard a recording of his voice. He had the most annoying laugh in the world. Another had a horrible chin. These were characteristics you’d never discount your partner for, because you love them despite their flaws. But in a sperm-donor catalogue, you can come up with a lot of reasons not to pick someone.

Eventually, we did pick someone, bought ten vials of his sperm, and set off to do an IUI. We did our first one and were stupid enough to immediately go out and buy What to Expect When You’re Expecting. As if we’d be pregnant that day. I think we wound up throwing it away. It took so many more years to get a baby, it didn’t feel relevant anymore.

On using up their sperm supply. After the first failed IUI, we moved states. Once we were settled, I went and got assessed by a new fertility doctor, who told me I had a less than one percent chance of ever getting pregnant with my own eggs, even with IVF. And then, the day after I found that out, my ex-husband announced his new wife was pregnant. It was a really difficult week.

We did some mourning. I did some very deep mourning. Then we tried five more IUIs on my wife, and all five failed. At that point, we were running out of sperm. I had to go back and buy more sperm, which was the most demoralizing experience ever. Sperm is ridiculously expensive: It’s about $700 a vial. I realized we’d spent $11,000 on sperm. I worked at a university at the time, surrounded by all these young men. I was just imagining that there was so much sperm around me, at all times of the day. All free! And I was going broke, buying thousands of dollars’ worth of sperm off the internet.

On confronting a bias and maxing out savings. Our fertility clinic suggested what’s called reciprocal IVF: They’d take my wife’s egg, make embryos with donor sperm, and put the embryo in me. So I could be pregnant, carrying my wife’s child. We thought about it and debated for a while. I’d said before that I would rather live childless than go through IVF. I had some weird bias against it — I mean, partially because it’s so expensive. Ultimately, we did decide to do three rounds.

We maxed out our pharmacy benefits within the first ten days. My wife took a loan from her parents, I took a loan from my parents. Our savings were decimated. We went through these three rounds. Two failed, and one miraculously resulted in a pregnancy.

On coping with a miscarriage. It was the night that Robin Williams killed himself. I was watching that on CNN, and then I just started to bleed all over the place. I sent my wife out for wine and Parliament Lights. I was like, Time to smoke and drink my way through this miscarriage.

We felt like it was the end of the road for us. In part, I just couldn’t stand the idea of spending another thousand bucks on sperm. Overall, we’d spent $45,000 on fertility treatments. That was more than my salary at the time. We didn’t have any money left, and we were just emotionally shattered.

On discovering a new option. We moved, again, and just kind of started over, working on our relationship and not talking about babies. Eventually, I found out about a program for double-donor embryo adoption.

There’s just one program like this in the country, in California. Basically, it’s a shared-risk program, where you share a batch of embryos with some other people, people you don’t know. The batch of embryos is made by the IVF clinic; they recruit egg donors and buy sperm from existing sperm donors, then they make embryos at the clinic.

This program is the end of the road for most people. Their eggs are gone; they’re all out of money. This program costs $15,000 for three tries — and their success rate is over 90 percent. You can’t get a better deal than that, in the fertility world. Generally, a single IVF cycle costs $15,000, and your chance of success can be in the garbage.

It’s hard to think of my babies as a deal, because I would have paid any amount of money for them. But the fertility industry is a racket, and it can make people go bankrupt. I’m in an online community with a lot of other women who have gone through this same program, which is so nice — you don’t have to explain the situation to anyone there. But it’s also nice to see women of varying socioeconomic statuses, who would not be able to access a traditional program — I mean, $15,000 is not nothing, but for the success rate, people can justify taking out a loan with the knowledge they’re likely to have a baby in the end. For a lot of women, there’s a guarantee program: If you meet the criteria and don’t have a baby after the third try, you get all your money back.

On traveling across the country alone to possibly get pregnant. The trip was horrible. My flight was canceled because of a giant storm. I was trying to get to California by a particular time, because that was the exact time the embryo transfer needed to be made. But I finally made it to Dallas. And missed my connecting flight. I collapsed on the ground, sobbing — I’m sure people thought I was insane.

Still, I had to do my progesterone shot, which is a shot you take to prepare your uterine lining for the embryo. It’s a giant shot in your butt of this thick oil, a giant needle. One of the ways you get the oil to go in a bit easier is to heat the syringe with a lighter. So I’m in a bathroom stall at the airport, with a lighter, about to shoot up — and still hysterically crying. I sprayed blood everywhere, but I did manage to do the shot.

Finally, I got a flight to Sacramento, then got a rental car to fly to Davis. It was the only time I lied about having cancer to get something: They were all out of cars when I got there, so I started screaming that I needed to go get some cancer surgery. This was a lie, but I figured — I did have cancer, so I should be able to use it to get something in my life, since it had taken so much from me already. Luckily, the lie worked.

The next day, I woke up feeling oddly calm before the transfer. I went; it seemed to go well. That night, I lay down on the bed in the hotel and put my hand over my uterus and thought, There are two potential people inside me, and I don’t know anything about them. The next day, I flew home.

On experiencing pregnancy. We’d put two embryos in hoping that one would stick. Still, when both did, it was a shock. I found out when I was eight weeks along: They said, “Here’s baby one! And here’s … baby two!” They actually had to stop the ultrasound because I was laughing too hard for them to continue. I was just freaking out.

Most of the pregnancy was great. I felt very attached to the babies, right from the start. I didn’t think of them as anyone’s but mine. It did occur to me that I had no idea what they would look like. If they were biologically mine, we’d expect them to pop out with giant heads of black hair.
But we did know that the sperm donor had white-blond hair — would we have two blond babies? We just didn’t know.

On wanting to avoid “the worst of both worlds.” Around 35 weeks, my legs were so swollen that I couldn’t bend my knees anymore — I had to go on medical leave because I couldn’t walk. The next week, I went in to my regular OB appointment and they were like, “You’re having the babies today.” I had preeclampsia; I’d gained 30 pounds of water weight in three weeks.

We went straight to the hospital. They asked me if I’d eaten recently, and I had — a huge turkey sandwich — but I was so over being pregnant that I said no. I went into the C-section with turkey sandwich coming up my esophagus.

With twin births, you can deliver vaginally, but a lot of times, women deliver one vaginally, but the other won’t come out — so she ends up having a vaginal delivery and a C-section, which seems like the worst of both worlds. I just did not want to risk having both, so I’d always planned on a C-section. Overall, the pregnancy and the birth were just fine; after how hard it was to get pregnant, I felt so lucky.

On early parenthood. People are always like, “I wish I had twins!” And I’m like, “No. You don’t.” Having twin babies is kind of nightmarish. They don’t sleep at the same time. They’re constantly crying. I don’t think I had postpartum depression, but I think I had postpartum anxiety — I was obsessively doing the dishes, trying to keep the house really clean, which of course is impossible when you have two newborn babies. That period was magical and awful all at the same time. It was really hard. I think people aren’t honest enough about that.

My kids are now 8 months old, and now they’re great. I think it’s just going to keep getting better.

On telling her kids their origin story. I know it’s important to be completely honest with donor-conceived kids about their origins, and I think that’s going to be the next hurdle for us, in completing this entire experience. We need to figure out how to tell them that they came from a clinic in California, that they may or may not be able to locate their genetic parents. Luckily, we are in touch with some of their genetic siblings. They’ll always have those relationships. I’m really grateful that those parents are wanting to stay in touch with us.

I will never understand the feeling of being donor-conceived — so how will my wife and I support them in navigating these emotions? Maybe our kids won’t have any weird feelings about it at all. But I imagine they’ll have complicated feelings at some point, and hopefully we’ll be able to support them. I’ve told them about their donor-conception story, but of course they’re not understanding me quite yet. I don’t know at what age they’re going to formally “get it,” but I do know that we’ll keep talking about it.

The Mom Who Spent More Than $11,000 on Sperm