A single mum and IVF with donor eggs: A Route to Parenthood
Being a solo mum is not an easy job, especially when your path to motherhood includes donor conception. In this webinar Nina Barnsley and Caroline Spencer from the Donor Conception Network share advice designed to help people make informed decisions and build confident families with a secure identity.
Donor Conception Network is a charity that was founded around 25 years ago. Its main role is to help donor conception families almost from the beginning of their fertility journey. As DCN has over 600 solo mums and single households among their supporters, they are very familiar with all the issues and hesitations solo motherhood entails.
Single woman IVF – a route to parenthood
According to Nina Barnsley, donor conception is nothing but a different route to parenthood. However, because it involves introducing genetic material from outside of the family, it requires some deeper thought and research beforehand. Every solo mum-to-be needs to start by asking herself a lot of questions. Nina highlights the importance of the thinking and planning stage as it will have a great impact later. Every family that is considering using a donor, must remember that a great deal of their future life will be influenced by the decisions that are made before the child is born. One must take time to reflect on the considerations of donor conception for their family life in the long view and make sure that the choices that are to be made are well thought through.
What questions to ask first?
Both Nina Barnsley and Caroline Spencer agree that it is most reasonable to begin with asking yourself some basic questions. Surely, it is good to pause and consider where you are in life. Caroline suggests looking at one’s own relationship history and thinking what might be motivating us to consider having a baby on our own. It can be extremely helpful if you could ask yourself the following questions: Have you always wanted to have a baby? Or has this desire come to you later in life? Is it possible that your feelings are the result of social pressure? Or is because you feel that your fertility is declining because you are in your late 30s or early 40s?
Caroline recalls interesting statistics showing that in the UK a fifth of all women born in 1972 are going to remain childless as their fertile years’ end. Some of them are remaining childless by choice, others were encouraged to pursuit their professional career goals first and did not find space to fit a family life in. There is also a group of women who did not find a lasting relationship in their grown-up life or the long-term relationship they were in simply broke down. Many of these women really thought they would be raising kids within a full family at some point in their life, but their life turned out to be a bit different than their expectations. Now, these women may feel sad and depressed because of the unfulfilled dream of motherhood and some of them may be even undergoing the grieving process.
If this is your case, Caroline suggests putting aside your dashed hopes for a moment and think how to organise your successful adult life without children. Are children a strong pull for you or can you imagine devoting your life to other purposes, such as a successful professional career or hobbies you have always wanted to pursue? Then, only if it is really impossible for you to find a purpose in a childless life, it is the right time to decide on single motherhood and consider available options enabling you to create your own family.
Becoming a solo mum is not an easy process and even if you have decided to choose this path there are a lot of pressures you will face along the way: the pressure of money, the pressure of resources and the pressure of time that is left for you if your fertility levels are decreasing. According to Caroline, you should also think if you have enough support to puirsue the journey alone. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child and it is particularly true in the case of solo parents. In the Donor Conception Network there is a solo women’s branch where you can join and meet other women at the same stage of the journey. Building your own ‘village’ is crucial because by doing so you’re allowing yourself to accept help not only in this complicated decision-making process but also through challenging treatment, a challenging pregnancy and parenthood that may very often be very demanding.
Donor conception – how and where?
After the emotional considerations, it is time to consider logistical decisions related directly to your donor conception treatment. Nina advises starting with the most obvious issues, like who is going to be a donor and where it is best to have your treatment.
It is good to have an idea of the possible types of donor you are seeking. A donor is somebody who is contributing genetic material like eggs or sperm but may not play an active role in raising a child. It could be a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance and this person might want to take an active part in raising a child but in such cases, Caroline suggests talking every aspect through with that person to know exactly how that solution is going to work for both of you. It is also important to get a written agreement in place and take some legal advice beforehand.
Meeting the donor
In Nina’s opinion, one of the most common solutions is meeting a donor through a clinic and then – depending on a country – an ID-release donor or anonymous donor is an option. It is again up to you to decide what’s right for you and your family. In the UK you may choose ID release donors whose identifying details will be released once the child is 18 and wishes to have such knowledge and even meet the donor in person. You can also consider clinics outside the UK and then it depends very much on the country and its regulations. In many European countries and in the USA, donors might be anonymous which means that the recipients and their offspring will never be given identifying information. At this point, Nina reminds us to pay attention to home DNA testing and its implications for donor conception families. Even if the donors are anonymous, it may happen that through taking DNA testing – which comes with the ability to investigate genetic relationships through online databases – people will discover they are not genetically connected to their parents. So, it is good to bear in mind the fact that whatever the clinic might say about anonymity or the possibility of future contact, it may turn out not to be completely true.
Caroline also advises to thoroughly research clinics before deciding on the place of your treatment. In the UK one can use the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) website that has a lot of useful information for people considering donor conception treatment options. According to Caroline, you should always look for a clinic that is an expert in donation (which in general is a bit different from the clinics offering the so-called standard IVF), look at their statistics and see how they relate to your specific fertility situation.
Openness as a rule
Both Nina and Caroline agree that one of the most important questions a single mum-to-be must ask herself concerns openness. You should think and plan beforehand issues like who needs to know about your choice, how much they need to know, how you are going to explain the whole story to the people around you and to your child in particular. It is important to reflect on how this all feels for you and think of your personal strategy while talking to your child in the future.
Caroline highlights that honesty in parent-child relations is crucial. Children will start asking important questions between the ages of 2 and 3 so it is a good idea to think about your answers early. Research supports telling kids their history early on as finding out the truth in teenage or adult years may bring feelings of betrayal and mistrust. According to Caroline, it would be perfect to tell your child the truth before they are 5. If you do not know how to start this conversation, you can begin by reading stories with toddlers and pre-schoolers. For this purpose, you can use Donor Conception Network books and booklets that will help you build upon your children’s curiosity and structure your own story.
It might be also a good idea to attend some of the Donor Conception Network workshops, like ‘Telling and Talking’ (for those who want to explore different ways to talk to their children about their origins) and ‘Preparation for Parenthood’ where you can think over all the aspects of solo motherhood as well as meet others at the same stage. In DCN there are a lot of women willing to share their experiences with you. By talking to them, you may work out the best solution for you and learn how to involve your kids in your personal story. Nina and Caroline also invite you to regularly visit the DCN website for information about upcoming events and personal stories from other solo mums that might be helpful and inspiring in your journey.
Questions and Answers from the event
How do you deal with the knowledge that your child is 50% more likely to become an orphan? How do I plan (on a modest income) for what happens to the child if I get ill and die before they are able to care for themselves? I have to reason to suspect I will, I am healthy but of course, none of us have a forcefield around us.
That is a really great question, very complex and challenging. This is a very good attitude to really be thinking of all implications and differences in becoming a solo mum and having 50% of the family involvement and parenting involvement. It depends so much on your situation. Probably there is an additional incentive to stay really healthy and look after yourself well. I think you might need to invest heavily in building a support network of other adults. People who are not actually family members but who you would consider family and who would consider themselves family: perhaps really close friends with whom you’ve grown up or people you have a close connection with. Building a network of adults around should help if something happened to you. This is, of course, an extreme scenario that you are actually no longer alive but there are rather less extreme and more likely scenarios. For example, when you have to go to the hospital for a period of time and need an operation after which you’re going to be out of action for a few weeks. It is a short-boundaries situation but has similar implications when you have literally nobody to step in and look after the baby or the child. I think this is a very important question and something to think about. If the conclusion for yourself is that there really isn’t a network and you don’t have time or don’t feel able to build that network then maybe this isn’t the right way for you to have a child. There might be another way that you could bring a child into a life. Or maybe you should reshape your life as it is to invest in something else that would be meaningful and purposeful for you. I can’t answer that, it’s only you that can answer that.
One of the most important things to think about is getting a will in place very early on. Literally, the time when you are in hospital with your child would be the time to get your will in place. In that will you will be asked to think ahead of possible guardians for your child in the event when something very tragic happened to you. And how you would like your money to be handled in such event. I would also suggest to seek some legal advice from family lawyers who are used to such situations. On the DCN we’ve got lawyer supporters and legal firms who have a branch that is dedicated to supporting donor-conceived families and they know their stuff.
How do you create a network of support when you are trying to conceive as a solo mum? I’m reluctant to tell friends as I feel like a failure when it doesn’t work. My sisters know but they don’t live near me.
This is really about finding fellow-travellers. Some people feel that they can’t talk to their friends, other people may want to share only a limited amount of information with their friends and not all the details of it. I think finding the so-called fellow travellers along the journey can be really helpful. A great way to do that is to tap into the solo mum network within the Donor Conception Network. If you contact the office or become a member, you will be immediately put in touch with another woman who has done this and she’ll welcome you to the organisation and speak to you. Then you will be able to join in the woman meetings that take place all around the country. You will be put in touch with women who are at the same stage of the journey. You will notice that women in antenatal or postnatal groups bond very quickly. You’ll find that women who are considering the solo motherhood path also find a way of connecting over this common ground and are bonding incredibly quickly. You’ll soon be sharing the nitty-gritty details of your thoughts and your dilemmas in decision-making with them. They also create ready-made groups. Now we have women who are on amazing WhatsApp groups and even if they’re not living close by they’re clicking on their WhatsApp groups and connecting with each other on a daily basis. So there are great ways to tap in the support networks and give yourself people that you can talk openly and honestly with about your situation.
You may also consider coming to one of the preparation workshops. We know lots of groups of women who formed as a result of that. The nature of the weekend means that people really connect and share personal feelings and history and hopes and dreams. The groups often connect and carry on supporting each other after the workshop.
Is Donor Conception Network for the UK only? Or is it online? Do you know of any equivalent for the USA?
We are based in the UK so most of our activities are located here. But we do have an online space and we do a lot of our work by email or by phone. And because of that, we offer a reduced fee for membership. So if you’re interested, sign up and we’ll do our best to connect you in a more virtual way. There isn’t any equivalent in the USA but there are some local support groups in some areas. But unfortunately it’s very sporadic and nothing with this scope of DC network.
My cousin has very kindly offered to be my egg donor. I would like to hear from people who have had children through this type of donation.
Our organisation definitely has people who have used family members as donors. I’m assuming you are a single woman who will be using a sperm donor as well. I’m not sure whether we’ve got anybody in exactly that situation but I wouldn’t be surprised. We certainly could have a route through membership and see if we could connect you with somebody.
Your cousin has made a wonderful offer. If you find a clinic that is used to treating known donors, you will be able to discuss your proposal with the doctors and then you will be called in for counselling. In the UK, clinics have a slightly different way of going about this. It depends on your clinic but in most cases, you will be seen as individuals first, so both of you have the chance to think of all the implications as an individual. If your cousin has a male or female partner, co-habitant partner or is married, then that partner will also be involved in the counselling process. And once you’ve both had your individual counselling, you’ll be given a little bit of time to think about that. Then the clinic will usually bring you all back together as a group so you can really go through all the things you need to think about to make sure that everybody is on the same page. It is really important to think it through. You should think not only about now and a wonderful gift you’re being offered to but also about how it is going to work in a long term and how that may be fit for you, your cousin and your child. And when you all feel happy about that, then obviously you’ll be moving on to proceed with your treatment.
Using a known donor can be really a wonderful option: having a real person that a child can see and therefore understand where the egg or where the sperm came from. But it does create some issues around boundaries that you need clarifying. It can become quite tricky to establish what the cousin’s role is. Both you and they have to think it through in terms of separating out who is mum and who is donor. Remember that you’ve got the person who you are actually likely to see at family gatherings and more regularly than, for example, an ID-release donor. So although it is a great offer, it surely requires some thought.
I am Asian and if I get a black-haired Spanish donor will that make any unmatched conflicts? Or in case that donor had someone with blonde hair in her generation, do I have the chance to have a blond haired baby?
I’m not a geneticist and it’s neither mine nor Caroline’s area of expertise. But we know from experience in the network that the donor’s physical characteristics are not a guarantee of how a child will arrive. And that is partly because there are other genes in the genetic history of a family and suddenly those may manifest and it may be due to the connection between two people. So the donor’s genetics is combining with your genetics’ history and your background. It’s a combination and it’s never clear how these genes are going to interact with each other. For example, we know about a family who used an Indian donor wishing for a child to fit their look but clearly somewhere along the family line there was another genetic input and the child who arrived was blonde-haired and blue-eyed. We know families who have specifically chosen brown-eyed donor because they are all brown-eyed and wanted the child to fit in that way and the child came out with blue eyes. It happened so although there was no evidence of any blue-eyed people in the donor’s family. I think you want to make the best choice you can but you have to open yourself to the fact that the child will arrive as they arrive. And then you just get on with being a parent. That is sort of true for any family – you can never guarantee that any child you have is going to look exactly in a certain way.
I will be having IVF treatment for the first time. How do I find the right clinic for my needs when there are so many out there? Most clinics will boast they are good but how do I know which one is for me?
A lot of this comes down to your own legwork and personal research. If you‘re within the UK, the HFEA has a good website with lots of information about all the clinics and shows all the clinics’ results. That’s a good starting point if you want to have treatment within the UK. If you want to go abroad, it’s again about the leg work: there’s a lot of wonderful and informative sites where you can get some general information about clinics. Then afterwards it’s about you contacting the clinic and finding out all the information you can. I’d always be asking them about some written information on the treatment and services they offer. You’d probably want to know where they source their donors from, the regulatory environment they’re operating in, the type of information you are going to get about donors, some statistics to understand what the results are likely to be in your particular case, whether or not they have counselling, etc. I would also be interested if it’s a regulated environment in that country or whether it’s just down to an individual clinic how they regulate themselves. So once you’ve done that, you have to prepare your own personal spreadsheet about what you’d like the best. Then you might discover that it is very much a personal choice. If you ask 5 or 10 single women and they all have been to the same clinic, they all are going to give you a different perspective. So there’s no one perfect clinic. It’s about finding the one that is the right fit for you. That’s why it may feel sometimes like a daunting and quite a long protracted process. But it’s a part of the process you’re going through to create the right family for you. So it’s worth doing the legwork because you want to end up with the decision you would feel comfortable with in the future.
In terms of success rates and statistics, be aware that in the countries where they don’t have one body providing oversight for the clinics, the clinics make their own decisions how they represent their statistical data. E.g. some clinics will record a confirmed pregnancy at 6 weeks as a success, even if that woman ends up losing a baby soon after or doesn’t actually carry to term. So it may look like a clinic is hugely successful but actually, you do not just want pregnancy or blue line on a stick, right? You want to get to the end of pregnancy and give birth to a live baby. Sometimes they’re presenting data only from specific age groups so obviously they’re going to have a higher success rate with younger women. So just be a little bit careful and ask good questions and remember that it is very much personal preference. We have lots of single women that took treatment abroad so one of the most important things you can get out of membership is communication with other single women under treatment who may give you some thought. But it’s always personal and what suits one person may not necessarily suit you.
Some of the clinics in the UK have actually sort of established partnerships or relationships with clinics abroad. So if you’ve already had treatment in the clinic in the UK that you felt comfortable with and now you’re considering for example egg donation and sperm donation abroad, then it could be useful to check whether your clinic has a partnership arrangement. The other thing to consider is the financial side. Be aware that sometimes hotel accommodation, scans or some medical support from this country may not be included in the price that you are given by your clinic abroad. So when you’re budgeting, it is a good idea to include these things as well so to give you a clear picture of the financial commitment from you.
How do you speak with the child about inherited physical traits? Some might come from me, but others won’t…
It’s a great question and something people really don’t think much from the outset. When you start talking with the child initially, especially if you introduce the story when the child is very young, they don’t have cognitive abilities to think of that type of things. But somewhere between the ages 8 and 12, depending on the child, they really suddenly start to understand genes, DNA and where they might be inheriting physical features from. So it comes down to being honest and talking to children openly and honestly about the situation. I’m always interested in understanding what’s behind children’s questions, why are they asking them. It’s of course completely true that they are going to inherit some things through the DNA of the donor as well develop some of their traits in response to the fact that they are with you 24/7 and you are nurturing them. But it’s important to be open about the fact that they might have physical traits that they inherit from the donor. Sometimes kids might say: ’Mum, I feel sad that I’m not going to have granddad’s ears’ or something like that. And then it’s ok to allow our children to talk openly about how they feel and it’s fine to acknowledge that. You should say: ‘Yes, I can understand that it may feel sad for you’ and talk a little bit about other things that they got from their granddad. But it’s important to allow our children to express themselves honestly. What we’re looking for is to support our children in the whole range of emotions they develop from a little child up to the area of 18.
It can also be quite helpful to look at yourself and ask how you feel about this question. Is there something in this that is difficult for you? How do you feel about the fact that you are having a child that is not genetically connected to you? Do you have some unresolved emotions about that, some reminder of how difficult it was to find out that you couldn’t have a child that is genetically connected to you? It is helpful to be really open with ourselves and examine our own feelings and then we often more able to support our children.
If it feels right and doesn’t evoke any negative emotions, it can also be a great way to acknowledge the donor in a really positive way. And when you see something lovely that you don’t think has come from your side of the family, you may say ‘How wonderful! Maybe that comes from your donor? How wonderful that would be?’ It would be a way of framing the conversation in a positive way, a nice celebration of the fact that you’ve been given this great gift.
What happens when the child is 18? Can they contact their donor and their half brothers/sisters?
If you’re having treatment in the UK, then yes – assuming that the donor is contactable and the donor hasn’t donated privately or in some other way that means that those children are not on the register. But yes, they will be able to apply to the HFEA for the donor’s contact information, last known address and identifying information to mean that they can be searched for and they would get information about their half brothers and sisters by mutual consent.
So at the age of 18, they can apply for the full identifying information. In the UK a child at 16 can apply for non-identifying information as well. Besides, as a parent, you have the right to contact the HFEA on behalf of your child. You can ask for additional information, like whether there were any half-siblings born, the year of their birth and the gender of the child and it would be made available to you. Obviously, when you are in the country where they have anonymous donations, including some European countries and the part of America, your child will not automatically have the right to get the information because the donor is not ID-release. In the UK you can import sperm from other countries that need to be compliant with the code and legal requirements for donors within the UK. So if you imported sperm from e.g. a European or US sperm bank, it would need to be the so-called ID-release donor as well.
Does DCN have groups that donor-conceived children can join themselves? How old do they need to be?
For teens under 18, we don’t have groups as such that meet regularly or anything like that. But we encourage people to bring their children at conferences where we have some facilities for little ones. For children over 8, we offer different kind of activities, related to exploring who they are and asking questions about what donor conception means to them, etc. We do encourage teenagers to come to our conferences and then we put them together in discussion groups facilitated with a DC adult. We do connect older donor-conceived people who join and want that connection, but for under 18-teens, we keep it within the membership through their parents. So the main activities that we offer are for children between the ages 7/8-15.
Is it better if Indian parents go to India for a donor? Otherwise, if the baby is born with blond hair, people who don’t know our donation story will suspect that we made a mistake somewhere.
I’m assuming you think that if you have an Indian donor here, they are perhaps more likely to have other heritage in their background. Probably. There are so many issues and implications in the choice of a donor and the country to have treatment in, that it depends very much on what is important to you and what you think might be important to your child within the family. I think there are clinics in the UK that do have Indian donors. I’m not sure what questions they ask, whether they assess if these persons’ full family history is from India.
I think ethnicity can be important for people. Again it is very much down to individual and personal choice. If ethnicity is important to you, then you’re right to be thinking about what you need to do to get a donor that is the best potential match. You never know what may come in a gene pool. We know that if there is a family picture, taken when a donor was a child, it can often be helpful in checking if the child would look like they fit in.
So if you feel that your ethnicity is important and you want your child to fit in within your family, then it is very healthy to be thinking about what can you do to ensure that your donor would fit those criteria. There are certainly a lot of clinics within the UK that offer egg donation and you would want to look at what type of donors they have and they may have some donors who would meet your criteria. On the other hand, they might not suit you and you may want to consider your other options. Both of those ways would be fine. We know that if you have a child that from the ethnicity appears to be very different from you, then that may be something that people are going to ask about. But realistically, if you are a solo mum and you do not necessarily have a present partner but you did have a partner, your co-partner could have had any type of genetic make-up as well. Even if you haven’t had a child through donation, you could have a partner who got blonde hair. So if it is important to you, you should be thinking it through now and take a decision that you feel is best for you and your child in the future.
It would be helpful to get some information about relative costs.
It’s a very good question but one of those that are very difficult to answer. The reason that we can’t really give information about costs is that a lot of the costs depend on the treatment plan that you need as an individual. For example, some single women may decide to try IUI and that’s a very simple treatment, very cheap, with donor’s sperm. And they get pregnant very quickly. Then we may be talking about hundreds of pounds: when fertility is fine, everything is moving well making getting pregnant very easily. That’s rare and unusual but it can happen. The flip side of that is if you got some medical issues, the clinic would recommend you have some preliminary treatment and some diagnostics to work out what’s going wrong or what’s going on in your body. And they definitely recommend IVF, that in itself is quite expensive, and possibly some additional scans. And the price can go up very quickly without it seems to be a very different choice, just because the detail of the treatment plan is so much more complicated. So it is not an irrelevant trivial question at all but it is almost impossible to answer. You might just want to try approaching one or two different clinics and get a sense of how much some basic components cost and take that as a starting point. But it is very difficult to judge because sometimes until you start a journey you don’t know what you are going to need and what’s going to be recommended and what the prices of those might be.
I think there is certainly something to be researching. You need to be doing your clinic and costs research. It’s good to look at general costs first and then, when you get to point of actually having the consultation, get some more information about your personal fertility profile and what the treatment plan for you would be. Then that would give you a more specific idea.
I am an older single mum so time is not on my side. My first choice is ID-release donors. I need egg/sperm donation. I have tried embryo donation twice in the UK. I feel my only choice is abroad. I am torn and struggling with my decision. Any word of advice?
That is a really difficult situation and the one lots of our members have found themselves in. The important thing to start off with is to think how would it feel not to have a child. Or have a child but not in the way you’d hoped. So for example, you’ve gone abroad where you’d rather stayed for some time and that limits some of the information that would be accessible to your child. Can you tell that story in a positive way?Can you frame that in a way that is respectful of your child, respectful of yourself and your decision making and is both honest and positive? And if you feel you can and having a child is really a strong drive for you, then maybe that’s the right way forward. I can’t obviously tell you what you should do, you need to work it out for yourself. I think there are some individual boundaries for everyone: you feel you can go this far but not further. There are different boundaries for different people. So some people may only want to try IVF or may not want to try anything because there is a certain limit to how far they’re prepared to go. For other people, the options that are available, the technology, the treatment plans, donors, etc. mean that they have to try anything. You’ve got to sit with what’s going to feel right and comfortable for you. But I can definitely say that we have lots of members who have gone abroad and who have got children through double donation or embryo donation. Now they are raising wonderful children, not without some challenging questions from these children that they need to answer. And that’s when confidence comes in. If you feel that you can face that and answer these questions confidently, then maybe it’s the right thing to do.
I think it’s very complex and loaded. You found yourself in a situation when you know your time is running out and you’re nearing the end of the options available. How do you take that decision? Sometimes it is really about sitting with it, mulling it over until the path becomes clear. Talking it through with someone is crucial. If you don’t have free counselling at your clinic I would strongly advise you to find someone to really talk this through with. Because those big decisions are going to affect you and your child forever more. It’s worth thinking about how you will feel in your future when you look back. Sometimes it can be helpful to come up with something that is going to guide you. Then can you explain to your child that you tried everything that was your only option for different reasons. Then you’re going to be able to talk through why you did what you did. I think it’s a good idea to write down what you think your child will ask in the future and what your own personal barriers are. Work out the answers you can give that do not need to be perfectly scripted but that would justify the decisions you make, recognising that you are in a very difficult place.
Sometimes there are only limited choices available and you may have preferences about one way of creating a family that might just not be possible. And then it is when we have to deal with realities that we’re in. So my advice to you would be to think about the future and how it’s going to sit with you and understanding of that. It’s great that you are thinking it through so carefully because that shows your real responsibilities as a parent. Whatever decision you’d take, you’d know that you thought about it very carefully and you made the best decision you could in a moment. And that’s what any of us can ever do: make the best decision we can at the moment.
You may of course always contact the DCN office if you need some more support with that.
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