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The Sydney Morning Herald

For Motherhood alone

Author: Amanda Hooton
Date: 03/03/2012
Words: 4684
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 16
No knight in shining armour? What's a single woman with a ticking biological clock to do? Amanda Hooton meets three mums who found their own solution.Kirsty Stead, 38, has dark curly hair, pale freckled skin, and a big laugh. One day in July 2009 she sat down at her computer and began looking for The One. But she wasn't looking for moonlit walks or romantic dinners: what she wanted was what novelist Jeffrey Eugenides calls "the tiny sputter ... the meagre leaven ... indispensable to the grand achievement of having

a baby". What she wanted was sperm. Despite her highly social job - she works in music management - she'd been mostly single for years; she'd tried online matchmaking and set-ups by friends and speed dating; she'd done the maths of love and babies. "I was like, 'Even if I meet someone this year, and even if we only have two or three years before we procreate, I'm still cutting it pretty fine.'"

Then she had a bad Pap smear result. "They found an adenocarcinoma, which is a precancerous growth, and they said, 'If you want to have kids you've got to hurry.'" This was the final straw, the moment that severed the romantic connection she'd always maintained between the dual dreams of a husband and a baby. Within four months, she'd been referred to an IVF clinic that deals with single women and donor sperm, signed up, and been given the password to an American sperm bank called Fairfax Cryobank.

What followed, she recalled when we met in August last year, was a search process ironically like online dating. Sperm donors give a lot of the same information as potential dates about their appearance, education and career. For three months she trawled through men with model good looks, great medical histories, fascinating personal stories. "Then I found one, and the clinic nurses had written their impressions of him." Sitting at the kitchen table of her small apartment on a grey day last winter, Stead smiled at the memory. "They said, 'He's always dressed casually but smartly and has a lovely smile and the most fabulous hair.' And I thought, 'That's us.'"

As a bonus, the man with the fabulous hair also had a great medical history, one of Stead's pre-requisites. He was of Irish and German ancestry, and worked as a social worker while studying psychology. His hobbies were music, acting and cooking. It was as though Stead had computer-

generated her perfect man - which, in a way, she had. Three months later, she was inseminated with his sperm, which had been flown frozen in a metal "semen shipper" from America. "That night in bed - and I'm not generally a religious person - I remember saying, 'As we lay us down to sleep, we pray the Lord our souls to keep.'" Of course, she had no idea if she was pregnant. "But I just thought, 'We need a bit of protection here.' I felt like I knew."

brave new world

the first recorded birth of a child from donor sperm was in Philadelphia in 1884, when Dr William Pancoast inseminated the Quaker wife of a local merchant with a medical student's sperm. Neither the woman nor her husband had any idea what the doctor had done. The woman fell pregnant and gave birth to a son, but when the case came to light in 1909, the public was outraged at the "moral corruption" of the act.

The social dilemmas posed by donor sperm - its suggestion of illegitimacy and promiscuity, and, for unmarried women, the stigma of single motherhood - continued well into the 1970s, and even today there are no specific numbers for how many single heterosexual women have donor offspring in Australia. In 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded 486,000 lone-parent families in this country; but this figure included all solo parents, including men.

What nobody doubts, however, is that the numbers are rising. In 1986, 14 per cent of families were headed by one parent; by 2006, this figure had increased to 22 per cent. Clinics in both NSW and Victoria report year-on-year rises in single women patients: in Sydney, Fertility First estimates that 20 per cent of all its patients are single women; at Fertility East the number is closer to 33 per cent. In Victoria (which only legalised access of single and gay women to IVF treatment in 2000), Melbourne IVF reports "some hundreds" of single women accessing fertility services in the state each year. Using donor sperm to try for a baby is often easier and faster than adoption or foster care for single women, and is certainly safer for both mother and baby than a one-night stand or casual sex.

"Fighting stigma has been a huge thing for single women," explains Cheryl Fletcher, a social worker doing a PhD on donor offspring at UNSW. Among the 24 single women she interviewed for her thesis, 17 had degrees or post-graduate qualifications; most were aged between 35 and 41 when they gave birth, and all had thought about their decision for years. Yet many had been saddled with the worst possible stereotypes of the feckless single mother. "Single mothers are considered selfish and unsuitable because there's no father - even more so than lesbians," she tells me. "'As a heterosexual woman, how can you deprive a child of a father?' Actually, you can't win. If you don't have kids, you're selfish. If you have them on your own, you're selfish."

Nevertheless, one of the themes of the research is the persistence of women. "They had to resist a lot of attitudinal crap from people; they had to really persist in finding clinics that would give them service; they had to find money, travel interstate, leave jobs when pregnant, all sorts of things. But they had the guts to carry on anyway."

All Fletcher's subjects gave birth to their children between 1993 and 2006, and most didn't know anyone else who'd followed the same path. But today "it's relatively common to know of people who've thought about it, tried it, done it. It's not a situation where women are trailblazers any more. It's been pioneered, the legislation's there. I've heard that up to half of some clinics' patients are now single women."

This makes sense: when I first considered this story five years ago, I knew of no single women who'd taken the sperm-donor step, however much they longed for a baby. Today, I know one in Melbourne, two in Sydney, a sperm donor in Perth, and another woman who's frozen both her eggs and embryos using donor sperm.

"It didn't feel that unconventional, I have to say," recalls Kirsty Stead. "It's only when I talked to people I realised, 'Wow, this is kind of taboo, isn't it?'" When she decided to pursue the search for a donor, she sent a group letter to her girlfriends. "I understand if there is a feeling that this is somehow unnatural or manufactured," she wrote. "I'm sure I'll be the first making the jokes about my expensive baby, Fedex-ed from America in a frozen straw, but as usual my jokes mask my sadness. I too would have preferred that it was natural. So I need you girls to know that, to know me and to know this was not an easy or desirable decision to make. And whether you agree with it or not, back me up, ladies! I'll need you."

In September 2009, aged 37, she had her first cycle of IVF. After our first interview, she emails me a spreadsheet of her costs. Total out-of-pocket expenses after one round of treatment: $5252.50. The vast majority of women take many more than one cycle to fall pregnant, if they do at all. Stead had only two viable embryos from her cycle: she asked that the healthiest be transferred.

Miraculously, she fell pregnant as a result. Her son - a beautiful hazel-eyed boy, with fabulous curly hair - was born in June 2010. "I was so lucky," she says. "So lucky."

Deborah Avery lives in the act, in a low-slung house surrounded by native shrubs and many, many solar lights. These lights belong to her five-year-old donor-conceived son. Between when I first spoke to her last year, and meeting in January, he has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. "Kids with Asperger's have obsessions," she explains as she leads me into a pale sitting room filled with toys and squashy sofas. "His is solar lights. You can see our yard from space."

Avery's son is a slim, elfin child with blond hair and dark, intense eyes. He ignores me entirely for half an hour, then shows me his Costco name badge and offers me a biscuit. Then he goes outside, breaks a solar light, and spends a lot of time reporting on his clean-up operation. Would that BP were so conscientious.

Avery is a robust, resilient-looking woman with black hair. "Single mums by choice don't need sympathy. We've actually got a really good thing going," she says. They may not have husbands or partners, but nor do they have to deal with relationships gone wrong. They don't have to manage uninterested husbands, inequitable domestic workloads, or conflicts of parenting style. Added to this, a third of Australian marriages today end in divorce, and there are often children involved, so women frequently end up as single mothers by default. At least doing it by choice avoids the trauma of custody battles,

financial wrangles, and interfering in-laws.

Few of the women I talked to had experienced direct prejudice as a result of their choice. Avery had one woman accost her in her prenatal class, demanding to know about "the father"; Stead asked a Catholic priest to christen her son in his church and had him tell her: "Your sin is so great, I don't think I can save his soul." But in general, women say, people are either actively supportive or they keep quiet.

"Not that I would have ever chosen this path," Avery adds. She, too, came to donor-offspring motherhood reluctantly, after years believing she'd be a traditional mum. Despite the hell of things like internet dating "back in the days when the guys would be missing, like, a tooth", giving up her KISA fantasy (an online acronym for Knight in Shining Armour) was a devastating loss. "I didn't let go of it until the first time I had sperm put inside me. I remember lying there whispering, 'I don't want to do this, I don't want to do this.' I was resentful, and there was a bit of self-loathing. 'Why do I have to do this? What's wrong with me?'"

There are two kinds of official sperm donor used in Australia: known and identity-release

donors. Known donors are brought to the clinic by the recipient herself - as when a woman brings her gay friend, for example. Identity-release donors are recruited by the clinics - such as Kirsty Stead's fabulous-hair man. In both Victoria and NSW, both kinds of donors must consent to having their details entered on a register and made available to any offspring when they turn 18. This applies to overseas donors, too, though only in NSW; it is still illegal to import sperm into Victoria. A donor has no financial obligations to support any offspring, nor does he have any rights to access or involvement. The recipient, for her part, cannot claim financial support from the donor, nor can she demand - or be compelled to provide - shared parenting arrangements.

Avery decided she wanted to use a known donor. A gay friend of the family, Tom (not his real name), offered his services. "He met the criteria: attractive, tall, intelligent, healthy." He underwent the regulation tests and counselling, and provided sperm. Like all known-donor sperm, it had to be frozen and quarantined for six months before treatment could commence, but it didn't survive freezing well. Deborah, who was 37 by this time, was feeling desperate. She tried two unsuccessful IUIs (intrauterine inseminations) using Tom's thawed sperm. "Then I just said to him, 'Give it to me fresh in a jar.' He lives 20 minutes away, so he did it and put it in a sock and brought it over. It was really awkward - kind of gross!" She shakes her head. "When it's someone you know but you're not into, so to speak! But you just have to block yourself off and do it."

This all seems pretty high-risk, I suggest. Deborah shrugs. "He'd had the STD tests; he said he was monogamous." And in the ACT, as long as the insemination does not involve intercourse, the legal provisions protecting both parties still operate.

The first time she used this fresh sperm, Deborah fell pregnant. Her son was born in April 2006. In the lead-up to his birth, Avery took out life insurance, made a will, organised guardians, remortgaged her house, and downsized and relocated her business so she could work from home. She runs an online and party-plan adult-toy retailing business called The Pleasure Box. "It's very tasteful," she tells me, eyes wide. "Well, as much as vibrating butt plugs can be tasteful."

The baby's arrival was a joyful time, "but he was very full-on as a baby, and as a child he's very high-maintenance". He was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome - an autism-spectrum disorder characterised by behavioural and developmental difficulties - at the end of last year. Though autism's cause is unknown, some kind of genetic basis is suspected, but it can't be tested for. "It's bloody awful," says Avery. "I spend all my time now watching him, and hoping somehow it's a mistake - thinking maybe he hasn't got it. And then other times I look at him and think, 'Yes, he does.'"

But the challenges her son posed didn't put her off. The year she turned 40, she began trying for another baby. Again, she wanted a known donor, and she advertised on three forums, eventually discovering a married airline executive who passed her 54-part questionnaire with flying colours. Why didn't she simply use Tom again? Avery drops her head back on the squashy sofa. "You are not going to believe this," she tells me. "I'm a good person, honestly!" Despite the legal protections, she and Tom ended up in serious conflict over Avery's son's care when he was one, after Tom experienced "a change in his emotions" and began to seek more involvement in the child's life. Avery refused, though she does take some responsibility for setting up confusing expectations: she included Tom's name on her son's birth announcement cards, and also put him on the birth certificate.

"I thought we could just make [arrangements for contact] up as we went along," she admits. "And that was where I was naive. The fact of the matter is, [Tom] is not the kind of person I want in our lives on a regular basis. He's a great uncle figure, but for someone having a daily influence ... I chose him on the basis of his genetics, not on his personality or our pre-existing relationship." After extensive counselling and legal advice, the original agreement stands, and Tom sees the child - who knows Tom gave his mother the "seed" to make a baby - once or twice a year.

The right stuff

how do donors feel about these distant babies they help create? As of January 2010, NSW law stipulates that a maximum of five women can be inseminated with a single donor's sperm; in Victoria, a donor can father 10 children, including his own. A donor can withdraw at any point of the process; he can stipulate he wants to father only one or two children; he can give direction on the kind of women he wants to assist (heterosexual, single, gay - even fat or thin).

Only about 20 per cent of inquiries actually make it to donation, explains Vanessa Ferguson, donor co-ordinator at Fertility East in Sydney. She currently has just eight local donors avail-able, and 14 somewhere in the process of selection. Some fall at the first hurdle, "when they realise they won't get paid", but most fail on medical grounds. "They really need superhuman sperm," she points out. "Because the freezing process destroys so much, they need well over a 50 per cent count. Lots of people walking around on the street have counts between six per cent and 25 per cent - these are people who are able to have kids and everything. But donors' counts need to be incredibly high."

These difficulties - plus the cultural resistance of many Australians to sperm donation - mean that recruiting local donors is hard. As a result, some clinics, like Genea, deal only with women using known donors; others use only overseas sperm. "America's one of the most philanthropic nations on earth," says Ferguson. "Sperm donation just seems a much more accepted practice over there."

Dr Anne Clark, medical director of Fertility First, agrees. "A member of the clinic goes each year to meet the donors," she says, "and it's a completely different attitude. I think the first time we went, one of the guys we met's car had broken down, so his mother had brought him down to make his donation. I could not imagine that happening in this country."

Whether they come from here or offshore, the first question that comes to mind about donors is why: why do they do it? "There's no rhyme or reason," says Ferguson. "Some have had a woman close to them struggle to conceive, and seen the desperation. Some are egotistical, no question: they feel they shouldn't be the only ones to experience life with such fantastic genes."

For recipient women, "the advantage of local donors is that we get to know them so well, and we can talk about them to women: what they're like as people. At one point I was sitting down with a bloke going through everything with him, and he said, 'Vanessa, this feels like a date!' And I was like, 'Oh my goodness, not to me!' But we can describe to women what the men wore when they came in to their appointments, did they turn up on time, things like that. Some women love that: they love to have someone who can say, 'Look, I know this guy, this is my impression of him.'"

The day after my first visit to Fertility East, I return to meet a local donor. Barney (the

pseudonym that, after some thought, he suggests) is slim, fit and tall, with blue eyes and greying blond hair: good-looking in an unobtrusive way. He's in his late 30s, married, with his first child on the way. He seems a quiet person, even conservative. He is absolutely not what I expected of a sperm donor.

He chose to become one after seeing a TV program about it. "I thought about it for a couple of days," he says. We're sitting in one of the newly renovated offices of Fertility East - proof that the fertility business is booming - on two plastic chairs: he leans forward, holding a paper cup of water. (At the end of our interview, he will carefully collect my cup in addition to his own, and put both in the bin.) "And I talked to my wife. Her reaction was, 'Yeah, that's a good thing to do.' We wrote a list of pros and cons, and I decided to call the clinic. I feel I've been blessed in my life. I'm healthy, I'm fit. So why not give some other people those advantages?"

He was, he admits, increasingly competitive about his donations. "At each progressive step, you wonder if you're going to pass - the counsellor, the blood tests, the sperm tests, everything else. By the end, I knew everything looked fine, but I wanted it to be excellent."

The whole process took about six months. "I'm happy for the children or their parents to contact me at any stage. Whether they're eight or 18 - whatever they feel comfortable with."

He knows no one else who's donated sperm, he admits. "I've told my wife, Vanessa [Ferguson], and you," he says. "But I've never felt awkward about it. From what I've read, men do seem to feel uncomfortable. I guess what you have to do when you come here is an embarrassing thing to think about. But I never had a problem at all. I'm hardly the first guy to come in here to make a donation: you can tell everyone here's been through it a thousand times. But I thought, 'Even if it is embarrassing, it's a small price to pay: five minutes of my embarrassment for someone to have a life with a child.'"

when i first met Fiona Hearne last August, she seemed not dissimilar to Kirsty Stead or Deborah Avery. But in fact she's the only woman I spoke to who went into motherhood knowing that her donor was truly anonymous: her daughter was born in early 2003, when donors were under no obligation to release their identity. Which makes it even more ironic that they are the only pair to have formed a successful connection with their donor. Hearne, a friendly woman with grey-brown hair and a decisive manner, sent him a letter via her clinic when her daughter was 18 months old. "I briefly explained why I'd used donor conception," she explains. "And I talked about the joy my daughter had brought, not only to my own life, but my family's life. And I thought he might be interested in an annual update."

The letter reached her donor, who sent a reply, "Just very short, saying, 'Thanks, yes, interested in keeping in touch.'" The updates continued for five years; then Hearne, and eventually her daughter, met him. Now they get together annually for lunch. "I think we were incredibly lucky with the donor that we chose," concludes Hearne. "We don't want to encroach: he's not part of our day-to-day life. He's someone who's part of the make-up of our family, but he's not part of it on a regular basis."

Seven months after I first met Hearne, I attend a meeting hosted by her in her sunny sitting room. It has been set up through the Solo Mums by Choice forum (smcaustralia.org), a national organisation for women interested in donor conception. Of the seven women who've come along, four are actively trying to fall pregnant using donor sperm, two have just begun the process, and one is thinking about it. None has children. Their ages range from 34 (the thinker) to 43 (a tryer), and they discuss everything from what to do when you accidentally leave your fertility drugs in the office fridge, to covering the bruises from hormone injections and blood tests.

The cost of treatment and the fragility of female fertility are two of the major themes of discussion. "You don't want to use a known donor," says a pretty, blue-eyed brunette, "because that's six months of quarantine, and that's time you don't have."

"I can't wait till I've got enough money," adds a 41-year-old blonde in a white cotton top, who's using not only donor sperm but also a donor egg she found via the forum. "If I waited until I was financially ready, I'd be 55." Along with a tall redhead, she's currently waiting to discover whether she's pregnant. "I'm feeling sick, but I think it's nerves," she says. "It's a nervous tummy."

"I was peeing on a stick yesterday," admits the redhead. "You're there under the light going, 'Could that be a really faint line?'"

"You need to get a massage, not waste your money on sticks," advises Hearne, smiling. A few minutes later, when the brunette explains that she had a miscarriage last year and her eyes fill with tears, the whole group leans towards her. "We all want to come over and give you a hug," says Hearne sympathetically.

"My biggest fear is that time will slip by, I'll remain really immersed in work, and I'll wake up when I'm 45 and think, 'Holy crap, I never made an active choice about this,'" says the 34-year-old, who's trying to decide if, and when, to begin. In common with lots of the women, she worries about balancing her work (at senior-management level) and fertility treatment. "I'm the only female on my leadership team," she explains. "I'm not sure how open to be; but how am I going to come up with excuses to bail on international trips?"

For her part, the brunette admits, "I got a promotion early this year, and I felt guilty not telling my bosses what was going on. But I just know, in the male-dominated environment I work in, if they knew what I was doing, I wouldn't get another one. For all their talk, and HR policy and everything, I just wouldn't get it."

In a two-hour discussion, about the only thing that doesn't come up among the women is romance. The redhead confesses to a "friend with benefits" arrangement, but none of the others is dating. "To me, [dating and having fertility treatment] are almost mutually exclusive," says a stylish Asian girl in a spotted shirt. "You can't mentally and emotionally commit to this, and then go, 'Ooh, what if I hedge my bets?'"

"When you're in the middle of the pro-cess, the main drive is to have the child," Hearne tells me. "You might think about the future - relationships and things - but I don't know how deeply. What you want is to get pregnant." She admits that now, however, she'd love to find a partner.

Cheryl Fletcher's research suggests it's difficult: only two of her 24 subjects had found partners since having their children. "I don't think it's going to be a whole lot easier to meet someone now," agrees Hearne without rancour. "And also, you're looking for a different sort of person. You're not looking for the KISA. But yes, it would be nice. Lovely."

Kirsty Stead agrees. "This step, for me, was about saying, 'This is not the life I want, being single and constantly wondering why I haven't met someone and whether I should be thinner or easier or less demanding.' I decided I wanted to meet someone I like, and that I'm attracted to, on an equal footing, and not manipulate it. And now, let's face it, I'm basically looking for someone who's in their 40s, and probably has kids themselves. Having a kid actually opens up

avenues - I'm now invited to christenings and parties, all those events where I used to turn up as the single woman and feel like a loser."

Even Deborah Avery likes to believe she'll find The One. In the meantime, however, she's dealing with the decision to stop, at age 43, trying for a second baby. After repeated attempts using IUI, self-insemination with fresh sperm, and full IVF, attending five different clinics in three states, and spending more than $60,000, she has forced herself to call it a day. "I promised myself I'd stop after my birthday. After my last failed cycle, I just had to say to myself, 'That's it, Deborah.' I was hysterical; I knew I could not put myself through it again. I had to say, 'Just stop it.'"

But has she really given up? I wonder. The candour of all the mothers I speak to for this story is striking, but Avery's face, her voice and all the power of her maternal longing seem to argue against it.

"Well," she says. There's a long pause. "Well, I have thought about fostering, but I already have one high-maintenance child. And I have been offered an egg donor." Another pause. "I haven't disposed of the sperm. I know it's the end. Intellectually. But my heart's not there. I still have that sense of, 'What the f...? This is not the way it was meant to be! My child deserves a sibling.'" She leans forward, pushing her hair away from her face. "He deserves not to be alone."

 
 

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