You’ve come to the decision to use donor conception as your route to parenthood. But what does that decision really mean for you emotionally, physically and psychologically?
Julianne Boutaleb is a perinatal psychologist, a specialist who works therapeutically with individuals, couples and their families needing psychological support from conception (or trying to conceive) through to one-year post birth.
Her patients include same sex and other sex couples struggling to conceive, starting or stopping treatment and thinking about other ways of having a family, be that surrogacy, adoption or sometimes having to come to terms with remaining childless.
Over the last 16 years, she has increasingly supported many individuals and couples who have decided for a range of reasons that creating (or extending) their family via donor conception was the right choice for them.
We asked her to explain the process of the decision and how it may impact positively and not so on your journey to becoming a parent.
Julianne said: “What’s important to understand is that for each individual and couple the road to Donor Conception(DC) is different – for some it’s a rockier road than for others. For example, for same-sex couples, becoming pregnant by donor is a positive choice to becoming parents. For some heterosexual couples conceiving by donor also represents hope as it allows them to find solutions for previously insurmountable challenges to conceiving, such as azoospermia (where the man cannot make sperm) or genetic disorders such as Huntington’s disease, or post-cancer infertility. Similarly, single women can now decide to go it alone and create families within a supportive extended family, without having to miss their chance at motherhood waiting overlong for Mr Right.
“But for other couples, the road to creating a family by donor may be paved with pain and loss and may be a destination they arrive at very cautiously, even reluctantly. While it is true that IVF and ICSI have become almost commonplace, for many couples the idea of conceiving by donor may still represent crossing a previously held ‘red line’ in their journey to parenthood.
“However, while donor conception may still be the road less travelled in fertility treatment terms, it is nevertheless becoming a road more travelled in recent years. Indeed, recent HFEA figures (HFEA, 2018) indicate that over 2,000 babies were conceived last year in the UK with the use of donor gametes: egg or sperm, double or embryo donation, and this figure does not include the babies born to UK parents in other European countries using this method. Although this number still only represents between six and seven per cent of the overall IVF conception rate, over the last ten years there has been a growing acceptance of donor conception and surrogacy as routes to parenthood.”
So, what tips would I give anyone contemplating going down this road to parenthood?
Find out as much as possible about what donor conception will entail for you. The HFEA, Fertility Network UK, and the Donor Conception Network websites have fantastically helpful information about the practical processes and implications of donor conception and surrogacy – do check them out. Consider the pros and cons of having treatment in the UK or abroad, but be aware that many clinics abroad will not treat single women or same sex couples. Likewise if you are having a family member or friend as the donor, make sure you understand the implications of Legal Parenthood.
Take your time – yes really! It may be tempting to see the use of donor gametes as just another step along your IVF/fertility treatment road, but it is really important to understand that there are specific emotional and legal implications to what you are embarking on. As with all fertility treatment do your research, and make sure to discuss in detail what donor conception treatment will involve with your current treatment provider. Don’t rush into anything – step away from treatment for a bit if you need to, and don’t feel pressured into acting before you (and your partner) are ready. Conceiving a baby is not just about having the right FSH levels or the right donor match, but also about being psychologically ready for this next step on your reproductive journey.
Allow that you (and your partner if you have one) will feel a range of emotions. And it is not uncommon for the feelings to be quite polarised between you at times too – with one of you possibly feeling hopeful, whilst the other feels anxious and possibly ambivalent. If embarking on this route as a solo parent, please know that it is very likely that you will experience a rollercoaster of emotions too – and that this doesn’t necessarily mean this is not the right route for you. Some find journalling very useful as a way of coping with the stress and uncertainty, others find breathing and distracting activities, like going for a walk or the gym more helpful in balancing their emotions. Find what works for you.
Don’t be tempted to go this part of the journey alone. Time and again, I see individuals and couples isolate themselves from potential support because they fear being misunderstood or judged. Talk, talk and talk some more – to other parents who have conceived in this way, to supportive family and friends, and most importantly each other. Find your donor conception tribe via online forums IVF Babble and Fertility Friends, which have fabulous virtual support networks and are a hive mind of up-to-date and personal information from those who have conceived by donor.
Privacy not secrecy. Many of the couples and individuals I see often admit to a sense of shame initially when contemplating donor conception. For some it might be about having to use another’s eggs or sperm to conceive, for others it’s about not having a partner to do this with. Whilst of course it is your choice what information you share with whom about your plans to conceive via donor, I think it is really important that you don’t unwittingly hold onto these negative feelings. Get external help if needed. Look on the British Infertility Counselling Association website for a therapist who can help you address these issues and resolve them, so they don’t negatively impact you or your partner or your relationship with your donor conception child.
Keep the baby in mind. It is really vital that those wishing to go down this route understand and can consider the implications of being conceived this way for any children they may have. In line with the wishes and experiences of parents of DC children and DC children themselves, the law regarding contact with donors was changed in 2005 in the UK to allow DC children potentially to have contact with their donor if they so wish at age of 18. Commonly held wisdom in the DC community now is to tell children as early as possible about their origins in an age appropriate way. You’ll find Books and videos on the Donor Conception Network, and they have fabulous resources on Telling and Talking. You should also be aware that if you pursue treatment in the UK, or in countries with similar HFEA Guidelines that you (and your partner or donor) will be expected to have Implications Counselling and complete a Welfare of the Child interview.
Look after your relationships. Recent research undertaken by Fertility Network UK has highlighted the toll that infertility and fertility treatment can take on relationships – with partners, friends and family. But your relationships matter – both in getting through treatment AND after you hopefully have a DC child. Long term research into psychological outcomes for DC children and their families show that its not family structure or genetic origins that matter to children, but the quality of family relationships (Golombok, 2015)…so looking after your relationships is key to your child’s development.
Look for inspiration and role models. It’s really important to find others you can relate to – to lessen isolation and to normalise your journey. Thankfully celebrities like Mary Portas and Nicole Kidman are speaking out about extending their families via donor and surrogate. Likewise films like The Kids are Alright and Private Lives (both on Netflix) depict DC families and they struggle to conceive by donor sensitively. But dare to reach out to those you meet along the way on your journey – they might just become friends for life.
To find out more about Julianne and her work, click here
Are you considering using donor conception as a path to parenthood? Email us on firstname.lastname@example.org