I haven’t been in a serious relationship since I was 21. It sounds blunt to say, but it’s the crux of this whole story. My parents died when I was a teenager and I definitely had ‘fear of abandonment’ issues as a result. Looking back, I realise I never wanted to go on a second date for fear of being left or rejected. So, while my friends were getting married or even pregnant in their 20s, I remained steadfastly single, despite always knowing that I wanted to be a mother.
My desire to have kids was a bit of a running joke. Even when we were in our late 20s, my friends and I would joke around about me getting the turkey baster out one day. That’s how clear I’d made it that I wanted children. It wasn’t long after this that I started bursting into tears when girlfriends told me they were pregnant. I admit it wasn’t a normal reaction, but I was grieving a life I thought I was going to have and that wasn’t panning out. It made me very selfish – I couldn’t find it in myself to be happy for the people who meant so much to me.
At 35, I knew something had to change. But I didn’t know anything about sperm donors or IVF – no one around me had ever done anything like this, and I’d not looked into it properly before. Everything came as a complete surprise – the cost, the caveats – nothing was what I expected. I didn’t know, for example, that different fertility clinics only associated themselves with specific sperm banks, or that sperm came in different motilities, or that sperm and semen were actually different things. Honestly, I went into it very blind.
My friends and family were all really supportive. They knew this was something I really wanted and that something had to happen. The only people I was worried about telling were my siblings – without their blessing it would have been much harder to feel good about it (even though I’d have probably still have done it). They are all quite a bit older than me and like to tell you the truth, as opposed to what you want to hear. It was wonderful when both of them told me to go for it.
The first thing I did was find a fertility clinic. It was just off Harley Street, so I thought it must be good. But if I had the time again, I’d do much more research and find a clinic I was truly comfortable with. That’s my advice to women in the same position now – shop around. You’re vulnerable and you need a team that will support you from start to finish. The problem is the fertility industry is exactly that – an industry – so some clinics will see you purely as a business transaction.
Prior to visiting the clinic, I went to my GP. They ran a series of blood tests to assess my fertility – I wanted to be prepared when I went up to London and I didn’t want to let the clinic pressure me into going down a specific route. Everything came back quite normal, but the clinic was still very keen for me to do IVF due to my age and weight. And yet, there was no reason to believe I was infertile – I just didn’t have a partner. I didn’t want to jump straight to the most invasive, expensive decision, although I completely understand why some women do – the success rates are higher, so it might only take one round of IVF as opposed to multiple rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI), and therefore work out to be cheaper. Even so, I knew it wasn’t for me yet.
The doctors at the clinic labelled me as ‘geriatric’. It’s term that gets bandied about in the medical world and frankly, it’s insane. I knew my chances of getting pregnant were depleting with each year that went by, but there’s no reason to think women’s fertility just expires at midnight on their 35th birthday. And yet, that was how I was made to feel – by a 68-year-old male doctor! Ridiculous. He was really pushing me to do IVF, but I pushed back. I knew statistics were only a baseline; a general picture of the population at large. They don’t always accurately represent your individual situation.
I said I’d give myself four attempts at IUI and after that, think about IVF. All in all, I spent about £15,000, and that included everything from shipping to acupuncture to the cost of four vials of sperm. I had found a sperm bank that happened to be linked with my fertility clinic, which made the entire process easier. I’ve since spoken to many people for whom this was not the case, and it adds a layer of complication. There are lots of stipulations attached to donor sperm, and the pandemic means donations and stores are so low right now. Thankfully these are things that didn’t affect me back in 2017, but the process isn’t any easier these days.
I do believe certain sperm banks prey on vulnerable women. I had a friend tell me they’d recently been quoted €45,000 for a single vial of exclusive-use sperm from a Danish clinic. I mean, that is pure robbery. These women are – in the best sense of this word – emotionally desperate and these clinics know they will likely spend everything they have to make their dreams a reality. It’s hard because even I hadn’t reconciled myself to the idea that IUI might not work.
The cost breakdown is tricky to keep track of. All I’ll say is you have to be prepared for lots of extra costs. For example, it may cost £800 for each straw of sperm, but then you have to also add on shipping, storing the sperm, cleaning the sperm… the list can go on and on. Where I drew the line was ‘add-on’ tests. I didn’t do any that were recommended to me, including things like HyCoSy tests which dye your womb to see if there are any obvious problems. It might have got to that point if there was a problem, but luckily it never did for me. More often than not, I think doctors sell these tests on the basis that you’ll ‘know more’ – and many of them try to sell you them up front. But at the beginning of the process, it didn't feel necessary for me.
By the time I’d selected the clinic, I’d also found a sperm bank of my own. Like I said, luckily the two were linked, so it all worked out. My bank was also one which could ship samples out the next day, but not all of them do. I was initially quite excited to search through the online database of donors – people often say it’s like looking through a live version Tinder or something – but actually, in the end, I found it very lonely. That crash from, “This is exciting!” to “Oh, I’m really doing this on my own” was a big one. It might be different if you’re doing it in a couple, but it dawned on me very quickly that I wasn’t.
It makes me sad that my donor will never meet my son, Herb. He has no idea how happy he’s made me or how cool this kid is. I’ve written a letter to him thanking him, but of course it can’t be sent because you’re not allowed to contact the donors. Because he’s an open donor, he will have been notified that there was a successful pregnancy and Herb will be allowed to contact him if he wants to when he’s 18. But beyond that, it’s wild to think there’s a guy out there wandering around without any clue about what he’s done for me and my life. He’s my hero.
Using an open donor was important to me. It shouldn’t be my decision whether or not Herb decides to find out who his donor is. But he should at least have that option. If I’d gone for an anonymous donor, he wouldn’t have had a choice. Legally, donors in the UK can no longer be anonymous – which of course, is having a knock-on effect on reserves. Lots of guys don’t want children turning up 18 years later intent on forming a relationship. It explains why the UK’s national sperm bank closed after just 18 months because they’d only had eight donations.
It took four attempts at natural IUI for me to fall pregnant. That was the limit I’d set for myself. I did three of them back-to-back, month after month, but after the third didn’t take, I stepped away from the process for about six months. I never said I would have a six-month break, it just worked out that way. It wasn’t an invasive procedure (I had no hormone stimulation) but the mental load was heavy, and I needed some time off from it all. Even when the time came for the ‘money shot’ as I called it, I was really just going through the motions. There was nothing that suggested this time would be any different.
I had no idea I was pregnant after the mandatory two-week waiting period passed. I was with my nieces in Bristol, and I thought it was their driving that was making me feel so motion sick! Even when I took a pregnancy test at their house, I forgot to check it because I was so convinced I wouldn’t be pregnant. When I turned out I was, it blew my mind completely. It certainly wasn’t the way I’d imagined finding out.
My pregnancy wasn’t easy. I was sick from day one to the day Herb was born. I was thinner at 42 weeks pregnant than I’d ever been because I couldn’t eat or keep anything down. The fatigue was crippling, too – I even once fell asleep on my driveway because I couldn’t physically make it to the house. I couldn’t believe I’d paid thousands of pounds to be in this position. About four months in, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling so ill and thinking, “What the f*ck am I doing?”
Ultimately, I didn’t have a choice but to push through it. Also, people kept telling me the sickness phase would pass, and even though it didn’t, it kept me going. At about 30 weeks, however, I suffered an enormous blow when my best friend was killed in a car crash. My body went quite mental – so it’s hard to tell whether it was the pregnancy or grief causing so much of my sickness in the weeks immediately after.
My birth plan was to get myself to the hospital and take all the drugs they’d give me. I couldn’t wait to feel better, so I didn’t care what had to happen to get the baby out. I don’t thrive when things don’t go to plan, either, so I knew it was better to go in there without any preconceived ideas. Herb was due on 1st April, but he didn’t arrive until the 16th. I was induced on the 14th and labour lasted for about two days. It was long and lots of things went wrong, but I don’t feel traumatised by it at all, thankfully. I’d been so sick, I just revelled in reaching the end.
Herb’s name is a bit of a tribute to my dad. He died when I was 12 but he used to call me ‘Little Herbert’ when I was a child. Herb was also born on my dad’s birthday, so it felt like full circle. I expected those first few days with a newborn to be bliss, but in reality, they can be really hard. I was lucky that my sisters tag-teamed during the first three weeks to make sure I wasn’t on my own and they both have children, too, so they knew what was going on.
Being a single parent is hard. I’m lucky my siblings are so supportive, and my sister takes Herb at least once every six weeks overnight to give me a break. But even when you have a good support system, the day-to-day still falls to you. I do everything myself – financially and emotionally speaking. Herb asks about his dad quite a lot, which is natural, and while I’m always honest with him, I’ve changed the language over the years relative to his level of understanding. I never look at Herb as some dirty secret – I’d always encourage people to ask me about it so that Herb never has to be kept at arm’s length by anyone.
My hope is that alternative routes to parenthood become much more normal. Even as recent as 20 years ago, what I’ve been able to do would have been near impossible. Society has changed immeasurably, but there’s still some way to go if women in my position and children in Herb’s are going to be free from judgement. I’d have gone to any lengths to make this happen and I’d do it again, if I could afford it. It breaks my heart that Herb will be an only child, but I don’t have the money to try again.
Motherhood is everything I ever imagined and more. The only thing I’d say is the range of emotions is overwhelming – the highs are so high, and the lows can be really low. But at the end of the day, I can’t believe what a brilliant kid Herb is. And now, without that visceral weight on my shoulders of trying to fulfil my dream of becoming a mother, maybe I finally feel like there’s room for someone else in our lives. Who knows? If this process has taught me one thing, it’s that anything is possible.