'It felt like I was having the emotional journey of a 9 month pregnancy within a 3 month period.'
As lunch dates go, this one in 2005 was particularly emotional but it wasn’t due to the lack of deep fried potato or even my personality. I looked over the table, feeling a little nervous and offered my eggs.
His eyes welled up with a little lip tremble. Then he turned to his wife, they grasped hands and said yes.
Egg donation is a little known aspect of reproductive fertility. It occurs when a woman is able to carry a pregnancy to full term but does not have eggs of suitable quality. For most, this frustrating discovery happens after going through at least one arduous and expensive IVF cycle. It’s like watching the entire Twilight series only to realise the climactic end sequence was only a dream.
Australia is governed by strict laws relating to donation and it is illegal to pay for sperm, eggs or embryos just as it is illegal to pay for donation of any other human tissue (blood, marrow, organs). The process of even looking for a donor is regulated, with some couples having to submit their advertisements for ministerial approval prior to sharing on parenting forums or other areas. After publishing the advertisement, there begins the long wait – not only to find someone but to find the right person with whom you will share this important connection.
I decided to donate my eggs because for years I had my own fertility issues, thanks to polycystic ovarian syndrome, a thorny beast that means your insulin and hormones conspire to ensure you don’t release eggs. I was lucky: a regime of weight loss and diabetic medication kick-started my baby-maker.
Acclimatising to the world of pregnancy and parenting, I discovered I had it easy. Others spent years on cocktails of medication, endless rounds of intrusion and intervention. For some, happiness was measured in hourly increments, waiting for the next result, waiting for things to stick, waiting for things to improve.
By the time, I read Jacob and Meg’s advertisement, I had a fat and happy 1-year old on my lap. I counted down every day, trying to find the perfect couple, as doctors recommended donating after your last child turns one.
When Jacob and Meg described wanting to grow emotionally with their longed-for child, it struck within. To me they seemed to understand the nature of mutual unfurling between babies and their families. Physically, emotionally, you all grow together. This wasn’t about them pointing the way to their kids, they seemed to intuit that raising a child was a mad team scramble.
Naturally, they are the nicest couple you could ever meet. Getting to know them was like low-stakes dating; emails, long conversations on the phone, lunch dates where they met my daughter (very ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’).
We went straight into counseling and screening, detailing every aspect of my medical history, taking blood and notes - copious notes. I would call that process vulnerable but everything to do with assistive fertility is exposing. As well as the note-taking there are the tests, the waiting for evaluations. When you realise that up to 1 in 30 Australians seek assistance to become pregnant, it is a striking thought that so many men and women go through so many potentially humiliating moments to start their families.
Even after going through every interrogation of my medical history, pap smear, blood test and diagnostic hoop jump, nothing prepared me for the vaginal ultrasound. Or as I like to call it, ‘dildo cam’. You can learn a lot about yourself in a vaginal ultrasound, like if your uterus looks like an artistic collaboration between Ridley Scott and HR Giger. (Hint: it does but I couldn’t find Ripley).
Each time I’d go in for an appointment, I’d saddle up, fretting about my grooming before the specialist waved her intimidating, minimalist dildo and popped it in for a look at the strange internal landscape. It was bizarrely intimate and exposing.
In case no one tells you, IVF can be hellishly brutal and if you know anyone who has or is going through it, you should damn well make them a cup of tea or get them something really awesome, like a steam mop. Think about trying to maintain your everyday life, career, relationships while undergoing the hormonal equivalent of meth. That’s what it felt like - although, in the style of late night infomercials, I'd like to tell you that individual results may vary.
But that is how the IVF cycle worked for me – kind of like an episode of Glee in that it’s annoying, soul-crushing and feels like it’s never going to end.
First, there is the syncing – when you and the mum get your cycles in order.
Second, comes the sniffing. Yes, sniffing. This is the stage where pituitary hormones are tricked into not releasing any eggs early. It’s like 'The Rules' but for your ovaries. Sniffing comes via a nasal spray and tastes like what Heston Blumenthal would create were he trying to evoke a whimsical metallic smoothie to remind you of the meaningless of Grade 2 geography.
Third up is the ovarian stimulation phase where you try to fool the ovaries (previously chastised by the sniffing stage) into developing not just one egg but lots of them by injecting hormones into your stomach daily.
When it came time to self-injecting hormones, I was hesitant to actually plunge the syringe into myself. You tend to let the needle hover 2 centimeters over your skin, like when you’re about to tear off a wax strip and have to mentally will your hand to rip it off. I ended up calling friends to talk me through it, because, sadly, I don’t know Marianne Faithfull.
For me, this stage was exhausting. I would pick ridiculous fights (‘Why your knowledge of Citroens is inferior to mine, even though I’ve never held a licence’ should have been on pay-per-view) and I absolutely despised everyone around me. It felt like I was having the emotional journey of a 9 month pregnancy within a 3 month period.
Everything existed in a muddled fog. There I was with a life seemingly complete, a house, a loving and kind husband, a longed-for child and burgeoning career, and yet with every injection came the confusing realisation it wasn’t the life I wanted. In helping to create a life for someone else’s family, I realised I had forgotten to create my own.
On the day of egg pick up and sperm collection, things were fraught. We stood in the clinic awkwardly, Jacob wishing me luck, me not knowing the polite way to wish him well for sperm collection. I was placed under deep sedation and felt a mild pain on waking. They wheeled me to a private area and told me they had picked up around 6 eggs. I burst into tears, ostensibly because I felt like I had failed Jacob and Meg by not giving them the average 10, but mainly because I felt more cracked out than Courtney Love on a Twitter bender.
And so, my part in the process was over and reduced to glad-but-distant observer hoping for the best and my period to come and clear my exhausted womb. I marvel at the stamina of women who go through not just one IVF cycle but continue on to (often multiple) implantations before a hopeful pregnancy, then birth and then caring after a newborn. Seriously guys, I mentioned making them a cup of tea before but perhaps make them two or eleventy billion.
Meg became pregnant on her second implantation and 9 months later, she and Jacob became the most doting and committed parents to one of the luckiest children ever born – Reuben. Who wouldn’t want to help in whatever small way if it resulted in two amazing people becoming amazing parents?
Six years later, we still catch up every few months for lunches, phone calls and emails. Jacob and Meg are, as expected, outstanding parents who have told their boy all about the extra step that helped them get pregnant. Their son and my daughter laugh and circle each other with the glee of hyped-up cousins.
For my part, looking at him can be conflicting. He’s charming; a whirlwind, whip smart, a veritable pocket rocket – the sort of entertaining child you look upon with utter enjoyment. But I feel guilt over the markers of my genes. In him, I see my nose and eyes, the unruly hair and the unbridled energetic chaos of our personalities. Also, I’ve passed on my allergies and a skull size so large he will be cursed by all milliners. I feel intense guilt that what was meant as an altruistic gift left traces of me, that even my genes are loud and pushy bastards.
Then again, this amazing family has left an indelible trace upon me. The process of egg donation completely turned my life around. What was previously a life in a rut and unchallenged, is now completely changed. After donating, I took on more challenges, lost my fears and truly engaged with life. And it’s all because of those 3 months we shared, getting strung out on hormones.
I can never thank them enough for the life they gave me.
Want to make that step? If you don’t know of a family who needs your help, contact IVF Australia (www.ivfaustralia.com.au or 1800 111 483) to learn more.
*Names have been changed.