Chapter 5 - Lexie's Village - A New Kind Of Family

The following year, I felt physically, emotionally and financially ready to start planning for a child, but I was only too aware that female fertility takes a cliff‑dive after the age of thirty‑five. I was forty‑three.

A sense of urgency descended upon me, very close to panic. My physician, Dr Rose, referred me to see Dr Park at his Sydney CBD IVF clinic, which was conveniently within short walking distance from the Facebook office.

On my very first appointment with Dr Park, he reinforced my worst fears. The chances of success using my own eggs were low. In the days that followed, I kept wondering why I hadn’t frozen my eggs early on, when they had a much better success rate. Had I thought that the dreaded fertility decline just didn’t apply to me? Even my employer had begun an incentive program for their female staff to freeze eggs during their peak fertility years.

I’d fleetingly considered the idea of egg freezing when I returned home from Chicago. I was thirty‑six then, but other priorities, like finding a new home, getting a new job and reconnecting with old friends, had taken precedence. I honestly thought I still had time to meet someone and create a family the ‘natural way’.

On our first meeting, Dr Park suggested a workup, including blood tests and ultrasounds, to determine the condition of my eggs and womb. Within a few days, he announced that everything was in good working order, with the exception of a polyp that would need to be removed. He warned me that even though everything looked good, there was still no guarantee of egg quality.

I paused to think about what I was about to embark on. ‘Single mum by choice’, I learned, was the term. I’d already confided in Mands and her husband, Chris, throughout each step. But it was time to let Mum, Dad, my middle sister, Melita, and her partner, Billy, in on the news. We had a family gathering coming up, giving me the perfect opportunity.

Dad and Mum have always been a solid match, like yin and yang. He’d been a butcher with a colourful, blue‑collar background, and she’d been a legal secretary from a conservative middle‑class family. My sisters and I grew up witnessing how much they loved each other, despite their differences. Dad was always very affectionate with Mum, grabbing her to dance in the kitchen while she was cooking dinner, or whistling and showering her with compliments when she came out dressed up for a rare night on the town. They also never let us girls divide them. You’d ask Mum to do something out of the ordinary and she’d say, ‘What did your father say?’ and vice versa.

They gave us the same love too. They have always been steadfast, resilient and non‑judgemental when it comes to their children. My parents always divide and conquer, and know who needs to step up, depending on the situation. There was no way I could leave them out of the loop on such a huge decision as going solo in having a baby. Besides, I needed them as future grandparents (and babysitters), so it was better to get them on board from the start.

The family gathered around, perched on mix‑and‑match lawn furniture in Mands’s Inner West, typically‑Aussie backyard, complete with barbeque and trampoline. I watched Melita’s and Mands’s gaggle of children jumping on the trampoline and squealing with delight as they ran through the sprinklers. I nervously handed glasses of champagne to the adults, who’d all been given a heads up that I wanted to talk to them about a decision I’d made. With a little apprehension, thanks to making such a personal and vulnerable goal known to all, I announced my news. ‘I’ve decided to have a baby on my own.’ With slightly raised eyebrows and a quizzical tone, my mother’s response amounted to ‘Wonderful, love! And how are you going to do that?’

There was no other way of wording it. ‘I need to find a sperm donor.’

My mother’s eyes widened a little as she took a gulp of champagne. ‘Okay, then!’ I turned my gaze to my father, watching a contemplative frown emerge on his face as he digested the news. You could have heard a pin drop for a good minute, but soon enough, like the champagne, the questions started flowing.

‘Where do you get sperm from, love?’ Mum queried.

‘They have databases at the clinics with lists of donors I can review and choose from. I have to go on a waiting list, mind you, but I’ve signed up and I’m working on finding out more about the whole process.’

‘What about your back Nat, will it hold up?’ Dad asked.

I was relieved to have a positive answer to that one. ‘Yes, Dad, the back surgeon has given me the all‑clear. He said it’s stronger than most people’s now, absolutely nothing to worry about.’

This seemed to appease Dad. ‘Oh, well that’s good to hear, love.’

Melita sparked up. ‘I think it’s wonderful.’

Then Mands chimed in, ‘I’m so excited for you. Let’s have a toast. Here’s to Nat and her future baby!’ We clinked glasses to celebrate my new endeavour. Everyone seemed, on the surface at least, supportive of my plan. Whether they truly thought I’d succeed, I’d no idea, but they graciously kept any doubts to themselves. The children gathered around, complaining of hunger. The conversation was over, and we moved into the kitchen to prepare a smorgasbord of salads to accompany Billy’s delectable fried chicken.

***

My search for donor sperm began in earnest. I started, logically, with Australian options and found myself at the bottom of a rather long waiting list in my home state. It struck me how ridiculous it all was – so much sperm all around me and yet it was so difficult to get my hands on any of it! Maybe I could just start asking people? Some of the strapping young lads at the local surf club, perhaps? But Dr Park had warned me about ‘backyard’ donations. He knew of two female patients who had contracted HIV via this method, and it was also a recipe for potential disaster should donors have a change of heart about contact with the child. Dr Park had even heard of custody battles instigated by men who originally agreed to be uninvolved. I wanted no part of that potential drama. Dr Park sympathised with my plight and referred me to their clinic’s Queensland IVF office, where I might have better luck with their shorter waiting lists.

Conscious of the hastening tick, tick, tick of my biological clock, I was pleased to be offered a few profiles almost immediately from Queensland. It seemed there was less demand for sperm in the smaller city of Brisbane than in the endless sprawl of Sydney. I’d initially ‘settled’ on a few vials from a Queensland ex‑soldier who checked at least some of my boxes regarding physical characteristics and medical history. But without any photographs and relatively little information beyond the medical, I wasn’t remotely ‘in love’ with my donor choice.

As many female donor seekers would no doubt testify, looking for a sperm donor is eerily akin to online dating. I wanted a guy (or at least his swimmers) who I’d be attracted to in ‘real life’. The kind of man who would have been a potential partner, someone I would actually date, settle down with and want to have a baby with. In my case, that meant the whole package: smart, sporty and with a good family. It was as if I still had the image of the picket fence, lovely hubby and kids running around in my head. It wasn’t long before Mum and Dad became well‑acquainted with the granular details of searching for a sperm donor, ultimately enduring my IVF journey right alongside me. They agreed that the Queenslander seemed sweet enough, as much as we could gauge from the meagre information provided, so I proceeded.

After the mandatory half‑hour prerequisite counselling session, I went on to have two intrauterine inseminations (IUIs) in Brisbane using donated sperm from the Queenslander, neither of which were successful and both of which were logistically exhausting and disappointing. Mum even accompanied me on the hour flight north for the first of my Brisbane IUI trips.

We rented a self‑contained apartment for the week, not far from the city centre of Brisbane, and had a great time eating out, going to the local markets and discovering some lovely parts of the city. One of the loveliest, visually, was my IVF doctor, who Mum and I agreed was a total ‘McDreamy’. Mum had walked out of our first meeting with him and sighed, ‘Shame he’s married, Nat. He’d be a perfect sperm donor for you!’

I returned to the clinic two days later, farewelling Mum at the door with, ‘Alright, I’m off to get turkey‑basted now. Wish me luck!’ We couldn’t help but giggle at the odd scenario. Feasting my eyes on McDreamy again was the only consolation to an otherwise awkward procedure that took only a couple of minutes to complete. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. That will be AUD$2,000, thanks!

My doctor seemed genuine in wishing me well as I left the clinic. I met Mum for lunch at an up‑market Chinese restaurant overlooking the Brisbane River. As we nibbled on dumplings, we pontificated on what might be. A boy? A girl? A baby at all? Mum was adamant that a girl would be easier for me, but I just wanted to be pregnant.

I had my blood test taken on my way to work two weeks later and then spent the entire day very distracted. My results would be available that afternoon. By 4 pm, I was beside myself. I’d lost all hope of being productive at work, ultimately leaving the small office space to pace the hallways and will my phone to ring. It finally did at 5 pm. My heart skipped a beat as I answered my mobile. The nurse first confirmed my name and date of birth to ensure she was giving the results to the right person.

‘I’m sorry, Natalie, your result was negative.’ She was sympathetic but prompt, ripping the band‑aid off fast. This was clearly not her first call of the day.

My eyes welled up and my heart sank. ‘Thanks. Can you help me organise another appointment with Dr Park?’

‘I can transfer you through to his receptionist, if you’d like?’ she offered.

I decided to call back later myself. I was too disappointed. I’d had such a good feeling in Brisbane. The lovely doctor, the perfect lead up and the seemingly perfect timing of the IUI had added up to nothing. This was my rookie lesson in managing my expectations and dealing with bad news. I went back to Queensland a few months later for another IUI, but my efforts yielded the same unsuccessful result.

A few months after that, I was heading to the US for a sales conference and thought it might be a good idea to try and squeeze in an IUI while I was there. Based on my internet investigations, donor sperm in the US seemed to be far more abundant than in Australia.

The Australian sperm donor databases I had been using provided little choice and minimal information on donors. I signed up to a California sperm bank, where sperm donors were plenty, the administrative systems far more sophisticated and the information provided significantly more detailed. It was only when I’d been granted access by the bank and started to scroll through the immense sperm donor database that I realised I might need collaborators. There was so much data to sift through on my own, and I really wanted input from my loved ones. Almost akin to the dating process and introducing your family to a prospective partner, I needed guidance to feel assured that I was making the best choice possible.

I began with my parents, who are almost always up for a new challenge. Although I have been her IT go‑to for as long as I can remember, Mum is quite technologically savvy for her generation. Dad is far less so, but Mum has dragged him kicking and screaming into the digital age, beginning with cancelling his newspaper delivery subscription. This forced him to browse The Daily Telegraph on his tablet each morning instead, accompanied by his ritual breakfast‑time coffee. He’d swear under his breath and roll his eyes in frustration at her every time the ‘damn paper’ wouldn’t load. Mum would quip back, ‘It’s good for the environment, Ken!’

But having my Baby Boomer parents navigate the online donor maze was a completely alien concept. In a fluster of initial overwhelm, Mum said, ‘Oh no, love. It’s up to you! Choose your own donor!’

Mum had previously been happy to read through the prospective profiles I’d emailed to her on the Sydney and Queensland donors. She and Dad would review the details and call me with their feedback, usually while sipping a glass of Scotch as they waited for dinner to cook. They had both admitted to quite enjoying the process then, so I wasn’t quite sure why they weren’t jumping at getting on a much bigger database. Then I realised – the extent of the choice was utterly daunting, along with the technology.

Infusing Mum’s mind with the positives of her input and getting her to understand why it was so important to me involved a long phone conversation during which I located the clincher. ‘Mum! This might be the first, and possibly only, time in history that a grandparent has a say in how their grandchild is created and who they will become!’

Five seconds of silence descended.

‘Nat, when you put it that way … what’s the password?’

Grinning, I emailed Mum, Dad, Mands and Chris my username and password to the database with some basic instructions on how to navigate the site and find my existing favourites list. They were all enthusiastic about their access and were soon searching, visualising beautiful offspring while gazing at the possibilities, and then adding their choices to my list. Chris was particularly helpful in translating all of the US academic shorthand. What a ‘GPA’ was had eluded me until then (that’s ‘Grade Point Average’).

My quickly expanding short list was certainly diverse. Because I was accessing a California database, there were a vast number of backgrounds represented, particularly Mexican and Asian. The Australian registers at the time had been mostly dominated by Anglo‑Saxon men of Caucasian origin. Now, a 5’4” Chinese gymnast was on my list – one of Mum’s favourites despite the fact that I’m 5’8”(5’10” in heels). Mands’s penchant for Latino everything had me potentially paired with a salsa dynamo at one point. One night while we were gathered around my dinner table, Chris piped up. ‘So Nat. Where are the brothers on the list?’

Chris, an African American himself, was right. There were no ‘brothers’ on my list. I’d loved the idea of my offspring having similar physical traits to my nephew and nieces. But when we altered the metrics to find African American donor profiles, the very few we found on the database had poor medical histories.

The information you can glean from US sperm donor registries is mind‑blowingly comprehensive. To begin with, you have the donor’s profile, which features both medical and academic histories. Get through those pages and then there’s a comprehensive medical history of his parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles. There’s the staff’s impression of the candidate, as well as a handwritten personal essay and childhood pictures. I’d also purchased the additional option of having adult facial descriptions, meaning every candidate came with a file so thick it would rival an FBI dossier in detail.

We went around the table, each family member giving their justifications and reasoning for their final favourites. With wine flowing, the whole exercise disintegrated into infectious laughter, the perfect antidote for my flummoxed mental state. It was just such a weird process, but we’d all embraced it wholeheartedly. We managed to cull the list down to two healthy and hardy men with clean medical and family histories. No addictions and no hereditary, mental or incurable illnesses. They’d already ticked our other boxes with their good academic records and psychological profiles.

I finally decided on donor 11651, who’d been my frontrunner all along. He was a twenty‑two‑year‑old college student with a double major in psychology and biochemistry. His medical history was excellent, with his only ‘blips’ being foot surgery for a football injury and an allergy to tree nuts. Even his family history was crystal clear, outside of his paternal grandfather being diagnosed with high blood pressure and arthritis in his late seventies. He came from a good family who seemed, at least on paper, to be physically and psychologically robust with great academic records and a full‑blown love of aviation. They were all pilots, either full‑time or hobbyists.

11651 was 6’1” with olive skin, brown hair and brown eyes. From what I could derive from the facial features report, which was like putting together an imaginary jigsaw puzzle, he was rather a strapping young lad. His baby picture, the only photograph provided, was suitably adorable, his one physical quirk being a set of rather sticky‑out ears that Mum kept saying could easily be pinned back should they genetically arise.

The clincher was the personal essay section of his profile:

Why do you want to be a donor? I think it is a good supplemental source of income while also allowing me to do something special for someone else.

Describe your relationship with your family. How has your family shaped your values and who you are today? I have a good relationship with my family. My parents placed their values on different things and I think I got the best of both worlds! My father thought it was important to work hard and my mother emphasized being a good person.

What makes you unique? I try hard to be successful and accomplished but not to impress other people – I do it for myself.

What are you most proud of and why? Achieving well academically while still being involved in athletics because it takes a lot of devotion and it is easy to give up.

If you could pass on a message to your recipients or their children, what would that message be? The goals that society set up for us are not always what’s best. When it all comes down to it, what matters most is that you are happy.

That was it, decided. The biological father of my future child seemed like an all‑round good guy. 11651 had even noted Australia as his top travel destination in his donor profile. And yes indeed, a part of him would, hopefully and eventually, be heading down under!

Then again, maybe not.

The IUI failed. I’d actually been too late when I arrived in the US doctor’s office for the IUI. I’d gotten my timings wrong and used the trigger injection too early, which resulted in me ovulating too early for the transfer to work. The doctor showed me the ultrasound monitor and I could clearly see the egg was starting to break down. He did the IUI anyway on my request, because he couldn’t bear the disappointment on my face. He had explained the very low odds of success, but I’d come too far and I was too wired to have him take any chance, no matter how small, away from me. I got my period before I landed back in Sydney.

My best‑laid plans had been foiled due to my own miscalculations. I was really kicking myself for my stupidity, and for not paying close enough attention to the schedule. The fact that I was holding down a full‑time job, travelling for work and managing the time difference didn’t seem to be enough of an excuse, but I had to let it go, despite my frustration and disappointment. There was no point beating myself up any further and making myself feel so bad.

I needed to shake it off and start planning the next step.

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