And baby makes two...
Newly single, nearing 40 and longing to be a mother, Karin Thayer decided to go it alone. But little did she know how difficult her journey to parenthood would prove to be
Tuesday 06 September 2011
I always wanted to be a mother. I just didn't find the right partner. So I became a walking political debate by accident, by deciding to become a single mum. It's been a long, confusing and at times very difficult journey. I have doubts every day as to whether I'll be a good mother to Aidan, who was born in April, and I really miss having someone at my side who is as invested in him as I am, but I am happier than I have ever been and I'll never regret it.
Aidan comes with me everywhere, whether that's shopping or for a haircut, and I am treated very differently to how I was before. There's a validation I receive from society, for example, doors are opened and people smile at us, that I'm not sure I'd get if they were aware I was a single mother.
When I found out I was pregnant at 39, I was in a London hotel room. I was overjoyed to see the lines indicating a positive result on the pregnancy test. And yet I did not fully trust the pregnancy nor let myself enjoy it until the foetus was around 20 weeks old.
Since I had had a couple of pregnancies that did not result in a live birth, and had made countless attempts at conceiving with nothing to show for it, I was anxious about this one. It took getting well into the second trimester and receiving a healthy prognosis from the amniocentesis for me to believe I could be giving birth to a live baby.
I came to London in my 30s and met someone, and I became pregnant at 36. When we found out the baby had Down's syndrome, we decided to terminate. The process was very traumatic because I had to give birth, which the NHS said would be best for my reproductive health.
Later, I had a miscarriage and the relationship dissolved under the strain of failed pregnancies. I think he was worried we wouldn't be able to conceive a biological child together. At 37, I was single, and wondering if I had let the opportunity to be a mother slip away from me. I had an interesting career in media and regularly travelled between LA, New York and London. Is this what I was to look back on as my life's achievement?
I went to see my GP and explained that I was single now, but still wanted a family. Her face dropped. In Leeds, where I'd moved after leaving London, the Primary Care Trust elects not to give fertility treatment to single women. I turned to Google and found that fertility treatments in the UK are very expensive. Most people pointed me towards Harley Street, but I didn't have the resources. I didn't want to use an unofficial sperm donor website. It's disappointing that people have to resort to that, because even if a man is well-meaning, he might not know his family health history. I needed to know as much about that sperm and its quality as possible.
I was frustrated there wasn't one website that listed all the fertility options, but I read an article somewhere about Denmark and elected to go there. It is more affordable than the UK and the clinic I went to, Copenhagen Fertility Centre, works with the European Sperm Bank, which has a website where you can search donors by different criteria. In the UK I felt my choices were limited by what the NHS felt were my best options. In clinics I was told, "We will help you choose an appropriate donor," as if I couldn't make this decision for myself.
I travelled to Denmark 17 times, including the initial consultations, and had four medicated IUI (stimulated intrauterine insemination) treatments and two cycles of IVF. Once I went for IUI and by the time I got there, I'd already ovulated. The IUIs cost about £1,100 including flights and accommodation. IVF, when I had to stay for a week, was about £3,500. I don't have a damn thing to show for it.
When the treatments failed, I was always told the same things: "Well, at your age, egg quality really is an issue. And your ovarian reserve is low." I was told this repeatedly. Obviously that wears on you, but I trusted my instincts and I knew I hadn't reached my limit. As I had been able to get pregnant and carry to 16 weeks, even though the baby had not been chromosomally healthy, I was sure it was just about finding the right cycle and the right egg. I thought I would keep on going until I was about 42.
After the two unsuccessful IVF cycles I rang up my fertility specialist and asked if we could check my blood work. The higher your follical stimulating hormone (FSH), the lower the chance of you conceiving naturally. At 20, you are considered close to menopause. In spring 2010, my FSH was 15.2. The clinic called and said that I had exceeded their cut-off point and they would no longer treat me.
That was the point at which I thought it was time to let go. Instead, I decided to do as much as possible to optimise my fertility, and ultimately I think this is what gave me the best chance of conceiving. Before, I had made small changes such as cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, but I began a mainly vegan diet, cut out sugary foods and ate mainly organic produce. I had acupuncture, hypnotherapy, reiki and saw various nutritionists. I had to become less competitive at work – it became more about just getting the job done – and I made sure I got seven or eight hours sleep and took exercise.
I'm blessed with very supportive friends but I did have the feeling that after a while they and my family were tired of hearing about it. Or, after two and a half years, I got tired of them thinking that I needed sympathy.
In 2008, when I first considered trying to conceive with a known donor, I spoke with my friend in Germany at length about it. He deliberated over several years and, in the end, agreed to do an artificial insemination with me for my 39th birthday.
Two weeks after the insemination, I found out I was pregnant. I didn't stop worrying throughout the whole pregnancy. I kept thinking that I was carrying this miracle, precious baby, and I was worried I would lose it at any minute. I was careful about everything I ate and even held my breath when I walked past smokers. When I told my flatmate at the time, a 27-year-old man, he stared at my belly and blurted out: "That's going to be really hard for you."
I didn't want anyone at work to find out in case it influenced professional decisions, but after the tests came back healthy at 20 weeks, I was able to enjoy it much more. I had a brilliant experience with the NHS in Leeds. I gave birth at Jimmy's and I was encouraged to stay in the hospital for as long as I wanted. They were extremely concerned about Aidan's welfare.
The relationship we have with my donor is still a work in progress. At this point he will not be a part of our everyday lives, though he has told me that he's open to some contact with Aidan as the boy gets older. If Aidan is curious and would like to meet his biological father one day, then the door is ajar. However, there will be no regular contact and the donor will not be a co-parent. That's the arrangement that works best for the donor and for me. I feel that's in Aidan's best interests too as I want him to know he can rely 100 per cent on the person who is his parent. I want him to always feel securely loved and totally wanted.
I urge anyone thinking about becoming a single parent to consider their support network. My parents are both pushing 80, and although they wanted to help, I overestimated what they could do. My father hasn't told his friends he's a grandfather. He comes from a conservative Navy family. He prizes traditional family values. I know he loves me but I don't think he likes my choice to be a single mother. I'm sure he wishes his daughter's life resembled the dream he raised me to believe in: husband, a church wedding, children conceived within wedlock.
I wish he'd understand that I'm genuinely happy with my life as it is, and that he'd feel comfortable announcing my good fortune to his friends. I'm still holding out hope that he'll get there.
I'm now working on an online start-up for the fertility community. Our aim is to become the social network for the worldwide fertility community, and we're seeking funding.
I've been really interested to read the results of Red magazine's Annual Fertility Report. One thing it shows is that 18 per cent of women would consider travelling abroad for treatment. I wanted most of all to be able to search for fertility options by location and keyword, and for unbiased user reviews, but in the end it was up to me to put together a plan.
Of course, there is no medical proof, but I really believe that focusing on the website and setting aside my own problems helped me to get pregnant.
I feel like I've become political against my will, but I have to open up because I never want there to be another single woman who is told that trying to conceive is hopeless. You shouldn't have to be in that position in 2011.
Interview by Sophie Morris
Karin Thayer is founder of FertilityPlan it.com, the social network for people worldwide wanting to create a family. 'Red' magazine's Annual Fertility Report is in the October issue, on sale now
Birthday wishes: the options for single women
In vitro fertilisation is a popular choice for women who are struggling to conceive, though single women, of course, need donated sperm as well. Primary care trusts usually offer one free cycle, but there are criteria – single women are often not eligible. Prices at private clinics vary, but the average cost is £5,000. See the HFEA website ( www.hfea.gov.uk).
Sperm from a friend or acquaintance.It is then up to individuals to make their own agreements about parenting responsibilities.
In the UK there is no upper age limit for adoption and single people are eligible. See the British Association for Adoption and Fostering website. ( www.baaf.org.uk)
Sperm and egg donation
Licensed fertility clinics recruit donors, but demand for treatment with donated sperm or eggs outstrips supply in the UK. In 2008 there were 396 registered sperm donors, but the British Fertility Society estimates 500 are needed to meet supply.
Unofficial donor website
Contrary to popular belief, the number of sperm donors has not dropped since donor anonymity was waived in 2005, but accessing it via a licensed clinic is not always easy. Many unofficial websites have sprung up to plug this gap. It is illegal to make money by procuring sperm from a donor without a licence, but the websites introduce men and women.
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