'I couldn't live without trying for a baby' - Irish mum who opted for sperm donation to conceive
'In my head was always 'the man and the baby'... but the man side didn't happen'
Genna McAuliffe's beautiful little boy, Harry, is the image of her: all fair hair and rosy cheeks. The pair beam at each other with mirrored wide smiles. But if you look closely at the shape of Harry's mouth, you can see the pout of his little lips isn't quite the same as his mum's.
Genna has a baby photo of Harry's dad so she knows that, physically, that's something he's inherited from him. But she doesn't know where her toddler's father works, how he takes his coffee or even the sound of his voice. What she does know is the age Harry's dad's grandparents lived to; she knows his blood type and she knows he doesn't carry the cystic fibrosis gene. She doesn't, and will never, know his name, only that he lives 800 miles away in Denmark, decided to become a sperm donor, and gave her the most wonderful gift in the world: Harry.
Conceiving a baby using a sperm donor wasn't the route Genna (37) imagined taking to motherhood. The sales-support executive from Ballinspittle, Co Cork, studied childcare in college and always dreamed of having a family. "In my head was always 'the man and the baby'," she says. "But the man side didn't happen."
In her mid-20s, a serious relationship ended at a time when many of her friends and family were settling down and having children. "It felt almost like jealousy, a physical pang," she explains. "I had a longing for someone to run up, throw their arms around me and call me 'Mammy'."
"It's very hard to put into words," she continues. "But being a mum just felt like the most natural thing in the world for me to become. I always wanted to have two or three kids; those maternal feelings were always there." She gives a self-deprecating laugh. "Always wanted to be a mum but never lucky in love."
At 32, she decided to stop relying on Mr Right coming along to fulfil her dreams of motherhood and go it alone. "The biological clock was ticking so I decided to go down the route of a donor," she says. "It was the best thing I've ever done."
Genna is one of a rising number of single women deciding to take charge of their reproductive future and use fertility treatments to have a child without a man by their side. A sperm donor is selected from a website - Cryos International in Denmark is the most popular; there are no sperm banks in Ireland - then fertility clinics can use Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), where sperm is injected into the uterus at the time of ovulation, or In Vitro Fertilisation (where fertilisation happens outside the body) in the hopes of conceiving. Additional medical interventions - medication, egg-reserve screening, embryo chromosome screening - can all help maximise a positive result.
"IUI is simpler and cheaper and, if there are no concerns about fertility, it seems best to go through a few cycles of IUI first before moving on to IVF," explains Dr John Waterstone, medical director at Cork Fertility Centre. In recent years, he's seen a rise in the number of single women accessing fertility treatments with donor sperm at his clinic. "Nothing dramatic, but a slow increase," he reveals.
It's a similar story at other Irish fertility clinics. "The proportion of single women asking for fertility advice at my clinic is 5-10pc and rising," says Dr Bartlomiej Kuczera, a consultant with Beacon CARE Fertility. He feels that growth in the demographic is being driven by social change, including the greater financial independence of women and an appreciation that the traditional two-parent family is not the only way to go. "The single-parent family is gaining popularity and, whether we like it or not, the mother-only model will be more common in the near future, both in Ireland and abroad," says Dr Kuczera.
"Fertility issues are finally stepping out of the shadows," agrees Caitriona McPartlin, general manager at ReproMed Ireland. She's seen a year-on-year increase of approximately 20pc in the numbers of single women seeking fertility treatment and believes the change in social attitudes towards assisted reproduction is being fuelled by increased education and awareness. "It's no longer considered taboo to raise a child as a single parent," she says. "Thankfully, technology is there to allow us to facilitate this choice."
To some people, 32 might sound very young to give up on meeting someone and having children by the traditional route. "Some people might say, 'You've plenty of time,' but I know the fertility clinic would prefer to see women in between 30 and 37 than the other side," says Genna, who attended Cork Fertility Clinic. As it turned out, it took her two years, four failed IUIs and an abandoned cycle of IVF before conceiving Harry, who will be three in May, on her second cycle of IVF. "When your biological clock is ticking, there's not always plenty of time," she says grimly.
Jenny* was 36 years old when she started fertility treatment with ReproMed and 41 when she gave birth to her daughter last year: one of the first women in Ireland to do so via egg freezing.
In September and October 2015, she had a total of six eggs collected and frozen, then an additional collection in November saw a further seven eggs retrieved. "The eggs from September and October were defrosted to give me 13 in total," explains Jenny. "This was done to give me a bigger number of eggs, a better chance of the eggs surviving the IVF process and a better chance of getting pregnant." Out of the 13 eggs, no others survived bar the two which were implanted, and out of those two, one was successful.
The process might sound simple but when Jenny started egg freezing and IVF, she was told she had less than a 20pc chance of success. She'd also already gone through four failed IUIs. She's still ecstatic that treatment eventually bore results.
"I'm happy beyond belief that it worked," says Jenny. "I'd given up hope of becoming a mum and this was my last option." Financially, achieving her dream set her back just under €20,000. "But look at what I have now, which I can't place a value on."
There are several narratives that get bandied around in the media when it comes to women using donors to have a baby. Phrases like 'leaving it too late' and 'career women tuning out their biological clock' are common, or there are cries of outrage at men being 'replaced' or 'made redundant' by 'selfish' single women. But none of that rings true when you talk to women who have actually been through solo IVF. The explanation is often quite simply that life didn't work out the way they thought it would and, rather than give up, they decided to look at other options.
"Growing up, I, like many others, took for granted that life is somewhat of a Disney movie," says Anna*. "The girl meets her prince, falls in love, gets married, buys a house and has the perfect family. But unfortunately that doesn't happen for everyone; it certainly didn't happen for me." After years of gynaecological problems, Anna was scheduled for surgery in 2015 and advised, as a precaution, to have her fertility level checked. The results came back showing she'd just a 30pc chance of conceiving and it was a case of 'now or never'. Single at the time, Anna opted to start fertility treatment using donor sperm at Beacon CARE clinic. "I was devastated," she says. "At 32, my simplistic life was turned upside down. But at the same time, I also felt extremely lucky to find out because it meant I was able to do something about it."
Her first cycle of IVF resulted in a miscarriage but, after a short break, she had a second embryo implanted in April last year and nine months later gave birth to a baby girl. "I would have loved the Disney movie, but everything happens for a reason," says Anna. "I may not have the conventional family I thought I would but today I have a beautiful princess who brightens my every day. She's already the most amazing little person, with her own personality, who has made this journey incredible."
Incredible, fulfilling, unregrettable, yes, but no woman would say the donor route is easy or without challenges. "Some people think, 'Oh, single women can just walk in and the clinic says, "Okay, here you go,"' but it's not like that at all," says Genna. "There are a huge amount of tests and mandatory counselling to go through before you even get the go-ahead to start treatment. It can be very emotionally draining, physically draining and it is expensive."
In total Genna spent around €23,000 including €2,500 on donor sperm. She considers herself fortunate that she could afford to pursue solo IVF but advises anyone else considering the same road to be aware of the financial pressures. "It is expensive," she repeats. "And it can be a long road so, if you're in it for the long haul, you have to look at the financial side first. I had saved up and I was lucky enough that I could afford to pay out of my salary for the IVF."
Genna's father died suddenly over 11 years ago and for the past eight years she has lived with her mother in their family home, where she has responsibility for all outgoings. "I work five days a week. I provide completely for my child and I also look after my mother."
One area she dug into her savings for was the sperm donor, because "the more you pay, the more information you get". Out of some 500-600 profiles on the website, only around 12 were non-anonymous -meaning that when baby turns 18, and the father is still willing and at their last known address, there's the possibility of access. Genna went for this option. "I treated it as if I was going to date the person," she says. "I read their profiles, going for characteristics I'd like in someone. Looks-wise, I went for a donor close to my and my family's characteristics. On the medical side, there's a history of heart problems on my father's side so if there was anything like that on the donor's side, then that was a 'no'."
But after two failed IUIs (something to do with sperm motility), Genna had to switch to a different donor. She laughs wryly at the fact that she got her money back for donor number one. "Sure you'd barely get that if you returned something to a shop after wearing it twice!" she chuckles. However, there were no other non-anonymous profiles that appealed, meaning she had to make the difficult decision to continue with an anonymous donor.
"I spoke to a nurse at CFC and she said, 'The way to look at it is: a lot of donors are young - 22 to 28 years old - and in 18 years' time, they will more than likely be married with their own families and not at the address they are now, so the chances of tracking them down are slim,'" explains Genna. "So I chose anonymous. I've taken the decision away from Harry and that's something I will have to live with. If things go belly-up and he decides to throw all this in my face one day, then I'll deal with that. I'd rather go anonymous than have him get to 18 and go to meet someone and either that person not want to meet him or that person not being found. At the end of the day, Harry will know his daddy was very special and he was a donor. Harry's going to have all the love he needs right here."
She says she couldn't have done it without the support of her family, in particular her 'fantastic' mum and sisters. She also feels immense gratitude to the staff at Cork Fertility Clinic. "I never felt I was treated any less because I was a single woman or part of a conveyor belt," she says. "Everyone was so supportive and I knew they were always on the end of the phone."
Reassuringly, she's never experienced any negativity since Harry's birth. "I don't know if it's because they're standing in front of me, but I've never had anyone give me the vibe that they're thinking, 'Oh, you silly wagon,' or 'What the hell did you do that for?' or 'The poor child.'"
Genna doesn't want to hide Harry's story from him and, even now if you were to ask him who he is, he would say, "Mammy's very special little boy". "I'm very comfortable with it - I've no problem with people knowing, and Harry is going to know," says Genna. "He's going to know he was made out of love. I think you should tell the child because you shouldn't make them think that Daddy doesn't want them. If you treat it like a dirty little secret, then that's the way it will appear to a child; it will have a stigma when there's no reason why it should. Harry will know that Mammy really wanted him and this was the only way she could do it and Daddy helped."
When Genna first started considering using a sperm donor to father her child, some of her friends questioned whether she wouldn't be better off having a one-night stand. "That's probably the cheapest and easiest way of doing it," she concedes. "But the other side is that I couldn't trap someone into something they didn't want to be part of. Using a donor was the most logical and safest step."
However, this option soon might not be open to women like Genna, or the many same-sex and heterosexual couples who wish to use an anonymous donor. A small subsection of the recently passed Children and Family Relationships Bill bans the use of anonymous donors in Ireland. The argument for the bill is that it is in the best interests of a child - that an anonymous donor denies a child their right to identity and genetic heritage. But some of those working in the fertility industry aren't convinced by what the new legislation could mean.
"It hasn't been implemented yet but in [the bill] it states that all sperm donors should be identifiable and - more than that - it's proposing that if you don't tell the child where they came from, then, if that child goes to get their birth certificate at 18, the State will inform the child," explains Dr Waterstone of Cork Fertility Centre. "Personally, I think that it is overstepping the mark into the private reproductive lives of people and contravenes the Constitution regarding the individual's right to privacy and autonomy."
Cryos is already stringently regulated, governed by the Health Products Regulatory Authority, and sets its own quotas for how often a donor can be used. Fertility clinics across Ireland share information on when a donor results in a live birth, ensuring the same donor can't be used by multiple women. Dr Waterstone fears that eliminating the option of anonymity will reduce the number of donors and the spectrum of donors, limiting options for those seeking to use a sperm donor and driving up prices.
The legislative change will bring additional challenges to a process that can already be extremely gruelling. A failed relationship at 37 forced Miriam* to reassess what she wanted her future to look like. "I realised that I could meet my partner whenever, but I only had a few years left to have a child," she explains. After four unsuccessful attempts at IUI, preparations for IVF revealed abnormalities in her uterus. But when the first cycle of IVF went ahead, a scan at seven weeks revealed she was expecting triplets.
"It all felt amazing," says Miriam. "I was super-anxious about raising triplets as a single mother but very excited, and friends and family were very supportive. The pregnancy seemed to be going well; I was tried and ravenous but felt good. The day of my 12-week scan, I was so excited and relieved to be out of the big danger zone for miscarriages. But when I went in, they discovered that all three babies had died. I was completely devastated, bereaved and heartbroken."
Despite her grief, Miriam knew she wanted to try again. Two more embryos were implanted, resulting in a very early miscarriage. A third attempt yielded no success. This summer she hopes to use an egg donor and see if that improves her chances. "The chances with egg donors seem to be about three or four times higher than using your own eggs for older women with no other complications," explains Miriam, now 44. She reckons she'll give it one more year, at the end of which she expects to have spent €53,000-€63,000.
In seven years of trying, each stage of treatment involved more money, drugs and emotional investment. Sums started in the hundreds for IUIs, then the same for medication, before moving through the thousands for every cycle of IVF. An egg-donor plan will cost Miriam upwards of €8,000. She's managed to afford it through "a combination of savings, borrowing and moving jobs". "I mainly gave up indulgences - travel, pampering and clothes. I'm lucky in that it hasn't put me on the breadline and I'm not heavily in debt, but it has impacted a lot on my social life, as my disposable income has taken, and is taking, a hammering. Most of my leave has been taken up either doing treatments, grieving or recovering."
She's found that some places are only too willing to trade on the desperation of would-be mums. "One foreign clinic has a 'guaranteed pregnancy' programme and gives 80pc of the money back if you don't get to 12 weeks pregnant after three rounds with an egg donor," she reveals. "But of course success is never guaranteed. It is an industry of hope."
It's also an industry that doesn't always have clear, consistent guidelines on when it is time to say, "Stop." Typically, in Ireland, 43 is the cut-off age for IVF using your own eggs. Repro- Med will work with women up to 50 using egg donors. Dr Waterstone at Cork Fertility Clinic says it's incumbent on the clinic to provide "reliable, honest advice when the chance of success is very poor". "It depends on the quality of the embryos," he explains. "If the quality is not high enough, then we would advise them to stop. If the success rate is only 1-2pc, then is it worth it?"
Which is, of course, easy to say, but unless you've been in that position - longing to be a mother - who can say what percentage or financial cost would be weighed up as too great? "How do you put a price on it when what I've got at the end is priceless?" says Genna. "I'd have paid double. I did a lot of soul-searching before I started this journey and I realised that marriage I could take or leave: if I never met someone, I could live with that. But I couldn't live without trying for a baby, to never hear, 'Mammy, I love you.'"
The cost and the low outcomes mean most solo mums will never get the chance to go through the process for a second time to give their child a sibling. "I've a 10pc chance of having another through IVF," says Genna. "And I'd want to use the same donor, which might not be possible." She would consider adoption, but single women often find themselves far down the list.
Nor is being a single parent the easy option; the absence of a partner can be keenly felt. "It would be nice to have had a 'Daddy' to share the journey with us," reveals Jenny. "It's 24/7 being on my own, with no one to share responsibility, and all decisions lie with me. But seeing my daughter develop daily and knowing she's a happy, healthy baby outweighs everything else."
"Of course, it's tough at times - it is for every parent - but on the other hand I totally and utterly parent Harry," agrees Genna. "What I say goes." She hasn't ruled out meeting someone down the line but admits she's not sure how she'd feel about having to share her special bond with Harry with someone else. "I briefly went on Tinder, but it's not for me," she laughs. "I'm not looking to meet someone: I'm very happy with my life. If it happens, great, but if it doesn't, then I'm fine with that."
This Mother's Day, Genna, her mum and Harry are going out for dinner. She doesn't feel the lack of a hastily bought bunch of flowers by Dad, or a day off from parenting. When you've already got your dream gift of a miracle baby, every day is Mother's Day.
It must be a wonderful industry to work in, I say to Dr Waterstone later, after talking to Genna, who has been singing his praises. He replies wryly, "When it works, it is." *Names have been changed
Photography by Fran Veale