How I'm building my family with donor eggs and sperm

At the age of 36, I still hadn't found a partner to build a family with, so I decided to do it alone.

Photo: Denise Grant

“I think I found her! I found my egg donor! She is smart, gorgeous, incredibly fertile and open to meeting the kid later!”

I stared at the text I’d just sent my mother and couldn’t help but laugh. I was surprised by the uncomplicated joy I felt at finding her, the woman whose genetic material I might use to create my second child. For the next few weeks, I paraded her photos in front of my friends, gushing over her big, beautiful eyes, commitment to social justice and intelligent responses to the questions on her application.

Five years ago, my feelings about using an egg donor were quite different. As long as I can remember, I’ve longed to be a mother. “When I grow up, I want to be a mommy, an astronaut and a firefighter!” I pronounced at age four. I set out to find that perfect combination of soulmate and co-parent in my 20s and early 30s. I dated anyone and everyone, kept my mind so open that my brains nearly fell out and even went to therapy to see what I might be doing wrong. But no matter who I dated, I didn’t meet Ms Right before the sound of my biological clock grew deafening.

At the age of 36, I realized that the relationship I was in wouldn’t make either of us happy and was tired of waiting for the right partner to begin my family. Although I was heartbroken, I felt a surprising sense of relief: I wouldn’t have to wait one more day to start making a family; I could do it on my own. I broke up with my girlfriend and made an appointment with a gynaecologist.

Mother and her daughter reading a book5 things I wish I'd known before I became a single mom by choice I assumed that the hard part was over and that, after making the difficult decision to go it alone, things would be smooth sailing. But the appointment with my gynaecologist revealed that my follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) was high, an indicator for diminished ovarian reserve. This means I had fewer eggs of lesser quality and it would be harder for me to get pregnant. In hushed tones, the OB-GYN told me not to worry. She assured me that there are no statistics for perimenopausal women who get pregnant naturally because most don’t get tested before trying to conceive with their husbands. She also told me I was in a unique position because I had come to her before even attempting to get pregnant. My OB-GYN recommended that I try intrauterine insemination (IUI) before getting more aggressive and referred me to a fertility specialist.

The specialist sat me down and said, “I have bad news for you. Very, very bad.” His tone was so morbidly dramatic that I thought he was joking. He proceeded to tell me that my only hope for pregnancy was with an egg donor.

I stormed out of there in a rage, cursing time and the injustice of it all. How could it already be too late? Everyone said I looked young for my age, so how could my egg quality have diminished so quickly? How could I be in early menopause at 36 when people get pregnant in their mid-40s? Why did I waste so many good egg years on my exes?

While I had always imagined that I’d have no problem adopting, when I was confronted with the reality of it all, it was heartbreaking. I was saddened to think that my family line would be cut off, and I worried about being able to bond with a child that wasn’t genetically mine. I wanted to at least try for a biological child.

While the specialist urged me to move forward with egg donation, I decided to follow the OB-GYN’s suggestion to try IUI first. If I was a straight married woman, I could have stopped using contraception and might have gotten pregnant before even knowing I had a low ovarian reserve. Why not give it a shot?

This meant that my next step was to choose a sperm donor. Since I had come out as a lesbian as a teenager, I always knew I’d be using a sperm donor to conceive. But when it came time to actually sift through online profiles, the choices were overwhelming. How do you intentionally choose your child’s fate? Do you prioritize health, talents, looks or skills? After running my top five options past some friends and family members, I was able to choose a smart and attractive donor who looked like a boy I had a crush on when I was 12 years old. It seemed like the perfect combination of making a choice using my brain and my heart.

Over the next 2½ years, my life was filled with surgeries, early-morning blood draws, vaginal ultrasounds, daily hormone injections and disappointing pregnancy results. In total, I did seven IUIs and four natural in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles. I had one chemical pregnancy and one miscarriage at eight weeks. The process of trying to get pregnant through a medicalized system is exhausting and devastating. It was even harder doing it alone.

Writer Athena Reich and her son

Photo: Athena Reich

But the therapist I had been seeing kept reminding me: “You will get your baby. We don’t know how or when, whether through pregnancy or adoption, but it will happen.” This wasn’t a trite reassurance because she specialized in helping those who were struggling with infertility. She had even gone through treatment and adopted a baby herself. In her experience, so long as I remained open to various scenarios, I would be able to build a family

I remember the moment when my perspective shifted. I was in an infertility support group and the theme that week was egg donation. Three mothers who had used egg donors shared their experiences. One of the women had conceived her first child naturally and her second child using egg donation. As she talked about her children, I could see the love she felt for them. Hearing the stories of those who had already gone through egg donation normalized it for me. Although I could keep trying with my own eggs, I was done gambling with my emotions for the sake of genetics. I knew I could love any baby placed into my arms.

I’m glad I tried conceiving with my own eggs first. I was able to confidently move forward with an egg donor, knowing that it was the right choice for me. Even though it hadn’t been my first choice, it didn’t mean that I wouldn’t still get exactly what I’ve always wanted: a child to love.

I began the work of selecting an egg donor. Since I had already created a system, this time it was much easier. I made a spreadsheet that compared each donor’s health, looks, intelligence, happiness and talents. My mother and I spent a weekend rating dozens of women (odd, I know, but what are you gonna do?) and imagining their possible combinations with my male donor.

I started seeing the advantages of using an egg donor. Not only had my success rate increased from about four percent to 61 percent per transfer but also using eggs from a younger woman meant that the risks of Down syndrome and other genetic diseases were dramatically reduced. And, although we are all in love with our own genetics, it’s sometimes nice to get a fresh start without being in the genetic shadow of our own families. I would get to create a person from two donors whose features complement each other. I could try to weed out physical and mental health issues (in a way that most people only fantasize about doing with their in-laws) and select donors using my creativity, imagination and best intentions.

Genetics is a fascinating and growing field of study. Scientists used to think that genetic sequencing dictates your destiny, similar to an architectural blueprint. But the new field of epigenetics reveals that the way in which our genes are expressed (or whether certain genetic markers are turned on or off) is influenced by factors like nutrition, stress and environment in the womb. Epigenetics tells us that donor-conceived children share not only environmental influences from the parents who raise them but also genetic expressions. I found this very comforting.

So, at the age of 39, I gave birth to a healthy eight-pound boy, conceived from the first transfer of donor egg and donor sperm. I fell in love the moment he was placed on my chest. When he latched onto my breast with astonishing strength, I knew he was 1,000 percent mine.

My baby is now 2½ old. Everyone says we have the same big blue eyes. He is a genius, of course (like every mother says about her son), and there is no doubt that he shares my passion and determination. The ways in which he is different from me, like his astounding athletic ability, are fresh and exciting.

Writer Athena Reich and her son

Photo: Denise Grant

I am now planning for my second child, again with donor egg and donor sperm. I will be using the same sperm as my first child, but my son’s egg donor is no longer available, so I have to find someone new. This time, I got to jump right to the fun part because I didn’t need to mourn the genetic loss. Which donor best represents my talents and personality? Who is an emotionally solid person for my child to meet later in life if he or she makes that choice?

One of our daily family rituals is when me and my preschooler play floor hockey in the hallway of our building before dinner (bless our neighbours!). As we chase the ball, I feel my heart pump with the passion of the game. I remember this feeling from my childhood. My child and I share this sheer joy every night, and I know that our similarities are enough and our bond is tight. I cannot wait to see the family dynamic we create together, when I finally have the two children I always dreamed about.

Read more:
This was not my dream. But I’m glad I chose to be a single mom
Considering a second child—as a single parent

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