Personal Story

What We Never Expected About Reciprocal IVF

When my wife Katie and I first started talking about the kind of family we wanted, we felt strongly that we both play an active role in bringing our children into the world. But, we knew that in a relationship with two women that wouldn’t necessarily be easy.

Katie suggested that she carry a baby and that we use my eggs, which is called Reciprocal IVF. This sounded ideal -- using my eggs, fertilized by an anonymous sperm donor, and implanted in Katie made sure no one was left out, right? Eventually, when it was time to start our family, this is the path we chose.

But life after having a baby using Reciprocal IVF isn’t what you think it might be. I’m not talking about our daughter—Kennedy is perfect in our eyes. She is everything we hoped she would be. But we had several assumptions going into the process, including how the outside world would react to our family unit, that have turned out different in reality than we’d expected.


Assumption One: This Wouldn’t Be Cheap, But IVF Would Work the First Time

With Reciprocal IVF, one woman’s eggs are fertilized using donor sperm and the resulting embryos are placed in the other woman’s womb. This is very costly – we knew going in that this would be more expensive than alternatives like an at-home turkey baster (doesn’t get much cheaper than free!), IUI, or even embryo adoption. But we took comfort in knowing that, given IVF success rates in our age bracket, IVF should work the first time.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t control everything, and our first round of IVF failed. We now know that failure happened because of problems with the sperm we purchased. In that first round, my doctor retrieved 13 eggs and none fertilized on the first day – the second day they tried an ICSI rescue for the only surviving two eggs, but it didn’t work. It was just a series of depressing news.

Doing a second round of IVF and buying new donor sperm would be expensive. At first, the sperm bank refused to refund us for the first vials because the donor met their minimum sperm parameters. Luckily, our clinic fought for us – they pleaded our case to the sperm bank. After several conversations, the bank agreed to give us new vials from a different donor from their site.

Thankfully, our next cycle using sperm from a different donor went much better. Eighteen eggs were retrieved, and after splitting half of them for regular fertilization and half for ICSI, 11 healthy embryos resulted on day five.

As a same sex couple, none of this was covered by health insurance. The IVF procedure, shots, and sperm are not free. Some of our shots were covered by insurance but everything else was not. We ended up spending a lot more than we had planned which is why saving for the unexpected is so important. There was also a very real emotional cost –looking back it’s easy to gloss over the failure, but at the time it was deeply upsetting.


Assumption Two: Finding a Sperm Donor Would Be Just Like the Movie Baby Mama

OK, not really, but this is what we pictured: We’d go into a sperm donor office. They would pull up pictures of donors on a huge screen. We’d learn about their characteristics and their upbringings. We’d see photos of donors from various ages throughout their life, and it would be like watching a time-lapse of a baby boy growing into a man. Then we might merge together his picture with mine, and boom – a picture of our future baby!

The reality is completely different. We were told to go online and find a donor from a handful of “top” sperm banks. The sites had a few pictures, but we were surprised that some places only offer baby photos. We wanted to see childhood and adult photos, because we know a lot changes in your features as you grow up. We were also surprised that they charge for access to donor photos – there are several hidden fees beyond just the price of the sperm itself.

Eventually we used one site’s facial recognition software to upload a picture of Katie’s face and filter results based on donors who looked similar. This was a nice feature and it was definitely worth spending extra money to look through donors’ photos in the results.

Another area where the expenses were higher than they seemed was the cost of sperm vials – it turned out our doctor wanted us to buy two vials just in case something happened with the first and they needed quick access to another vial (which in our case actually happened in our first round). That meant every price we saw on the site was really double.

Our biggest surprise was that we ended up having to go through the whole process twice. Despite the hours spent sorting through pictures and reading donor profiles to pick our first donor, his sperm was unable to fertilize my eggs in the IVF lab. It met the minimum criteria for the sperm bank, but we learned that wasn’t a guarantee.

It was back to square one looking for a new donor. After narrowing it down to three donors, we called to try to investigate and see if we could get additional information. Most importantly, we were able to uncover the donors’ rough success rates, the percentage of complaints they’d had, and the age when they last donated. They only gave us estimates, for example 30-50% or 60-85% success rate, but we still found it very helpful to have some data. This isn’t information that’s volunteered -- you have to push to get it.

We chose our second donor based just on these parameters – the highest success rate with the least complaints and the youngest age at last donation. The sperm bank even agreed to use a vial to put through more rigorous testing before we underwent another round of costly IVF relying on that donor. In the end, we had much better luck with our second donor, but the road to that success was a bumpy one.


Assumption Three: Katie and I Wouldn’t Always Have the Same Roles

We always knew that, given the realities of bringing children into the world with Reciprocal IVF, we would bond with our baby in different ways and at different times. We anticipated that Katie would feel the pregnancy and the joys of being a mom and giving birth to our daughter.

We knew that even though I would be a mom, I wouldn’t share in many problems moms typically have. It was Katie who spent 9 months growing our daughter, who limited her diet, had her skin stretch, dealt with morning sickness, and felt the baby move for the first time. During the pregnancy, my role was waiting on Katie hand and foot, attending as many doctor’s appointments as possible, experiencing the joy of feeling our daughter move, and taking as many pictures to document the pregnancy.

We expected that as soon as Kennedy was born, Katie would have a bond with our daughter right away, after carrying her and then breastfeeding her. So I knew that I would be more of a “dad” early on, in that I would bond more with Kennedy through baby wearing and feeding her a bottle. My job was to help Katie with recovery and with chores around the house. Katie had to deal with the aftermath of her body going through pregnancy. It was Katie who was able to chime in on conversations in mom’s groups about breastfeeding problems, and I would just have to listen.

Throughout the pregnancy and today, we’ve worked together as a team to make sure Kennedy has had the best environment to grow big and healthy. We knew there would be times each one of us would feel left out during this process, but we were prepared for that.


Assumption Four: With Some Work, the Law Would See Us as Equal Mothers

I was really surprised how easy this was – in fact, being seen as equal moms in the eyes of the state (California) was the easiest part of this process. After Kennedy was born, a woman came into our hospital room and asked us to fill out the birth certificate. She told us we could check a box to decide which labels we wanted. The options were “parent,” “mother,” or “father.” We each marked “mother” next to our names, and now we’re both shown as equal mothers to Kennedy. The birth certificate doesn’t say who gave birth, or who contributed an egg.


Assumption Five: The Outside World Would Also View Us as Equal Moms

We had thought that using Reciprocal IVF would shield us from people assuming that our daughter belonged to only one of us. The reality of how the outside world views our family wasn’t something we were prepared for, and has often been painful.

There are so many examples, and the small naïve things that people say can be hurtful, even when they’re not meant to be. During the pregnancy, there were constant comments referring to “Katie’s baby.” This made me feel left out – Katie was carrying OUR daughter, not just her baby.

Another slight happened when we had to return to the hospital a few days after Kennedy’s birth. The receptionist asked us who the mother was. We said we both were. She got very frustrated and kept repeating the question. We explained that it was Katie who carried my egg, but she insisted that there can only be one mother, and that was the woman who carried the baby. I get it – she wanted to know who gave birth, but it still made me feel left out and not recognized as an equal mom.

After Kennedy was born, the dynamic shifted. We now get comments on her appearance like “she looks just like Christina,” and those are painful to Katie who, after all, grew our baby for nine months. We’ve also been asked if Katie will be having her baby, instead of mine, for our next child. That presumes that Kennedy has no relation to Katie. But one reason we created our family this way was our strong desire to avoid labeling our children as belonging to only one of us.

We also hear, “She doesn’t look anything like the father.” Excuse me? The father? There is no father in our family. There are two loving moms. We affectionately refer to our sperm donor as Donor Dennis, which is just something we made up. We are incredibly grateful to our donor, but he isn’t another parent.

The moment Kennedy was born, and in the days after at the hospital, there was no jealousy or sadness – we both felt that we were equal parents. But labels are powerful, and hearing even some well-intentioned comments can stir up these emotions.

We don’t want our children labeled by which mom they came from or whose egg they originated from. Although LGBT families are growing in our generation, it’s still an adjustment trying to raise a family amongst many non-LGBT families. Unwanted comments almost make us regret telling people whose egg we chose to use. But I don’t think the way we made our child is something that should have to be a secret, and we’re proud of the way we’ve made our family.


Looking Ahead

After reading all this you might wonder why you would go down this path. Despite some of the difficulties, we’re both happy with our choice. After all, any road to growing your family isn’t exactly easy, even though it always sounds easier than it is.

We’re planning to try for another child in the next few months using one of the embryos that we have frozen. Even though there is something scary about jumping in again, and opening up the possibilities of failure that always comes with IVF, we are so excited for Kennedy to have a sibling, and grateful for the chance to build our family this way.


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