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MELANIE HEARSE

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Hundreds of years ago, pregnancy was as straightforward as sperm meets egg and a baby may or may not be conceived. If you couldn’t conceive naturally, that was the end of the pregnancy journey. Things have evolved since then – we now have IVF, surrogacy and gamete donation – where either sperm, eggs, or both are donated.

“I’m a single mum by choice and used a sperm donor.” Alison Ewington (40), and three and a half year old twin boys

“I ended up as a single woman in my 30’s and have always wanted to be a mum. My last partner was driven by career and money and had little interest in starting a family, and when our relationship ended, I was worried I would miss out on being a mother. I had already been diagnosed with polycystic ovaries and I knew that could complicate things.

I got a referral to Fertility First when I was 35 to start the donor process. I recall the first appointment feeling so ‘clinical’ – sitting in a medical chair with syringe after syringe of blood being taken, thinking ‘this is not how I grew up believing I would have a baby’.

The next 17 months were planned around early morning visits to the fertility centre before work for bloods, scans and hope. After three intrauterine inseminations and seven rounds of IVF; injecting the drugs into myself and riding the emotional roller coaster; I finally conceived my beautiful, healthy twin boys. Now I cannot imagine life without them.

“I clearly remember thinking ‘this is not how I grew up believing I would have a baby’.” Alison Ewington (40), and three and a half year old twin boys”

The boys will be asked questions about their father as they grow up, and I am role modelling a confident, open approach to talking about their story so they never feel uncomfortable with these questions. Ever since the boys asked me at age two ‘why don’t we have a Dad in our family?’ I have answered their questions honestly at a developmentally and age appropriate way for them. The boys have a photo of the donor and refer to him as “our donor Dad”, and happily tell people about their donor Dad, who lives in America.

We often talk about the many different types of families we know and who their friends live with. All families are different, and I believe as long as everyone is loved, nurtured, safe and secure you can’t go wrong.”

“I am a mother of two and an egg donor”

Michelle (35) and Glenn (43) Fenwick, with kids Samuel (10) and Ashley (6).

“My husband and I only over wanted to have two children. We were incredibly fortunate to conceive fairly easily and I had no complications with either pregnancy or birth.

When our youngest child was 14 weeks old, my husband had a vasectomy, making our family of four permanent.

Five years later, the topic of egg donation randomly came up and sparked an earlier interest I had in becoming an egg donor. I couldn’t help but feel like my perfectly good eggs were being wasted, and that surely there was someone who could benefit from them. I researched and discovered there was certainly no shortage of people seeking donor eggs. With the full support of my husband and family, I began searching for my first intending parents (IP’s).

Fast forward to now, almost two years later, and I have donated eggs to four couples, resulting (so far) in one beautiful baby boy, two current pregnancies and a total of almost 80 eggs donated.

As far as our children are concerned, they have been involved in the donation process right from the very beginning, even to the point of being included in (some) counselling sessions. To them, they have gained some new ‘aunties and uncles’ and they have one new ‘special cousin’, with a couple more on the way. They think it’s awesome!

My husband and I are pretty much on the same page with how we feel about having donor-conceived children out there, in that it’s not really something we think about

We are certainly conscious of the fact, but these children are not ours to raise and nurture. We have ongoing contact with our recipient families and while only one couple has had a baby so far, it’s not at all awkward or weird to see that child. I don’t see these children as being anything other than the beautiful babies of some new and very special people that we now call friends.

While each couple has a slightly different story, they all have a common desire, and that is to have a child of their own to love and to raise. If I can help them to achieve that goal by offering my eggs, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“We used an overseas egg donor”

Sharon and Graham Richards (both 44) and daughter Sofia (32 months).

“I thought having a baby would be easy because the women in our family were pretty fertile, but after Graham and I tried to conceive naturally for about eight months with no luck, we went to a fertility clinic for help. We began fertility treatments when they explained we’d have trouble conceiving naturally, but it was only after 15 IVF cycles, five years of hormones, blood tests and doctors’ appointments that we really got to the bottom of the problem. After failing to conceive after so many attempts, (we went to another fertility clinic, and finally got answers to our infertility problems) we told the new clinic my sister in law was willing to be a surrogate for us. The fertility specialist at the new clinic explained it wouldn’t make a difference – the issue was the quality of my eggs and the fact they started breaking up after three days.

At this point we started looking into any possibility to get pregnant, and egg donation from looked like a viable option – egg donation was suggested from the new clinic, we heard some great success stories and I spoke to a women who ended up with twins from egg donation. We also did a lot of research and discovered the success rates are very good in South Africa. Aussies are not as keen to donate eggs, and there is a lot of stigma attached to it here, which was also part of our decision to go overseas; we were on a wait list for egg donors in Perth but it seemed unlikely to happen because few women are willing to give eggs up for donation. The fertility clinic offered counselling before we made the arrangements to go, which was a fantastic.

We chose an anonymous egg donor from South Africa based on certain health criteria that were important to us. We chose a woman in her early 20s who was a non-smoker, and we wanted to be sure she had good support networks, so we chose someone with support of their family and had been in a relationship, also the clinic gives the egg donors counselling in South Africa. The donor does know about our little miracle daughter, and I would like her to be in touch, but at this stage it isn’t something she wants to do.

We found the overall process more positive in South Africa – our experience in Australia was very clinical and we felt it was more focused on solving a problem than it was on creating a life. South African reproductive clinics are medically advanced and professional, but we definitely felt like less of a number to the people involved. When they transferred the embryo, the second cycle in South Africa, the nurse kissed my belly and said ‘this one is going to work’. It bought joy and hope to a physically and mentally demanding situation.

The donor egg experience wasn’t all smooth sailing for us; we had an early miscarriage with our first pregnancy and had to travel to South Africa a second time and go through the process again, and obviously the hormone treatments put a strain on your body. The financial cost was strained but we were very lucky we could afford to go through the process again. It is very demanding mentally and shutting off from what was happening was a coping mechanism that worked for us at the time.

We were very lucky we were able to afford our dream and complete our family, due to the support of our relationship Graham and I was able to handle the emotional and financial burden of achieving our little family, egg donors are a very special part of the fertility treatment and I hope they know how special these women are.

 

More information

www.smcaustralia.org.au – (for women thinking about or who have become sole parents)

www.eggdonationaustralia.com.au – (for everything egg donation related, recipients and donors, and also has content for those involved in embryo donation)

www.australiandonorconceptionnetwork.org – Donor Children Australia – a closed Facebook group for anyone based in Australia that is involved in donor conception or is donor conceived themselves

 

Want to become a donor?

In Australia it is against the law for someone to profit from the donation of eggs or sperm – though a fee may be paid to cover some travel expenses for sperm and egg donors. You’ll be required to undergo blood tests and other medical examinations – and a complete health history will also be taken to ensure that the person that uses your sample (otherwise known as the recipient) is not exposed to any infectious diseases or cystic fibrosis.

Donors have no legal responsibilities or rights to any offspring conceived through the use of donated sperm or eggs. However, once a child reaches the age of 18 the offspring can request access to your identity. As a donor you therefore must be open to (potential) contact once they reach the age of 18.

Donors can withdraw their consent to be a donor at any time as long as embryos have not been created. (Before insemination or fertilisation takes place)

Your kids know her from Play School and the infectious tunes on her children’s albums, including the best selling I Like to Sing, but Justine Clarke is also a celebrated Aussie jazz singer and actress on both the small and silver screens. She’s also Mum to Josef (11), Nina (9) and Max (3).

Justine Clarke has that look that manages to slide between jaw-dropping gorgeous and the pretty gal next door you could see yourself catching up with for coffee. The chameleon looks have lent themselves to many different characters, a plus for a lady that divides her time between apple-cheeked Play School presenter and children’s entertainer, television shows including Love My Way, Home and Away, and A Country Practice and grittier roles in films like Blackrock and In Her Skin.

Justine started out in her first stage role as an 11-year-old Brigitta in The Sound of Music, and landed her first film role aged 12 as Anna Goanna, in the blockbuster action feature Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome with Mel Gibson. Her role call is impressive, she’s been in The Water Diary, Look Both Ways, Japanese Story, Danny Deckchair, Bootmen, Tangle, All Saints, Come in Spinner and Princess Kate, among many others. She continues to regularly book major roles in Australian theatre productions and film and television.

Justine has a long standing musical career, both in the Australian jazz scene and with a much younger audience. She spent plenty of time in the school choir at Woollahra Public School, danced across countless shopping mall stages and in 1991 (at the age of 18) was encouraged to continue performing jazz by Aussie jazz icon Vince Jones. “(Vince) happened to having dinner at my boyfriend’s restaurant one evening while I was singing, he was very complimentary and encouraging,” says Justine. Since then, she’s been a jazz vocalist at the Starfish Club, the Wine Banc and other well known Sydney venues, and has sung with Tom Burlinson in a Frank Sinatra big band tribute.

Justine has also moved into children’s publishing with her picture book,’Gobbledygook is Eating a Book’, released through Penguin Books late last year. Landing a role on Play School was a long held dream for Justine, who told her agent at the tender age of 18 to please put her name forward if auditions came up (which she says she now realises she would have been far too young to be considered for back then).

“At the age of 28, when I’d recently got married, there was a casting call and I got in. It was a real career highlight for me, something I’d always wanted to do and it was every bit as rewarding and fun as I’d hoped.”

Collaboration with a fellow Play School presenter, Peter, brought about the next stage in her career as a children’s entertainer.

“We were working on some songs together which he had written, and decided it would be fun to record them,” she recalls. “The ABC picked them up and released them, and they were massively successful (in fact, the first album, I Like to Sing, was an official gold seller, rare in children’s music). “This led to more albums, and it also led to performing live for kids, including Christmas concerts and a gig at the Sydney Opera House, which was an amazing experience. To see kids become part of the music – singing and dancing along, clapping, and telling me their favorite songs, it is just so personally rewarding,” says Justine.

“Music is what separates us from other animals – singing is magical, it’s accessible to everyone; we all have a voice.”

If you’ve ever been to one of Justine Clarke’s concerts and thought she seemed to be enjoying it as much as the children, you’d be correct – Justine says getting up close and personal with little people enjoying music, and helping be part of that joy, remains one of her favourite parts of her career.

Music is clearly a core part of Justine’s being – as we talk about her music career, the passion she feels for it is palpable. “Music is what separates us from other animals – singing is magical, it’s accessible to everyone; we all have a voice. We can create a wonderful, joyous sound that tells a story and makes us feel energised, sad, reflective, or happy; music can express all these feelings.”

When I offhandedly remark she’s obviously never heard me sing, Justine’s response is surprisingly earnest – she quickly jumps in saying she firmly believes we all have the ability to sing and those of us who believe otherwise were probably put off by someone telling us early on in life that we are no good at it (for the record, this is correct for me).

Justine says music should be encouraged for all kids. “If you have kids who have an interest in music, you can encourage them by getting involved yourselves – have music on in the background, sing, let them see you enjoying the feeling and they will feel encouraged to do the same. If they do lessons or have an instrument encourage them to play for you.”

Justine’s childhood home was one that celebrated creativity and expression, her mother being a dancer, choreographer and actress. “There was always music in our house and I was encouraged to pursue my interests – I had music, dance and singing lessons.”

When asked if she would encourage her children to pursue a career in music, she says she would if it was their passion and if they were prepared to study, but as her offspring are more into sport than music, it’s probably not going to be an issue. “They do take music lessons and enjoy music, but they are very sports focused, so I don’t think they’ll be pursuing music or acting as a career.”

Justine is grateful for a husband who is interested in sports. “Luckily for me, he encourages physical activity in the kids and they are actually more into their team sports than they are the creative arts. I say lucky for me because it’s just not something I enjoy doing – at school I had to join in at netball and it was just scary, balls flying at you, girls running at you on a mission, just scary!

“We can create a wonderful, joyous sound that tells a story and makes us feel energised, sad, reflective, or happy; music can express all these feelings.”

“But it’s more important nowadays – back then, we didn’t have television, phones or computers like we do now, so we’d naturally get more exercise just from playing. It used to be an hour or two in the morning and maybe some in the afternoon. Now you have to make a point to drag yourself away from technology, so I am glad they are into sport.”

As we chat, Justine is in the process of packing up one house in preparation to move States. “We move a lot, always have. We both have to go where the work is and for the kids it means moving back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne. They stay in the same school in each State and they have their sports, but it is hard work and it is an adjustment for them and for us.”

Justine is matter of fact when she talks about the day-to-day life of her family. She and her husband, Jack Finsterer, also an actor, maintain two homes, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, in order to follow the work. “Our industry means having to go where the work is, and this does unfortunately mean two homes, two sets of schools and sports teams for the kids,” she explains. “It’s not easy, not on the kids, but it’s part of how our family runs, and we do our best to make it as easy as possible for them – they go to the same schools and are in the same teams depending on which State we are in, but at the end of the day, in order for us to have the careers we have, and for us to make a living to raise our kids, this is the reality of it.”

On the plus side, Justine says she loves that her kids get to see her doing so many different things that she enjoys. “They see me move from movies to TV, to kids entertainment, to jazz music – they see that a career can be multidimensional, and it can be something you love if you work hard and are fortunate. They also see that it doesn’t come without some sacrifices.”

In terms of help, they rely on immediate family members and nannies. “In Sydney, it is me and my hubby doing the juggle, with our parents, aunties and uncles jumping in to help out. Because we have no family in Melbourne, we have a couple of nannies that the kids adore, they have become like family members, and that is very helpful.”

Asked if her kids find it weird that she is so popular with their peers, she says not really. “When they were younger, it was just a thing that happened, it seemed normal to them. It wasn’t until they got older that they noticed the people who would come and talk to their mum were actually strangers – they knew me, but I didn’t know them. My youngest recently came and saw one of my shows and after I came off stage, he said ‘I just saw the other Justine’ – not entirely sure what that’s about!”

For those of you who experienced long labours, be warned this story may invoke serious birth envy. When Sarah Laird (31), recently gave birth to her second son, Alby, it was all over in a matter of shower and a couple of pushes. There wasn’t even time for her support crew to arrive.

Imagine this – you are patiently waiting out the last couple of weeks before baby number two makes its arrival. Your youngest is happily asleep in his own bed, you’re also in the land of nod. Suddenly, you’re woken in the middle of the night with the kind of cramping that suggests Bubs might be on its way.

Sarah Laird (31), mum to boys Luca (3) and Alby (two weeks old), found herself in this situation only weeks ago. And while second-time-around, short labours are far from remarkable – as they say, we’ve been having babies for thousands of years and we’ll be doing it for thousands more – the rest of Alby’s birth was a little less ordinary.

“On the night Alby was born, I woke up at about 1.30am with some mild cramping,” Sarah recounts. “After trying to ignore it for awhile I got up and went downstairs. At this stage I was thinking these must be the beginning stages of labour but, as anyone who has given birth understands, this can go on for quite awhile. I wasn’t having regular contractions as yet and just rested on the couch in front of the heater. I rang my partner Kim (27) at around 2.45am to suggest he come in as this was probably going to be the day. (He was at our home in Dwellingup, about an hour away from the house we were renting in Fremantle for our baby’s birth.)”

Sarah was under the care of the Community Midwifery Program, and following advice from her midwife, spent the next hour or so moving around and using the fit ball. Having already experienced a painful posterior birth with Luca, Sarah was keen to do everything in her power to encourage a strong, straightforward labour.

The contractions were mild, short and very irregular so I didn’t have any reason to feel I was near giving birth, nor was I even sure I was really in labour.

Feeling a stronger contraction at 3.30am, Sarah felt the urge to hop in the shower – it had been a great source of pain relief in her labour with Luca. As she was getting into the shower, she experienced a stronger contraction and what felt like her waters breaking.

While standing under the warm water, Sarah experienced some mild contractions, and knowing Kim was on the way, thought once he arrived they would call the midwives to let them know things had started.

“Suddenly a strong painful contraction surged through me and I squatted down to work through it. As I rose up I realised I was pushing, and I could actually feel his head moving down! At this moment I realised things were progressing much faster than I had thought. I pushed for a second time and his head was out. I remember thinking ‘OK, I just have to do this’ and knelt down while cradling my baby’s head with my hands. Two more pushes in quick succession and I caught my baby boy in my arms.”

Still in shock from what had happened, Sarah knelt in the shower for a moment, then turned Alby over and loosened the umbilical cord from around his tummy.

“I remember feeling a moment of extreme relief that he was breathing and appeared healthy and normal. I was holding my new baby boy in my arms and thinking ‘Wow, did that just happen?'”

Back to practicalities, Sarah realised her phone was in the lounge room and she had no idea what time he was born, nor did anyone know that she had been remotely close to giving birth.

“I put the phone on speaker in the middle of the bathroom, rang the midwife Tracey, and hopped back in the shower. I told her I was in the shower and I’d had the baby. Of course she was shocked, but I think she handled it really well – she stayed calm, told me to make sure Alby and I were warm enough and that she was on her way. I then called Kim, which was a funny conversation that I barely remember – I told him I was in the shower, had already had Alby, and that we were fine. Then I told him it was a boy and hung up!”

Sarah’s voice takes on the dreamy tone of someone enjoying a pleasant memory as she recalls a favourite part of the story. “I wrapped Alby and myself in a towel and went out to the lounge room where I had the heater on. I sat quietly gazing into Alby’s face and contemplating the incredible experience we had both just been thorough. He began suckling almost immediately and I felt so calm and in control. The first few moments with your child are infinitely precious and miraculous and I will never forget mine. After ten minutes had passed, I heard my eldest son calling out to me, so I told him to come into the lounge room. He came halfway down the hallway, and I said ‘Luca, come and meet your brother’. He came into the room and was so delighted to see the baby in my arms. We sat there for another fifteen minutes or so looking at Alby, and then Kim came in.”

After Kim had met his new son, and the midwife had arrived and given Alby a clean bill of health, Sarah called her parents to share the kind of news they are unlikely to forget. “Dad answered the phone. I told him I had already had the baby and had given birth in the shower on my own. He just kept saying ‘What? What?’, then he put Mum on.”

Sarah says lots of people tell her how amazing she was to cope, but to her, there wasn’t any other way to handle it. She also credits having planned to give birth at home with the relaxed way she reacted when things started to happen so quickly.

“Because I was in the place I expected to give birth, I wasn’t panicking that I was still at home. If I’d been planning a hospital birth, I might have focused on being in the wrong place rather than dealing with what was happening.”

While birth is often an unpredictable experience, Sarah says she never anticipated she would give birth to Alby quite so quickly, or at home, alone in the shower. “I am in awe of what our bodies and minds are capable of and feel extremely proud that I was able to find the courage and strength that I needed to bring Alby into our lives.”