What are we to make of the article leading the Family Section of The Guardian on Saturday this week? Titled, “I wasted £30,000 on a baby I didn’t want” it is the story of how single journalist Claudia Connell went through three cycles of IVF, one using her own eggs and the others with both donor egg and sperm. These unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy took place over a three year period and ended when Claudia was 44. Throughout these years ambivalence seems to have been the overwhelming feeling. On the day of the final embryo transfer she had a panic attack and told one of the nurses that she didn’t want to go through with it. The doctor, however, told her that it was the best embryo he had ever seen and, it seems, in order not to be rude, Claudia allowed the transfer to go ahead. She became, that strangest of things, a little bit pregnant, but it did not stick, ending in a heavy period a few days after the weak positive pregnancy test. At 46 she is now happy to be childless and feels she would not have made a good mother.
First responses might be, ‘What an idiot’ and ‘Thank-goodness she didn’t conceive if she really didn’t want a child after all’ but I do wonder if a lot of the feelings Claudia is honest enough to write about, are actually experienced by other women, single or in partnerships, but for whom the donor IVF is successful. I want to challenge some of the information in the article as well, but I think that some of the decisions that Claudia made and the bases on which she says she made them are possibly linked to her mixed feelings about the whole endeavour. For instance, the decision to go abroad to Athens for treatment. This was ostensibly because ‘there was a shortage of donor sperm in the UK and clinics (were) decidedly sniffy about treating single women’. And yet she also tells us that she visited one of the biggest sperm banks in the UK. Five years ago there were shortages of donor sperm at clinics that did not recruit their own donors but those with sperm banks had no such problem. Also ALL UK clinics have welcomed single women with open arms for many years now. There is no issue whatsoever about treating single women. They are the lead customers for sperm donation in many clinics since the advent of ICSI has allowed many more men to have genetically connected children. My own sense is that Claudia expected a sniffy response to single women, interpreted behaviour in the light of this expectation and chose to go abroad so that she could put herself beyond what she felt would be the judgement of her fellow countrywomen. Claudia also told absolutely no-one what she was doing, and in the article owned to ‘still not being convinced I was doing the right thing and being faintly embarrassed about it’. Instead she joined an anonymous internet forum where she found herself at odds with others who were devastated by negative pregnancy tests, when she herself was not. Why did she keep going?
At the beginning of the article Claudia refers to having read Baby Hunger by Sylvia Ann Hewlett which, apparently, makes a strong case for the fact that today’s ‘have it all’ women are facing the prospect of a lonely and unfulfilled middle age because they have left it too late to have children. This, and the fact that she ‘liked children’ and had a stable home and income appear to be the sole motivations for trying to get pregnant. She doesn’t write about pressures from family or friends but she does mention ‘the noise of a loudly ticking biological clock becoming the sound track of my life’. So the pressure that was being applied was internal, possibly the eternal female baggage of somehow not being a fully realised woman until becoming a mother. I certainly know that having children was important to me and that the pleasure (and pain) I have had watching them grow and become fully functioning adults in the world has meant more than I can say, but I don’t believe that this is what every woman (person) needs and it feels very sad that Claudia had to spend so much money and continue to suffer side effects from the IVF drugs, to discover that it wasn’t what she wanted either.
I am sure there were other complex things going on here and I am tempted to write about the folly of double or embryo donation with anonymous donors about whom one knows very little – certainly Claudia seems to have found many elements of this unpalatable – but I’m going to leave it there. I’m just so pleased that she is happy with her childfree state and that she did not bring into the world a child whose mother may have remained ambivalent about her or his existence.