When the conditions aren’t right, ambivalence really needs listening to

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.



About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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18 Responses to When the conditions aren’t right, ambivalence really needs listening to

  1. Liz says:

    Her course of treatment sounds traumatic, stressful and very expensive.

    A few thoughts:

    1) Pregnant women, pregnant with genetic children, can feel ambivalent about the pregnancy. This ambivalence isn’t new; but it is socially unacceptable for women to acknowledge ambivalence or fear about impending motherhood.

    2) Why would someone take on the additional stress and expense of travel if they can be treated efficiently at home? (Maybe she’s mentally confused?) It doesn’t make logical sense for her to increase cost and stress. That’s not to say there couldn’t be a reason, but it suggests an irrational reason, such as mental illness.

    3) The panic attack at embryo transfer suggests an anxiety disorder or a reaction to trauma. Traumatic responses to lengthy medical treatments aren’t uncommon.

    • oliviasview says:

      Undoubtedly any pregnant woman can feel ambivalent about impending motherhood, but I was surprised by her continuing efforts to get pregnant given her indifference to negative pregnancy tests. It’s almost as if she had set herself a goal and wasn’t going to be deflected from that task.
      It certainly is not logical to travel for treatment when it is available in a home country, but I don’t think her decisions were based on reason at all, although she would have rationalised that they were.
      I would be very slow to pathologise Claudia’s state of mind. My own sense is more one of a very modern confusion for women between the apparent choices on offer (have a baby by any means possible at almost any age one chooses) and what is right for an individual. There was also no mention at all in the article of how any child might feel about being created by sperm and egg donors of different nationalities with little information and no chance of future contact.
      My response would be…listen more carefully to your feelings, always consider the child.

      • Liz says:

        I don’t understand what she would have gained by going out of the country if it would have been easier and cheaper in country. Either she is irrational, or there is some other rational reason for choosing to go to the bother of traveling to a foreign country.

        Or, perhaps she was telling the truth — that she ran into difficulties in finding treatment at home. Significant numbers of UK women are traveling to Europe for fertility treatment. Clearly there is a push factor in the UK, whether that be cost or some other reason.

        “There was also no mention at all in the article of how any child might feel about being created by sperm and egg donors of different nationalities”

        The child would be British, so aside from the anonymity legal structures in the UK — do you see it as significant if the child’s donor is of British citizenship versus a donor who holds citizenship in the EU?

        Children born in the US are considered to be American, no matter the genetic heritage of ancestors. It would not be odd to find a child with a genetic background that includes Greek, Russian, Eastern Europe, English, and German ancestors.

  2. Liz says:

    Just read the article. It’s quite odd and written in a dispassionate style.

    Her first cycle was with her own eggs, and her response to the negative pregnancy test was indifference. I don’t know why she was so disconnected emotionally from a potential pregnancy, but the disassociation was also present with her own embryo.

  3. oliviasview says:

    This is a response to Liz’s comment of November 18th.
    One of the things women gain from leaving their home country is complete autonomy and anonymity of action. Outside of home rules and regulations – and in the UK these are liberal but strict – and beyond the oversight of fellow countrymen and women it is possible to feel free to take actions you might not attempt at home. Almost like using another currency when abroad – it feels like Monopoly money, not ‘real’ at all.
    Five years ago there were very few UK egg donors (it’s changed significantly now) so going abroad was a ‘choice’ many women made then and definitely a ‘push’ factor. However, Claudia seems to have gone to Athens originally for sperm donation only and this makes no rational sense to me. I believe it was an action much more based on emotion and the explanation given above.
    The issue of having egg and sperm donors of different nationalities has nothing whatsoever to do with citizenship and everything to do with ethnicity, culture and identity. It is one thing to be brought up by parents whose origins are in other countries and where ethnicity and cultural traditions can be recognised and celebrated and quite another to be raised by a person or people whose ethnicity is different from that of the child. If donors are identifiable and parents are being open with a child from the beginning then there are likely to be fewer issues, but it is possible that a child raised by British parent(s) but genetically connected to a Danish sperm donor and Polish egg donor and unable to have any information about their progenitors may have more difficulties than the average person or DC adult conceived in the UK, with their identity.

    • Liz says:

      Thank you for your response. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the conflation of nationality with ethnicity and culture. I’d also urge people to problematize the definition of ethnicity and culture itself.

      The newspaper article was an odd piece of writing. I don’t know what to think about going to Greece for sperm if it is readily available at home. The idea that countrymen influence actions pertaining to family formation is interesting. I personally think, in the end, many women will do what they feel is right for their own lives, despite state structures. We see this in the form of illegal abortions in many countries. Women will attempt to self-determine these issues, when possible.

    • Esther says:

      I’m British born , English and Jewish and find myself focusing how a future child , from egg donation , double donation , adoption could feel however loved they will hopefully feel with the knowledge that their genes are different from their parents and grandparents heritage . I struggle somewhat with this and feel the need to think about genes and what they really are , that indeed we are all people crested initially from Adam and how different religions play a part as of course it would be important for me to think that my child would continue in the same jewish traditions as was always to this point very important to me . I think very much about the ethos for children knowing about their identity , knowing what my identity had always meant to me and now being abit confused with this . I do worry about creating a child who may struggle with their identity . However , I presume that this would only be the case if it is is still something I may struggle with . I wander if I would not be struggling with this if I was indeed in a coupled relationship and feeling my insecurity and feelings of correctness to move forward as a singleton .

  4. oliviasview says:

    With regard to egg and sperm donors, nationality is often not the same as ethnicity. Also undergoing a donor procedure in a particular country does not guarantee that the donor’s ethnicity is of that particular country. If there is transparency between the stakeholders and recipients understand the implications for their future children’s information and identity needs, then the problems may be fewer than where anonymity and lack of information about a donor leads to uncertainty and secrecy…and possibly an additional shock for someone finding out they are donor conceived with eggs and/or sperm from people who did not share their parent(s) culture and ethnicity. Many people feel uncomfortable talking about ethnicity as it smacks of racism. What we are really talking about is ‘difference’. If difference is known about and acknowledged then issues or feelings can be accommodated and managed as they arise. It is when it is unknown – or revealed unexpectedly – and feels like a threat that people can feel hurt or even damaged.
    I think you are right about women and self-determination. The problem with this in relation to gamete donation is that there is a child to consider as well as a woman (and her partner if she has one).

    • Liz says:

      Of course, the woman (and her partner) have the obligation to act according to their own sense of integrity and moral code when contemplating conceptions of any kind. Ultimately, in the realm of sexuality and family formation, history has shown that women will do what they see as right for their own reproductive lives, even if it means disobeying laws.

      I will have to think more deeply about my understandings of ethnicity and its historical construction. While I can see the value of a genomic match, so a child does not look and thus feel different — I am a bit concerned about the idea that one can match “cultures” according to country. There is also a point at which this become absurd. Should an English family avoid someone of Scottish or Welsh genomic background? And what if someone is not genetically “pure?” All of this can be fetishized in a way that could be problematic.

      “I think you are right about women and self-determination. The problem with this in relation to gamete donation is that there is a child to consider as well as a woman (and her partner if she has one).”

      Yes, we most likely differ in this area. But there are always children to consider. That doesn’t give the state the moral right to prevent mentally ill people from procreating, in my opinion.

      More on point, perhaps, is that the welfare of future children has been used by legislators who suggested that children who were the result of “miscegenation” would not “fit in” anywhere and would have no proper identity or place in society. The argument that children would be harmed was used as a justification to criminalize interracial sex and marriage. Legislators have also used this logic to argue against the right of gay couples to adopt or bear children. I’m afraid, as a result of this history, I am quite suspicious of state regulation of conception for reasons other then health and proper medical practices.

      I do not see it as a legitimate use of state power to regulate until a child exists, and there is no child at the point of conception. A state may regulate for health purposes, but not for the purpose of preventing or regulating conceptions between humans. Likewise, I don’t agree when states attempt to regulate marriages (or conceptions) according to race, nationality, or gender.

  5. oliviasview says:

    It is fascinating to have a ‘conversation’ with you Liz as of course you and I see the same phenomenon through quite different lenses. Yours is legal, mine is psycho-social. Both are legitimate but I suspect they are not quite meeting here…perhaps running on parallel lines? As far as I am able to comment on your latest response, I would say that I agree up to a point with your final paragraph. The UK and a clutch of other countries, some in Europe, some in the UK’s old colonies, have chosen to end anonymity for donors because they have come to understand that it is not in a child’s best interest (against their Human Rights you might say) to keep information about a progenitor from a person who desires to have that information. This legislation impacts on those would-be parents who undertake gamete donation procedures in that country. I would not legislate to stop people exercising their choice to go abroad where laws are different. I would improve the education and counselling available to those people, however, so that they go into avoidance of UK legislation with their eyes wide open.

    • Liz says:

      I agree – this is a very interesting conversation. I’m interested in legal developments, but am also quite curious about social and cultural historical change. Cultural and social movements affect the law in significant ways, and vice versa.

      I think this is what I was trying to say, in a messy way, in my earlier comments. I suspect that SCOTUS would not allow the type of legislation that is currently in operation in the UK. There is a fundamental right to procreate in the States, that is informed by not just by the right to privacy cases, but also (I suspect) a lay-person concept of “rights” that encompasses the right to procreate on the level of culture/society. I am playing with the idea that this right to procreate may not exist in certain other countries (Germany, the UK, Australia) in the same way that it exists on the level of culture and society in the USA. Of course, the WWII history of Germany informs the German approach to IVF in very specific ways. We can see how history affects the present day constructions of these laws.

      In the history of the United States, the shameful criminalization of interracial marriage and sex and also the history of sterilization of non-normative people resulted, after the Second Civil Rights movement, of a fairly widespread idea that there exists a fundamental right to procreate and marry. (I don’t mean to say this is a universal belief. This concept was of course contested, for example by both the anti-abortion and anti-gay movements.)

      Quite literally, it is a regulation of procreation. Just as the state is reluctant to criminalize the actions of a woman who, say, gets drunk and is impregnated by someone who she does not know, the state will be reluctant to criminalize other forms of procreation. The state interest has to overcome that right to procreate.

      This is the Catch 22 that any attempt to regulate procreation will have to deal with in the USA: The best interest of the child cannot exist when there is no child. The right to procreate and marry has been figured as a fundamental right, as a result of the shameful history of States attempting to restrict procreation and marriage among non-normative people and families. As a result, the state interest must trump a fundamental right, which is a high bar. The interest of the (yet to be born) child was used to both of those shameful histories as a justification for sterilization, miscegenation laws, and — in the case of custody cases — the removal of children from the custody of gay parents.

      This is the way I think both on the level of culture and, I suspect, how it would play out at SCOTUS:

      Embryos (first trimester) /eggs/sperm don’t have rights in the USA — thus the state has to justify a strong reason to interfere with the fundamental right to procreate. I could see a health regulation passed for tracking based on genetic disease, but I cannot see courts or society prioritizing the right to genetic information of the yet-to-exist person over the right to procreate of citizens in the current socio-legal-cultural environment.

      • oliviasview says:

        Hi Liz
        I now understand better what you were trying to say about the differences between the States and the old British colonial countries. How very interesting that is.

  6. Liz says:

    I had a chance to read through one of Naomi Cahn’s articles on Kinship in the Georgetown Law Journal. She cited Kathleen M. Franke, and Franke gave a warnings about the unintended affects of state regulation. I am a great admirer or Franke, and I was intrigued by the inclusion of her work. I think this possible difference between the Cahn and Franke gestures at how the divisions in this thinking would play out in the States.

    Below is a suburb article of Franke on the history of African American marriages following the Civil War.


    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you for drawing my attention to this article. It is enormously interesting but for me these arguments are as if on a distant planet, far from my own very pragmatic focus on everyday psycho-social issues for donor conception families. Thank goodness for people like you who are able to look at the same phenomena from a completely different angle.

  7. Kriss Fearon says:

    I’ve been away (in Athens ironically) so it’s taken me a while to get to this.

    The thing I sympathised with most is wanting to hide how she felt about it, at the time. I read it as emotional barriers constructed out of a need to avoid sharing her vulnerability with people she could not be sure would support her. Not telling anyone, leaving the country for treatment, does speak very loudly to me about the kind of support she may have expected to have from those around her. Sometimes it’s easier to cope if nobody knows – nobody to report back to, after all, and that’s a situation anyone who’s gone through several failed cycles of IVF will understand. And sharing might have forced her to confront her ambivalence, which she seemingly didn’t want to do.

    I empathise with her desire to appear ‘fine’ in public, too, especially when those around you expect you to have some deeply felt trauma around fertility, singleness, etc. Not everybody wants to wear their heart on their sleeve for other people’s entertainment, as if your life is an episode of Jeremy Kyle! She is not obliged to make a full disclosure nor could she in a brief and edited article, so there’s bound to be quite a lot that isn’t covered. I am glad she is OK with the outcome and that she’s not left grieving.

  8. oliviasview says:

    Thank you Kris for this lovely, sensitive and thoughtful response. I could not agree more.
    Hope you had a good time in Athens.

  9. This is truly fascinating and I never thought about it in terms of history. There have been cases in the US where people were sterilized against their will. There is a writer who describes a southern doctor years ago that would kill newborn mixed race babies just after birth because in his mind (and many in the town) they should not exist and people should not create them. So I can see your point about SCOTUS not following the UK and others considering history and the very real slippery slope.

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