A reponse to the Mail’s article about the UK’s NHS-funded sperm bank

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The Mail on Sunday newspaper sank to a new low today. It skilfully managed to combine all three of its notorious characteristics – bias, bigotry and blatant ignorance – in a single article.

The headline was deliberately and maliciously tailored to incite hatred and whip up a scandal by demonising vulnerable women (lesbians and those who are single) who are in the sorry position of needing assistance in order to conceive. It read:

‘NHS to fund sperm bank for lesbians: New generation of fatherless families… paid for by YOU’ [sic – yes, it even included the childish capitalisation of the final word!]

A response…

Some people are fortunate enough to find a wonderful partner and start a family with ease. Others are not so lucky. Should they be forced to live a childless life?

As a solo mother by choice with a beautiful baby boy whom couldn’t be more loved, I was deeply saddened by the article and the mindless comments it provoked. Has human society not advanced to an intellectual level at which loving families of all kinds are accepted and valued? Have we learned nothing from the prejudices of the past?

To go through the process of conceiving solo, one has to climb enormous emotional, financial and physical mountains. With donor sperm IVF in the UK costing around £10,000 per attempt, it is the biggest financial gamble of one’s life. Most of Britain’s fertility clinics charge extortionate prices, preying on desperate women whom they know would sell both kidneys to raise the money for even the narrowest chance of a child. Women endure this alternative route to motherhood because of the enormous amount of love, dedication and care they have to offer a child. Because family and family values are important to them.

When I went through the conception journey two years ago I received no support whatsoever from the NHS and spent a large chunk of my life savings. I ended up so disgusted with the lack of help, lack of donor information and outrageous charges in the UK that I travelled to Denmark and underwent IVF in a clinic there. I used a Danish sperm bank that provided detailed information about the donor and offered reasonable charges. But not before considering risking my own life through using unregulated home insemination methods – a big regret but, at the time, I felt forced into the decision through UK clinic prices and lack of support.

On the use of NHS funding that could be spent elsewhere…

“The NHS should spend the money on cancer sufferers.” “The NHS is for the sick.” “Why should we pay for these selfish women?” – three of the comments made by members of the public. There will always be areas of NHS funding that someone, somewhere feels should be better allocated. Alcohol-related harm costs the tax payer £3.5 billion a year. Last year, total expenditure on NHS Stop Smoking Services was £87.7 million. Money spent on people who have wilfully and selfishly chosen to engage in acts that endanger themselves and others. And yet many are in uproar about a Government grant of £77,000 to subsidise a facility designed to help dedicated couples and individuals to create devoted families. As a tax payer (the majority of women using the sperm bank will also have worked and paid tax for many years) I am glad to see my money going towards this worthy cause.

I cannot overemphasise the misery of being alone (due to an inability to find the right partner or, in many cases, going through a divorce) and desperate for children just as one’s fertility is rapidly declining. I have been there; it’s life-destroying. If unsuccessful in conceiving a child, I am certain I would have added to the drain of £8.6 billion spent each year dealing with depression. The NHS is certainly for the sick but it also has a duty to promote mental wellbeing. Having a child is the only cure for the devastation of not having a child.

On the condemnation of ‘designer babies’…

Wanting to know something of the physical and intellectual characteristics of someone providing fifty percent of your child’s genetic make-up is perfectly understandable. It is very sad that such an act is tainted with the ‘designer baby’ brush. Surely we are ‘designing’ our perfect family when we choose a partner, based on the characteristics we like.

Single parent = unstable home?

The circumstance that causes most psychological damage to children is divorce (current rates just under 40%). Theoretically, a couple who choose to have a child is putting them at greater risk than a solo mother. Children of solo mums have been longed for and fought for. They are deeply loved and appreciated. Most grow up in stable, caring home environments, free from arguments and negativity.

Baby steps

The sperm bank service is a step in the right direction. It’s a shame that the article shows extreme bias, intent on scandalising the issue, and doesn’t represent the views of the loving families whose lives will be forever changed by the birth of a dearly wanted baby.

There is still a long way to go before single and lesbian women have equal rights in matters of assisted conception. We are all responsible for raising the next generation. I want to see that generation growing up in stable, loving homes with a parent or parents who have longed for them, are grateful for them and are now dedicated to their wellbeing and happiness.

Over to you… (A blog for all single women trying to conceive)

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The journey was long but I reached my goal; I have a beautiful baby boy.

 I now want to help others to feel the same joy.

 So the nature of this blog is changing. I want it to be a place of support for all women who are choosing this challenging solo path to motherhood, a place to ask questions and to share information and experiences or simply to let off steam.

 I’m not an expert. I can’t offer advice or make decisions for you. But I can tell you about my experience as an ordinary woman who has been on this journey and understands a little of the frustration, fear, grief, confusion and wonder it entails.   

Bringing baby home

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Barnaby in the first couple of weeks after birth

I just wanted to announce that, after three months in neonatal intensive care and special care, I have brought my beautiful son Barnaby home.

The experience at the hospital was harrowing – the toughest I’ve ever had to face – and I saw five tiny babies become angels. Barnaby started as the most critical baby in intensive care but then he fought like a lion to make progress, grow and develop.

I have been continually inspired by the will of these tiny babies to live, the courage of the parents and the devotion of the hospital staff.

Barnaby now weighs 2.2 kg and his due date is tomorrow. It will be some time before I know what problems he will face as a result of his extreme premature birth, but he is my whole universe and I will give him the happiest life possible.

He is a lively fellow and is leaving me little time to sleep, let alone write, but I hope to pen his incredible story before too long.

Barnaby just before his due date

Update: Mother and son

To everyone who has kindly been following this blog/book,

I have lived for the past six-and-a-half incredible weeks in first the neonatal intensive care unit and then the special care baby nursery of a London hospital.

It has been the most emotionally gruelling and yet the most inspiring journey of my life.

After a terrifying beginning, in which I came narrowly close to losing him, my tiny, beautiful son (now 33 weeks’ gestation) has battled bravely with a lion’s strength and held on to life. He is the perfect little miracle man that I had longed for and fought for and suffered for. I love him more than I ever dreamed possible.

He is still at risk but the two of us are holding each other tightly and riding the rollercoaster together.

I will continue the story of his amazing life soon, but at the moment I am too busy experiencing it.

I wanted to pass my sincere gratitude to all the people who have supported me throughout this miraculous path, conceiving solo.

To those thinking of trying for a child, the joy that your little one will bring you will more than compensate even the most painful and seemingly impossible journey.

Expressions of love

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I am sitting in what I have nicknamed the ‘dairy farm’, my breast attached to a pump which is connected by a long tube to a suction machine. Droplets of milk are being rhythmically extracted from my breast and collected in a small bottle for Barnaby’s next feed. With my son too small to suckle for another few weeks, the milk will be put into a syringe and fed to him through a tube into his stomach.

The neonatal unit’s lactation nurse encourages us to express milk from each breast for at least fifteen minutes, eight to ten times within a 24 hour period. I usually manage about seven. It’s a tedious task that disrupts the day and renders a decent night’s sleep a distant memory, but I’ve always felt that breastfeeding is extremely important and I want to be ready. Barnaby is worth all the hours spent feeling like the most inept jersey cow in the herd. I love the fact that my body is helping him grow and strengthen. Aren’t women remarkable!

My introduction to expressing milk was less than pleasant. The day after giving birth, when I was still suffering from the trauma, a nurse asked me to try to express some milk for my baby. I could almost hear my body responding: You must be kidding! I won’t be ready to even think about milk for another three months!

I returned to the ward. Only through pregnancy had I been able to fill an A cup for the first time. I tried squeezing my sorry little breasts. No response.

As the hours passed, my breasts began to harden, becoming engorged and painful. I asked a midwife if there was anyone who could help to show me what to do. A little later a burly middle-aged woman in a pale green tunic brushed back the curtain by my bedside.

“You need help expressing milk? Open your gown.”

She had the bedside manner of sergeant major undergoing root canal surgery, but I was desperate for help to feed my dangerously emaciated son.

Her brawny hand shot out and the fingers closed, vice-like, around the middle of my swollen breast. She squeezed with all the might of an Olympian bodybuilder. I writhed with the pain, twisting away from her grasp. I’m certain my bellow outclassed the cries from the labour ward downstairs.

“Well if you’re going to react like that, I can’t help you!”

She stormed out of the ward and left me sorrowfully nursing my throbbing breast. As I looked down, I saw a tiny drop of moisture on my nipple. Got milk!

Over the next few hours I worked on my breasts, squeezing as hard as I could until I felt dizzy from the pain in both breast and hand. No luck. Maybe the drop of liquid was a fluke. Sweat perhaps?

Tentatively, I again asked for assistance, adding hastily that I did not want to see the same woman again.

At last, a smiling nurse arrived with a pumping machine. I explained what had happened during my previous encounter and showed her the finger-sized bruises on my skin. She shook her head.

“I’m so sorry. That shouldn’t have happened and you were wrongly instructed – expressing should be gentle and should never hurt.

She fetched a model breast, made from stuffed wool and showed me some techniques for tenderly massaging the breast in preparation for expressing milk. She demonstrated how to put together the components of the breast pump and attach it to the suction machine.

The machine had different speed settings, imitating the initial quick sucking of the baby’s mouth then the slower drawing of milk as he fed.

Gradually, the machine began to coax a tiny amount of golden colostrum-rich milk from my breast.

“Every drop is important. It’s a cliché, but breast really is best.”

It wasn’t the magical moment of holding my babe against my breast and caressing his head as I nourished him that I had always pictured, but I was thrilled. It felt as though there was so little I could do to help my poor son. At least I could provide him with the best nutrition possible.

Transfer to neonatal intensive care

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A couple of hours after holding my son for the first time I returned to the SCBU, longing to feel his little body pressed against me. It would be over a week before I would be able to hold him again. He became critical… very critical.

As I entered the unit, there was a fluorescent blue light surrounding Barnaby’s incubator.

“He has jaundice,” the nurse explained, seeing my distress. “We’re treating him with phototherapy. It’s common in preterm babies.”

She went on to tell me that he was due to undergo a procedure at 3pm. He needed nutrition and they needed to insert a tube either through his umbilical cord or into a vein in his arm to feed him intravenously.

“Is it a fairly standard procedure?”

“Yes, it should take about an hour and I’ll come and let you know when we’re done. It’s best if you don’t come here until after it’s finished.”

The idea of not staying to comfort my baby as he was poked and prodded by strangers felt unnatural, but I agreed to return to the postnatal ward. Seeing him in distress would be more than my heart could take and I didn’t want to be a distraction to the doctors. How could they concentrate on their delicate task – and it was delicate; Barnaby’s arm was tiny enough, and the veins within, miniscule – with mum sobbing in the corner?

I sat on the bed in the ward and filled the time with more phone calls to friends and family members to tell them what had happened. I could hear people’s internal struggle in their voices, weighing up whether the expected response was to congratulate me or offer condolences. My own voice was hollow. I responded robotically to the conversation but my thoughts never left Barnaby.

4pm came and went… then 4.30pm… then 5. With every minute the knot in my chest tightened, as though twisted in the cogs of some relentless clockwork machine.

Finally at 5.30pm, unable to wait another second, I leapt from the bed and ran to the SCBU. I pressed the buzzer and eventually the nurse came out.

“Your son got overstressed when we did the procedure and we’ve had to intubate him. We’ve put a ventilator into his lungs to breathe for him. We now need to move him to a specialist unit at another hospital and we’re just ringing around to find him a bed. We don’t really deal with the tiny babies here.”

A little later a specialist ambulance and transfer team were on their way. I was allowed in to see my baby. He was out of the incubator and had been placed on a table on his back. His weak little body, no more than a skeleton covered with red skin, was comatose, heavily knocked out with morphine to keep him calm during the journey. A thin tube – the ventilator – was inserted into his mouth, puffing oxygen into his lungs. He had lost a great deal of weight through dehydration and his face was bruised from the trauma of birth. The tiny arms and legs were as slender as twigs and looked as though they would break just as easily if someone touched them.   

I sat next to him and battled the emotions, not wanting him to sense mummy’s anguish (if he was capable of sensing anything). I again spoke to him gently, telling him about all the people who were waiting to meet him and who were praying for him to grow big and strong.

As I sat, I felt how deeply intertwined our lives were. We belonged together now. I knew I couldn’t live without him. I solemnly acknowledged that both our fates were linked to his survival and recovery.  

I placed my finger on his hand, waiting to feel his tiny fingers closing around it, but he was limp and lifeless from the morphine.   

The ambulance team arrived, shattering our time together. I was sent out of the room again for a couple of hours while they prepared Barnaby for his journey. When I returned, he was strapped and sealed in a special portable incubator.

A friend’s message came to mind. Your son’s soul chose you for a mother because he knew you had the strength and courage to get him through.  

I didn’t feel strong or courageous. I wanted to collapse in a heap and wail. But I could act these things.

“Be brave, my little one. Mummy loves you more than the world and her heart will always be wrapped around you. You be a good gentleman for these nice people. I’ll see you soon, my darling.”

Then I watched my critical baby son being wheeled away to an unknown future, understanding that this may be the last time I would see him. Perhaps the hour long cuddle we’d had would be our only time together.

First thing the next morning I was banging on the door of the midwifery office to ask when I would be transferred to join my son. After several hours of buck passing and being told that different teams were dealing with the transfer but everyone was busy for the time being, I became desperate. I cornered one of the midwives.

“We need to wait until someone’s available to discharge you properly,” she told me.

“I understand the need for hospitals to administrate but when bureaucracy gets in the way of common sense and humanity, I can’t adhere to it. My son is in a critical condition. I could never forgive myself if I was too late to see him because I was filling out a form! If my transfer isn’t organised shortly I’ll walk out the front door and get a bus to his hospital.”

Finally, the wheels started to turn. Two hours later I was in a hospital cab, escorted by the matron, and on my way to be reunited with my baby.  

 

  

 

 

 

Holding my baby for the first time

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I am sitting on a chair by my baby son’s incubator. I am about to hold him for the first time. He is so tiny and frail that I’m terrified of hurting him.

The nurse is getting him ready for my ‘kangaroo care’, arranging his multitude of wires and tubes so that he can be safely transported to my chest. He’s not happy about this interruption to his rest and is spreading his hands and legs wide. His cries are pitiful, like the bleating of a tiny lamb, and his distress breaks my heart.

Finally he is lifted into the air and placed carefully between my breasts. Almost immediately, he stops crying and settles against my bare skin. In that instant, any remaining fear of loving my sickly son melts away forever. I fall for him hook, line, sinker and entire boat.

At last I begin to understand why friends have been sending me congratulations on hearing my news, which had seemed so incongruous in the circumstances. I have a beautiful son – my perfect little miracle man, mummy’s brave little soldier.

I glance down. Much of his face is still hidden by his breathing tubes but his little eyes and mouth look peaceful and contented. He is as close to home as he can be. For a few minutes, we sit in silence, feeling each other’s hearts beating. His thumps wildly against my chest in double-time synchronicity with my own.

I murmur to him softly. I tell him again, this time with absolute conviction, how dearly I love him and how many people are waiting to meet and adore him.

As I speak, one drowsy little eye opens just a sliver for a few seconds and closes again. Ah, there’s my mummy! His tiny hand closes around my finger, gripping it with surprising strength. Never leave me!

A song comes to me from the deep recesses of memory. The lyrics seem to fit so well and I croon it, choking back the tears. Later, my mother tells me that it’s a song she used to sing to me when I was a baby.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You make me happy when skies are grey
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away

Mother and premature baby; kangaroo care; skin to skin

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