Age at interview: 40
Infertility diagnosis: No
Contributing factors to fertility problems: Endometriosis, PCOS, needed donor sperm (in a relationship with a cis queer femme)
Age at diagnosis: Not stated
Fertility treatments: IUI, egg collection, embryo freezing
Background: Max works full-time as a teacher. They live with their wife and their twin toddlers in a regional town. Max has Anglo-Australian heritage.
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Starting to think about having a child
So my partner and I were in a position where I guess legally, socially, medically, personally, financially et cetera that we could consider having a child. So we started doing some research of what our rights were here. My wife's actually American so the situation here legally is very, very different to in the U.S. So we started thinking about, ‘Okay, maybe this is something that we could do,’ and so we started looking at what our options were and what that meant for us as a family and then it was quite interesting because I've always loved kids and I have had a really strong relationship with my nieces and my nephew. But I didn't necessarily grow up with thinking that I would have a child that would see me as a parent. More as a special adult or whatever.
Contemplating becoming pregnant as a queer, non-binary person
So then having this opportunity that came up in my mid-30s of, ‘Hey maybe this is something we can do,’ I then internally – and maybe just more about my personality, I didn't speak to my wife about this. I didn't speak to my parents either. I just sort of flagged the idea in my head about – ‘What do I do about my body? What does my body mean? What are the components of me physically that I've been born with? Are they things that I want to use or not?’
So obviously growing up always as – I knew that I was queer and I was quite different at quite a young age so I didn't have the narrative of, ‘I'm going to be a mum’, quotation marks. That wasn't part of my story. But then after a while when we started looking into the legal process and the medical process and things here I just was like, ‘Oh hey’ – I remember saying to my wife one day, "Oh hey, maybe I should go first," and she looked at me and was like quite amazed and [laughter] probably a little bit in shock and didn't expect that that would be something that I would say.
But, yes, I was like, ‘Hey, maybe children and uteruses and eggs and sperm and carrying children is not necessarily something that is innately gendered. Maybe this is something that I could do because I have these particular parts.’ It was quite interesting to sort of go through this process of ‘I don't really see my body as female necessarily but I do see that I've got some particular physical characteristics that can support me to have a child.’ So she was quite amazed and didn't expect that. Then I remember speaking to my mother as well and saying, "Hey, we've talked about having children" and I'd already spoken to her quite a lot about my partner and us using a donor.
Then when I turned around one day and said, "Oh actually I'm going to try first," I reckon she almost fell off her chair because [laughter] it wasn't what she expected either. So, yes, it was interesting because somehow I'd come to this position that I would give it a go I guess.
Looking for a fertility clinic and a donor
So I would have been I think 36. We put our initial plans on hold where my partner was going to try first. We went to one of the big clinics in [city name]. We were living in [city name] at the time. We now live regionally but initially when we started we were living in town and we went there and I started the process of I guess IUI and going through the process of looking for an anonymous donor.
So originally we had thought about using a known donor so we had a couple of conversations with friends of ours in Australia and friends of ours in the US. Started having some conversations and discussions around parenting and what that would mean in terms of having a donor. We had in our heads been quite clear that having a sperm donor to assist us to conceive would be that the legal responsibilities and the parental responsibilities would sit with us purely. Then starting to have conversations with people that could assist us as a sperm donor that some of their expectations about what that would mean for them were quite different to what we had wanted like, ‘Well what happens if we want to move? Or what happens if we want to send our child to this kind of school or this kind of school? Or what does it mean for us as parents of the way that we want to bring up children?’
Deciding to use a clinic donor
I think we got to the point to have a third party and potentially then that person having a partner as well - having four parties involved in discussions that I think are quite complex with just two people to have, we got to the point of, ‘It's perhaps better for us to go through the clinic and have an anonymous donor,’ purely just because I think in terms of the changes that had happened here recently around both of us being able to be on the birth certificate and both of us being now considered legally married in Australia, whereas when we first got married in the US that was not the case here. Our marriage wasn't recognised.
We just were like, ‘Let's simplify everything and we're able to make the decisions around school and where we live et cetera with just us so maybe that's better.’ I think we both had this picture of what it would mean to have a donor that we knew that could be like a special uncle or play an important role in our children's life. But I think at some point it became a little bit complicated in having those conversations with people. As much as I think it could be a really beautiful thing for families and for a child we just sort of said, ‘Let's just go through the clinic and do it that way.’
Experience of precarious rights for queer people and families in the US and influence on decision to use a clinic donor
I mean realistically it's like if we - in the US we wouldn't be able to do this. I mean we wouldn't both be on the birth certificate. We've got children and we've got parent A and parent B. That's not actually something that would be possible. Then even if we felt okay about not being legally on the birth certificate we wouldn't financially be able to afford to go through the clinic either. So I think we both felt immense privilege being able to take a particular route that was very safe legally and put us both on the birth certificate and really placed us as a family.
We got legally married in the US. But at that time I could also lose my job being out in a school or you could lose your job for being on birth control or you could lose your job for having an abortion. So they had this rather strange kind of High Court ruling that marriage could happen between anyone but state by state the laws around freedom of speech and really just freedom were so strong that it didn't really matter anyway.
So here [in Australia] we didn't have marriage equality but I could be out as a teacher and I could access de facto laws and I could be next of kin and we could be considered de facto and go through a process of bringing my partner here as a permanent resident et cetera through the de facto laws. But we didn't have marriage equality. So we've gone through I guess in Australia quite incremental legal change where it was, ‘Well actually let's get all the little bits that actually matter and impact on someone's life around equal opportunity and anti-discrimination,’ and then marriage didn't really matter in Australia.
I think for me as a queer person I was like, ‘Well it doesn't actually really change anything because we've got all these rights,’ and for me anyway I felt like I was quite protected. But in America there was marriage equality but you weren't protected at all as a queer person. So it was very strange going through a process of coming to Australia, deciding to have a family and thinking about the - I think the legal stuff was really important for my partner and myself having spent a lot of time in the U.S. where even as we see now the law and the police and the systems and the bureaucracies definitely are not on the side of any minority communities.
To be legally married in the US and be so fearful of work and discrimination and even just freedom walking down the street and fear of assault or discrimination to then come here and not have that same kind of day-to-day fear but also not be legally married we're like whatever, it doesn't matter. So, yes, I think that stuff probably impacted on our decision to take a particularly safe route in terms of having a child and doing that through a system where we were both going to be on the birth certificate, we were both going to be considered parents.
The sperm donor was obviously a huge part of us being able to conceive but they weren't someone that could eventually decide to challenge us on the way that we had conceived and then that person's role in our family. So I do wonder whether that kind of experience of such a contrast of discrimination had maybe impacted on our particularly safe route.
I must say I don't actually know a lot of people that have fully gone through a clinic with an anonymous donor.. I think that as queers we're pretty good at being able to figure out alternative means and so a lot of my friends have had donors as friends and things like that.
But I do wonder whether the contrast of our experience of the US impacted on that decision and our fear of some of the ways that that could have been really - that could go quite pear-shaped in the US.
Choosing a clinic donor – process, preferences and options
So we made the decision, ‘Okay, yes, let's use a clinic donor and let's go to this major clinic in [city name].’ So we went there and then what actually happened was that there was this massive drought. It was like a donor drought. It was before the reforms around sperm donors being able to explicitly say that they didn't want to donate to a queer family. So when we first went through this process you could - obviously in Australia there's no financial benefit of being a donor whether that's an egg donor or a surrogate or a sperm donor. So what used to happen is that people could donate sperm but they could say, “Hey I only am going to donate sperm to a heterosexual couple that is having fertility issues and can't conceive.”
So then there were some people that were donating sperm and they were happy to donate to anyone. We have then gone through all this process, got all these - it was a massive process as well because we had to go through getting not only child protection clearances et cetera in Australia but we had to go through all of that in the US as well. Trying to do anything like that in the US is extremely difficult, especially from another country. So we went through all of this process, got all that paperwork and then they basically said to us, “Oh look there's a really long wait because there's a drought on sperm.”
We ended up waiting I think maybe a year. It was a really, really long time. I remember thinking you see these movies and stuff around people flipping through these massive folders of sperm donors and, ‘Oh do we want this? Do we want that? Oh yeah!’ Like it was some kind of catalogue. We waited I reckon about a year and then finally the clinic got back to us and they were like, ‘Oh, really happy to let you know that we can pass on your options,’ and basically we had one option. There was one donor that was given to us as a choice.
So it was hilarious and we were like, ‘Okay so we've got one donor to choose from!’ and we actually loved the sound of this particular donor. I guess for us - my partner and I decided - some families, donors for them might be you want someone who physically might look the most as you as possible that then you might use that donor to then conceive with. I think as a queer family for me it's like I never had some dream that I was going to have a child with someone that would be half me and half my partner so that was not really necessarily a consideration in terms of choosing a donor.
For us we had sort of – we want a donor that doesn't have chronic health issues and things like that but also someone - the most important thing for us was that it sounded as though it was a person that we could spend time with if the child decided they wanted to reach out to them.
So when people were donating sperm it was, 1) you needed to be okay to be contacted at 18 and 2) if you wanted to, you could tick this extra box. Because of those changes in sperm donation and then also the fact that we were queer it meant that we had to wait ages. We then decided that our criteria would be someone that we wanted to potentially spend time with and someone that was also open to be contacted earlier because we had intentions of having a very open relationship with our children and making sure that they knew that they were donor conceived. And then to have to then say, ‘Yes, you're donor conceived but you can't actually contact this person until they're 18 and then we don't know whether they're going to want to know you anyway,’ we then decided that we would rule out anyone that didn't tick that extra box if that makes sense?
So I guess we thought that if someone had said, yes, they're okay at 18 but also they're okay earlier that then there's potential that this would be a person that we would have contact with, whether that was at Christmas or birthdays or whatever. So our criteria was, ‘Let's look at these donor things and go is that the one that we want to spend time with or not? Or is that someone that's going to maybe not fit in with our family?’
So it was hilarious to come and wait 12 months and then get one donor [laughter]. We were just like, ‘What? This is not like the movies!’ So anyway that one donor seemed fabulous and we were like, ‘Yep, let's just go with it.’ But it was such a different experience of what you kind of imagine. Flipping through files with photos and stuff [laughter] it was none of that. It was very, very - this tall, this, this, this, this, this.
No success with IUI, deciding to try IVF, and having to choose a new donor
So we ended up going through IUI with this particular donor. We were like, “Yep, this sounds good, let's just roll with it.” I did – I can't remember if it was two or three rounds of IUI with the donor – and I didn't get pregnant.
So then at that point the IVF specialist was like, “Okay so you've done this amount of IUI so now you can go to IVF.” So we were like, “Okay, yes, let's do this.” What happened then is that they then were like, “So now you have to have a new donor because the sperm that we use for IUI versus IVF is a different grade,” and we were like, “What?” They're like, “Well with IVF you can pretty much use sperm that's not as high a quality, but for IUI it has to have the particular amount of sperm count.”
So it meant that we had to go through the process of choosing another donor. It was really interesting because I think originally we had this real idealisation of this person that could potentially be in our life and this was going to be someone that could fit in with us if our child ends up deciding that they want to spend time with them.
So we then had to go back to the drawing board. We had a few more options at this point but still only probably three or something because the grade of the sperm for IVF was less than what was required for IUI. So we then were like, “Okay, yes, this is the one that we'll choose.” So each time we had decided on a sperm donor we then had to go through the process of paying more money, putting in a certain amount aside and kind of freezing a particular amount of sperm to us as a family
Deciding to stop fertility treatment and for partner to try instead
Then what happened is that I ended up going for a new job and I got a job that I was like, ‘This is an amazing career step,’ so then I said, ‘Well actually even though I started first’ – because I was eight years older than my partner and it made more sense for me to go first – I was like, ‘I need to hand the baton over.’ So we'd already paid for all this sperm twice with me and then I went, “Okay, now your turn,” and then we had to go through the process again around another donor for my partner to start IUI.
Partner’s experience with IUI, IVF, and choosing a new donor
So then she did a couple of rounds of IUI, also didn't get pregnant. Then we had to go through another sperm donor again so every time we changed donors it was pretty emotionally - it's a big choice emotionally I think. But every time we changed it became less and less so. Then by the end it was like, “Oh there's sperm. [laughter] Great. Just go with this person.” Whereas originally it had been this quite beautiful decision-making process. Also it became just like every time we changed it was like laying out another four or five grand to secure that sperm.
So [partner’s name] went through and did IUI with another donor. She didn't get pregnant. By this point it probably had taken us three years to get to this point I think and then they were like, “All right so you're not pregnant through IUI either. We can do IVF.” So then [partner’s name] went through an egg collection. When we did IVF had to choose another donor again so at this point it's four or five donors I reckon. She went through and did egg collection and got a number of embryos and viable embryos et cetera. She did two rounds of IVF and didn't get pregnant and then was at the point of, ‘I can't do this anymore. This is crazy.’ Because it's also just the impact of the hormones and the emotional drain on – I mean really we'd been three years trying to get pregnant at this point.
So she was like, ‘All right this is my last go and I'm done after this,’ and so we then went through the process to put two embryos in to [partner’s name].
Becoming the parents of twins and planning for further children
At the same point I then did another egg collection and then used the same sperm donor that we had for the IVF and egg collection with my partner which meant legally because of the IVF laws at that time we were actually considered as two different families. So we had to go through more money and two different egg collections, two different processes of using the sperm. So I believe it's six families, something that like, that can actually conceive with the same donor to limit the number of children - you obviously don't want a thousand kids with the same DNA. So it was, yes, just wild.
So I then went through an egg collection. I then ended up with a number of embryos as well but by the time that I did my egg collection I would have been probably 38. So the doctor was like, “If you're going to conceive one day as well we need to get your eggs out as soon as possible.” But then it was also this process of, ‘Well we've already gone through four or five sperm donors. I don't want to go through an egg collection and create embryos until we're able to get to a point that we are both able to create successful embryos with the same donor
So now we're at a point where my partner has successfully got embryos, conceived. We've got twins and then I've got embryos in the freezer with the same donor. But to get there has been crazy. Absolutely crazy.
Interviewer: Do you have any plans to try to use your embryos in the future?
Max: Yes. Absolutely. So once my partner got pregnant and they were looking like we'd be able to conceive that way, when I did the egg collection I then put my embryos - did the same thing. Did the egg collection, got the embryos. The idea was that we would then use mine. We ended up having twins which has been amazing and an incredible experience but also we've been pretty busy as you can imagine.
Find out more about Max’s experiences in the following short films:
Wanting to Become a Parent
Donor Conception and Surrogacy
Experiences of Becoming Parents: Queer Women and Gender Diverse People Presumed Female at Birth
Infertility, Fertility Treatment, and Work
Advice for Family and Friends of Someone Experiencing Infertility and Fertility Treatment