Rose and I are very often asked how I got pregnant, so this post is everything ‘you’ (n)ever tried to asked a harassed queer couple you don’t know while sharing a lift/bus stop/waiting room with them. Questions about conception is a really common thing queer families have to deal with, and it’s often surprising how intrusive strangers can be, or that people disbelieve us at times and tell us what we ‘must’ have done. o.O Conception is fairly misunderstood, it turns out! Mostly people are just curious but some can be very rude, and frankly most of us do get tired of having the same conversation every other day with complete strangers.
Recently Rose navigated the conversation with someone particularly persistent and in her face by asking them how they conceived their children and what sexual position they used for conception. 😉
So, TMI warning. There is explicit but not graphic terms and information in this post, and no images. For the short version, just read the headings.
We used Donor Sperm
Rose and I have plenty of eggs between us but no sperm, so we’ve used donor sperm. This is a lot more common than people generally think, for straight and queer couples and single women. A lot of the technology behind the use of donor sperm was originally developed in the field of livestock and animal breeding, where it is very common to ensure strong bloodlines and healthy genetics, or to preserve endangered species. There’s many reasons people use donor sperm such as male infertility, cancer treatments, high genetic risks, and ‘social’ infertility.
Donating sperm is a very minor process physically, compared to donating eggs or other body organs or tissues. It simply involves ejaculating into a cup. In some circumstances (paralysis, collection of sperm following a vasectomy, and so on) the process can be different or more complex. Sperm can be used fresh, or frozen for later use.
Sperm donation can have huge emotional implications however, as it involves bringing a new life into the world. Sperm donors are genetically the father of the child, but they are not the parent, and do not have any responsibility towards the child. Donors (usually) have no parental ‘rights’ or say over how the child is raised, and they do not go on the birth certificate as this lists the child’s parents, not their biological heritage (same as for male/female couples who use donated sperm or eggs). This is basically the same as donors of other tissues – we don’t get to decide what happens with blood we donate or how someone who receives a donated liver or cornea lives their life.
We chose a Known Donor
You have two broad options with a donor. An anonymous donor is usually one who has contacted a fertility clinic directly and made a donation. Anonymous donors will usually have no contact with the family who uses their sperm or with any children born, but they do get listed on a register that a child can look up once they turn 16. (rules around these registers vary from place to place, and some places such as SA don’t have one)
A known donor is someone in the families life who agrees to donate to help them out. Some families prefer a middle ground between known and anonymous donors – for example the parents might know the donor but all parties agree to keep their identity private when talking to people outside the family.
Rose and I chose a known donor because it is important to us to have our baby grow up knowing exactly what their genetic heritage is, who provided it, and how they came into the world.
For more about how we went about this, see
We used Artificial Insemination (AI)
This term covers any form of conception that doesn’t involve ‘natural insemination’ ie sexual intercourse. Generally speaking if conception is via intercourse, the donor is legally considered to be the father/parent with all the rights and responsibilities of that role. Many couples who don’t use donor sperm do try some form of AI to help them get pregnant. Reasons for this include physical scarring or problems with mucous preventing sperm reaching an egg, and immune system rejection of sperm. Pregnancies resulting from AI are no different to those that result from natural insemination.
There’s actually quite a range of methods of AI, some of which require trained medical professionals in a clinic, and others of which can be done by anyone at home. IVF (in vitro fertilisation) is the most commonly known, in which an egg is fertilised by a sperm outside the body. If all goes well over several days of development, the egg is then implanted into a uterus to grow, or frozen for later use. IVF is the most expensive method of AI, needing the most sophisticated equipment and highly trained staff.
Other common methods of AI include ITI (intratubal insemination), IUI (intrauterine insemination), ICI (intracervical insemination), and IVI (intravaginal insemination). Each of these methods simply refers to the location that sperm is deposited – in or near the fallopian tubes, the uterus, the cervix, or the vagina. Sometimes ICI and IVI are used to refer to the same process. They are the simplest methods of AI and can be done at home. ITI and IUI generally need a doctor and a clinic, however I have heard of nurses or midwives who know how to insert catheters and so on choosing to do IUI at home.
Rose and I chose IVI, commonly called ‘insems’, for several reasons that suited our family.
- We didn’t have to push back our timeline by 3-6 months to wait for a local clinic to freeze and thaw sperm samples. This is a sensible precaution against the possibility the sperm may be contaminated with HIV that hasn’t yet shown up on the donors blood test – in our case we were satisfied this was a very low risk with our donor and having already had to wait through tests and surgery we wanted to start trying as quickly as possible.
- It wasn’t medically necessary for us to use a more complex method to become pregnant. I conceived within 3 months with Tamlorn and 4 months with little frog. There was simply no need for the extra medical processes for us.
- We didn’t need to put ourselves through the hormone treatments to extract eggs, which can be gruelling and sometimes cause struggles with mental health.
- IVF and other forms of AI involving clinics are very expensive processes which places a huge extra burden on families at what can already be a very stressful time.
- Methods of AI that require a clinic mean that conception becomes at least partly a medical process involving doctors and sterile environments. We were very happy that we have been fortunate enough to become pregnant using a method that we can easily do privately, at home, with romance between the two of us.
There can be downsides to using AI at home however, particularly that in some regions this leaves people vulnerable to the donor being legally treated as a parent – so if you are exploring donor assisted conception I strongly recommend you reach out to families in your area and learn what your local laws are.
Obviously too, I’m not a medical professional and I’m using information that was available to me at the time. Some may be inaccurate or outdated, so please do ask questions of your own medical folks or read up yourself.
Cycle Tracking was Essential
Many people learn how to track their cycle to improve their chances of conception, particularly if they have been trying for awhile. It can be a real art form. Ideally, you introduce sperm (via intercourse or AI) between 2 days before and the day of ovulation. Sperm lives several days in the body and takes a while to find their way to the egg, while eggs die much more quickly: so you are more likely to conceive up to 2 days before or the day of ovulation than you are after ovulating. Tracking your cycle can be the most challenging part of this, because it often only tells you the day you do ovulate. You can introduce sperm more than once each cycle to boost your chances. If you are dealing with irregular cycles, a miscarriage, or fertility issues and it can be a very frustrating process.
In some ways I felt quite lucky that sex and conception can be split up for us, as the process of trying to conceive can be very stressful for straight couples who are scheduling sex around fertile times. It can start to feel quite mechanical or create performance anxiety and tension. We could do an insem and have sex then, or later that day, or just kiss and cuddle depending on how we felt at the time, which took the pressure off our sex life in a way I really appreciated.
There are many methods of predicting ovulation (tracking temp, mucous, blood tests, ovulation prediction kits (opk’s) and so on) some of which work better for some people than others. Tracking my cycle was quite easy the first time around using OPKs. However, following Tamlorn’s miscarriage, none of the methods worked well for me anymore and it wasn’t even certain I was ovulating at all given hormone levels were not rising sufficiently according to blood tests.
A further complication was that I wound up with a cycle that ranged from 23 to 39 days in length. To get pregnant I had to throw out all my earlier data and start fresh from the miscarriage. In my case this meant ignoring my apps and tracking by hand. When I did this I went back and discovered that the three cycles we had done so far had mostly completely missed ovulation, sometimes by up to a week. I then calculated not a fertile day but a likely fertile window – based on my shortest and the longest possible cycle. Because our donor was local and friendly, we were able to arrange for donations every few days within this window, which meant that through the whole window there would always be live sperm present, looking for the ripe egg. That cycle we conceived little frog.
This fertile window can be determined by figuring out the usual luteal phase of your cycle – how many days pass between ovulating and the period starting. It varies, for most folks its between 12 – 14 days. So once the period turns up, backtrack 12-14 days and see if there were any ovulation indicators. Cycles tend to vary in length much more between the period and ovulating than they do between ovulating and the next period. So once my period started, my fertile window was going to stretch from 16 days prior to my next period if my cycle was the shortest likely for me (23 days) to the 10 days prior to my next period if my cycle was the longest likely for me (39 days). That means for me, the fertile window was massive, between days 7 and 25. Here’s how I calculated that:
I Preferred the ‘Soft Cup’ Method
There’s a few different ways you can make IVI work. It’s a very simple method in that you merely need to get sperm into the vagina, using something other than a penis. Some people use a new turkey baster or similar device, others prefer a syringe (with no needle, obviously), some people like to use a speculum to get the sperm right onto the cervix. There’s no real evidence for a best way except that everything needs to be clean/sterile, and you want to get fresh sperm into the body as quickly as possible because while it can live for days in a body, it dies within an hour or so outside of one.
We started with sterile single use 6 ml syringes, but later changed to the soft cup method and vastly preferred that because it was less messy, less sperm was wasted (the cup can be left in place for the rest of the day), I could do it myself easily, and it was easier to do in challenging settings such as a bathroom if need be.
A soft cup refers to something like a menstrual cup. You tip the sperm into the cup, carefully ‘fold it’, insert it into the vagina and over the cervix, and stick your legs up against a wall/have sex/lie down for half an hour/watch a movie/whatever. This worked well for me because I already have and prefer to use a cup to manage my menstruation, so I am familiar with how they work with my body and experienced in putting one in, placing it correctly, and getting it out again. Menstruation cups are not comfortable or easy to use for everyone, and they do take some practice. I suspect it would be a very stressful technique to learn when getting it wrong means spilling precious sperm rather than a bit of menstrual blood! Checking to make sure it was fitting over the cervix was key for me. My cup was a Lunette, purchased through scarleteve.com.au
We’re both the ‘real Mum’
Our baby has a family with 2 Mothers, a big sister, and a lot of furry critters. There’s no Dad involved in the sense of being a parent. There’s also a whole tribe of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and so on, some of whom are related genetically and many of whom are not. (whether close friends, part of a family by marriage, foster families, and so on) People tend to privilege the experience and relationship of either the biological or gestational mother (in the case of egg donation this isn’t always the same person), but as step Mums and adoptive Mums know, their bond, their love, and their role is just as real and important, and sometimes more so.
Hopefully the SA legislation will be sorted out in time, and we will both be on the birth certificates as the parents of this little one, equally recognised as guardians and with equal responsibility for their welfare. ❤ Either way, we’re tremendously excited to meet our little one.
For more about our pregnancy, miscarriage, and conception journey, see Pregnancy Links.