Lesbian couples often ask me and my wife, Elenor, for advice on how to have a child.
And you might think you know how this works, but just in case, let’s have “the talk” — the one about the birds and the birds (the bees and their pollinators are only tangentially involved here).
So, listen up, because I’m going to tell you in detail what happens when two family-planning women love each other very much.
It starts when they slowly and deliberately shed their restrictive and preconceived notions about baby-making. It could include a round of golf (who doesn’t like “FORE!” play?). And it ends with a consensual act of deciding to use science to become parents.
Yeah, this isn’t about making love; it’s about making babies. And for two gal pals, that process isn’t necessarily sexy (although good on ya if you can make it).
From deciding the future child’s genetic contributors to assessing the costs and legalities, it leans into the logistical more than the romantic side of things. It’s complex and unfamiliar, and the body of resources, while growing (ha), is still relatively small.
So let’s add to it. Here’s the Gomberg three-part lay-gay’s guide to motherhood.
Part 1: The genetics
Which uterus? Whose sperm? What kind of process? So. Many. Choices! And each one feels like it could drastically change your life.
Thankfully, the question of which woman will carry the child can be made easier with the help of a doctor, because there are certain factors that boost the chance of success (age, menstrual cycle regularity, overall health, etc.). And likelihoods are important when money and hormones are involved.
Elenor and I, being roughly the same age (hush, El) and both in solid health, also considered things like our family medical histories and available paid leave.
In the end, our deciding factor was that I had an overwhelming desire to carry while she felt more of a curiosity with a side of trepidation.
OK. My uterus. Check.
Before we talk about the other half of the genetics, quick pro tip for the non-bio mama: You might also experience symptoms of the pregnancy (think of groups of ladies in close proximity whose menstrual cycles sync up).
There’s a phenomenon called couvade syndrome that refers to partners who experience sympathy pregnancy symptoms (such as back pain, gastrointestinal changes, weight gain and insomnia), but the only research I can find is focused on male partners (imagine that).
Since the literature on women’s experiences seemed scant, I checked in with our birth educator and midwife team who said they have all worked with women who experienced hormonal changes when their partners were pregnant (and confirmed more research should be done, because it’s obviously a thing).
During pregnancy, I’d feel a wave of symptoms like inexplicable calm or a desperate need for pickles (like, more than usual) and Elenor would follow suit within days. It was wild!
But back to biological contributors. It’s sperm time. And this is where it gets delightfully weird.
Medical professionals and attorneys alike, or least the ones I know, advocate for the use of anonymous donor sperm through a reputable cryobank.
I couldn’t remember the medical reasons why, so I reached out to Dr. Erica Johnstone, who helped with our insemination. It turns out that not all sperm is created equal, and some swimmers are more like Michael Phelps than others. It’s called motility and cryobanks test for it. They also examine the donors head-to-toe and test them for infectious diseases.
And aside from somehow staying viable while frozen, sperm is actually really sensitive (borderline high maintenance). It has to be collected, processed, stored, shipped, received, stored again, thawed and then squirted all within strict parameters, temperatures and processes.
It made sense for us to leave that to the professionals — especially since it’s not really on brand for us to be managing semen.
Not to mention that we still had to pick a random and unknown person’s life juice to help make our future child, so we needed to stay focused.
We started our search in the online donor library thinking we’d narrow them down by physical attributes. We wanted someone with blonde, curly hair and blue eyes like Elenor so maybe our kidlet could resemble both of us.
But then we listened to the short audio clips of those donors responding to impromptu questions, and suddenly hair and eye color didn’t seem that important. No thanks, bruh. Not you either, Whiner McGee.
We realized our priorities needed to shift. Appearances mattered less than authenticity, and their medical histories ended up reigning supreme.
When we found a healthy, smart, athletic, giving cat lover whose voice was warm and laugh was infectious, we knew we found our guy. Picking him was by far more cerebral than attraction is for heterosexual parents, but nevertheless, we persisted.
With a couple clicks, a credit card and a surprising number of contracts to virtually sign, our son, Harvey, and several million of his buddies were being shipped to Utah.
Part 2: The methods and the costs
Getting pregnant is, for some, all too easy, and for others, a bit more work. As lady lovers, we fall closer to the latter category. But let me say right off the bat, it is possible much of the time and it isn’t always exorbitantly expensive.
I don’t envy the person who had to put a monetary value on semen, but someone did, and now if you’re looking to buy a vial, it runs roughly $800-$900, plus shipping and handling, which cost us another $185.
One vial is used each attempt, and you can make one attempt each month during ovulation — the magical time between two periods when the egg is released from the ovary and starts its journey through the fallopian tube to its uterine destination.
When I explained that physiological process to Elenor before I got inseminated, I had her hold her arms out and make two fists. I said those were a set of ovaries. My open hands, fingers waving like the fimbriae on the ends of a woman’s fallopian tubes, nearly met her closed fists.
I told her that when an egg is released from an ovary each month, the fimbriae catch it and help it move into the fallopian tube, where it can meet up for a blind date with some spermies and possibly become an item.
I used my non-active hand to show how the egg would travel through my pretend fallopian tube (pointing from my wrist up to my bicep), and stopped when she looked astonished.
I was like, “I know. What a cool process, right?”
And she was like, “I had no idea our eggs traveled through our arms.”
We moved to an online tutorial.
Now, there are a couple of different ways to usher the baby batter into the oven, and get this: None of the most commonly employed methods actually use turkey basters.
Johnstone’s recommendation is to use what’s referred to as “washed” sperm (it’s been processed and shed of its unnecessary components) that can then be introduced beyond the vagina and cervix all the way into the uterus.
This sperm and insertion method are a bit more expensive, she says, but the odds for success are good. It’s called intrauterine insemination or IUI, and its counterpart (called intracervical insemination or ICI), uses unwashed sperm that is deposited into the vagina, giving the swimmers a longer journey and thus lessening the chance of that magical union. I’m not great at long swims either; I get it.
Even IUI usually takes several attempts (anywhere from two to six tries is normal), so some fertility clinics, like the one we used, offer access to a psychologist to help with the emotional rollercoaster.
Elenor and I got miraculously lucky and I was knocked up on the first go-around.
For some women, more intense processes are necessary, and that’s when things get pricey (although, not as much as surrogacy, so there’s that silver lining). The next arrow in the quiver of baby-making is in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Through the IVF process, a woman is injected with meds for a week or two that increase her hormones up to 10 times the normal level so she produces multiple eggs in the same month. From what I’ve heard, that process is as uncomfortable as it sounds.
The eggs are fertilized after they are retrieved during a medical procedure where the woman is sedated (requiring several important medical professionals). Any that grow into embryos over the course of a couple days are usable. One (sometimes two) will be transferred back into their nine-month temporary housing unit (AKA, mom).
What’s cool is that at this point, the fertilized egg could be implanted in either mama. Shared motherhood is when the fertilized egg from one woman is then implanted in the other woman.
Between the medicines, incubators, evaluations and procedures, the cost of IVF ranges from about $12,000 to $15,000, Johnstone said, and only about 10% to 20% of people’s insurance will help cover it. But you get what you pay for, because the odds of success with IVF are significantly higher than IUI. Plus, she mentioned that there are IVF-specific loans that hopeful parents in these instances can apply for.
Part 3: The legalities
Thanks to the passage of same-sex marriage in 2015, the legalities around hers and hers parenting is simpler, easier, cheaper and safer.
Dani Hawkes, a divorce and custody attorney who is also a lesbian mama and my friend, gave me the legal scoop. She said there’s pre-pregnancy and post-pregnancy to think about, and both conversations center around custody.
The pre-pregnancy piece is the one I alluded to in Part 1, which focuses on ensuring that the sperm donor doesn’t have any legal right to the child, hence the anonymous donor.
Hawkes has worked tough cases that involve a known donor deciding after the birth that he’d actually like to be one of the parents. Things got messy. And sad.
She says women who use legit cryobanks avoid that unfortunate potential because of the legal protections in place that serve both the donor and the buyer(s). If this sounds oddly transactional, it’s because it is.
This is the route Elenor and I chose. Despite having access to really fabulous and free genes, we figured that parenthood is complex enough without adding the dynamic of a donor who might end up wanting custody at some point.
We watched the TV show “Queer as Folk.” We’ve seen the cautionary tales.
Hawkes recommends having as much anonymity as is possible to strengthen that separation. Although, she acknowledged that in this age of DNA testing and the internet, that isn’t a promise that can always be kept.
Some cryobanks, I noticed, are now only taking donations from donors who are willing to have their identity shared if their offspring requests it when they’re 18. The banks will do their best to honor the anonymity requests of what they call non-ID donors who shared of themselves prior to this change, but are shifting things going forward.
Elenor and I had to sign our life away that we wouldn’t try to figure out the identity of our donor, but Harvey can seek that information from the cryobank if he wants, when he comes of age. And, quite frankly, we’re kind of curious.
That’s not how we always felt. El was actually a little reticent about any connection with our donor before we got to meet and bond with our little man. She was worried about her legitimacy as a parent (which was partly why we decided she would be “Mama” and I’d be “Mimi”). But that fear started fading the first time she held him in her arms, and her sense of ease has strengthened as their bond deepens.
The second legality to keep in mind is adoption. Hawkes had recommended it to us after Harvey was born, but since we were both on the birth certificate, I couldn’t figure out why. We ended up dragging our feet on that then, but are rectifying it now.
On our call the other day, Hawkes explained why it is valuable. It all comes down to the strength of the legal documents that define the non-bio mom’s relationship to the kidlet, and birth certificates are not as strong as court decrees, which you get with a legal second-parent adoption.
But when would it matter? Well, some places in and out of the country wouldn’t have to honor a birth certificate and could, say, deny access to a non-bio mom in a hospital. While those situations might not arise often, no parent ever wants their relationship with their child called into question. My neck hairs raise even thinking about it.
Uncontested adoptions can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 with the filing fees, but Hawkes says it’s possible to do without an attorney (“fairly simple,” even). And for those who want an attorney but can’t pay, she directs them to the University of Utah’s Rainbow Law Clinic (which she and some other powerful lady attorneys, Lauren Barros and Candice Pitcher, started when Hawkes was studying law at the U. to support folks with lower incomes).
All of this is to say: Protected motherhood is within reach!
So, while this process might not always be as pleasurable as heterosexual baby-making can be (I hear), the climax of having a child is exactly the same.
Happy gaybe-making, ladies.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at email@example.com.