I recently started my journey into “maybe” motherhood with a gay man as my co-parent.
We currently have four embryos developing in a lab. These are teeny tiny bundles of cells, growing into what could one day be our baby. It’s exciting and terrifying. We're in a state of suspended animation, praying that one of these little things makes it to Petri dish graduation.
Of course, this journey isn’t just beginning. One year ago, I asked my friend if he wanted to try to have a baby with me, and in January I began my journey of being poked, prodded, and tested. During this process, my “advanced maternal age” has been mentioned many times, accompanying an intense pressure to start fertility treatment as soon as possible. I’ve also learned, along the way, that everything women are told about their fertility is completely sexist.
Before I plucked up the courage to ask my friend if he wanted to co-parent with me, I interviewed Jessica Bourke, an independent fertility consultant, about how the pandemic made getting pregnant extremely difficult for lots of people, including me. “The way we look at fertility is absolutely sexist,” she said. “You can grow an ear on a mouse and have 70-year-olds with bionic limbs, but we do not allow for advances in healthcare when we talk about women's fertility.”
The conversation about infertility often fails to mention that men’s fertility declines with age, with men being either the sole cause or a contributing cause to infertility in about 40 percent of infertile couples. Of course, the discourse surrounding infertility is much more focused on women. To paint a picture—there’s an infographic on the American Society of Reproductive Medicine’s website that disturbs me. It depicts an hourglass made to look like a baby’s bottle draining of milk, which is supposed to illustrate that a woman’s age decreases her ability to have children. On the website, it says that “infertility affects 6.1 million people in the United States” and that “your chances of getting pregnant each month declines with age.” But have these stats been blown out of proportion?
Last year, Dr. Shanna Swan’s book, Count Down, made headlines for chronicling the rising, troubling cases of human infertility. Dr. Swan revealed that sperm counts in Western countries have dropped by more than 50% since the 1970s. At the same time, men’s problems with conceiving are going up: erectile dysfunction is increasing, testosterone levels are declining, and penis size is shrinking. She cites modern lifestyle factors, ranging from the devastating quality of micro-plastics and other toxins in our environment to the consequences of men carrying their cell phones near their genitals (the legitimacy of which is very much still debated).
It’s worth noting that, according to several people I spoke to who are struggling to conceive, male infertility is certainly a recognized factor in their collective journeys. In one couple’s case, they’ve been trying to get pregnant for six years, and every possible test has been run on the female partner. Ultimately, the male partner got corrective surgery, but not before their (male) surgeon told him, “I don’t know why you are bothering to do this when your wife is so old.” She is 36.
After 35, women are known as “geriatric mothers” (never mind that I am fitter and healthier than I was in my twenties), a term that says everything about the gender gap when it comes to fertility. Other offensive terms include incompetent cervix (weak cervical tissue), spontaneous abortion (the loss of pregnancy naturally before twenty weeks), biological clock (the pressure women feel to get pregnant during peak productive years), barren woman (female infertility). We urgently need new terms that inspire and empower, rather than degrade, us. To be sure, steps are being made to course correct this. For example, Peanut, an app that provides a safe space for women to go through fertility, pregnancy, motherhood, and menopause, made a glossary in an attempt to rename these dated, and still widely used, fertility terms.
In the UK, where I live, women are entitled to three rounds of IVF on the National Health Service (NHS). Compared to the U.S., where there is no state-funded fertility treatment, this is incredible. But there are two conditions to this rule that effectively eliminate single women, co-parents, and lesbians from treatment: you have to have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years or had 12 failed cycles of artificial insemination. The latter condition would potentially cost upwards of £18,000 (more than a single round of IVF at a private clinic). There are also complicated laws in the UK, EU, and U.S. around using known donors, even if they will also be the co-parent, meaning the donor ultimately has no parental rights over the child.
“It’s a new area of law where lots of work still needs to be done and things are even more complicated in the States,” says Ivan Fatovic, founder and CEO at Modamily, a service that connects people who want to start a family, from single women to gay couples and co-parents. “The law changes from state to state. In some states, you have to be married for IVF treatment, and in others, gay couples can’t have children. There are fertility clinics in some, where if the donor sperm is not from your partner you have to quarantine it for six months. If I had big financial backing we’d set about challenging some of these laws, but for now, we tell people that in some situations it’s best to just pretend you are dating.”
Because the laws are murky, my friend and I have an extensive co-parenting document that outlines our intentions for the future. I’m thrilled that I get to bring a baby into the world in a new kind of family. In creating this document, we’ve had to talk about everything from how we want to parent to who will be in charge of childcare. But if one of our teeny tiny bundles of cells does graduate from its Petri dish, and eventually does become a baby, I have no idea how we’ll help it navigate the gendered world we live in. I guess I’ll have to bring that up in the document.