A same-sex couple's quest for a child
Tamara and Joanna thought they'd already be in Albuquerque, fixing up the home they own, nesting with a newborn. Instead, their attempts to have a baby drained away tens of thousands of dollars. "Here we are, $40,000 or so down the line, and nothing to show for it," Tamara says. "That's hard."
Joanna grew up in New Mexico, but she took a job in the Bay Area 15 years ago. Her mother still lives here. "Albuquerque's my home. It always has been. That just feels like the truth to me."
The plan was to leave a fast-paced life and full-time careers in California to slow things down and raise a family back home. "I've always wanted to be a mom," says Joanna. "It never occurred to me that I'd be at this stage in my life and still not have children. It's not that time got away from me, but it was never the right time."
It was finally the right time in June 2008. "Typically, what happens for two women is you can go the turkey baster route," she says. "We thought, OK, this should be easy. All we need to do is acquire sperm."
Joanna, who intends to carry the child, charted her cycle. The couple went to the sperm bank for insemination for six months. Sperm goes for between $450 and $500 a vial, and with doctor visits, they estimate they were spending about $1,500 each month.
Normally, couples try artificial insemination for about a year. But around the fourth or fifth month, the nurse told them they were running low on time. Joanna is 41. Tamara is about to turn 50. So they made the leap to in vitro fertilization.
“The heartache that I've witnessed and heard about and experienced myself—it's mind-blowing, quite honestly, the number of people who try and just have to quit trying because they just financially can't afford it.”
Joanna self-administered fertility drugs by injecting them into her abdomen. She also took daily doses of hormones. A woman typically releases one egg per month. The regimen meant Joanna would release many eggs at once. "You read about Octomom or people who have multiple births," Joanna says. But having many kids was not the goal. So instead, the Pacific Fertility Center, a world-renowned clinic in San Francisco, harvested about 20 eggs. The two most viable eggs were chosen and inseminated in a petri dish. This process usually costs between $12,000 and $18,000.
Because insurance doesn’t cover in vitro fertilization, almost everyone who uses it pays cash. "Most of the people that have done IVF, and most of the people that I met when I would go into the fertility center, are straight couples. The heartache that I've witnessed and heard about and experienced myself—it's mind-blowing, quite honestly, the number of people who try and just have to quit trying because they just financially can't afford it."
The money's one thing. But after Joanna got pregnant and miscarried in January, emotional stress kicked in, too. "I've known other women who've done IVF, and I never thought I would do it. I was sort of blown away. I've always known I was going to be a mom, and it never occurred to me it was going to be this kind of challenge."
She tried again, spent another 20 grand on IVF and doctor visits, with no results. Joanna says her doctor looked her in the eye and told her they’d gone through 40 of her eggs, and 20 more might not make a difference. Though she’s able to get pregnant, her eggs may no longer be viable at her age.
“I can't see us having a life without a child. I just can't see it. We're just going to keep going until we get it.”
Eggs can stay frozen for years. And when couples are finished creating their families, they often keep inseminated eggs on ice. "A lot have nicknames for them," Joanna says. "A friend of mine calls them totcicles." But as the medical journal Fertility and Sterility reports, more people are choosing to stop paying for frozen embryo storage during the economic decline. There are three options for the unwanted embryos: 1) Throw them away; 2) Donate them to science; and 3) Donate them to people who can't produce quality eggs themselves.
There are embryo donation organizations, but almost all of them are religious in nature, Joanna says, and for obvious reasons, they're not interested in talking to two moms. "They're for people who feel like that's already a being and don't want to dispose of it. But they want to know where it's going, and they treat them like adoptions. They do home visits."
So why not just adopt? It's not an inexpensive process, says Joanna, and they face obstacles as a same-sex couple. "In California, we have an easier time of it than a lot of places in the country. But it's also a challenge for two moms to adopt as opposed to a straight, white, mid-20s couple that can't have kids. And," she pauses, "I want to be pregnant. I want to carry a child. I want to have that experience." Some studies say regardless of where an egg comes from, the woman who carries the baby has some genetic influence over the baby. "There are pieces of that that are appealing to me. It's a bond and a connection."
When she was younger, Joanna remembers considering donating eggs because she knew women who couldn't get pregnant. "I thought, What a horrible longing. It never occurred to me that I would be one of them." Her voice breaks. The shrieks of children can be heard in the Whole Foods eating area where she and Tamara are sitting during the phone interview.
They feel a little exposed giving an interview about their personal life, say Tamara and Joanna, and that’s why they’ve declined to have their last names printed. But they both believe the trials of IVF and the importance of embryo donation should be brought to light. "My hope is that it's not such a secret," Joanna says.
Joanna’s doctor said it would be OK for her to get pregnant until she's 45. "When I was 25, my eggs would have been fabulous. And my body clearly has the ability to get pregnant, because I do. But my eggs are just a little too old at this point. I can't afford the luxury of hanging out for a few more years. A body can carry a pregnancy for much longer than the eggs are any good."
The couple says they know they’ll have a family, one way or another. "I can't see us having a life without a child,” Tamara says. “I just can't see it. We're just going to keep going until we get it."
A friend told Joanna that motherhood brings you to your knees. "It takes you to places you never thought you'd go. I'm on my knees,” Joanna says. “I don't know what my path to our child is. I don't know, and I'm willing to go. I can't even see my comfort zone from here; I'm so far out. If I'm already taking on motherhood, and this is what it is, and this is a place of vulnerability that I have to live in, then so be it."