On Deciding to Use a Sperm Donor


Blame it on certain childhood traumas, but one of my biggest fears has always been that at some point there will be something in Michael’s and my relationship that is so devastatingly insurmountable we can’t overcome it. And while it’s not an impossibility, today’s post from Claire and Charlie is an important reminder to me of our resilience as humans, and the power that marriage can have in keeping us together even when we’re falling apart.

—Maddie 

On Deciding to Use a Sperm Donor | A Practical Wedding

When we got married, Charlie and I solemnly vowed to care for each other in sickness and health, in good times and bad. I had faith that we would someday face such vague adversity hand in hand, with grace and fierce protection for each other. Or, failing that, at least make a reasonable attempt to circle the wagons.

This is the story of how that plan went to utter crap, and what I learned about my marriage in the process.

A few years into our happy union we decided it was time to add a kid to the mix, fully expecting it to happen the first time we had unprotected sex (my family tree reads like the who’s who of Teen Mom). But months of negative pregnancy tests piled up and stress levels rose. The eventual fertility tests came back with a clear diagnosis: zero sperm. Our specialists offered us a small hope that with the right combination of cash, technology, and luck, we’d still be able to have a half-Charlie/half-me child. But we knew that our dreams of building a family the simple way were over. Overwhelmed with heartache and grief, we slowly moved forward with infertility treatments.

Contrary to what I had hoped on our wedding day, Charlie and I did not thrive in the face of this ordeal. Instead—to my great shame—infertility brought out the absolute worst in us. I was demanding, frustrated, and embarrassingly impatient as we moved through the invasive tests, the surgery, the never-ending rounds of bad news from doctors who could offer us no guarantees. Charlie was withdrawn, depressed, and angry, and he seemed to look for anything at all to attribute his dark emotions to besides his diagnosis: nothing was too insignificant to pick a fight about.

Circle the wagons? Hardly. Our wagons careened in separate directions into the wilderness. Where the weasels live.

Infertility is a frightening road, traveled one crossroads at a time. Will the next test result give us hope? Could this attempt be The One? Do we have enough resources (emotional, physical, financial) to continue? For how long? Each decision needed to be navigated together, yet we each brought to the table our own fears, insecurities, coping mechanisms, and communication styles. Unable to see eye to eye on many of the decisions, it is not difficult to understand how infertility brought two otherwise loving people to a very dark place.

For many months, things continued to fall apart. One night after a particularly bleak fight, I sobbed into Charlie’s chest and voiced my deepest dread out loud: “I’m scared that we’re not going to make it.” Charlie simply hugged me closer. It was then that I experienced a moment of absolute clarity in my heart: the simple realization that even as we faltered as individuals, our marriage itself was a dedicated caretaker, holding us both in its able hands, steadfast and permanent. Of all the gut-wrenching decisions we had to make during that time, there was one decision that never crossed our minds—whether to walk out the door. And while the lack of an opt-out clause in marriage is not a permission slip to treat one’s partner carelessly, it was a great comfort to realize that our commitment was strong even when we as individuals could not be.

With time (and more time), we ultimately chose to pursue the use of donor sperm. Doing so put the confusion, uncertainty, and sense of brokenness behind us, and it is not an overstatement to say that our relationship did an overnight 180°. One night, with the help of couple of generous glasses of red wine and an equally generous sense of humor, we poured over donor profiles and easily agreed on one. Finally ready to move on, we had our happy marriage back, and it felt wonderful.

Our recovery during that time did not, of course, mean that all of our pain had ended. Lying on the table in the doctor’s office, the donor insemination itself hurt like hell (emotionally) for both of us. But we got through it hand in hand, with grace and fierce protection for each other. Just the way I had always hoped we would.

It is beyond incredible to me that the person typing this is now eight weeks pregnant, and my gratitude for that fact is matched only by my gratitude for the marriage that enabled this new life to come about. The misery of infertile purgatory is still fresh, but so is its silver lining: the hard-won knowledge that our marriage is big enough to withstand our imperfections, our fears, our mistakes, our pain. We now face the future—its good times and its bad—with love for each other, hope for our tiny growing child, and faith that our strong marriage will continue to run beneath all we will experience together in life.

Photo by Gabriel Harber Photography (APW Sponsor)

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  • Hillori

    …”our marriage itself was a dedicated caretaker, holding us both in its able hands, steadfast and permanent. ”

    Thank you. I needed this today. Our challenge is making a marriage work with 7,000 miles and some Heffalumps and Woozles, in between. Some weeks are harder than others.

    • http://whataboutsara.com Sara

      This is the statement that stood out to me, too.

      Bravo to you, Claire – a wonderful and brave post. Best wishes to you and Charlie and your little one!

    • K down under

      Heffalumps and Woozles… :)

  • http://Weehermione.blogspot.com Hayley

    Oh, sure, go make me cry while eating breakfast. I’m so glad for you and your marriage. Infertile purgatory is slow hell. (And fuck those weasels.).

    It’s so easy to think of “in sickness” as some “someday” sort of thing, but when it knocks on the door sooner than expected, AND the route to “fixing” it is hazy and taboo and HARD……been there (still there), and oh it is hard. But having a marriage that you can lean on is just so GOOD and solid and it brings me a tiny bit of peace when I’m sobbing and my husband says, hey, if we never have kids, I have you and us, and that is enough. Hard. But it is good to feel like “enough”.

    <3

  • Martha

    My heartfelt congratulations on building a family with a wonderful man :-) Thanks for sharing this honest, difficult, but still hopeful story!

  • Stalking Sarah

    As my wife and I begin the process of thinking about kids, knowing that as two women we automatically have zero sperm, I am very grateful for this post.

    • http://thedilettantista.com/ The Dilettantista

      I have friends in your situation, their baby (gayby?) is coming at the end of May! They pulled out their top four potential donors at a 4th of July party last year and we all sat around drinking wine and commenting on them, like we were looking at dating profiles or something. It was great, and so much fun.

      I also want to note here–donor sperm had not worked, my manfriend was plan B. So don’t be afraid to ask your friends–most will be touched, even if they do say no for whatever reason. There are a lot of legal steps you have to take but I know many people feel that it is worth it to have a friendship with the biological parent. Our friends hesitated on asking us because they were afraid I’d be offended (I actually thought they weren’t asking the manfriend because he’s shorter and they wanted tall baby genes–the biological mother does not have tall genes), but we were very touched when we finally had that conversation. They had already ordered the donor sperm by the time they spoke with us, and the donor sperm worked early on, so it all worked out; we’re all very excited about the new addition!

  • http://misshappnstance.wordpress.com Miss Happ

    Between “wily ducks” and “where the weasels live”, this is why I love this site. Thank you for sharing your story – weakness and strength coexist tumultuously, yes? Just as needing to care for, and needing to be cared for run their own tug of war. Congratulations, and good luck.

  • Leslie

    It’s amazing how many posts I see on this site have titles that make me think I won’t be able to relate to them at all. Then I read the post and feel like it is speaking directly to my heart.

    • Hannah

      This pretty much sums it up.

  • http://landlockedlove.blogspot.com Kelly

    Crying, crying, crying.

  • Granola

    This post was really touching – thank you for sharing. We’re starting to talk about adding kids to the mix of our marriage and in the back of my mind there’s this fear of “what if we can’t, or have to deal with infertility?” Of course there’s no way to be prepared for that eventuality even if it comes up, but it’s nice to hear the story from someone who is going through it, with a so-far-happy ending.

  • LZ

    Thank you so much for such a powerful post today —- I’m usually not a crier, and there were definitely tears in the eyes — Thinking about the, “Someday we’ll have to face really hard things, and how will we handle them” eventuality.

    Even if things weren’t graceful while you guys were going through the hard parts, it’s wonderful to hear the, “Never was there a thought of walking out the door” sentiment, and know that can be true, even during the REALLY HARD times!

    Thank you so much for sharing!

  • http://unexpected-moments.blogspot.com/ Sheryl

    All my own experiences, as well as almost everything I’ve ever read, deals with difficulty from the female side of the fertility picture and suggests how much easier it must be if the problem is with the sperm. It’s really refreshing to hear from the other end of the spectrum and realize it’s not a cakewalk either.

    • Claire

      Sheryl, so true. One of the toughest parts about male-factor infertility is that it is NOT talked about, so it can be difficult to find resources, support, or simply commiseration on the topic.

      There’s so much societal pressure for men to be seen as virile — in some ways it’s the very definition of masculinity — and male fertility is SO intertwined with sexuality in society. The shame involved with this made my husband extremely adverse to seeking support and, because of his desire to keep this detail of our lives private, I couldn’t really rely on my normal support system either.

      Also, it used to be that a lack of sperm had more clear-cut solutions than female fertility, which could make male fertility “easier” in some ways — the choices were either use a sperm donor, adopt, or live child free. However, recent medical advances have made it so that there are things that can be done in some cases to retrieve a few sperm using invasive surgery, as was attempted here, but it doesn’t always work. So the male fertility road has become a lot more complicated in the last 10-15 years than it used to be.

      I definitely don’t want to make it a “which sucks worse olympics” between female vs. male infertility — they’re both absolutely impossible, unfair, dark situations to navigate. But male factor infertility definitely needs more exposure and discussion to reduce the deeply felt feelings of shame and isolation faced by couples going through this.

      • Anon Today

        I appreciated reading this post and the comments by Claire & Sheryl. All the infertility and TTC literature focuses on what we women need to do with our bodies and seems to be written as if fertility issues lie with the woman, not the man.

        My DH and I are approaching the 10 month mark of trying-to-conceive, and even though I’ve been completely regular with my periods the entire time, we aren’t pregnant yet. At my recent annual GYN appointment and annual physical, my doctors ran a variety of blood and other tests and said I’m fine. So chances are, the reason we’re not pregnant lies with my husband – possibly a medication he takes, but we don’t know yet and will likely start down the road of fertility testing in the next couple of months.

        In all honesty, I hope the problem is me. I’ve had endocrine issues for many years, and while my doctors (even my endocrinologist) all say that everything is fine and nothing that they can see is keeping me from getting pregnant, I’ve known for a number of years that pregnancy could be difficult for me and I’ve been okay with and open to other options, like adoption, since I was in my mid-20s. My husband is on anti-depressants (which he thinks might be the problem, but isn’t sure) and while he isn’t depressed now, I worry that if his biology is the reason we aren’t pregnant, he’ll blame himself and become depressed again, which would hurt me more than than not being pregnant hurts. We talk about it some, but I think there is a bit of an unspoken fear by both of us that it is him, and that just seems like a really grey, bleak path ahead right now. I just hope that if we do have to go down that path, that we keep talking and supporting each other and our marriage (and that people stop telling us to “relax” or “it will happen when you stop trying”).

      • http://www.thequestionnowbecomes.blogspot.com alloallo

        This is such a hard thing to deal with. I’ve found that whenever I’ve mentioned something about infertility (it comes up often when you’re pregnant with twins!) people assume that the ‘problem’ was mine… Something that we’ve really thought a lot about since getting involved in donor conception circles is working on the idea that your sperm count does not define you as a man, in the same way that your eggs don’t define you as a woman… but it’s easy for me to say.

        But gosh are people ever insensitive, my good friend just wrote me to tell me she was pregnant (it happened really quickly) and jokingly said ‘oh my husband is so proud of himself’ – obviously not at all thinking about how that would affect me as someone pregnant via donor insemination… One thing I can say is that once we’ve gotten pregnant (particularly the more pregnant we’ve been) the less it’s felt important. I’ve talked to a lot of people further down the road from us who say that once your kids are here it’s not like it ceases to matter, but it certainly ceases to be the main thing you think about.

        • http://Weehermione.blogspot.com Hayley

          Yes! After an initial low sperm count, my husband and I were still treated as though the problem was absolutely duh my body as the woman when we mentioned our struggles to anyone. It’s as though years of history placing the blame on the woman no matter what have not really subsided…we just cloak the idea better. Infertility websites seem to approach the topic with female factor as the default. Advice given is female factor default in person. This may be because readership slants female, but it is still aggravating to have so little recognition. (Husband had another analysis which came back more average, so now we are in the Unexplained pool, which is annoying as well for similar reasons. unexplained means people default to me being the problem. It’s sucky to deal with a disease which uniquely involves two people (and isn’t an STD). Everyone has advice but somehow one party gets the blame and advice, regardless of the truth of the situation.

  • Anon

    Sobfest, party of one, at my desk near the window in a corner office of the library.

    Thank you for being brave and sharing this story. WOW. Incredibly moving and touching.

    This really brought me back to the vows I took…for better, for worse; in sickness and in health; if we are rich or dead broke…I will love you unconditionally for the rest of my life, until I take my very last breath.

    God bless you and your family; I wish you many blessings and much health and happiness!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00388929873803169413 Kristen

    Thank you for such a touching post! I’ve found that at APW I get to learn about what marriage should and can be, unlike what I grew up observing. It has served me so well and I couldn’t be more grateful! Thanks to awesome ladies like yourself for sharing the tough stories and how you got through them – it makes forever seem so much more manageable and less scary when I can learn from how others did it and realize there are so many different options on how to have a happy marriage and a happy life.

  • http://poppiesandicecream.blogspot.nl/ Amanda

    I am so happy for you. I have been there (well we are still on the dark woods with the weasels). I always remember Verhext’s words: “You can’t be magic if there are no monsters”.
    So we are fighting the monsters.
    And getting stronger at it, and loving each other. And counting our blessings. And hoping. Because it’s all we have.
    Hugs to you.

  • marbella

    Beautiful, thank you so much. The best of luck with your new addition to a wonderful family!

  • Ash

    My heart sank to my gut the second I read the title of this post, because I knew I was in for tears resulting from dredging up emotions I try to put aside. But I read anyway, and I’m so glad I did.

    Your story reads nearly exactly like mine. We tried for a year, began the testing, and found my husband has zero sperm. Like, not even two little rogue cells. Absolutely. Zero. We got the news right around the holidays and had what was the shittiest Christmas either of us have ever lived through. I remember saying through tears to my husband of just over one blissful year at that time, “Maybe this is our first ‘for worse’ time.” We were both depressed and on edge, and he was angry much of the time. He was blaming himself for not being able to give me this one big thing we both wanted so bad. Our marriage, and the 8 years of relationship we’d built prior to it, was (and still is) absolutely our caretaker, as you described.

    Although we’re still trying a few of the simpler steps towards a half-me/half-him baby (a few more semen analyses, just to be sure, lifestyle modifications, testosterone pills), limited resources and time (he’s 43) have excluded us from the fancy pants technology that could (very big emphasis on COULD) result in a baby that’s biologically both of ours. We’re not optimistic that any of the aforementioned methods will work and have for the most part settled on using donor sperm. We had a surprisingly easy time coming to that decision. He already has a bio child and wants me to experience the same. Although the pain and feelings of loss haven’t completely subsided, it feels so much better for both of us to have agreed on an option and plan for it. We hope to begin the process early next year.

    I’m SO HAPPY to read of your pregnancy. Congratulations! Often times you just hear about the doom and gloom of infertility, and your happy ending gives me hope. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • http://www.xwebseries.com Cali

    “Circle the wagons? Hardly. Our wagons careened in separate directions into the wilderness. Where the weasels live.”

    Possibly the best description of marital conflict that I’ve ever heard. It made me laugh out loud right in the middle of being all emotionally caught up in your story.

    My husband and I are still a year or two off from trying for babies, and we both have expressed a bizarre sense that, because our friends have all gotten pregnant without incident thus far, it’s somehow bound to more difficult for us because… y’know… ratios. It’s not a logical thought, but still. We’ve already discussed our contingency plans if it turns out we’re infertile, so we know what our course of action will be… but who knows how we’ll actual react once we’re in that situation and emotions and hormones are in play. Also, it’s entirely possible that we’ll get pregnant on the first try and our contingency plan will be moot. Who knows!

    I love reading articles like this, though, because I too have dark moments where I worry that our marriage might hit something that we just can’t overcome… and this is a great reminder that, even when we wind up in the weasel-infested wilderness, we can eventually find each other again in the darkness and make our way back out.

  • Lydia

    This is so wonderfully written. My husband and I are battling infertility mightily right now and this line reduced me to a puddle of tears: “…it was a great comfort to realize that our commitment was strong even when we as individuals could not be.”

    We will make it, together. Thanks for writing this.

  • Meaghan

    Posts like this are why 2+ years after getting married, I’m still reading this site daily. DH and I are in the trenches of infertility and this post was what I needed. Thank you for the honest piece. Congratulations and I hope you have an easy 9 months!

  • http://koruwedding.blogspot.com Koru Kate {Koru Wedding}

    I am so thankful your story has the happy ending of a pregnancy! It gave me so much hope. My husband & I have been in the thick of infertility craziness for awhile. Many heartbreaks & one surgery later, things are looking better. This is not an easy path & kudos to you & your husband for the grace & courage to survive. Best wishes with your pregnancy~

  • http://www.thequestionnowbecomes.blogspot.com alloallo

    This is a lovely post Claire, and one that I identify with in so many ways. I was actually slightly thinking about submitting something similar but under the heading of ‘the good’ for next month – because our huge long crazy process in getting to the place where we too were able to move forward with donor insemination has been in some ways the most ultimately solidifying thing I could ever have (not) anticipated in my marriage. Our situation is slightly different in that we knew of my husband’s diagnosis before we got married, but in many ways the process of figuring out what to do was no less painful for that.

    Like you I type this while pregnant – in my case 26 weeks with twins after a third donor IUI was successful. I also think all credit to my husband who maintains an unbelievable connection to the pregnancy and to our future kids despite the heartbreak of how it had to be to get here. I don’t know if it’s weird to say but if you ever want to compare notes do say hello! I think there’s a link to my blog on my name above… it’s a particularly special situation that we’re both in and I know I’ve really benefitted from talking to others in the same ‘boat’ (or, you know, wagon…). Huge good luck to you guys, and to anyone else on here dealing with similar issues.

    • Claire

      Congratulations on your pregnancy!

      I loved your line, “…all credit to my husband who maintains an unbelievable connection to the pregnancy and to our future kids despite the heartbreak of how it had to be to get here.” SO true. It sounds like you have a lot of “The Good” to write about — I would love to read your submission on APW someday!

      I bookmarked your blog and look forward to reading it! Best wishes for a healthy, easy rest of your pregnancy.

  • http://www.missgiggles.com/blog Giggles

    Congratulations!!

    I love this part, “our commitment was strong even when we as individuals could not be.”

    Infertility sucks. It brings out all kinds of weaknesses. There is no way we could’ve gotten through it without each other.

  • Class of 1980

    I am struck by how hard this was for you both. Hold onto to each other because it sure sounds like you have something worth holding on to.

  • Kel

    I loved your post and I stopped in to offer a slightly different perspective.

    I’m the product of a sperm donor. I don’t know who the donor is or anything about him. Furthermore, this was back before couples were really allowed to choose who the donor was. My parents just marked a list of traits they would prefer and the doctors did the rest. Even if I decided to search for more information, I’m not certain it would even be available to me.

    My mom always joked that I was a test tube baby, and when I was 16, she informed me that it wasn’t really a joke. (That’s just how she delivers news and important information…gotta love her.) For a while, it bothered me. My heritage and my dad’s side of the family had always been incredibly important to me. Suddenly, I lost that connection to them. I lost a piece of myself.

    But those wounds healed. It took years and a lot of quiet contemplation, but I forged a new identity. There are even times when I’ll talk about inheriting my father’s taste in music, my grandfather’s strong Irish blood, and my grandmother’s inability to cook.

    And it’s true. I did inherit traits from these people, blood ties or not. There was never a doubt in my mind who my “real” family is.

    Congratulations to both of you on your marriage and your pregnancy!

    • Maddie

      I love this so much.

    • http://www.thequestionnowbecomes.blogspot.com alloallo

      This is really lovely Kel! thanks for sharing…

    • Claire

      Wow, thank you so much for sharing this perspective, Kel.

      It must have been such a shock to find out this info at age 16, at a time when most people are just starting to sort out their identities. I imagine it was quite a whirlwind for you, and you must be a very resilient person to have come out on the other side with such a healthy identity in tact.

      Before our clinic allowed us to use a donor, we were required to attend counseling with a therapist who specializes in this issue. She taught us the current “best practices,” which include 1) telling our child the truth about his/her origins VERY early (i.e., before they can really even understand it, and then repeatedly retelling as they get older and are able to absorb more) so that they are never going to be surprised with the news someday; and 2) choosing an open identity donor, so that when our child turns 18, he/she will have a choice about whether to contact the donor (and we have a lot of info on file for them to access, as well, such as a photo and a handwritten essay). I am SO grateful to be doing this at a time when progressive/open practices are in place — which hasn’t been the case for very long, as your story illustrates.

      The path of openness is a scary one though, and I completely empathize with anyone who chooses this path and has a hard time telling their child. We do worry about whether our child will reject us when he/she turns 18 and can go look for their “real” dad. So your comment about always knowing who your “real” family was is very comforting to me.

      Thanks again for sharing your story!

    • Hannah

      Beautiful.

  • E

    Thanks for this post. The “are we going to make it” part made me cry at work.
    Since my husband and I got together, we’ve faced some challenges, but nothing huge and I often wonder about/hope that we can make it through the really hard stuff too.

  • http://fallopiangroove.blogspot.com/ sarah

    Claire, thank you so much for posting this and for writing so beautifully about such a harrowing time. We’ve been struggling with infertility for over a year now – hypothalamic pituitary dysfunction (I can’t ovulate on my own – I shudder to consider all the money I spent on unnecessary birth control, ha) – and I’ve been blogging about it (fallopiangroove.blogspot.com) to try to poke some holes in the shroud of isolation that is infertility. Of course, as you point out, it’s male factor that is even more in the shadows and I”m so glad you had the courage to bring it into the light. Congratulations on your pregnancy!

  • Sarah F.

    “Of all the gut-wrenching decisions we had to make during that time, there was one decision that never crossed our minds—whether to walk out the door. And while the lack of an opt-out clause in marriage is not a permission slip to treat one’s partner carelessly, it was a great comfort to realize that our commitment was strong even when we as individuals could not be.”

    This is so true. Thank you for the reminder.

  • charmaine

    It’s nice to hear these stories . My situation is the same after our marriage
    we decide to try for a baby but after a year all the tests where neg.
    I did all the tests and everything was good with me until my husband
    tests his semen and we had the shock of our lives he has zero sperm.
    Now 5years passed but we are still very depressed especially my husband
    we are going through to decide if we go to a sperm bank.
    I have a lot of questions about this issue that’s why I liked these stories.
    In my country I had never meat someone that used a donor sperm.
    I am 35 years now and We have to decide as soon as poss.
    Can any one help me please and give me more information on how is
    the proceeder to use a doner sperm please.
    The worrying thing is when the child grows and his future.
    please help.

    thanks for reading my story.

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  • http://www.timetobemommy.com Elle @ TimeToBeMommy

    I LOVE success stories. I could have written the first half of this article myself as my partner and I are currently going through the nightmare of infertility with him angry and me completely impatient. After a year and a half of this way of interacting, we’re finally getting our relationship back on track, which I’m incredibly grateful for. Based on what our RE has told us, I suspect that the issue of donor sperm is in our very near future and I pray that it goes as well for us as it has for you.

    Congratulations on coming out a stronger couple and thank you so much for sharing your story and giving me home!