Recently there has been a lot of talk about lesbian reproduction. The past few days saw us grappling with an issue where the choices of a lesbian couple were brought under great scrutiny due to an egregious error on the part of a fertility clinic.
It occurred to me that many people were not aware of the difficulties or process involved in having a baby for lesbians. Luckily, there exists a television show which followed a very sweet lesbian couple as they navigated the process of having children. I would like to walk you through their story. Hopefully it will shed a little bit more light on what 'having a baby' means to lesbians.
'The Real L Word' was a kind of silly reality show about lesbians in L.A.. As most reality shows some of it was obviously a bit put on, but this storyline was done very well. Unfortunately, the best way to get this story is to watch the whole thing. A lot will be missing here, but I'll try to explain as I go along if anything is not represented or needs to be discussed. So lets start by introducing the couple. They are awesome and you're going to love them. Here are Cori and Kacy:
Cori will be the one carrying the baby and Kacy will be the odd woman out. First, lets talk a bit about what it might be like for Kacy. Kacy will never be biologically related to her child. She will not have had any part in the pregnancy at all, in all fairness. With many straight couples for whom fertility is an issue, the man can still use his sperm through various miracles of science in many cases but for Kacy, this will never be a possibility. No matter what, she will feel outside to a degree. This is a very common feeling for lesbian parents. Heteronormativity puts a huge value on biology for parents. Kacy will most likely have to field stupid questions and be treated as an adoptive parent by many people. Society does not view the non biological parent as valuable as the biological one and that gets internalized in most people. I assume it's internalized in you too, you just don't notice because you don't have to.
I'm not sure if this carries over to straight couples who have to use outside sperm for any reason. Perhaps I'm cynical but I have a feeling it is less pronounced as straight people generally have more empathy for people who are like themselves as well as this issue being an unusual bump in the road for straight couples. A medical issue is always deserving of sympathy. Everyone knows medical problems deserve sympathy. For lesbians, there is not medical issue, per se. I imagine though, that most cishet men would have similar feelings if they were put in the position of having a child with another man's sperm. Would they feel like they were raising someone else's child? Would they feel disconnected from the process and not important to it? Would they grapple with these serious feelings even as they attempted to hide them for the sake of their wives? I'm quite sure they do. This is not an unusual and terrible fertility issue deserving of sympathy for lesbians (as it is for straight people), though. It is the 'all the time' reality.
In a situation where this is the every day reality and in a world where lesbian relationships are not valued or taken seriously in the first place, these feelings of being left out and insecure are compounded. It is very difficult. I'm not even close to having a baby right now, but I've already begun steeling myself for these emotions. I think any lesbian who wants kids thinks about this and how they would handle it, whereas for straight couples, it isn't really considered unless it has to be through some freak medical problem discovered when a baby doesn't 'just happen' naturally. This is an unusual medical issue for straight people and/or a choice they make. For lesbians it is an everyday fact of life.
So how do lesbians go about the process? Decisions have to be made. Often the cheapest and most personal route is to find a donor you know. This is sometimes the first step, since as I mentioned, one parent can feel very disconnected from the process. This is a way to make it more personal: choosing a person you love to be the donor. This is also the cheapest method since you don't have to pay for sperm which can get very expensive. This is the route Cori and Kacy decided to go first.
For others, it is impossible to detach like that. Some lesbians don't even consider this route for the same reasons the men in the video state. Personally, I feel like that. I have other reasons too. I would not want to raise a child as a mother with a third person who I was not in a relationship with 'looming' (metaphorically) over my parenthood. I know that's an ominous way to put it, but the number of issues which could come up are enormous. I'm not sure I could handle it, to be honest. Especially when you consider the insecurity already present due to not being a biological parent. After being rejected by their friends, Cori and Kacy go the route I would have started from. They shop for sperm at a sperm bank.
Most people discuss pregnancy in terms of '9 months to prepare'. Every time I see someone talking about 9 months in reference to a baby, it makes me groan a bit. No, it isn't 9 months for lesbians (or for gay men either and others also, but we're talking about lesbians right now). The process is long, arduous and expensive. It's important to note here too that within the lesbian community even considering having a baby is a privilege. This process is very time consuming and expensive in addition to emotional. In fact, I'm already preparing by thinking hard about what I would choose, how I would go about it and how I would handle the feelings associated with it. Even when it comes times to start trying, these things can take years. Sometimes just to save up for.
The choice of donors is difficult as well. What traits are you looking for? Many lesbians choose to go with a donor that closely resembles the non biological parent. In this case, Kacy. Obviously this is a measure of attempted connection for the one left out of the process. It's quite common. Most straight couples do not have to consider how important being biologically related to your child is but it's clear all across society. Having your child look like you and share your traits is extremely important to people. In cases of straight couples with infertility issues doctors and prospective parents go well out of their way to attempt to ensure both parents are biologically related. Adoption or sperm donors are a seriously last ditch effort for most people and the reason is the extreme human drive to pass on your own traits. This is no different for lesbian couples but for them, having both partners biologically related is an impossibility at the very best of times.
Lets talk about the particulars in this case, though. Cori and Kacy bought three units of sperm. Each one costs $640 dollars. That's $1920 total for three tries. It will not work on the first try. That's just assumed. These things take multiple tries and Cori and Kacy will not know how much the entire process will end up costing when all is said and done. For now, it costs them $1920 just to get started. That obviously doesn't include any medical expenses incurred from the actual insemination process.
There are no online clips, but I have watched the entire show and I can tell you now that these three units were not enough. They ended up choosing another donor and trying again. Two of the samples did not take and the third was destroyed. Buying a unit of sperm does not guarantee that sperm will be completely usable when the time comes.
The ups and downs of this process are sometimes happy and sometimes hard to watch. The entire process is very clinical though. Throughout the episodes the women discuss their feelings with other lesbians on the show and one of the other lesbians tries to help by making a silicone dildo which is capable of injecting sperm to try and help Kacy feel more connected to the experience. It wasn't able to be used but the empathy these women had for one another was heartening to witness. Each time they had to go into the clinic was another moment of hopefulness and every failure a heartbreak. This isn't something they can just try and try and try at home in their bedroom. Every time costs money and a visit to a doctor's office.
A lot of these issues are ones that some cishet couples face as well when they have fertility issues. For lesbians however, this is not an accident or a medical anomaly - it's everyday facts of life and that changes the entire experience.
Finally, after multiple tries and a very long time spent, Cori and Kaci get pregnant. Unfortunately, things did not go well in the end. This last clip is difficult to watch but I hope you take a minute anyway. Imagine what it must feel like. Imagine yourself having gone through the emotional stress and financial burden that these women have been through. It's different for them then it is for a straight couple.