Baby Dreaming

Published on October 11th, 2017 | by Joanna Stein


Turkey Basters (and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right) as Lesbian Fertility Folklore

On YouTube there are hundreds of videos explaining how same-sex couples could become pregnant on their own. Some of these videos are legit and well-intended, and others are purely ridiculous. Recently, I watched one where an obviously wasted adolescent pretended to ejaculate and then pushed his belly out like he’d become pregnant himself. Charming. I felt bad for that camera person. Another video, posted by a user named “Fertility ForReal” (ForReal = one word), entitled “How to get Pregnant without a man – Better than Turkey Baster”  shows a soft-spoken woman trying to explain optimal conditions for at-home inseminations with the phrase “Better than turkey baster” featured on the top left of the screen. No “a” or “the” before “turkey baster” needed apparently, nor any real thought about how ludicrous those words plastered all over the internet might look.

But I’m agreed: it’s time to stop assuming that all lesbian couples can just go shop for a poultry roasting tool to get pregnant. Grocery store aisle (is that where you find them?) to babe in arms…It isn’t that easy.

“Normal fertility” is a myth. There is no such thing. Everyone’s fertility is different.

Joanna’s wife Margot with fertility pamphlets, receipts, and doctor’s notes.

My wife and I had a long journey. It included: going back and forth with one insurance company’s heteronormative computer system to correct my spouse’s default gender on our plan from “male” to “female” – and dealing with a second insurance company that wouldn’t cover same-sex procedures at all because technically we just needed to go out and have sex with men. That was just the beginning.

My “tomboy presenting” wife tried eight total IUIs (intrauterine inseminations), all to no avail. How she looked had nothing to do with it. Masculine presenting women are just as fertile as your femmes, but when using frozen sperm from a sperm bank, there is a very low chance, each cycle, of actually becoming pregnant. After my wife tried her four cycles (eight total IUIs), I also tried eight IUIs. None took. Then the fertility doctor suggested IVF. IVF comes with its own set of mischaracterizations, things like: 1. You will automatically have triplets or quadruplets or quintuplets (”Then you could start a reality show!”), 2. You are somehow too old to conceive and you will be as old as a grandmother when you give birth, or 3. “It is not the way God intended.” Only one of the above falsifications is even on the spectrum of truth–the chance of multiples does increase with IVF (if you transfer more than one embryo).

Wait, but what is an embryo transfer? Is that IVF, too? Just wait. Back to our story.

Joanna with a cupboard full of injectable fertility meds, needles and a personal mini-biohazard bin

The male fertility doctor, with several awards in his office and an autograph of Ayn Rand, discussed IVF with us (given our “failed attempts” at IUI). He gave me more drugs than I’d ever taken in my life. Most were injectables that I had to shoot into my stomach on a daily basis, sometimes twice a day. The goal was to stimulate my body to produce more eggs in one cycle (your average egg per cycle is one). I had no documented fertility issues per se, only that I am a lesbian (and over 35). This particular doctor treated me as if I had fertility issues, based simply on us not getting pregnant at what was a reasonable percentage chance of not getting pregnant, and therefore did not slow down the drugs when my body produced forty-three eggs in one cycle.


The forty-three eggs were removed during a process called egg retrieval. The nurse came up to me after the procedure to tell me, “We’ve never seen so many. They’re still counting!” Afterwards, my ovaries filled with fluid; I had what is called “OHSS” (Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome). I knew I’d be fine, but I was put on bedrest for a week or two and told not to “jostle myself.” In the meantime, the lab took all the eggs and fertilized them with our anonymous sperm donor’s sperm.

drawing by Joanna Stein

I’ll get to the “anonymous” part.

Seventeen of the eggs were successfully fertilized and turned into viable embryos. The embryos were then frozen, and our IVF was delayed (because transferring embryos to a woman with OHSS is dangerous). Instead we did a FET (frozen embryo transfer) the following month.

Fertility clinics call it an embryo “transfer” (fact) and not “implantation” (myth) because it is not guaranteed that the embryo will affix itself to the uterine wall simply because a doctor places it there (very carefully through a long, thin catheter). In our case, there were a total of five people in the room when the FET took place: the doctor, the nurse, the embryologist from the lab, my wife and myself. The doctor even dimmed the lights in the room to see my uterus more clearly on the monitor. Romantic enough for you?

Based on my age at the time, 38, the doctors suggested transferring two or three embryos for a successful result. We went with two embryos. Only one embryo implanted, and now she is our almost two-year-old daughter. Our daughter. I am relieved simply by writing that now.

And hey, these frozen embryo babies turn out just like your “normal” baby – go figure- and even develop normally – yes, now she’s babbling words, pointing, throwing mild tantrums, and being generally adorable every day.

One day we will may tell her she was frozen (I suspect she may find this hilarious). One day we will also need to tell her we used anonymous donor sperm to fertilize my egg (I fear she may not find this nearly as funny).

Remember the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right? Also, not reality. Mark Ruffalo’s character (the sperm donor in the film) will most likely not start taking your child on illicit motorcycle rides and/or sleeping with one of your lesbian moms. Sperm donors who work with clinics (or cyrobanks) either choose to be “open” or “anonymous.”

So, what’s the difference? And why did we choose an anonymous sperm donor?

Open donors from sperm banks are willing to be contacted by the child sometime after the child turns 18. The psychologist from our fertility clinic, who handed us a gigantic folder with a graphic of adorable babies sitting in ice cube trays on the front, told us that contact with a donor is typically a one-time contact and not likely a situation in which the donor and the child forge a lifelong relationship. I am sure there are exceptions.

Since many sperm donors are in their early or mid-twenties when donating sperm, these same donors are in their late thirties or early forties at the time when an 18-year-old conceived with their sperm could contact them. From the fertility psychologist’s point of view, these donors at that time will probably be dealing with families of their own, and open contact is not always a meaningful thing for everyone involved. In fact, it can be very complicated and confusing. Of course, my daughter may not be pleased with our decision in the future – but, rest assured we will process this at length (we’re lesbians after all) when she asks.

Anonymous donors, on the other hand, do not wish to be contacted by their potential offspring. We chose an anonymous donor for several reasons: 1) the information the cryobank gave us about him was thorough: the sperm donor’s likes, dislikes, interests, education, medical history, childhood photos, a personal essay, the staff impressions of the donor, etc. and 2) we worried about the donor rejecting our daughter’s future contact and the impact that might have on her.

Moving onto the next myth…

None of the misconceptions about same-sex pregnancy end when the child is born. Suddenly there are also questions about Dad. I can tell you with certainty there won’t be a future Maury Povich DNA test “father reveal” episode where chairs are thrown in the air, and not just because Maury Povich isn’t even on the air anymore.“Who’s the dad?” Yes, people ask us this question, even in Brooklyn, almost as often as “Which one’s the mom?”

Sadly, early on, we didn’t answer simply because explaining felt too exasperating. We correct most people now and say “sperm donor.” “Dad” implies that there is an interpersonal, ongoing relationship with the child. There is, in no way, a “dad” involved. Don’t even get me started on my reaction to father’s day art projects at daycare.

When first coming out to my mother twenty years ago, she told me she felt children of lesbian parents who didn’t have a father would suffer. Really? I imagined all those children who have less than ideal relationships with their fathers, maybe the father abandons them, maybe the father is abusive, or maybe the father unexpectedly dies. Maybe these same kids have amazing uncles, or sweet grandfathers, or other beautiful cis-male figures in their lives.

Turns out my mom was espousing a common mischaracterization of children with lesbian parents, although she was subconsciously talking about her own childhood in which her father (my grandfather) died of Leukemia, leaving her when she was 16. My mother, too, passed away nearly five years ago. She had come around fully to the fact that I was gay, dancing and grinning like a madwoman at our wedding, and was beyond excited when we announced we were going to try for a baby. A few months later, she was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. I miss having my mother. I’m sure my mother missed having her father.

Thankfully, with us, there is no parent missing. There is no love missing. It took a while to get here. The three of us are altogether. Holding on tight for what we’ve earned. And dispelling the myths about who we are, and how it all happened, whenever we can.

Feature Image: “Set of 2 Dinner Napkins. Feminist Dinner Party” by Hey Paul Studios, posted under creative commons license / Flickr

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About the Author

Joanna McNaney Stein is a proud lesbian mama, thrift store scavenger, and lecturer of English at CUNY Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University (2008), and a MA in English from SUNY Brockport (2004). Her previous work appears in Brooklyn Rail, Bitch Magazine, Upstreet Review, and Short Takes: Brief Encounters with Contemporary Nonfiction. 

2 Responses to Turkey Basters (and Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right) as Lesbian Fertility Folklore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to Top ↑
  • Subscribe to Mutha

    Enter your email address to subscribe to MUTHA and receive notifications of new articles by email.

    Email Frequency