What do you do when your dream of starting a family doesn’t work out according to plan? These three women each faced a hurdle but have all since created the perfect family – on their own terms.
Starting a family is all too often assumed to be a given once we reach a certain life stage. But for some, falling pregnant can be a struggle – or impossible – and a ‘given’ is an insurmountable dream. But a dream can become reality: we chat to three women who faced a pregnancy challenge, but were still able to create a family – on their own terms. According to Stephanie Dawson-Cosser, a Joburg-based blended-family coach, women who struggle to fall pregnant will often seek medical interventions like IVF and artificial insemination, or they’ll go the adoption or surrogacy route. And these choices aren’t unusual: according to a recent US report, as of 2015, more than one-million babies had been born through IVF and assisted reproduction, while it’s estimated that about 80 000 children are born per year via sperm donors alone.
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‘But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to creating a family,’ says Stephanie. ‘Whatever route you choose, it’s very important to have a shared and concrete understanding of what the child will be told when they inevitably start asking questions. I encourage parents – or the parent in the case of single moms – to have open conversations with their child, family and friends, and prepare teachers when it comes to their family truth. If the parents are able to talk openly about their choices and the child knows they are loved, they’ll have a solid understanding of where they come from, I couldn’t believe that someone had offered to carry my babies to term’ T asha Mckenzie, 33, is a beauty salon owner. She lives in Constantia with her husband, Wayne, and six-month-old twin girls, Lea-Rae and Madison-Lee. I’ve known since I was a teenager that it would be difficult for me to fall pregnant. When I was just 11 months old I needed to have abdominal surgery, and years later, when I was 14, doctors discovered that extensive scar tissue had formed due to the surgery I’d had as an infant. The scar tissue was removed and surgeons took out one fallopian tube and parts of both ovaries.
At the time, starting a family was just a distant thought, and it was only when I was an adult and I met Wayne that I realised the severity of what had happened. Starting our family Knowing we might have a hard time falling pregnant, Wayne and I started trying for a baby right after we got married in November 2013. But a few months after making my wedding vows, I was rushed to hospital to remove cysts on my ovaries. We kept trying, but it just wasn’t happening. In 2014 we started the IVF, but, after six unsuccessful attempts – and huge expense – we knew that IVF wasn’t the right choice for us. On the brink of losing hope, our fertility specialist said that surrogacy should be the next option, but Wayne and I were sceptical; we just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that a woman we didn’t know would be carrying our baby. The day it all changed While we were deciding what our next step would be, I chatted to one of my regular clients at the salon, Lee-Ann Laufs, who was pregnant with her second baby. We talked about her family and she asked if I wanted children. I told her about what Wayne and I had been through, and that we were possibly looking into surrogacy. She listened to me intently and then said, ‘Well, we’re having our second – and our last – baby in a few months, so when I’m done with that, I’ll carry your child for you.’
I laughed, thinking that she couldn’t possibly be serious – we hardly knew each other! I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but Lee-Ann kept her promise. She called me the day she gave birth to her second child and said, ‘OK, I’m done having children of my own, so how do we start to get you a baby?’. Our pregnancy journey We got the ball rolling by getting police clearance certificates for me and Wayne, and then both couples had to undergo various medical tests and psychological analyses. We also had a lawyer draw up all the necessary legal contracts. Eight months later, we began the medical procedures for gestational surrogacy. Using my eggs and Wayne’s sperm, we went through two rounds of IVF, where two embryos was implanted into Lee-Ann’s uterus. Within 10 days of the second implantation, we got the news that changed our lives: we were having a baby. Right from the start the doctor mentioned that the hCG (aka ‘pregnancy hormone’) levels were high – which is a possible indicator of twins – and we were completely over the moon. Seeing our babies grow inside Lee-Ann became normal for us, because we’ve never experienced pregnancy any other way. It would’ve been lovely if I could carry my own babies, but we have the rest of our lives to spend with them; pregnancy is but a small part in the greater scheme of things. We went with Lee-Ann to every scan and doctor’s appointment, and she was the perfect surrogate. Lea-Rae and Madison-Lee were born healthy and happy, and Wayne and I wept with joy when we first held them. Becoming parents at last We can’t imagine our lives without the twins – or Lee-Ann. Wayne and I find ourselves staring at the twins for hours while they sleep, and I still marvel at what a special person it takes to selflessly offer her womb. Lee-Ann and her family live nearby and we chat almost daily on our WhatsApp group; they will always be part of our lives.
‘ I pored over sperm-donor profiles and chose one I liked – it was that simple’ S helene Shaer, 50, is a master stylist at a hair salon and lives in Illovo with her 11-year-old twins, Teghan and Liaam, and her mother Thalia. When I found myself at 38 and still single, I decided it was time to start a family on my own. I worried that I’d left it a bit too late, and so many people warned me that being a single mother would be hard, but I’d made up my mind. Taking the first steps I visited a fertility clinic where they carried out a few tests and discovered I had cervical polyps – which are small, non-cancerous tumours that grow on the cervix – as well as a blocked fallopian tube. After having a small procedure done on my tube, and sorting out the polyps, I pored over anonymous sperm donor profiles at the clinic until I found one that I liked – it was as simple as that! At the end of the day, I chose the profile that had the most personality. Using my egg and the donor sperm, I fell pregnant on my first attempt with no IVF needed; at eight weeks, I found out I was expecting identical twin boys. I was closely monitored by my doctor because I developed twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, a rare disorder that affects twin pregnancies where the placenta isn’t shared equally by the babies. The twins were delivered at 34 weeks via an emergency C-section.
While both the insemination and pregnancy had been relatively smooth sailing, the challenge came after their birth; the boys needed round-the-clock medical attention, and it was five long weeks before I could have both of them home. Unexpected challenges When the boys were seven months old we discovered that Teghan couldn’t hear properly. He was diagnosed with auditory neuropathy, a type of hearing loss that results from the inner ear not processing sounds properly. Because of this, he finds speech very challenging, and although it has been a tough journey over the years, it has revealed the amazing bond my sons have with each other. They seem to have an inherent understanding of each other and know how to look after one another – they’re equally amazing with other children, too. When you’re a single parent, you can spend a lot of time wondering if you’re saying or doing the right thing. In those situations, I turn to my family and friends who always offer me words of wisdom and sensible advice. Having twins wasn’t part of my initial pregnancy plan, so I have had to navigate challenges along the way: for example, I can’t afford to send both of them to the school that I’d ideally like them to go to. I try not to beat myself up about it, as I know that every family has their share of difficulties. The way we live today From the start I’ve been honest about how I started my family. I’ve also told the boys from a young age how they were a result of artificial insemination. I remind them often that they should never feel uncomfortable with the fact that our family doesn’t include a dad. It’s the love that people share that makes a family, not genetics. I believe nurture has the biggest impact on how a child turns out, and all I want is for them to be happy and resilient, and continue to share their amazing bond.
‘ We had a week’s notice before bringing our baby home – we didn’t even have a pack of nappies!’ L ois Moodley, 37, is a media and communications manager for non-profit organisation Save the Children. She lives in Kensington with her husband Basil MacKenzie, and their daughters Mia, three, and Isla, 18 months. When Basil and I decided to get married we had the same conversation that most couples have at that stage in their lives: we talked about starting a family, and how many kids we would want. I’d always been drawn to the idea of adoption as I wanted to give a child better life. We both agreed we’d first have a biological child, then we’d put adoption on the table. The first steps After a year of trying to fall pregnant with no luck, we decided to pursue the adoption route. In September 2014 we met with a private adoption agency and did medical and psychological evaluations, interviews, and tons of paperwork. Our criteria for a baby was simple, though – we didn’t have a preference in terms of gender or race; all we wanted was a healthy child.
On Thursday, 4 December, we got a call from the agency to say they’d found a baby for us – and that she would be able to come home with us the following week! Basil and I scrambled to get her room ready; we felt so unprepared, we didn’t even have a pack of nappies at home! Adoption usually takes longer – anything even up to a year – but, due to our lack of preferences, ours went a lot faster. The next Monday we met six-month-old Mia for the first time. The following day I went to work and applied for maternity leave, while Basil spent the day with Mia. That night we both stayed over at her place of safety. The next day – even though the adoption wasn’t legally finalised we were able to take her home and acted as her foster parents until the paperwork was approved. Two becomes three Everything happened so quickly; some of our family and friends didn’t know we were looking into adoption, so there were a lot of questions to answer at the time. We wanted to spend the first few days alone; just the three of us. We escaped for a few days to the North West province and switched off all technology so there were no distractions – this time was about bonding with Mia. It wasn’t easy; Mia had a chest infection and we were brand-new parents, learning the ropes. It was a whirlwind of emotions, but it was still perfect.
Settling in at home Five months after bringing Mia home, I found out that I was pregnant. It wasn’t the lovely, glowing experience that I’d imagined – I was tired, sick, and really irritable all the time. I didn’t feel a strong connection with Isla before she was born, and it was during this time that Mia was my saving grace because I’d look forward to coming home and playing with her. But it turns out I had nothing to worry about: when Isla arrived I instantly felt a maternal bond. Despite this, it was still a shock: I was suddenly a mom of two, and I felt ‘mother’s guilt’ because I had to divide my attention. I worried I hadn’t spent enough time with Mia before I had Isla, and before I had to return to work. When you’re expecting your second child you sometimes wonder if it’s possible for you to love them as much as your first, but you can… and you do; I love my daughters equally. Our complete family I’m preparing myself for when Mia starts asking questions about her biological parents. I’ve introduced her to the word ‘adoption’ – I know one day she’ll realise that she and Isla look different but share the same parents. Basil and I are helping to prepare Mia for the hard questions that are coming later in her life; we hope she’ll be able to weather the storms herself, equipped with the tools we’re giving her. We won’t have more kids; the girls have each other and our family is complete.