Becoming a Solo Parent by Design: Laura’s Story
“The idea of home insemination excites me so much,” says Laura Runnels. “It’s just cool to knock yourself up.”
And Laura has quite a bit of practice.
A public health consultant and small business owner living in Pittsburgh, Laura started her journey to become a solo parent in 2018.
She’s now the proud mom of a 20-month old daughter and has a second on the way.
We talked to Laura about choosing a donor, how pregnancy loss affected her conception experience, what it was like to do it a second time, and what it means to raise a donor-conceived child.
Choosing a donor: known donors, sperm banks and dating apps
Laura was 36 and had no known fertility issues besides a low AMH level that her doctors didn’t think was cause for concern. “So I knew that I wanted to try to use as little intervention as possible at first,” she says. “And then if I wasn't successful with that, I would plan to take it to the next level.”
She wanted to use a known donor so that her child would be able to have a relationship with them if they wanted to. She’d asked a few close friends and several said yes. After her top choice moved across the country and she had scheduling difficulties with another local donor, Laura decided to expand her known donor pool by using dating apps.
“I had a profile that was, you know, ‘single white female seeking baby daddy,’ basically.”
Laura had some great conversations and a contract she used for donations. She ended up getting pregnant three times. Two ended in chemical pregnancies. She had to terminate her third pregnancy for medical reasons at 14 weeks. “It sucked,” she says. “But it also happened. It’s part of my story.”
At that point, Laura decided to switch to a sperm bank. She chose Seattle Sperm Bank because they had the fewest hoops to jump through for someone doing home insemination.
“I was so anti-sperm bank for a while because shopping for the sperm felt so wrong,” she says. But after those difficult losses, “I knew that it was going to be the best bet because it gave me so much more control over the process.”
Laura wasn’t looking for anything specialized. Height was her only restriction. She wanted a donor taller than six feet. “I had to narrow my options somehow. Otherwise it was just endless.”
She found a donor who’d donated when he was 35, after he and his wife had a child already. “And I was like, oh, this is my guy. This is the one.”
The excitement and trauma of pregnancy testing
The first time Laura saw that second pink line on a pregnancy test, she was shocked and ecstatic. She sent the donor a picture of it — “oh my God, did this really happen so quickly?”
The early excitement of pregnancy testing changed after the two chemical pregnancies.
In the beginning, she had a hard time waiting to test.
“After having two chemicals, I learned to practice more self control,” Laura says. “Perhaps being by myself made it easier because I didn't have the other person wondering as well and putting the pressure on to test.”
The later termination for medical reasons created even more angst around testing. “There are other emotions wrapped up in it. Am I really ready for this? Once it’s positive, there’s this whole other level of fear and concern. Is this going to be it? ls this one going to stick around?”
Sharing (or not sharing) the conception process with friends and family
“When I decided that I was committed to this path, I told everyone, ‘hey, I’m going to be a solo parent by design,’” says Laura. “I have a lot of single female friends who I know want to be parents or who might want to be parents if they find a partner. I was happy to be an ambassador for this process. It was really important to me to be open about what I was doing because I didn't want people to feel alone in trying to make these decisions. I wanted people to know that it was a possible pathway.”
As each cycle passed, Laura’s desire to share her experience lessened.
“People knew I was trying to have a kid. And I knew they were curious about it, but you spend so much time thinking about trying to conceive,” she says. “You get your period and you start thinking, ‘okay, when am I going to start ovulation testing so I can tell when I need to inseminate’? And then you inseminate and you start thinking, ‘okay, how long do I have until I can test? And what symptoms am I having?’ And all of that.”
For Laura, it felt like there were so few days of the month when she wasn’t tracking everything carefully, especially in the beginning when she was using a known donor. She was tired of talking about it — “conception fatigue,” as she termed it.
Laura told a small, core group of friends when she had the first pregnancy that didn’t turn out to be a chemical pregnancy.
“And then I had to tell them that I was going to be unpregnant,” she says about having to terminate that pregnancy for medical reasons.
After that experience, Laura kept it all a lot closer. “I was still hurting from the loss, and I just didn't want to talk about it until something felt real and safe. So I literally didn't tell my parents until I was 20 weeks pregnant.”
The power of home insemination
From the beginning, Laura knew she wanted to do home insemination if she could. “I hope that in the future, people become more aware of it and don't feel pushed into more intervention if they don't want to do it or don't necessarily need it,” she says.
“It just feels very independent. It’s knowing my body so well that I was able to get the timing right. And trusting myself with a $700 vial of sperm.”
Laura used the disc method to do the insemination. “To me, a syringe is just a silly remnant of the patriarchy,” she says. “Like it's a fake penis. I don't need a fake penis to get pregnant. And honestly, I'm not even sure that they work that well for ICIs.”
How did she know when to do it?
In the beginning, Laura used apps to help with determining the time of ovulation. “And then I realized that apps are based on averages, and you really need to know your own body first, before you can decide if the average is right or not,” she says. Some of the apps are smart. They can track things, but until you have that more detailed data, it is hard to pinpoint that window — especially if you're using frozen sperm and you're doing a home insemination.”
Laura used ovulation strips and tracked cervical mucus. (“If you have a cervix, you should get to know it,” she says.) She tested for her LH (luteinizing hormone) surge a lot in the beginning. “So at 10 days after the first day of my last period, I started testing and watching it. I was testing twice a day when the line started to get darker,” she says.
“I saw the surge, so I started testing multiple times a day. And then when I had my peak, I kept testing after that to see how long I had a peak. Most people have it for 24 hours. I have it for 12 hours. I'm not average.”
Knowing her LH surge patterns, cervical mucus and ovulation symptoms (for Laura, a few hours of cramping) helped her pinpoint the best time for home insemination.
Once it was time to inseminate, she had a ritual. “I warmed up water in my tea kettle so I could defrost the sperm in the vial,” says Laura. “I noticed that my cervical mucus got a little bit dryer around ovulation, so I would inject pre-seed to give myself that little extra boost and let that come to body temperature while my sperm was coming to room temperature.
“And then I would pour it directly into the disc. Skip the syringe. I wanted as few things touching it as possible. And then lay back on my bed. Push that disc on up there and give it a good swirl around my cervix. And then I would orgasm because that supposedly helps suck everything up, but otherwise it just made me feel good. Why not do it?
“And then I would get up and go about my business.”
Laura ovulated two or three days later than normal both times she conceived her daughters. “If I hadn’t trusted the strips, I would have tried to inseminate too soon before ovulation.”
Having a second baby as a solo parent by design
The second time around has been both easier and more challenging than the first.
“I kind of felt like an old pro,” says Laura. She knew what she needed to do to get started and how to make sure she was timing things correctly. “I also sat down with myself and came up with a plan for what I was willing to do to get pregnant again — like I’m willing to do X, Y, and Z, but I’m not willing to do more than this because it doesn’t make financial sense or sense for my family. It took the pressure off a little bit.
“Except I really, really wanted it. So there was still a tremendous amount of pressure,” she admits.
And Laura was super thankful that she’d purchased more donor vials before she had her first daughter. At the time, she’d hemmed and hawed over it. But she was ultimately thankful she went with her gut, especially since there are no longer vials available for her donor. “I was pretty sure I wanted to have more,” she says.
Knowing exactly how many vials she had available helped her plan for what levels of intervention she was or wasn’t okay with.
What’s been harder?
Well, for starters, this whole pregnancy has taken place during a pandemic.
But Laura has also missed some of the support she got the first time around. “You know, the first time you do it, it's like, ‘oh, you're so strong and powerful and brave’,” she says. “And it's so novel. The second time it's like, ‘seriously? You're crazy. Why are you doing this? Is that really fair to you and the kid?’”
“I’ve been so much more concerned about being judged for having a second kid, for having a second kid so close to the first kid, for being open about maybe having a third kid,” says Laura. It bothers her that people rarely think twice about a couple having two or three children but question it with a solo parent. She’s shared less about her experience this time.
Whether it’s the reduced bandwidth brought on by the pandemic or people not thinking she needs it, Laura’s also gotten fewer offers of help.
Before her daughter was born, people were lining up to provide support. Friends told Laura how many days they were coming to help and booked plane tickets. “Of course, a pandemic happened, so all that got cancelled.” This time around, only one or two friends have offered to help.
Raising a donor-conceived child
Laura felt strongly that she wanted her child to have the option to connect with their other genetic parent. And once she switched to donor sperm from a bank, she knew she wanted to have a connection to their donor siblings.
“I could go on and on about the world of donor-conceived people and how much it freaks everyone out when I tell them, ‘yes, I am in contact with my child's 30 siblings’,” says Laura.
While Laura was pregnant, she connected with two other women who were pregnant using the same donor she used. Ultimately, the parents who used that donor connected in a big, private Facebook group.
“We’re definitely at our cap for families in the United States, but I think of the 24 U.S. families that have used this donor, 20 of them are in our group,” says Laura. “All the kids are age 3 and under. We exchanged Christmas cards last year.”
The group is mostly solo moms and queer couples. “It's been one of the most awesome things about this whole experience, seeing the similarities and the differences and the weird little quirks,” she says.
Laura is thankful to have the other parents in the group so that they can all hold each other accountable. “It is so important for the kids to grow up with that biological connection. And I'm glad that we're all committed to doing the hard work of processing it internally as their parents, so our kids can grow up without our feelings overlaid on top of theirs.”
Laura’s part of several Facebook groups for donor-conceived people and parents. She’s seen a lot of pain and identity struggle from people who didn’t learn they were donor-conceived until much later in their lives.
“And then there's now going to be this generation of kids that have been told from the beginning and have connections with their siblings from the beginning,” she says.
The teachers at Laura’s daughter’s daycare asked the parents and kids to make a family tree. “I printed off photos of all the donor siblings and made a collage,” says Laura. And I said, ‘these are her half siblings.’ So if you're going to talk about our family, let's talk about all of it.”
MEET THE AUTHOR
Katie Taylor is a writer and content strategist. She lives in Richmond, Vermont with her wife, two kids (one she birthed, one she did not), and a dog. You can read more about her infertility journey here. Katie induced lactation so that she could breastfeed the son her wife gave birth to, and she encourages anyone interested in learning more to reach out. katie (at) katietaylorwriting.com.