Building a Family

What would you do if you discovered that you and your partner couldn’t have children? We talk to a couple who faced this situation, and have created their own unique family.

Matthew and Sarah’s relationship had a fairytale beginning – they met and fell in love in Paris. Within six months of meeting they were living together, and four months later Matthew proposed.

“It was clear to me from the start that Matthew would be a wonderful father,” says Sarah, “he fitted my picture of the ideal dad and husband perfectly.” Three years into their marriage, Sarah and Matthew decided that the time was right to have children.

It was at this point that the fairytale faltered.

After trying for a baby with no success, they discovered that Matthew has Azoospermia, a condition where the semen contains little or no sperm. Despite two operations to try and remove sperm directly from Matthew’s testicles none was found, and the couple were forced to accept that Matthew was not going to become a biological father.

They were devastated. “At first we felt hopeless, and wondered why this had happened to us. But then, slowly but surely, we came to terms with the situation and started to look into other options.”

Still determined to become parents, Sarah and Matthew discovered that they had two choices: adoption; or for Sarah to have IVF with a sperm donor. “At the time sperm donation was anonymous, so we decided against it because we wanted our children to be able to find out about their genetic father one day.”

Sarah and Matthew decided to adopt.

“It was a long process. But it’s understandable, because social services need to ensure that they place children with the right families. The social workers that we met during the adoption process were extremely dedicated and professional.”

Finally, Sarah and Matthew were able to fulfil their dreams of parenthood when they adopted Tom, a twelve month old baby from London. “We fell in love with his beautiful smile at first sight, and his sunny, perky personality. He was the perfect baby for us. Every day when I look at him, I feel that he’s the best achievement of my life. We’re absolutely besotted with him.”

Tom’s mother had been just sixteen when she gave birth, and had felt that she wasn’t ready to raise him herself. For Sarah, these circumstances bring an extra sense of responsibility as a parent. “I feel that this misfortune has created our happiness and that I have a duty to raise him well, so that when his birth mother meets him one day she feels that she made the right decision. I would like her, and us, to be proud of who he became.”

A year later Sarah and Matthew decided that they would like to adopt another child. However, they discovered that there was a mandatory two year gap between a child being placed with a family, and that family being allowed to begin the adoption process again. “We knew that the process itself would take at least another couple of years and we felt that we would both be getting older by then, so we decided to look again at the alternatives.”

In the time since they had started the adoption process the first time, the law on sperm donation had been changed: children born from sperm donations are now entitled to find out the identity of their biological father when they turn 18. For Sarah and Matthew this meant that they could now consider it as an option.

For some men, the idea of having children through a sperm donation might have been a challenging one to come to terms with, but for Matthew the most important thing was that he and Sarah were able to create their family. “Male infertility is more common than you might think, and it can be a bit of a taboo subject,” says Sarah, “but Matthew is a very generous and intelligent person, and it was something that we had to resolve together – I also had to come to terms with having children from an unknown man. We both felt that what matters most, at the end of the day, is the love that you give to your children.”

“We were concerned about how Tom might feel about having siblings who were related by blood to me. But we felt that the sperm donor children would, like him, have to go and find out about their identity on their father’s side one day – so they would still have that experience in common.”

Having made the decision to go for sperm donation, the fertility clinic soon found a match for Sarah and Matthew – a donor who the lab workers had seen when he made his donation, and had noticed bore a close physical resemblance to Matthew.

Three months later Sarah and Matthew were delighted to discover that Sarah was pregnant, and even more excited to find out that they were expecting twin boys, as was big brother Tom. “I’m not sure that he fully understood, though. When I asked whether he was happy to be having baby brothers, he lifted his shirt, showed his belly and said, with a big smile, ‘two babies!’. I think he thought he was having them too!”

“The pregnancy was a great experience.” Says Sarah. “Although, of course, it doesn’t matter whether or not you actually give birth to a child yourself – you still love them to bits. In fact, in some ways, being pregnant made my bond with Tom stronger, and it made me realise to some extent what his mum must have gone through while she was expecting him.”

In July this year the twins, Harry and Ethan, were born by caesarean section, and for Sarah and Matthew they are the perfect addition to their family. “It took us eight years to have a family and we feel blessed that we’ve managed to create such a wonderful one.”

Hearing their story, it’s clear that this couple have been though some difficult times, and have had to make some tricky decisions. But, given the way they’ve handled the challenges so far, it seems likely that they’ll be able to deal with anything that their special brand of parenthood might throw at them in the future.

“Tom is still a bit young to understand the meaning of adoption but we were advised to tell him that he’d been adopted from the start. We read books about adoption to him and he has adopted friends and goes to the borough’s adopted Summer and Christmas parties.”

“We’re not afraid of him going to find his birth mother one day and we’ll support him if he does. We believe that every adopted or sperm donated child should be able to trace their genetic parents – it’s part of their identity.”

Matthew and Sarah are also great ambassadors for the options available to couples struggling with fertility issues. “There isn’t just one solution – there are a number of options to explore. Sperm donation is one, but adoption can also be a wonderful experience, and there are more and more children to adopt in this country without having to go abroad.”

“At the end of the day, there are lots of recomposed families out there, where the children don’t live with their birth mother or father, and, although it’s an unusual one, our family is based on love and we wouldn’t change it for the world.”

 All names have been changed.