Becky Tipper (Stories and Exegesis) and Leah Gilman (Exegesis)
Something and Nothing
Addie’s turning her bedroom upside down. She’s thirteen next week and wants to paint it dark purple. The agreement was that Addie had to have a proper sort-out first, although Caron notices that a lot of things from yesterday’s black bags bound for the charity shop have already worked their way back onto the shelves.
Caron hasn’t thought about the book in ages. But there it is – among the Legos and a vast collection of stuffed unicorns – the battered copy of Our Story they used to read when Addie was small. She remembers how Addie loved that book; loved being told how she came about: ‘a nice man, your donor, gave us a seed and we grew you.’
Of course, Caron thinks, you never really know what kids make of it all. They still laugh about how, until the age of five, Addie called her donor her ‘doughnut.’ And then there was that time in the park when they saw a sycamore tree shedding its hundreds of spinners, and Addie alarmed everyone in earshot by shouting at the top of her little voice, ‘Look, there’s a nice man making babies with his seeds!’
Caron’s not sure if it’s finding the book that did it – or perhaps it’s just Addie’s age – but after hardly bringing it up it for years, this morning Addie’s been full of questions about her sperm donor. What do they know about him? Are there other children who have the same donor? Could she ever meet him?
Back when they first explained everything to her, they did mention Caron’s donation. ‘Mummy gave away some eggs to help another family too,’ they said, although Caron never made a particular fuss about it. After all, that wasn’t part of Addie’s story. And it wasn’t a big deal – it had just seemed the right thing to do. A sort of karma. She and Gail weren’t about to make a baby by themselves, and if you needed help it only seemed fair that you should give something back.
Besides, at the time there were so many other things to deal with and to explain. Little things, like when other parents assumed she or Gail was just Addie’s aunty. And harder things – some that upset Caron even now – like that boy at nursery who couldn’t get over Addie having one mum who dropped her off and another mum who picked her up. Caron still remembers him meeting her at the door one day, his little eyes narrowed and stern. ‘My nana said that’s naughty,’ he said. ‘Having two mummies.’
Really, Caron’s egg-sharing had seemed like the least of it. What mattered was the three of them – Caron, Gail and Addie – their little family. Even Caron herself has barely thought about it all this time, so it startles her now when Addie says, ‘And do I have a brother or sister through you as well?’
‘Well, it’s not going to be your brother or sister, is it?’ Caron says, her voice sharper than she intended.‘But, yes, the other family got pregnant. I don’t know if they had a boy or a girl in the end.’
‘They’re something to me, though, aren’t they?’ Addie insists. ‘They’re not nothing. And will they be able to find us one day?’
‘I guess so, when they’re eighteen. Just like you could contact your sperm donor.’
Caron can see how Addie might want to meet him – while two parents should be enough, she wonders if there’s something about finding a ‘dad’ when you’ve never had one. But this is different: Caron donated the egg, but the child’s mother still gave birth to them. The child already has a mum – so why exactly would they ever want to find Caron? They might need to know about her medical history, she supposes. Although surely she put all that down on the forms.
‘I’d just want to see them,’ says Addie. ‘My brother or sister or whatever. See what they look like. And wouldn’t it be totally weird and cool if they looked like me?!’
‘Well, you’ve got cousins who look like you, and you can’t stand them.’ The cousins have the same dark hair and bright blue eyes as Addie but are sullen, monosyllabic and football-obsessed.
‘It’s years away, anyway,’ Caron says. She hands a full bin bag to Addie. ‘Is this one ready to go?’
Addie takes the bag from her mother and dumps the contents on the floor. ‘I want to look through it again,’ she says. ‘Just to make sure.’
And Addie begins slowly to pick through the jumble of toys and books and too-small clothes. It had seemed like they were getting somewhere, Caron thinks. But now it looks as though they’re right back where they started.
It was impossible to write that letter to you back then – to tell you about myself and why I wanted to donate. Everything I put down sounded like I was writing a job application. And obviously, I wanted to sound nice and normal, to be someone that people might choose, because the egg-sharing made a big difference to us financially. Although of course I couldn’t really say that.
It wasn’t the only reason, though. I did feel for anyone who was in the same position as us. I wondered whether you’d been trying for a long time as well, maybe for even longer than we had. All those years of hoping and crossing your fingers each month, feeling like it was going to break you down. Whether it drove you crazy that you couldn’t turn around for someone announcing they were pregnant, and how you’d try so hard to be happy for them. And at the back of it all, that slow, sinking realisation that it might never happen for you.
We probably went to the clinic for our transfers on the same day, didn’t we? (I remember it was raining because they tell you to keep your bladder as full as possible for the ultrasound, but it felt like torture when the entire world was drenched and sopping wet!) I thought that I maybe even saw you that day – I suppose you must look a bit like me if they matched us – dashing up the steps and shaking your umbrella, just as we walked out into the downpour.
I’d always hated the two-week wait, but that time seemed the closest I’d ever been to actually having a baby, and it was unbearable. I watched the news obsessively, anything to stop myself thinking about whether or not I was pregnant. In the end I don’t know if it took my mind off it or wound me up more – the constant chatter about Brexit and the new prime minister, things that seem so long ago now.
I thought about you waiting then too. All the time, those lovely flowers you’d sent me to say ‘thank you’ were in my window, dusting the air with pollen so that the whole house smelled like honey. And I suddenly realised I was so glad that you were out there – how it took the pressure off because, for once, everything wasn’t hanging on my own test result. If it didn’t work out for me, at least you’d still have a chance.
But it did work out, thank God. And later, when they told me you’d had a little boy as well, I was over the moon for you.
Kai came four weeks early, but every year I always think about your boy’s birthday the next month. And often, when I’ve shared pictures of Kai, I’ve wondered if you’re doing the exact same thing – those very first photos when he was brand new, everyone proud and exhausted. Or him grinning in his high-chair, his face smeared with mashed carrots. Or dressed up in tinsel and sheets for a nativity. Or standing by the front door on his first day of school, all tiny in his uniform.
And now he’s stubbly and probably taller than you, about to head off to university or start work, and you can’t believe where the time’s gone.
I do think of it more and more lately – with the boys about to turn eighteen – that your son might look me up. I’d be so curious to see him, and I wonder how he and Kai would get on, if they’d be alike and have things in common.
He might decide not to of course, and it’s his choice. Though if he ever did, I wonder if I’d get to meet you then as well. And I imagine, sometimes, what it would be like. If we’d sit down and have a cup of tea and chat about all the years that have gone between. If you’d be different to how I’ve pictured you.
And I think about how I had no idea what to say to you back then, but if I saw you now, maybe we’d feel like we’d always known each other.
It’s been more than two years since Lucy started her first cycle. She still remembers how strange it was, the way it turned you inside out – seeing all those things you’d never realised were going on in your body. She was so surprised to discover what her follicles actually looked like, for instance. And she remembers how the evening after they’d taken her eggs (sixteen of them in the end! – eight for her and eight for the other family), she and Matt dissolved into hysterics because it was so odd to think about those little bits of themselves getting it on in a dish back in the lab.
She knows it sounds silly, but in spite of the injections and all the poking and prodding, she loved that whole process. Everything about it fascinated her. Sometimes, she used to think, it seemed almost magical.
She remembers lying with her legs in the air while the doctor explained how they’d sandwich the embryo between two air bubbles. The embryo was so small that it would be invisible on the ultrasound, he told her, but the bubbles show up clear and white. And then he sucked the embryo up into a long, wispy plastic tube.
Matt held her hand as they watched the screen: the catheter tube snaking in, the glowing bright bubbles like two little stars. The dark space in-between that was their embryo.
‘In you go, back inside your mum,’ Matt said quietly.
And in that second it had seemed really possible for the first time – that she might become someone’s mum, and her heart almost broke for love of that tiny thing, still too small for anyone to see.
Even before she took the test, Lucy knew she was pregnant. Matt didn’t quite believe it until he actually saw the stick, but she hardly needed the two little lines to appear.
They kept it to themselves as long as they could, only telling their parents and Lucy’s sister. But it was right at twelve weeks, just as they thought it was safe to make it official, that the bleeding started.
At first, the midwife said it wasn’t necessarily anything to worry about. Just rest for a few days, she said. Lucy spent the whole weekend in bed, her hands on her belly, saying over and over, ‘Just stay in there a bit, pet. It’ll be all right.’ She knew deep down, though, that there was nothing she could do. As the midwife said later, it simply wasn’t meant to be that time. Sometimes these things just happen.
They’d never have been able to afford the second try if not for the egg-sharing. Afterwards, when nothing came of it, she did wonder if they’d rushed things and whether she should have waited a while between cycles. Although when you’re 35 you can’t wait around forever.
Of course, if she could have donated again they might have tried a third time. It seemed so unfair that she couldn’t – she knew both her recipients had conceived, so her eggs must have been good, mustn’t they? But by then the clinic had emailed to say she was over their age limit for donors, and thank-you-very-much for everything but they would no longer be able to keep her on their books. So that was that.
And Lucy thinks how strange it is that to look at her now, no one would know any of it had ever happened.
Since they stopped trying, she’s often wondered how the other families’ pregnancies went, but it’s never seemed the right moment to find out. Soon after the second cycle, she mentioned to Matt that she might call, but he didn’t see the point. ‘Best to let all that go,’ he said. And probably he was right, she was in no position to do it then.
Today, though, she’s ready.
She took the clinic’s number off her phone ages ago, so she has to look it up again now. As she waits and listens to it ringing, she thinks, yes, it’s been long enough. Her life is what it is, and she’s OK with that.
The woman who answers says she remembers Lucy. She asks how Lucy’s doing these days, and says yes, she can tell her about the recipient families. She puts Lucy on hold for a few minutes while she looks it up. There was a boy for one family and a girl for the other, the woman says. Both born healthy and well last year.
Lucy puts the phone down, and it’s a moment before she realises that the noise is coming from her – big, silly sobs bubbling up from deep inside. She never cries like this, she thinks. Not even back then.
But the thing is, she’s not crying for what she’s lost or missed out on. Instead, it feels more like she’s been given something. The fact of them, and that she did this, all of that is real and solid. Something to hold onto.
She might even meet them one day, mightn’t she? And her heart does a little flip. For the first time, she lets herself really picture it, and just thinking of seeing them, of wrapping her arms around them and giving them a big hug, makes her feel like she’s going to burst open.
It’s probably best not to dwell on that, of course. She knows it might not ever happen. But even if she never saw them, they’re still out there, aren’t they? Because of her, there are two new people in the world, starting out on their lives.
And they’ll do things she can’t even imagine.
These three stories draw on research into the experiences of egg donors in the UK (Curious Connections and Gilman, 2017), and are the product of a collaboration between sociologist Leah Gilman and writer Becky Tipper.
Here, Leah and Becky reflect on this project:
How will you tell your own children about the child born from your donated eggs? What would you do if that donor-conceived child contacts you? How might you feel if your recipient has a child but you do not? These are the kinds of scenarios which counsellors in fertility clinics routinely ask potential egg donors to grapple with.
In the UK, about a third of all egg donors are ‘egg sharers’. This means they are undergoing their own IVF treatment at reduced cost, in exchange for donating half the eggs they produce. The above questions posed by counsellors require all donors to imagine future outcomes and to think about children who do not yet exist, but they are particularly complex for women who are considering sharing their eggs, whose futures are often experienced as especially uncertain.
It was in the midst of interviews with donors, their families and counsellors that I discovered sociological fiction. Whilst reading Patricia Leavy and Laurel Richardson, I started to wonder if fiction might prove an effective way of sharing our research with women considering egg sharing, and whether such fiction could be a resource for counsellors who help potential donors think through their decision.
Inspired by Kay Inckle (2010), I reasoned that fiction, drawing on the stories of our research participants, might enable potential donors to imagine themselves into possible futures, without imposing a definitive narrative about how they might play out. I liked the fact that fiction places its own partiality centre stage: that this is a story told through the lens of a particular person in a particular time and place. I hoped that engaging with the position of characters, even (or perhaps especially) if they did not identify with them, could enliven the imaginations of potential donors. When I discussed the idea with infertility counsellors, I found practitioners open and enthusiastic about the possibility of a new resource which might support their work.
The decision to seek funding and commission an author to write these stories was both pragmatic and ideological. I was very aware of the risk that, if I attempted this myself, I could fall into what Veronica Policarpo (2018) describes as a ‘no man’s land’, producing something that was neither ‘good’ as fiction nor as sociology. I also considered that the process of, to some extent, ‘letting go’ of the data and my analysis would limit the temptation for me to try to represent a particular person – as though I could ever fully convey the fullness of their experience.
When Leah invited me to work with her on this project, I was instantly intrigued – I write short fiction and also have a background in sociology, but this was the first time I had combined the two.
Sociological fiction is often authored by researchers who already have an intimate knowledge of the data (e.g. Inckle, 2010). In this case, however, I had much to learn – about the data, as well as the terminologies and procedures involved in IVF and egg donation – before I could start to write fully fleshed-out fictions that would ring true to readers familiar with the world of fertility treatment and egg sharing.
As I researched and explored the transcripts, guided by Leah’s insights and analysis, three ideas struck me particularly, and these formed the core of each story:
1) I was surprised to learn that, for some women, choosing to share their eggs could be a relatively uncomplicated, pragmatic decision that they might give little thought to afterwards (Something and Nothing). (But, as this story also explores, an egg donor’s family members might take a very different view.)
2) While I had expected that children born from donated eggs would occupy a significant place in an egg-sharer’s imagination, I quickly discovered that many donors were equally (if not more) fascinated by the unknown woman who would receive their eggs (Pen Portrait).
3) The final story explores a situation where the donated eggs result in children for the recipients but fertility treatment fails to work for the donor herself. I had imagined this would be a ‘nightmare scenario’ – the worst possible outcome for an egg sharer – yet I was deeply moved by the accounts of interviewees who had instead found beauty and meaning in such circumstances.
These were things I hadn’t anticipated and they seemed to offer a basis for compelling and enlightening stories about the many possible ways that egg sharing might be experienced and understood.
Although I avoided replicating any interviewee’s exact words, their voices and turns of phrase obviously informed the stories, sometimes in indirect ways; for instance, more than one person directly compared egg donation to giving away unwanted clothes to a charity shop – a vivid metaphor which I used as the backdrop for Something and Nothing.
These stories, then, are certainly grounded in the data. But the individual characters, their particular arcs, and their inner lives are invented and consciously crafted. The stories employ the tools of fiction that, as Ashleigh Watson (2016) notes, can enable a reader to step into a life quite different to their own and open their mind to new ways of thinking. I’d like to hope that these stories go some way towards achieving that.
The project was planned with this aim in mind and we are currently piloting the use of these stories in counselling sessions with donors. However, what I didn’t anticipate was how much the process of collaboration would give rise to analytical insights. Through the process of curating and discussing the data for and with Becky, I began to read the data differently and question my own assumptions. Several times, I noticed details in Becky’s stories that I assumed she’d imagined, only to later discover them in the interview data. For the whole research team, Becky’s stories and the characters she has created have become part of what we analyse when we think about our participants’ stories and what they can tell us about the social worlds they inhabit.
Leah Gilman is a Research Associate in Sociology at The University of Manchester. Having completed her PhD at The University of Edinburgh, she now works on the Curious Connections project, led by Petra Nordqvist, exploring the impact of sperm and egg donation on donors’ everyday lives. Her research interests include personal relationships, childhood and creative research methods.
Becky Tipper’s short stories have been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, and her fiction has won the Bridport Prize and a Tom-Gallon Award from the UK Society of Authors. She has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester and previously worked as a qualitative researcher.