Hilary Fannin: An immaculately modern conception

My neighbour, who had always wanted a child, was told that she had about six months to conceive

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock


I went to visit a neighbour of mine and brought a busy Lizzie and a notebook. We stood looking out at her suburban garden: Kelly green grass, sky an unbroken band of Virgin Mary blue, bedding plants neatly spaced, birds swooping and feathering nearby nests. She made me a cup of mint tea. The sun came out. We were a heartbeat short of picket-fence perfection.

I have traced the outlines of suburban life for most of my days, occasionally straying over the edges, colouring the sun blue, the trees red.

Growing up in one of Dublin’s new suburbs in the 1960s, it seemed like the rules of engagement were etched on our palms, tattooed on our prayers, inked on our souls.

There was a house and garden and a daddy and a mammy, and a boy in short pants with a pocket full of conkers and an occasionally troublesome bicycle. There were his sisters, straightening their hairbands, pushing their dollies’ prams up and down the bleached road, washing their hands before their tea. Oh, and when God wanted mammy to have another baby, he planted a seed in her womb and a little acorn grew, or maybe he planted a plum tree. I had a tendency to go a bit off-piste when it came to the birds and the bees; there was just too much smoke and far too many mirrors for my liking.

The most vivid flower

We turned back into the living room, my neighbour and I, that sunny morning, to view the most lovely, vivid flower in her happy home: a tiny baby called Sadie, with cerise-pink socks and eyelashes as long as a moon ray.

The rarely spotted Virgin Mary sky might not have changed hue since those 1960s sandal days, but much else has changed for the brighter.

Sadie was conceived by her mother, Jean, who is 32, through intra-uterine insemination (IUI). The process was carried out in a Dublin clinic, using sperm from a Danish sperm bank. On the day of Sadie’s birth, Jean’s mother, Eileen (the proud proprietor of the sunny garden), cut the cord. The insemination process nine months earlier had fallen on Eileen’s birthday.

In her early teens, Jean was treated for cancer. Someone, somewhere along the line, said that the treatment would affect her fertility, but Eileen must have blanked that out, her focus being entirely on her daughter’s survival. Then, at 31, Jean, who comes from a large extended family and had always wanted a child, was told that her fertility was indeed low, so low that she now had about six months to conceive.

Assisted conception

There are wonderful, extraordinary, impressive facts surrounding the process of Sadie’s arrival, information that Jean wants other women who, for whatever reason, are considering IUI, and other methods of assisted conception, to know.

While Sadie’s curious month-old eyes scanned her mother’s face, Jean told me about the forms she had signed, the boxes she had ticked. She was asked to choose her donor’s eye and hair colour, his height and build.

His race too?

Caucasian was the only option on offer, Jean told me.

Under a section titled “other”, she could nominate characteristics that would be important to her. Jean, who dances and sings, opted for someone interested in music.

“They gave me a recording of his voice,” she said.

His voice. Such an ephemeral, ungraspable thing. (Sometimes, and I digress here, I hear the voice of my friend, who died last year. I hear her so clearly, fleetingly; a smoke wisp, a tone that somehow is her.)

A brief medical history of the donor would also be made available. In fact, there was plenty of donor information to be had. A woman can even purchase the exclusive use of her donor’s sperm if she wants to try to conceive another child. But information and exclusivity come at a price.

Importantly, Jean received guidance on how to discuss her daughter’s conception with Sadie herself. When Sadie is 18, she can access the donor’s personal information and, if she chooses, contact him.

Given Jean’s experience, I ask what she would say to other women knocking on fertility’s fickle door.

“Get an egg-count check,” she replies instantly. “It should be as available as a breast check or a smear test. We need to be aware of our fertility status. We need to be talking; we need information to make decisions.”

On New Year’s Eve, Jean, accompanied by her mother, went for her 20-week scan. Jean asked the radiographer to write down the baby’s sex and put it in an envelope. At midnight, they toasted their extraordinary fortune and opened the envelope.

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