Elinor reviews Lesbian Conception 101 by Kathy Borkoski

lesbian conception 101

My wife and I decided a few months back to try to have a baby. Naturally, I’ve been reading everything that exists on the subject. There aren’t a ton of books out there for queer women trying to get pregnant. One of the most accessible is Lesbian Conception 101: An easy-to-follow, how-to get started guide for lesbians thinking about getting pregnant tomorrow or in a couple of years by Kathy Borkoski. Borkoski doesn’t preach about the way you ought to things. She lays out your getting-pregnant options, and offers some cost-saving tips and exercises for figuring out what you want. The book focuses exclusively on conception, which can keep things from being overwhelming when you’re starting the process.

Lesbian Conception 101 isn’t the most comprehensive book about getting pregnant that exists. It’s very short–less than 100 pages–and some of that is devoted to the voices of women who’d gone through the process. While these personal stories are interesting and at times reassuring, they typically don’t delve into a lot of details that you can apply to your own life. It’s decidedly written for cisgender lesbian couples and if this isn’t you, your mileage may vary. Sections include deciding who will carry, ways to get sperm, and options for insemination. Borkoski includes options for using known and unknown donors, and insemination choices from low-tech at home up to IVF.

I wish Borkoski had included more suggestions for further reading. If you want more information about tracking your fertility, for example, a few more resources would have been nice. Also, some of your experiences might be different from the book. Borkoski’s description of intrauterine insemination involved much more medical monitoring than I experienced. Likewise, the section on questions you’ll be asked, while a good way to prepare yourself, might not be anything like the questions you’ll actually be asked. (The weirdest question my wife and I got was, “Are you two adopting or using a surrogate?” To which I got to reply, “We’re going to try to use one of the two uteruses we have between us.” Also, multiple people asked if we could chose the sex of our baby). Still, it’s a good starting off point. If you aren’t interested in ever getting pregnant or having a pregnant partner, you don’t need this book. But if you are, this is one of the easiest books out there about lesbian baby making.

Elinor reviews Saving Delaney by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl

saving delaney from surrogacy to unexpected family ott-dahl cover

Saving Delaney: From Surrogacy to Unexpected Family is an interesting memoir and an unusual story. Written by Keston and Andrea Ott-Dahl, it’s told from Keston’s perspective as she and her partner, Andrea, become parents to a daughter with Down syndrome. Their daughter, Delaney, was longed for–but not by them. Andrea had been a surrogate for a lesbian couple who’d tried unsuccessfully to become parents other ways. The couple, Liz and Erica, were thrilled when Andrea became pregnant through insemination. Then prenatal testing revealed that the fetus had Down syndrome and the doctor predicted the fetus also had other serious disabilities and the pregnancy would likely end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Liz and Erica made the heart-wrenching decision to terminate the pregnancy. But Andrea wouldn’t. Her research suggested that the doctor was wrong in his most dire predictions and he was using standards of typical prenatal development when he should have compared the baby using the standards of prenatal development of babies with Down syndrome. Andrea decided to keep the baby and raise it herself if Liz and Erica wouldn’t, Keston got on board, and that’s exactly what they did.

Andrea and Keston’s backgrounds make the story even more complicated. Keston is sixteen years older than Andrea and has one adult child slightly older than Andrea, and a teenage son who has all but left the house when the couple meet. Andrea has two young children and is recently out of an abusive marriage to a man. Like Andrea, Keston’s children were both conceived in relationships with men and without difficulty. They aren’t prepared for the challenges of non-intercourse conception when Andrea excitedly volunteers to be a surrogate for a couple in their extended social circle. Andrea wants to be a surrogate to help the couple, and for the money it would bring in. Secretly she’s also hoping that carrying a child for another couple would help her ease the guilt she feels over an abortion she had years earlier, when she was preparing to leave her violent husband. Keston’s struggling with the recent death of her mother and the choices she had to make at the end of her mother’s life. This takes an important role in the book, as Keston’s imagined conversations with her late mother guide her and reveal her inner feelings. Some of those feelings include hate and fear of people with disabilities.

The story is largely framed around Keston’s journey away from prejudice and toward advocacy for her daughter. It’s moving, but it’s also not the most useful or nuanced frame. Plus in her pre-Delaney days, Keston says and thinks horrible things about people with disabilities. If you pick this up, be prepared for slurs and worse. If you don’t want to slog through that, don’t force yourself. I appreciated that Keston was ultimately educated, thanks to Andrea, and that she did bring some compassion when others initially weren’t accepting. It didn’t make her early beliefs or comments easier, though.

Keston tried to tell this complex story fairly, mostly avoiding easy villains, but there are some slip ups. For one thing, some of the drama of the situation could have been avoided with a little caution, planning, and communication. Keston and Andrea don’t read the contract carefully before agreeing to surrogacy, and Keston, Andrea, Liz and Erica don’t have the tough conversations they ought to before deciding to go forward with surrogacy. Tension starts before the pregnancy too, as it takes over half a year to get pregnant, they all decide to add known sperm donors into the mix without a clear legal agreement in place, and the doctor they work with isn’t a great fit for Andrea and Keston. When Keston and Andrea decide to keep the baby and raise her without Liz and Erica, they aren’t as sensitive as they could be to Liz and Erica’s devastation, or the shock Andrea’s already leery family is experiencing. It’s occasionally tiresome to read about somewhat unnecessary complication, but the many, many bumps in the road do add intrigue to the story and keep it moving along.

I felt for Liz and Erica a lot and wished I knew more of what happened after they and the Ott-Dahls stopped speaking to each other. The doctor had painted a pretty bleak picture aside from Down syndrome, and I couldn’t imagine paying thousands of dollars for a surrogate to carry on with a pregnancy that a doctor said likely wasn’t viable. The couple had already gone through fertility treatments, cycles of hope and disappointment, and had at least one adoption fall through. It made sense to me that they weren’t as optimistic as Andrea and Keston and that they wanted to have some control over the process. Trying to add a child to your family, however you go about it, can be scary and leave you feeling powerless. From their perspective, this is not a heartwarming tale.

One thing I hated in this book–and another reason that I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it–was the way Keston wrote about Liz and Erica’s infertility. More than once Keston, Keston’s imagined mother, or Andrea says something like, “Some people aren’t meant to be parents,” or implies that the couple’s struggles to have a child means that they shouldn’t have one. It was interesting to me the way this attitude connected to Keston’s self-proclaimed prejudice around ability. The idea that some experiences aren’t “meant” for a person because that person needs assistance or their body works differently is a common theme in justifying ableism. Also, the ability to get pregnant is in no way correlated with the ability to parent and I think we all sort of know that. Still, if you’re trying to conceive or have experienced infertility, reading those comments in the memoir will be horrifying, depressing and/or rage-inducing, and you might want to steer clear.

If you aren’t dealing with that and you can roll with some harsh language and inaccurate ideas about folks with disabilities in the earlier chapters, you might like this book. It’s a unique situation and it makes you think. It is an easy read, it’s fast paced, and parts of the story are pretty moving. But think carefully before picking it up, because this book is not for everyone.

Elinor reviews The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Lesbians: How to Stay Sane and Care for Yourself from Pre-conception Through Birth, Second Edition by Rachel Pepper

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After I got married earlier this year, a surprising number of people started asking if my wife and I were going to have kids, and when, and how we were going to go about it. The answer is yes, we’d like to in a couple of years, and I’d probably like to be pregnant. Perhaps prompted by these questions and my lifelong tendency to over-prepare, I picked up a copy of Rachel Pepper’s classic. With caveats, I recommend it to anyone interested in getting pregnant without having sex with a man.

I’m glad I read this book a few years before I was hoping to conceive, because I had no idea how expensive getting lesbian-pregnant can be or how long it takes, even if you don’t have fertility challenges. We’d probably go to a sperm bank, and I learned from this book that sperm is really pricey. I also learned that without fresh sperm it’s more difficult to get pregnant, but using fresh sperm (from, say, your best guy friend, via jar and a plastic tube) can put you in a murky legal position that allows your donor to claim parental rights and fight about custody. There is no perfect solution, and this helpful section of the book lays out the pros and cons of different gay lady conception options so you can find the best choice for you. It also covers in detail how to figure out when you’re ovulating, a necessity if you want to get pregnant with sperm donation.

Unfortunately I think if you read this book while trying to get pregnant, you’ll panic because it sounds like everything takes so long and costs so much. If you are interested in possibly becoming pregnant one day, or hoping to have a pregnant partner in the future, read this book sooner rather than later. It won’t nag you to have babies before you’re ready. It will provide useful information about the process so you’ll know about getting sperm and how to most effectively use it, what pre-pregnancy tests and nutrients you need, and how to determine your peek fertility days.

Where the book falters is in its prescriptions for your pregnancy, birth experience, and your parenting. Pepper’s opinions are presented as facts. Her passion for home births, attachment parenting, and breastfeeding, and against circumcision, make no allowances for people with different values or circumstances, and could needlessly make you feel guilty. I think this unintentionally is another reason to read this book before you’re in the thick of trying to conceive: when you’re trying to get pregnant, or you’re a new parent, people will give you a lot of unsolicited advice. Some of it will be terrible, very little of it will be necessary, and it will almost always be more about the person giving the advice than it is about you. If you can start tuning out the “right way to be pregnant/give birth/be a mother” noise you’re subjected to from Pepper, you’ll be ready for that same noise from strangers, friends, or relatives. But it would probably be tougher to question Pepper’s claims if you’re reading it while you’re waiting on a pregnancy test and you’re feeling anxious and vulnerable.

This book is also almost a decade old, and some of the information is out of date. For example, since I live in California and my wife and I are legally married, we wouldn’t have to go through second parent adoption if one of us has a baby. That wasn’t the case when the second edition of this book was published in 2005, and the legal preparations suggested in this book may be unnecessary depending on where you live. Likewise, Pepper’s information about charting your fertility was written before the age of apps, and now there are several apps that make it easy to keep track of your cycle, possibly much easier than the methods Pepper suggests. It did make me wonder if reproductive technology options have evolved too, and I’d want to do more research before I try to get pregnant.

[trigger warning: transphobic slur]

Another strange thing about this book is Pepper’s references to “tranny pops,” which sounds like a really offensive snack food. She’s trying include transgender fathers, but using a slur that’s often aimed at trans women just made me wince. It’s particularly strange because the book doesn’t mention trans women in lesbian relationships even once. Since I know a few trans women who date women, and a cis woman and a trans woman who have biological kids together, I thought it warranted a couple of pages. Even without bottom surgery, trans women can have fertility issues from hormones, so if they want to have a child with a cis female partner, they might need to do some planning. Or at least they could be acknowledged, since transgender men get a few shout-outs in this lesbian book.

I also thought the book was a tad more focused on single women than it was at lesbian couples. The book is rooted in Pepper’s personal experience, and she’s always been a single parent. The writing is mostly aimed at the person who’ll be pregnant, without as much exploration of the non-pregnant mom-to-be’s experience as my wife and I would have liked. I might eat my words on this, but Pepper spends a bit of ink preparing you, future pregnant women, for your possibly unsupportive, non-pregnant girlfriend who won’t take your pregnancy as seriously as you do. Clearly, people have this experience, but there are also plenty of dedicated non-biological lesbian moms who are there every step of the way. I wanted a little more support and advice for expecting mothers who aren’t pregnant and whose experiences are often minimized or erased. I also would have liked some suggestions about deciding as a couple how you want to parent and sorting out the conflicts that will inevitably arise between a pair of new moms.

If you want nothing to do with pregnancy, definitely skip it. But it is well worth a read if you’re interested in the subject matter, ideally a few years before you’re ready to conceive. Don’t make it your only pregnancy or parenting guidebook, and skip or side-eye Pepper’s advice after the section on conception. For the business of getting pregnant the lesbian way, though, it’s great resource.