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'I crowdfunded my egg freezing' and other stories from London's fertility frontlines

Sophie Jewes (Lucy Young)
Sophie Jewes (Lucy Young)

The results of our fertility survey, in partnership with Peanut, painted a desperate picture for some would-be parents. The astronomical cost of housing and childcare had forced many to put their baby-making dreams on ice. 34 per cent of respondents said they’d felt pressured into remaining childfree — and 48 per cent said that was down to finances.

The third of respondents who were undergoing fertility treatment had mostly found it difficult to access (58 per cent said they’d struggled) and expensive. All of this, though, shines a light on the tenacity and resilience of the many people who’ve set their sights on starting a family. Despite the barriers Londoners are getting it done.

Meet four who are transforming the world of fertility in smaller and grander ways.

“I Crowdfunded my egg freezing — it was the best, most life-affirming decision I’ve ever made”

Sophie Jewes (Lucy Young)
Sophie Jewes (Lucy Young)

Less than seven per cent of the respondents to The Standard’s fertility survey said they had frozen their eggs but 70 per cent said it was something they would consider in the future. For Sophie Jewes, the CEO and co-founder of creative agency Raven, the process was made all the easier when she decided to bring her friends and family along for the ride.

“I felt pretty nervy setting up the Crowdfunder page for my egg freezing procedure. In the days leading up to it I messaged a lot of friends like, ‘is this stupid?’, ‘Will people think it’s weird?’, ‘Is it embarrassing?’ They unanimously told me to just go for it.

“I guess if I’m honest, I’d never thought I’d end up needing to do something like egg freezing but a few months before my 35th birthday I had a very sudden breakup, one of those that you really truly don't see coming. And I felt very keenly that at the centre of the break-up, was the idea of my age. He literally said, as he was walking out the door, ‘I’m just wasting your time.’ It seemed like he was painfully aware of my ticking biological clock - and invariably, it made me really conscious of it as well.

“In the weeks and months that followed I went through this period of real soul searching. And I guess, you know, if you’re a 35-year-old woman, who finds themselves suddenly single and with no sense of clarity about what you want to do next, the feeling that you really want to avoid is fear. I didn’t want to have to make a decision that felt rushed. I didn’t even want to date, the idea of ‘getting back in the saddle’ and finding someone else just because I potentially wanted kids was horrifying — and I felt like the most obvious way to take some of the pressure off was to buy a bit of time.

The Crowdfunder was a way to bring my friends and family on this journey with me. A way to make something that had the potential to be really lonely, feel really collaborative

“The crowdfunding idea started as a bit of a joke — and it also wasn’t all about the money. For me, the biggest barrier to actually going through with the egg freezing procedure was a mental one — I was worried about doing it all on my own. I guess having a breakup and then immediately going into something like egg freezing — I felt like it could get pretty lonely. I didn’t want to be scuttling off to clinics and feeling self-conscious about the fact that my boyfriend had just dumped me or the fact that I was having to take these measures to protect what’s left of my youth. I wanted it to feel the opposite of that — I wanted it to feel like a boss move, one that I could own and be proud of.

“So, to me, the Crowdfunder was a way to bring my friends and family on this journey with me. A way to make something that had the potential to be really lonely, feel really collaborative. By lunchtime on the day I set it live, I’d already had so many people messaging to say the nicest things — I was completely overwhelmed by how many people wanted to be kind and to make contributions — old colleagues, people that I hadn't seen for five to 10 years, people from my hometown. In the end I got £3,500 of donations — almost half the £8,000 I needed to cover the costs of the procedure — and beyond that, I felt this overwhelming sense of love and support. People were so kind and so gorgeous, and I got to have some profound conversations because I didn’t hide it all away.

“The procedure itself went well — my parents came to stay to support me, which was also a really lovely bonding experience. Now I rarely think about the eggs, I’m just happy to know they’re safe and on ice. And whenever anyone asks about my experience I want to shout about it from the rooftops. Anyone considering egg freezing should try crowdfunding it — you’d be surprised by how much love there is in the world.”

“I ended up in hospital having fluid drained from my lungs — my experience is a perfect example of the issues women of colour face when trying to access fertility treatment”

Jenny Okona-Mensah (Matt Writtle)
Jenny Okona-Mensah (Matt Writtle)

When it comes to fertility treatment, the majority of respondents to The Standard’s survey found that the NHS offering was poorly funded, hard to access and often lacked answers to some of the most pressing fertility questions that our respondents had. For Jenny Okona-Mensah, the Ethnic Minorities Community Project Worker at the Fertility Network UK, the situation proved to be almost fatal

“Black patients tend to face the most barriers when it comes to accessing fertility treatments. I hear about it in the community engagement work I do, and in our fertility groups: black patients will visit healthcare professionals or GPs but end up being fobbed off by doctors because of biases around people from those communities being ‘hyperfertile’. Much of my work at the Fertility Network is about advocacy and activism — making sure policymakers and people who can truly affect systemic change hear about these inequalities and tackle them.

“I first became aware of the Fertility Network because of my own struggles with getting pregnant. Like a lot of people it wasn’t until my late 30s that I met someone who I actually wanted to start a family with — although, I never envisaged it would be as problematic as it ended up being. Initially when I raised my fertility worries with my GP, not much was offered to me in terms of help or advice although eventually, I was referred to get the testing done — and it was decided that fertility treatment would be the best course of action.

“It really surprised how involved and invasive it was — and how many steps were required, though I did end up becoming pregnant through my one NHS-funded round of IVF. It was a complicated pregnancy from the start, I was hospitalised on ten occasions because of severe hyperemesis (nausea and vomiting) and unfortunately, I did end up miscarrying. The fertility treatment had made me severely ill — I got ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a danger which I don’t feel I was made sufficiently aware of, and after the miscarriage, I ended up in hospital for three weeks, having to have a chest drain because fluid had accumulated in my lungs. The loneliness of the entire experience was breathtaking - but I just kept thinking ‘there's got to be other people going through this, I can’t be the only one’.

“I found the Fertility Network incredibly helpful — and as I was already working as a therapist at the time, I wondered if I could put my traumatic experience to use somehow. I saw that they had a role available specifically doing some focused work with people from ethnic minority— or global majority, as I prefer — communities. I felt like I've got a lot to add: my heritage is Ghanaian, I was born and raised in south London and I thought there might be others from similar backgrounds who’d appreciate talking to me. Now my work brings me into contact with a lot of people who’re going through similar experiences, as well as many who’re just curious about fertility treatment but don’t necessarily feel comfortable asking a doctor.

Jenny Okona-Mensah: 'Some people from the communities I do outreach with deeply distrust medical services — it’s something we saw particularly in the pandemic' (Matt Writtle)
Jenny Okona-Mensah: 'Some people from the communities I do outreach with deeply distrust medical services — it’s something we saw particularly in the pandemic' (Matt Writtle)

“Some people from the communities I do outreach with deeply distrust medical services — it’s something we saw particularly in the pandemic. They harbour fears around what will be done to them. And when you look at the statistics around maternal health for black women, it can be frightening — I remember being told myself that I was a high risk pregnancy because I’m a black woman. You hear that and it’s hard not to be fearful.

“There is also stigma and taboo within some communities and that presents a barrier as well. People don’t go to see their GP because they fear family members will find out or they’re ashamed that they’re experiencing fertility issues. Lack of information is its own barrier — and my job is just to empower people with the knowledge they need to make their fertility journey as smooth as possible.

“I think unless you’ve been through something, you can underestimate how useful it is to find a community who can support you and offer some understanding. That’s what I found — and that’s what I try to build now in my work, understanding through community.”

“I’m the CEO of a co-parenting matchmaking agency — the time to embrace alternative family structures is here”

Gillian McCallum (Gillian McCallum)
Gillian McCallum (Gillian McCallum)

Nineteen per cent of respondents to the Standard’s survey were single and 89 per cent were worried about their fertility. As matchmaker Gillian McCallum has found, though, having a family doesn’t have to mean finding a romantic partner

“Our services start from £10,000 and once we take someone on as a client, and we’ve gotten to know everything from their favourite hobby to their political views, we make ten introductions to people we think would make a good potential co-parent.

“The concept of co-parenting isn’t new but I do think it’s really growing in popularity and of course, elective — or platonic — co-parenting is only just beginning to enter mainstream consciousness. I think it’s a symptom of the last five years — and very much thanks to the pandemic, people have really begun to take control of their fertility. That period gave us a lot of time to think and for many, it helped to crystallise an image of what they wanted their ideal future to look like.

“We help our clients with all stages of the process, starting with a lot of careful questioning about what they imagine a co-parenting scenario to be, what their values and interests are and what they want in a fellow co-parent. You know, if someone is an opera buff who spends most nights at dinner parties, we wouldn’t want to introduce them to a person who enjoys chips in front of the TV every night — their lifestyles wouldn’t match, it’d cause too much friction.

“Most people have already done a lot of soul searching by this point so I’ve had ladies in the past say, like ‘I know I want this - and I want to get pregnant in my next cycle’. I always say I’m happy to make the introductions but caution that four weeks doesn’t give them much time to get to know the other person. Within UK law any agreement that you make about a child before it is born is not actually legally binding after they’re here in the world — and so there’s a degree of trust needed, you have to be certain that the other person will fulfil their commitments.

When the time to get pregnant comes, everything is done in a clinical setting. We always recommend that our co-parents keep their relationship strictly platonic

“And once a couple have met and they’re happy to do this together, there are a lot of decisions to be made. We help them set everything down: who gets Christmases, how they’ll negotiate the introduction of new partners, all the financial details of course, how summer holidays should be split. We ask them to discuss schooling and hobbies — do they want the child to play sports, for instance, and if so, whose responsibility is it to get them to practise? I often describe it as a post-divorce scenario but without any of the arguments, bickering or resentment. We recommend the child stays primarily with the mother for the first year, then it’s up to them. We also arrange for our clients to see a lawyer, so they can begin familiarising themselves with the legal implications of having a child in a co-parenting scenario.

“When the time to get pregnant comes, everything is done in a clinical setting, which we also help to arrange. We always recommend that our co-parents keep their relationship strictly platonic — though, of course, one or two have formed romantic attachments. Some choose to move in together for those very intense first few months, and then revert to their pre-agreed arrangement. For us the most important thing is that we’re creating strong, lasting family units — formed of people who’re keen to work as a team. We avoid scenarios where one partner wants to do the majority of the care because that’s not, strictly speaking, co-parenting. And if someone wants to parent solo, there are many other ways to make that happen. For us, it’s about that small family unit — there’s no romance but we try and ensure that there’ll be a lot of love.”

thecoparentingagency.com

“I’m the CEO and co-founder of spermtech company ExSeed — sperm counts are dropping worldwide and men need to take responsibility for their fertility”

Morten G. Ulsted (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Morten G. Ulsted (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

More than 52 per cent of respondents to The Standard’s survey said that fertility worries had impacted their relationship - with women carrying much of the burden of responsibility for anything fertility-related. But as Morten G. Ulsted found when he became part of the team which invented a phone-powered microscope for at-home sperm testing, 40 per cent of infertility comes down to the man. They set about educating a generation of men

“According to NHS data, one in six couples will experience infertility — and around 40 per cent of that inability to conceive is male related. But if you look at the current treatment paradigm and the national discourse, the focus is all on women. That really places an unfair emotional burden on women — and also, it excludes men, some of whom, according to our research, are even unwilling to set foot in a fertility clinic. It was my business partner - the founder of Exseed, Emil Anderson, a PhD researcher specialising in reproductive health — who first set about creating a fertility product that would actually appeal to men.

“We started working on it in about 2016 and by 2020 ExSeed was certified as a medical device. It's smartphone-compatible and turns your phone camera into a microscope which can analyse sperm, taking into account volume, sperm count and motility. We’ve known since about 2017 — when the findings of a big metastudy published — that male fertility had dropped by half in the 40 years to 2000. And actually that drop has accelerated since 2000. Those findings certainly helped shine a light on the fact that fertility is not just a woman's issue, it's a couple's issue - but working on ExSeed we saw that there were still a lot of barriers to overcome, in terms of getting men to engage with their fertility.

Toxic masculinity has a lot to answer for — and many men seem to equate fertility with their sense of identity. It’s completely unnecessary

“There are lots of theories around why the drop in male fertility has happened; some scientists argue that it’s partially down to chemical exposure — male foetuses coming into contact with microplastics and BPAs [chemicals used in plastics] in the womb, which can disrupt endocrine signals and have an effect on testosterone production. Lifestyle factors are also believed to play a big role, though — a sedentary unhealthy lifestyle can affect sperm counts. On the bright side, that does mean that men have it within their power to affect change. It takes 72 days to produce a mature sperm cell, so for the men whose low sperm count is caused by poor diet, or a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise, they can commit to lifestyle changes now, and realistically improve their fertility parameters within three months. That’s part of what we offer — if your test scores come back on the lower side, the app gives you advice on how to make changes, and which changes will have the biggest impact on fertility.

Morten G. Ulsted: ' (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Morten G. Ulsted: ' (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

“We’ve found that for many men, the hardest part of dealing with fertility issues is separating the idea of fertility from ‘virility’. Toxic masculinity has a lot to answer for — and many men seem to equate fertility with their sense of identity. It’s completely unnecessary — and even though these stigmatised health issues are getting easier to tackle, in an ideal world, it would all happen much quicker. The fact is infertility is becoming a global problem. It's certainly not just a Western issue - the declining fertility rates we've seen in Western Europe are now being replicated across the world. The sooner men can are empowered to play their part in improving outcomes, the easier it’ll be to avert a crisis.”