A lot of folks are curious about the nuts and bolts of artificial insemination (AI). As a scientist, I totally get that. Today’s post is in response to the oft repeated question ‘So, how does that work?’
I’ve already talked about the preliminary (and IMHO, most important) steps: thinking about why we want a child and looking at all the options available to us, keeping in mind the legal, ethical, and emotional implications of each option. Our next step involved reading two books, Taking Charge of Your Fertility and The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth. For heterosexual couples trying to conceive, the first book is probably sufficient. For us the second was really important because it covers topics that are unique to lesbian couples–considering the range of donor options, deciding who will carry, defining the role of the non-birth mother, and timing insemination with the viability of frozen sperm. Both books taught us how to chart R’s fertility signs so that we could accurately predict ovulation and time the insemination accordingly.
When the chart suggests we’re within a week of ovulation, we call the cryobank and order vials of our donor’s sperm. The vials arrive in a large tank that looks like this:
We sit and stare at the tank until an ovulation predictor test confirms that R is experiencing the hormonal surge that occurs just prior to ovulation. The test shows a blank circle when the hormone is not detected, and a smiley face when it is. This can be a stressful time, because the tank only holds its charge for 7 days. If we don’t detect the hormone surge within 5 or 6 days of the tank’s arrival, we have to rush the vials a local fertility clinic for storage, which is exactly what happened this month. The text conversation below adequately captures the stress involved in that midday field trip.
Since the vials cost between $250 and $630 apiece, one must treat them as precious cargo, like so:
When we finally get the smiley face that indicates pending ovulation, we remove the vials from the shipping dewar (or the cooler with dry ice, as the case may be) and that’s when things get serious.
The first time we opened the dewar and removed the vial, the nitrogen vapors created a small cloud around my face and I immediately felt like I was in a B-grade sci-fi movie. I couldn’t follow that thought train too far down the tracks though, because the sperm have short viability once thawed and there was no time to lose! The vial was too cold to handle right out of the tank, so I had to put it on the counter until it could be warmed by hand; that’s when I noticed how tiny it is!
Once the tiny vial is warmed to room temperature, it’s ready for use. And then we enter the dreaded two week wait. We continue charting R’s temperature and other fertility signs, proceeding as though we’ll need the data for the next cycle while trying to remain optimistic that we won’t. A lot of women start testing for pregnancy from 9 days after insemination, but we try to wait until day 14. We’ve found it’s best to hold on to our optimism as long as possible. Right now we’ve got several talismans to supply us with energy and hope during the two week wait: a ceramic fish from Israel, a medicine wheel made by our friend’s mother, and a tiny red and white striped hat that R wore on her first Christmas. If The Bean is taking root right now, she’ll arrive sometime around Christmas. And that sounds perfect to me.