Donor Conception Awareness Day with Sarah Stirk

Image of Sarah and baby Milo with the caption 'Donor Conception Awareness Week'.

To mark International Donor Conception Awareness Day, we thought it would be good to catch up with Sarah Stirk and learn more about her experiences with the sperm donor process and how she found the journey to conception.

For those who didn’t tune into our Live with Sarah on National Single Parent Day, she talked to us about her decision to conceive her baby boy Milo via donor sperm and IVF without a partner. As it's National Donor Conception Awareness Day, we wanted to find out more about the sperm donor process – something which really isn’t spoken about enough.

Sarah very kindly joined us for an Instagram Live from her holiday in Portugal. You can watch the interview again here or scroll down to read a transcript.

So, Sarah… probably the burning question for anyone watching this out of curiosity and wondering, could this be the conception route for them is probably: where do you even start?

It’s hard. In my situation I needed to look at a route. I’d heard about the sperm donor clinics; I’d heard a couple of friends and contacts had gone to the United States and a few had mentioned fertility clinics around the country. It’s word of mouth a lot of this things. It’s referrals and talking to friends and contacts.

Really, it’s a long time ago for me and when you first start looking, you don’t know where to start all of this, it’s a complete minefield. It blows your mind. Where do you even start looking to start this process? Where do you turn? I think for me it was literally about finding information in magazines and speaking to friends and contacts in a similar situation.

Me and my partner at the time ended up going to CRYOS in Denmark.

It still blows my mind now to think little Milo is here now and he’s safe and healthy but that whole concept of getting your head around not knowing the person who is the sperm donor is still really hard. I know when I was seven or eight months pregnant, I did freak out about it a little bit.

When it comes to finding a sperm donor, do you look to go down finding a male friend route who might kindly donate sperm – it can be as crude as that, I’m being quite blunt and honest about it but that’s how it is.

I’m in a same sex relationship, I want to be a mum. What are my options?

I ended up wanting to go down the sperm donor route with CRYOS in Denmark and one of the main reasons for that was because I could get baby pictures of the sperm donor. I felt there was a little bit more information available in Denmark, as opposed to over here in the UK.

Can you talk us through your journey to finding your sperm donor?

There’s been a few articles in the British press over the past few years about Viking sperm donors. A lot of women in same sex couples going to Scandinavia because they could find out more information about the sperm donor. There was a bit more knowledge including baby pictures and their family history. I think in Denmark as well it’s more normal than it is here in the UK and quite a common thing to do.

So, once you’ve decided which route to go down, you start to question, what am I looking for? It’s just trying to look at those characteristics like, what sort of educational standards would you want them to have? Is he sporty? I think for me the baby pictures were really important to me. I wanted to know what he looked like when he was a baby.

It’s mad, it’s like online dating. You end up trawling through loads of profiles, it feels like the same thing! You’re trawling through so much information, you don’t really know – you’re just going on your best guess; what some of the key characteristics are for you and you have to trust that they’re a good, reputable clinic, which CRYOS are, and that it all works out. Thankfully for me, it did.

The other thing I would say was important to me was that the donor writes a handwritten note. That was quite touching for me. Of course, there’s a commercial element for these donors, they’re getting paid. I know a lot of them are young men maybe in full time education, for whom the money is really important but the heartfelt message about wanting to help people become parents was really touching. I think I’ll always look back at that as it’s quite meaningful to me.

Sarah and baby Milo sit in a nursing chair cuddling
Sarah posing for a photoshoot with baby bump
Baby Milo lying on his mum's legs, yawning.

Can anyone seek a sperm donor or are there specific criteria you need to meet?

No. Obviously some of it was done through the clinic as well. I was with Care Fertility in London so they could refer and recommend clinics as well so that was really good. It’s basically a case of going along and buying it. You’re buying it so it’s just choosing it. It sounds bizarre but it’s almost like you don’t want to think about it too much in a way, does that make sense?

What was the experience like for yourself emotionally?

If you’re in a heterosexual relationship, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy as fertility issues are commonplace now and it’s awful but with a same sex relationship, you have to think practically, what are my options? I think you kind of have to take the logic and a lot of the reasoning and the emotion out of it and think how do I get my little baby? How do I make that happen?

I have to say that the process and the information that you get with CRYOS is amazing.

The other thing for me was that I went through several rounds of IVF, and I froze the embryos. I actually had another donor, so I’ve basically got two more frozen embryos left and they’re both with different donors. So, I could have a sibling for Milo but the other embryo is with another donor so that’s complicated as well, I guess!

They have a limit on how many live pregnancies they can have in a specific country. With the HFAA, that’s monitored as well. Live births are recorded and then if they reach that particular quota, they can’t have anymore. Again, if you really think about that – it could freak you out. You just have to stick to your goals and your dreams and stay focused on having your little baby so how do you get there.

Obviously now I’m delighted with the process and everything!

What other personal information do you have about the donor?

Again, with the Danish sperm bank, I found that the information was quite thorough, you could get a lot. Same with America as well, you can get a bit more information than the UK, but I just felt I wanted to be a bit closer to home.

I think because it’s a bit more commonplace in Denmark, it just felt like the natural fit for me. And yes, the idea of trying to have a blonde haired, blue eyed Scandi boy was quite appealing to me! You get information on their education and what they’re doing now. You get all of their health checks and medical background including family history and any hereditary diseases.

It’s all really strict in terms of the checks. You know they’re only able to donate if they’ve been tested and cleared. And as I mentioned before, the profile we got at the end was really nice. You’re not just seeing a name with some statistics; you’re actually seeing a name and the handwritten note was really sweet to me.

Also, something really important to note is you can choose anonymous or non-anonymous. So when your baby is grown up and turns 18, they have the choice, if you want, for them to reach out and find out who their father is.

I’ve given Milo the option. So, in his donor’s handwritten note, it says, I can’t promise I’ll be the same person as I am now but if your child wants to reach out to me when he’s older, I’ll be happy to meet and chat. Again, that’s really confusing, and I haven’t even thought about that as it’s a long way off but I didn’t want Milo asking me when he gets older and me not knowing the answers so I want to give him the option to meet his dad. That was important to me and actually, that narrows the options down. A lot of donors might be doing it for commercial gain; they might be trying to help but some of them will not want to be sought out when the baby becomes a man or a woman.

I think it’s a 50:50 split between donors that are anonymous and non-anonymous at CRYOS.

Sarah poses with baby Milo for a photoshoot.
Sarah stands in a forest, wrapped up warm, with baby Milo on her chest in a baby carrier.
Baby Milo lying down wearing a knitted blue hat and babygrow.

You mentioned there’s a quota on the live births that are allowed from the one donor but what if Milo wanted to find out whether he had siblings from that donor, is that an option?

No. That’s an issue really. They can’t have unlimited births obviously around the world as that’s strange and it is bizarre. I mean it’s bizarre to think he will probably have half-sisters and half-brothers from his donor, but you wouldn’t want to know that I don’t think. You’ve got your little family and you’re the unit. To know he can seek out his dad if he wants to when he’s older is a nice thing.

Is there any counselling or support available to people who go through the donor process?

To be honest, I didn’t seek it out. It did feel very transactional for me because I think that’s just what it’s like. It’s something I’ve spoken about a lot with IVF in the past and I think it’s getting better when it comes to counselling from the IVF point of view. I think in terms of the sperm donor process and the sperm banks though, it’s literally – what do you need? What are you looking for? Purchase it and try and create your dream family.

It’s something I’d say needs to happen more in terms of everything to do with fertility. There’s a huge emotional impact on peoples’ lives and I think it does probably need to be better. I’d say that across the board.

What would you say to anyone keen to find out more but nervous of taking the plunge?

Just keep the bigger picture in mind. I’ve had quite a few people reach out after the Live we did last time and from things that I’ve posted. Quite a few people have reached out including single mums; people going through IVF, or the sperm donation process and I hope that people watching this or reading afterwards feel as though they can reach out to me for any further advice. I’m more than happy to have a quick chat and offer advice. I’d love to help.

When you’re going through it, you do feel very alone. Yes, you’ve got your support but it’s really not easy. IVF’s not easy, finding the sperm donor isn’t easy. Trying to create a family in a same sex relationship, none of it’s easy but it’s keeping in mind the bigger picture and what you’re trying to achieve. You want a family; you want to be a mum. It’s maintaining that mindset really, just keeping the end goal in sight and not getting bogged down with, this is hard, or this is weird or difficult. Because it is. It’s not easy but it’s also amazing to think you can create a life and opportunities by doing this.

Finding the right clinic and right donor bank and then you’re on the way to having that dream family.

Thinking about finding a sperm donor… you could talk to people in the dating world who’ve been on Tinder, Hinge; Match or whatever and when they’re there with their wife or their husband, scrolling through all those profiles, you don’t think at the time you’re ever going to get there but you have to believe and have hope that you will.

Thank you so much. I’m sure so many others are going to find all of this information so helpful and inspiring.

For anyone who would like further help and support on conceiving via donor conception, the wonderful Eloise, founder of The Fertility Help Hub has armed us with some amazing tips and advice. To find out more, read our interview with Eloise on Alternative Ways to Conceive.