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Episode 289

Jess & Manda

In today’s interview I chat to Queer couple Jess (she/her) and Manda (she/her/they) about the steps they took to create their family and the experience of being a gender non-conforming human while pregnant. We have a joyous and enlightening conversation about home insemination, pregnancy challenges, navigating the suggestion of induction when you’re an older mother, long labours, postpartum and the blessing of the village. Jess and Manda have two children and they’ve both experienced pregnancy and birth so consider this episode abundant in wisdom, advice and hilarity.

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Manda: When we started talking about having a family neither of us were desperate to have the pregnancy experience. At the time we never intended to have two children.

Jess: Neither of us thought that carrying the pregnancy would be an essential part of the parenting journey. But the more we discussed it, it just landed on me.

Manda: My desire to have a baby and a child was strongest for me, not growing the baby.

Jess: We explored all the options and there were a lot of decisions to make. We explored anonymous donors but in the end we had a friend who offered to be a sperm donor. For us, there’s no one or best way to do it, it’s just where we landed.

Manda: We went to see a queer fertility specialist just to have a very broad chat about our options and we went through the standard process at the clinic in terms of discussing legalities but in the end we went with a known donor and we conceived our firstborn, Indigo, at home.

Jess: It was quite a hilarious situation and because we wanted it to be as fresh as possible we borrowed a friend’s van and honestly, picking up the sperm felt a bit like doing a drug deal.

Manda: We took to it knowing it was a pretty hilarious process but there were also hardships in the months that we were trying. The hilarity of the process was something we embraced but we went back to the fertility specialist after a while as Jess wasn’t conceiving and I think we just wanted some guidance.

Jess: I think because we’re people that don’t necessarily plan well, we mixed up the ovulation test and only figured it out later. I had the trigger shot to support ovulation. Along the way I found the ovulation sticks and temperature charts quite intense because I have a history of an eating disorder and I try not to number my body or put measurements on it and I just found that whole process of intense focus on my body quite confronting. The other reason we wanted to conceive at home is that we didn’t immediately want to jump into a medical experience, which is often the process for queer families, there’s an intensity of having a medical team incolced in conception and we wanted to avoid that if possible. It was towards the end of a nine month period that we got the donor to start doing donations to the clinic, but what we didn’t know was that while he was donating them, I was already pregnant.

Manda: Everything is so precise in terms of when you trigger ovulation and when you try to conceive and after so many unsuccessful attempts we decided to start donating through the clinic because the sperm needs to be quarantined for three months. All donations through the clinic have to be quarantined to be tested for viruses. We also had to do police checks and child protections checks which I found very confronting. I was on my way home from work one day and stopped at the chemist to get a pregnancy test. I’m not sure why I stopped, I just did. We had dinner and Jess was convinced she wasn’t pregnant but then she did the test and it was positive.

Jess: Because we were working with a fertility specialist I had access to an early scan so when we saw the heartbeat it was just amazing. The public system was the only care option we were interested in but after time and contemplation we decided we wanted further support. I didn’t get into the midwife programs at the Royal Women’s but we had a recommendation for a doula from a friend and she was amazing. She gave me pregnancy massages, chatted to us about our birth plan, and really supported us. I went into overdrive on my birth preparation in the third trimester, I read all the books, became obsessed with birthing videos and had a plan.

Manda: As a queer couple we were ready to have to educate medical practitioners, and we had also done a bit of preperation around dealing with outlandish responses from the general community. As a pregnant person, the assumption is that it’s ok to touch someone else’s body if you’re pregnant, but that’s never ok. At our first appointment at the hospital the midwife was very surprised and interested in how we conceived, but really, that’s a 101 she should know and not have to question. Really, the medical staff shouldn’t assume or presume anything.

Jess: I fully embraced my pregnancy, and pre-pregnancy I was involved in the cult of crossfit so I was uber fit and it has been a bit challenging that not being as central to my life. I was comfortable with pregnancy, I loved the inordinate amount of carbs I was eating, peanut butter on toast featured throughout the day, and honestly, my eating disorder didn’t come into play. I didn’t have any major complications, it was a very ordinary pregnancy.

We are on the older side of the parenting spectrum, I was 37 when I was pregnant, and once I went past my estimated due date the doctors were alarmed that I hadn’t been induced. One doctor said I was killing the baby and the baby needed to come out immediately. He was alarmist and not understanding and after that appointment I was in tears and the staff at the Royal Women’s organised for us to see another doctor who was much calmer, and treated us like people who could make decisions and talked us through the rationale and research for their risk aversion. I came to the view that I could go to the hospital everyday and be monitored but if the baby and I were happy I couldn’t see the point in induction. I felt fine and until something else told us it wasn’t ok, I’d be happy to wait. We had an induction scheduled for 42 weeks but early that morning I woke with period-like cramps. We had our doula at home with us and at 4pm that day I felt the need to go to the hospital, to be at the place where I would birth my baby.

We had a game plan for the drive; I’d be in the backseat with an eye mask on listening to Beyonce and Manda was not allowed to talk to me.

Manda: At that point I was so onboard, early on in the pregnancy I was like whatever works for you, Jess, but I read all the books she did so I’d done a spreadsheet of birth skills. I took my role very seriously and I was really excited. Driving down Lygon St I was pumped and very committed to not speaking.

Jess: I was ok with vaginal examinations but I really didn’t want continuous monitoring so they just checked with the doppler. I had a really lovely, gentle midwife and she was respectful of our choices to have music and dimmed lights and electronic candles. It was a long labour, it went long into the night. I went inwards, I didn’t speak from when we arrived at the hospital till birth. The only words I spoke were: icy water. I was also throwing up a lot and during the night labour sloweed, we had a change of midwife and at 2am they broke my waters.

Manda: At midnight it clicked over to 14 days overdue and they told us they needed to continuously monitor Jess. We had this surprising confidence about us and Fiona really helped us navigate that suggestion from the doctor.

Jess: By 2am I was really happy for them to break my waters and that was a significant change in my labour. Suddenly I was on all fours, kicking my feet down and it was pretty clear that things were progressing. I was pushing for almost three hours. I was on the bed and pushing in a squat; it was quite intensive. By the second hour the doctors wanted to assist but I assured them I was fine. But then thirty minutes later I decided I was ready for assistance and I didn’t realise I needed a catheter to have a vacuum delivery but they couldn’t get it in and things started to get a bit hectic then. They rushed me down the hall and they discovered that I had two litres of urine in my bladder and that was stopping Indigo from descending. I had an epidural, they inserted the catheter and she was born with vacuum assistance.

Manda: We both pulled her out and onto Jess’ chest and she was here.

Jess: It was overwhelming, there was actually a baby. In pregnancy you’re focused on your body and the pregnancy…and then there’s a baby. Within the first few hours she latched and I had to stay in hospital to rest my bladder as once the bladder is that stretched there’s a chance of incontinence. I had a catheter in for a few days to let it heal. I enjoyed having multiple perspectives on breastfeeding from various midwives and when we were discharged on day three my milk was in and Indi was feeding well.

I had pelvic floor issues afterwards and the physio encouraged me to work on releasing my pelvic floor. I was convinced it was going to be the rest of my life, particularly that first year, I had a pessary to help support my pelvic floor and that was a game changer. I honestly thought I’d have it for the rest of my life but I fed Indigo till she was two and soon after the issue resolved itself.

We created a bubble for the first six weeks. We had our beautiful extended queer family to shop for us and leave meals on the doorstep. Manda took time off work and it was a really beautiful period. I felt so supported by Manda and it really felt like we were in it together.

Manda: A few hours after Indigo was born Jess said she wouldn’t be doing that again. The conversation started when we were camping, Indi was six months old and we had some reflections around other parents having time to read books. We tossed around the idea of having another baby and there was something about having a sibling for Indigo, to help navigate the world; we wanted that for her.

That was the beginning of the conversation and then the decision for me to carry, it was the only option because Jess didn’t want to do it again. I had to do a lot of soul searching, navigating my body and how I would feel about that. I had been binding my chest for about five years at that point, which is where I wear a vest binder to have a more msculine presenting chest. That was not going to be tenable if I was going to be pregnant. I suppose that’s a simple way to explain the process I went through so I could see myself pregnant and prepare for the pregnancy and birth experience. I had lots of questions about whether I could do it. But once we talked it through I was on board.

We already had our donor and we decided to use the sperm that was at the clinic. Logistically it felt like the best option. We started with Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) which involved scans to check the eggs, the ovulation trigger injection and then I would go into insemination. But Jess actually did it, she pulled the trigger, it’s like a very fancy version of home insemination. That felt pretty special. We tried for five months doing IUI but we could only do that because we had our own donor sperm. It was $1500 a cycle and three months in I started taking some mild doses of hormones to assist the process.

We’d always said we wouldn’t do IVF but we were at the point where I wasn’t conceiiving and we were chatting with a lot of friends about what that meant for us. We were invested so it was quite emotional and I was close to acceptance but then I also really felt like I wanted to try IVF.

Jess: The goal post moved and I was absolutely supportive of Manda’s choice.

Manda: The fifth month was the IUI and we were on holiday in WA and I bled so we knew we were unsuccessful. We decided we’d do one round of IVF and so I went on all the drugs. I was injecting every day but the scans showed the follicles weren’t stimulating. Ther fertility specialist didn’t think it was worth doing the extraction so he suggested doing IUI and we were successful. We got the call to say we were pregnant so we didn’t actually end up doing any egg extractions or IVF. We were zoned to the Mercy Hospital and at my 12 week scan Covid just hit and it was very distressing when we were told that Jess couldn’t come to my scan. I got a call to say I got into MGP at the Mercy which was really comforting…I didn’t want to meet a whole bunch of care providers and be nervous everytime about how they were going to respond to us as a queer couple and me and my body as a gender non-confirming human.

The binding stopped almost immediately because my breasts were sensitive and yes, it was confronting. But then my whole pregnancy was during covid so I didn’t have to navigate all the anxieties I had about being pregnant as a gender non-conforming person. But there was also something about messing with gender norms that I was intrigued about.

I was relatively well until about 30 weeks when there was a break between lockdowns and we decided to drive to Sydney for a week to see family and while we were there I had a bleed. It was dramatic because it was shocking, I just didn’t expect it. I went to the hospital but they couldn’t find a reason for the bleeding. But having that continuity of care midwife who texted me throughout it all was phenomenal, I felt very supportive even though I was in hospital in a different state during covid. But then leading up to my estimated due date there was a lot of discussion around whether Jess would be able to be at the hospital. I really wanted a drug free vaginal birth and I wanted Fiona as a doula so I got her to come to the house during labour so I felt comfortable staying at home for longer.I think in terms of Covid, I did want to try for a drug free vaginal birth but I knew that anything is possible and that felt really scary because of restrictions and then the two-hour rule came in which said that once you were admitted to the postnatal ward your partner could only stay for two hours and then visit for two hours a day. I spent quite a bit of time in the bath on the phone talking to people, workshopping the possibility of staying in hospital if I needed a caesarean section, and I got there, I was ok with what would be.

I was 40+4 when labour started. I’d had some tightening for a few weeks but nothing that had caught my breath. I got up to go to the toilet and there was clotted blood so I took a photo and rang the midwife and she talked us through it and encouraged me to monitor it. The bleeding slowed and the next day I checked in with her in the morning and she encouraged me to go in and see the back-up midwife. I had a bit of internalised anxiety about my age, the unknowns of birth and the covid environment and I requested a stretch and sweep but she declined. She did offer to do a vaginal examination and she told me I was dilated and softened and I would be having a baby very soon. I drove home at 5:15pm and I had a bit of discomfort in the car. After dinner Jess put Indigo to bed, it was strange because I couldn’t be around her, and I was contracting but I was trying to get comfortable to cope with the discomfort. I had three contractions in the time that Jess had a quick shower but then I told Jess I needed to poo and so we called the midwife so she could listen to me. I was stomping my feet and smashing my hand on the kitchen bench and she encouraged us to call our doula. Our doula was with us for fifteen minutes before she encouraged us to go to hospital. I was swearing in the car the whole way there.

Jess: Neither of us had anticipated that her labour would be like this; we just presumed it would be slow and drawn out like mine

Manda: We arrived at the hospital at 9:45 and he was born at 10:18. I was so confused by the pressure of his head because it hadn’t been long enough and I couldn’t comprehend. I was so glad to walk in to see someone we knew and she told me to just push. I was on my knees in the bathroom and I could feel his head.

I found the pushing really hard, there was a part of me that was holding on, I was frightened. It was like it took my mind longer to accept we were at this stage. I pulled him out onto my chest and he was there. I remember the distinct gush of his body as he came out and I went into a bit of shock and my whole body was shaking from adrenaline. I put calming music on and I just cuddled him. It was just a shock, I think.

We moved into the birth room that had been set up for us and we slept there that night in the double bed. I fed him all night and then we went home in the morning. I decided to breastfeed because I knew the level of convenience with body feeding and also, I was in it, I was pregnant, I was going to birth and in terms of the health of my baby, I wanted to give him the best chance so breastfeeding made sense. I’m still feeding him 18 months on.

Over time I’ve struggled much more in postpartum with my body, my body is different to how it was and that’s more of a challenge but I’m still choosing to feed him. I expect to go back to binding, potentially, but I don’t really know yet. I found the support of my midwife during pregnancy enough but during postpartum I really struggled, I had postnatal anxiety and potentially depression. A lot of my anxiety was around Indi, which was interesting. I was worried about something happening to her and I think it’s because I wasn’t as available to her. I didn’t thrive in the home environment with two children, the village looked different because of covid and I went into feeding feeling knowledgeable but it was still challenging.

I was really committed to doing as much horizontal recovery time as possible in the first few weeks. At the six week mark I went straight to the physio and I have experienced a prolapse and I’m still working with that. I have a cube pessary I wear and I’m just working up to running again and I’m hopeful that can be my future. Other than that I healed quickly and well.

The Queer antenatal class that Manda and Jess attended was through My Midwives

Topics Discussed

Vacuum, Queer couple, Two Vaginal Births, Home insemination, IUI

Connect

If you would like to connect with Manda and Jess’ massage therapist and doula Fiona head to Fertile Ground.

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