"I can't even begin to tell you how weird it is to be shopping for sperm," says Leah, who blogs under the moniker Single Infertile Female. "It's not one of those things you ever think you'll be doing -- judging men online by their various attributes to decide if you want them to be your baby's father."
Lucky thing Leah is getting help from her cyber-friends.
A couple of months ago, she formed an online community under the Single Infertile Female name with the help of BlogFrog.com, a Boulder-based company that touts itself as America's largest network of communities for online moms.
Now, she's asking community members, and anyone else who'd like to weigh in, to help her choose among her top three sperm-donor candidates -- and the polls are about to close. She plans to announce her choice on Sunday, which just happens to be Mother's Day.
Leah, who's keeping her last name to herself, moved from San Diego to Anchorage a while back, following a college friend who'd settled there. "I decided I was ready to meet someone and settle down and have babies in Alaska," she says.
Unfortunately, medical problems got in the way of this plan.
"I was here for three or four months before I started having some issues," she recalls. "It took seven months to figure out what was wrong. I got all kinds of different diagnoses. I was told I might have cancer at one point. But finally, last May, after I had exploratory surgery, they told me I had severe endo."
That's short for endometriosis, which is described on the Mayo Clinic website as "a disorder of the female reproductive system. In endometriosis, the endometrium, which normally lines your uterus, grows in other places as well. Most often, this growth is on your fallopian tubes, ovaries or the tissue lining your pelvis." The ailment can, and often does, cause fertility problems.
Doctors monitored Leah's condition, and last November, she needed surgery again. Her medical team soon discovered that her endo had progressed with frightening speed, registering the equivalent of two or three years of growth in six months' time.
During the procedure, she says, "I had one of my tubes removed. The other one is still there, but it's so scarred that they told me IVF" -- in vitro fertilization -- "was the only safe route for pregnancy." Moreover, her physicians, including a reproductive endocrinologist based in Seattle, told her that if she wanted to have a child, she needed to get going right away or her dream might never become a reality.
When she received this advice, Leah was in a relationship. But although she's still friendly with the guy in question (and his family), he simply wasn't ready to take such a big step. "He already had two kids from a previous marriage," she points out, "and the sped-up time frame was a bit much for him. It wasn't something he was able to go through with me. I had to decide if I was going to wait for the man to be ready or decide if I was going to through it myself."
She adds with a laugh, "I've never been one to wait for anything."
In the meantime, though, she was struggling to process all of the recent changes in her life -- at least until a friend suggested that she start a blog. She'd never actually read one before, but given that she's always written to work through her feelings, the idea struck her as a good one. In December, after doing some web-surfing and soul searching, she launched Single Infertile Female.
Her online audience built slowly at first. She says she didn't receive her first comment from someone unknown to her for a month. "I e-mailed it to everyone I've ever met," she enthuses. "I was on cloud nine."
As word of mouth grew, this Single Infertile Female began to receive more contacts from women having difficult conceiving -- "these long and heartfelt messages telling me their story, which meant the world to me," she says. But she had little knowledge about online communities until a friend in Tucson e-mailed her the link to C Jane, a BlogFrog.com-powered blog whose first post was about infertility.
In short order, Leah was hooked -- but she resisted starting a community of her own. "I didn't think I had enough readers," she says. "I thought, I don't need my own community. I'll just sit here and play on this other one. But then I started noticing in my comments section that readers were talking to each other, and I'd end up getting e-mailed the same questions over and over again. It dawned on me that it might be easier to have a place where people could ask me questions and everyone could see the same answers."
So Leah took the plunge in March, and within 24 hours, "I was the number one community on Blog Frog," she says. "It wasn't what I expected at all. When it happened, I started crying. And it's definitely become my favorite hobby -- talking to these women and having all these great conversations."
Indeed, she became so connected to the community members that she naturally chose to share her sperm-shopping experiences. Before her endo flared up, she had donated eggs, which she describes as an intensive and extremely detailed process: "I think they even got my grades from eighth grade," she says, laughing. In contrast, sites dedicated to sperm donors presented much less information: no adult photos and only relatively sketchy data about the candidates' background.
Somehow, Leah managed to winnow down the prospects to three -- "but I honesty had no idea how to choose among them," she admits. "I'd read one and get really excited about him, then switch to another one and say, 'No, this is the guy.' They all seemed like great guys with different attributes -- so how do you choose?"
An offhand comment in the community about her dilemma provided the answer. "These women in the community have become my friends," she says. "I realized, we should have voting, have a poll."
Because she had no idea how to accomplish this goal technically, she reached out to Blog Frog co-founders Holly Hamman and Rustin Banks. After everything was set up, Leah published an April 22 post entitled "Let the Voting Begin!" And the results have been fascinating.
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"I've gotten hundreds of comments on each of the profiles, with a lot of them just tearing these men apart," she says with a laugh. "They'd pick a favorite, then they'd go to the other one that wasn't their favorite and list all his horrible qualities. Like, number three was listed as musical and artistic and very introspective, and some of the women were like, 'He's a loner! He's a loser!' Number three ended up being one of the most popular, but he definitely had his haters."
As of now, Leah isn't saying which way she's leaning, beyond noting that she'll be using the content of the comments, rather than total numbers, to reach her decision -- and, of course, her own views will be part of the mix. On Sunday, she'll announce her decision to her community via her site as well as on her Facebook fan page and Twitter account.
"Blogging has become my therapy," she allows. "I write every night, and I'll be writing straight through everything that happens. Hopefully, I'll be tweeting through my labor."
But first, she's got to choose the right sperm.