There’s No Wrong Way to Start a Family: The Web’s First IVF Fundraiser Site Turns 10

How are IVF babies made? 62 consecutive days of injections of very expensive drugs.

Ten years ago on July 1, we flipped the switch on I called my brother and asked him to make the first $1 donation through PayPal. A few minutes later, $10 showed up in our account.

It went on from there. Looking back, few people actually gave a dollar. Fives, tens, and fifties weren’t uncommon. One gave thousands (their college graduation gift), one gave a really random amount so that after fees we had an even $100. A co-worker brought in an envelope of cash she’d collected from friends at game night.

One friend sent $10 with a note that read “from one infertile couple to another;” I attended her funeral on the morning of my very first lupron shot. I carry the profundity of that moment closely.

I still have the Dixie cup and yarn mobile a child made for us and mailed to our PO Box. Paisley sleeps under the animal baby blanket a follower in California made for her.

The most appropriate t-shirt ever. Friends nicknamed her the #ScienceBaby and it stuck. (Via CottonBureau)

It was the craziest idea I’d ever had, and one that would be the only way we could afford to have our test tube, IVF, #ScienceBaby. As we left the fertility clinic with an estimate for $20,000, and our guts lodged squarely in our throats, feeling completely blindsided, I wasn’t sure how we’d ever afford this baby we wanted so badly.

Before we left the parking lot I told Shelton I had an idea. By lunch I was explaining that we’d ask each visitor for a dollar, we’d show every penny in and out, we’d blog the entire experience… we could call it BabyOrBust.

It was as if the idea had always been there and I finally had a reason to bring it to life. I think Elizabeth Gilbert would call that Big Magic.

That was in the spring of 2006. The next call was to one of my best college pals, to actually build this website. Years later I learned details about that conversation that make it my favorite conversation I’ve ever had. Long story short, he said yes. He created the logo and produced the original site for us.

We launched on July 1, 2006.

Our first post went up on July 2.

The rest of July was an absolute whirlwind. Days later we appeared on the front page of the Wichita Eagle. It was a poorly written article littered with misquotes and bad information, as well as a headline that would get plucked up by the AP and used to verbally abuse us in comment boards — Cyberbeggars.

I didn’t care. I knew what we were doing was legit, on the up-and-up. People fundraising for medical needs wasn’t a new thing — doing so on the internet was. We had the first crowdfunded, infertility fundraising site. And people took notice. Which worked out really well for us!

We appeared on The CBS Early Show on July 17, 2006. A satellite truck showed up at our house at four in the morning. The segment was live on the east coast, but by the time it aired in central time we were pre-empted for a Shuttle landing. As the cameraman left, he told us,

“There’s no wrong way to start a family.”

Our story appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and local papers across the country. We did radio interviews at home on KFDI and across the country. Eventually our StoryCorps interview aired on KMUW.

The comment threads on all of these were horrific. Never read the comments, right? You don’t deserve a baby, this is God’s way of punishing you, the earth is already over populated, you’ll likely be on public assistance, and this is God’s way of thinning out the herd. We received a couple of death threats.

I had one tear-filled night in bed — which may have coincided with my parents’ separation — and told Shelton to shut the whole thing down because it was too much. But by the next morning, it was only fueling my fire. This wasn’t just about us raising funds for IVF, it was about telling this story in a very raw, candid way.

I didn’t want to just take people’s money, I wanted to give back to this silent community I unwittingly became a part of.

Everything I’d been able to find in books and online was clinical, cold. X happens and Y happens and you’ll do this and then you’ll do this. I wanted the girlfriend-over-booze commentary. I wanted the dirt. And if it wasn’t out there, then I was happy to make that available. I was aware that nothing like this existed online. During the next four years, I would lose every shred of modesty and give a detailed, revealing account of what IVF and infertility was really like.

Going Viral Before Social Media

I remember one person telling me they’d share our link on her Facebook and I rolled my eyes. That seemed like it would have about as much impact on our efforts as taping a poster to a telephone pole. Twitter didn’t exist. Instagram didn’t exist. I think I had a MySpace and a Blogger page back then.

All of our “reach” was achieved through email and old school press releases by some awesome co-workers. We emailed hundreds of people at launch — every name in our address books — and some of those people passed it on. It was viral before anyone outside of the CDC was using that term.

At the time we were called cyberbeggars and condemned for it. Today Kickstarter, GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, and a host of others have made the concept mainstream and accessible. It’s a completely common, everyday occurrence to see a fundraising request in any number of your social media feeds. GoFundMe currently has “thousands” of listings for IVF, infertility, and adoption needs.

The single most common question we still receive from people is “how can we do it, too?” For better or worse, I’m completely honest. I tell them that the space is so saturated now that you have to do something truly pivotal to garner similar attention. There’s nothing wrong with a little forced ingenuity.

Our moment was like lightening in a bottle. I know that and have the greatest appreciation for it. I tell people that they have to get creative and shift how people are thinking about or seeing a situation. Introduce the world to a viable new idea and magic happens.

BabyOrBust ultimately raised about $8,000 for our little cause. Shelton was able to invest that and turn it into $13,000. And we came up with the other $7,000 on our own, like we always planned to do. To offset some of the expense, we received an anonymous donation for some of our drugs.

I’ve never been happier to hand someone $20,000. Forever indebted to the beautiful souls and brilliant minds of Dr. Bruce Tjaden, nurse Megan Rolfs, and the entire CFRM staff in Wichita. You guys make science babies…how cool?!

Our 62 days of fertility shots started in July 2009 and wrapped up sometime in September. It was miserable. I remember sitting on top of the a/c vents in the kitchen just to get away from the sensation that my entire body, inside and out, had been engulfed in flames. One of our drugs, menopur, actually felt like fire being injected into my belly. The progesterone needles made it impossible for me to walk; turned out Shelton was injecting in the wrong spot so the nurse drew Sharpie targets on my butt cheeks. There’s a picture; you can’t see it.

The 17 eggs my body had grown made my ovaries so large I could feel them when I pressed on my lower abdomen. I looked two months pregnant on the day of the egg harvest.

The night before our embryo transfer, Dr. Bruce Tjaden called me himself to encourage us to transfer the only two viable embryos we had. Seventeen eggs had turned into 10 embryos, and ultimately became our only two chances. There was nothing to freeze or save, that was it.

In a room with my husband, our doctor, another doctor, a nurse or two, and a lab tech, I got pregnant. It was so romantical. I watched the doctor drop off my potential babies in my uterus. I asked him if I could still eat deli ham. He told me not to eat a pound in one sitting. We left there and went directly to Delano BBQ to drown the dizzying array of emotions and eat french fries that taste like BBQ potato chips. You should go there whether or not you’re eating your feelings.

Our two embryos on the morning of the transfer. I’ve always said Paisley is the one on the left…and she ate the one on the right to gain her powers.

Nine months later, Paisley was born on her dad’s 30th birthday.

Today, she’s six. She is the most joyful, precocious child I’ve ever known. She is whip smart. She has a wicked sense of humor. She never stops singing; I swear we live in a musical. She is tiny and petite, but her spirit fierce. She’s compassionate. Her memory is a steel trap, and she’s as distracted by shiny things as a squirrel in a mirror shop. She’s so beautiful I can’t stop looking at her some days. She wants to grow up and save the elephants.

She’s more than I hoped for. Being her mom, being parents together, having shared the experience of pregnancy… it’s all so much better than I ever anticipated. On the days I longed for it the most, I didn’t know it could be this good.

Just a few minutes after this hot pink ball of scream arrived to share her birthday with Shelton.

We’re one and done, much to Paisley’s disappointment. We agreed at the outset that we’d try it one time and get what we get. We got so much that I don’t feel right asking the universe for more. That experience was taxing in every possible way, it was hella expensive, and there’s no more insurance coverage today than there was then. I love our little family that science made.

I’m eternally grateful to a list of people who could fill a page of movie credits. We were surrounded by so much love, support, and generosity. I promise I pay it forward every chance I get. Together, all of us made something extraordinary happen, and I’m not just talking about the songbird pixie who sleeps across the hall from me.

We got to tell the world about infertility. About the crushing expense. How all of the needles, and hormones, and drugs, and emotions really feel. We got to blaze a trail to online fundraising/crowdsourcing that serves millions of people everyday.

Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for all you did for us.

Happy 10th anniversary, BabyOrBust!