FOR years, she was no more tangible than the name in her mother’s head.
June Shannon had always planned to name her daughter Clodagh, after her beloved mother.
But a decade of difficulty conceiving threatened to dash her hopes, until an egg donor threw her a lifeline and June’s dream of a child was finally realised.
Clodagh arrived in August and, four months on, June is gearing up for the kind of Christmas she has wished for most of her married life.
June and her husband, Tony Curtis, married in 2006 and opted for IVF in 2009, when June was aged 38.
Over the next three years, they spent about €12,000 on fertility treatment, achieving one pregnancy that ended in miscarriage.
By the end of 2012, June, aged 41, was physically and emotionally spent. Her mother had recently passed away aged 68 and another IVF attempt had ended in failure.
She contemplated quitting, but a generous bequest from her mother spurred her on.
It would cover the €9,000 cost of what was probably, by now, her only hope of ever having a child — egg donation.
This time last year, the embryo that resulted from a mixture of Tony’s sperm and the egg of a 21-year-old in the Czech Republic was transferred to June’s uterus. The embryo, created in the Czech Republic, was transferred here in Ireland.
On August 20 last, the miracle that is Clodagh Curtis finally arrived.
6 years of heartache, 5 IVF Cycles, 1 miscarriage, €21,000 ...practice makes perfect, baby Clodagh worth the wait;) pic.twitter.com/REBdJsaE35— June Shannon (@juneshannon) August 21, 2015
I first interviewed June for this publication 16 weeks into her long-awaited pregnancy. But how did mother and baby fare during the intervening months?
When I visit the Curtis family home, in Dalkey, Co Dublin, Clodagh, at two months old, has just returned from her first round of vaccinations and is being cradled in her mother’s loving arms.
The living room is chock-full of pink congratulations cards. A little Moses basket stands next to the couch, from where the family cat keeps a close eye.
The kitchen has been colonised by the trappings of a newborn. Any visitor to the Curtis home will be left in no doubt as to who takes pride of place.
Like any new mum, June (44) is monitoring Clodagh for a possible adverse reaction to vaccination.
June stayed in the clinic waiting room at the Mercer Medical Centre, in Dublin City centre, while Tony (57) took their daughter in to be vaccinated.
“I was too traumatised, so Tony did the honours. He wasn’t in the better of it himself. His reaction, when he came out, was to announce he was setting up a ‘traumatised parents group’,” she laughs.
Tony, a graphic designer, is “absolutely smitten” June says.
“He was really upset going back to work after Clodagh was born. The Dart can’t get him home quick enough in the evenings. Clodagh’s a real daddy’s girl. He’s totally hands-on.”
Clodagh was delivered two weeks early by caesarean section, at Holles St, weighing a healthy 6lbs 10oz. It was a flawless pregnancy, other than aggravation from gallstones late on, which June subsequently had removed.
June’s initial reaction to Clodagh, born 15 minutes past noon, was one of shock.
“I thought: ‘Oh my God, she’s here’. There was such a flood of relief, and tears of joy, that she had arrived safely, after so long.”
June’s first phonecall to break the good news was to family. She has two sisters, two brothers.
Her dad, Professor Bill Shannon, was recently recognised with a ‘lifetime achievement award’ at the Irish Healthcare awards.
He was instrumental in setting up the first GP training scheme in the country — in Cork — in 1972.
“We phoned my brothers, my sisters, my dad in Co Clare, Tony’s parents in Britain. Clodagh is their first and only grandchild. We’ll be spending Clodagh’s first Christmas with them, in Devon. It will be their first time seeing her. They have literally bought up Mothercare,” June says.
Both families were supportive throughout June’s and Tony’s efforts to have a child. The reaction since her birth has been nothing but positive.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by kindness. We’ve been blown away, really. We’ve received tonnes of cards, from friends and from strangers who read my story. We haven’t had to buy a thing. We were given two Moses baskets, two car seats, three baths, a rake of beautiful clothes, teddy bears — people have been so generous.”
June is thrilled that having a girl gave her the opportunity to honour her mum, who has been dead three years since November.
Thinking of my lovely mum today can't believe it's been 3 years. I still miss her every day. pic.twitter.com/J6G9IVzUw5— June Shannon (@juneshannon) November 22, 2015
They travelled to Cork for the anniversary. June regards Clodagh as the final gift from her mum.
“‘I was very emotional that mum was not there for the pregnancy or the birth. Unsurprisingly, I had been thinking about her a lot during the pregnancy. I know she’d have been absolutely over the moon. She loved babies.”
Mums generosity funded our last IVF cycle which produced Baby Clodagh -a wonderful gift- mum's beautiful namesake pic.twitter.com/3KDZPDtmzQ— June Shannon (@juneshannon) November 22, 2015
June is relaxed around the new addition, despite the ordeal of getting her. Clodagh’s lovely temperament helps.
“We are really enjoying it and are both quite relaxed. She’s a very chilled-out baby and only cries if something is wrong.
“And, maybe the fact that we are a little bit older, and that I have experience of looking after my nieces, those things have helped,” June says.
The positive transformative effect of Clodagh has not dulled memories of the effort it took to get her. If anything, it’s made June even more sensitive to those who have been through similar heartache with no baby to cradle at the end.
“It took a long time to get to this point, and I know people who, like us, have been through the mill and they will never get there.”
It’s a “lifelong grief”, June says, because, unlike the pain of bereavement, which can dim with time, there are constant reminders of loss for those who are unhappily childless.
June plans to tell Clodagh the story of her unconventional creation.
“I’m going to be open from day one, talk to her in an age-appropriate way, tell her she is extra-special, that she is the result of a gift from a very special woman,” June says.
“It’s an amazing gift. I’ll always be very grateful to the donor, it’s the gift of life, it has given us the chance to be parents.”
New cardigan, old mummy pic.twitter.com/GMcxIRJPlP— June Shannon (@juneshannon) November 28, 2015
She needn’t have worried about bonding with a baby not biologically her own.
“It was needless. The bonding was immediate. I think it’s good for people going the same route as we did to know that. She’s Tony’s biological child anyway. She’s the image of him.”
When I spoke to June for our previous interview, she recalled how she wept the day she signed the consent form for the egg-donation programme, because she was drawing the line under the possibility of ever having a biological child.
When I remind her of that, she replies: “I’ve gotten over that completely. Once she arrived, there was no problem. We were both absolutely smitten”.
So will June go again? Too soon to say, she says. They do have one embryo on ice. They won’t wait long before deciding.
Right now, they’re pretty content.
“Motherhood came naturally, in the end. I never felt so content. At night, she makes little noises and it gives me a jolt. I have to remind myself that we have a baby,” June says.
She hasn’t allowed herself to be overtaken by her new life. Always an avid user of Twitter, she continues that trend.
Besides, many are by now familiar with her story and she has no problem offering others struggling with infertility any advice that she can.
And she looks forward to a return to work as a journalist.
Financially, she needs to work, she says, and the bonus is that she likes her job.
As new parents, they are on a “massive learning curve” and their lives will “never be the same again”.
“But that’s brilliant. Our lives were the same for 10 years. So it was a case of bring it on,” June says.
Is she exhausted by this massive upheaval?
“No’” she says. “There’s no exhaustion. It took so long to get here that everything else just pales by comparison. It’s what you do. We feed her everythree hours. We’re up for it!”
So will this Christmas, with baby Clodagh Alice Curtis (Alice after Tony’s grandmother), be the Christmas to beat them all?
The answer is a definite yes.
“Every Christmas, for almost a decade, a baby was my greatest wish. It sounds very Laura Ingalls, but I’ve always loved Christmas. It’s my favourite time of the year, and the thought of sharing it with Clodagh is so magical and special. We can’t wait.
“It’s shaping up to be the most wonderful Christmas ever. She is, without doubt, the icing on the cake. I still can’t believe it.”
Fertility treatment in your 40s
The number of Hollywood stars who give birth to healthy babies well into their 40s is on the up. Most aren’t open about whether they managed to do so without any help, and that’s their prerogative.
But Dr David Walsh, medical director at Sims fertility clinic says the rule of thumb is that any woman over the age of 43 who gives birth to twins has more than likely used a donor egg.
“In 99 out of 100 cases, a donor egg is involved, although there are of course some exceptions,” he says.
“In terms of divulging that information, I don’t think anyone should be outed if they want to keep it private. But I think women should know that in a lot of these cases, older women are carrying younger women’s eggs. People shouldn’t be led down the garden path”.
Dr Walsh says about a third of their work at the Sims now involves use of either donor sperm or donor eggs, and that these methods continued to grow in popularity.
Use of donor sperm is growing as more single women and lesbians seek treatment.
Once surrogacy is permitted, says Dr Walsh, the use of donor eggs will increase as male gay couples seek to have children.
“I estimate that in the next 10 years or so, traditional IVF will start becoming a minority treatment. I
think third party parenting will become the new norm, but it will be restricted to wealthy countries where people can afford the option.”
Stars who have been open about their pregnancies include actress Nicole Kidman, who was 43 when her second daughter was born via a surrogate mother.
The model Caprice also used a surrogate in her early 40s. Sarah Jessica Parker used a surrogate to conceive her twins at 44 and Annie Leibowitz had twins via surrogate at 56.