A woman has revealed how she gave birth to her first child at the age of 51 after conceiving the baby using an egg that was donated by her niece – defying doctors who told her she had just a five per cent chance of carrying her daughter safely to term.
Jake Leiske Willis, from Atlanta, Georgia, and her husband Chris Willis, 52, welcomed their daughter Avalon, now four, in 2017, via IVF, using a donated egg from Jake’s niece Savanah, now 32.
At the time of their embryo implantation, doctors warned Jake that she had just a five per cent chance of carrying the child to term – however the stay-at-home mom defied their expectations, and now credits weekly acupuncture sessions and Chinese herbs for ensuring the safe arrival of her daughter.
But the couple faced an incredibly difficult struggle to conceive their baby girl, revealing that they went through four failed embryo transfers, and a devastating miscarriage.
New arrival: Jake Leiske Willis has revealed how she gave birth to her first child – a daughter named Avalon – at the age of 51, using a donated egg from her niece, Savanah
Defying the odds: The Atlanta resident, now 55, was told by doctors that she only had a five per cent chance to carrying her daughter to term – yet she safely delivered in child in 2017
Family: Jake and her husband Chris Willis, 55, endured a heartbreaking struggle to conceive Avalon, now four, enduring four failed embryo transfers, and a miscarriage
Work: In order to increase their odds of safely conceiving and delivering their baby, the couple worked with ‘an integrative doctor’ who was a physician of both western and eastern medicine
Jake, who first battled fertility issues in her 30s, and Chris first began dating back in 1988 when they performed in a gospel band in California together, however they split up after a year and both went their separate ways – although they remained firm friends.
They spent 26 years apart, and Jake even married another man during that time; although she visited a fertility specialist during her first marriage, she said that it ‘didn’t work’, and up until a few years ago, she wasn’t sure whether she would ever become a mother.
That is until she reunited with Chris in 2014, when he told her that he wanted to give their relationship another go, and start a family together.
‘I wanted the same thing and within one month I had given notice and moved to Atlanta and started the fertility journey,’ Jake recalled. ‘I was 47 at the time.
‘I understood that I had made different choices in my life. In my mid to late 30s when I was married to my first husband, we had been to a fertility specialist but it hadn’t worked.
‘I don’t know what made me think I would be able to carry a child 15 years later.’
Initially, Jake says she and Chris considered using a surrogate, however they changed their minds when they realized that there might be a possibility for Jake to carry the baby herself.
Support system: When they were looking for a donor, Jake struggled to find the perfect person – so she decided to ask her niece, Savanah, now 32 (left)
Bond: ‘I felt like having my DNA in this capacity connected me as much as I could be, without it being my egg,’ Jake said of her decision to ask Savanah (seen with Avalon)
Hesitant: Chris initially thought that using a family member’s egg would be ‘weird’ but he eventually came around to the idea
Concern: ‘He wondered if it would make it awkward at Christmas,’ Jake revealed. ‘He told me that it was too weird’
‘At first we thought we would have a surrogate but then we realized I could carry the baby and my competitive spirit kicked in,’ she admitted.
The couple found a doctor at a fertility clinic in New York who told the couple that Jake had just a five per cent chance of being able to carry a baby to term.
‘He didn’t blow any smoke, he said we had a five per cent chance,’ Jake recalled. ‘Chris said: “At least it’s not zero.”‘
Together, Jake and Chris began researching methods for ‘bolstering their chances’ of conceiving and carrying a child, and eventually found ‘an integrative doctor who was a physician of both western and eastern medicine’.
‘Both of us went into acupuncture treatment,’ Jake said, revealing that she underwent sessions three times a week, while both she and Chris started consuming Chinese herbs that are intended to boost fertility and promote calmness.
Knowing that they would have to use an egg donor because of Jake’s fertility issues, the couple began discussing the idea of using a relative about a month into their search for a donor – with Jake admitting that she was searching for a clone of herself, which she knew she would likely never find.
‘The egg donor process was very odd to me,’ she shared. ‘You go through a database and type in your characteristics – my eye color, my height, my musical background – and try to clone yourself.
‘Chris told me I needed to loosen up because I was not going to find myself in that database.’
So, Jake suggested that they look within her own family, and decided to broach the subject with Savanah, with whom she has always had a close relationship.
‘I felt like having my DNA in this capacity connected me as much as I could be connected, without it being my egg,’ she said. ‘I have also never loved a girl child more than I loved [Savanah].
‘We were very close. I loved all of her characteristics. She is beautiful, she is kind, she is funny, she is so smart, she is athletic and very healthy.
‘I knew her background, her lineage, the diseases – you just know when it is your family.’
Jake admitted that Chris, a musician, was not immediately convinced by the idea, and he worried that asking a family member to be an egg donor would be ‘too weird’.
Beginnings: Jake and Chris began dating in 1988, however they split after one year
Close: The pair remained close friends, and after 26 years apart, Chris told Jake he wanted to start their romance again, and begin a family together
‘Bliss’: After their difficult struggle to conceive, Jake was delighted to find that the pregnancy itself was incredibly enjoyable
Active: ‘After the first trimester, the pregnancy was just blissful,’ Jake said of her experience. ‘I did yoga every day’
‘He wondered if it would make it awkward at Christmas,’ Jake revealed. ‘He told me that it was too weird.’
But she insisted that an egg donor was similar to a kidney donor and after some counseling sessions, Chris was on board.
‘This is the same as donating blood or a kidney,’ said Jake. ‘You must think of it in the sense that this is not a baby, this is a part of her DNA that she is giving you so that you can do this.’
The couple asked Savanah, after clearing the request with her parents, and she said yes immediately.
‘When the question was asked, I was overjoyed and excited,’ Savanah, who works in real estate, said.
‘In the back of my mind, I sort of knew it was coming as we had joked about it in the past. I already knew my answer to this little joke was an obvious yes.’
Savanah moved from Vancouver, Canada, to Atlanta for three months to be close to the couple during the egg retrieval process, and was by their side as Jake and Chris watched their first, third, fourth, and fifth transfers fail. Their second transfer resulted in a heartbreaking miscarriage.
‘The failed transfers were equally as painful as the miscarriage,’ Jake said. ‘The hormones that you are pumping into your body elevate the situation.
‘You start asking yourself questions: “Should we really be doing this?” But Chris and I just believed.’
Savanah shared in the couple’s pain as the transfers failed.
‘Watching my aunt’s failed transfers was heartbreaking,’ Savannah said. ‘I can’t even begin to imagine the disappointment that came with each failed attempt and the pressure to succeed must have been overwhelming.’
By their side: Savanah (seen with Avalon) moved from Vancouver to Atlanta to be with the couple during the IVF process, and she witnessed their pain after the failed embryo transfers
There she is: Jake welcomed her daughter Avalon via C-section in January 2017
Ideal: ‘It was the most peaceful birthing experience I could have ever imagined,’ Jake said. ‘She was absolutely perfect. She came home with us in three days’
Meaningful: Jake said that motherhood has added a new dimension to her life but insisted that not all women should feel a pressure to become mothers
But in June 2016 the sixth transfer was a success and Jake became pregnant with Avalon.
‘After the first trimester, the pregnancy was just blissful,’ she said. ‘I did yoga every day.’
Jake felt so confident that she even posed topless for a photo shoot at eight months pregnant.
Avalon was delivered via C-section on January 25, 2017 at the Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.
‘It was the most peaceful birthing experience I could have ever imagined,’ Jake said. ‘She was absolutely perfect. She came home with us in three days.’
Jake was warned by doctors that she might not be able to breastfeed because of her age, however she was delighted to find that nursing came naturally.
‘I was told that at my age, breastfeeding might not happen,’ she said. ‘Luckily for us, the breastfeeding went brilliantly and I breastfed [Avalon] for the first year of her life.’
Jake said that motherhood has added a new dimension to her life but insisted that not all women should feel a pressure to become mothers.
‘It’s just a different kind of existence and a different kind of love,’ she said. ‘I’m so grateful that this is the way it worked out for me. But there’s more than one way to get through this life.
‘The people out there who are not choosing to go down that road will have a full life all the same.’
She added that her age never weighed on her mind during her fertility journey and she simply ignored any stigma towards older mothers.
‘There were conversations online about the selfishness of it but we just ignored that,’ she said. ‘We knew our motives.
Breaking barriers: Jake said that her age never weighed on her mind during her fertility journey and she simply ignored any stigma towards older mothers
Open book: The mother-of-one added that she is open with Avalon about how she was conceived, describing Savanah as the ‘jigsaw piece’ that the couple needed to have their child
Future: The couple are now hoping to become parents again using the final embryo that is left from Savanah’s egg cycle – but this time the baby will be carried by a surrogate
‘I know people are very uncomfortable with the science but I think it’s beautiful and brilliant and I believe this was completely an act of the universe.’
Jake added that she is open with Avalon about how she was conceived, describing Savanah as the ‘jigsaw piece’ that the couple needed to have their child.
‘We knew that we wanted to be open with Avalon that Savanah was the missing jigsaw piece,’ the mother-of-one shared. ‘She was the part that came to help create her.’
Savanah described donating her eggs to her aunt as the ‘coolest’ thing she has ever done and hopes that the final embryo will result in a sibling for Avalon.
She said: ‘It’s a pretty crazy feeling seeing so much of myself in someone else when I’m not their mother.
‘This will forever be the coolest and most wonderful thing I’ll ever do. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
‘Nothing would bring me more joy than for Avalon to have a sibling. I say make use of that embryo and bring on another super baby.’
The couple are now hoping to become parents again using the final embryo that is left from Savanah’s egg cycle – but this time the baby will be carried by a surrogate.
Jake said: ‘We had seven embryos and Avalon was transfer number six.
‘We have the infamous number seven transfer still on ice in New York City.
‘We are expecting to have another baby but we are going to go the route of the surrogate on this one.
‘The pandemic set us back but now we are working on that.’