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Childlessness at the Crossroads

By Katy Horan

Child and Young CoupleThree months after our third and final in vitro fertilization cycle had failed, Dan and I had returned to the fertility clinic, its Seattle Zen decor designed to pacify our sorrows and forget the fortune we had spent trying to quench our baby lust. A medical assistant with a sweet smile ushered us into a consultation room with faux shoji doors that whooshed with relief as we were closed in. Dan looked as if he might bolt if the doors weren’t closed.

Four weeks prior during a tickling, teasing bedtime conversation, I had convinced Dan that we should pursue egg donation as our final effort to get pregnant. My forty-year-old eggs were too old; they had been shoved to the back of my ovarian refrigerator, passing their “best by” date as I buried myself in medical residency, pulmonary fellowship, and serial dating. When I met Dan, we were both on the north side of thirty-five and had no luck getting pregnant the old fashioned way. A willing participant in the “natural” approach to babymaking, Dan had struggled with the “unnaturalness” of every step that we had taken so far: reversing his vasectomy, intrauterine insemination, and the three in vitro fertilizations. He had wanted to pursue adoption from the very start. But, each step along the way, I had convinced him that we should try one more technique to have a child. Weeks before, I was stunned when he consented to try egg donation, but on the morning of the appointment, whatever charm I had cast to change his mind had unraveled. When the alarm startled us from sleep, we were camped on opposite sides of our bed—in retreat to our strongholds.

In the consultation room, I stared out the picture window at the grey clouds that obscured Mt. Rainier. Early on in our infertility treatments, I had seen the volcano as a good omen and would stare out the window at her, willing her to help us. She is the “mother of waters” and on her eastern flank, she carries “Little Tahoma” on her hip. Despite my prayers, neither she nor any god had interceded on our childlessness. Warm tears slid down my cheeks. I glanced at Dan with his jacket zipped up to his Adam’s apple and his brow furrowed. His eyes met mine and he winced at my tears.

“I’m sorry, this room always makes me cry,” I said, my voice flat without a tinge of sincerity. A little insincerity seemed better than screaming, “I’m crying because you are acting like a big jerk, like you don’t want to be here, like this is some chore, or torture that I’m putting you through, and it’s so unfair that I have to carry this weight all by myself.”  I wanted to stomp my feet and rattle the shoji door until the assistant came running, panic fading her sweet smile. Instead, I took his left hand, which was cold and clammy, and traced the groove in his wedding ring.

The coordinator entered. She was friendly and spoke in a kind, modulated voice, intentionally oblivious to the crackling tension between Dan and me. She explained the process and the success rates while writing out notes in her loopy, fat handwriting. She described the egg donors as altruistic, graduate students who wanted to make a little money while helping the childless. Dan scowled with distrust. I sniffled and asked about a documentary that I had watched that sensationalized the egg donation process as an “Eggsploitation.”  The coordinator nodded and explained that those things happened in California and New York where egg donation had created a capitalist mayhem with the scarce “best” eggs fetching $100,000. Not here in Washington, she explained.

Yes, I thought, we of the Subaru and Seattle Nice, we would never exploit innocent young women for our own gain. She slid the notes across the table to Dan. The shoji doors swooshed closed again.

I watched a fat tear splatter on the coordinator’s notes and tracked its journey back to Dan’s red eyes. This was new. Whereas I always cried in the consultation room, Dan never broke his tense stoicism.

Unable to speak, he slid the tear stained notes toward me. We could use frozen donor eggs and fertilize them with Dan’s sperm until we created a single embryo (70% success). We could pay for a donor to go through an IVF cycle then use Dan’s sperm to create related embryos (80% success). Or, we could use another couple’s unused embryos (75% success). Dan had scratched notes next to each option. His notes were spartan: D + ? vs. D + ? vs. ? + ?.  He had come full circle from not wanting children, to not caring if they were genetically related to us, and now to wanting our child to reflect both of us genetically, or nothing at all.

After a two hundred and sixty dollar consultation about egg donation, 3 IVFs, 2 IUIs, and 3 years of trying, we were no closer to having a child.

People ask us, “Why don’t you just adopt?”  I’ve noticed two important points about the “just adopters.”  First, they have never adopted because if so, they would understand that you can’t “just adopt,” because adopting isn’t like going to the SPCA and picking out a dog and filing an application with a $210 check. Second, the “just adopters” often have their own biologic child perched on their hip. While the “just adopters” are well meaning in their question, they did not grow their family through an arduous process by which strangers dissect their finances, their pasts, and their current life choices. The “just adopters” didn’t pay $4,000-$45,000 for said drooler on their hip.

Maybe they are aware of the expense of adoption. Maybe they know that in addition to the adoption application fees and costs, in the foster to adopt program, prospective adoptive parents have to childproof their home for all ages and complete >30 hours of training. Last time I checked, no training was required of fertile couples. No applications, no courses, no home visits. Hence the chip on my shoulder—the infertile have battled childlessness for years, paid tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills, but still we have to prove that we deserve to be parents? Yes, why not just adopt? That way, I can wait years to adopt a child and then have it happen all of a sudden, have to leave work without the usual 9 1/2 months notice, and not qualify for paid maternity leave because the infant that is finally wiggling in my arms didn’t get there by way of my vagina or an incision in my abdominal wall.

These are all very minor inconveniences when at the end, you have a child and you are a parent. And that is what we want. We want to be parents. But, why? This is another question that fertile couples never have to answer, but prospective adoptive parents do.

Why do I want to have children? I would argue that I want a child for the same reasons that we all want children. They smell bad in a good way.

I can’t speak for Dan. I worry that his drive to be a father is more out of empathy for my unquenched desires. But, I have never doubted that he would be a great dad. He has a blanket approach to love, consistent and meticulous, whether he is loving me, a handmade bike, or our dog. I’ve watched him get down on his hands and knees with our friends’ kids and zoom, zoom, zoom a fire truck along the floor. But, when he stands back up, he isn’t intoxicated by the nearness of their toddler chub like I am. Baby lust overwhelms me. I want to satisfy that desire.

I want to spy trillium on a forest hike, with my child leaning into me to share my gaze. I want to puree food that Dan and I make only to find it cemented to the under side of the kitchen counter weeks later. I want to hear a whiney, “Up, up,” and know that it is only me, my hip, my arm that is wanted. I want to wrap myself selfishly around my child, and then have Dan layer on, a second coat of snuggle. I want to kiss the stitches on a tiny forehead and watch the sweet scar fade as that face matures. I want to discover the patience I have never had while ferrying a surly teen to soccer games. I want to complete the triangle: Dan, me, and the kid. I want to see Dan zoom, zoom, zooming with our own child.

When I think about what being a parent means, I crave parenting in its totality: the mundane, the grotesque, the wonder.  Although I would love to watch a pair of violet eyes flicker and then slam shut against the first light outside my womb, the act of carrying our baby within me isn’t that important to me.  I’ve read books and articles by women torn apart by their desire to give birth and I’m turned off by their single-mindedness. I stand back, cross my arms, and smirk, “I’m not like those crazy women—giving birth it not what it important to me—I just want to be a parent.”  Then I catch myself in my lie.  If I really didn’t care about giving birth, why didn’t we adopt three years ago?

I’ll admit it, I am not completely over the idea of being pregnant, giving birth to a baby made of us, and nourishing her with my breasts. An empty womb is a vacuum, and like any vacuum it demands to be filled. At times, my baby lust beats as if a second heartbeat. If I could isolate the parenting rhythm from the giving birth tha-thump, I’d be ready to adopt. But, the rhythm in my head is far more complex and keeps me dancing between the options.

In the nine-month lull between our 2nd and 3rd IVF, Dan and I went to an informational session at a local adoption agency. We brought our friend, Jessie, who was thinking of adopting as a single woman, and the three of us got lost in the narrow streets of the aging suburb.  When we finally found the adoption agency in its dingy forgotten strip mall, there was a single anonymous door open. It felt like an AA meeting. We were late and as one of the counselors rounded up 3 extra chairs, I sized up the competition:  a young pierced and tattooed lesbian couple, an obese heterosexual team whose smiles gleamed in every direction, and a well-preserved 65-year-old grandmother whose leather mini dress gave her a Tina Turner-esque appeal.

“We want you to open up your minds and hearts to the children who are desperately waiting for families,” the young social worker sang out from the front of the room. The slides clicked past with children of every color and age, occasionally in wheelchairs and leg braces. “We feel that it is our mission to place every child and to encourage you to be open to adopting children with special needs as well as older children who might never find a family without you.” She beamed at each one of us.

I squirmed in the plastic chair. “Why do I get the sense that I’m a horrible person for wanting a healthy infant?” I whispered to Jessie.

The social worker asked us to take out the grid out of our packets that compared their overseas programs. Although we had RSVP’d for the informational meeting, they were out of packets when we arrived so the same harried counselor who had found us chairs handed a copy of the grid to us to share. With a pencil, I marked out the programs that we didn’t qualify for: Korea (Dan would be too old by the time of the adoption), China (Dan and I hadn’t been married long enough following his divorce seven years ago), India (we needed 5 years of marriage), Cambodia (Whoops, sorry that one is closed).  “Finally,” I checked the 2nd to last column and showed it to Jessie and Dan, “Bulgaria wants us to have their babies.”

Our giggles earned us an unexpected glare from the earnest social worker. She continued with the next slide of a five-year-old Ethiopian girl in a wheelchair. “Now, many countries will overlook some of the requirements if you are willing to take a child with serious health or developmental difficulties.”

My heart sank. I am a sucker for the underdog. I tear up at stories of perseverance and bittersweet victories. But this felt wrong. Adopting a child should be joyous, not a preparation in lowered expectations and guilt. After more than two years of infertility treatments, I didn’t need this grid to tell me that I was unworthy; my unworthiness was tattooed to my soul. After stumbling down the cobblestoned road of infertility, the earnest social worker was asking us to walk barefoot across the molten coals of an international, special needs adoption.

She cleared her throat, and smiled her practiced smile. “Let’s talk next about the travel requirements. If you are adopting from Russia or the former Soviet Republics, you will need to travel for two separate two week trips that will be scheduled with very little notice.”

I grimaced at Dan. Enough!   Neither of us had jobs that allowed us the freedom to fly off Russia for two weeks without advanced notice to our employers.

Following the informational meeting that night in bed, guilt and doubt ricocheted through my brain and kept me awake. Why wasn’t I a better wanna-be mother?  Why was my heart so small that I couldn’t give up work for one month to pick up my fetal-alcohol-syndromed-22-month-old child in Moscow?  I grabbed my Kindle, and downloaded The Idiot’s Guide to Adoption. “Adopt the kind of child that you want, not the child that is pressed upon you…” recommended the author.

I know myself and I know Dan. If we had a biologic child or an adoptive child that fell ill, we would care and love the child just the same. But, fertile couples don’t wish and pray for a toddler with health concerns, and we agreed that it was okay to want a healthy baby.

So here we are parked at the crossroads of adoption vs. egg donation unwilling to commit to either. Egg donation takes us further down the road that we have been on, tweaking the biology that predicts that we are too old to be parents. Dan is stalled on the idea that a child from donor egg would not have my DNA, but the DNA of a woman who gave up her eggs for a mix of altruism and cash. I’m stuck on the unknowns of adoption: how long will it take for a birth mother to select us, can I wait four years, will our child be healthy and whole?

I think of a truism that my friend Kate learned from her Czech grandmother—if the church collection basket allowed you to unload your greatest sorrow, then asked you to pluck a sorrow from the same basket, you would search out your own worried stone nestled amongst the others. Our childlessness is our sorrow. Ours. Dan and I have gone through this together. And we are still together. I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else. And the story isn’t over yet, so for now, I think we’ll hold onto our sorrow and explore how many question marks we can handle in our quest for parenthood.

When not working as a pulmonary physician, Katy Horan blogs about infertility at www.fruitfulearth.word  She also shares stories and recipes about discovering vegetables at

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.

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