By Ellyn Gelman
I sat next to my mother at the kitchen table, our eyes glued to the bulky television on the Formica countertop. It was the summer of ’78 and the lead story that morning was the birth of the world’s first test tube baby. My mind could not shake the image of a little baby trapped in a test tube waiting to be born. I turned to my mother and with all the confidence of a sixteen-year old, proclaimed, “I would NEVER do that.”
It’s funny that word ‘never.’
In July 1992, I gave birth to the first of my three “test tube” babies. I was blessed with a son (now 21) and four years later, twins, a daughter and son (now 17). They were all conceived through the miraculous science of In-Vitro Fertilization (IVF). The ordeal of conception that had consumed my life for ten years was over; the memories stored away in the attic of my mind like the box of high school keepsakes stored in the attic of my home. My focus now was ‘full on’ motherhood. I rarely gave IVF a thought until the first time I was asked, “Mommy, where do babies come from?”
At first I kept it simple.
“Well there’s a mommy and a daddy and they love each other and then they have a baby.”
When they were older I told them about sperm and eggs and which body parts needed to connect to make it all happen. Their wide-eyed surprise about these simple facts stopped me from adding; “and sometimes the baby maker parts are broken and you need a Petri dish (aka ‘test tube’).”
It became more complicated as my children’s minds and bodies morphed into teenagers. No one, including me, wanted to talk about sex and reproduction any more than was absolutely necessary. So I stuck to the minimum “what teens need to know” script. The problem with this action plan was that everyone in my family knew the story of my children’s conception, everyone that is except my children. It had never been a secret, but it started to feel like one. Visions of them learning about their in vitro beginnings from an innocent remark or a tongue loosed by libation began to consume me. I realized my children needed to hear their story from me, to know the love and the longing and yes, the hard work that it took to bring them into this world.
How to tell them became a single grain of worry in my mind, just like an oyster worries a single grain of sand. Eventually, an oyster produces a pearl; I was producing an ulcer. How would my kids react to the news of their embryonic beginnings? Would they feel like I did at sixteen? In the early hours of the morning, I would lie awake and fabricate irrational fear-based scenarios.
Scene 1: Alone in their room, my oldest son, or my twins, would search IVF on their computers and IVF mix-ups (incredibly rare, but easily found on Google) would be the first pop-up on the screen. Would they question whether I was their “real” mother?
Scene 2: I imagined them feeling lost and confused, like that famous little baby bird that sized up a bulldozer and said, “Are you my mother?” My insides felt like a jellyroll; creamy insecurity wrapped in a layer of vulnerability.
I planned a lunch date with my oldest son after a routine dentist appointment. He was home from college for the summer. My plan was to tell him his conception story during lunch. I had rehearsed the words and knew it was time.
“I hate going to the dentist,” he said as he slipped his nineteen-year old lean, muscular man self into the passenger seat.
“Everyone hates going to the dentist,” I said.
We were barely out of the driveway when I just blurted out his story, so much for my original plan.
“You know,”‘ I said, “One of the happiest days of my life was the day you were born.”
He smiled and touched my shoulder.
“Aw,” he said.
“There’s more,” I said. “Dad and I had some infertility issues. It actually took us five years to finally conceive you with the help of a lot of Doctors and shots and stuff, IVF stuff.” IVF stuff came out garbled, a bit drunken, like “ivyfshtuff.” Silence, our eyes focused forward as if the road ahead demanded it. Great job! Now he’s going to think his conception was like the creeping plant that grows up the side of our house I thought.
“So, um, they took out some of my eggs and then took dad’s sperm and injected one sperm into each egg. Lucky us, one little embryo formed in a Petri dish and was put back into my uterus and that was you, our miracle.”
I could have been reciting the recipe for pretzel chicken.
“That’s why Grammy always calls me her miracle baby,” he said as if it was all starting to make sense somehow.
“So what was the problem?” he said.
“We both had problems,” I said. “But the biggest problem was that dad’s sperm just didn’t move, low motility they call it.”
“Oh my God, do I have that?” He recoiled against the car door, both hands protecting his genitals.
“No, you don’t have that”
“Are you sure I’m never gonna have that?”
I thought about my answer.
“Pretty sure,” I said. I am no longer comfortable with the word ‘never’.
We pulled into the parking lot.
“So, um do you have any questions?” I said.
“Nope, I’m good, it’s kind of cool to be a miracle. Love ya mom,” he said as he opened the car door and headed into the dentist.
God I love that kid. One down. Two more to go… someday.
Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut. She is a frequent contributor to brainchildmag.com.