By Debra Cole
It was a word I never wanted to hear, let alone see in print.
That it was preceded by the word “secondary” was small consolation. My obstetrician handed me the referral for a hysterosalpingography, a fancy medical term for a simple procedure that uses x-ray and a water-based contrast to see if the uterus and Fallopian tubes are obstructed.
“I’m not worried at all,” she said, glancing at my nearly two-year-old son, Henry, playing happily with a dirty truck in the otherwise sterile exam room. But it was best to be proactive. I was, after all, almost 39.
The Mayo Clinic defines secondary infertility as “the inability to get pregnant despite having frequent, unprotected sex for at least a year by a couple who previously had a child.” After I gave birth to Henry at age 36, my husband and I planned to wait until he was two before trying for our second child. We both have siblings between four and nine years older or younger, gaps we valued at the time and in retrospect. We wanted to give Henry the opportunity to be a baby for the entire time he was allotted. Besides, why would we choose to have two children in diapers simultaneously?
Given my age, I agreed, instead, with my doctor’s recommendation to go off the pill in a year and “see what happened.” Truthfully, I wasn’t the slightest bit worried. I had conceived Henry without issue. As he approached nine months old, however, first-time mama friends began announcing their second pregnancies. Even the ones who had been ambivalent about wanting another. For a moment, I panicked.
“It’s not a race,” my husband reminded me.
We stuck with our plan. At Henry’s first birthday in December 2012, I went off the pill and weaned him. And in a twist whose irony I would only understand in hindsight, I secretly prayed I would not get pregnant right away. Never the conformist, I did not want two children under two like the rest of Brooklyn.
Months passed, and worry crept from the edges of my consciousness to its center.
I began to avoid friends who were pregnant again. I did not go, bearing gifts, to see their newborn bundles. I was paralyzed, Elphaba-green with envy, disgusted with myself.
I started using a home ovulation prediction kit, dutifully peeing away my dignity atop a plastic stick in the privacy of my own bathroom each day. The reality of the cliché washed over me. For most of the prior 22 years, I had ingested manufactured hormones like a dairy cow or insisted on condoms at all points of my cycle, because you never know. Yet there I was, holding my breath for a little plus sign that would tell me whether I should have sex with my husband that day. Forget being in the mood; this wasn’t the movies.
After a year, I threw in the towel and began testing. The first two tests were relatively non-invasive: a blood test to check for hormone levels—early menopause?—and the hysterosalpingography—tubes obstructed?—both of which returned normal.
So here we are. My son is 25 months old, and I am confronting the possibility that he might be an only child. I stroke his blond hair, inhale his sweet scent and giggle as he places his face inches from mine and sings the ABCs off-key. Was his creation a mere fluke, a happy accident? Have I taken him—and the joy he has brought me—too much for granted?
To cope with the possibility of permanent infertility, I retreat into my mind, groping for elusive control over irrelevant details. I am signed up in November 2015, for example, for the New York City marathon, a ten-year veteran of my personal bucket list.
If I don’t get pregnant by July, I won’t have time to train for the marathon.
The insignificant gap between 39-and-11-months and 40 yawns before me, cavernous.
If I don’t get pregnant by June, I won’t have the baby before I turn 40.
I stress about the “inconvenient” timing that prevents me from re-starting my career. I went back to work part-time when Henry was 15 months old and intended to return to the workforce full-time only after our second child turned a year.
If I don’t get pregnant soon, my career will grind to a halt.
I despise my smug 36-year-old self, so sure of her own fecundity, so casually willing to tempt fate. Because advanced maternal age is one of the main causes of infertility, shouldn’t we have been trying for—or at least not preventing—conception as soon as we were able? How selfish to seek to avoid the inconvenience of the dreaded two-under-two scenario. How sad that in endeavoring to give Henry time to be the only baby, we may have ensured his lifelong singularity.
If I don’t get pregnant again, my son won’t ever be a big brother.
I should be grateful, I tell myself. Content to have one healthy child in the face of the many couples who cannot have any. Instead, I remain suspended in a peculiar, liminal space, neither embarking on parenthood nor finished creating the family I always believed I would have. I feel at once greedy and isolated, hopeful and impossibly sad.
I imagine my ovaries, worn and tired after nearly 30 years of work, squeezing out the last few potential cells of life. I wonder how far we will go down the path of artificial conception. Do I take fertility medication, brow-beating my body into overdrive? Do I undergo IVF with its attendant stress, cost and shots in the derriere? Do I stymy my rapidly declining fertility by freezing eggs now for future use?
Or do I reimagine my life as a family of three?
Debra Cole is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in New York with her husband, son and a neurotic corgi. She blogs regularly about modern parenting (with a side of humor) at Urban Moo Cow.