On Infertility and Magical Thinking

On Infertility and Magical Thinking

By Jennifer Berney


Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone.


When I first began trying to conceive, I believed that I’d be pregnant within a month. For one thing I was only twenty-eight years old. Because I’m a lesbian, I had already worked out all of the logistics: I knew when I ovulated, and I knew that the donor sperm we had purchased was viable—our doctor had watched them swim beneath a microscope. Of the millions of sperm that would be delivered directly to my uterus, only one of them had to find my egg. What could go wrong?

Besides these clinical facts, I had stories I told myself around conception. I had already spent years of my adult life pining for a child. Surely this desire would inform my body’s ability to conceive. Though I understood that conception took an average of three to six months, I knew plenty of women who had conceived on their first try. I held their stories close to me like talismans. The first time I lay on the exam table for an insemination—my feet in stirrups, my partner holding my hand—I summoned a feeling of openness and joy. Of course this would work. Of course it would.

It didn’t. Months later, when I still wasn’t pregnant, my stories about conception changed. I no longer daydreamed about the women I knew who had conceived immediately. Instead, I imagined I was waiting for the right child to choose me. I pictured little baby-spirits, hovering, taking stock of all the candidates. Sympathetic friends tried to console me with their own magical thinking. “It will happen when it’s meant to happen,” some of them told me. “It will happen when you finally stop worrying about it,” others said.

The stories I told myself and the ones my friends told me had this in common: they imposed order on a process beyond our control.

Story 1: If a child-spirit chose me, then I would be a parent.

Story 2: A force called destiny would choose when I got pregnant.

Story 3: My thoughts controlled my womb.

I didn’t know what to think of any of these stories, these tropes of magical thinking, including my own. I didn’t quite believe them, and yet they haunted me. The third story was the least comforting of all. Surely my attitude was within my realm of control and yet, the more I tried not to worry, the more I worried, and the more I worried the more I blamed myself for worrying.

One day, after nearly a year of trying and failing, after having spent thousands of dollars on frozen sperm and monthly inseminations, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store. She had dated a close friend of mine not long ago, and so she was privy to my situation. “What’s going on with the baby thing?” she asked me. We stood between shelves of toothpaste and shampoo. I looked at my shoes and then back at her. “It’s just not happening,” I confessed.

“Well,” she said, her voice strangely chipper, “maybe you just weren’t meant to be a parent. Did you ever think about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve thought about that.”

*   *   *

Now that I’m the parent of two young boys, there’s a mind game I like to play with myself sometimes. When my children are hugging each other on the couch or running ahead of me on a dirt road, I take a snapshot in my mind and offer it to my earlier self, the me of nine years ago. She is preparing to turn thirty and wondering what she will do if she’s not pregnant soon. Will she spend another small fortune on IVF? Will she apply for an open adoption and hope that someone will choose her? It is true that she has options; it is also true that none of them guarantee a child.

The me of nine years ago tries not to cry to her partner too often. Infertility is a solitary pain. The body, alone, remains alone. For two weeks of the month the mind hopes and imagines. With blood those hopes are dashed. Her partner, on the other side of things, continues in a body unchanged by the ritual of hope and disappointment. Her partner learns about the blood arriving, but is not the one checking her underwear every hour.

And so when I cried, my partner tried to comfort me by saying, “I’m not worried about it. I know that we’ll have a child. When it’s meant to happen it will happen.”

Destiny again. Magical thinking. These words didn’t help me nine years ago. The only thing that could have helped would have been a picture of my future life. With this evidence I might have waited calmly. But the snapshot of my children, handed through time, is a dream. In the real world no one can offer evidence. They can only offer hope disguised as certainty.

The longer I tried and failed to conceive, the more I saw that there were plenty of people around me who wanted children and would never have them. Some of them had never found the partner they were looking for, or they found that partner too late. Some of them conceived and lost a child and then couldn’t conceive again. Some of them pursued adoption but were never matched with a child.

This isn’t destiny, at least not in the benevolent sense of the word. It wasn’t the kind hand of the universe intervening for some unknown reason. Instead this was reality. Sometimes you want a thing very badly and still you don’t get it. When life presents challenges, when it drops bombs of longing and grief, we inevitably grow and gain depth. But this doesn’t mean that those challenges were pre-ordained.

I do believe that the stories we make of our lives are important. But they are just that: stories. We reach into the chaos of the universe and try to pull out some meaning and order. Because my story has a happy ending, I can pretend that it was destined after all, that I was meant to be a parent. But the true story is this: I got lucky.

The me of nine years ago reaches forward in time. She takes the snapshot from my hand and reminds me of how badly I wanted the life I have now. She reminds me to listen in the dark as my children breathe. She reminds me of how tenuous all of this is, our lives together on this earth. We are the products of a series of infinite chances, bound to each other by the near-impossibility of it all.

Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays can be found in The New York Times MotherlodeThe Washington PostThe Manifest-Station and in the forthcoming HerStories anthology, So Glad They Told Me. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

Until It Bleeds Like We Do

By Caroline Horwitz


My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. 


The nurse in purple scrubs walks me to an examination room and asks a third time if I’ve provided them with a urine sample. I affirm that I have. “Sorry,” she says in response to her forgetfulness. “There are five of you in here today all with the same complaint, and you start to run together after a while.”

My complaint is that I’m experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. This is significant because I am—I was—pregnant. I take the nurse’s flippant words to mean the other four women are too. Five female bodies in this silent, sterile place, simultaneously and involuntarily expelling their embryos and fetuses. But that’s not what we call them: Babies. I lost the baby.

An hour before, a young man in fatigues checked me into the Air Force base hospital where my family received all of our healthcare—even after six years of marriage to a service member, I still registered the peculiarity of seeing camouflage and combat boots in lieu of white coats.         

“What’s going on?” he asked, a hand on his computer mouse.     

I cleared my throat. I had no illusions about what was coming out of me. I was, until early this morning, six weeks and five days along. “I just had a miscarriage.” My voice dropped and quavered on the M-word.        

“Sorry, a what?” He leaned forward.    

I jostled my sunglasses onto my face to hide the tears threatening to form. “A miscarriage.”

“Oh,” he said, and seemed on the verge of sympathy or an apology but began typing. “And this has been confirmed?”       

“Not yet,” I said. “But what I saw was pretty definitive.”   

It was. I didn’t need to frantically pull down my striped pajama shorts that morning to know what I would find in them after feeling a forceful surge of fluid. But I did anyway, and when I saw the vast amount of clumpy blood, I was neither surprised nor consolable.

The visceral roar emanating from my lungs was not mine alone. My scream joined the chorus of every woman who has unwillingly lost the life inside her. The millions rage and sob, trying to stab the air with our cries until it bleeds like we do. Then we stand up, take a shower, and go to the hospital.  

Hours later, all that’s left to accomplish at the ER—after a blood draw, abdominal ultrasound, transvaginal ultrasound, and pelvic exam—is the out-processing paperwork, so I reassure my husband that he can leave to pick up our son from daycare on time and return for me afterward. I am relieved to be departing this place of invasive procedures that concluded what I already knew.

My tears are gone for now. I stoically buy a coffee (Hey, I can have caffeine, I think) and wait for the car at a picnic table beneath a swaying line of trees. Air Force jets blast the sky above, setting off rogue car alarms here and there. The noise does not annoy me. It’s pleasing. They’re screaming for me.

Soul singer Merry Clayton recorded vocals with The Rolling Stones for their 1969 track “Gimme Shelter.” Rape, murder. It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away, she belts. The fervor of her voice reaches such climactic proportions that it cracks twice. She was pregnant. On her way home from the recording, she miscarried. She wondered later if the overexertion of her singing could have caused it.

That’s what you do, even if you know that most early miscarriages occur because of a chromosomal abnormality or incompatibility with life or one missed step of the many required in the fertilization process. You wonder if it was the flight you took across the country, the frequent lifting of your twenty-five-pound toddler, the pre-knowledge beer you didn’t even finish while stargazing in Bryce Canyon. You do it because blaming yourself is what mothers do, no matter how short-lived the motherhood.

“Gimme Shelter” is the first track on its album, Let It Bleed. Decades later, rock journalist Gavin Edwards raved about the album’s sound, asserting that “…the Stones made sure you went home covered in blood.” Merry Clayton did.

The day after the loss, I wandered out the back of my house to the patio and discovered on the table the remains of what had been a relaxing morning: a half-drunk mug of decaf and an opened first edition of Joyce Carol Oates stories I’d purchased the month before from a used bookshop in Ojai, California. The city where, if my menstrual-cycle math was correct, I had gotten pregnant. I was clutching, and promptly abandoned, both of these artifacts when I felt the blood, but they awaited me like stains.

It wouldn’t take long for my fertility to return, I was told. There was no way to tell when or if I’d get pregnant again, of course, but I would most likely ovulate within two to four weeks. I wanted to hear this, yes. We had planned this pregnancy. We wanted a second child. Rules were less stringent nowadays for complete, uncomplicated miscarriages like mine, so we didn’t require a waiting period. Yet it seemed cruel of my body. Two weeks? A new egg might arrive as soon as that, when someone who was attempting to grow into a child was just there? My body would not grieve, I realized. It was a landlord eager to move a new renter into an empty apartment, even though the last tenant recently died there. I, on the other hand, despite being aware of the pregnancy for only two weeks, will be cognizant of its loss for the rest of my life, no matter how swiftly I accept it.

If I get pregnant again, I won’t expect another miscarriage. The odds of having a subsequent one are low in women with no previous reproductive problems. It happened last time, therefore, it won’t happen again, I will reason.

If I get pregnant again, I will expect another miscarriage. Someone has to be on the losing end of the odds. My last pregnancy ended in a red gush, so why wouldn’t the next one? It happened last time, therefore, it will happen again, I will reason.
Caroline Horwitz lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. Her work has appeared in Animal, bioStories, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, and is forthcoming in the anthology My Mom Body: Reflections on Body Image and Motherhood from Monkey Star Press.

Photo: Kien Do | Unsplash

Love On The Rocks

Love On The Rocks

By Beth Kohl

summer2009_kohlI am a person with too many items in storage. There are reminders of late relatives, like my grandmother’s chipped porcelain tea cups that call to mind her living, breathing, sipping mouth upon their rims, the wrinkled half moons of coral lipstick still barely perceptible. There are framed photos from my parents’ lost marriage, my dad in a white tuxedo jacket and my mom with a startlingly chic pixie cut, his arm draped comfortably around her tanned, rounded shoulders, all of these souvenirs from my past that I’ve stowed until I decide what to do with them.

I’ve meticulously packed and labeled things—the Chinese figurines from my deceased grandmother’s condo and the belongings I’d salted away when my mom decided on a near whim to sell the house—as if I knew it’d be some time before I’d look through the neglected intentions idling in storage. I hope someday to amass the guts to go through the boxes, plucking out and remembering an item’s former life, displaying the meaningful or using the practical until the luster of nostalgia rubs off and expediency sets in.

Among my array are seven frozen embryos. They’re at a fertility clinic, stuck inside a capillary straw suspended within a nitrogen tank until my husband and I decide what to do with them. They are leftovers, seven untapped yet potentially fruitful embryos from our various in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles. Unlike the inert objects up in the attic, the Betamax and LPs, the moth-eaten coats and the collar from a dead pet cat, the embryos have the possibility of an entire life before them, requiring neither resurrection nor retrofit.

*   *   *

The embryos exist precisely because we’ve been successful at IVF. We underwent five attempts, ending up with a beautiful girl on try number three, and twin ones on the fifth. My ovaries had been easy to stimulate, and each cycle produced a bounty of eggs, many of which fertilized. Each cycle, we chose to transfer three embryos from the Petri dish into my uterus, the right amount to up our pregnancy chances while not risking a too seriously complicated one. The day of each transfer, we were asked our intentions for the remaining embryos. My husband and I, discussing it briefly and always at the very last minute when I was already undressed and ready to get the procedure under way and over with, when we only just learned how many embryos had continued to develop overnight and how many cells they contained, agreed on cryopreserving the surplus. It was the only decision among those presented—donation to research or another couple, or destruction—that preserved them as ours until we were ready to make a thoughtful, measured choice.

It has been eight years since we froze five of the embryos and nearly ten since we decided to save the first two (a clinic mishap accounts for those older ones). In that time, our children have grown from babies to toddlers to these fantastic kids who are loveable and proficient at assorted skills, the sorts of people we enjoy conversing with, helping with homework, and treating to nights out at restaurants or the movies. We’ve even gone on a couple of not-disastrous trips and fantasize about other places we’d love to see together. We’ve forged unique relationships with one another, developed a kind of family linguistics of silly nicknames for commonplace items based upon charming toddler mispronunciations, the sorts we have difficulty dropping around other people who assume my pronouncing garbage as gawbage is a speech defect rather than simply a charmed mother.

We have a shared history, all five of us pulling away from those tough early days. When our eldest daughter was two, she had some seizures and a couple of emergency surgeries to remove infected masses in her bladder. And my pregnancy with the twins had been nearly catastrophic. After almost miscarrying them at twenty-one weeks’ gestation, I spent months on bedrest, scared stiff that my cervix would give way and too-young babies would come tumbling out. But we all survived, the eldest daughter given a clean bill of health, the twins emerging at week thirty-five. We’ve been a family with three children under two years of age, with twins who had various preemie issues, and who had weathered the typically “Terrible” years. We’ve outgrown the reflux and grown out the self-inflicted haircuts, and we’ve all gotten used to the idea of us as a completed family unit with a keen memory of dodged bullets and tested fate.

*   *   *

But my mind is far from made up. I’ve been mooning over those seven stragglers, missing the excitement and heightened physical sense that pregnancy, labor, delivery and nursing bring. I’ve been toying with names and the possibility of loving another child the way I love my daughters. True, the stage we’ve reached is a relative piece of cake compared with the relentless exhaustion of raising three very young children or those dark early days when I thought I’d never get pregnant. And I’m back on track with my own career, able to work while the kids are at school or asleep not just for the night, but for the whole, uninterrupted night. Our social life is once more in blossom. More importantly, my husband and I now have the time, and inclination, for a sex life. I remember, now, why I fell in love with him in the first place. He is funny and smart, warm and sexy, more than just another set of hands. And he is the only being in the house who smells like neither powder nor dog. I take him in and recall our early, heady days together, marveling that parenting could have obscured them.

Adding another child not only would upset our balance and boomerang us back to overwhelmedness, it’d tip us into another category: that of the Big Family, the sort that, despite how well-behaved the children or how fantastic the wife’s guacamole she brings over, simply entails too big a crowd. We would once more be anchored down by a needy, bawling, sleep-ruining infant who would inevitably turn into a demanding, throwing-silverware-on-the-floor-just-to-see-her-mom-fetch-it toddler. He or she would wind us back up and tether us back down to just the sort of enforced domesticity we’ve blissfully started to outgrow.

All the same, I’ve been eyeing babies for a couple of years now. The ones in my friends’ arms or in strangers’ shopping carts, the ones asleep in their strollers or crying on airplanes. I’m keen for the infinite shapes of their heads, the lengths of their eyelashes, their curled toes and grabby fists, and I’ve convinced myself that my attention is a sign to not give up the embryos unless I’m positive using them isn’t the best, most well-considered and most ethical option.

Indeed, my ethics seem to have shifted since we froze the embryos. Or maybe it’s just that the once-bright line separating more Platonic ideals of Right and Wrong from my own personal yearnings has dimmed, leaving me in the dark about the difference between doing what’s best and doing what’s right. Perhaps realizing that my children were once, even if only for the most fleeting of moments, cell clusters identical to these seven provoked this change. Intellectually, I appreciate that embryos are not very young fetuses, the storage containers at the fertility clinics aren’t nitrogen-rich orphanages, and thawing them out and letting them languish doesn’t amount to a prenatal massacre. Fertilized embryos are cell clusters, raw ingredients rather than a realized being. But I also know that frozen embryos have the potential, given the right conditions, to become fetuses who (that word creeps in) have the potential, given the right conditions, to become human beings.

We made our decision to freeze our embryos from a place of innocence and ignorance, a matter of putting practicality over bioethical or moral considerations. At that point, we didn’t know whether I’d end up pregnant, and the last thing we were willing to do was squander any unused potential children. I also couldn’t have deduced how deep my connection to my children would be before having them, or how frequently I’d think about the frozen embryos before creating them. But becoming a mother and loving my children has breathed life into what—when I was in an exam chair, trembling from nerves and drafts blowing through my untied and over-laundered hospital gown and being asked to make profound bioethical decisions—turned out to be an inert, unexamined personal philosophy and an abstract sense of the ethics involved.

Also, until becoming a mother, I couldn’t have anticipated how powerfully motherhood would impact my perspective on all sorts of things, bioethics and cryopreservation among them. Like an inmate who finds religion in the slammer, being a mom has caused me to reevaluate how I live my life and to think more about why I believe what I believe. For example, why had I assumed I’d have no problem donating biological matter, let alone my daughters’ full genetic siblings, same vintage and all, to an unknown lab for unknown purposes? Why hadn’t I at least recognized that, good cause or not, handing them over would be to extinguish them?

Looking back, I think it’s because I’ve always been pro-choice, pro-science, pro-pragmatism. Those were my fallback positions, ones I inherited and proudly averred. But becoming a mother has taught me that I am also vehemently pro-family and pro-child. Which, alas, leads me back to the quandary of what is the right and best thing to do, not only for our own family, but for others? Would helping to care for a new baby, exhausting as it would be, be a boon for our crew? Would we all look at each other and marvel that our beloved daughter or son, brother or sister, might never have been? (Family! Family! Sis Boom Bah!) Or would the time, energy and finances that a new baby would divert, particularly in these rough economic times, cause us to regret having chosen this path?

To be clear, I’m drawing a distinction between personal values, on the one hand, and fundamental morals on the other.  The former is a personal code of conduct derived from multiple influences (parents, teachers, religion, philosophy, civics, etc.). It’s the code that allows you to figure out where you stand when there are good arguments to be made for multiple courses of action. Morals, by contrast, are less optional, a code of conduct that (ideally) would be espoused by all rational people. I view my frozen embryo dilemma as existing along the ethical continuum. Donating them to science, therefore, is an ethical course of action. But the way in which my personal ethics have evolved leads me to believe that donating them may not be ideal, at least not for a person who, like me (and unlike, say, Nadya Suleman), has physical and mental health, a manageable number of healthy children, resources to care for all of my children, and a helpful and willing family.

*   *   *

Putting aside religious doctrine (which I did many years ago), I am left only with my subjective sense of right and wrong. I am not capital P, capital L Pro Life, all of a sudden, at least not in the way of Phyllis Schlafly or Sarah Palin. But I recognize not only intellectually, but in a more complex way involving my heart, spine, and stomach, that fertilized embryos are not mere cellular gobstoppers.

Scientific progress requires experimentation and a whole heaping mess of trial and error. So even though I’ve always believed it’d be wasteful to destroy the embryos—a brash smiting when scientific research was such a good option—I’m no longer as certain that scientific advance trumps baby number four. Certainly, if every scientific test yielded definitive, productive results, and if somebody could guarantee a medical breakthrough before dismantling our embryos, plucking them apart cell by cell or injecting them with an experimental solution, I’d likely feel differently about ceding them. But knowing that scientific advance is a matter of baby steps and missteps, and also recognizing that the symbolism of these embryos—the not insignificant space they’ve occupied in my mind and heart all these years—will be lost on whoever it is doing the dismantling, makes it that much harder for me to surrender these potential children and/or stem cells to the trial and error heap as if they were any other specimen.

Like the irrationally protective mother I can sometimes be, I have nightmares in which they end up in the wrong hands. I imagine unsmiling, begoggled technicians using them in unsavory experiments involving combinations of human nuclei and chimpanzee lysosomes. I envisage them for sale on black markets to skin care companies formulating embryonic potions for the wrinkle-phobic, or classified CIA-type operations trying to create a frozen embryo bomb, or simply misplaced or left to wither when somebody mistakenly unplugs their tank.

*   *   *

But I also have misgivings about keeping them around indefinitely. At $500 annually, it’s expensive. And as a mother who remembers keenly the miraculous moment when we first heard our daughters’ hearts beating, a sound we’d sought for so long and through such adversity, I tend to think magically about these cells. I think about them daily, envisioning them stuck to the sides of their straws inside their container, one shiny scuba-tank-looking receptacle among hundreds, within which lurk thousands of teeny tiny surplus. I wish I was copacetic with the idea of keeping them around indeterminately, dashing off that annual check and viewing them as thoroughly modern and ultra cool mementos of the earliest moments in our children’s path towards life. I wish I could see them, as my fertility doctor does, strictly as a perfect source of stem cells should any of the girls need some, or (and here the bioethical dominos start to topple) a potential child for one of my daughters should she inherit her mother’s fertility issues, end up in a same-sex relationship, or desire single parenthood.

But I can’t. The seven embryos remind me too keenly of the precise moment when the development towards life begins to unfurl. They also cause me to dream of flutters, kicks, contractions, tugs on my lactating nipples, teensy fingers wound into my hair. They represent seven potential daughters or sons, sisters or brothers, pureed peach-loving, hair-pulling, bathing, crying, sleeping, thinking, growing, struggling, achieving, sensing, smiling, brawling, bawling individuals.

But defrosting them and going for that fourth baby forces other sorts of ethical reckoning. The first dilemma surrounds how many to thaw, since not all embryos survive the process. It’s the cooling and thawing that cause the destruction. Even assuming a seventy-five percent thaw survival rate (the statistic our fertility clinic uses for embryos frozen at the blastocyst stage, as ours were), it’d be tough to decide how many to thaw in order to end up with one or two quality embryos. If we defrost them individually and they don’t survive, I’ll have prepared my uterus with a month’s worth of potentially cancer-causing injected hormones for naught. But if we thaw them out in slightly larger batches, I may end up with pregnancy upon pregnancy, or multiples upon multiples, and more children than we can reasonably handle. On the other hand, if we were to thaw them all out and implant only the best one or two, we’d need to dispose of the extras—you can’t refreeze them once thawed, nor can you donate them to science or even to another couple at this point, unless you have a buddy with a prepped uterus willing to accept the embryologist’s B team.

*   *   *

I’ve heard stories of how other people deal with their untapped, unwanted frozen embryos. I have a friend who retrieved her and her husband’s three extras from the clinic, wrapped them in a tiny drawing of rainbows made by her twin daughters, and prepared a box for them to be buried in. It was neither fancy nor macabre, involving neither decoupage nor a miniature casket. Rather, she used a metal tooth fairy box with a screw-off lid that she said a blessing over and buried in the backyard beneath a favorite tree. I have another friend who, after delivering two sets of twins and a singleton to boot, gladly signed the form to donate her two surviving embryos for research. She figured she owed her largesse to science, and if those two embryos were to offer any sort of scientific boost, their existence would not have been in vain. I’ve also learned of women who have their frozen embryos transferred into their bodies at a point in their cycles when pregnancy likely won’t occur. They say this feels like the most natural and least violent conclusion.

I do not, however, know anybody who has donated her leftovers to another couple, something I considered only briefly and then dismissed as not for me. The idea of somebody else raising my biological child under these conditions bothers me. In part, it’s because I fear a molested conscience, the monotony of what if, what if. Putting aside the pure desire other couples have for taking frozen embryos off someone’s (sinful, selfish, blasphemous) hands, I don’t think I could give them away to another potential family when ours is relatively high-functioning and my uterus is still intact. Perhaps if there were a test we could conduct, a way to predict my pregnancy chances versus that of a potential donee, I’d be amenable to giving them away for a likelier shot at life. But all things being equal, I’d be hard-pressed to let another couple raise our children’s full genetic siblings. I can’t help imagining what those brothers or sisters would think if they looked us up one day, got our address and drove up and saw our plenty big-enough house, the charming public school down the tree-lined street, and the couple of dogs lying around the well-kept yard.

Perhaps I’ll reach a point when the idea of not using them doesn’t bother me. But I don’t have the luxury of much time. If I’m going to have another child, I’d like for him or her to be as close in age as possible to the current pack (me and the mister included). And if I’m already convinced these embryos are potential people—which my current baby lust and the fact my mind jumps so easily from the babies I encounter to my own supply of raw material proves—isn’t it safe to assume that I’d mourn their loss, even if giving them up proves most practical?

But there are other risks beyond exhaustion and upset balances. Fertility drugs are potentially dangerous to the women who use them, upping the odds of ovarian cancer, this when the usual odds strike this semi-hypochondriac as scarily high. Worse are the ongoing, multitudinous studies on the health risks to children resulting from IVF. While there’s no unequivocal correlation, several world-class institutions have found convincing relationships between assisted reproduction, particularly IVF and its component procedures, and rare childhood diseases, retinal and bladder cancers chief among them.

I remember the terror of having a daughter with serious medical problems and how I’d automatically assumed the IVF was to blame. When her doctors shook their heads, unable to pinpoint the source of the troubles—the seizing was neither from fever nor epilepsy, just anomalous shakes that disappeared as quickly as they’d come on; the cysts were remnants of an embryonic structure that should have turned into the bladder by birth—I’d suppressed the urge to comfort them by letting them know she’d been conceived using IVF and therefore undoubtedly had been packing some not-completely-normal parts.

But my children seem so normal. Beyond normal, really. They’re extraordinarily kind, sociable, and clever. And I’ve pored over them, their bodies, and their development. They’ve hit the normative milestones, crawling and walking and talking according to schedule. They’ve learned how to read, beg for turtles, guinea pigs, and rabbits, and have started wondering where babies come from. I observe each landmark with a mixture of celebration and relief, hoping that, someday soon, expediency will set in, and I’ll start to forget about unexploded landmines and other thorny residue.

*   *   *

Still, knowing what I now know, having read the studies and experienced the anguished helplessness of having a sick child, how could I choose to use these possibly toxic embryos. Not only had they resulted from IVF, but they’ve been frozen for the better part of a decade. If the dusty taste of waffles that languish in the freezer are any indication, quite possibly there would be something “off” about our preserved embryos, too.

I imagine an alternate, more perfect world, one without ghosts or the pain of lost lives. In it, every maternal woman would be gloriously fertile and no child would ever know disease. I’d be a young, energetic mom with three healthy and happy children who resulted from spontaneous and hot, hot sex. There’d be no health risks associated with producing life, no overwhelming decision still to be made about the fate of cells that are too often viewed as property, and not enough like somebody’s past and future. Our cat would still be alive, jumping up on the kitchen counter as I pour tea into my grandmother’s cup. She’d be sitting at a table near the window, smiling as she watched her great-grandchildren run around outside, then raising the cup to her mouth, stamping another coral scallop upon its rim.

*   *   *

Author’s Note: I wrote the bulk of this essay long before the term “Octomom” entered the lexicon. And as I say in the piece, I feel like I’m in a completely different logistical boat than Nadya Suleman, making my decision a matter of choosing amongst decent options as opposed to forging ahead without due consideration and ignoring practical considerations to a harmful degree. Having said that, when I heard Ms. Suleman talking about her frozen embryos as her future children, I couldn’t help but empathize. I know what she means, even though she took her argument, and then its consequences, to a point far beyond the limits of my ethical comfort zone.

Beth Kohl lives in Winnetka, Illinois with her husband and three daughters. She is working on her first novel.

Brain, Child (Summer 2009)

Barren in the Andes

Barren in the Andes

By Laura Resau
Art Barren in the Andes 3Breathless, I hurry along narrow trails between Quichua family farms, past squawking chickens and curly-tailed piglets. My destination is a shaman who lives in this village on the outskirts of Otavalo, Ecuador. I’m going as a last-ditch hope he can heal me. Back in Colorado, I tried everything—Eastern and Western medicine, herbs and tinctures, weird diets. And now I’m teetering on the edge of bitter despair.

I emerge from the foliage to a vista of fifteen-thousand-foot peaks rising above emerald fields, dotted with red-tiled roofs and grazing sheep. Two of these mountains are said to be ancient Incan gods: the male, Imbabura, and his lover, Cotacachi. When she’s covered with light frost at dawn, locals claim it’s semen from a night of passion. Their offspring— smaller, baby mountains—lie scattered between them. Then there’s the ubiquitous Andean deity, Pacha Mama, the World Mother, whose fertile body spills out in swirling folds, patchworks of velvet fields, silken pastures.

Fertility is a deep and ancient craving, at once visceral and mythical, elemental and universal. This, at least, is my impression as an anthropologist, or, more to the point, as a woman who cannot seem to have a baby.

If my first pregnancy hadn’t ended in miscarriage, my child would be five. And if any of the next years of fertility treatments had worked, I’d have a preschooler, or toddler, or baby. I’d be holding his pudgy hand, or idly tousling his hair, or, what I crave most, kissing his tiny feet.

A few months ago, after years of heart-breaking negatives, a miracle occurred: I got pregnant again, naturally. But anxiety eclipsed the joy; my body felt fragile and broken. Terrified I’d lose the baby, I ate only hyper-hygienically-prepared organic food, let no synthetic chemicals touch my skin. Despite my vigilance, after eleven weeks, I lost the baby.

Now, one month later, my heart still feels as raw and broken as my belly. If my body had functioned, a baby bump would just be showing. I place my hand over the plane of my abdomen, flat except for a smattering of recent bug bites.

After this second miscarriage, I mustered up my scant energy and planned a trip to Ecuador, ostensibly to visit my friend, María. At the heart of it, I needed to get out of my house, with its heavy, empty, childless silence.

The shaman’s curing room is large and high-ceilinged, yet cave-like, with soot-blackened adobe walls holding the scent of candle wax and wood smoke and incense. He positions me smack in the center of the room and gives an instruction in Quichua, translated by María with a suppressed snicker. “Strip to your underwear, Laurita.”

I stand, blinking, taking stock of my body, which frankly, I’ve come to hate more with every month of infertility. Encased in my unflattering beige sports bra are my ever-milkless breasts, six pounds of useless meat, serving only to remind me of what I don’t have. My gaze drops lower, to the faint surgical scar at my navel—evidence of a fruitless effort to restore fertility.

The shaman picks up a green glass bottle shaped like a woman in large skirts—reminiscent of the old Aunt Jemima syrup bottles—filled with alcohol. He chants and whistles a meandering tune as he circles the bottle in a blessing. From the altar, he grabs a pinch of rose petals, sticks them between his lips, takes a mouthful of liquor, and spits it all over me.

I shut my eyes, try not to wince. As the shaman spits wave after wave, I try to imagine myself as a goddess, solid and fertile as the semen-coated mountain Cotacachi. I envision Pacha Mama herself, rising through the earthen floor, filling me. I visualize the gusts blowing away the dark energy clinging to me.

It does require effort, however, to ignore the germ-laden saliva of a strange man covering my body, and I’m relieved when he stops spitting and begins beating me instead. Gently, I should add, with a bundle of healing chilca leaves. It’s actually a nice sensation, my body turned into a drum. He pounds the leaves on my chest, as if giving it a new rhythm, a passionate, strong heartbeat. But now my thoughts are creeping to the distinct lack of heartbeat on the ultrasound last month. That night, I’d lain in bed, staring at the overhead fan in the blue half-light, tear-soaked and sob-wracked. Near dawn, when I was cried out, I found myself repeating, fuck, fuck, fuck, a beating like a heart, a rhythm like a drum. It went on for a long, long time. Hours, maybe. By the time morning light came, I knew I couldn’t bear another month of hope and heartbreak. A few days later, in my bathrobe, with damp tissues spilling from the pockets, I searched online for adoption information. Maybe, I thought, heavy with desperation and shame, if I adopt, then I’ll get pregnant.

*   *   *

My gloomy ruminations continue as the shaman beats me with shell-intact raw eggs (to absorb negative energy), and then (for reasons that remain unclear) blows cheap local cigarette smoke all over me, punctuated with a kind of smoky kiss on the top of my head. He then picks up the Aunt Jemima-style bottle, which he raises to his lips, presumably, to spit on me some more. Still half-lost in mournful memories, and vaguely aware that I already reek of a seedy, late-night bar, I take a deep breath and brace myself for the next round.

But this time is different. This time the shaman, standing about six paces away, extends a lighter at arm’s length before he spits the liquor.

A mist of alcohol blasts through the flame and catches fire. Catches fire!

And oh my God there’s a fireball heading toward me and holy crap I’m covered in flammable liquid.

Fear explodes through me. There is no time to dive out of the way. There is only time to squeeze my eyes shut and pray.

A wave of heat rolls over me.

María gasps on the sidelines.

I open my eyes, look down at my body. I am not on fire. Thank God, I’m not on fire! Chest pounding, I peer closer, at the light hairs on my arms. Unsinged. The fireball must have burned up just before reaching me. I let out a breath. Oh, thank God, my bug-bitten flesh is intact. Thank God my broken body remains whole.

The shaman is already taking another mouthful. I steel myself, shut my eyes, and pray. Another wave of heat. A flash of fear. Afterward, a mental scan of my flesh. Still not on fire. Thank you. And on and on they go, these fire- balls that tug me right into this place, this moment.

By the time they stop, my body is quivering like a plucked string, but now thoroughly warmed. Pulse racing, sweat pouring from my armpits, I wonder what comes next.

The shaman picks up a large, smooth, black stone from his altar. Andean shamans’ stones have personalities, talents, lives of their own. The shaman places his helper stone over my belly, and then, in a powerful voice, as if he’s channeling the wind, shouts, “Shunguuu!” it’s a whoosh, this word, and it whooshes right into me.

“Shunguuu!” he shouts again, with the force of a storm, and any silly thoughts that were not burned up by the fireballs are now blown away. Shunguuu! A perfect word for this focused power aimed straight into my center.

He murmurs something to María, who translates, “Think about what you want, Laurita.”

I am very practiced at wishing. For every birthday and shooting star sighting and heads-side-up penny over the past five years, I have wished for increasingly detailed versions of the same thing: that I get pregnant with a baby in my own womb with my own egg and Ian’s sperm and give birth to my healthy and beautiful and happy full- term baby. There is no room for nasty surprises from the universe with that degree of specificity.

I now prepare to carefully whisper my wish, but then, I stop.

I surprise myself by asking, Laura, what do you really, truly want?

In response, something happens inside my chest. A kind of whoosh of sunlight into my heart. It’s as if a doorway has opened, a passage I never knew existed. And on the other side, in the light, are tiny, tender feet. A baby who nestles into my body, his world. A baby who is not inside my belly, but inside my heart, in this light-filled space that was here all along. This baby, these feet, they are my joy.

This is what I want. This is the wish I whisper.

*   *   *

After the ceremony, I stand, soaking wet in my sports bra, plastered with bits of rose petals, my heart still hurting, but stronger now, encased in this flawed but loved body. I bask inside my own hidden patch of light as the shaman explains that to complete the ceremony, I may not indulge in the following items for three days: chocolate, pork, fish, avocado, milk, chili, and (regrettably) showers.

For the next three days, I’ll be living with a thin coating of alcohol and saliva and smoke and rose petals on my skin. But none of that matters because I’m not thinking so much about my body now, but my heart, and its surprise doorway, and the baby feet, and the glimpse of joy.

Nodding confidently, the shaman tells María one more thing. She beams as she translates, “this mujercita—this little woman—will have a baby very soon!”

Yes, I think, my heart freshly full and newly light, this mujercita will.

*   *   *

Back home, as my bug-bite welts fade, as springtime blooms in Colorado, I embark on a nine-month-long adoption process, not as means to a pregnancy, but as a pathway to this baby inside my heart, my baby. My husband is supportive, but, as is typical in adoptions (and pregnancies), it is the woman who labors, the woman who, one way or another, delivers her child. My life quickly fills with reams of paperwork, long waits in government buildings, and multiple trips to Guatemala.

I deal with these tasks the way a pregnant woman deals with morning sickness and swollen feet and other annoyances that pale beside the monumental and sparkling anticipation of the baby coming. At the three-month mark, instead of an ultrasound, I’m rewarded with photos of the newborn whose spirit is growing inside me. As his arrival nears, something inside me thrums, something stronger than kicks or hiccups—something inside my chest, the beating of thousands of shimmering wings.

*   *   *

Three years later, when he’s old enough to begin to understand, I tell my son I wish my belly hadn’t been broken so that he could have been in it. I wish my breasts could have given him milk. I tell him it made me sad, but that even though he couldn’t grow in my belly, he grew in my heart.

He nuzzles in my lap like a baby animal and tells me my breasts are soft pillows for his head. He tells me, in our whispered conversations, “I always wanted a mommy like you. Out of all the mommies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

And I tell him, my voice breaking, “I always wanted a little boy like you. Out of all the babies in the world, I wanted you. I’m so happy you’re mine.”

Then, for the ten thousandth time, I kiss his feet.

Author’s Note: During the process of adopting my son, I wrote the novel The Indigo Notebook, about a teenage boy searching for his birth parents in the Andes. This book gave me the chance to explore the idea of looking beyond what I think I want, to discover what I truly want. (It also gave me the chance to include a shaman-spitting-fireballs scene).

Laura Resau has lived and traveled in Latin America and Europe. Her experiences inspired her novels for young people—What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, The Indigo Notebook, Star in the Forest, and The Queen of Water. She lives with her family in Colorado (www.lauraresau.com).

Breeding Habits

Breeding Habits

By Andrea Vij

Breeding Habits ArtI tried to shoo them away, but they wouldn’t leave.

They arrived on a Saturday morning in early spring. It was cloudy and cool that day, a gray start to what I hoped would be a quiet weekend. Harv had gone out to get coffee, and I was folding laundry on the sofa when I heard a strange noise coming from the bedroom. I stopped to listen, but it went away.

I reached for another towel and folded it. As I set it aside, I heard the noise again, low and throaty, like a pigeon or an owl: “Coo-OOO-ooh. Coo-OOO-ooh.”

Then silence.

After it sounded again, I decided to investigate. I peered into the bedroom and tiptoed cautiously forward. Pausing at the foot of the bed, I listened. Nothing. Then, just as I turned to leave, I heard it again. It seemed to be coming from outside the north window, so I crept over and moved the blinds to one side.

Wings flapped, twigs scattered in every direction, and something about the size of a robin darted away before I could get a good look. I scanned the courtyard, then glanced down to find a haphazard pile of twigs resting on our windowsill. So that’s it, I thought. Some little bird wants to build a nest here in the ivy.

Annoyed, I opened the screen and brushed the twigs away. I knew about birds. They rise at dawn. They warble and fuss when you’re trying to sleep. They shit with abandon. I brushed every trace of nest from the sill, then walked away assuming I was done.

But I had underestimated my adversary, who rebuilt within the hour. A great battle ensued, taking my quiet Saturday morning and turning it into a dramatic, hours-long confrontation between woman and bird. No … make that birds. By noon, I figured out there were two of them. And they were stubborn, too, like those steely people who insist on riding out hurricanes. They built, and I brushed it all away. And they built, and I brushed it all away. And they built, and built, and built, until I finally just gave in.

“Honey,” I said to Harv, “it looks like we’re going to have a bird’s nest on our windowsill.”

His eyes lit up. “That’s great! Nature in action.”

*  *  *

Our fertility doctor was a rock star. I turned on the news one day and saw him there, explaining the latest advances in fertility prediction. I realized that if the same technology had been available fifteen years earlier, I could have walked into a clinic at age twenty-five and requested a blood test to find out how many eggs I had left. The results would have told me how long I could expect to remain fertile. But I’d have had nothing to gain but false hope. I never lacked for eggs. The problem was my chromosomes.

I learned about it from a series of blood tests for an unrelated condition. Shortly after Harv and I decided to get married, I explained. “I have a chromosome abnormality called a reciprocal translocation. It’s harmless for the most part. I’m not sick. But it could make things difficult if we want to have a child.”

He listened, intrigued as both scientist and potential father.

“It’s kind of complicated,” I added. “At conception, genetic information gets passed on through our chromosomes, right? With an abnormality like mine, sometimes the information ends up in the wrong place. Sometimes it’s incomplete. If that happens, the pregnancy terminates on its own.”

He nodded. “Don’t worry. We have access to the best doctors in the world. We’ll figure out what to do.”

He was optimistic, and I loved him for it.

*   *   *

Several hours after the little fiends finished their nest, I found a picture of them on a birding website. Beneath the photo appeared their scientific name, zenaida macroura, and below that, their common name, mourning dove.

My new neighbors had an identity.

According to the article, mourning doves are abundant throughout much of North America, primarily because they breed up to six times a year. They’re known not only for their plaintive coo, but also for their relentless nest-building behavior, and for the unique squeaking sound made by their wings during take-off and landing. While mourning doves will occasionally take over the unused nests of their fellow birds, most pair up and build on their own, sometimes in awkward locations: inside mailboxes, on fence posts, in hanging planters, and yes, on windowsills.

Over the next few days, I gathered information obsessively. I read about mourning doves’ habits (prolific breeding and little else), their diet (primarily seeds), their preferred habitat (cities, rural areas, woods, meadows), and their close relationship to the passenger pigeon. I learned that mourning doves mate monogamously and share equally in the duties of parenting. I couldn’t help admiring them for that.

I also couldn’t help noticing that the birds on our windowsill bore little resemblance to the noisy brats I had first expected. They cooed softly now and then but otherwise kept silent. We hardly even knew they were there. And if they shat, I couldn’t find evidence of it. I joked to Harv that they were the cleanest, quietest neighbors we’d ever had.

“They’re kind of cute,” I admitted one evening as we set out for a walk.

“And just think,” Harv said. “We can watch our own episode of Wild Kingdom without ever leaving the bedroom.”

*   *   *

Crossing one leg over the other, I peered out over my copy of Good Housekeeping. The clinic waiting room featured a cascading water wall, a collection of lush green plants, several kidney-shaped coffee tables stocked with glossy pamphlets (“Stress and Infertility,” “Benefits of Acupuncture,” “Fertility Treatment: A Patient’s Guide”) and seating for at least fifty. A surprising number of seats were occupied this morning, primarily by women.

I considered making myself a cup of tea at the beverage station, but decided against it because I would have to throw it away as soon as my name was called. I had come for my second ovarian ultrasound, a procedure that would tell my doctor just how enthusiastically my reproductive organs were responding to the powerful cocktail of hormones I mixed each night and injected into the soft, fatty skin around my belly button. He would study the grainy, black-and-white photos and, based on the number of follicles he could see developing on each ovary, adjust my treatment accordingly. But what the pictures would not tell him, or me, or anyone else, was how to solve my chromosome problem. For that, medical science had little to offer. All we could do was jolt my ovaries into high gear and hope for the best. More eggs, better odds.

A woman in pink scrubs approached the reception desk and reached for a clipboard. “Jennifer P,” she called out, checking a name off the list. I watched as Jennifer P. rose from her seat and walked toward the desk. With bracelets jangling and thick blond hair tumbling down her back, she looked attractive, vibrant, and healthy. How could someone like her be infertile?

Flipping through the pages of my magazine, I waited.

“Maria T.”

“Constance M.”

“Jason R.”

I tried not to stare, wanting to avoid the temptation to make comparisons between myself and the other patients. But as I sat there in my blue-upholstered chair pretending to read about Thanksgiving centerpieces, I considered all that Maria, Constance, Jason, and I had in common, even if our official diagnoses were quite different. Like everyone else in the waiting room that day, we had come to the clinic to get help from a specialist, not because we were dying or in physical pain, but because we longed for something that most people can have without medical intervention. We wanted kids.

Science tells us that the urge to procreate lies deep in our DNA. Living organisms share a common biological imperative: reproduce or your species will cease to exist. Call it a primal urge, a deep-seated desire, or even an outdated societal expectation. Ignore it altogether if you like. But somewhere within our every cell lies a drive to procreate, to pass our genes to the next generation. Nature provided this urge so we could survive as a species. Unfortunately, for those of us in the waiting room, nature had failed to take the next step.

*   *   *

With an embarrassing lack of originality, we named our new neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Birdie. Both had soft gray-brown wings mottled by a dozen or so darker spots that looked like they might have dripped off a wet paint brush. Their cooing soothed us and made us laugh. And even though we hated to disturb them, we couldn’t resist going to the window to check on them several times a day.

They had been perched on our windowsill for about a week when Harv beat me home from work one day. He caught me as I walked in the door. “Guess what I saw,” he teased.


He held up two fingers. “Two eggs!”

“No way!”

“Yep. I went to the window to check on them, and they must have been trading off or something. There was nobody on the nest for about thirty seconds, until Mrs. Birdie flew in and sat down.” Again he held up two fingers. “I saw two eggs, and they were white.”

I thought back to my research, and his story held up. Mourning doves typically incubate two eggs per clutch, and the parents alternate at the nest, with the male on duty by day and the female by night. Harv must have opened the blinds at precisely the right moment to see the eggs exposed.

I went to the window and pushed the blinds aside. From her perch, the mama bird looked up at me with one solid, unmoving black eye. “So that’s it, Mrs. Birdie,” I said gently. “That’s why you’ve been so quiet. You don’t want anyone to find your eggs. Well, don’t worry. We’ll protect you.”

At last I understood. Of all the windowsills in the world, Mr. and Mrs. Birdie had picked ours, and within a week or so, they would be nursing two tiny, down-covered hatchlings right out- side our bedroom. This was no accident. Harv and I had been chosen.

“Those little eggs are going to hatch,” I said to Harv. “And we’re going to be parents.”

*   *   *

I lay on the exam table awaiting a verdict. Mary, the ultrasound technician, finished her maneuverings and snapped off her disposable gloves.

“You’ve got seven follicles on the right ovary,” she said, “and four on the left. I see a few other small ones that will grow over the next couple of days. They’ll probably call you back in tomorrow.”

I thanked Mary and got dressed. Seven plus four, with more on the way. After three cycles of treatment, my best count so far. I walked to the car and called Harv. “Good news, honey. No wonder I feel bloated. I’m cranking out eggs like you wouldn’t believe.”

*   *   *

Figuring something could happen any day now, I began rushing home from work. Every afternoon I would run inside, kick off my shoes, hurry to the window and push the blinds aside. Perhaps I imagined it, but whoever happened to be sitting on the nest would look up at me with an expression of complete trust. I spoke in my most soothing voice. “Hello, little bird. No chickies yet today? Maybe tomorrow.”

This went on for several days, until one afternoon I happened to come home earlier than usual. I went to the window, half expecting to find two squawking baby birds with their harried parents.

Instead I found a bare windowsill. No birds, no nest, no ivy, nothing. For one confused moment I thought that maybe I had dreamed the whole thing, that there had never been any birds. But no, they had been there just this morning. The babies were due to hatch. Something was wrong. They couldn’t have just disappeared.

I flung the window open and leaned outside, looking for any clue as to what had happened. Bizarre explanations darted through my mind: a strong wind had blown them away, a bird of prey had swooped in on them, a cat had somehow climbed two stories and discovered them. But nothing made sense.

I ran to call Harv, who was in the Jeep on his way home.

“The birds are gone,” I blurted out when he picked up.

“What do you mean, the birds are gone?”

“They’re gone!” I was beginning to feel frantic. “I don’t know what happened.”

“Okay. Take it easy and I’ll be home in a few minutes.”

I grabbed my keys and ran downstairs. I went out into the courtyard to find something, anything that would tell me where the birds had gone. I looked from the trees overhead to the ground below, from the brick wall to the neighbor’s fence, from the rose bushes to the hydrangeas, searching every corner. Then I saw it. On the ground below our window sat a pile of tools—shears, hedge cutters, and other fierce-looking things with sharp blades—and next to the tools, a ladder. The ladder was propped up against a bare brick wall, and below it someone had heaped a large pile of freshly cut ivy.

“No,” I thought, horrified. “They did not cut down the ivy, not today of all days.” The condo association had told us they couldn’t afford to have any extra yard work done because we needed a new boiler. But apparently someone had found the money.

I looked up at our window, longing to see one small patch of ivy stuck to the wall, just enough to protect a nest. But there was nothing there but bare bricks and mortar. The birds were gone.

I made my way upstairs and waited for Harv. By the time he walked in, I was in tears. I told him everything, about the bare windowsill, the ivy on the ground, the ladder and the tools, the sharp blades, and the brick wall. He listened, his face grim.

We walked into the bedroom and stood together staring at the window. Had we given it any thought, we would have realized that with the approach of evening the mother bird would come home, expecting to relieve her partner for the night. As it turned out, her arrival took us by surprise, leaving us to stand there helplessly as she landed on the bare windowsill. Her head jerked back and forth from the spot where the nest had been to our figures looming before her in the window. We shook our heads sadly, wanting to tell her that we were sorry, that we didn’t do it. She flew away to land on a tree branch a few yards away, then flew back, as if expecting the nest to materialize if she tried again. We stood by as she repeated this ritual ten, maybe twenty times. When we could no longer bear to watch, we closed the blinds and walked away.

*   *   *

The pile of ivy sat dead on the ground in the courtyard for several weeks before someone finally hauled it away. Harv told me he searched through it one afternoon but didn’t find anything. With no evidence to tell me otherwise, I decided that Mr. and Mrs. Birdie eventually found each other, maybe out in the courtyard later that evening. And since their hatchlings couldn’t possibly have survived, I assumed that, driven by their natural urge to parent, they tried again right away.

As for Harv and me, after battling my chromosomes for over a year, we finally made the tearful decision to stop. The next day, we went online and ordered a copy of Adoption for Dummies. By the time the book arrived on our doorstep, we had already found an agency and set up our first appointment. But things moved more slowly after that, and we waited almost two years for a referral.

Today our beautiful son is almost three, and I find it difficult to remember a time when he wasn’t part of our lives. Even before the courts allowed us to bring him home, we thought about him daily. Before that, we longed for him.

When we first talked about having a child, like so many other prospective parents, I assumed this would mean a child with my chin and my husband’s nose, with my long legs and my husband’s dark hair—a child I could know viscerally from the moment its cells began to divide. This wasn’t meant to be. But now, when I look at the sweet and playful boy we adopted after so many months of heartbreak and uncertainty, I feel a sense of completion I never knew to expect. He is our son in every way that matters.

We moved last spring, into a house surrounded by trees and the many birds that reside in their branches. Every so often when I take my little boy out for a walk, he says, “Mommy, the birds are talking,” or, “Cheep, cheep, cheep,” as he hops through the grass, arms outstretched like imaginary wings.

The first time he heard a mourning dove, he looked at me. “What’s that sound?” he asked, reaching for my hand.

“It’s a mourning dove. Before you were born, some mourning doves built a nest outside our window. They say, coo-OOO-ooh, coo-OOO-ooh.”

“Oh,” he answered. “Like this?” And then, in a high-pitched staccato that sounded nothing at all like a mourning dove, he offered his own rendition. It was as if he had heard something completely different, or perhaps wasn’t interested in meeting my expectation of how a mourning dove should coo. And I knew to let it go.

Author’s Note: When I first began writing scenes for Breeding Habits, I didn’t know where the story would lead, but I knew I had to share it. In the end, it took over four years of writing, rewriting, workshopping, and rethinking before I finally had a cohesive essay that said what I wanted to say.

Life can seem so unfair inside the world of fertility treatment, but it is natural—indeed, it is rooted in nature—to want biological children. In my case, I had to let go of that desire in order to become a parent. Once I did, adopting my son turned out to be the most amazing experience of my life, and being his mother, the most rewarding. That, in part, is why I felt compelled to write Breeding Habits. I wanted to say that yes, infertility is unfair. But sometimes, when things don’t turn out the way you want, they turn out even better.

Andrea Vij lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts with her husband and son. Her essays have appeared in Literary Mama, New York Family, Bay State Parent, Adoptive Families, and Babble.com.

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Childlessness at the Crossroads

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 press.com.  She also shares stories and recipes about discovering vegetables at www.vegetableoftheyear.wordpress.com.

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Auspicious Signs

Auspicious Signs

By Jesse Cheng

0My afternoon visit with Mom was approaching that inevitable moment when she’d ask how soon before I’d provide her a grandchild. Since marrying two years before, I had learned, like many men before me, that the best counterstrategy couples the Preemptive Dodge with its natural companion, the Convenient Exit. I edged toward the doorway emitting a stream of chatter about the sick guava tree my wife and I were nursing, then the cute jujube sapling we’d just bought, before somehow letting loose a remark about the pair of doves nesting in the back of our house.

My mother clutched the sleeve by my elbow. “Doves? Where? Where did they build that nest?”

I kicked myself, wondering how the frontal lobe let that one slip through. The top of a patio light fixture was where the birds had constructed their home, a patchwork affair of twigs, dried grass, and evergreen branches tucked into the wooden frame encasing the bulb.

“Ohh, the patio outside your bedroom.” She leaned back, nodding. “That’s good. That’s very good.” And she uttered nary another word about it for the next several weeks.

I suppose it was reasonable to read a felicitous birth omen into the appearance of mating birds. Still, Mom’s silence seemed a touch too content—smug, even. I suspected some time-honored belief supported by the weight of venerable cultural authority; and so, like any good American-born, culturally challenged child of Asian immigrants, I started to look online.

There, I discovered that to our native Taiwanese, the nearby presence of birds is indeed an auspicious sign. Good luck, though, seemed to me something of a stretch from the promise of procreation. I also learned that in some Asian cultures, mandarin ducks are traditional representations of lifelong marital accord. It happens that my wife’s Vietnamese name derives from the Chinese word for that very type of bird. Nevertheless, any etymologist will confirm that fidelity is not synonymous with fertility—and our new tenants were landlubbing doves, not waterfowl.

What did my mother know that I didn’t? For several days I observed the birds perched on their roost. They certainly appeared worthy of immortalization in cultural folklore. While one of the doves tended to the egg, the other kept tender watch from the rafters a few feet away. I imagined a legend about forbidden lovers reincarnated in aviary form, weaving the nest for their child atop the silk-covered rim of an imperial lantern.

Back in real life, I read that the Chinese believe bird’s nest soup—a delicacy that involves an actual bird’s nest, boiled—to aid the reproductive function. Progress! But further study revealed the magic ingredient to be the saliva of another species, the swiftlet … and my mother never did say our guests’ home was intended for consumption. This was fortunate, since my wife and I were becoming quite protective of the critters.

It was with some feeling of loss, then, that after returning home from a long vacation, I’d poked my head out the back porch door to find the nest empty. The birds were a full-fledged family now, all three taken to the skies. As I drove to visit my mother, I wondered how she’d handle the news. But then, the bombshell: three new nests at her house—doves on the eaves under the side porch, thrush cuckoos in the backyard bush, and a to-be-identified species in the tree on the front lawn!

“This is good,” Mom said. “This is very, very good.”

By now, I accepted her prognosis must be justified in some culture’s historical lore somewhere in the world. And, as it turned out, modern Western medical technology would follow up with its own bombshell not long after: positive! My mother was pleased, albeit none too surprised.

But the issue remained of what to do with that abandoned nest back home—I just didn’t have the heart to take it down. Happily, one last bit of online research was in order. According to multiple sources, the same pair of birds (doves, like mandarin ducks, tend toward monogamy) may come looking for their nest the next year, and possibly many more seasons after that. And so it remains.

“You haven’t taken down that nest, have you?” Mom asked the other day.

I transferred baby Amie to my wife’s arms, shaking my head. “No, Mom. The nest is still there.”

“Oh, good.” My mother crossed her arms, smiling. “Oh, that’s very good.”

If some cultural authority out there has its say, our little girl may one day point up and tell a sibling all about it.

Jesse Cheng is from Southern California. His website is jesse-cheng.com.

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Surfer Dude, My Little Surfer Dude

Surfer Dude, My Little Surfer Dude

By Judith Marr

flipbookOne day last week, I took a long lunch from work to drive across town, plop myself onto a table at my doctor’s office, and lie back as she planted the seed of a total stranger inside me. If I am lucky, the sperm she squirted into me with a cheesy disposable baster will corkscrew its way to an egg tumbling merrily down one of my oldy-moldy, forty-one-year-old fallopian tubes. And you know what that means.

I like my doctor, very much. Yet this is hardly what I had in mind when, as a girl, I looked forward to having children. But if I can conceive a child as a result of this odd rite, and if my body is still hospitable enough for a fertilized egg to implant itself and grow to term, I plan to bring him or her up on my own. I am not married.

When I was a child, my family always called my theoretical husband “Tungsten”–a joke name that really means the type of metal used in lightbulb filament. The name was my father’s idea of fun, and together with the notion that an ideal husband existed out there for me somewhere, it stuck in my family’s lore. My father has been dead now for twenty-two years, though, and in that time Tungsten seems to have gotten lost or waylaid on the way to whatever cosmic rendezvous we were supposed to have. Perhaps I scared him away or drove him off when he did exist in my life, but in proto-Tungsten disguise as a mere lover or boyfriend. And that’s the trick of it, you see; you can’t go about asking, “Are you Tungsten?” every time you meet a nice man or an attractive one. It’s not only because you might scare him away, but also because it’s an adolescent way to look at dating and courtship.

And sometimes I’m not even sure I want to meet him anymore, anyway. I’m fairly happily set in my persnickety ways, and I have a rich life, full of laughter and lucky friendships. Other times I really do think Tungsten got lost on the way to meet me. Because those times when I think I do see him, in the supermarket, or walking on the street, or at a bookstore, he’s wearing a wedding ring or clearly with somebody else. With Tungsten AWOL, I turn to a sperm bank. The process of picking a donor is not easy, though friends make it fun by helping me go over the odd little preliminary questionnaires that the men fill out, and that cost prospective mothers $5 apiece to read. More detailed questionnaires, in which the men answer questions about family medical history, cost $15; audio tapes, in which they answer questions from an interviewer, cost $25.

“There are so many bad, narcissistic reasons to do what I am about to do,” I write in my journal a few weeks before the insemination. “I think about some of the angry single mothers I’ve encountered. I’ve put off doing this longer than I should have, because I’ve always known that if I did it while I still felt angry at men it would not be a good thing. Still, I’m aware of some angry feelings towards men nibbling at my consciousness.” There’s a eugenic aspect to what sperm banks do–and how they advertise–that makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps this eugenic aspect touches on unattractive prejudices of my own that I don’t want to acknowledge. I don’t, for example, want a pear-shaped man to be the father of my child. I realize that many of the women using the bank are married to men who are infertile, and that the descriptions of the donors’ coloring and such in the catalogue allow them to pick men who, superficially at least, resemble their husbands. But single or lesbian women choosing this option find themselves at an uncomfortable nexus of feminism and eugenics. A recent Washingtonian magazine article said the California Cryobank, almost half of whose customers are single women, has put together a profile of its clients’ ideal donor: He’s six feet tall with blond or brown hair, blue or green eyes, a college degree, and–yuck–dimples.

When the sperm is delivered to a doctor’s office, the little vial has a white cap if the donor is Caucasian, yellow if he’s Asian, black if he’s African American, and red if he’s American Indian. One almost has to laugh at the bracing political incorrectness of it all. Somebody told me sperm banks do this because one of them was sued when a woman who ordered sperm from a donor of the same race gave birth to a mixed-race baby after an apparent mix-up at the sperm bank.

I can imagine it might be startling–but would that mother really love the child less? Maybe she was one of the women hoping for a donor who looked like her husband. I once read of a husband who insisted on a donor who was his dead ringer, down to blood type, so that no one–not even his immediate family–would know that the child wasn’t his. I’ve also heard of single women who insist upon donors with their exact same coloring–a child that, superficially at least, will look just like them. I don’t really understand this. Aren’t they curious about the serendipity of combining their genes with someone else’s? But then, here I go, talking about creating a child as one might speak of mixing up a can of paint.

For me, the process of choosing a donor sends me smack bang into my sadness about Tungsten’s non-existence and into a lot of residual anger I have at men. I’m angry at them for behaving badly, for judging me by my looks, for not living up to my expectations, and sometimes, I’d have to admit, for just being human. At times in my life I have been so angry at men for judging women by their weight, and yet here I find myself giving importance to all the same factors I accuse men of focusing on too much. Hair color, eye color, weight.

I write in my journal: Kathleen gave me some very good advice today–“Get your ego out of the way.” We were listening to an audio tape of a prospective donor, and I said I was dismayed at his slightly pretentious, inarticulate way of speaking. He seemed like the type of person who might say “utilize” when he means “use,” or “individual” when he means “person.” By telling me to put my ego in the back seat, Kathleen helped me focus on how big-hearted the man sounds. I also realized that, though I felt like I was about to go on the ultimate blind date, one with lifetime consequences for me and for my child, it was a mistake to judge the donor by whether he was someone I might enjoy spending an evening with. Except in the most fundamental, biological sense, this process is not about finding Tungsten. It’s about finding a healthy, sound person with a family history of robust health and preferably no alcoholism, schizophrenia, diabetes, or the like. After all, I am going to love this child no matter what.

And Kathleen’s right. This donor does sound like a good man, and I think I’ll choose him. A dental student who wants to heal people, loves his parents, and wants to have a family of his own some day. Would he be open to even being contacted by a child of his conceived through the sperm bank? I liked his answer. He wasn’t sure. The bank I’m using requires that donor and recipient both consent before the bank will break the anonymity of either. It also has some very good advice to donors and recipients alike on the question of whether to do that once a child is born: Don’t decide this question now. One’s thinking on the subject could change a great deal in eighteen years. I worry about the feelings my child might have about not having a father.

What motivates a man to donate sperm? It may be snob appeal as much as money; sperm donors are an exclusive group, with most sperm banks accepting only five to ten percent of donor applicants, the Washingtonian reported. Donors must be between eighteen and forty, meet strict height and weight specifications, and be students in, or graduates of, four-year colleges. Also, their sperm sample must meet certain standards of concentration and swimming ability. Most sperm banks pay about $50 per specimen, each of which produces about seven vials of sperm–each of which then sells for about $165 to $200, not including shipping. Many banks require donors to commit to at least one donation a week for six months to a year, with a promise to abstain from sex for forty-eight hours before a donation–with some banks paying a bonus for a seventy-two-hour abstention.

My friend Melanie has taken to calling my donor “Surfer Dude.” We know from his questionnaire and audio tape that this is his passion. It’s interesting. A therapist once urged me not to assign such names to the men I met on blind dates–“The Blinking Chef” or “Mr. Glandular Condition” or “The Dreadful Accountant” (truly, a doomed relationship). Her point was that the nicknames, which I used in conversation with her or with friends, were hostile and only fed my sense of alienation from men. And yet, “Surfer Dude” sounds better than calling him by his four-digit donor number. And better than “Snake Man,” my friend Mary’s handle for another prospective donor who, according to his questionnaire, is very fond of snakes.

I’m not allowed to see my donor’s picture, but in a weird exercise, I pay for a telephone session in which I’m allowed to ask questions of a “counselor” at the sperm bank as she studies a photograph of Surfer Dude. It brings back memories of junior high school, like hearing a friend describe the cute boy she met at camp. The counselors rate the men’s looks on a scale of one to ten. Nobody, I’m told, has ever earned a ten. Surfer Dude is an eight, and I’m told his forehead “is just like Brad Pitt’s.” Hmmm. Where do I get off feeling enraged at men for focusing on appearance?

Though I ascribe far more importance to nurture than nature, I still wish I could ask the donor I’ve chosen what he means on his questionnaire when he says he’s “English.” I know he doesn’t mean that his mother or father is from England, because he names the states where they were born in his audio interview. He probably means it in the way that many Americans with English-sounding last names mean it, though I once read that many of these Americans–people with names like Jackson, Taylor, and Porter–are more accurately described as being of Scots-Irish descent. Their ancestors–and mine–came from the strife-torn border land between England and Scotland, a place where clan warfare, blood feuds, cattle rustling, and extreme violence were a way of life. Or else they came from the Ulster Plantation, a colony of such people who settled in northern Ireland in the 1600s.

Historian David Fischer describes the appearance of these immigrants upon their arrival in Philadelphia in 1717: tall men with long, weather-beaten faces, and women with full bodices, tight waists, bare legs, and scandalously short skirts. (I believe this comely stereotype lives on in more contemporary American lore in characters such as the Beverly Hillbillies’ Ellie Mae.) The sensuous appearance of the women so scandalized the fuddy-duddy Quakers, Fischer says, that they shooed them out of the city, off into western Pennsylvania and Maryland and down into western Virginia and North Carolina, and then Tennessee and Kentucky. Eventually they, or their descendants, spread west, as if a butter knife smeared their genes across the lower half of the United States. A custom of these earthy, sexy people–both in the Old World and in the American backcountry–was the abduction of brides. They were also known for their “love feasts.” On the way to one of these nighttime parties, they would deposit stashes of whiskey in little byways and glens. Then, on the long walk home, they might tryst with someone of the opposite sex–a custom that resulted in high rates of illegitimacy and prenuptial pregnancy.

Why do I care if my donor is of this stock? It brings up a nurture versus nature question that hits close to home. My child would have double-strength Scots-Irish genes, a heritage that frightens me a little. The Scots Irish, in stereotype at least, are known for being a little hard, quick to take offense, and for bearing grudges–just think of the Hatfields and McCoys. With an inherited disposition like this, I shudder to think of the toddler years, or God help me, the teen years.

Planning to conceive a child from a stranger’s sperm frozen in some strange bio-warehouse across the country may be the farthest thing there is from a love feast, even if my donor and I are both descended from such stock. Insemination is a miracle of scheduling and technology. It requires a convergence of ovulation, punctual Federal Express delivery, time off from work, and a free slot on the doctor’s schedule–and it still might not result in conception. To schedule my doctor’s appointments at the right time, I chart my morning temperatures until I can pinpoint my ovulation with confidence. It’s marked by a dip and a rise in temperature, marking my fluctuating progesterone levels. It’s essential that I know my fertility window precisely. While sperm can live up to five days inside a woman’s body, the egg is believed to live, at most, twenty-four hours–more likely, only ten to twelve. Upon this fact hinges the timing of the doctor’s appointment and the ordering of the sperm, which the sperm bank won’t allow without a shipment date in mind.

“Why not just pick a handsome guy in a bar and have a one night stand?” a married friend with children once asked me. Easy for her to say, but the answer is absolutely not. Aside from the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the chance of taking home a wacko, it’s a lousy legacy for any offspring that might result, and a truly crummy thing to do to a man. I admit, my child might have some psychological baggage with sperm-donor paternity, but it’s possible he or she may meet Surfer Dude. What’s more, Surfer Dude has elected to do this and presumably put some thought into it, while One Night Stand Man would not have. I actually know a man who inadvertently conceived a child this way with a woman he met in a bar who told him she was on the pill. He pays child support for his daughter, who lives across the country, and yet has no real relationship with her. It’s a situation that makes him sad and angry. Even if my theoretical One Night Stand Man were never to know he’d fathered a child, I’d still think it was crummy treatment of him. With all my mixed-up, often-angry feelings towards men, even I know this.

Another friend wondered why I didn’t ask a male friend. Aside from the fact that I think this is an awful lot to ask of a man, social worker Jane Mattes, in her book Single Mothers By Choice, points out that using a sperm bank eliminates the potential for angry misunderstandings with the father about the rearing of the child. And so I make a date with my gynecologist and her syringe.

From my journal: Question: What does a (not so) well-dressed woman wear to her insemination? I’ll be naked from the waist down, of course, and in some work blouse from the waist up. But some friends are urging me to at least dress to the nines for the trip out to Dr. G’s office so as to be festive. One friend is urging me to wear some sexy red negligee or corset or something for the procedure. We saw one in the window of a sex store. I guess it’s supposed to be a whimsical idea, but it’s a little too silly, even for me. Plus, Dr. G. might get the wrong idea, or she’ll just think I’m weird. I think that to mark the occasion I will get a pedicure though, with some subtle, sophisticated pearlescent shade. That way, my toes will look festive in the stirrups. One of the nice things about attempted fertilization by a female doctor holding a plastic baster: I don’t have to worry about whether my partner will be sufficiently turned on to accomplish the task.

One of my more anxious moments comes just an hour or two before my scheduled lunchtime insemination when my doctor’s office informs me that the sperm, in its special freezer tank, has not yet arrived. I call Federal Express, and a representative, using a tracking number, tells me that because of bad weather the package has been delayed and has just been unloaded from an airplane. They cannot guarantee delivery at my doctor’s office by noon. They offer instead to bring the package to my workplace, which is more centrally located. Horrified at the thought of a big tank-sized package marked “Biological Specimen” in red arriving at the reception desk, I beg them not to do that–all in a frantic whisper, lest my workmates overhear. For one horrible moment I have a vision of our receptionist paging me over the office loudspeaker to tell me my sperm has arrived–or bringing it over to my desk, cryo-smoke pouring out of the box. When I explain in a furtive whisper what is at stake here, the Federal Express representative on the phone snaps to attention. “In that case,” she says, “if it’s something biological, we’ll guarantee its delivery at your doctor’s office by noon.” It is 11:40. At 11:55, my doctor’s office calls to tell me the package has arrived. Needless to say, I’m feeling warm and fuzzy these days towards Federal Express.

This type of scare masks my real fears: whether I’ll have a happy child, and whether I can serve up a worthwhile childhood for him or her without a father. Will the child have an identity crisis upon reaching adolescence sparked by having a sperm- donor daddy? When he or she is old enough, I will have to be honest, too, about my failure to build a relationship–unless, of course, that changes. Will I be a good mother if I am not able to overcome the fears that have doubtless held me back? And is it selfish to choose this route instead of adoption, instead of loving an already-existing child who needs it? I had slightly nutty New Age ideas of engaging in some ritual before the insemination, like flying my kite, perhaps with a little prayer for conception attached. Instead, I focus on extricating myself from a crisis at work, getting my car from the garage, and making arrangements to pick up an older friend who’s very nicely offered to accompany me to the procedure, which she’s taken to calling “the docking.” I say the Lord’s Prayer before I zip my ovulation test with the two purple strips in a baggie, check for the directions to my doctor’s office, and make sure I bring the tape of my donor answering insipid questions from the sperm bank so we can listen on the way.

I want my friend to hear him. She agrees with me that he is nice if somewhat bland. We drive down the highway, listening to Surfer Dude on my car’s audio system, though Tancy, who is rather astringent, keeps thinking of hectoring, Mike Wallace-type questions the interviewer could have asked, such as, “Why are you donating sperm?” and “How much are they paying you for it?” and (my favorite) “I notice you’re in dental school. What’s the matter? Couldn’t you get in to medical school?” Instead, we hear him answer questions about his favorite color, his favorite meal, and the like.

Afterwards, I write: Dr. G. was in fine form, competent and reassuring. She brought in this big tank that looked like something you might buy for blowing up helium balloons. She read all kinds of paperwork that came with it, and I read too–packing slips to make sure it is Surfer Dude’s sperm, stuff that she was supposed to fill out and send back to the sperm bank about the motility and quality. Then she pulled out this narrow, well, thing, in which two vials– costing almost $200 apiece–were ensconced. Tiny vials. She said she’d rather warm the vial up in her hand than in the special bath they recommend. She stuck the speculum in me, and then, with this disposable syringe, she slowly squirted a little right at the entrance to my cervix. Then scooped and re-squirted what had dribbled down. Then she had me stay supine, though I’m a little worried about this actually, because the table was slightly inclined the wrong way. There were jokes about how this would be the juncture at which to have a cigarette. When she said she had to attend to another patient, I said, “It’s always wham, bang, thank you ma’am, with you types!” and she laughed. She said my cervical fluid showed my timing was perfect (I am quite proud of myself), and that this would help my chances, which she said were at about eighteen percent. I go back tomorrow for a second go, which is recommended. It could take several days for the sperm to actually meet the egg and then for the fertilized egg to implant in my uterus. So I am in what’s called the “luteal phase.”

After the insemination, I walk around feeling almost a little moony about him–my handsome, 5’11” dental student with black hair. I suppose it’s a common reaction. I’d forgotten that he’s 230 pounds until we listened to the tape en route to the docking, and I had a moment at the entrance to the doctor’s office in which I faltered. “Gosh,” I thought. “Two hundred thirty pounds, that’s pretty big–what if it produces a baby so big I can’t pass it through my birth canal!” I got over it, though. If I am lucky enough to get pregnant, I will be what doctors call an “elderly” or “senile” prima gravida–terminology I don’t like. But then, I must be realistic, and not just because of my age. One disheartening study of heterosexual women attempting to conceive by donor insemination noted that, after the first several attempts, the women actually stopped ovulating. The authors concluded that artificial insemination is on some level a “traumatizing” event that leads to the inhibition of the very process it is trying to accomplish. Traumatizing? I find it empowering.

From my journal the next day: I went back to see Dr. G. this afternoon. She’s great, and she let me see Surfer Dude’s “guys,” as Melanie calls them, under the microscope! Electric! They looked sort of lit-up, translucent, spasmodically writhing. I don’t know if they always look electrical or “charged” or phosphorescent the way they did when I saw them because it may have been the microscope’s lighting. I worry a little about the wiggling though. Won’t it make it harder for them to stay on their little surfboards?

So, even though I never married Tungsten, maybe I will enjoy the ultimate cosmic rendezvous after all–that of a tiny surfer connecting with my egg. If it happens, I’ll always be grateful to Surfer Dude, a man I may never meet. In that regard, at least, Surfer Dude and Tungsten definitely have something in common.

Author’s Note: I noted with some interest a mild controversy when a reproductive endocrinologists’ group recently launched an “Aging Eggs” campaign aimed at making women aware of the possible consequences of putting off childbearing into their late thirties or forties. At least one feminist group criticized the campaign as alarmist. The conflict might provide the seeds for another essay.

Brain, Child (Winter 2002)

About the Author: Judith Marr did not get pregnant after several attempts and is contemplating various other options. She grew up in New York City and has lived in Hallowell, Maine; Santa Cruz, California; and Washington, D.C. She is a member of the Feckless Writers Over Easy (Feckless WOE) writing group, whose members live in Baltimore and D.C.

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