Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship: A Book Review

Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

Modern Families coverWhere do I come from? Who am I? These are some of the most fundamental questions humans ask themselves. In many cases, the answers have to do with family. But, what, then exactly is a family?

Joshua Gamson tackles these complicated issues in Modern Families, a book about contemporary tales of family creation including adoption, in vitro, surrogacy, and more. Gamson is a sociologist who has previously written books on fame, tabloid talk shows, and sexuality, but this book is far more personal. This is also the story of the creation of his family.

Unlike Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom that inspired the name of the book, Gamson and his husband don’t go through international adoption (though other couples in Modern Families use both domestic and international adoption to create their own modern families). His first daughter, Reba, was conceived using the egg of a friend and the uterus of another friend, what is known as “collaborative reproduction.” His second daughter, Madeleine, was carried by a paid surrogate who liked to refer to herself as a “fetus sitter.” It’s no wonder then that when describing Modern Families Gamson explains, “More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.”

Gamson successfully weaves together the personal and the academic throughout the book. He takes personal stories and situates them in more complicated institutions and social structures. In the Introduction (titled “Impertinent Questions” about the probing questions strangers sometimes ask about how their daughters were “got”) he usefully describes the book as the “love child” of two different types of writing on reproduction.

The first type of writing is what he calls Repro Lit. These personal stories, usually memoirs, double as how-to books and are ultimately celebratory about the process—think Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy. Repro Crit on the other hand is more of a buzzkill focusing mainly on institutional structures and the circulation of power within them and how this literally reproduces inequality. Though less well known, a book by the name of Outsourcing the Womb, suggests the tone of this category.

Like Repro Crit Gamson points out forces of inequality throughout (mainly to do with financial issues, but also sometimes social class and cultural knowledge that impacts legal processes), but the narratives are often emotional and triumphant, with some how-to advice thrown in. Gamson details the legal workarounds they used with their surrogates in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and one of the best lines in the book is when he writes that Kentucky had out-liberaled California (where Gamson and his husband live) when they listed “parent” and “parent” on their daughter Madeline’s birth certificate, and not “mother” and “father” like California.

In the end it is the stories we are left with, mainly because there is a little serious research on families like Gamson’s, partly because they are so new. The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families—the struggles and the successes—are quite moving. On multiple occasions while reading I was moved to tears, usually tears of joy. One caution is that while this is a book you can dip into and out of, it can be hard at times to keep all the families and the people who make them up straight (no pun intended) given the multiple families featured.

A lasting theme of Modern Families is: “How extraordinary you are, and yet how ordinary.” While the families profiled here were brought together thanks to various types of technology, often in extraordinary ways, in the end the children and their parents are ordinary. Gamson insightfully writes, “It’s one of the things these family origin stories share with more typical ones: every family story has silences and secrets. More to the point, the farther away you get from the conventional, the less you can fit your story into a familiar script of family creation and the more you’re likely to face disapproval. For those of us who grew up in a culture of disclosure—in which, for instance, coming out is an act of empowerment and Facebook is a verb—becoming parents has posed the jarring challenge of figuring out what not to tell.”

As the extraordinary, yet ordinary, children whose creation stories are relayed here age, they will have the lasting evidence of just how much they were wanted, just how much their parents were willing to tell on social media and beyond to create their own modern families.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She loves all modern families, including her own.

A Q & A with Modern Families author Joshua Gamson

Buy Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship

The House a Dream Built

The House a Dream Built

By Kirsten Piccini


What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?


I could picture the house in my head—the white siding, black shutters and the red door I’d finally talked my husband into. I’d mentally positioned furniture and held my own internal debates about a shower door versus a curtain. For months it had taken up precious space in my thoughts, replacing the constant thrum of failure that pulsed just beneath the surface of my skin.

It was a fertile dream, this house, unlike so many others, one that was poised to come true.

So as I sat on the unmade bed, wrapping the crisp edge of the sheet around my finger only to unwrap it and then repeat the process, I felt the dream drifting away, fading like an old photo.

“Honey?” I said to my husband who was just coming out of sleep and regarding my tick with concern.

The night before at a Super Bowl party the hosts had procured entertainment for the women in the form of a tarot card reader who straightened the multi colored scarf on her head, shuffled her cards and read into the subtle clues I had worked hard not to give her.

“I see you spending a great deal of money very soon.”

I pictured four spacious bedrooms, the sunken living room and the stone we’d settled on for the façade and fireplace. The frame had been erected for a few weeks now and we had pictures on our camera capturing the big wooden skeleton rising out of the dirt and earth, ascending from a barren nothingness.

I mentioned the colonial and our recent down payments.

“But you’ll be moving things.” She interjected as her ringed fingers tapped the cards.

I kept my eyes down and listened to her honeyed voice drop, “The best way to explain it is to say, if you thought a cupboard would go on one wall,” she pointed out things in our imaginary kitchen, “you’ll find yourself putting it over here instead.”

I nodded, letting the words and metaphor sink in.

My hasty goodbye was born of a visceral fear she could hear my heart beating in my chest. Her words rang in my ears and nagged at me beyond the party, well into the night when we bedded down in a hotel room close by and even as I attempted sleep. I woke tangled, sweat-soaked and resolute.

“I’ve been thinking…” I whispered to my husband who was regarding me with a mix of confusion and fear.

Maybe that’s why he reached for me, perhaps he sensed something in my voice that I was too afraid to express or he simply wanted to comfort me, but I flinched involuntarily, backing away from his hand. I did not need soothing or sex, did not want either one and I know, now, that he didn’t either.

Sex had become a chore, an elaborate production that produced nothing.

Even here in the anonymity of a foreign bedroom, without the pressure of an ovulation calendar hanging over us I couldn’t recall a time when our intimate life had been satisfying; instead it was scheduled and predictable in the worst possible way. Our kisses had begun to taste of iron and desperation.

He pushed himself up on an elbow and waited. I thought about moving cupboards. Bile rose in my throat as I pushed the words out, “I think we should ask the builders to return our down payment. There’s still time to break the contract isn’t there?”

He nodded, resigned to simply listening.

My heart clenched when I pictured the back bedroom, the one I’d mentally painted the color of a spring meadow and dubbed “the playroom.” But the space was empty. The only echoes I could hear on those polished hardwood floors were our solitary footsteps. What good was a fourth bedroom or a playroom with no one to play in it?

“I want to do In-Vitro.” I said, with as much courage and hope I could muster.

In-Vitro Fertilization would be expensive, from a financial and emotional standpoint and we both knew it. There would be no money back guarantee if it didn’t work. But I wanted to try it; I needed to know, once and for all, if there were still reasons to dream.

He sighed.

Maybe that’s what surrender sounds like, or perhaps it’s really the vociferous noise of determination. As I watched his own part of our dream gasp a last shuttering breath, I heard, behind it, the smallest click—like an egg opening or a window cracking.

We walked out of the hotel hand-in-hand and slowly began to tear down one dream and sketch another with shaking hands, in pencil, with an eraser ever at the ready.

Three months later, on the night before Mother’s Day, my husband slid a thin needle into the fleshy part of my stomach. Medication rushed my system, the sting in my side matching the one at the corners of my eyes, on its journey to my ovaries.

Five months later, two small ovals appeared on a black, grainy screen, their small shapes morphing, twisting, and growing from a barren nothingness. Their small hearts flashing like beacons.

We hardly knew what it meant then, but yes, oh yes, our dream had found purchase. We had built something of our own.

Kirsten is a wife after decades of dating, a mom after years of infertility and a writer after filling a lifetime of notebooks. She writes about love, life, and mothering her 6-year-old twins conceived after infertility on her blog The Kir Corner and weaves romantic stories on her fiction blog: Kirsten A Piccini. Find her on Facebook or on twitter @KirstenPiccini

Raising an Only

Raising an Only

Raising an only art 1by Jody Keisner

I look past the doctor sitting across the desk and focus on the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind her. My eyes skim over the medical books and land on the framed picture of her two young sons, both of them tan and dressed in preppy pastel shirts. They look about two years apart and have the doctor’s thick brown hair and dark eyes. She’s talking about saline infusion sonograms. Saline? I think. The stuff that I rinse my contacts with at night? I should pay attention to what she’s saying, but instead I picture her boys riding bicycles down a suburban neighborhood street, past trees and children playing on lawns. The older one calls over his shoulder to his brother, Come on! Faster! I imagine the younger one pumping his legs, his feet becoming a blur going round and round with each spin of the wheel. Now the younger one stands up on his bike, giving everything he has to catch up. Maybe this moment will mean something to the boys later in life, maybe it won’t, but the camaraderie they’re experiencing means something now. Then I picture my daughter, Lily, a few years from now, the same age as the oldest boy, pedaling down our street alone.

“…if your uterus is healthy enough to support a pregnancy.” The doctor looks at me intently. She’s noticed my drifting.

Because of a mix-up with the date of the appointment, Jon is at his job as a drywall installer, and I feel like I need to explain this so she will know that we are in this together, though we aren’t sure that we are. “My husband really wanted to be here,” I say.

She nods. “Do you have any questions, Jody?”

I do have questions, loads, but not the kind she can help me with. Do I want to pursue more medical intervention? Do I even want another baby? Or are we already complete, my family of three? I should know the answers, considering I’m sitting across the desk from a fertility specialist. Correction: infertility specialist. Given my age, 39, and Jon’s, 42, and my history of infertility, our chances of conceiving without medical intervention are around 1-5%, she says. I didn’t know our chances were so grim. She hands me a fertility menu: artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, zygote intrafallopian transfer, donor eggs and embryos. The long list of interventions and the high price tags overwhelms me. So many options, each increasing in degrees of separation from what Jon and I are supposed to be able to do in the bedroom. Must I decide the future outcome of my family right now? Is it even my decision? Perhaps nature has already decided and science won’t be able to circumvent its choice. I set the fertility menu on her desk.

“The saline sonogram will tell you more about my uterus than the X-ray dye-test? And it will hurt less?” I ask.

She nods again. “It will cause less discomfort than the hysterosalpingogram.”

Why does it matter to me if it hurts less? Before I had Lily, I would have undergone any test. I would have allowed any number of transvaginal wands to probe me. I would have increased my risk of developing ovarian cancer which, according to unpopular research, I did every time I subjected my body to aggressive fertility drugs. I would have put up with any amount of “discomfort,” as all of the doctors that I saw preferred to call it, even while I lay on the metal examination table writhing from the uterine cramping caused by the catheter and iodine dye used during the hysterosalpingogram. Then, my ink-filled fallopian tubes, lit up uterus, and the black void on the computer screen resembled a Rorschach test. The first word that sprung to my mind when I looked at the screen was “hurt” so I willed into its place “baby.” But now, thinking of all the testing and hour-long drives from my job to the fertility clinic, I feel tired. My pain matters.

“Intrauterine insemination will increase your chances of conceiving each month by 3-5%,” the doctor says.

My eyes start to well. These are still terrible odds. I discreetly wipe my face and remind myself that I’m not in the same place that I was before Lily was conceived, throwing negative pregnancy tests in the trash month after month, only to have the resulting pregnancy one year later end in miscarriage. Then I felt hopeless and desperate, seeing each pregnant woman in the grocery store as a threat: I was the negative statistic, the infertile one, the one who couldn’t make things grow. I pleaded with Jon to consider international adoption, to consider anything short of snatching a baby from a discount store parking lot so that I could be a mother.

But now I am a mother. I have Lily, delightful, pretends-to-be-a-robin-at-storytime-and-flaps-her-arms-around-her-bedroom-Lily. So why am I sitting here in this office? My friends and family wonder the same thing. “You are so blessed, Jody,” my mother tells me. “You should be happy that you have that little girl. She’s a miracle.” My mother had suffered three miscarriages before adopting me and then surprised herself when she gave birth to my sister a year later.

A colleague of mine, a woman in a same-sex marriage who had struggled to bring a baby into her union and now embraced a child-free life, said, “Why do you need another? You have one perfect child.” I didn’t disagree. Lily is healthy in every way. She’s a happy child, too, who snuggles and offers up hugs like sticks of gums. My pregnancy with her, two months after the miscarriage, felt nothing short of miraculous. Is it selfish of us to want another one? Parents of larger families seem to think it’s selfish of us not to. It doesn’t help that we live in Nebraska, one of the most enthusiastic baby-having states in the nation.

“When are you going to give Lily a brother or sister?” asked my friend, Laura, herself a mother of two. Our three children were on a playdate.

I didn’t know what to say, so I shrugged and said, “We’ll see what the universe has in store for us.”

“Brandon and Caroline are best friends,” Laura said, smiling at her offspring, who at the moment, were engaged in a heated tug-of-war over a naked doll. Lily sat close by, sucking on the index and middle finger of her right hand, entranced by the unfolding drama. Brandon gave one final yank and pulled the doll, minus one arm, away from Caroline. She used the severed limb to whack him on the head. “Well, when they aren’t fighting,” Laura added.

I can’t remember a time when my sister and I didn’t fight as children, and we aren’t especially close now. There are no guarantees.

“It’s about time you started thinking about your next one,” a father of three young boys said at a work picnic. He had casually asked me my age earlier in the evening. He glanced at Lily who was being chased around an evergreen bush by his youngest son and then at his watch. Was he looking at my biological clock, and if so, could I have a peek? He couldn’t have known that Jon and I been actively “trying” for the past seven months, that we’d already exhausted the final three rounds of fertility drugs that my gynecologist would willingly prescribe before considering them a failure. Us a failure. After that, my gynecologist recommended the infertility specialist. Like many fertility challenged couples, we had once mistakenly assumed that pregnancy was a biological given. Jon and I were both good students. If my gynecologist advised us to have sex every other day for our ten “fertile” days each month, told me to eat unappealing high fertility foods like kale and told Jon to give up his nightly beer, we did exactly those things, expecting nothing less than the hoped-for outcome. We had never considered the possibility of no outcome.

But this time is different. We haven’t failed; we have Lily, with her charming daily inspection of the ladybugs in our hosta garden. But after months of unsuccessful attempts to conceive baby number two, we began to have doubts. We found reasons to move on with our life, as is. “Adding another baby will change the family dynamic,” I said one evening. Jon agreed, “Our marriage feels like it’s a priority again.” We are learning how to make time for each other. We’re content. Our house no longer feels topsy-turvy with the round-the-clock demands of a baby, who is the most inconsiderate kind of roommate a person can have.

Besides the added stress to our family dynamic, there are the usual suspects: the financial strain that having another baby will bring to a middle class family like ours, and less time for a career I love. “I can’t think of anything more important than being a mother,” a mother of three children said to me after I had confessed my work-related worry. Sometimes I fear the divide between mother and academic is too wide to cross. I want time for my research and writing endeavors; I want time to advance my career. It all matters, regardless of how idyllic the frolicking family of four on the cereal commercial looks.

Most concerning, I know that breastfeeding and bonding with a new child will mean less time for Lily. “You have enough love for Lily and for a new baby. You do,” one mother told me. I’m not so sure. My love for Lily is fulfilling and also…so consuming.

In the month leading up to my appointment with the infertility specialist, I struggled to tune out well-meaning voices so that I could figure out what I really wanted. I had been certain that I wanted another baby, but now I was unsure. I began to look for signs from a Higher Power. “God, please give me a sign. I want clarity. Is Lily meant to be an only child?” When my prayer went unanswered, or perhaps I neglected to listen, I considered seeing a psychic a friend recommended. Ultimately, I couldn’t manage to find the time in my jam-packed schedule. Was that, in itself, a sign? My interpretation of “signs” changed from one minute to the next. Collecting a pair of Lily’s socks from the laundry basket, thinking of her stubby toes, this little piggy goes wee-wee-wee, I ached for another baby. This sign said yes. Then, in another moment, Jon and I both weary from a full workday, arguing with each other over who would make dinner while the other tended to Lily’s diaper and bath, Lily stomped her foot and screeched, “I WANT MY GOLDFISH CRACKERS!” Then she crumpled onto the kitchen floor and sobbed. When I reached for her, she flailed her legs, kicking me in the nose. Maybe this is a sign saying no, I thought.

One evening after Jon and I had read Lily stories, sang songs, and kissed her night-night—a ritual that usually left me feeling peaceful—I went outside for my walk and instead paced the few blocks on my street. My pacing soothed me in the way it mimicked the pacing my mind was doing, too. My neighbors probably thought Jon and I were having marital woes, but we weren’t. We were having only-child woes, worried we weren’t yet a real family. We weren’t child-free nor were we child-full. During our early courtship, six years ago, Jon and I had agreed that two was our number, and I struggled to reconcile that early shape of our American Dream with our current reality. The only sound I heard came from the summer cicadas, buzzing so loudly that I entered a kind of trance. Did I want another child in case something happened to Lily? It was then that I realized that maybe I didn’t want another baby as much as I wanted to clone Lily in case the unthinkable happened. It’s silly: there is no back-up Lily. Nothing could ease the despair of losing her. Once I vocalized it, Jon admitted he shared my worry, too. “If something happened to her, I wouldn’t be Dad anymore.” Being so vulnerable terrified me, but I knew having another child would only increase my vulnerability, not lessen it.

Then how to explain the fact that I’m sitting here in this doctor’s office, seeking more invasive medical intervention to help get me pregnant? The myth of the only child syndrome doesn’t worry me: extroverted Lily isn’t socially inept. Toddlers are supposed to be spoiled, and developmentally they’re all selfish. Most of the only children that I’ve known have grown into thoughtful, intelligent adults.

I’m concerned about the other consequences of Lily growing up an only child. Will her childhood be lonely, spent longing for a sibling to torment? Will holiday celebrations with only the three of us feel too small, somehow unfinished? Will she feel overburdened as Jon and I grow elderly? Will Lily be alone after we die? Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is “yes.” The bigger question: Can I live with that?

I have so many questions and none of them have to do with the semen analysis the doctor is requesting for Jon or the blood work she’s ordering for me. Earth to Jody. I focus back in on the doctor across from me. I look at her skin, clear and smooth, unlike mine which has been blotchy ever since my pregnancy with Lily, over three years ago. I like the doctor. She’s straightforward but upbeat. She’s someone I could imagine myself spending time with outside of this situation we’ve found ourselves in. But I know that we won’t.

“Do you have any questions?” the doctor asks again.

For the first time today, I know what I want. I want to leave. I want to see Lily. I want to touch her and smell her hair. I want to spend the rest of the day focused on the family that we already are instead of pursuing the family that we may never be.

“I don’t have any questions,” I say, and at least in the moment, it’s true. “Thank you.”

I practically run to my car. It’s a mild late-summer day, ideal for a walk to our neighborhood park, the same place where Lily slid and swung and climbed for the very first time, holding our hands and squealing. Weather permitting, we’ve walked there every week since she’s been born. More than once, I’ve hit the top of my head on one of the climbing structures, a painful reminder that the park has been built for very young children. As a new mother, I cut my teeth at this park. It both saddens and delights me to know that Lily will outgrow it soon.


Jody Keisner’s work has appeared in Literary Mama, Women’s Studies, Studies in the Humanities, and elsewhere. She teaches courses in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Fair Embryo

Fair Embryo

By Ellyn Gelman

Virus and Bacteria CellsI don’t want to get out of bed on my 30th birthday.  My soul feels bruised in some places, fractured in others.  I have been adrift in the sea of infertility treatments for five years.    I have ridden the waves of hope with my husband Dan, only to be pulled down into an undertow of disappointment.  We have come to the end of available procedures, discharged by the specialists.  We are not candidates for IVF.  For us it is over, until it is not over.

“Ellyn, phone call, outside line.” My curt, often abrupt administrative assistant stands in the doorway.

“Ok” I say.  I do not look up from the tedious monthly report due today.

My office reeks of cigarettes, I smoke them one after the other.  I have quit so many times I no longer consider the possibility.  Smoking temporarily fills the cracks inside me.

I hit the button on the phone connecting me to the outside line

“Hello, this is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic in New York.  How are you?”

“Okay?” My heart begins to pound.

“Great.  I’m calling because we have a new IVF procedure and we were wondering if you and your husband are interested in participating.  It is still considered an experimental procedure………” that is all I hear.  My mind shuts down, numb, unfocused.

We have been accepted into their zona drilling experimental program.  The zona is the outermost layer of the ovum (egg) and also worth 13 points in a scrabble game.  It is experimental because they have not yet had any success stories.  This is how it works.  Multiple eggs will be removed from my ovaries.  One sperm will be chosen for each egg and a tiny hole is “drilled” in the zona layer to enable fertilization (no need for a fast moving little tail).  The only thing the egg and sperm have to do on their own is, divide.  This all takes place in a Petri dish during the time an embryo is usually traveling down the fallopian tubes on it’s way to attaching to the uterine wall.

“I can’t do it.  I can’t handle the disappointment anymore.” I say. My head rests on Dan’s shoulder.

“Yes you can.  It’s going to work this time.”  Ever the annoying optimist, he wraps his arms tight around me.  We debate and I cry for hours.

I concede, “Okay one time, I’ll do this one time, promise we’ll stop here if it doesn’t work.”

“I promise,” he whispers into my hair, just above the top of my ear lobe.    Silently, I make a pact with God to never smoke another cigarette.

So it begins.  It turns out that a fast, hard thrust of a hypodermic needle hurts less.  It takes us three days to figure this out.  Dan’s first attempt to inject my butt with the prescribed hormone cocktail takes two tortuous hours.  I lay on our bed, pants pulled down, one butt cheek exposed.

The first hour we stare at the syringe. The needle is sharp and long, meant to reach muscle.  The liquid in the barrel contains all the hope we have for a child.

“You can do it,” I say.  I place the syringe in his hand.  We are both graduates of a one-hour course on “how to give an injection.”  Sweat is visible on his upper lip.  I look at him with as much confidence as I can muster.  His short dark curly hair sticks out in places, a result of his clammy hands nervously combing through it.  I know this is hard for him.  He is completely out of his element, but he loves me and I love him.

“Just do it, jam it in.  I won’t scream, I promise,” I say.  Irritation over time replaces fear.

“Let’s just go to the emergency room and ask a nurse to do this,” he says.

“Are you kidding me? We have to be able to do this. If we can’t do this, we are not meant to have a child.” I say.  I know these words hurt.  I am baiting him.  Maybe if he gets mad at me, he will just stab me with the damn thing.

He doesn’t bite.

“Okay, okay,” he says.  He repeats these same words many times.  I am still lying on my side.  The room smells like rubbing alcohol.  He has swabbed the injection site with alcohol twenty thousand times.

“Just do it,” I say.

Finally, he jams the needle into my butt, and pulls it right back out.  Every drop of liquid is still in the barrel.  We stare at the syringe.

“That’s it, I quit.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry, one more time” he says and pushes the needle where it needs to go.  The liquid causes my muscle to cramp but it feels good because it is done.  I roll over.  Dan looks like he’s going to throw up.  He runs to the bathroom.   Bent over the sink, he splashes cold water on his face.

“You did it!” I say.

I follow him and hug him tight from behind.  It is done, only nineteen more days of this to go.

“Thirteen eggs” Dan informs me when I awake from the anesthesia.  My ovaries, once the size of blueberries, are now baseballs. They hurt.

“Everything go okay with you?” I ask

“All good” he says with a laugh. “Let’s hope they pick some good ones”.

I smile.  His part in this is hard too.  While I am in the operating room, he goes alone into a room set aside for ejaculating into a sterile plastic cup. Then he passes the carefully labeled jar to a technician.  Through it all he maintains his sense of dignity and a sense of humor.

We wait for two days.

“You have a call, outside line”

I pick up the phone, “This is Ellyn.”

“Hi Mrs. Gelman, I am calling from the IVF clinic.”

I am cold, sweaty and silent.

“I am calling to let you know that there is one fair embryo”

“What does that mean?” my voice is barely a squeak.

“Well, it has not divided as many times as we like to see by now, but if it is still viable (able to grow) in the morning, it can be transferred into your uterus.  Don’t get your hopes up though, it is only one fair embryo.”

“Okay” I say.

Dan holds my hand as Dr. Ying transfers the microscopic fair embryo into my uterus. It pinches and I feel my uterus cramp. I like this doctor.  He is a mixture of eastern and western medicine.  He believes in visualization.

“For twenty four hour, think Velcro.  Embryo is like Velcro, needs to stick to uterus.” he says.

I don’t understand at first.  It’s sounds to me like he is saying WelKWo.  I stare at him.  He mimes Velcro. I get it.

“Remember, think Velcro,” he calls after me as I leave the procedure room.  For the next week, I pray and visualize Velcro like it’s my job.

Two weeks later, our pregnancy test is positive.  I am once again reminded by the IVF staff not to get my hopes too high, it is still early and this is a fair embryo.  There is nothing “fair” in the world of infertility.  Hope and faith is plain necessary, because the dream of having a child is too big for science alone.

We are their success story.  Our fair embryo implants and develops into a strong healthy baby boy.  He enters our world on July 11, 1992.  All the cracks in me begin to heal the moment I hold him. I never smoke again.

Ellyn Gelman is a freelance writer living in Connecticut.






Six Cells

Six Cells

By Kelly George

Six Cells ArtFor the past twenty minutes, I’ve been driving behind a truck with its mud flaps spray-painted with graffiti-a smiley face on the left flap, a frowny face on the right. I don’t want to read meaning into them, but I can’t help it. Staring into the space between the mud flaps, I start to think about how fourteen days ago a receptionist at my infertility doctor’s office handed me a piece of paper with a black and white image of a six-celled organism. The organism is a circle. Inside the circle there are six other circles all of roughly the same size, perfectly contained. It’s an embryo, but I don’t like calling it that. When I think embryo I can’t help picturing a tiny human baby, but this is something far more elemental.

During the embryo transfer, the embryologist hands the doctor a thin wand with the organism inside. The doctor inserts the wand through the vagina, past the cervix, and into the uterus, where the wand ejects a small puff of air—and with it, the organism. To ensure that it has been transferred from wand to uterus, the doctor passes the wand back to the embryologist who then looks at the wand under a microscope to make sure that the organism is no longer inside. In other words, the black and white image the receptionist handed me is an enlargement of something about the size of a pinhead.

I know how I’m supposed to feel about the six-celled organism. Before all this, I had learned like a good liberal not to anthropomorphize embryos. And I still believe that a teenage girl in the rural Midwest should not be denied her future just because a certain arrangement of six cells occupies her body. And even now that I have seen my own six-celled organism, the one made from a bit of me and a bit of my husband, I don’t feel different about six-celled organisms in general. That’s why I surprised myself when I returned home with this piece of paper and neatly folded it into a two-inch square and placed it in a tiny frame and gazed at it as if its six cells were six eyes that gazed back. I tell myself not to imagine eyes, nose, mouth, but I can’t help it. We see faces in punctuation; our minds are wired for emoticons.

I imagine what it would be like for a child of mine to hold the neatly folded paper with the circles and look into the face of her humble six-celled beginning. She might develop extra sensitivities. She might spend afternoons collecting ants and worms from the sidewalk to save them from a squishing death. In her teenage years she might refuse to eat anything with a face, because something like an entire chicken contains quite a few more cells than six. She may even experiment with fruitarianism, eating only the fruits and nuts that fall naturally from plants. Eventually though she will succumb to the only practical stance in these matters: I may have begun as six cells, she will declare one evening at dinner, but I still have to eat.

Today, I’m headed back to the infertility doctor for my beta test, the blood test that will tell if I am pregnant. When I arrive, they will take my blood and then I’ll turn around and make the long trip home. Sometime after that, my phone will ring and the nurse on the other end will tell me my future. I won’t be able to stop myself from intuiting the test result just by the way she says, Hi, Kelly. It’s Stephanie from Dr. Sasson’s office.

As I drive, the faces on the truck’s mud flaps whip around with the bumps in the road. I think about how the organism starts as less than six cells, of course. After the embryologist chooses the single sperm that will join with the egg, the sperm unpacks its DNA, and that is the moment of fertilization. Under a microscope, the moment of fertilization appears as just two circles, which are the male and female DNA, sitting next to one another with their circumferences touching.

I tell myself not to make a story out of two circles, but I can’t help it. They look like an elderly couple waiting together at a bus stop, shoulder to shoulder.

I spend the fourteen days after the transfer taking my shots, trying not to read into every twinge I think I feel, and trying to forget what comes next. At some point I realize that having those six cells inside of me may be the closest I ever get to pregnant. The organism might not make it to the blastocyst stage. It might not implant in my uterus, might not differentiate into placental and fetal cells, might not grow into the tadpole icon labeled “4 weeks” on the chart of human fetal development, might not hold the neatly folded paper with the circles and ask me to tell her again the story of how the six circles are her and she is the six circles.

Kelly George is a writer, teacher, and researcher living in Philadelphia. Her essays and commentary have appeared in the literary magazines Philadelphia Stories and Literary Mama, and the arts and culture web site, Broad Street Review.

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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  She also shares stories and recipes about discovering vegetables at

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