I walked gingerly through the door the nurse held open, my husband following close behind. She led us to the exam room, through a maze of corridors and white cubicles, but we weren't worried about getting lost. • "How are you feeling?" the nurse asked brightly. • I froze. "I'll tell you after." • She nodded. She knew this wasn't our first rodeo. • Soon I was in the exam room: paper sheet, feet in stirrups, freezing cold. As Mike and I stared at a monitor, the doctor and medical assistant busily pointed, clicked and typed. The nurse handed me a tissue. • "Poor Dr. Plosker," I snuffled. "Every time he sees me I'm crying." • This time they were happy tears. • Exiting the exam room, I caught the nurse's eye. "I feel great." We left, clutching a printout of the sonogram that proved it: I was pregnant.
A couple of years ago, I chronicled our struggle to start a family in a Floridian story called "The Longing." It turned out to be a very long story.
After a few months trying in the usual way (relaxed, enjoyable), then a little more attentively (watching the calendar, taking my temperature), we got the two little pink lines on a home pregnancy test. But disaster struck, and on the day Hurricane Charley hit, I miscarried. After a while to grieve, I saw a doctor, went on a common fertility jump-starter called Clomid, had exploratory surgery to rule out internal problems — and still no luck.
A reproductive endocrinologist told us that in vitro fertilization was our "only chance." He just didn't mention it would take three years, five doctors in two states, seven tries and a second mortgage to get there.
• • •
"Congratulations! So it finally worked, huh?"
"What finally made the difference? Was it the doctor in New York?"
"Did they try something new? Different drugs or something?"
"I knew if you just kept trying it would work for you!"
"See? You just had to relax!"
The comments are meant kindly — everyone really is happy for us. I feel flattered that anyone even gives a hoot. But as I nod "yes," I can't help but feel uneasy.
Because when I don't speak up, I am back to pretending again, and I don't want to do that. I spent years hiding the pain our infertility brought us, smiling gamely when told I was lucky I didn't have kids so I could . . . fill in the blank . . . eat out, watch R-rated films instead of SpongeBob, drink a beer, hang with friends on a Friday night. But hearing that broke my heart. Each time I accepted a party invitation or had a glass of wine — or saw a pregnant woman in Publix or a cute little kid anywhere — I died a little more inside. And so did my husband. We became experts at playing the part of happy DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). But it was a disguise.
The truth is: Yes, in vitro fertilization did finally work for us, on the sixth try (or the seventh really, counting the disastrous frozen embryo transfer we attempted). And yes, my doctor in New York did make a difference. But there was something else, something very important, that we had to change.
We used eggs from a donor instead of my own.
• • •
It wasn't easy, giving up the genetic link to my child. I'd been wrestling with the idea for a long time as I contemplated adoption. To some people, the genetic link means very little and is easy to shed. I wish it had been that way for me. It was hard to give up on myself, to accept that my body was broken and that even the best doctors in the world couldn't fix me. Worse, I had to give up on my family, too. I was so sad that my children couldn't have my mom's eyes or my dad's smile or my grandmother's artistic talent or my grandfather's gentle way with animals.
Maybe if I was a wealthy celebrity, with gobs of money and no need to work, I would have kept trying with my own eggs. If I didn't have to go to work, and I didn't have to wonder how to pay for it, I think I might have been able to stand a few more tries.
My husband and I do have good jobs and health insurance (not that it covers IVF), but we still had to think about the money. A lot. We had already taken out a large second mortgage to pay for these treatments. We were mortgaging our future — in the hopes of even having a future. But the breaking point was near.
• • •
There are lots of ways to find an egg donor — agencies, websites, even personal ads. I browsed through a few agencies' catalogs, but decided to go with Cornell's anonymous donor program. Mike and I would tell the Cornell folks our criteria, and they would find a suitable candidate. We would get to see an extensive personal and psychological profile, but no pictures — and no names.
We agonized over what to ask for. We could be as detailed as we liked, but the more restrictions we had, the longer it could take to find someone. Should she be just like me? How could she be? Sure, we could ask for a Greek creative writer who likes art, dogs, gymnastics and the beach, who is a college grad, has light brown hair, hazelish eyes and a petite figure. But would we find such a person?
And, would it matter? Who knows the effect genes have on who we grow up to be? I'm a writer, and so is my husband. But his mom works in a medical office and quilts as a hobby, and my mom works in a law office and likes to quilt. Both of our fathers are engineers. We each have two siblings, and none of them are office workers, quilters, engineers or writers.
In the end, we said we'd like someone with a petite build (so if we had daughters they wouldn't tower over the rest of the family and feel weird) and a high achiever in whatever field she chose. Cornell had a picture of me and tried to find someone who looked a little like me, but we told them that wasn't a high priority.
A trip to New York was required, for a visit with their psychologist. The meeting wasn't to judge our worth as parents; it was to help us decide how to talk to our future children about being the product of donor genes. We appreciated the thoroughness, and the optimism, but until we had a take-home baby in our arms, it was difficult to even imagine that conversation. Donor egg is considered the silver bullet among fertility treatments — but we knew that that didn't mean it always works.
The wait for a donor can be quite long, but I was moved up on the waiting list because we had discussed the idea with the doctors a year before, after IVF failure No. 4. So my wait was short: a 26-year-old accountant with light brown hair, 5 feet 7, engaged to be married, played basketball in high school, a few spelling errors in the personal history she submitted. And her dad and four brothers were all well over 6 feet tall.
So — not a writer type, more athletic than dreamy, not petite.
Not much like me at all.
During our struggle to have a child, we'd learned that it is easy to draw a line at what you'll do and what you won't. But until life forces you to confront that line, you can't really know how you'll react. We'd been pushed to the line time and again, and each time, we'd realized that going forward felt better than staying back. Now, here we were, at yet another line.
We said yes.
• • •
Back in New York, over Thanksgiving this time, for our third set of treatments there. Using a donor made the treatments a little easier on me physically. I still needed some meds, but not as many. We passed the time Christmas shopping, at the Bronx Zoo, sightseeing. But mostly, trying not to obsess.
We talked awhile about how many embryos we wanted to transfer to me. The Octomom, Nadya Suleman, had not yet given birth to her octuplets, but we were still aware that every embryo could equal a baby. When we'd used my eggs, we had usually transferred three embryos, a decision we'd made together with our doctors based on my age and the quality of the embryos we'd created. In our last attempt, when I was 36 and had created mediocre-quality embryos, we had transferred four. But this time would be different: We weren't using my tired eggs, we were using those of a 26-year-old woman. It was no sure thing, but the odds of success were much better. We decided to transfer two embryos. We felt transferring two gave us our best shot at having a baby, and we understood and accepted the risks involved in a twin pregnancy.
At last, transfer day came. We learned we had two good-quality embryos, each having six cells. It was hard not to feel disappointed: We'd hoped to have more embryos to freeze, to try again or to have a sibling. And six cells seemed slow. All the embryos with my eggs had had at least eight cells.
After a few days of bed rest, we headed back home, to get ready for Christmas. And to count the days until we'd know.
• • •
Our first ultrasound, at 5 1/2 weeks, verified the pregnancy. A week later, a followup ultrasound confirmed our fondest wish. In the exam room, Mike and I high-fived. No tissues were needed this time: It was twins.
• • •
I was having a pretty normal, healthy pregnancy, and at 17 weeks I went for an ultrasound, expecting nothing more than a fuzzy image of the babies on the screen and to learn the babies' sexes.
Until that day, the most shocking words I had ever heard were "in vitro is your only chance."
Those didn't hold a candle to: "One of your babies has a serious heart abnormality."
I had thought my days of doctors and medical treatments were over. But they were just beginning. Our happy, longed-for pregnancy suddenly became filled with a familiar anxiety.
Last summer, our two beautiful daughters were born, full term. One was perfectly healthy and came home with me from the hospital. Our little "heart baby" stayed behind at All Children's for eight agonizing weeks. She had heart surgery at 3 days old and surgery on her abdomen at 23 days. She had another heart surgery at 4 1/2 months old; a third and (hopefully) final one will come when she is about 3 years old.
The surgeon told me that on a scale of 1 to 100, the complexity of her heart defect is about a 95. The doctors don't know why it happened, but they said it isn't because she's a twin or because she was conceived through IVF. We spend a lot of time at doctors' offices; the health care debate has become personal as her medical bills mount. But her prognosis is quite good, and she is thriving.
Nothing about this journey happened the way we expected. It took longer and was far more expensive, both financially and emotionally, than we could ever have imagined. But here I sit, on parental leave for a year, with my little lovelies playing together on a blanket. We are surrounded by ExerSaucers, Jumperoos, bottles and burp cloths. Our little house, so perfect for a couple, or a couple and a baby, is bursting with its new instant family.
We couldn't be happier.
Kate Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com.