It’s been a few years since I’ve written about having a baby: Trying to have one, failing to have one, wondering about one, giving up on the idea of one altogether. The last thing I wrote publicly was a piece from a few years ago titled, “ After 5 Miscarriages, What Happens Next?” an essay that, in all honesty, I wrote in a few hours, after which I folded myself in half on my bed at the Covent Garden Hotel in London and cried for what felt like forever.
A lot has happened since I wrote that piece. For one, and I’m not quite sure if my essay contributed to this at all (I hope it did), but there’s much more openness and maybe even warmth when it comes to discussing anything having to do with fertility or the lack thereof. Something that was immediately clear from the unexpected outpouring of emails and comments I received in the days and months following — less shame and desperation, more support and encouragement that things could work out the way you want them to.
The truth is, for a long time, I wasn’t sure how I wanted things to work out. And when I go back to read some of the messages from the hundreds of commenters who left them, the ones that always stay with me are those who said things like, “I hope you end up having the family you want to have,” or “praying you’ll find your way to feeling good again.” They didn’t specifically mention baby, per se. Nor do they definitively name what the preferred outcome should or could be. Because commenters don’t really know. And they probably knew that after so much uncertainty and heartache, I didn’t really know either.
When you try to start a family for as long as my husband and I tried, you definitely begin to doubt your instincts…all of them. You ask yourself these soul-baring questions you might never have asked yourself if you had, say, just peed on a stick one day, gotten a happy face, and that was that. When something you want or seemingly want is held just beyond your reach for so long, you begin to wonder: Should I even want this anymore?
“When it comes to fertility, the rollercoaster of punishment and doubt is exhausting and real. And once it has you strapped in, you can’t get off the ride until you either have a baby or, I guess, you run out of money trying.”
But when I think about the truest part of myself, the part that helped me to negotiate with the doubts and move forward — seeing myself in the mirror day after day as a whole person, not just a broken, failing one — it’s this thing that happened to me twice. Once in our old apartment and more recently in our new place nearby. Both times were the same: I woke in the middle of the night, as if someone had thrown a glass of ice-cold water in my face, breathless and panicked, thinking on maximum volume, “I forgot to have a baby! I didn’t have a baby. It’s too late! How did I let this happen??? I really didn’t do everything I could have done. And now it’s all over.” It was a feeling as real as anything I’d ever felt or lived through before. And it is those two moments that gnawed at me, again and again, as I kept waiting for a window…yet another window…my window.
Photo courtesy Christene Barberich
I should cut to the chase right now and tell you that, as I write this, I am nearly seven months pregnant, feeling my baby wiggling around inside my belly. It’s not a physical feeling I ever imagined having or even allowed myself to hope to have before. I honestly wasn’t sure if I could even do it – be pregnant and carry my own baby. But it was, in fact, a doctor who left a comment on my earlier miscarriage essay who made me question everything I thought was true about pregnancy and about my chances of ever experiencing it.
His name is Dr. Jeffrey Braverman, and he left a rather simple and straightforward note among the many who’d commented. All it said was, “I think you should give me a call, someone sent me your story…fertility specialists do not treat recurrent miscarriage, that is the field of reproductive immunology.” I remember reading it with skepticism, and, for months, never gave it much thought. What doctor actually leaves a comment? I thought. Until one day, I’m not sure why, because it wasn’t preceded by any great epiphany, I emailed him. And he emailed me back. After which, my husband and I drove together for an appointment at his office on Long Island. When we talked, him looking over my tome-like medical history and the long, jagged documentation of treatments and miscarriages that had occurred over the past many years, he said, “I want to do an exam, something’s missing here.” When I joked that it might be my youth (at that point I was 47), he looked at me, not even remotely amused, and said that was only a piece of it. There had to be something else going on to cause that many repeated “spontaneous” losses. My husband looked at me with raised eyebrows. We were intrigued.
After an extensive exam — blood work, sonograms, from routine to the very targeted — Dr. Braverman called us back to his office to review the results. On a giant overhead screen, he took us page by page through our results (mine and my husband’s—because ladies, men are equally responsible for fertility success; according to the National Institutes of Health, about one third of cases are attributed to men, one third to women, and the rest are a combination of factors, including the unexplained). Slide by slide, I had a new understanding and a sort of compassion for my body and how it worked. That I had a gene mutation called MTHFR, which means my body can’t easily process folic acid (essential for baby-making and other functions and easily remedied with a prescription supplement); that I needed a blood thinner called Lovenox to counter another condition of blood thickness and its ability to reach and nourish the placenta; that I seemed to have an acutely responsive immune system, and perhaps my body was misidentifying a healthy embryo as an intruder (also remedied by a short stint with the steroid Prednisone). That I might have a pretty common case of misdiagnosed Endometriosis, a condition that was ruled out after a recommended laparoscopic surgery — a procedure that did determine I had a sister condition called Endometritis, which is basically an angry, inflamed uterine lining, which I treated in the weeks following with antibiotics.
And lastly, there was the issue of age: Did I want to consider using donor eggs instead of my own, which would increase our chances of success significantly, upwards of 60%? I mean, it’s really hard to argue with that kind of hope. But the cost was eye-opening, as well — all in with donor egg cost, donor egg service, legal fees, medical support, and medication (which most insurance does not cover), the total expense rang in around $35,000. Not a small expense…by a long shot. And while my husband and I make a reasonable living, we did not have such a surplus of cash, and would need to be seriously creative with our finances.
Photo courtesy Christene Barberich
So, the options were to do multiple rounds of IVF with my own eggs (at about a 2-4% success rate) or pony up the cash to up our chances more quickly. My husband and I dwelled on this decision for weeks. The data of donor eggs could not be denied; but the prospect of using them and raising a child who doesn’t share your genetic material raises other questions and concerns you might not ever consider, other than through perhaps adoption. Would the baby attach to me and love me as much? Would I tell her that I carried her but that another person provided the egg that ultimately made her? And if I did choose to tell her, then when? Today in the United States, the number of people pursuing donor eggs goes up roughly 20% each year, resulting in not only an increase in later-in-life births, but a national discussion around the opinions and sensitive nature of donor-egg-bred children.
While I’m incredibly open about sharing almost anything in my life, our decision whether or not to use donor eggs was ultimately ours to make and keep. If we did choose to use donor eggs, I would have to think about the privacy of the child whose life the egg and donor made possible. And if I didn’t use donor eggs, I wouldn’t want women my age feeling ashamed or angry that I somehow struck some elusive lottery that they didn’t. It is the one piece of our process I feel private about — it’s our business.
And, well, now it’s our baby.
But this past March, heading in to Dr. Braverman’s for just such a sonogram, a few weeks following our embryo transfer, I felt oddly calm. I knew I couldn’t control what the magic wand was going to determine, but I felt strangely certain that I was nevertheless moving forward, and my husband and I, no matter what, were going to have a family — a milestone nearly a decade in the making. And maybe not the family that I’d once imagined or that the rest of the people I loved and admired had, but our own, just right for us. And so, shortly after Dr. Braverman inserted the ultrasound probe, he said quietly the thing I never thought I would hear: “There it is. The heartbeat.”
I laid there, staring at the screen, amazed and speechless, almost like I was levitating. I looked at my husband, who seemed equally stunned. As Dr. Braverman pointed to the flicker on the screen, I felt my whole body shift, or maybe surrender. And, in that moment, the whole experience began to remind me, a lot, of a time when I was mending myself after a particularly brutal pregnancy loss at a spa out in New Mexico.
Photo courtesy Christene Barberich
I hate yoga, but there I was, as one is apt to be when at a spa in New Mexico, at a yoga class. Toward the end, the teacher cheerily summoned everyone to move into a headstand. “Raise your hand if you’ve never done a headstand before,” the instructor demanded. My hand shot up. “Everyone can do a headstand,” he said, looking at me. I shook my head. I was mourning. I was indignant. Like climbing the rope in gym class or swimming underwater without holding my nose, there was no way I could do a headstand. My body wasn’t built for it. Those genes had skipped me. Ignoring my head-shaking, the instructor left the room briefly and returned with a cushioned hollowed out platform. He placed it in front of me and waved his hand, I suppose to say “get on with it.” So I did. And, as I bent over to place my head in the open space in the cushion, I could hear him say to me, “I’m right here. You can do this.” And up I went. Straight up. No pain or fear of snapping my neck, just an ordinary headstand — and me, utterly mesmerized by this secret skill I never knew I had.
That’s what being pregnant to me was like: Disbelief after so much failure that I could even do it at all, and ultimately discovering my body could actually do something I never thought it could.
“I’m doing it,” I said to my husband through a cascade of tears, him nodding back at me. “I’m doing it, just like the headstand.”
Because despite what your spiritual beliefs may be, where you stand on the view of conception and embryos becoming babies, I did begin to feel and believe that what was happening inside of me was someone else’s business, too. Yes, I could control a lot about how the pregnancy progressed, but I pondered a great deal on that intangible God factor, too. There’s no other way to describe it. The mysterious part of life and love and living that just happens, just flows, just takes on its own momentum without any of us fretting over it. I spent so many years in the darkness, punishing myself for everything…all of it. The disappointment, the cost, the waiting, the aftermath of emptiness, and how to start again. Until I realized, finally, it wasn’t all me. Something else made this baby happen that can only be likened to some kind of divine magic.
“Despite our best intentions in pursuing the things we want most deeply, we make mistakes. We try and we fail. Things go wrong. And then we humble ourselves with our unbelievable resilience to put the pain aside and get on with it.”
The truth is, though, I still do fret constantly. I wake in the morning in a state of worry as much as I do in a state of joy and gratitude. In the same moments that I marvel at my growing belly, I agonize, is it growing enough?? Despite our best intentions in pursuing the things we want most deeply, we make mistakes. We try and we fail. Things go wrong. And then we humble ourselves with our unbelievable resilience to put the pain aside and get on with it. No matter how many awful, ugly times it takes. Because really, in the scheme of things, there is a God factor or a special kind of mysterious magic within each of us, too. That invisible force thrusting us forward, into “this wild darkness,” as the late writer Harold Brodkey once wrote. Whispering in our ears…keep going. You can do this.
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