Serenity comes when you trade expectations for acceptance.
Fertility, shmertility. It seems I cannot read printed material of any kind without finding a discussion of women and fertility. Take it from someone who’s been there: Trying to conceive a child can be a heartbreaking journey, especially when choosing a nontraditional method of conception. I have asked myself time and time again: If I knew then what I know now would I have gone the same route? The answer is always the same: a resounding yes, even four years, no babies, and twenty pounds later.
It Was Not Meant to Be
Never once did my husband or I imagine that we would not have a baby of our own. In vitro fertilization (IVF) worked for everyone we knew, so why not us? This and other questions haunted me for years. Many well-meaning family and friends would offer up their advice: Why don’t you just adopt? Many people lead fulfilling lives without children. I know of a great acupuncturist who can get you pregnant after just a few visits. And my personal favorite: It was not meant to be. Even my primary care physicians weighed in. Gynecologist: There are other options available besides having your own biological children, such as adoption. Internist: Do you know how expensive kids are? Between private schools for all mine, I’ll be into it for over a million.
Everyone was happy to give me advice, but none of it helped to fill the deep void within. My friends were supportive, sending me flowers each time we did not achieve success, but in hindsight I am not sure I would share my news with so many people. Dealing with infertility is so difficult I think it might be best kept private. As my fertility doctor Christo Zouves so eloquently states in his book Expecting Miracles: On the Path of Hope from Infertility to Parenthood:
It’s a life crisis by the time we meet. These are healthy people seeking extensive medical intervention that cannot, in most cases, be considered a cure. In the prime of their lives, at the height of their personal, physical, intellectual, and earning powers, they need help. Their trust in their own bodies, their partner, and their belief in God or a higher power is often forever altered. Some blame themselves. They may have already lost a baby through miscarriage or stillbirth. What is wrong with me? They ask. Why me? Infertility is not a classic disease, but it affects people the same way disease does, emotionally and physically. It brings young, healthy people to the precipice of grief and loss.
Egg = Sperm = Fertilization = Embryo
Fertility textbook 101, right? Well, not all textbooks tell the whole truth. We knew the statistics from day one: Our chances of an IVF success were slim for one reason—my age. A former gynecologist had told me to have kids young. Now I understand why. Fact: Women are born with a finite number of eggs, around one million. By the time we hit puberty, that number decreases to 300,000, and we are not even in our childbearing years! Fact: Men produce sperm until they die. No wonder they marry younger women! And so began a new chapter in our lives: fertility doctors, shots, hormones, doling out cash like water, weight gain, more shots, and heartache coupled with hope.
At Pacific Fertility Center in San Francisco, we felt at home with the experienced team of fertility specialists. Many of our friends had had success there. Our first round went smoothly up until the implantation, which was not successful. A learning experience, albeit a costly and emotionally painful one.
This time, we were encouraged by five healthy embryos. But the day we walked into the clinic for the transfer of the embryos, I ended up waiting, half-dressed and anxious, longer than I had expected. When the doctor finally appeared, he informed us that the news was not good. None of the eggs had fertilized. We were shocked and terribly disappointed. This kind of event is rare, but it had happened, and to all five embryos. We waited another twenty-four hours to see if anything would change, but when the phone rang at 7 A.M., it was like a death in the family. Back to the drawing board.
After two unsuccessful attempts, we moved on to Zouves Fertility Center (www.goivf.com). The home page shows a photo of a cooing newborn and reads “hope, success, family.” I felt an immediate connection to Dr. Zouves, the clinic’s founder. This man, to some a miracle worker, gave me hope. Statistics aside, this time was going to be successful. I could feel it. We were going to start our family in the sterile surroundings of his South San Francisco office.This time around we had three perfect embryos, all male. We were praying for at least one successful implantation. No such luck. This time I fell apart emotionally.
Rounds Four and Five: Unconditional Love
For forty years, she has been my little sister. What a gift, that she would offer to carry our baby. I had always taken care of her, now she offered to take care of me.
Without much discussion, she and my brother in-law invited us to brunch on New Year’s Day. They informed us they wanted to assist in the birthing process. We were stunned. At the time, they had a six-year-old daughter and three-year-old twins. We said that we would not hear of it. My husband felt we had already gone to great lengths and were bordering on “sci-fi” methods. But after lengthy discussions with attorneys and therapists, we took them up on their offer. Although my sister had had two very easy pregnancies, she had what is known as secondary infertility, or the inability to conceive after having delivered one or more babies. But what she did have was a perfect uterus. We would provide the fertilized embryo(s), and she would act as our incubator.
Round four remains a blur except the weekly visits with my sister to our favorite clinic. I produced five viable eggs, all of which were implanted into my sister with no sign of life. But round five remains very clear to me. I was in New York for fashion week awaiting the news. It came while I was aboard a clothing designer’s yacht: No sign whatsoever of implantation. We were too far from harbor for me to jump ship. An unbearable two hours later I called my husband from my hotel room, completely numb.
When I arrived home the following morning, an ovarian cyst that I had put off having removed burst and caused a major hemorrhage. It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and start taking care of myself. My health had suffered greatly. After recovering from two blood transfusions, I recall channel surfing and stopping at Oprah. What a surprise: Her show was on my favorite topic. The young woman being interviewed was telling Oprah that she would never be okay with not having children. I screamed out the same words. The woman was thirty; she had plenty of time to bear children. I, on the other hand, was over forty, and according to fertility statistics, my time was running out.
That’s All, Folks
After our fifth, and as it turned out final attempt, my sister realized she could no longer keep trying (she had originally agreed on three procedures). My batting average was low, so I could not blame her for her decision. To this day, I am not sure that I will ever be able to truly thank her for her amazing generosity, although I have certainly tried!
Even after five attempts at motherhood, I was still hopeful. My heart skipped a beat at the mere sight of a pregnant woman. My dear husband suggested therapy for us to deal with life as we had come to know it. I was touched and at the same time terrified of what a professional might tell me. Was it time for me to move on? Would I be able to move on? The counselor turned out to be a big help, even though these questions were not answered. Just telling your problems to a stranger is comforting: no judging, just listening, which doesn’t happen often in life.
When a Door Closes, Many Windows Open
Fast forward to our seventh wedding anniversary. We booked a romantic chalet on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, but my mood ruined the occasion, and the weekend. Despite the passage of time and the help of a therapist, I could not shake off the fact that I was still childless and twenty pounds heavier. And so began the end of my mourning and the beginning of my rebirth.
My husband, who seldom says no to me, told me that weekend that he was done with us trying to have a baby. For an instant I thought to myself that I would simply go ahead and have a baby on my own, but it took me only a few seconds to realize that I had no desire to be a single mom. I knew then (although I could not admit it to my husband for quite some time) that I was going to be okay with not having kids. Just like that. It finally happened. I realized that we were done. No one was more shocked than me. I was able to let go, and let go I did. Five rounds of fertility was the equivalent of losing five children. To this day, it remains an immeasurable loss.
This month marks my tenth wedding anniversary. Three years later, I am twenty plus pounds lighter in mind, body, and spirit. We will not be going to Lake Tahoe, but instead to faraway places to eat, love, and play. The tenth anniversary gift is traditionally said to be diamond jewelry. According to the Hallmark card company, that’s because “a marriage that lasts ten years is as durable and beautiful as a diamond.” I can attest to that.
This experience changed my life in ways I never thought possible. If I had to do it all over again, I would have heeded the advice of my doctor and moved on to other ways of becoming a parent, such as adoption or egg donor. But by the time our five rounds were over, too much time had passed, there were too many health concerns for me, and the thought of more heartbreak and disappointment made our decision that much easier. As my friend, author Carol Simone, pointed out to me during and after the process, “Sometimes the lessons of loss and grief around not bearing a child are so profound they eclipse the experience of pregnancy itself. And so the mother-to-be makes the unconscious decision to feel the loss for her own evolution as a soul.”
Breakthroughs in Fertility: More Options for Women
What a difference a few years makes. Stanford University researchers have developed a test to determine whether a woman is likely to conceive a child through in vitro fertilization—a breakthrough that could save women tens of thousands of dollars in fruitless procedures, as well as the heartbreak of failed treatment.
I was also pleased to read about an egg-storage process called vitrification, which allows women to freeze their eggs so they can later be thawed and fertilized when they are ready to have children. This means that the playing field between the sexes has been leveled. It’s about time—literally!
It’s hard to explain my transformation once I finally accepted that I would not have children. It took place once I realized that the universe had other plans for me. My heart had been closed to any other possibility other than the one thing I could not have. Once I accepted my life the way it was, my heart opened to the world and to all of its possibilities. Yet again, my life changed, and I began to fill it with the good things that I was already blessed with: a happy marriage, a successful career, and the love and support of family and friends. Oprah Winfrey summed it up perfectly in her October 2010 magazine issue. “There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It’s why you were born. And how you become most truly alive.”
Year 10: Blue Mosque, Istanbul Turkey, February, 2011