I got married late compared to others I know. At 34, after several rejected proposals and broken engagements, it was finally time. We both wanted children, and, after a year or so, we began trying to conceive.
I’d always thought I’d be a mother of three. Before I ever wanted to get married, I wanted to be a mom and three was the magic number in my head. We came up with first and middle names for both boys and girls. We quickly agreed on a boy name: Daniel Patrick*. The others took discussion. We settled on Zoe June and Luke Bradford.
Thus began our four-year conception journey — and it was terrible. As a young woman, I was sick with ulcerative colitis and, after five years of illness, underwent a multi-stage, major surgery that left me with an abdomen full of scar tissue. As a result, nothing worked to get us pregnant. We went from “not trying” to “trying” to “charting and temping” to fertility doctors. We threw more money, time and science at the problem with each passing year. After our fourth failed IUI (intrauterine insemination, or what I call “the advanced turkey baster method”) the doctors said further efforts would be futile. Either we would proceed to IVF (in-vitro fertilization), or we should stop wasting money.
We agonized over IVF. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars. Truly, all romance and love would be stripped out of becoming pregnant, any resultant baby having been conceived in a petri dish. We decided to try it once — and only once — given the cost. Whatever our result, we told ourselves, we would then move forward. If not as parents, as DINKs who backpack through Europe on vacation or go to wine country. It would be OK either way.
We were both 39. The odds of success were under 40 percent. But we went ahead anyway, ordering the giant box of drugs, learning how to give injections, to time everything just so. It was overwhelming and terrifying. I started to wonder if anything was really OK with us or ever had been. I couldn’t figure out how we would go on if it didn’t work. I hated everyone I knew who got pregnant, often by accident. By accident! Unfathomable.
But then the struggle, the journey. And me, in the hospital for egg retrieval after the weeks of shots and years of other failed attempts. The retrieval was very hard, I was told afterwards, because of the scar tissue. “It was rough, but we got six eggs,” they told me. A young woman with ovaries that were an easy target might have yielded 12, 17 or 22.
They called a few days later to tell us that of the six, four fertilized. They would monitor cell growth and discuss our options when I returned for insemination three days later.
Truly, all romance and love would be stripped out of becoming pregnant, any resultant baby having been conceived in a petri dish.
Three embryos survived. Some clinics have a limit on how many you can insert. More embryos can mean a greater chance of success but can also result in multiples. And there were twins in the family. That could mean selective elimination. Or triplets. Or more. Octomom was in the news. Nobody wanted anything like that. But our clinic did not have a limit. We knew we only had one chance, and it had to count.
There was so much we didn’t know then, despite all our research. We didn’t know about frozen embryo transfer or FET, the process by which you could store embryos for future chances. We didn’t feel like we had any to spare with only three. We wanted our only chance to have the highest chance of success.
They showed us a picture: the petri dish with my name and the date. One picture was naked eye – you could barely discern three black spots, small as pieces of ground black pepper. They also gave us a picture of the embryos, super-magnified. You could see the little, weird clusters of cells, each different from the other.
They asked us: What do you want to do?
We were prepared with our decision: Put in all three.
We went home with a new injection, one that would hopefully make one of those embryos “stick” inside. Ten days later, I developed an allergy to the shot. The doctor switched me to a suppository and said, “Since you’re here, even though it hasn’t been the full 14 days, how about a pregnancy test?” “Sure,” I said.
It was negative.
“Well,” they said, masking their own emotions in a futile attempt to help me control mine. “It’s not day 14 yet.”
I have never felt lucky and somehow knew this would be the result. All those years, all that effort, wasted. I came home, destroyed, and did a shot of whiskey because there was no baby to worry about. My spouse urged calm. “We have to wait,” he said. “It hasn’t been 14 days yet.”
He was right.
One stuck and kicked the other two out to make room for his temporary home in my body through my healthy, uneventful, “advanced maternal age” pregnancy. My son, “D,” is a wonderful, thriving seven-year-old and the best thing that ever happened to me or his dad. Though we are no longer married, we parent him amicably together, never having forgotten how we worked so hard to get him into our lives.
I have the picture of those embryos. It sits in a large frame of small photos that include one of my son the instant he was born, bloodied and screaming, insisting his way into the world just like he insisted his way into my womb. But those other two…
I’ve never stopped wondering what could have happened if we had just put one in. Or two, saving one to try again with later. Maybe we couldn’t have afforded FET. Maybe a one-at-a-time approach would have resulted in three miscarriages and no more chances. I was old, too. My son was a difficult baby, straining further our already stretched-to-the-brink marriage. It probably never would have worked. It might have resulted in no babies at all.
But I don’t pass by that picture in my bedroom without pausing and wondering for a moment: What of sweet Zoe and little Luke? Did I make the right choice?
There is no way of knowing, no way to go back and no way to think about it harder, to figure out if “put in all three” was the right thing to say that day.
There is only looking at my son, sleeping. And feeling incredibly lucky.
*While it is lovely, Daniel Patrick is not my son’s name.
(Photo courtesy of Nina McCollum)