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Mommy Wannabe Part 2
a blog by Suzanne Rico, April 16, 2012
It’s estimated that infertility affects one in seven couples in the United States That means about 13 million women have walked in my shoes — or I in theirs — and the number is growing all the time. My pregnant friend — the one who sent me the email subject lined “problem” — has had four miscarriages, so I was sure she was writing to say it had happened again. But I was so wrong. Instead, the baby she’s carrying has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome — a severe case, as far as the doctors can tell. As I write this, I weep — for her, for myself and for every person who has sunk even a pinkie toe into the muck of infertility.
At the end of my first trimester, the heartbeat inside my womb slowed and then stopped, leaving nothing to remember it by but ultrasound photos. Guilt was now mixed in with grief. Why was my body not able to sustain life — that most uniquely female function? I crumpled up the photos and threw them in the trash.
Consecutive loss seems like it should become easier to bear — the scar tissue on the heart should make it stronger — but instead, with each miscarriage, I just felt less: less productive, less confident, less able. The process took me over, and I watched, as if from the outside, Ethan try to stop me from slipping under the waterline of grief.
“Maybe we can just live a ridiculously decadent child-free life of travel and fun,” he said one evening as we ate dinner, trying to rouse me from my 21st century tragedy. But I didn’t bother to respond. I didn’t want travel and fun; I wanted a baby.
“Why am I not enough for you?” he asked then — and I thought he might cry.
“I don’t know,” I replied, not having the energy to soften the truth. “But you’re not.”
We switched doctors and tried a third in vitro fertilization (IVF). By now, I was such a pro at the multitude of shots needed to spur my ovaries to produce eggs, I could read the paper, talk on the phone, drink coffee and jam an inch long needle into my butt cheek simultaneously. Ethan had long ago lost his job as Shot-Giver-In-Chief after he kept getting woozy at the telltale pinpricks of blood.
When infertility is an issue, the emotional progression of getting a positive pregnancy test goes something like this: a burst of happiness that lasts about a minute, then a sickening fear, and finally, the absolute certainty that you will not be one of the lucky ones walking away with the ultimate prize of a baby human. I had learned not to celebrate the faint line that indicated I had crossed the first hurdle, but to hunker down with my secret in anticipation of all going horrible wrong.
My new fertility doctor was kind, with an obvious emotional connection to making my dream come true, but he was no magician. On the day before Christmas, the ultrasound again showed what looked like a blighted ovum — no cell development, no yolk sac, and certainly no heartbeat was visible on screen. He told me it was still early. He told me things could change. But when I pressed him, he did not have the heart to lie.
“Please tell me,” I begged, as eager as a masochist to get the pain underway. “There’s not much chance, is there?”
“No,” he replied. “But I’ve seen miracles before.”
Christmas was an endurance sport that year. How long could I watch my two lovely nieces toddle around in present-induced euphoria before I broke down? How much gentle pity from my mom and sisters could I take before I snapped? How far could I stretch a smile before tears took over? I spoke to Ethan about adoption — let’s go to China or Africa or the Los Angeles County Department Of Children And Family Services! But my husband balked, saying he didn’t know if he could do that.
“So,” I pressed, needing his cards to be on the table. “Is that a deal breaker?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I need to think about it.” For a moment, I was shocked out of my funk by the possibility that infertility might leave me childless and husbandless.
A week later, on a rare rainy Southern California day, Ethan drove me back to the fertility clinic at Tarzana Hospital for another ultrasound. We were silent, my cold hand tucked in his warm one, worn out from waiting and wondering. But then, as we crested the Sepulveda Pass that would take us down into the San Fernando Valley, a rainbow suddenly arced across the gray sky in a swath of vivid colors. It ended squarely on the hospital’s white bulk.
“Just maybe…” I said, but couldn’t complete the thought.
“Yeah,” Ethan agreed, squeezing my hand. “Maybe.” But we didn’t really want to have hope again. We had learned that hope can be a very dangerous thing.
As I walked into the ultrasound room, a place that now held the emotional overtones of a torture chamber, I was one month shy of my 40th birthday. Being a career journalist, I had researched every aspect of infertility, and knew that if this pregnancy failed, my odds of having biological children would slip below 5 percent. Perhaps I should have felt angry — my ex-husband had stolen my best baby-making years with his King of the Assholes routine. Perhaps I should have felt determined — screw the statistics! Or perhaps I should have felt sorry for myself — somewhere along the way, my maternal switch had been turned off. But as the doctor spread the cold, sticky ultrasound gel over my flat stomach, I just felt calm, as if someone else had reigned in my fear. I could not will this baby to live, and I had absolutely no control of what happened next. When the ultrasound image sprang to life on the screen, there was my child, floating in a grainy sea of gray, his tiny heart pumping away with the frantic speed of an oncoming train.
In my home office, stuck on a dry erase board alongside meeting reminders, shopping lists, and discount car wash coupons, is an ultrasound photograph. It was taken two weeks after Ethan and I saw our son’s heartbeat for the first time. Inside the tiny black hole of the pregnancy sac, a little bean shaped creature is nestled, waiting for its time to enter the world. And above this little being's rapidly developing head, is a small circle that looks to me exactly like a halo.