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Meet the Twiblings

New York Times Magazine,  Dec 29, 2010
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Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost. I’ve actually never read “The Inferno,” but I found that line in my mind every morning when I woke to do my hormone injection and especially on the darkest mornings — the ones when I went into the clinic to have my unpregnant blood drawn to confirm another I.V.F. cycle’s failure. Of course, I had considered my life ruined many times before — other medical and romantic crises — but I was always wrong. This issue, though — childlessness — really did seem different. My two closest girlfriends chose not to have children and didn’t regret it, and I envied them, but I didn’t know how to feel as they did. No one gets everything they want in life, but to be childless felt like being deprived of something essential: the primal human experience. When I was 39 and single, I was in northern Uganda, and a woman there asked about my children. I said I didn’t have any, and she solemnly told me that she would pray to God to remove my curse. Instead of shrugging it off, I thanked her.

I was 41 when, after a gazillion not-quite-right relationships and a broken engagement, I met Michael, the man I would marry. He was five years younger; socially, it didn’t seem like an important age difference, but in terms of fertility, it turned out to be. I was haunted by the thought that if we didn’t have children — even though he loved me and even though that love might blind him to the truth — in some sense marrying me would have turned out to be a mistake. Raising children was a crucial part of his vision of what he wanted to do with his life, and if he had married someone his age, she probably would have been fertile.

“I’m not comfortable with it,” our doctor said when I begged him to let us do a fifth round of I.V.F. “When a doctor offers you a treatment, there is an expectation that that treatment could work.”

“It could work,” I said. “I don’t mind doing the treatments. I just want to keep trying.”

“Realistically, you need to consider other ways to have a family,” he said.

But it seemed to me that there were no other good options. I had friends who spent all of their money trying to adopt, only to have things fall through again and again — birth mothers who changed their minds, foreign programs that were discontinued. I researched adoption in China but discovered that the criteria excluded us. When Michael’s parents adopted his sister in the 1970s, there was an abundance of babies in the United States in need of homes, but the widespread use of birth control and abortion, among other factors, has caused the supply of infants available for adoption in the subsequent three decades to plummet to a fraction of what it was then. Knowing that, I was still taken aback by how discouraging one adoption agency was about our prospects for “competing” against other couples. “Most birth mothers do prefer younger women,” the woman informed me. “But you’ll get a letter from your doctor, certifying you are in excellent health for the social worker anyway.”

“Right,” I said, thinking about the arthritic condition that caused the chronic pain I had been struggling with for many years.

I found another doctor and persuaded him to let us try a fifth round. All you have to do is not die, I told the embryos once again, but once again they all did. After a failed sixth round, I was told I had a new medical problem that would pose risks to a fetus’s health, and I began to consider whether the embryos might have been right about the merits of my body as their greenhouse. Should I scrap my problem-ridden body entirely and try third-party reproduction? I felt a pang at the idea of excluding myself — of having no role at all in gestating or creating the child. But that pang was checked by disappointment in my body and a longing not to be limited by its limitations.

I consulted with a perinatologist, a high-risk pregnancy specialist. “Is your goal to have the experience of being pregnant or is your goal to have the best chance of having a healthy baby?” he asked. “If you really want a healthy baby, get a surrogate and an egg donor.” In that instant, I made up my mind. Of course that was my goal — and compared with that goal, all other desires seemed not only secondary, but also trivial, even narcissistic.

I began researching surrogacy and egg donation — corresponding with gestational carriers on surrogacy Web sites and talking to agencies. The process seemed so daunting and alienating — inviting all these strangers into our bedroom, creating relationships with unknown conventions and risks, giving others extraordinary power. In the story of what happens when a man and a woman love each other very much, they don’t need strangers to lend them their gametes. Having children was one of life’s great acts of self-definition. How could we turn the most intimate thing a couple could do — coupling — into a ménage à trois, let alone à quatre or cinq?

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