It’s been sitting there for days, gathering dust and yellowing slightly in the sun. Today, I brushed a few stray carrot and bean seeds off my dirty gardening hands, picked up the piece of paper, and read it again.
All it needs is for me to sign the 18 letters of my name, giving the fertility clinic permission to thaw and discard our donor’s sperm – the remaining fractions from a week he spent here four years ago for the sole purpose of donating his genes, his history and a little piece of his soul to help us build our family.
Unlike so many other couples undergoing fertility treatments, our gambit worked. He donated, we made babies – two of them, in fact.
The youngest, who’s 4 months old, is lying next to me right now, snortling and snuzzling his way through the night. A few feet away from us are the leftover needles, vials and alcohol swabs that were the keys to his genesis.
In the frazzled days following his birth, I asked my wife to get those drugs out of the house as quickly as possible. And, while she was at it, could she please tell the clinic to get rid of the sperm before we could tempt fate once more? (As a same-sex couple – and a “geriatric” one, at that – we now had two spouses with permanent birth injuries and two private-school and college educations to fund. Enough was enough, right?)
Months later, the clinic’s permission slip is missing my signature (not hers) and she has bagged up the meds but I’ve inexplicably left them right there by the bed, just in case.
Just in case what, exactly? In case we accidentally get hopped up on progesterone one night after drinking a little too much wine?
It’s not like we’re a straight couple, many of whom figure they might as well keep the family jewels intact and let God straighten it all out later. Our 43-year-old former pediatrician walked into the room visibly pregnant at one appointment; she said she told her second husband she didn’t need any more kids and she wasn’t willing to risk fertility treatment at her age. “But zen zis happened,” she chuckled in a thick German accent. “I told him, ‘Honey, you found an egg!'”
One of my sisters didn’t even tie her tubes after her first pregnancy very nearly killed her. And she was livid when her husband would surreptitiously give away pieces of baby gear to discourage another pregnancy. After a “close call” last summer, her husband put himself under the knife.
“There’s just a finality to it, and it’s not a natural ending,” explained one friend, a 42-year-old breast cancer survivor who’s still holding onto 16 embryos she froze to preserve her ability to have more children after undergoing chemotherapy, radiation and five years of hormone therapy. “It’s not like going through menopause. There is just something about making an active choice yourself, instead of it passively happening to you.”
(Fortunately, she’s not married to Sofia Vergara’s ex, who recently sued for custody of their two frozen embryos.)
While I was in the hospital recuperating from my difficult labor and delivery, I reached out to another friend to check on her via text message. Over the previous five years, she and her husband had resorted to nearly every option in their quest for children – natural, artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, adoption, fostering and finally gestational surrogacy using donor eggs.
Her surrogate had been due around the same time as me, but miscarried early on, so I wanted to make sure she was okay. It was almost Christmas, which can be a tough time for the childless-not-by-choice.
Bing. “I’m also in the hospital,” her text replied. “Can’t get my massive bleeding to stop. Talking hysterectomy, so a little sad.”
I wouldn’t even know how to respond to that on a normal day, but under the influence of painkillers and oxytocin, all I could think to write was “Well, uteruses are overrated. Those little [expletive] just cause trouble.”
She laughed, but still … “I know it’s crazy, but we keep thinking just MAYBE God will give us a miracle and let me get pregnant. Nuts, I know.”
As I’m wrapping up this essay, I’m watching the beans I planted push their way out of the soil, and I’m struggling. I can’t wrap my mind around why this decision is so difficult for so many of us, whether our seeds are suspended in deep-freeze or stored deep in our aging bodies.
Is it the thought of never again gasping at the sight of an embryonic heartbeat on an inky black screen? Never holding another frail newborn against my chest, our hearts imprinting their rhythm on one another? Never playing “princess tea party” with a daughter? For some, it’s knowing they will never know what it’s like to feel a new being physically unfold inside of you.
For my friend with the 16 frozen embryos, even though she already has two small children, she can’t imagine destroying the beings that saved her life. “If I hadn’t wanted another child, I wouldn’t have known I have breast cancer,” she told me. “I’m not sure how we’re even going to make it through today some days, but I think I want to give life to at least one of those embryos that I feel saved mine.”
For me, I think it’s the fear that moving on from childbearing means only a few chapters of my life remain to be read. And who really knows what God (or your higher power of choice) has written in those few remaining chapters?
But the truth is, our plots often unfold with more delightful irony than even the most well-crafted book. The childless friend, whose uterus was removed on New Year’s Day, took comfort in her faith that “there’s a soul out there that’s meant to join our family.”
Five days after the hysterectomy, she and her husband were unexpectedly offered custody of the 18-month-old twins they had fostered as newborns. Their adoption petition is pending but unopposed.
Her most recent text was even more surprising: Earlier this spring, because they were still under contract with their surrogate, they transferred their last two embryos into her womb. Their second set of twins are due in December, on my son’s birthday.
Melissa Castro Wyatt is a freelance business and finance writer and stay-at-home mom. She blogs in her mind. Her mostly-neglected Twitter handle is @CastroWyatt.
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