Plans in Pencil

This was the post I read for the 2016 Listen to Your Mother: Raleigh-Durham show last week.  Can’t believe the show is over already!

Last week on the way home from school, my son, my sweet 6-year-old, my baby told me he had a girlfriend.  This girlfriend is an older woman, having turned 8.

He broke this news to me by telling me that he and this girl, Rose, were going to get married (what????), they would work as a veterinarian (her) and a doctor (him), and that Rose was afraid of having babies cut out of her. He then asked me if he had been cut out of me.

Deep breaths.

I had no labor and delivery with him myself, vaginal or otherwise.  My son was the result of gestational surrogacy. I was able to sit back and observe calmly while our surrogate delivered him. If you believe that sentence, well, I have a few other things I can sell you.

It was time. It was time to have the talk with him about how he came to be.  We hadn’t intended on keeping it a secret – absolutely not at all – but sometimes there isn’t a simple opening or Hallmark card for this type of conversation.  We had blown it up in our minds to take on epic qualities; how would he react?

Later that evening, we brought up the topic again. I gently told him – trying to use simple language – that he had not been in my belly because it didn’t work and that another, wonderful woman had carried him for us. We waited for his reaction.

“Oh, OK, “ he replied. “Can I have ice cream now?”

I asked him how he felt about this information.  He placed his still baby-soft hand on my stomach. “Mommy, are you still broken?”

Broken.  Yes, I am still broken. My reproductive organs don’t work and never will. My son is our miracle child, made possible by the kindness of a stranger who carried him.

I never wanted only one child. I grew up as an only child. I didn’t have a miserable childhood, but I felt lonely, and I was envious of my friends with siblings. Maybe I would have been more socially competent with a sibling. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone in the world. Maybe I would be a different person. The possibilities of what might have been are endless.

While I have one child, I also have five frozen siblings for him. Siblings isn’t quite the correct word.  We have five frozen embryos, five bits of potential. In the infertility community, we call them frosties, or my personal favorite, “totsicles.” It is amazing to have any embryos to freeze, and I have five after a horrible IVF cycle in which it seemed I’d be fortunate to create any embryos. These are embryos created from barely 31-year-old me and gave us our son. Our only son.

I’m very close to 39 now.

We receive the bill for cryopreservation of our embryos annually. We don’t talk about it but pay it automatically every year. Our other options are to destroy them, to donate or adopt them out to other families or to allow them to be used for research. We can’t do any of that. Yet.

We always wanted more than one child, but circumstances made that difficult.  Having a second child would require a major financial outlay as well as significant changes in our lives. Are we too old for that? Are we too old for bottles and nightly feedings? For daycare costs? For potty training? For all the energy and money infancy and toddlerhood require?  And what about my career and increasing responsibility? What about the child we already have and his needs, his future?

I’d like to say we could swing it, but I FEEL tired. I AM tired. We are in a groove, and our sweet boy is more independent every day.

We know the answer, but we keep kicking the can further down the road.

When I let myself think about it, I get angry. I feel like I was robbed of choices when it came to family building and the choices we did have were difficult and came with heavy implications.  There is a part of me that still simmers with resentment and anger: WHY US? WHY did this have to be our reality?

Very few of us realize the lives we hoped to have. Regardless of what our dreams were, reality slaps us in the face.  We are obligated nothing, and our notion of control is an illusion. I need to bottle my resentment and anger, my caustic bitterness, and put it away.  Yes, we were dealt a shitty hand reproductively, but what can you do? We did what we could. We rolled the dice and won once. Nothing guarantees we would win again.

I have one son, and he is wonderful. He is sweet, bright, energetic, and sentimental. He is exhausting, argumentative, and stubborn. He is everything I wished and hoped for and so much more.

Instead of lingering on what I can’t change, I need to focus on what I do have. My son tells me he and his future wife plan to name my future grandchild “Sprinkle”. I smile. It’s nice to have plans, but I have learned it is wise to plan in pencil.


  1. It would be nice if plans worked out more often. But I’d settle for erasers that didn’t leave smudges that mar the page.

  2. sounds like your son handled the conversation well. Going through infertility is hard and definitely not part of anyone’s plans or how they hoped their life would go. I had always thought I would like two or three kids, now I am just hoping for one miracle healthy baby (through IVF)

  3. ❤ As I face down the prospect of a hysterectomy/oopherectomy in the near future, this is so timely and so, so perfect. I really needed this today, friend. After a shitty hand of reproductive cards (severe endo, several miscarriages, life-threatening pregnancy, effed-up lactation, and the possibility of something malignant growing on my ovary), I'm trying really damn hard to focus on what I do have – two fantastic kids, one bio, one through adoption. It's hard, though, to have choices taken away from you, even if you weren't sure if you were going to act on them…

  4. Congratulations for taking the plunge on sharing with your son how he arrived in the world! That is a major milestone, and I am so glad the conversation went well. (If you haven’t already got a copy, I recommend “What Makes a Baby?” which might help with ongoing conversations.)

    I am curious — I know everyone processes things differently, but why “bottle away” your feelings? Why not let them out? It’s understandable why you — why any of us — would be angry / bitter / resentful, but I think it is possible to experience those feelings AND be grateful and take joy in your son. (Maybe I misunderstood, but it sounded like you were making an either/or choice.)

    Here’s to many sprinkles in life of all different colours and flavours!

  5. I can relate. I also have a wonderful son and long for another but I need to be grateful for what I have.

  6. I know it’s unnecessary to quote Robert Burns to you. Nonetheless, I’m so sorry about all that has gang oft agley! I know it’s not the same, but you HAVE been prolific in creating a body of online writing describing your experience with the long-standing blight on humanity that is infertility. Infertility has literally changed history, and the contribution of your story, this post in particular will help and educate so many. It’s truly not fair as it seems to strike those best able to bring up well-read, conscientious, productive members of society. My husband the biologist-turned-network-engineer talks about r/K selection- how some organisms (r-selected) insure survival in their sheer number of offspring, but how K-selected organisms insure survival in the sheer strength of the few offspring they produce (ie. grass vs. oak trees). I think about Anne Boleyn who surely desperately wanted/needed more children… but that one child she had… what strength. I hope, that though you’ll always mourn the children who might have been, that you’ll find that instead of a field of grass, you’ve got an oak. Daniel is wonderful, and I know you’re very proud. All my best.

  7. This is a great post. I can relate. I remember when my son was 2 and we were at a gymnastics class. I looked around and saw a few other women with their similarly aged children and also carrying babies in carriers. They were slim, a lot younger than me and I was completely pissed that I was never going to be them. I wanted to have more than one child and we had spent thousands of dollars, sacrificing our nest egg for a house in order to conceive and when that didn’t work, went on to adopt. I wanted so badly to be the woman who could just get pregnant and then plan to have another one a couple years later. My young son would ask me if he could have a baby brother or sister but because I was “broken”, I had to tell him he had to learn how to play alone. I no longer had the money, years, energy or physical ability to have more children. We consider ourselves fortunate to raise the child we have. But you’re right, in life there are no guarantees. I’m pretty happy with the way things are. Life continues to challenge us in other ways and we’re busy enough with that. Making life plans in pencil with you, eraser at hand.

  8. My son has started sex ed, so babies and babymaking are starting to become a regular conversation topic in my house. I’ve wanted to tell them about their lost siblings, but haven’t found the right time yet. My daughter is a planner, too; she knows who she is going to marry (at 5), knows what her baby’s sex and name will be (Charlotte or Ava), etc. But there are times when I gently try to suggest that maybe things will be different, and that will be OK, too. I have no way of knowing whether my track record will be passed on to her, but I hope to give her as much information and support as she needs and can handle.

    Beautifully done.

  9. Oh, the plans we all had…weird how things change and decisions end up getting made for us instead of by us.

    p.s. I was 40 and S was 43 when we were placed with Baby Z. 😉

  10. OH! What a lovely post. As an SMC, there was no avoiding discussions of how my girl came to be. And generally girls are curious about such things earlier! Questions started around age 4. What she initially had a big reaction to was that she had been frozen for 4 years. My former totsicle demanded to know if she was in the top or bottom of the freezer. I tried to explain that it was at the dr’s office, not like our fridge, but she was manic in her demand to know. Finally I just said, “the top.”

    BTW, I’m not an only, and have never had a good relationship with my sibling. It’s still sucky. So I always wanted an only.

  11. Plans in pencil…. That viewpoint would have served me well when I was in my early 20’s. I spent so much time planning things that I had no control over, that realizing that most of my plans were not realized by the age of 30 was shocking. Infertility taught me to let go of the control…. That I’m really in control of very little.

    Matthew knows that Dr Y put him in my uterus and that penises in vaginas were not involved at all. He knows he grew in a dish at first and understands the picture we have of him as a blast is not something most of his friends have. It will become more complicated as he gets older, but for now, there is honesty.

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