infertility

To Mother

I’ve posted several times about motherhood and what it is like when you don’t have the typical physical experiences of becoming a mother. I read an article recently on trans parents and their experience of motherhood. Titled rather provocatively “Is Motherhood Gendered?”, it brings a new dimension to the ongoing question of what and who is a mother:

is motherhood something innate, as we are so often told – a chemical reaction of love and self-sacrifice tied to the ‘transformative’ process of pregnancy and childbirth? Or, is it something that can be learned? Ultimately, is trans motherhood about emphasising similarities or, perhaps, about learning to embrace differences?

It’s very often a heated, complex topic. Am I less of a woman because I did not physically grow, birth and feed my son? Is a trans woman less of a woman if she does not? I admit that reading that article and its terminology and scenarios had moments of confusion for me: a biological woman transitioning to a man who decided to have a child? Mind blown. I literally do not have a vocabulary for that, yet I hope that if we can figure out how to refer to those familial situations, we can figure out how to refer to other situations in which a mother is the mother but not the biological mother.

In regards to mothering, I like the direction that philosopher Sara Ruddick  is going:

Sara Ruddick promoted the use of the verb ‘mothering’ as gender-neutral; she proposed that rather than being a product of our sex and gender, ‘mothering’ is a practice. In the past, mothering has been associated solely with female work, representing the ‘female’ qualities of gentleness, softness, kindness. But in today’s world – where men can stay at home, women can go to work, and gender can be switched – ‘mothering’ must be expanded to include others too.

Sometimes I wonder if it seems silly that I am hung up on the physical aspects of motherhood when the point is that I was able to become a mother. A genetic mother. The point is that it can be hard to be a woman, a mother, with a less-than-traditional path in this society.  The definition of being a woman is still tied to motherhood, and when you differ from that, it is painful and difficult. Even now, 11 years after we started our TTC journey, I still feel “other.” And age has not helped because I feel like I am entering the span of life in which I am no longer considered to be a legitimate woman. Invisible. Yes, these are my own issues. Yes, many of them are likely silly. If I – a cisgender woman – feel like this, I can imagine how my trans sisters feel. My hope is that we can work together to create a new vocabulary that represents our experiences and realities and expands the definition of what it means to be a woman AND a mother.

Addendum

Thank you all for your comments on “Plans in Pencil.”  I’ve been thinking about what to do with those embryos a lot lately and along with it has come the return of the old anger and bitterness, some of which you can see in both the piece I wrote for Listen to Your Mother and the recent post on grief.

When I returned to work after the LTYM show,  I found a curious email in my work inbox. It was from a friend of someone who had attended the show, and she asked about adopting our embryos because they are undergoing infertility as well. I guess her friend had told her about my piece and my mention of our embryos, but it appeared the gist of the piece had not been conveyed.

The writer’s pain was obvious in her email. Part of me was floored that she had emailed me, a complete stranger, about our embryos and she had to search a bit to find my email.

Seeing this email two days after the show, I could not respond. I didn’t know how to respond. I was exhausted both physically and emotionally and I had no words other than, “no, you may not have them.”

I still haven’t responded, and that’s cruel of me. I know how she feels. I know how desperate she must feel to email a stranger. I need to respond, but what do I say?  Is it possible to let her down gently? Maybe I am dreading her counter reply of asking me why I can’t donate my embryos to her if I’m not going to use them and accusing me of being selfish.  Are we being selfish by keeping them frozen and neither donating them to research nor placing them for adoption?

Many decisions are selfish, though. Our decision to use surrogacy to have a biological child is often deemed selfish (at least in the media and comment sections). Someone else’s decision to adopt could be selfish depending on motivations. A relative’s decision to have three children could be interpreted as selfish by someone concerned about the impact on the environment and overcrowding.

Sometimes in the realm of infertility, it seems you are always making someone unhappy.

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.

Planned Parenthood and the Infertile

It’s late 2015 and Planned Parenthood is again under attack. The ostensible reason is because of doctored videos about selling fetal parts (they are donated but PP is allowed to recoup costs), but the real reason is because there is a group of people in this country, in 2015, who truly believe that reproductive freedom is a moral travesty.

I do not. I support Planned Parenthood and everything it does, even non-federally funded abortions. I am pro choice. I always have been and always will be.

As an infertile, this may seem odd. How can I support an organization that provides a (legal) service that seems to be at odds with what my husband and tried so long to achieve?

First of all, it’s not my business what someone legally (let’s not forget that key fact) chooses to do with her body. Secondly, it isn’t some moral equation: one less abortion means a baby for an infertile. It’s not like the lack of abortion would result in a glut of adoptable infants. That’s a repugnant thought actually, based on what we know and understand about the complexities of adoption- that the lack of reproductive freedom would somehow enable more couples to adopt. And it isn’t the 50s. Forcing women to have their babies would likely result in their parenting the child, perhaps in less than ideal situations. And darn, where is that social safety net again?

I also support Planned Parenthood because abortion and fertility treatments are facing similar attacks. The same people who want to de-fund Planned Parenthood because of abortion also have serious reservations about IVF and the embryos created. Clumps of cells in both cases. 

Consider this: my beloved, much-wanted child is the result of a transferred 8-cell embryo, the only success after 7 other embryos. It isn’t a stretch to me to see that if abortion is outlawed, IVF could be next, which is a bit ironic since it is a family-building tool. One could argue that in its own way, abortion is also a family-building tool.

The bottom line is that I support Planned Parenthood because no other group appears to care about women’s health. No other group provides necessary medical services, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with abortion. I’m also tired of legislators treating women badly and telling us what to do with our bodies, what they think is best for us. 

Stay out of my uterus. Stay out of my family-building decisions. Give me my reproductive freedom.

I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Wrestling with Control

Two very different pieces about having children made me catch my breath this week.

Mandy, my friend and 2014 Listen to Your Mother: Raleigh-Durham cast member, had her first piece published in Mamalode this week and in it she muses movingly on the pros and cons of having a fourth child:

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

I want them to have the playmates I never had growing up. (I am one of four, but my siblings are from my mother’s first marriage and are much older than I.)

I want them to have a larger support system when they get older and have to deal with their aging parents.

And, more than anything, if through some terrible and cruel fate, we lose one of them, I don’t want the other to be left alone. Our daughter was only 17-months-old when she died—we have decades left during which something could happen to one of our two living children.

I want my two living children to have another sibling.

And concludes:

What I understand now is that I am not in control of very much at all that happens to my children, and in order to manage my fear, I must accept how little control I have.

And then there was this article making the case for having an only child by Wendy Thomas Russell.  One-and-done by choice, Thomas Russell aims for a bit of levity with a not-so-funny Top 10 list about why having one child is great, but she makes a similar point as Mandy did:

Listen, I’m not saying the only-child scenario is a perfect one. I’m the first to acknowledge that there are some disadvantages to capping our family tree so soon.

Once, at a hotel in San Diego, Maxine, then four, found a friend and began skipping along the concrete rim of a courtyard fountain. The rim was plenty wide and not much more than two feet off the ground, but my husband was hovering. Every 30 seconds or so, he reminded Maxine to “slow down” or “be careful.”

At one point, he turned to me. “I know I’m over-protective,” he said, “but I can’t help it. She’s our only one. We don’t have a backup.”

And it’s true: If we lose our daughter, we lose everything. It’s like we’ve put all our money into one stock without knowing whether it’s a high- or low-risk investment. Parents who have two or more children are diversified; the experts would surely agree that’s a smart way to live, right?

Smart, maybe. But it’s not foolproof.

There isn’t, and would never have been, a replacement for my Maxine. A second child could not lessen the grief of losing her. Perhaps the distraction of a second child would help me get up in the morning during those early months — but I don’t believe in bringing children into the world to act as a distraction in the case of some theoretical tragedy.

Having a child is a risk of the heart. Every day we parents get to experience the unrelenting joy of watching our children drink from the fountain of life while crossing our fingers that they don’t fall off the edge. We all do. Whether we have one child or five.

Both pieces were kicks in the gut. I’m thrilled and happy for Mandy but envious as hell. And it isn’t only she I envy; there have been many pregnancy announcements in the last year that have roused my green-eyed monster. Let me be clear: I can be envious AND happy for them at the same time. But I still feel the hot wash of shame in admitting I am envious. There seems no room for that emotion in polite society. And while it is inappropriate and inaccurate to say someone “deserves” good fortune (what is the criteria for that??), my shame at my envy is more acute with Mandy since she has had some truly horrific experiences. It feels churlish to feel envy even though my envy is more about me than it is about her.

Like the author of the second piece, I suppose we are technically “one-and-done” by choice as well. It doesn’t really feel like a choice though. Not when we consider our ages, our jobs, the huge cost just to try, and the fact we have a young child to whom we want to give a good life. And he will be 6 soon. At what point is there a diminishing return at having a sibling? Which leaves the other option as doing nothing, which is painful since we have 5 frozen embryos. Six-year-old frozen embryos.

I researched definitions of choice today because again, it doesn’t really feel like a choice. I discovered there is something called Hobson’s Choice, meaning that you really have only one option: accept it or don’t. That seems to be accurate – either we try for a sibling or don’t – but it doesn’t convey the weight and variables involved. Then I researched dilemma. Dilemma means two possibilities, neither of which is acceptable. That definition gets me closer to how I feel. It acknowledges the major hurdles we have to try for a second child as well as the cavernous hole I feel about not having a second.

Of course, this is an academic exercise. We try so hard to define different types of choices in order to make sense of our world, to reassure ourselves we have an iota of control. In fact, control is an illusion. We like to think we have broken the world to our will like a stubborn horse, but the joke is on us.

Both of the pieces I linked to are ultimately about control and our lack of it. What I am angry about is our inability to control our family building and what our family looks like. The fact that we had so little choice in how things turned out, so few options.

But that’s me. Us. Others may feel and find that lack of control and the illusion of choice in other areas, other pain points.

I cannot control much, but I can try to start making peace with that realization. Focusing on what we do have instead of what never will be.

That’s a choice within my power. In truth, it is freeing to know so much is beyond our control. That frees us from blame and fault. And guilt, that ever-present foe.

I don’t know about you, but I could use a life with a lot less self-blame and guilt.

Help for a Friend

Beautiful Janel and her fight against cancer

I have fair skin and after years of being made fun of for my complete lack of melanin in my legs and sad, painful attempts at a tan, I finally gave up and embraced my paleness. Yes, I joke that my untanned legs are similar to the color of plucked, dead chickens but honestly, I don’t care.  I’ve endured sunburn so bad that it gave me egg-sized blisters as a child and sent me to the doctor to have the blisters drained. I’ve attempted to tan with predictable results. I’ve endured self-inflicted pain from sunburns and the weird, cool, jelly feeling that rising blisters give. I’m done. Finally, I slather myself (and my family) with the highest sunscreen. I use umbrellas and hats. I love the sun but recognize it is my enemy as someone with pale skin.

My friend Janel would not fit the definition of a sun worshipper. She used sunscreen, never went to tanning beds. Yet she finds herself battling back from Stage 3b Melanoma for 3 years. Besides her remarkable generosity and concern for others, she is no different than any one of us.

I know Janel thanks (ha) to infertility and our geographical proximity. My first incarnation as a blogger was an infertility one after our FET had failed in 2007. I was bitter and angry. I didn’t know where we were going. I had been following IF (infertility) blogs for a while, and Janel’s resonated because of her story but also because she lived in the same state and about 2 hours away. I followed along with her story as they pursued cycle after cycle, the wonderful pregnancy with O-Man and the bed rest.  Her attitude was upbeat throughout, and she was admirable.  O-Man was born healthy (and is now an energetic kindergartener), and we finally had our chance to cycle for surrogacy.  When we felt comfortable after our several betas and ultrasounds, Janel sent a gift.  She arranged many NC IF meet-ups, and I treasure the pictures I have from these gatherings.  Janel is a connector. Janel is GOOD people.

So it is devastating that she has been diagnosed with melanoma and suffering a terrible range of effects. She has had skin issues, liver issues, dental issues and now uterine issues. She’s had periods of “no evidence of disease”, followed by cancer reappearing in pockets of soft tissue around her body, requiring more surgery, more pain, more weight loss. Each day brings a new complication, a new worry. The fear is unending.

What I’m asking is this: we can’t take the cancer away. But we can help her family pay the bills that continue to mount as new cancers and new effects of chemotherapy make themselves known. We can relieve her heart and show her she IS LOVED as much as she is LOVE to others. We can set the debt account to zero so she and her family can begin the next fight to recover from these surgeries and strengthen her immune system to fight off cancer’s next punch.

And if your generosity exceeds her need, she’ll gladly give it away to another charity. After which she’ll spend the rest of her long and cancer-free life, continuing to be the friend and person she’s always been in the world by being kind, sharing light, and proving that love does indeed have the last word.

What we are asking for Wednesday is this: make a difference for her with your 5, 10, 15 contributions–remember on this day, no one can give more than $25. Share her story widely, with your friends, family, neighbors, at the bus stop, at the coffee shop, on the train and let everyone know that they can be a part of shining light and love into Janel’s fight.

Cancer sucks. Infertility sucks. Janel has had a rough several years but is full of grace.  Let’s help her. Here’s the link to the fundraising site. Again, no more than $25 required. Give what you can.

Donate here.

#MicroblogMondays: sentimental

We are extremely sentimental in our house. The calendar is littered with the “first time since…” and “8th anniversary of XYZ.” Case in point: we just celebrated our 18th meeting anniversary 🙂

September has been a special, significant month for us for many years, but its status was sealed when we cycled for our successful surrogacy cycle during it 6 years ago.

I always note the dates, but this year is the first time the calendar dates & days of the week align again, sort of like déjà vu.

I spent Saturday cleaning up the results of my little boy’s upset tummy. I blame it on an overly- sweet cupcake and don’t ask me why b/c you really, really don’t want to know.

Six years ago on that same Saturday, we received the almost unbelievable news that after years of infertility, we had our first positive beta ever. While cleaning up your child’s vomit is no one’s idea of a good time (I hope), there was an odd, messy rightness in it since nothing says “parent” like ungrudgingly cleaning up after your small person.

Thankfully, by noon Daniel was feeling better and begging to go outside. I often worry that I am not being the best mother I can be, but I’m forever grateful I have the chance, even if it means spending quality time with my favorite cleaning products.

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