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A Dance with Hope
On waiting for motherhood
Life without hope is as gray as the winter sky. Despair engulfs me like a cloud, weighing on my body with its heavy cloak and obscuring the path forward. It’s hard to remember what the sun felt like on my face. The flowers that will bloom in spring lie buried deep underground, and the air chills the bones.
It’s been two months since the return of my menstrual cycle—the moment I traded the fantasy of wintering on the beaches of Baja for the reality of resuming fertility treatments and giving myself one last chance at having a biological child. It’s been two months of needles in my arms for blood draws, needles in my ears for acupuncture, ultrasound probes to examine my ovaries, and long, lonely drives from my rural home to the cities where they do these things. Then there is the waiting—waiting for the pharmacy to fill the medication; waiting for my follicles to grow; waiting for the insemination; waiting to take a pregnancy test; waiting to start the next round.
Early January treated me to the most glorious dance with hope. Our intrauterine insemination (IUI) procedure was canceled because I ovulated early, but we proceeded with “timed intercourse” to try to intercept my wayward egg. A week and a half later I thought I was getting my period, but it spotted and then stopped. Knowing this could be a sign of the embryo implanting in my uterus, I eagerly took a pregnancy test the next morning.
“Please please please please please” was my prayer as I watched my urine move across the screen of the white plastic test and produce one dark pink line, then a second, very faint pink line indicating a positive result.
I raced to the hospital lab a half hour away to confirm my pregnancy with a blood test. Suddenly, the clouds parted. The sun warmed my skin. My chest expanded like a balloon, and I smiled so wide that the corners of my mouth nearly touched the corners of my eyes. “Please please please please please,” I repeated as I drove.
Please let this be my miracle.
By now I know the phlebotomist by name, though I’m still not sure she remembers my masked face. She was the first person I told about my first three pregnancies as I plopped myself in her oversized green chair and extended my bare arm to draw the blood that would prove I was having a baby. She was also the first person I sobbed to about all three miscarriages, when I returned to the lab to confirm that the pregnancy hormones were vanishing from my body like ghosts. I’d been there a dozen more times to monitor my hormones and prepare for treatment cycles. Should I tell Amanda about my faint pink line this time, or spare her the awkward sadness of another failed pregnancy?
I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to jinx it. I knew I’d be back in two days to see if my hCG levels were going up (indicating that the pregnancy had progressed) or going down (indicating an impending miscarriage). I looked at the floor and held my breath as she stuck the needle into the pit of my left elbow. “Please please please please please,” I silently said to the universe.
The results of the blood test would be reported to my doctor’s office by noon, so I drove home and busied myself with lunch while I waited for the call. The minutes ticked by. At one o’clock I took matters into my own hands and phoned the office. “Thank you for your patience. Your call is very important to us. A member of our team will be with you as soon as possible,” a recorded voice repeated dozens of times as I stared at the phone. I had to remind myself to breathe. “Please please please please please!” I said out loud.
Finally I got my doctor on the phone and he confirmed an hCG reading of 9, which he cautiously told me was on the very low end of pregnant. He explained that a pregnancy isn’t official until hCG levels exceed 25. The pregnancy hormone doubles every two days or so until it reaches numbers in the thousands and tens of thousands, so 9 was barely pregnant. Still, I clung to hope: it was only a week after conception, and there was a baby in there; it just needed to keep growing!
I reopened all the pregnancy apps that I’d hidden in a folder on my phone. I calculated the baby’s due date—September 20, 2023. I reviewed the details of what would happen to my body in the early weeks of pregnancy, and how long it would take before my baby was the size of a poppy seed, then a sesame seed, then a lentil, then a blueberry. If the pregnancy apps were a book, these are the chapters I’ve worn and dog-eared. I can’t tell you what fruit is the size of a 12-week-old fetus, because I’ve never made it that far, but I know that at 8 weeks it’s as big as a raspberry. I almost made it to raspberry stage twice, but the chapters beyond that remain a mystery.
When I made my fourth pregnancy official in the apps, the joy of possibility filled my heart. For six months since my last miscarriage, I had nearly lost hope. That faint pink line was proof that I could get pregnant again, after scar tissue from the last miscarriage had walled off my uterus. The hysteroscopy to remove the scar tissue had worked, and Seth and I had managed to get pregnant on our own!
For the first time in many months, I allowed myself to picture my child taking a running leap off the dock at my in-law’s summer cottage and landing with a splash in the clear waters of Spofford Lake. I imagined him climbing mountains with me, scrambling to keep up with his little legs, then me huffing and puffing to catch up with him once his legs got long enough to outpace me (for some reason, I felt like this child was a boy). I fantasized about spending summers at the beach with our little one, digging sandcastles and riding boogie boards and catching crabs in red plastic buckets. I dreamed of snuggling up under the stars in our jade-green 10-by-10 tent, as frogs and crickets lulled us to sleep.
I wanted to give this child the whole wide world.
The happiness that flooded my heart and mind confirmed what I’d almost forgotten: that becoming a mother would be the greatest gift of my life. That it would give a shape and purpose to the coming decades that I’d never managed to find through work or leisure. That nothing in the world was more important than this child; this microscopic being who elevated my hCG hormone to nine.
I hung up the phone with my doctor shortly after 1pm, and I had until 3pm to decide whether to cancel an Airbnb reservation for a road trip to Miami that would have been a shorter winter getaway than my original trip out West. I looked at the calendar and did the math and realized that my first ultrasound would be scheduled during the time I was booked to be away. I didn’t want to miss it. I also didn’t want to end up alone in an ER in Florida if I had another miscarriage. I couldn’t know yet if this pregnancy would progress, but I had to believe it would, and that meant canceling my week in South Beach so I could hear my baby’s heartbeat. I crossed my fingers and clicked the button for my refund: “Please please please please please,” I pleaded. I believed I was pregnant, and that meant spending the rest of the winter in New Hampshire.
On that day, I let myself have hope. I reveled in joy. I chose to believe in my body and my baby.
The next morning, I took another pregnancy test, hoping to see a darker pink line. Instead, it was lighter. The third morning, I tested again and could barely see a line at all. When I went back to the lab for blood work, I decided to tell Amanda the phlebotomist about my disappearing pregnancy, and she consoled me. That afternoon, the doctor confirmed that my hCG level had dropped and the embryo was not viable. I started bleeding the next day. It was my fourth miscarriage, known as a chemical pregnancy because it happened before the baby’s heart started beating.
“Another day, another miscarriage” was my first thought. The sorrow of losing a pregnancy had become routine. The next morning, I woke up to the familiar realization: “My baby is dead.”
This happened two months ago, and I still haven’t buried my fourth baby. There is no actual baby, of course, but I spooned a symbolic ladle of blood out of the toilet and saved it in a Ziplock bag in the fridge for Seth and I to plant in the Christmas cactus where we’ve laid the remains of our other three pregnancies. It’s been easier to put it off; to say we’ll do it tomorrow, or next weekend; to postpone the inevitable grief. But I know I need to honor this fleeting life and the hope it brought me; the hope to keep trying. There is no greater love than what I felt for that teeny tiny seed inside of me.
I’ve struggled to cling to that hope as the months have passed and the last two fertility cycles have failed. Our doctor told us that we get two more tries at IUI; maybe three. To continue the drug Clomid any longer would put me at greater risk of ovarian cancer. The more invasive and more expensive procedure, IVF or in-vitro fertilization, is not an option for us because my eggs are too old (I’m almost 43) and the $10-15,000 procedure would be unlikely to produce any viable embryos to transfer to my uterus. It’s hard not to lose hope as we approach the end of the road.
There is one more way to get me pregnant, though: we could pursue IVF that would combine my husband’s sperm with an egg donated anonymously by a young, healthy woman that would grow inside me as my own baby—no adoption process, no legal hassles. (I will save for another post the challenges of adoption, which is an option we are exploring.) There is a 60-70% success rate in women my age for IVF using donor eggs, versus less than a 1% change of success if I used my own eggs. And we could freeze multiple embryos for subsequent pregnancies, giving us children who are full biological siblings. The doctor says this is safe to do into my mid-forties, giving me a few more years to build my family.
Some critics compare third-party reproduction procedures like egg donation to the creation of Frankenstein, and I’ll admit there are a lot of mental gymnastics involved in accepting the idea of giving birth to a child that does not share my DNA. It is an act of desperation, but I remind myself that ultimately, it is an act of love. It is the conception and gestation of a child who is deeply wanted. Seth would get to contribute his genes as the biological father, and I would get to spend nine months growing my baby and contributing to her epigenetics—all the genes that get turned on or off in utero by the influence of the mother’s care and nurture. She would 100% be our child, together.
Most importantly, the more I contemplate egg donation, the more I realize that it’s an option that restores hope. Our next two IUI procedures need not be the end of the road. We can take some time off to live our lives and try on our own, knowing that in another year or two we will still have the option to borrow a healthy egg from a generous woman who is willing to give us the gift of a family. It will be a pregnancy I’ll get to enjoy from the beginning, with less than a 10% chance of miscarriage, compared to the 100% chance of miscarriage that the odds have proven thus far. To be pregnant without fear would be its own miracle.
The possibility of egg donation brings the future back into view. I will do all I can do to conceive my own biological child in the coming months, but if it doesn’t work, I don’t have to give up. I can take a break this fall or next winter to go on my epic road trip, knowing that I am not forsaking motherhood. I get to be excited about a healthy pregnancy—like normal couples are—instead of terrified of another loss. I will finally be able to buy the maternity clothes and paint the nursery and create a birth plan and visualize the moment I will hold my sweet little one in my arms and smell her baby hair (because the next one, I think, will be a girl).
There are clairvoyants who claim that people who will be parents someday have spirit babies that look like glowing green orbs hovering over their shoulder. These psychic mediums claim that our spirit babies attach to us and wait many years for the right moment to enter our lives. If I want to give my spirit baby the best possible chance, it might mean borrowing a healthy egg to replace the ones that have been kicking around my ovaries for 43 years. Her DNA might not be mine, but her spirit will enter my womb and make her my daughter. She just needs a healthy vessel to bring her down to earth.
That’s all the hope I need to keep moving forward, and to feel the sun shining on me again, even in the depths of winter.
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