It didn't take us long to start trying to have a child. Many people advised that we wait a while. The common reasons: we should give ourselves some time to enjoy one another, we should do some traveling first, we should be sure that our marriage is doing well before throwing such a huge change into it.
For us the reality was this. We both knew we wanted to have kids. Sheila had been ready for years and had gone through a miscarriage in her first marriage or what we affectionately call her "practice marriage". I'm an impatient person. Once I make a decision to do something I do it. As an example, if I go out to look at new televisions or cars, chances are I'm coming home with one the same day. It just didn't seem to make sense to wait for waiting's sake.
Despite the nature in which I skipped around the country for a few years, I am basically a homebody. Sheila is even more so than I. So while we understood that doing some world travel while we could made sense, it wasn’t something we saw ourselves doing. Plus most of my vacation time was being spent on friends’ weddings, family visits, and other less grandiose excursions. The types of trips we were taking were exactly the kinds that work great with kids. There went another reason to wait.
It’s impossible to predict the future. As the classic Beatles song says, “Tomorrow never knows”. So while it’s true that starting a family soon after getting married is gutsy and will create some challenges, it also had inherent confidence attached to it. Sheila and I have to this day never had a real drag-down fight. We’ve never gone to sleep angry because something was not resolved. We had a good deal of faith in the security of our marriage. To be honest, I also gave thought to whether I thought that if we ever did split up, would it be civil or a battle. I couldn’t imagine the scenario where it would be ugly and I imagine Sheila felt the same. So even in the worst-case scenario, we were comfortable that we could raise a happy child.
Trying to get pregnant works in stages. First there is the stage when you just stop trying to not get pregnant. This is the closest thing to free love I’ve ever experienced – anywhere, anytime, there are no limits. It’s all cool with god. It’s legal. It’s morally acceptable to virtually anyone in the world. If you get pregnant it’s great. If you don’t, there is always next month. There’s no pressure, because in your mind you’re just trying to get pregnant, just like we’re all trying to watch less television or trying to eat fewer carbs.
As time goes on and there’s no pregnancy, you slowly move on to stage two. This is where you still are not frantic or anything like that, but move on to consciously trying to get pregnant. You start using the disposable ovulation kits just for fun. It actually adds spice to your love life as you have to spontaneously have your planned “raca raca”. During this stage, you start to tell people that you are trying to get pregnant. What you don’t realize is that you are actually opening the door to the next stage of trying. Because once you start telling people, you feel some responsibility to deliver. Each month that passes reminds of you of the fact that people might be starting to wonder what’s wrong with you.
Maybe they think there’s something wrong with our sex life.
Maybe they think we’re on the rocks and changed our minds about a kid.
They must really think we’re psycho!
These thoughts don’t come into our conscious mind, but they are out there swimming around in our subconscious. They start to grow and multiply, creating a new insecurity in your mind. Keep in mind, this is still just stage two in the process. As these boogers multiply in our subconscious, they eventually run out of room there and have to move on to the conscious. So where they use to be the little voices in your mind, they are now using a fricking megaphone.
Once you get to the point where you are starting to spend your few spare moments thinking about why the pregnancy hasn’t happened, you can welcome yourself to stage three. This is where the fun really ends and the quest for parenthood begins. First off, you’ve now moved on to the hundred-dollar electronic ovulation kit. You are charting the cycle. The spontaneity is gone. Quite frankly, it does take a toll on your intimacy.
Stage three begins where you have certain days before ovulation when you have to abstain. This in itself is not a big deal. But at least for this guy, there’s something about knowing that tonight’s not the night for love that impacted me from the time I’d get home from work. I know it sounds terrible but I guess I still looked at every night as being a night in a meat market dance club. If you know you don’t have a shot, you don’t bother buying the girl a drink. I suspect that while this sounds incriminating and shocking, the only differences between me and every other guy who goes through it is that I’ve realized it and admit to it.
Every month you go through a period of optimism only to have it crushed. It starts to become really become hard to deal with. I think this part is worse for the female. At least this was our case. Each month brings a new bout of depression. After all, we’re only trying to do the most natural thing in the world. We start to doubt ourselves. We wonder if it is a sign – maybe our child would be the next Hitler or something.
Trying to get pregnant now starts to test the relationship. I apologize for putting everything into physical terms, but it works for description. If every month finding out that you’re not pregnant brings you down and you have a week or two of controlled love making that ruins spontaneity, it does not leave many days in the month where you can just try to be a normal happily married couple.
This wears you down after only a few months. Suddenly trying to get pregnant becomes the basis of the relationship, not a byproduct of it. I think this period was made more difficult for us due to a job change and move from Kansas to New York. Sheila didn’t have her mom to counsel her and we moved into a less than optimal situation when we made a horrible decision in a home purchase. The house was cute and affordable, but the inspectors had missed the fact that it was a wreck. One day while I was out of town in the heat of the summer, something went wrong with the fire alarm in the house and it wouldn’t turn off. It was hard wired into the house and so the only way to get it off was to turn off the electricity to the house. The humidity in the house was insane and without electricity, poor Sheila was stuck and drawn to tears. It really impacted her, and I’m convinced the not pregnant issue cast a haze over all of life’s other challenges.
On to Stage Four: Devastation and Desperation. You now know that something is wrong and you’ve completed your first visit to an infertility specialist. Of course they behave like you came into them at the beginning of stage one. So they tell you to do what you’ve been doing and add some new handy tips. They tell you not to take hot Jacuzzis and you better quit smoking. Having to live with the knowledge that you’re an idiot for being addicted to cigarettes is normal. But now this doctor is telling you that it is keeping you from getting pregnant at a time when the smokes are such a wonderful solace in your desperation. You “try” to quit in the stage one sense of the word, but ultimately you just end with more guilt and depression because your depression is keeping you from quitting.
After a couple more months of not getting pregnant and begging your doctor to just start real treatments, you are a real mess. There is now a new little booger to keep an eye on. It’s the one that brings you a resentment of sorts for others who get pregnant and for that damn teenager who didn’t even mean to get pregnant. These boogers are just starting to lay down roots in your subconscious. For the time being, they are almost without detection. But if you don’t get pregnant soon, they will be rearing their ugly little heads in full force as you start to have a hard time in social situations.
Eventually, your efforts pay off and the doctors are finally ready to take your infertility seriously. In many ways, at this point trying ends. You have now by and large taken it out of your own control and into the hands of the professionals.
Treatment and blame
Initially, beginning formal treatment takes some weight off your soldiers. The optimism you lost has returned. You suddenly are a firm believer in the marvels of modern medical science and technology. With all these tests and computerized gadgets, this thing has got to be a slam-dunk. It’ll be some smooth sailing and then on to parenthood.
It starts off with diagnosing what the problem is. Sheila already knew she had endometriosis. For those unfamiliar, it is a common condition where there is scarring to the endometrial tissue. Don’t ask me what that means but it is a condition that doctors don’t know much about other than the fact that it for some reason complicates getting pregnant and can increase the odds of miscarriage. There is no cure but there is a surgical procedure that seems to help for a little while after it is done. There were also a variety of other things that could have been impacting us on Sheila’s end to be tested for.
Sheila really believed that it had to be something wrong with her that was keeping us from getting pregnant. I was less convinced of this. I based this on the fact that I had only been in two prior longer-term serious relationships. In both of these relationships, it would not have been surprising if a pregnancy had occurred. Yet within a couple of years of our splitting up, both of these women got pregnant and not intentionally. This seemed to say to me that there were pretty good odds I bore some of the responsibility.
With whom the problem lie is not really an issue, at least it shouldn’t be. But it is in a reverse thinking manner. Neither partner is going to blame or think any worse of the other. Quite to the contrary, it is your sense of self worth that dwells on who the infertile one is. This seems to be one where the stereotypical gender-based assumptions hold true.
For the male, it is his machisimo. A man is supposed to be the provider. What kind of a man can’t supply the sperm needed to have kids? Maybe this makes me less of a man. I get horny as much as the next guy. I can perform well in the sack. I have no need for Viagra. So why in the hell can’t I knock up my wife? For me personally, it was also a feeling of defeat. Throughout my whole life, there was never something I really wanted and couldn’t achieve based on my own natural abilities and talents. Not being able to have children would be that fatal weakness that could prove my own fallibility and send the deck of cards crashing to the ground. This is serious shit we’re talking about. So if this isn’t the beginning of the end, why in the hell can’t I knock up my wife? Maybe it’s for a reason. Maybe the spawn of my genes would create the next Hitler or something.
For the female it is the nurturer. I’m a devout feminist so I hope this is not taken out of context when I say that the natural function of the female is still to be the bringer of life and nurturer to make it grow healthy. Obviously, this is not all the worth that women have. I’m just claiming that there is a natural phenomenon that occurs inside the chemical makeup of the female brain that still contains this message. Some women tune this message out to the point where it is mute and there is nothing wrong with that. But for the woman in full knowledge of and compliance with it, the realization that one may be infertile strikes the very purpose of one’s existence and self-worth. Ultimately, the woman reaches the same conclusion as the man. It is as Billy Joel says in the song Summer Highland Falls, “For all our mutual experience, our separate conclusions are the same”. Either we are less than what we should be and have no faith in what the future holds or our biological child would be the next Hitler.
The process of diagnosing the cause of our infertility did not occur on a good parallel timeline. As such, it took a few more months before we really had the whole story. The net result was that we both had problems. Sheila’s was just the endometriosis. I had a low sperm count with a little below average motility. Neither of us was clean nor could either of us be the cause. We “could” get pregnant anytime. There was nothing scientifically stopping us. I had live sperm, she was dropping an egg a month, and there was nothing really preventing the two from hooking up. It only takes one sperm to get the deed done and I had many thousands of the suckers on their way. Those odds seemed pretty good to me.
Unfortunately, understanding science has never been my strongpoint. While it was hypothetically possible for us to get pregnant, our two problems combined made it exponentially more difficult. The doctors started by putting me on a drug to increase my sperm counts. It of course takes a month before you can tell if it is working so there went another month in the process.
I didn’t like the idea of having to take a pill everyday. I have a very odd opinion about drugs and medication; I only believe in them for a high. This stuff did not meet my criteria and it scared me that I had to go three weeks on and then one week off of the medication or else the levels of the stuff might get too high. What were they giving me? Sounded like arsenic to me! All joking aside, the drug did seem to make an improvement in my sperm count so maybe that would take care of it.
Stepping it up
We had a new wrench get thrown in the process that cost us quite a few months of time. After living in New York for just one year my company was selling off the businesses and we were off again to a new job and a new place, this time that being the San Francisco Bay Area. It had been a really hard year. We had gone through the stages of “trying”. We had pumped thousands upon thousands of dollars into the house. Sheila had put heart and soul into turning it into a nice place to live. We called the house Mountain Girl after the former Merry Prankster and wife to Jerry Garcia. My little girl, Cassidy, had also fallen prey to cancer. She seemed perfectly healthy when we moved, maybe it was something in the soil. All in all, it had been a tough year and now having to move, find new doctors, and get them to go into the real treatment we now were convinced was necessary was going to take at least two to three months.
The move proved to be a great thing for us in many ways. First of all, we now lived in what I believe is the greatest part of this country. I had spent my entire life living in places where I was considered a radical pinko: Orange County, Greensboro, South Bend, Wichita, Dutchess County – all extremely conservative places. Now I was among my own people where as often as not I am the more conservative one. Secondly, my group of best friends from the high school years all lived in the Bay Area. We bought a nice, newer house that wouldn’t require so much effort. And my new job was with one of the best, most respected, and highly ethical companies in the industry. These things lifted the fog for some time and made the wait for infertility treatment more bearable.
That comfort did not last once that wait was over. After going through more tests for Sheila and my arguing with a new doctor that the drug I was on is in fact a valid treatment for low sperm count, we were back in the same boat with the same diagnosis. We finally got them to begin IUI treatments. IUI is just a fancy acronym for what is commonly known as artificial insemination. The doctors basically take my sperm, fire them up and weed out the bad ones in a centrifuge filled with some goo goo juice and then inject it into Sheila while she’s ovulating. In addition, the sperm get a handicap because they put them right into the correct spot so they don’t need to count as much on their sense of direction.
I believe it was December or January when we started the IUI treatment. The doctors felt that it was best to give it a try for a while before doing the surgical procedure I mentioned earlier on Sheila. While the surgery can help your odds, you also lose some time in the process because you have to be absolutely sure you’re not pregnant when you have it and it takes some time to recover before you can begin IUI again. So you lose the chance to conduct the IUI treatments for a few months. We agreed with them and decided to wait until July to do the surgery. This would give us six months of IUI treatment.
These were not a bad six months for us overall but the boogers I mentioned had just started to populate your subconscious were now a fairly sizable community. It was just a matter of time until they were again top of mind. We started to almost stop caring because we had lost faith anything would work. We both found solace in the fact that we agreed that we would become parents one way or another. We hadn’t pushed the question more than that, we weren’t yet really thinking about specific options. We were still holding fast to my machisimo and Sheila’s nurturer. Although losing hope in something that is driving you does not do great things for the psyche.
I was used to the fact that my love life was now really just about the act of procreation even though that procreation was not going to occur through making love. I got used to the mildly embarrassing and self-conscious monthly visits to the clinic where I had to go supply the sperm. I got used to taking Sheila to the doctor’s office with a test tube of warm juiced up sperm solution between her boobs to keep it at the right temperature. And I got used to saying “maybe next month”.
The summer came and Sheila had the surgical procedure done. We didn’t feel any new optimism or hope this time. We were done emotionally. We knew we had to go through the process, but our hearts were no longer in it. This was probably a defense mechanism as much as anything else. Our minds had had enough of the monthly disappointment. Besides, those boogers had done just as I warned. They made their way into our conscious mind.
It is a very sad thing when your own struggles start to make you unable to feel good about others’ good fortune. There’s a Grateful Dead song named Ripple that says “Reach out your hand if your cup be empty. If your cup is full, may it be again.” I love the philosophy of that line but it just wasn’t working for us. Our own desperation was causing us to resent the joy of children that permeates the world. As an example, I’m someone who always tries to make funny faces at the child in the restaurant booth next to mine, but not during this period. I wish I could have looked at kids and seen why it was we were going through the invasive process we were. They were the light at the end of the tunnel even if our train had the comfort level of a cattle car on its way to Auschewitz. Instead they stood as a symbol of our shortfalls, especially when I’d see a parent who obviously did not deserve to be one. It makes you start to question everything. You start feel a bit like JOB yourself. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for it all. If we can’t have kids it’s fine, just tell us so. If we can, why put us through this aggravation month after month?
As if infertility had not already proven itself to be an emotional terrorist, it has to take things one step further. Just as you have finally managed to contain that glimmer of hope in its little box in the back of your mind, it proves itself to be Houdini and break free. How such a thing happens is simple. It is the month when for some reason menstruation comes late.
There are a couple of different kinds of near misses that we had the luck of experiencing. The first is the kind when you’re a couple of days, up to a week, late. You know that it is too early for a home pregnancy test.
But her cycle was usually right on time.
We had the charts to prove it.
The electronic ovulation kit also showed how predictable a cycle she has. Until you can take that test to prove it, you get excited and start to behave like pregnant people do. No more wine with dinner. The female starts to feel something tingly inside. It’s actually a fun period of time and is one of the few where you get to feel like a normal couple trying to get pregnant wondering whether it worked.
The other kind of near miss hit us while we were out of town. Sheila was about nine days late as I recall and we were heading off to South Bend for Sheila’s first Notre Dame football game. The doctor had had her come in for a real pregnancy test just before we left. We were hoping they’d be able to call us on my cell phone with the results before the weekend began. We drove from Chicago to South Bend anxiously awaiting the call. I was in a great mood, excited to be going to the game. Things seemed right. After all, Sheila was late to the point where the doctors wanted the test done. It had to be our month. It just had to be. We never heard from the lab but we kept our spirits high, acting as if we knew we were pregnant. We bought a full wardrobe of unisex Notre Dame baby apparel and I think we both secretly snuck in a prayer while visiting the Basilica and Grotto on campus. When we got home, we found out those prayers had not been answered.
I’m not sure if I think that near misses are a good or bad thing. On one hand, they provide a much needed solace. They create some small amount of faith in you that you will end up pregnant. This may be just the little charge of energy you need to continue with the treatments. It is very tempting to say “to hell with it”, just to protect yourself. That of course can’t have the ending you are striving for and so anything that gives you the courage to continue is an asset.
On the other hand, a near miss is a direct hit when the truth comes out. You feel like you fooled and misled yourself. This phenomenon is even greater in the adoption process. It is one where you are desperate. When something comes your way that could somehow be the thing you are waiting for, you snatch it up and convince yourself to believe. In some ways, it’s like a crack addiction because the reality is that once you come down from the high and the facts are clear, you feel worse than you did to begin with. At that point, you blame yourself for being such a fool. You feel like you should have known better. The same exact thing happens the next time around and the anger at yourself grows exponentially each time this cycle repeats itself.
At some point, you have to say enough is enough. The treatments aren’t working and you aren’t getting any younger. You feel a little bit guilty for being a quitter because it could always happen next month. What if you stop and the next month had your ticket? But that could be an endless cycle. There was no reason why we had not gotten pregnant yet and there was no reason to have faith it was coming in the future.
Sheila and I decided to give the fertility doctors until the end of the year and at that point, we were going to take a different route. For the most part, we did our pondering of the options to ourselves. We both needed some time to digest. It wasn’t easy to do while we were still going through the IUI treatments. It’s hard to think about the other options while you’re still wondering if maybe it is a moot point.
Really, there were only three broad avenues open. One was to attempt in vitro fertilization (IVF). The second was adoption. The last option was some sort of surrogate arrangement. Since we both knew that we’d become parents one way or another, it didn’t really feel like any kind of defeat to admit that we were going to have to go to these lengths to make it so. In fact, the realization that we had infertility issues to begin with was far more difficult than taking this next step.
IVF is very popular nowadays and has a good success rate. They basically fertilize the egg with the sperm outside of the uterus and then place the fertilized egg back in, creating a pregnancy. But while it sounds simple, like everything else in the world, once you get involved with it, it is not so easy. In fact, there were many things to consider.
The most superficial of these considerations was money. While IUI was covered by our insurance, IVF was not. The first attempt with IVF would cost about $10,000 and each subsequent attempt would be a few thousand dollars more. We could afford to go this route. For a while that is. But we had been through months and months of IUI treatment. If we had the same bad luck with IVF, which is not unheard of, we’d be broke and without child. If that happened, our adoption options would be much more limited; we would already have blown our nest egg on failed IVF attempts.
The next concern was the antithesis of the financial concern. What would we do if it worked too well? Have you ever noticed that there are more twins nowadays than there used to be? This is likely because of IVF and the increased rates of infertility. When doing IVF, doctors don’t implant a single egg. They implant multiple eggs. The result of this can very often be multiple pregnancies. This raises two intertwined questions. The first is whether you’re ready for twins, triplets or more. The second is whether you are prepared to selectively abort if too many of the eggs stick. Sheila and I saw very differently on these questions. I was not prepared to bring in anything more than twins, which already seemed like a near impossible task. Sheila did not believe that she was capable of selectively aborting in order to reduce the number of potential pregnancies to a manageable number. There is no right or wrong answer on this type of thing. Ultimately, we both have to respect the other’s viewpoint as this is not something where compromise is necessarily a viable option.
Our third concern with IVF centered on the possibility of miscarriage. Sheila’s endometriosis still increased the likelihood of miscarriage. IVF in itself raised the risk somewhat as I recall. We had to be mentally prepared for the possibility of getting pregnant and losing the child. We had to be sure that this was something that would not put us over the deep end. I had to remember that Sheila had miscarried once before and that fact made this whole process all the harder on her. She had been trying to have a child much longer than I. The possibility of miscarriage also brings you back to the financial concern. If you get pregnant from IVF and miscarry, you’re back to that first $10,000 fee again and starting all over.
There was also something about the IVF process that did not make us comfortable. In part it was what Sheila would have to endure such as regular injections to make her super fertile. She had had to do some of this in IUI but nothing as severe.
I hope the next few sentences do not overly offend anyone as they do not mean to disparage IVF for those who choose it. There was something unnatural about it to us. This seems crazy but it came across like someone trying to pull the wool over god’s eyes. Despite the fact that I am not a religious person, I am very spiritual with a deep respect for the ecosystem and will of nature. IVF struck me in much the same rationale as why I don’t believe in genetically modified foods. There’s a reason why the genes of salmon are not naturally found in produce or grains. If god meant for these two things to be able to combine, they’d be able to do so through cross breeding. I don’t believe scientists should be circumventing god’s will. On that same note, if Sheila’s and my genes were not meant to combine, then there must be some reason. Today, I realize that there was this reason because I know what we were meant to do. Admittedly, at the time I was more afraid that crossing our genes might create the next Hitler.
Adoption was the second area for consideration. While our society has become impressively supportive of the adoptive family unit, there still remains a stigma about it. It is still a classifier or brand placed on the individual and family. In reality it is probably nothing more than all the hyphenated identities used to describe people. If there are African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Iraqi-Americans, why should Adopted-Americans be any different? A natural response is that the others are all more ethnically or geographically oriented. But then why is it that no one calls himself a Canadian-American or French-American? My point is that I think it lies in whether the identity is something that really sets one aside from the norm. I believe that being adopted does that in a stronger way than having a French accent does.
There are also no easy avenues to adoption. There are many options, but not one is a simple process. All adoption processes took time and a whole new type of invasion into our everyday lives. Obviously this is with good reason, but it was still something to ponder.
The one thing that was clear was that neither of us had any concerns about being able to love an adopted child in the same manner as a biological child. We were both one hundred percent confident of this. It will probably traumatize Isabel someday to read this and know that I had this confidence because of my dogs. I am a dog person and my dogs have always been both children and friends to me. Obviously, the possibility of having a puppy be biologically yours does not exist. Though it is a great marketing idea… Nonetheless, when one brings a new dog into the home, it is a stranger. It’s true that I love dogs in general, but that is the same for kids. It’s also true that in no time flat you feel the parental skill set come to life when it is now your dog. This not only differs from just being around dogs but also directly relates to the needs of bringing an adopted child into the home. When that new dog comes into the home, I immediately bond, love, and care for it no matter how hard a time it may have adjusting. No different for a child. Lastly, that new dog needs to sense my love and feel confident in it in order to be happy. This too is no different for an adopted child and I have always been told that while my dogs may not be the best behaved, they are always immensely happy creatures. So while it may sound irrational and immature, knowing my emotional reactions to my dogs did dispel any concerns I had about parenting an adopted child.
The third “what next” option was some sort of surrogate agreement. I will mention it tacitly because it never really came into serious consideration. We did discuss it and even had pondered about one friend in particular who we thought might be willing. It still wouldn’t alleviate my half of the infertility issue or things like the risk of miscarriage. Most of all, it was understandably not something Sheila was prepared for and I think the same would have held true for me if we had given it more thought.
Obviously, adoption was the path we chose. Once we looked at the options, there really wasn’t any need for debate. It was clear to us that it was our only option and was one that we had no doubts about. The obstacles and social implications were not any issue for us. We were used to feeling different and had finally grown to a point where we almost cherished it as a point of differentiation. This would just be a natural for us to test the bounds of normalcy without losing our self-identities.
While we would never claim that we adopted for humanitarian purposes, there was still the nice thought of providing a child the family she deserves. We figured there must at least be some nominal karma bank account deposit for undertaking an adoption and most likely we would need it very soon.
Now the question was just how to go about it.