My wife wrote this piece for Harper’s Bazaar. It was published in December, 2002.
I never really wanted to have children. My mother died when I was 13, my father when I was 17. The thought of having a child was linked to the terror of losing her; “family” was something to avoid. But when I was 41, I stopped seeing inappropriate men and started living with Jesse Kornbluth, a writer and editor sufficiently grown-up to have helped raise two remarkable stepchildren. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be a mother. There was just one problem: I was at the far end of the “elderly gravid” cohort. We really didn’t have time to conceive the old-fashioned way — we became clients of a prestigious New York fertility clinic.
What were we thinking? According to the Centers for Disease Control, the “take home baby rate” of “assisted reproduction” for women my age was in the single digits. But because my ovarian reserves tested high, the doctor said I had a 12% chance of becoming a mother. The illogic of betting against an 88% chance of failure was enthralling. Hey, all it takes is $16,000 and a dream.
And a good sense of humor. As much as forty per cent of infertility can be traced to the man. So one dark winter morning, my husband labored to produce a sperm sample, then shoved the vial under his shirt to keep it warm while he raced to the laboratory, sixty blocks away. The door was locked; this was their unannounced vacation week. Cackling like a madman, he looked for a trash can where he might discreetly dispose of the evidence.
When we finally got them, his results weren’t encouraging. Jesse was an extremely youthful 52, but he tested like an old man: low count, sluggish motility, less than 1% “healthy” sperm. I am an obsessed Internet researcher; when I get on a topic, I need to be the world expert. Soon I had him adding 60 mg of Zinc to his vitamin intake. In six months, his sperm count and motility doubled. In our view, significant progress. At the clinic, the doctors found this “anecdotal.”
But then, the doctors were heavy on science and light on hand-holding. I know: this has to be. The longing in the clinic’s waiting room was stifling. Sometimes I was overwhelmed by sadness as I looked around at women just like me: savvy, street-smart and clutching at any hope. And the silence! “It’s better not to talk to anyone,” a nurse told me. “You don’t want to hear the stories.”
So I took my emotions to my husband at night and to the Internet all day, every day. I lived at INCIID.org (The International Council on Infertility Information Dissemination). There I found the best message and support boards on the web — and women who became instant sisters. There’s a kind of desperation that can only be shared with People Who Know. Has anyone gotten pregnant with only one 4-celled embryo? A lone hand would go up. Any success with hormone levels so low they’re almost subliminal? Inevitably, someone has a story.
As wrenching as these questions were — because you knew, in your heart, these pregnancies were doomed — worse yet were the reports of failure. The subject line in the message board post often said it all. BFN: Big Fucking Negative. I read of couples taking out second mortgages, borrowing from families and fighting with insurance companies to get funding for one more try. Money standing between people and their hopes for a family — it just kills you.
What I mostly remember is feeling like a science experiment. My husband produces his 10 ccs. My doctor removes a dozen or so of my eggs. In the lab, sperm meets egg. Objective: embryo. Three days later, I’m back in surgery for the transfer. Here comes the lab technician, holding a syringe with our baby — or babies — in it. The doctor aims. He shoots the embryos into the uterus. And that’s it. The biggest moment of your life, and it feels like nothing happened.
But something did occur. First IVF: My pregnancy test was positive. Well, of course! Don’t I always succeed when it really matters? I called everyone to share the news. And had to call again two days later, when my numbers weren’t doubling and it was clear the pregnancy was over. Second IVF: The embryos had the cell count and quality of a younger woman, this was a lock. Soon enough…BFN. Why, then, did we do a third IVF? Because…well, why not?
This time my research had pushed me to ask our fertility doctor about the possible benefits of acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Turned out he was writing a paper with a Chinese doctor who ran an acupuncture clinic. So, twice a week, I got needled; every morning, I drank a foul-tasting tea. And I got pregnant. In week six, we went to a conference in California. I started spotting. I took a cab to a lab in a strip mall for blood work. Once again, no baby.
The roller coaster had taken its toll. Three times, I had left the clinic with a photo of the transferred embryos — clusters of uneven circles. They were beautiful. I burst into tears every time they gave me that picture. When I got home, I put that picture on my prayer shrine, hoping I’d be lucky enough to put it in my baby’s book as her first photo. For two weeks, I’d beg God for good news. Then the call from the clinic would come, and I’d burn the picture.
The bliss of biological motherhood? I was done with all that. After three failed IVFs, two miscarriages, hundreds of hormone shots, months of 6 AM trips to the fertility clinic for bloodletting, invasive ultra-sounds, daily prayers and long days waiting by the phone for a 20-second call from a nameless nurse — after all that, I knew I could not risk that kind of pain again. Nor would we risk a pregnancy try using a donor egg, or start a domestic adoption. Three years into the baby lottery, we wanted a sure thing. And so we enrolled with an agency that would have us going to Cambodia as two and coming home as three. Then I quit my job and dedicated myself to healing and to the monstrous paperwork of adoption.
That summer, I went with Jesse on his annual vacation with his stepchildren. We zoomed around Sardinia in a Zodiac, followed the Bernini trail in Rome. And, on our last night in Italy, this 44 year-old woman and her 55 year-old husband hit the jackpot.
It’s the perfect cliche. Quit your stressful job, plan an adoption, go on vacation to “relax” — of course, you’ll get pregnant. Maybe it was the hormones still coursing through my body. Maybe it was the tea and acupuncture. Maybe it was something in the most expensive fish we ever had in our lives, on our last night in Rome. We’ll never know.
I ordered a home Fetal Doppler and, against my doctor’s advice, confirmed the heartbeat was still there, every day. But I didn’t dare believe: We kept moving forward on the adoption until I passed all the fetal tests. [Irony: Cambodian adoptions, then under scrutiny by the INS, were shut down for a time. If we wanted to adopt before the baby’s stroller doubled as Jesse’s walker, we’d have to start again in another country.]
And then, suddenly, 40 weeks had passed and we were at New York Hospital, waiting our turn for a cesarean. A sheet went up. A few minutes later, Helen Alexandra Kornbluth entered the world and bit the doctor — twice.
Talk about change. I used to be one of these smartly dressed women walking in Adidas to a midtown office; now I’m a wholly owned subsidiary of Helen, Inc. My dream was to help Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs balance growth and the environment; now my source of pride is my flawless imitation of Elmo.
So much light confuses me. Here’s this perfect little girl; I don’t understand where she came from. I push her in her stroller through the legion of mommies and kids on upper Madison Avenue, and we blend right in. I observe all the little milestones. Except one. I could never bring myself to share our good fortune on the message boards. Because the moral of my story isn’t the one you’ve read in articles by supermodels who conceived long after their sell-by date. You can’t wait forever and, with lots of money and a bit of luck, produce a child. It’s all luck. And that’s what I can’t get over — a miracle occurred, and it turned me into that seemingly ordinary woman, a mother.