Chumbawamba

There was just one line on the home pregnancy test this morning, and boy were we hoping for two. Testing is such a drag, but we have to do it so R can discontinue one of her medications and end the cycle. This month was our last try with the fresh goods. Now we are switching back to IUI with man in a can, which will be less stressful in some ways because we’ll be dealing with people who are paid a pretty penny to deal with us, rather than trying to chase down our very busy KD. But it will be so much more clinical, and far from how we hoped to conceive.

I think we’re both learning letting go of expectations and attachments to any particular path to parenthood. But I am not sure I can say we’re fully enjoying the journey. Nonetheless, we’re rolling with it.

This weekend I finished my first triathlon. It was a dizzying endeavor, and one that taught me I’m stronger than I think. During the cycling portion I took a corner too quickly and totally wiped out. My second worst fear was realized, and I heard the thundering sound of two hulking teenage boys running toward me as I struggled to get back on my feet. Once I was sure I hadn’t seriously injured any of my limbs, I jumped back on the bike and sped off, occasionally checking my leg to be sure the bleeding had stopped. Then I got an earworm of a song stuck in my head, that masterpiece Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.

I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…

After the fall I just laughed and sang Tubthumping for the remaining six miles of the ride. So bring it, life. Knock us down all you want. We’ll keep on riding.

This My Excavation…

Today I listened to Bon Iver’s Stacks and it’s been echoing in my mind all evening. I read somewhere that Justin Vernon wrote it when he was grieving a significant loss. Maybe that is why it’s resonating so strongly with me. For some reason the grief of months of struggling to conceive is weighing heavily. More heavily than usual. Maybe it’s the confluence of additional anxieties–my beloved grandmother’s lung cancer, and the surgery she’s facing tomorrow. The reminders of my grandfather’s death, and my father’s absence. Maybe it’s my feelings of stagnation and fears of inadequacy as I stare down my looming dissertation. I feel a kindred spirit with Vernon, who wrote:

There’s a black crow sitting across from me; his wiry legs are crossed
And he’s dangling my keys he even fakes a toss
Whatever could it be
That has brought me to this loss?

Maybe it was the phone call I missed from the fertility clinic, and the somewhat exasperated voice on the other end of the line, saying she needed to “review some results with me.” Maybe it’s the fear that all our careful planning is about to be undone. Maybe it’s the constant second guessing. Or the expenditure of money, time, energy that is just never enough. I don’t know what it is that is bringing me to the brink of grief, but my best guess is that I’m again faced with the realization that we are so not in control. We are making the best decisions we can, but none of this is ideal. This is not how we hoped to start a family–agonizing over every decision and second guessing not only our own motives but also those of the experts we’ve hired to help us.

The grief we are experiencing is one that other people cannot understand. No one else in our circle of friends and family has had to select a source of genetic material for their offspring and make all the explicit decisions about reproduction that go along with it. No one else can reassure us or tell us how best to proceed. If our plans are foiled tomorrow, no one else will understand what that means. It’s a truly alienating experience sometimes. And it weighs heavily.

How it works

A lot of folks are curious about the nuts and bolts of artificial insemination (AI). As a scientist, I totally get that. Today’s post is in response to the oft repeated question ‘So, how does that work?’

I’ve already talked about the preliminary (and IMHO, most important) steps: thinking about why we want a child and looking at all the options available to us, keeping in mind the legal, ethical, and emotional implications of each option. Our next step involved reading two books, Taking Charge of Your Fertility and The New Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth. For heterosexual couples trying to conceive, the first book is probably sufficient.  For us the second was really important because it covers topics that are unique to lesbian couples–considering the range of donor options, deciding who will carry, defining the role of the non-birth mother, and timing insemination with the viability of frozen sperm. Both books taught us how to chart R’s fertility signs so that we could accurately predict ovulation and time the insemination accordingly.

When the chart suggests we’re within a week of ovulation, we call the cryobank and order vials of our donor’s sperm. The vials arrive in a large tank that looks like this:

We sit and stare at the tank until an ovulation predictor test confirms that R is experiencing the hormonal surge that occurs just prior to ovulation.  The test shows a blank circle when the hormone is not detected, and a smiley face when it is. This can be a stressful time, because the tank only holds its charge for 7 days. If we don’t detect the hormone surge within 5 or 6 days of the tank’s arrival, we have to rush the vials a local fertility clinic for storage, which is exactly what happened this month. The text conversation below adequately captures the stress involved in that midday field trip.

Since the vials cost between $250 and $630 apiece, one must treat them as precious cargo, like so:

When we finally get the smiley face that indicates pending ovulation, we remove the vials from the shipping dewar (or the cooler with dry ice, as the case may be) and that’s when things get serious.

The first time we opened the dewar and removed the vial, the nitrogen vapors created a small cloud around my face and I immediately  felt like I was in a B-grade sci-fi movie. I couldn’t follow that thought train too far down the tracks though, because the sperm have short viability once thawed and there was no time to lose! The vial was too cold to handle right out of the tank, so I had to put it on the counter until it could be warmed by hand; that’s when I noticed how tiny it is!

Once the tiny vial is warmed to room temperature, it’s ready for use. And then we enter the dreaded two week wait. We continue charting R’s temperature and other fertility signs, proceeding as though we’ll need the data for the next cycle while trying to remain optimistic that we won’t. A lot of women start testing for pregnancy from 9 days after insemination, but we try to wait until day 14. We’ve found it’s best to hold on to our optimism as long as possible. Right now we’ve got several talismans to supply us with energy and hope during the two week wait: a ceramic fish from Israel, a medicine wheel made by our friend’s mother, and a tiny red and white striped hat that R wore on her first Christmas. If The Bean is taking root right now, she’ll arrive sometime around Christmas. And that sounds perfect to me.

Doubt That

Whenever I see Ross Douthat’s name in The New York Times I read it as ‘DOUBT-that,’ which sums up my feelings about most of his columns. I’m usually able to sneer and move on, but this one really got my gizzard. Douthat starts out by comparing the rigorous assessment of would-be adoptive parents, when the well-being of the child is paramount, to the online shopping for gametes, for which there is no Big Brother looking out for the child’s best interests. Douthat implies that without Big Brother, assisted reproduction is undertaken by selfish people who treat it like shopping for a car. Now, I realize I’ve been joking about Gattazon, and you might think I’m a pot calling the kettle black. Not so! The aspects of donor selection that reminded me of online shopping were the slick cryobank websites and the overwhelming search options. But make no mistake, I did not approach this task with the same distractedness which which I order a book or a shirt. I deliberated over the selection for several months, and before that we spent many months talking about the entire range of options available to us.

What Douthat ignores is that all men and women who use assisted reproductive technology are intentional parents. There are no “whoops” moments. We invest a significant amount of time, money, and emotional energy in becoming parents, and I would venture to guess that we spend more time thinking about why we want to be parents than other people do. When R and I began talking seriously about having children, we asked ourselves difficult questions. Are we being selfish by creating a child who will not have a father? Will our child suffer discrimination for having two mothers? Is it in our child’s best interest to use an unknown donor? We talked through the answers with friends and family. We made lists of male friends and relatives we would ask to serve a special role in Bean’s life. We considered other routes of creating a family–foster care, adoption, or simply being the doting aunties of our friends’ and siblings’ kids. Foster parenting seemed too wrenching, and adoption is cost prohibitive and difficult for lesbian couples. Being doting aunties rather than parents would leave us regretful.

Are we being selfish? Maybe. Are all parents selfish in some way? Likely. Douthat doesn’t seem to think so. He argues that stricter regulation of sperm and egg donation would “diminish, if not completely undo, what one grown-up donor baby quoted in the study describes as the feeling of existing entirely for ‘other people’s purposes, and not my own.’” I’m fairly certain none of us exists of our own volition. We were all another person’s idea, or another person’s accident. But Douthat ignores that pretty obvious fact, and worse,  fails to disclose that the “scientific study” on which his column was founded was authored by an “investigator” who directs the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values. He acknowledges that the Institute sponsored the study, but we are left to our own devices to discover that the first goal listed under the Institute’s mission is “to increase the proportion of children growing up with their two married parents.” I think it’s fair to assume that “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” (yes, that is the title of the “scientific” report) is biased at best. Since I try not to make too many assumptions, I read the entire study, and was not surprised to find the methods were far from scientific. I was concerned enough to write a letter to the NYT, but some other folks beat me to it.

While I think Douthat sensationalized a complex subject by treating a very biased report as a stunning scientific achievement, I value his column for its ability to engage me in deeper thought about how my child comes into existence and what challenges she might face as a result. When I feel I’m veering towards pessimism,  I think about Zach Wahls, son of two women and incredible orator. Would he say I’m being selfish by engaging in the “freewheeling fertility marketplace” to create The Bean? I doubt that.

Planting The Bean, Part 1

Yesterday I burned my hand on the dry ice that nestled a vial containing one half of The Bean’s genes. R and I joked that when Bean gives us trouble in her tween years, we will point to the burn and she will recall all we went through to have her and immediately cease and desist.

I’m thinking of Bean as female but I’m not sure why. I always thought I’d have boys, probably because I have an extraordinary number of brothers, but I’ve really warmed to the idea of a daughter. Of course, there are those folks who hope we will only have girls, because ‘boys need a father,’ and that brings us to the subject of today’s post: Bean’s father, or lack thereof.

When R and I first started talking about planting Bean, we agreed that it would be ideal to use a distant relative as the donor in the hopes that he would have some role in Bean’s life. We think that it is important for Bean to have positive male role models, and we very much want her to have uncles who are invested in her growth and development. One year at Christmas dinner, Grandmother jokingly volunteered my aunt’s husband, P,  for donor services. After an awkward pause we learned that he had previously volunteered to be the donor for another lesbian couple. The idea was appealing, as P is smart, amiable, and good looking. What more could we ask for? But after we let the idea marinate for some months, we decided it would complicate family dynamics, and perhaps we’d need to relinquish our romanticized notions of a moderately involved, known donor.

We began browsing the websites of the largest U.S. sperm banks. Picture Gattaca meets Amazon.com. We could pick a donor based on his doppelgänger, his religious background, his hobbies, his hair or eye color, his profession…it was overwhelming. And creepy. We were faced with deciding how to filter the candidates, and this brought up really difficult questions. Should we filter by race or ethnicity? Should we pay more for sperm from a donor who has earned a doctoral degree? Should we send in a photograph of me and let the bank select the donor who looks the most like me?  Should we pick a donor whose personality profile is great but for whom there is no photo? Should we only consider donors who are willing to be identified when Bean turns 18? All these questions weighed heavily, and counterbalanced the potential for awkward family dynamics if we used P as donor.

We realized we needed to talk to other couples who had faced these choices, but we didn’t know any. We’re bad gays. Between us we have two gay friends that we talk with on a regular basis. So we had to enlist a few friends, who contacted their gay friends, who contacted us. We talked with four different couples, and with the lawyer who worked with one of them. The lawyer strongly advised against using known donors, especially one who, like P, lives in a conservative state. Many states will not allow a man to sign over his paternal rights, and this could really complicate matters for me. If P were unable to relinquish paternal rights, I could never be Bean’s legal parent. We realized the Gattazon experience was a necessity, and got around to answering those pesky ethical questions.

In the meantime, we discovered that few states would allow what’s called a second parent adoption, which basically means that I can adopt Bean, and be her legal parent without R relinquishing her parental rights. Luckily our state allows this, but first I have to prove that I am fit to be a parent. After Bean is born, I will have to undergo an extensive background investigation and a home study. If I check out okay, we’ll go to court to ask a judge to grant me permission to be Bean’s legal parent. If the judge agrees, I will petition for a new birth certificate that lists both of us as Bean’s parents. It’s a long and expensive process, and rather insulting, quite frankly. If I’m feeling sunny side up, I can be happy that at least I can petition for legal rights to my child; if I’m not, I think everyone should have to pass a parental fitness test. But boy could that get ugly.

To be continued…

That One

The difficulty of writing an opening sentence is not to be underestimated. I wanted to take a more intellectual, or at least academic (let’s not confuse the two!) approach to this inaugural post, but I decided to just stop thinking and start typing. I think we can all agree that the world needs more of that.

This blog, should you choose to read it, will allow you to be a fly on the wall of my life, which currently revolves around: R (my partner of many years), the University (where I am a graduate student), and The Bean (who does not yet exist). R and I have been talking about having a baby for several years. Okay, I’ve been talking about having a baby since I was a baby, but R has only recently joined the conversation. (Luckily I don’t mind talking to myself.) The conversation has progressed to action, and we hope that R will soon be carrying The Bean.

So The Bean will have two moms, which my friend’s son thinks sounds perfectly dreamy. We hope it will be, but right now our view of mothershood is about 1 part romantic to 5 parts logistical ops. It’s been a long journey already, and I want to share it with you. And part of what inspired me to start this blog is a recent conversation with a University Professor. We were discussing Salem Possessed, a book that chronicles the Salem witch trials, which led to a conversation about group identity. Professor noted that we often form our identities, whether as an individual or a group, by asserting who we are not–after all, there is no ‘us’ without ‘them.’  The American public witnessed this principle in action during the 2008 presidential debate when Senator McCain tried to underscore the difference between his energy policies and then-Senator Obama’s, infamously referring to Mr. Obama as “that one.” It’s easy to define ourselves by othering, but it’s harder to do once we get to know the Other. That’s what this blog is all about.