Fresh Perspective

Yesterday we started care at a new fertility clinic. So long, Dr. S, and Hey There, Dr. T. We were both really nervous about the appointment because we honestly didn’t know if Dr. T would send us away with no hope for a biological child–a reality I feel guilty admitting we aren’t quite ready to face. To brace myself for the meeting, I began looking into our adoption options again, which seem fairly limited because we are a same sex couple with neither the money to pay the exorbitant private adoption fees nor the emotional strength to bond with and raise a foster child who may be removed from us after months or years in our care. But still, I wanted to have some hope to hold on to in the event that Dr. T advised us to stop TTC.

We were in Dr. T’s office for three hours, the majority of that time was spent with her. She gave us a layperson’s version of a talk she gave recently, flipping through powerpoint slides on her computer and using fairly complex graphs from clinical studies to explain her plan for us. I was in nerd heaven. R said she just wanted a pie chart. That reminded me of one of my stats professors, who thought there was only one legitimate use for pie charts, pictured below.

In the end a pie chart might have been more helpful because all the the charts and statistics are just sitting in one giant word salad in my brain. But the gist of it is that even accounting for 4 poorly timed cycles, we are in the unfortunate position of having passed through the stages of TTC that had the highest probability of success and entered the stage that yields diminishing returns for the same effort (and cost). That was disappointing to hear out loud, but not so different than what we already suspected. There is no explanation for our lack of success thus far, which is really frustrating, but I’m glad that none of us is interested in wasting time trying to suss that out.

Dr. T suggests 1-3 more cycles before we call it quits and move on to IVF or adoption. She’s stepping up our game by adding in two more medications, one of which is an injection R will have to take for 5-7 days. These medications will not only increase our chance of pregnancy but also the risk of twins or higher order multiples, so the first cycle will be a little nerve wracking while we figure out how R’s body responds to the injections. We have to go to the doctor multiple times this month for more tests and closer monitoring to be sure we don’t end up with an octomom situation. It all feels very invasive and it’s hard to know where to draw the line and say ‘we’ve given it our best shot but now it’s time to re-envision our family.’

Each month it feels like we are renegotiating boundaries between us and medical intervention, between us and the amount of risk we are willing to accept, between us and the amount of money we are willing to part with, between us and the KD. It’s an emotionally grueling process to constantly make decisions about these factors that could have a long term impact on our health, finances, and social life. It’s also difficult to make all these decisions in front of others (doctors, KD,  a small group of family and friends) and wonder if we seem crazy or selfish. One of the women who responded to the quandary I wrote about the other day had this to say about her experience with infertility treatment:

We went through infertility for at least 5 years. For many of our close friends and family member, however, it was a very fertile time. This was extremely hard on us. In spite of trying to access our best selves – their fertility represented a lot of heart ache…at seeing we could not do what “anyone” could do….and our heart ache at feeling jealousy and anger instead of joy over a loved one’s miraculous pregnancy. It felt wrong to feel that way, but it also felt wrong to have to have shots in the butt every night. Wrong at having to talk to doctors about our sex life. Major life ick.

If you are pregnant, God bless you and your beautiful child. You are entitled to your joy, whether you struggled or not! Joy!

But…your friend/sister/cousin who is in infertility hell (mourning/hope/mourning and on and on) is in heartfelt pain – most likely masked, but it is deep and sad and life altering. I get it. We went through it.

During this time in our lives, it was almost impossible for people to know what to say. Yet, somehow, one dear friend said the most touching and poignant thing to me: “I have no idea what you are going through, but I want you to know I will always be here for you.”

Done! That said it all – even those of us who have gone through and survived infertility are different. True, we have a commonality, but our reaction to the same ludicrous invasions of privacy and dashing of “normal dreams” is highly different.

I think her comments on how invasive this whole process is, and how unrelenting the cycle of hope and mourning, are a clear window into the pain we have experienced over the last year and a half. But I think we are stronger for it, cheesy as that sounds. Our relationship has been tested and strengthened by the conversations we’ve been forced to have, by the decisions we’ve had to make, and by the coordinated effort this whole endeavor has required. And we’ve learned to let it be one piece of life–occasionally at the center, but not always. I hope that some day Bean will occupy its place, and we’ll have a whole new set of decisions to make.

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OPP (Other People’s Pregnancies)

Last night I spent an embarrassing amount of time reading through NY Times readers’ responses to another woman’s quandary. The woman wrote to the Motherlode blog to ask for readers’ advice on how to gently break the news of her pregnancy to her infertile friend. I was touched by her sensitivity and admire her kind spirit, especially as someone who has found myself having an unexpected and unpleasant reaction to OPP.

Some of the Motherlode readers were real ass hats about the way that they described the infertile friend. They assumed (based on the pregnant friend’s fear of telling her happy news) that the infertile friend is the antithesis of a friend–a childish, self-focused, emotionally stunted tantrum thrower–if she can’t be immediately thrilled for her pregnant friend. But the majority of readers were kind to the pregnant woman and her friend, helping illuminate the best way forward for both of them so that their friendship can (hopefully) continue to thrive. It was somehow cathartic for me to sift through the responses, and discover two gems. First, that other infertile women have experienced the same unsavory and embarrassing responses to OPP. Second, that many of those women are now parents by hook or by crook.

So, dear reader, in case you ever need to know how to sensitively announce your pregnancy to a close friend who is trying desperately to make one of her own, I have distilled the readers’ responses (excluding the ones from the ass hats) to a tidy list.

Don’t delay. Don’t wait until you are visibly pregnant and there’s a chance someone has already spilled the beans on Facebook. Your dear friend shouldn’t be the last to know. That will make her feel like you assumed she couldn’t handle your news.

Consider giving her privacy. Readers had pretty mixed reviews on this one, but I think most agreed that it might be best to write a very honest and loving email, or to call your friend on the phone. Some vehemently opposed this approach, advocating for an in person convo–but then your friend risks displaying an uncontrollable emotional response that she feels badly about later.

Do NOT, under ANY circumstances say you were not even trying to have a baby. This is pretty much the worst thing you can say to someone who is devoting considerable time, energy, and finances to conception.

Acknowledge that you anticipate the news may be hard for your friend to hear. This is NOT coddling (I’m talking to you, ass hats). It IS giving your friend the space to grieve without embarrassment or shame, if that is what she needs to do.

Let your friend take the lead. A lot of women suggested that you avoid talking obsessively about the pregnancy (your symptoms, the nursery, baby names) and wait for your friend to ask you for details. This seems like a reasonable approach to any subject and any friend.

Try to understand that your friend’s sadness does not mean she isn’t happy for you. In our culture (and in most others) we greet the news of a new human with joy and celebration. In most cases, your friend will join the party, but she may just need to grieve a little first. It’s not that she isn’t happy for you, it’s just that she’s unsure if she’ll ever experience the same joy, no matter how much she wants it or how hard she tries. This is the thing that some readers just could not grasp. I thought that this woman did a nice job of explaining:

Having been on the infertility side of this, I can say it isn’t jealousy that you feel. It’s in no way the same thing as getting jealous over a friend’s new job or nice clothes. “Appease her bitterness?” Wow. I’d frame it more like trying to be sensitive to someone in a difficult situation. I have a friend who’s a widow; I try not to complain about my husband around her or go on and on about comparatively small problems. I think that’s OK. It doesn’t mean I’m coddling her and that she should just deal.

What infertility feels like is that multiple times every day you are confronted with something very fundamental that you and most others want to do, to be, but that you cannot. You are stuck in repeated monthly cycles of hope and despair. You feel broken, defective…

I think it is nice that the pregnant woman wants to soften the blow for her friend. It’s hard to know what to do when you’re in her position. I think the best advice is to email the information so that she can hear the news and let it sink in without having to put on a reassuring display of happiness. She almost certainly WILL be happy; she just may need a moment to process the news and find the right words.

So, there you have it. The basic rules are be sensitive, try to understand your friend’s perspective, know that she will be happy for you in good time–just your average approach to friendship in general.

I have talked with other women who struggled to attend (or simply didn’t attend) their friends’ and relatives’ baby showers. So I was really touched to read this sweet post about two sisters, one expectant and one infertile:

I was the infertile person among my friends and my four sisters. It was awful to feel so jealous and sad. When my sister Michelle got pregnant, and my sister-in-law, and my other sister and I didn’t, it was just so, so difficult.

My sister did something very kind that really helped me. On the day of her baby shower, I was having a very hard time, but I told myself that it wasn’t right to make everything all about me. I retreated to the bathroom once or twice, but I played all the games–and won them–and bought a great gift.

At the end, my sister gave me a beautifully wrapped gift and card. In the card, she said, “Thank you so much for coming to my baby shower. I know this was a difficult day for you. This gift won’t make up for what you really want, but hopefully when you wear it, you will know how much you are loved and how much I appreciate you.”

Inside was a gorgeous, soft angora sweater in one of my favorite colors, fuchsia. And though it didn’t make up for what I wanted, a baby, it showed great compassion on her part because up until that point I’d felt like the most selfish, self-centered negative person.

So, back to your friend….It won’t be easy to tell her, but tell her–in person if possible. And tell her that you wish the same thing for her…and you understand that she may not be able to take full participation in everything, but you will continue to reach out. And be kind.

We should all be so good to one another.

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.

Planting The Bean, Part 2

I dare you to conduct this thought experiment: visit the website of one of the major  sperm banks–California Cryobank or Fairfax Cryobank–and try to choose someone who will contribute half of your child’s DNA. How did you filter the candidates? Were you able to pick one? How long did it take? What questions did it raise?

Some banks offer a quick search feature, which filters by hair and eye color and ethnic background. Most banks have an advanced search feature that allows you to filter by hair and eye color, skin tone, blood type, ethnic background, ancestry, education level, area of study, identity options, and specimen type. Maybe this search is inconsequential for others, but for me it was thought provoking and expository. R left much of the donor selection up to me, I think partly because it was overwhelming for her and partly because it gave me some power. Power is not quite the word I’m looking for, and may be a bit off-putting to you. But in some ways this process has been a power struggle: me vs. my own body, my biological clock vs. R’s, our relationship vs. a heteronormative society, time vs. biology.

I’ve already touched on some of these struggles, but let me briefly address the tug of war between me and my body. I had always hoped to carry a child. I love children, and I love the idea of being pregnant. Sadly while I have a strong maternal instinct, I have weak reproductive capacity. Many well meaning friends have told me that being pregnant is overrated, but it’s still terribly sad to know I’ll never carry a child. From my perspective, infertility means missing more than a big belly and swollen ankles. It means missing breast feeding, and the bonding that comes with it. More importantly, it means rethinking my role, and shifting my vision of self as mother from being the bleary eyed woman in the hospital gown, fresh from the victory of birth to being the person standing beside the bleary eyed woman.  It took some time to adjust to a different vision, and the nature of my role as non-birth mother is still a little mercurial. And though I have no doubt that I will think of myself as Bean’s mom, I know that some other people will persist in asking ‘But who’s the real mom?’ and sometimes that makes me feel powerless. So, focusing on selecting the donor sort of returned some power to me.

The subject of race featured prominently in our discussions about donor preferences. Was it racist to filter out donors whose ethnic and racial background did not match ours? Was it naive to choose a non-white donor? Does the color of our child’s skin really matter? I talked through these questions with friends of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and got a pretty wide range of opinions on the subject. Ultimately, a combination of  conversations with friends, reading articles like this one from The Stranger, and combing through online forum posts about donor selection combined to tip the balance toward choosing a donor whose ethnic and racial background matched ours.

The Stranger article takes aim at white folks who adopt children of color and ignore the fact that their children have different life experiences in our decidedly NOT post racial society. She fires at people who claim to be “color blind” because ignoring race is more comfortable than confronting racism, and harangues whites who adopt children of color and then insulate (or isolate) them in white neighborhoods and among white extended families. I don’t think the author or the adoptees she interviewed are calling for an end to transracial adoptions. I think they simply want white folks to think twice before adopting a child of color, e.g.

“What I’d ask parents is, are you willing to be the uncomfortable one?” Goller-Sojourner says. This is how he’d question a prospective parent if he were a social worker. “Because somebody’s gonna be uncomfortable, and it seems the burden is on you. You have to be the uncomfortable one.” He means that if white parents of black children, for instance, don’t live in black neighborhoods, join black churches, have black friends, and send their children to significantly mixed-race schools, then at least they should cross the thresholds into black barbershops even though it’s awkward, or drive out of their way to shop at grocery stores in black neighborhoods. Parents should be careful to raise their children to live in this world, not the one they wish existed.”

The article, like it or not, raises a lot of great questions, and I found myself considering its implications for choosing to create a transracial family compared with becoming one by adopting a child of a different race. I also read a heated debate posted to the online forum for families who are trying to conceive with donor sperm from a local cryobank. A single white woman posted a question about whether it is ‘weird’ to choose a Chinese donor, which she wants to do because she always wanted to adopt an unwanted baby girl from China (costs and legal regulations prevent her from doing so). Several women of color, including one Chinese American woman, replied to her with honest and thoughtful answers, imploring her to give the decision careful thought and to try to understand that her child may face unnecessary discrimination from whites and Asian Americans. The comments were offered from personal experience, and what could have been a fruitful discussion devolved into an argument that was ultimately cut short by the forum moderators. The white woman attacked anyone who suggested that it is not a great idea to pick a donor of another race for the sake of having a baby who reflects an ‘admirable’ or ‘fascinating’ culture, or because the baby will be ‘cute.’ I thought the responses were well reasoned and in line with the outcomes of our discussions with friends and reading, all of which suggested that we should look for a donor who reflects our racial and ethnic background.

I began cruising the websites of the big cryobanks, looking for the perfect donor–someone with decent answers to the essay questions and a profile that screams “science nerd!” When reading the answers to short essay questions like “What made you want to become a donor?” and “What advice would you give to the recipients of your donation?” being mindful of the fact that the donor is likely a college student in his late teens or early twenties helps keep the answers in perspective. To the first question, most donors say something about wanting to do good and make money at the same time. To the second, the most common answer is “good luck!!!”

After an inordinate amount of time searching, I found Perfect Donor, a man with sensitive and intelligent answers to the essay questions, musical inclinations, and an interest in political science. R liked his short profile, so we paid to see the full profile, which includes a complete family history and some additional information about his SAT scores and hobbies. He seemed really likeable, smart, and a little quirky. Unfortunately he was not listed as an “open ID” donor, which means that at this point he has no interest in meeting Bean when she turns 18, but since open ID donors can change their minds at any time, we figured it’s best to consider other desirable traits. PD seemed perfect indeed, but we lacked one piece of information to confirm our choice–a photograph. Most of the larger banks have photos of the donor as a child or an adult, or at least a silhouette of his face. PD is not affiliated with one of these banks, and so there was no photograph or silhouette of his face. It seemed weird to select someone we couldn’t picture, and so we got cold feet and ‘cheated’ on PD.

We found Almost Perfect Donor–a physician (whose sperm cost is commensurate with education!) who likes to cook, admires his mom, and was a pretty adorable child. We decided to use him, and I caught myself staring at his picture several times per day, trying to imagine Bean as a cross between APD and R. Our initial attempts failed, and we felt compelled to rethink our decision. We took another look at PD and I just knew he was the one for us. After waiting three months to make sure R won’t be too pregnant or Bean too little to fly to R’s sister’s wedding in the fall, we returned to PD. Last week we made attempt number 3 at planting The Bean. I hope she’s taking root.

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.