My Body Had Become a Battlefield
My struggle to become a mother began in my early thirties. I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, recently married, and I had never held a baby. Not because I didn’t have ample opportunity. I just didn’t want to. Babies scared me because they just seemed so fragile and I was terrified that I might drop them or not properly support their neck and cause permanent neurological damage. And I knew that, like horses, babies can smell fear and figured that if I did hold one it would immediately sense my intense anxiety and start crying for its mother anyway. So: what was the point?
I mean, really? Why do I have to hold your friggen baby?
By the time I turned thirty almost all of my friends had a baby, and some had as many as four, and whenever I went to a family barbecue, someone would invariably offer up their tiny bundle of joy and say, “Come on, Suzy, why don’t you hold little Katelyn or Jake?" And I’d grab my wine and run for the hills.
Then, the summer I turned 31, I was struck by a sudden and overwhelming desire to have a baby. I still had no desire to hold someone else’s baby. But I desperately wanted to hold one of my own. So, I waited for my husband to come home from work one evening and told him all about this strange and inexplicable turn of events. Then I gave him a cold Heineken and asked him if we could start trying. That night.
My entreaties, however, were quickly rebuffed.
“You’ve been writing your dissertation for six years and it’s still not done,” he said flatly. “And you haven’t passed the Bar yet and you don’t have a job.”
I saw where this was going, and it wasn’t anywhere good, so I countered somewhat defensively, “I have a job. I’m selling all that stuff on E-bay.”
He couldn’t help but laugh. “And what’d you sell today?”
“My old Louis Vuitton bag for $65 bucks,” I said proudly.
“And how much did it originally cost?” he asked.
I’m not very good at math, but I knew I wasn’t going to win that one, so I played my trump card. “And,” I added, “I also get paid for grading all those student papers, you know.”
He laughed softly again and rolled his eyes. “How much? Nine bucks an hour? Ten?”
“No,” I mumbled. “Eight.”
“I rest my case,” he said like Jonny Cochran then smiled and walked away.
But, still, I persisted, and as the months and years slowly crept by my maternal desires intensified to the point of obsession. I’d sit in bookstores for hours devouring Pregnancy and Parenting and Baby Name books. I’d go to Baby Gap and buy all kinds of heartbreakingly adorable baby girl and boy clothes then go home and hide them under my bed in a box.
And, after a whole year of carefully-protected sex had passed, I thought about poking holes in all of my husband’s condoms, which were standing like The Great Wall of China between me and my motherly dreams.
“Oops!” I would imagine myself saying, “It says right here on the box that they’re only 86 percent effective."
All the while, I kept trying to convince my husband to give parenthood a shot. He held firm for another year until he got a much-needed pay raise, at which point he relaxed a bit about our finances and finally relented.
“Alright,” he said. “We can start trying next month.”
By then, I was 33 and my husband was 36. But we were both very healthy and fit and I was certain I’d get pregnant right away. But, I didn't. Month after month I’d meticulously chart my Basal Body Temperature each morning and precisely time our "relations" to coincide with the first signs of Mittelschmerz and then anxiously wait for two weeks, constantly feeling my breasts for any signs of tenderness and hoping that I’d wake the next day feeling blissfully nauseous.
But, those hopes were always dashed in the bathroom when those two elusive blue lines failed to appear at the end of pregnancy test and I’d bury my face in my hands and quietly cry. For a Really. Long. Time.
Meanwhile, it seemed like pregnant women and happy young mothers pushing strollers were everywhere and that every time my phone rang it was yet another one of my friends calling to tell me that she was pregnant.
My best friend from grade school called one early spring morning to tell me that she was pregnant — with her fourth child. I was happy for her, but felt like I had been punched in the gut.
“Congratulations,” I managed to say as I was hit by an overwhelming sense of envy and emptiness.
“Thanks,” she said, “but we weren’t even trying. I guess I’m just a Fertile Mertyl.”
I knew that she was just trying to lighten the mood, but something about that phrase — Fertile Mertyl — just killed me, and, after I said congratulations again and hung up, I lost it because I felt so hopeless and lonely and incompetent.
I also had a fabulous figure back then but now I was angry at my body and ashamed of it. “It’s easy to have a good figure if you’ve never been pregnant,” I chastised myself, and, after I stopped sobbing, I put on my jogging shoes and took my beloved dog Ben (my “fur baby”) out for a walk.
Walking, for me, is like therapy. Henry David Thoreau walked in the woods near his home on Walden Pond for as many as five or six hours each day to help sharpen his mind and strengthen his moral constitution. And while I don’t know if I’d enjoy walking for that long on a daily basis, that particular walk was momentous because somewhere between Taco Bell and Target, I had an epiphany and realized that if I wanted to get pregnant, I had to confront my struggle with infertility not simply as a physical condition that had to be treated, but as a Total War that had to be won.
By then, I had been researching infertility for years, and, well-armed with information, I decided it was finally time for fertility drugs. My OB-GYN didn’t want me to start with the “Big Guns” first (injectable drugs) and gave me a six-month prescription for a mild fertility drug known as Clomid.
But those six months slowly passed and, still, I wasn’t pregnant. Depressed but not defeated, I called my OB-GYN again and requested a referral to an In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) Clinic, and, after a three-month wait followed by a battery of blood tests and medical examinations, the time finally arrived for my first round of in-vitro fertilization.
“My body,” I thought, “has become a battlefield. But bring it on! Victory is my supreme aim!”
For anyone unfamiliar with IVF, this was the basic drill: for the first five days of my cycle, I elevated my pregnancy hormones with fast-acting vaginal progesterone suppositories (FUN), then, for the next five nights, I would inject a fold of my abdominal fat with a fertility drug made from the hormones of post-menopausal women (MORE FUN), which, if effective, would produce not just a single egg but hopefully as many as ten or fifteen, which increased my odds of conception but didn’t have a particularly slimming effect around my waistline (THE PARTY NEVER STOPS!)
It wasn’t fun. But, still, I was hopeful. Until I took a pregnancy test which resulted in a BFN, which, in infertility-speak, means: BIG. FAT (or some other F-word). NO. And after three more failed attempts, it was becoming increasingly clear that our “Unexplained Infertility” was not only taking a terrible toll on me, but a terrible toll on my marriage.
One night, after I finished yet another crying spell in the bathroom, my husband looked at me from the hallway and said, “I don’t want to try anymore.”
He may as well have shot me point-blank between the eyes. After all I had done, after all I had put my body through, how could he be giving up?
“What do you mean you don’t want to try anymore?” I asked, hoping I had heard him incorrectly.
“I mean, I don’t want to try to have a baby anymore,” he said flatly.
I stared him square in the eye for a while, like Clint Eastwood does to the Bad Guy right before pulling the trigger. “Fine,” I said angrily. “You can stop trying. But I’m not.”
Looking back, I can empathize with his frustrations—the astronomical costs of IVF and his once-happy-and-laid-back-wife’s ever-increasing sadness and isolation—but I was firmly entrenched in my Total-War mindset and was prepared to do whatever it took to be victorious, even if it meant buying 29 vials of frozen sperm from a sperm bank if my husband was no longer willing to share his with me.
That might seem cold-hearted. But if my husband, for whatever legitimate reason, no longer shared my desire to build a family together, I no longer had the desire to continue our marriage.
And, as a former divorce lawyer, I should duly point out that this particular marital issue—to wit, one spouse desires children but the other does not—is deemed to be so antithetical to the institution and ideals of marriage that the American legal system, vis-à-vis its legislators and courts, has for centuries considered it to be one of the few valid grounds for annulment.
Fortunately, after many long difficult discussions in which I explained how important it was for me to become a mother, my husband had a change of heart and my war against infertility raged on. I kept injecting fertility drugs into my abdominal fat each month and the phlebotomists kept drawing my blood until the veins in my arms were all bruised and battered. And, six long lonely years after I began buying baby clothes and hiding them in a box, I was still seemingly as barren as ever.
Accepting the fact that I might not ever hold my own biological child, I reluctantly began researching adoption. I say “reluctantly” not because adoption isn’t a wonderful option for families, because it is. It’s a fabulous option. But I knew that the process is often fraught with obstacles and I didn’t think I had it in me to go through it.
By nature or nurture, I’m also very competitive and determined (read: stubborn) and the thought of failure went against every instinct in my body. In other words, I still had some fight left in me. Not a lot. But enough.
ON a cold gray February morning, I drove alone to the IVF clinic yet again to have my blood drawn yet again for yet another pregnancy test. It was a Friday, and when my phone rang later that day shortly before 5:00 p.m. I knew it was the nurse calling with the results of the test.
I usually answered those calls but this time I let it go to voicemail because it was getting too painful to hear the bad news “in person.” I stared at the phone for a while, and, when I retrieved the message, I heard the nurse’s recorded voice say that my HCG level was elevated.
“Congratulations,” I heard her recorded voice say, “just continue with the suppositories and come back on Monday to confirm the pregnancy.”
After seven long years of desperately wanting to be pregnant, it seemed that I finally was. I listened to the nurse’s message over and over, and, needless to say, that day was one of the happiest and most exciting days of my life.
But the most supremely happy and sublime day of my life came nine months later when my daughter was born and I was, at long last, finally able to hold my own baby in my arms.
I’m a lawyer, historian, and journalist who holds a Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley. My most recent books include Machiavelli for Moms (Simon & Schuster) and Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities, and my first children’s book will be published by HarperCollins in 2018.
I'm also a ghostwriter for a #1 New York Times bestselling author with more than 25 million copies in print and my work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, including USA Today, Newsweek, Parade, Forbes and The London Times.
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(originally published in Machiavelli for Moms, 2013)