In 2014, I wrote a series of essays chronicling our son’s journey to us, and I opened the series with a vignette I figured would come back to haunt me, but I wrote it anyway, like an asshole.
“Randy and I were one of the very lucky few couples who got pregnant with very little effort, and for that I am really grateful. Like, eternally, exceedingly grateful. We had a conversation about maybe possibly being ready to think about talking about considering trying to get pregnant at some point in the relatively nearish future if the mood struck us and the time was right, and five minutes later I was knocked up. As a 34-year-old woman who often suffers from anxiety about nothing that matters, I was thrilled to avoid months of hand-wringing over something that did matter. Like, hot damn, we really dodged that bullet.”
I’ve thought a lot about that vignette in the five years since I wrote it. How naïve I was, even as I tried to downplay my happiness about its easiness. How privileged I was, even as I tried to make space for experiences that are not nearly as smooth. Why would I put that in writing and allow it to live in the public sphere, unchecked, all this time?
Moses was one-and-a-half and I was just about to turn old-ass 37 when Randy and I decided we were ready to have another baby, or rather, when Randy acquiesced to my persistent reminders that my clock was ticking and the math was not on our side. This conversation was one of the bumpier times in our marriage. The first year with a new baby is hard. Like, hard. Fucking impossible. Hard. Parenting an infant is this super weird combination of sublime, lovely and hard. Mostly hard. The physical assault on our bodies alone should be enough to send most of us running for the hills whenever someone suggests we might consider bearing children more than once. And the hormones. Hoo boy. And it was especially hard for old people like us who were fully set in our ways, fully accustomed to a life with so few obligations. But postpartum forgetfulness is one of biology’s neatest tricks, without which the species would most certainly not survive more than 10 or 20 minutes. And I was not immune to that trick. Sleep deprivation had zapped my brain cells so vociferously that I had all but forgotten how difficult it is adjusting to life with a baby; my recollection of that period was blank. But Randy had not forgotten. He specifically remembered every minute of lost sleep, every hormonal crying jag, every panic attack about whether the baby was still breathing. He remembered the constant glut of breastfeeding. He remembered when Moses’ first cold landed us in the ER — at the height of a measles outbreak. And frankly, he remembered how, for a time, it was next to impossible to access the adult human part of ourselves and our partnership. We were parents, not people. He did not forget a single experience. But I can be very persuasive, and by that, I mean relentless. For every hard time he remembered, I reminded him of the pure love we felt as a family, of the good times and beautiful moments, the euphoria of meeting Moses for the first time and the rush of oxytocin that made even the hardest times feel like a rave. And it’s not that he didn’t remember or recognize those or feel them as deeply as I did, he did, he does, but he felt like we had just regained our footing and we could afford to take a little more time to enjoy our new normal before upending it all over again. I could see his point when I was well-rested and clear-headed, but those times were few and far between, and the compulsive drive to procreate had hijacked my brain so there was no reasoning with me. It’s science, I said to my scientist.
So we settled on trying by not not-trying. I agreed to this low-key approach because it had worked 100 percent of the time before. The one time, I mean. And I was thrilled, because our experience making Moses and welcoming him to the world was so dreamy. It was 2014 and we were madly in love and the world felt OK and life still felt funny and fun. My pregnancy was easy; his birth, textbook. Every bone in my body believed 2016 would be as perfect, and I was excited about what was next.
But as some of you may recall, 2016 was…not great.
We started trying by not not-trying during a spring heat wave that gripped brittle, drought-choked Northern California, which was already on fire months ahead of wildfire season. I had been living in California long enough by then that I had begrudgingly unshackled myself from my Southern-born desire for air conditioning, but that heat wave tested me. There was a long stretch of time so hot we couldn’t find it in ourselves to do anything other than complain, much less make a baby. Smoke stole our sleep; heat boiled our skin. We had a complicated process of trying to keep our house cool and smoke-free, opening windows in the morning to let the cool Bay breeze drift in before the air stagnated in the afternoon and left wildfire smoke hanging over our house like an immovable force. We closed the windows until the evening when the late-day sun beat down on us, turning our closed-up house into an oven. Then we put fans in the windows to create cross-breeze, constantly changing their direction to suck in night air while blowing out smoke. We occasionally found time to be together amidst all this, but it wasn’t, like, very enjoyable. We were strung out and sweaty and sticky. And kind of annoyed. This was not the dreamy recipe for success we experienced with Moses. But I wasn’t worried exactly. I had no cause to be. It’ll happen next month, I said all sing-songy to myself, as I turned fans around and checked on Moses and took long, cool showers to lower my body temperature, instead of doing anything that might make me sweat or result in pregnancy. My doe-eyed optimism was undeserved for how haphazard we were about trying. Oh, and for how old I was. That ole thing.
About 30 percent of couples not not-trying to conceive will succeed in the first month. Sixty percent will have conceived after three months, and by six months, 80 percent of couples will be pregnant. Six not-pregnant months into our heat wave, I thought, well, huh. At my annual plumbing tune-up, I asked my doctor to take a look under the hood just to make sure the bottom hadn’t rusted out of my entire reproductive system, but she insisted everything was fine.
“We typically don’t worry until you’ve been trying for at least a year, and although your age is a factor, I don’t think you’re in the red zone yet. You’ve conceived before; you will conceive again,” she assured me. She sent me for some bloodwork just in case, but then she doubled-back to triple-assure me everything was fine probably. But about a week later, she called me with my lab results, and, spoiler alert, everything was not fine. My thyroid level was high, too high to support a healthy pregnancy. Something called an anti-mullerian hormone, which is used to gauge ovarian reserve, was low.
“The chances of you conceiving with levels like these are not good,” she said softly, eating crow.
My doe-eyed optimism withered. This news was off message for our dreamy season of not not-trying.
She suggested I make an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist, also known as a fertility doctor, to talk about my options, so I did that, and when the day of the appointment came, I went by myself. Randy came to all my OB appointments when I was pregnant with Moses, but I wasn’t pregnant and I didn’t particularly want him hovering. We had just come off a months-long struggle to get on the same page about whether the timing was right for another baby, and now that our not not-trying strategy had failed, we were low-key battling about whether pursuing “options” immediately was smart. That same month he had accepted a new position in Portland and the logistics of winding down his job in California before moving his family to Oregon had become pretty consuming, so he wasn’t in a hurry to figure out the answer to this question right away. He was careful to make the distinction that he wanted to figure it out, but that moving ain’t cheap and neither are fertility doctors, so he thought we should prioritize our costs and focus on options once we got settled in our new home. But I had become deeply anxious and the only way I could figure myself out of that panic was to give the reproductive endocrinologist all our money. Like I said, bumpy times.
So anyway, I was hopelessly alone when that doctor crushed what was left of my spirit.
“You have low egg reserve and the remaining eggs you have are poor quality, likely a result of your advanced age. Your uterus is tilted; your fibroids aren’t helping; you have a small army of cysts taking up residence on your ovaries; and your thyroid is out control. The data suggest you won’t conceive spontaneously, if at all.”
I sat in stunned silence, unable to move or breathe. The heat was suffocating; the stark, drab office closed in on me; and I couldn’t make any of my limbs work. I was profoundly angry with myself and with Randy for not anticipating this possibility and for having to feel my way through those five minutes by myself. Through stilted, shallow breaths, I asked the doctor if what he was saying was that I couldn’t have any more children, and he confirmed he thought that might be the case. Then he left the room quietly and gave me time to collect myself. I sunk into the office chair, my body adhering to it like concrete.
Well there you have it, I thought, that asshole vignette has finally come home to roost.
I don’t remember what happened next. I think I went home. I probably drove or maybe I took BART. I maybe relieved the sitter or maybe I went to a bar. I’m sure I called Randy, or maybe I just texted him. I honestly don’t know. But I do know I cried, for hours and hours and hours, without thinking, without really breathing. And I don’t remember much about what happened after that either. I can vaguely picture Randy and me sitting on our deck, holding onto each other, trying to make sense of what we’d learned, him interrogating me about what exactly the doctor said, me failing to communicate it coherently, both of us blaming our infertility on the fact that I insisted on going to the doctor alone. After that, I just came undone. I tried to keep breathing, keep parenting, keep showing up at work, for my people, for myself, but I was just going through the motions. I sank into a depression, and I drank heavily. Days or weeks passed, I don’t really know. I might have showered, I might have slept, but I can’t really say for sure. I don’t recall whether I laughed or even smiled about a single thing, but I feel like I probably didn’t. We had just finished contract negotiations on our house in Portland and we were buried in packing boxes, so I should have been ecstatic about this season of change. But I was blank. By the grace of god Randy and I had found our way back to equal footing, finally on the same page, and I was able to feel some comfort in his quiet and warm embrace, when just for a couple of minutes time might stand still so I could hold the catastrophic thoughts at bay, but then they would race back into my mind and I would be useless again, wholly consumed by mourning the life we had been building and the family we planned.
Then the very next month I turned up pregnant.