Saturday, June 9, 2007

Let's start a life together

Women…We’re either crying because we’re pregnant … or because we’re not.

For years, the threat of pregnancy is there, ignored sometimes, rising to threatening levels at others. In our teens, our twenties, we are caught up in our complicated lives, navigating crises of friends, romantic relationships, school and work. Just living our own life is all-consuming, how could we be ready to create another? Children, yes—later, in the future. For now, we’re relieved to get our period, month after month.

I recall a specific memory, seated on the toilet in the campus apartment I had during my graduate school years, when I made a vow to the Universe: Just let me not be pregnant, and I promise, I swear, I will donate $100 a year to Planned Parenthood for the rest of my life.

Thankfully, my period arrived. Round-the-clock laboratory work, data analysis, paper-writing, and my future career as an academic were not interrupted by an unplanned pregnancy.

A teen-ager in the 1970s, graduating from high school in 1980, I was part of the first generation of women to plan for a career. My parents were feminists and told me that the world had changed. Intellectually precocious and aware of historical injustices against my gender, I was determined that I would be different from the women of prior generations: I would pursue a life of professional work and achievement as aggressively as any male.

It feels poignant, painful and ironic, that as a teenager I so strongly felt my uniqueness, when now, these decades later, I learn I am a cliché: yet another mid-40s female, successful in her career, ready to be a mother, but childless, and “too old” to become pregnant.

Sudden onset of reproductive panic

At age 37 I split with my boyfriend of five years because he was adamant that we have no children. Like other women of my generation, I had to read in Time and Newsweek cover stories and books like Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children that doctors were being urged to tell women that their fertility would decline precipitously after age 38.

Could I be a single mother? How to do it? Anonymous sperm donor, ask a friend? Did I have time to do the normal thing, and just try to meet a man who wanted to have children? Parents and siblings begged me not be a single mother. “Don’t try to have a child, just concentrate on having a good life and be happy” my sister admonished (married with 1 child). “It's really hard” was all my brother could say, his hands full with three children under 5. After many conversations, my mother gave me her emotional support to try to get pregnant on my own.

But had I really been trying to convince my generous, caring, supportive family, or trying to convince myself that single parenthood was for me? I delayed taking steps to get pregnant on my own, even as a close friend did it successfully with the help of an old boyfriend.

At 42 I met the man who would become my future husband (H). He shared my dreams and goals and within a month of meeting we ceased contraceptive use. Statistics on the age-related decline in fertility indicated that my chances of conceiving were low. Perhaps we should have moved immediately to invitro fertilization (IVF). But neither H nor I were ready. It seemed strange to immediately start a medical procedure a few months after meeting. We wanted a chance to try on our own.

Part of being human may be the feeling that we are special. The statistics won’t hold for us. Forty-two year-olds do get pregnant on their own, without medical intervention. Why couldn’t I?

H and I married the month I turned 43. I felt my life as a mother was right around the corner.

TTC (“Trying to conceive”)

I had so many pregnancy “hopes” during the next 2 years. If I hadn’t gotten my period by day 27 of my menstrual cycle, I’d be light-headed with fantasies. I’d imagine announcing the joyful news, calculate the expected due date and start mentally organizing my research projects to accommodate my maternity leave.

But “Aunt Flow” arrived each month without fail. “Well, there’s next month” I’d tell myself. My fertility doctor was encouraging about my prospects because my FSH was still low (indicating good ovarian reserve). “Just keep trying” he said. But after turning 43, a routine test showed an elevated FSH. The good doctor saw a different woman sitting in front of him, a woman with bad numbers. I knew the statistics too, but couldn’t I at least try IVF? No. His recommendation was donor egg.
Dialogue with friends and family continued. Some asked, Why not adopt?

Adopting is a wonderful act. But I actually want to be pregnant. I’ve taught developmental psychology for 16 years. Twice a year I review prenatal development for my students. Can’t I experience it too—feel the fetus kick, pet my belly obsessively, make sure I eat right, give up coffee?

It's rare that adoptive families take home a newborn. Children adopted from abroad may be 1 or 2 years old. It would be ideal to be present for the whole first year of my child’s life. I want to see tiny fingers reflexively curl around everything they touch, and want to see the reflexes disappear as the cortex matures and grasping and orienting come under voluntary control. I’d like to listen to my infant practice babbling, and hear “ba” and “da” syllables turn into first words. It's fine with me not to rear my genetic offspring, but what a joy to know that this little creature shared half of my beloved husband’s genes.

Adoption is often more expensive than donor egg, and carries a lot of uncertainty. Will adoption agencies be able to find a child at all? What trauma and neglect was suffered by the child in the year or two before joining our home? Although pregnancy with donor egg is not certain, it does seem that the egg-donor route is the best for me. With that decision, the next chapter began. To paraphrase the title of the Dr. Seuss book, “Are you my egg donor?”

Who are you, dear girl?

In an older era of human history, I’d be the childless older woman, pitied by others. Or a women whose children had died or been stolen from her to be servants for others. You’d be a young woman or even teen girl, with a newborn but no husband or financial support, desperate for a solution. An infant would exchange hands. Depending on the circumstances of our lives, we perhaps would never see each other again, or perhaps we would remain known to each other. On your side, you’d be filled with pain or just relief, on mine, perhaps uncertainty and caution but also joy, gratitude, excitement.

In the developed world, immense cultural and technological changes separate us from this older era. Birth control and other medical advances have created a situation different from that of prior centuries, and a different type of exchange will take place. Birth control means you won’t conceive and deliver an infant you’re not ready to care for. IVF with donor egg means I could, in principle, bring to life the DNA in the eggs that fail to implant inside your womb each month and are flushed out with “Aunt Flow.” Its strange, scary, science-fictiony, fantastic. Shall we do it?

Who are you? I have some awe to think that I don’t know you now, yet you are out there, living your complicated life. Children yes, but later. I may be old enough to be your mother, and thinking about you living your life—crying, laughing, pensive—I embrace you in my motherly concern. Yet you will have an astonishing, evolutionarily-unanticipated, deep relationship to me. You, young woman, may be the biological mother of my child. Where are you, dear girl? It's time to start a life together.