Wendy’s story: Taking an alternative path to parenthood

After seven failed rounds of IVF, I know I won’t have a child that is genetically mine. But I’m not giving up on motherhood.
Wendy, her husband and their pup. Photo: Wendy Litner

Wendy, her husband and their pup. Photo: Wendy Litner

I was certain my seventh round of fertility treatments had worked. Unlike the other six cycles, there was no spotting this time—no bright flash of pink that left me Googling “IVF and bleeding” with trembling hands.

Not getting my period was monumental, but there were even bigger signs. On the morning of my pregnancy test, there was a yellow baby blanket lying on the sidewalk—an obvious foretelling of a baby to come. And then there was a vanity licence plate on the car in front of mine on the way home, displaying the very name I had picked out. My mother passed away 11 years ago and this, to be sure, was a message straight from her, telling me I was pregnant and that she liked the strangely artsy name I was going to call the baby she would never meet.

“Can you believe it?!” I said, calling my husband to tell him the news. “It’s finally our turn.”

I was giddy, flushed with love for him and for our baby. This is the story I would tell my baby about her conception and her name, making the years of hardship and money and injections all worthwhile. When you are dealing with such grand expressions from the universe, you don’t need a nurse to call and give you blood test results. I didn’t even answer the phone when she called. I was pregnant—I just knew it.

Except I wasn’t pregnant, nor will I ever be with a child that is genetically mine and my husband’s. My husband, Stephen, and I had conceded to using a sperm donor five cycles ago and, after this last round, we will be giving up on my eggs, too.

Well-meaning friends and family are quick to tell me that I’m going to be a mother. “I just know that you’re going to be a mother,” they say. “One way or another, you are going to have a baby.”

But what is that one way? Or another? A baby comes from somewhere—it can’t just be hoped into existence or mine would have already been born. We have been trying to become parents for three years, and we have spent our life savings trying. We are told we need to be patient still. I can let go of my genetics and my husband’s—it’s a loss that is upsetting but not tragic. I can let go of the pregnancy and nursing. But I can’t let go of being a mother—I just can’t.

After taking turns holding each other’s pain, we’re now ready to pursue other paths to parenthood. We are looking for a sperm donor and an egg donor or an embryo donor, and we have also started the adoption process. We’re excited to pursue these paths, but none of them is fast or straightforward or inexpensive, and we are approaching them with respect for the many people now involved. As with fertility treatments, there is no guarantee that any of these paths will work. Having made the decision to adopt, we don’t simply raise our hands as loving parents and someone blissfully hands over a baby.

I know that love isn’t enough to make a baby, but it seems impossible that mere acquaintanceship isn’t necessary either. I search through catalogues of sperm donors and egg donors. I call the clinic to see if our names have moved up the donor embryo list. I book an appointment with an adoption counsellor. I try to picture a happy ending, but the fear of further heartache paralyzes me. The question of whether I will ever be a mother hangs over my body, my career and my marriage.

Of course, we will love the baby, should we ever be lucky enough to have one. But right now, I am overwhelmed by the multitude of decisions before us, and I constantly question if I’m going about becoming a parent in the best possible way.

How do you actually choose your baby’s genetics from an online catalogue? How do you sell yourself as parents and convince someone to let you love their baby as your own? These decisions feel both momentous and meaningless. Do we tell the adoption counsellor how much we adore our 11 nieces and nephews? In choosing donors, do we pick the youngest, most virile looking of the bunch? Or does their education matter more? Does their favourite book mean anything? I have trouble just choosing what to have for dinner. I try to buy produce from local farmers and here I am picking sperm from a college kid living somewhere in the U.S.

Attending the fertility clinic for our procedure, I find it funny that they have us sign and acknowledge that we have received the sperm we ordered—as if we would have any way of knowing that the sample the sperm bank sent is indeed donor 5842, who hopes to work with animals and says his brother is his best friend. And if it is, in fact, donor 5842, how could I possibly know the things he says are true? Maybe he doesn’t even have a brother. Does that even matter?

I worry about these young donors and whether they’ll be OK with their decision years from now. I worry about the pregnant women handing their children over for adoption and what that must feel like. Will everyone be OK? Will our unborn baby be OK? Will my husband and I be OK?

If we go the donor route, the fertility counsellor has instructed us to choose people who look like me and my husband, and I wonder how this could matter. I lean into the mirror, studying my features, and I consider if my blue eyes and curly hair could define me as a mother. My features themselves aren’t immutable: There are new wrinkles around my eyes, and I worry that my husband’s attraction for me might wane. What if children are nature’s way of cementing love and affection? Perhaps this is what the counsellor means: that my husband is supposed to see the younger me, the one he fell in love with, reflected back in our child. I think, not for the first time, if only I wasn’t growing older, if only I was more fertile, if only the last embryo had stuck.

I cried when the doctor implanted it. There had been two viable embryos the day before, but by the time we arrived at the clinic, there was only one. As with the other cycles, we heard the news while I lay on the examination table with my feet in stirrups, a hospital gown bunched around my waist.

“Here’s your embryo,” the doctor had said, and a tiny little circle, with my name written underneath it in fat black ink, flashed on the screen. I didn’t want to even look at it—I was so disappointed that we would only have this one last chance. I fought back tears, holding as still as possible while the doctor inserted the catheter into my womb to deposit the cells. When he left, my husband couldn’t stop gushing.

“Did you even see that embryo?” he said. “It was a perfect embryo—a textbook embryo!” I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed so hard I worried I would dislodge the perfect textbook embryo. Stephen and I met when we were 11 years old. In our 25 years together, I thought I had seen every side of him, but here was another. There was this mix of pride and joy and love: He looked so much like a father. I lay there giggling, squeezing my knees together, listening to him brag about this beautiful little embryo formed from his wife’s eggs and the sperm of some college student from somewhere in the U.S. whose favourite book is Harry Potter. What a gift it was to see this glimpse into the father my husband might become.

Watching him, filled with so much love for that potential life, I know that while our baby will not grow from our egg and sperm, it has already grown in our hearts. We already love this child, my husband and I, whoever they are or wherever they come from. A child and I don’t need to share genes or an umbilical cord to cuddle under blankets and read a story together, tired from a day filled with chasing our dog around the park, eating pancakes for dinner, hearing the pitter-patter of rain and running outside to dance barefoot, celebrating the fate and circumstances that brought us together to share this joyously uncertain life.

Read more:
Your options when IVF doesn’t work
Leading causes of infertility
I’m not ashamed of my infertility

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