When hope freezes over: Finding my way through IVF treatment

After many months of IVF treatment, we had frozen nine embryos. I had to believe that one of them would work.

blue ice cube trays in freezer

Photo: iStockphoto

Maybe I’m just oversensitive. Maybe people are just overly ignorant. Maybe it’s both. But lately, it feels like everyone is saying the wrong thing.

Everyone tells me to just relax. They ask me if I’ve considered adoption. They proclaim that everything happens for a reason. But if they even think about asking me if we’re going to try transferring our embryos soon, it will tip me over the fine edge of hysteria, on which I’m always teetering.

The need to do something extreme is bubbling up inside. Things that used to console me are no longer effective. Wine nights with friends help a little and yoga takes the edge off, but the anger is still stirring. Usually, I write about it, but I can’t bring myself to type a single word. If I were a drinker, I’d go on a binge. If I were a slut, I’d have an affair. If I were a rebel, I’d get a tattoo.

Instead, I spend the next three months of winter dodging the one question everyone keeps asking: When are you going to try IVF again?

The embryo-storage bills continue to come and we pay them, but I don’t want to think about those nine little beings. I can’t even look at the red sharps container from my October injections. Just thinking about needles and ultrasound wands makes me shudder.

One April evening, I open my drawer and fish through my camisoles until my fingers grasp the strings of the baby bib I’ve tucked away in there. I bring it to my chest for a hug.

I start thinking about our nine frozen embryos as our children.
 I name them and envision their personalities. Geo is a future astrologist, Raya perks up in the afternoon, Caleb hates mashed peas, Jinny sucks her pinky, Ariana is nearsighted, Ty prefers to be alone, Percy plays with his belly button, Will has a slight lisp, and Lucy wears glittery shoes.

I imagine that they look like miniature toddlers swimming inside ice cubes. In fact, nowadays, I only fill nine squares of our ice tray. Every night before dinner, I plunk four cubes into Jamie’s glass and five into mine. I like to think that our whole brood is with us at the table, comparing stories from their day.

Tomorrow, we have an appointment with our reproductive specialist to discuss the process of transferring one of the embryos into my uterus. Jamie says how lucky we are to have nine chances at getting pregnant. I hold on to this number and wear it on my finger like a diamond. Nine—oh, how it sparkles.

Jamie takes a sip of his iced tea and rests it on his stomach. The ice cubes are melting, turning the brown liquid into a soft amber, but I’m reassured that our actual babies are in a temperature-controlled home, protected from liquefying and evaporating. I envision them in an aquarium-like tank, floating around, safe in their respective ice blocks. Raya zooms around in her dice of ice, while Geo drifts lazily.

Jamie closes his eyes when I scratch his scalp. We talk about the embryo transfer, and I list worries that begin with “what if” and end in “miscarriage” and “birth defect.” Jamie opens his eyes and pulls my face down toward his. He kisses me perpendicularly and his stubble rubs my nose.

“We have nine tries,” he says. “One of them has to take.” When the room turns grey, it’s time to prepare dinner. We’re out of fresh greens, and I consider using some of the broccoli to accompany the cod we’re eating. But I hate how, even after cooking frozen veggies, there’s still the metallic remains of freezer burn, the aftertaste of other items—like Hot Pockets and breakfast sausages—that pressed against them in the freezer.

I wonder, Will our sons and daughters be different because they were frozen? Will they have brains that are mushy from thawing? Will they behave less vibrantly than naturally conceived children? Will they smell faintly of ground turkey?

The next day, we arrive at the headquarters, grinning yet clasping each other’s hands tightly. After our specialist explains how she’ll prep my body, she asks how many embryos we want to transfer. Back in the fall, we were going to transfer two, but now that I’ve been through hospital hell, I want to be more careful with my body.

“One,” I say. “We’ll save the rest so we can have more children later. I don’t want to transfer them all at once. I have no desire to be the next Octomom.”

“You can’t exactly assume that you’ll have extra embryos,” the doctor says.

“Why is that?” Jamie asks. He shifts in his chair, reaches over and places his hand in mine.

The doctor takes another sip of her Diet Coke and says, “Well, they have to survive the thaw.”

Jamie’s voice is steady, but his cheeks flush. “What is the survival rate?” he asks.

“Fifty-fifty,” she says, not looking at us.
 I grip Jamie’s hand.
 Caleb, Jinny, Ariana, Ty and Lucy melt in my mind.
 “So, hypothetically speaking,” says Jamie, “we have four potential babies?”

“Not necessarily,” she says. Our specialist explains that the next hurdle is that they have to attach to the uterine wall.
 “Only about 30 percent of thawed embryos take to the womb,” she says.
 Will, Percy and Raya dissolve into puddles. Only Geo is left. “But if you transfer two,” the doctor says, “you increase your chances.” She throws her now-empty can into the garbage. “Then again, you could always end up with twins.”

Raya resolidifies.

“Well, that’s not the end of the world,” says Jamie, turning toward me. “We could get our family out of the way in one swoop.”

“Yes,” the doctor says, “but you also have to consider that they most likely won’t reach full gestation. All twins, IVF or not, are typically born early.”

The room is quiet, and I bite my nails.

“So, you have a decision to make,” the doctor says. “If more than one embryo survives the thaw, do you want to transfer one or two?”

That night, when I pull out the ice cube tray to fill our glasses, I can no longer envision the squares as our children or even as embryos. They are crystallized water. They are not swimming around. They do not have names. They do not have personalities. We don’t know if any will endure the great defrost and, if they do, we can’t control if any will be strong enough to hold on once inside.

I turn the tray over, twist it a bit and let the frosty contents fall into the sink. Lines shoot up the centre of the cubes, crevasses forming.

Just as I’m about to leave the cubes to drip and drain, I peer down and examine them closely. Some are chipped at the edges, but most of them are still intact, still solid. They are not as fragile as I thought.

I pick the two without cracks and gently slip them into my glass.

My brain wants to protect my heart by saying if. If the embryos survive. If I get pregnant. But now, just a few weeks before our frozen embryo transfer, I’m vibrating with positive energy. I’m trying to use the word if less. Last time, we didn’t tell our friends and family about IVF for fear of jinxing the whole thing, but that obviously didn’t prevent horrible things from happening. So, when we do the embryo transfer, I’m going to announce the good news to everyone.

I’ve been reading IVF discussion forums and blog posts, and I’m relieved to know that I’m not alone in fantasizing about and naming unborn children. For those of us who want children badly or have suffered through IVF, it seems that visualization is the thing that keeps us going—it’s our form of a positive affirmation.

Our belief is that the more we think about our babies, the more likely the universe will bring them to us.

My gut says that we are going to be successful.

Excerpted from Nadine Kenney Johnstone’s new book, Of This Much I’m Sure: A Memoir, published April 2017 by She Writes Press. 

Of This Much I'm Sure book cover

Photo: Courtesy of Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Read more:
IVF should be a right, not a privilege
5 things you should know before starting IVF
Your options when IVF doesn’t work

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