She’s Not My Mother

bigstock-sperm-going-for-the-egg-38755240The fertility clinic waiting room was not what I expected. I had imagined leather couches, warm lighting, and potted plants—the kind of décor that might suggest to clients that the thousands of dollars they were spending was being directed, at least in part, to their own care and comfort.

Instead, I opened the door to find two rows of uncomfortable chairs, outdated wall paper, and fake plants that frayed at the edges. The reception desk was empty, but Kellie and I weren’t alone. A woman in a long dress and bonnet stood watching her two boys play in the corner while her husband, dressed like his sons in a collared shirt, pants, and suspenders, sat reading a magazine with one leg crossed over the other. I recognized them as Mennonites; I’d seen other Mennonite families before, not at the downtown library or at the local drug store, but always, remarkably enough, at Costco, walking through the aisles with a passel of children, filling their cart with rotisserie chickens and boxes of cereal. I tried not to stare in Costco just as I tried not to stare now. It was hard for me to understand that someone with two sons already would pursue medical intervention for infertility. Two kids seemed like plenty to me. If you found that a third child didn’t come easily, wouldn’t you just call your family complete?

Neither the husband, nor the wife, nor either of the sons made eye contact with us, but surely we had crossed their periphery and they had questions about us as well.

Kellie sat anxiously, her face hidden behind long hair and a brimmed stocking cap.  Normally, she moved through the world with ease. Just a week earlier she’d amazed me when she met me for happy hour at a bar that I normally frequented without her. It was the kind of place where the waitresses are notoriously grumpy—it’s part of the décor, and you tip them extra to apologize for being a customer. That day the waitress and I had a typical curt exchange, but when Kellie arrived she greeted the waitress by name. “Hey there Anne,” she said, sliding into the booth.

“How you doing?” the waitress responded. It was the first time I’d seen her face bear any expression other than a scowl. They bantered for a moment before Kellie ordered a beer.

“You know her?” I asked Kellie, awestruck.

“Not really,” she said. “We’ve just both been around for a while.”

It would never occur to Kellie to fear a grumpy waitress. It was a rare situation, like being in this clinic, that made Kellie feel she had to hide.

Eventually, a nurse called my name and led us down a corridor to deposit us in a room with a giant desk. “Dr. Lu will see you in a moment,” she explained. “And then you’ll consult with Dr. Norman.”

We sat in silence for several more minutes. Kellie marked time by tapping her foot. I examined my nails, and pushed at my cuticles.

Dr. Lu entered through a door at the back of the room and we rose to shake his hand. He was a middle-aged Korean man, broad-shouldered and lean.

“Who’s this?” he asked, nodding at Kellie. “Your mother?”

My heart dropped. “My partner,” I corrected, and watched his face to see if his error registered, but his expression did not change.

“Ok, fine,” he said, and looked at me. “You carry?”

“Yes.”

He took out his clipboard. “How old are you?” he asked.

“Twenty-eight.”

“How many times have you been pregnant?”

“Zero. None.”

“Are you sure?”

Kellie and I exchanged panicked glances. In my mind, the worst case scenario hadn’t been this dramatic. I’d imagined an office that felt like the real-world incarnation of all of those brochures and websites I’d looked at. I imagined doctors who were welcoming, who smiled at us and treated us like regular patients, but quietly signaled they were less than comfortable. I imagined they might avoid making eye contact with Kellie, but I never imagined they’d ask if she was my mother, or question my very definitive answers about my body’s own history.

“I’m certain,” I told Dr. Lu.

He kept rattling off questions, his eyes fixed on his clipboard, and I kept answering them; my entire body was tense as if I were waiting for the right moment to flee. I could feel the same tension in Kellie’s body. It was like we were one animal.

The questions ended. If there was one thing I could credit Dr. Lu for, it was that he didn’t waste any time with small talk. “Dr. Norman will come soon,” he informed us while rising with his clipboard. This left Kellie and me alone in the office once again.

“I want to walk out of here,” she said.

“Do you think we should?” I asked. I wanted to support Kellie in her reaction to our treatment so far. I told her that if she wanted to leave right now, I would follow. But I felt trapped. This was the one fertility clinic in our town. The fact that there were two larger cities within sixty miles of us, that they might easily welcome us, didn’t occur to me. This place had a file for me. They were already storing our sperm. I didn’t want to wait another month. And besides that, I couldn’t imagine walking out mid-appointment. What would we tell the receptionist? What would the Mennonites think? I straightened my back in the chair, and told myself it didn’t really matter where or how we conceived our baby. Sure, this clinic sucked. But did this process really have to be magical? In my mind, I willed Kellie to cool down.

“Maybe this next doctor will be better,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, with no trace of hope in her voice.

Dr. Norman entered the room in his white lab coat and shiny brown loafers. He introduced himself with a soft voice; his hand, when I shook it, was dry and cold. He resembled Mr. Rogers, only taller, stooped, and aloof. He did seem like an improvement on Dr. Lu, if only because he wasn’t barking questions at me, and because he seemed to understand our situation.

“So,” he said, looking over the clipboard that Dr. Lu must have handed to him backstage, “we want to have a baby, and we’ve agreed that the younger one of you will carry.”

Kellie and I nodded. He looked up. “I’m going to write in your chart ‘Male Factor Infertility.’” Kellie and I laughed together, assuming he was making a joke to break the discomfort, but Dr. Norman returned his gaze to the desk and proceeded to write down exactly that.

Months later, I would remember this moment and understand it from a new angle. Dr. Norman wasn’t being funny; he simply had no protocol for lesbians. He was preparing to administer a medical treatment and, even though we were paying out of pocket, we needed a diagnosis. Apparently, it wasn’t standard practice to simply scrawl out: Lesbians.

We left that day with instructions to call their office at the first sign of ovulation. During the car ride home, Kellie and I barely spoke. Instead we looked straight ahead at the road, the crosswalks, the traffic lights; we replayed the uncomfortable moments on a loop in our minds, privately, as if by not speaking them aloud we could erase them.

The above scene marks the launch of a new feature on this blog: Memoir Mondays. Once a month I’ll be sharing a scene from my memoir-in-progress.

109 comments

  1. I’m glad you’re taking us on this monthly journey. It’s amazing that your city had only this fertility clinic. That was a few years ago, though; do you think things are better now?

  2. Wow… first of all, loved the writing and can’t wait to read the whole book. I was in it with you both, really feeling all the discomfort and was really struck by the bareness of how the clinic handled their meeting with you. I also think you are talking about something that hasn’t gotten written much about- and hopefully, is changing. How someone like the doctors you mentioned might handle a fertility appointment between couples of the same sex as opposed to male/female. You definitely left me wanting to know what happens next.

    • Thanks Diahann. I think part of the trouble relates to our model of medicine that can be so inflexible. In the chapter I’m working on now, I write about how it was hard to get treated for infertility because typically couples have to try for a full year before a doctor will make that diagnosis. But it’s maddening to have to wait a full year when you’re spending hundreds of dollars every month since you don’t have the natural equipment to try for free.

  3. WOW. I literally LOL’ed along with you at the “male factor” “diagnosis” you were given, thinking it was a joke. I’m sure if I’d been following your blog for any time (just followed the link from your piece on Diahann’s post), I would know how the answer — but how long ago WAS this? I mean, the so-called Lesbian Baby Boom became a Thing at least by the mid-90s, I thought.

    Sheesh. I look forward to future installments of Memoir Monday, which will no doubt continue to amuse and appall me on your behalf!

    Best, alice

    • Thanks for reading! This happened around 2006, believe it or not. And it’s strange, as I pull these chapters together I notice how many run-ins I had with the medical profession that were similar. At the time I was too preoccupied with getting pregnant to take in the absurdity of it.

  4. In a lot of ways and in a lot of places, healthcare seems to be ahead of the times with respect to technology and behind the times with respect to psychology. How much longer would it take to show a little compassion? Great post. I’ll be looking for the updates.

  5. Loved this installment when I first read it a couple of weeks ago, never got around to leaving a comment though. Suddenly it’s in my reader again -Freshly Pressed! Congratulations – deservedly so.

  6. You’ve already got me hyped to read the rest! Wow. Truly eye-opening. I’m a gay man who adores children, but is conflicted about having them. I felt so sure about it several years ago, but things were, I suppose, different then. I’m sure things will be even more different in some time than they are currently.

    Great site and I look forward to reading the rest! Best of luck to you.

    • Yes, it feels like things are evolving quickly. My partner was also conflicted about having a child in the first place, but she wound up advocating for the second, so it seems to have worked out. 😉 Thanks for reading!

      • I’m glad it’s worked out. You both rock! Happy to have followed! Check out my own site when you get a chance!

  7. Memoir Mondays is a fabulous idea, wish i would’ve thought of it seeing though in also in a memoir writing journey. Thank you for sharing such a personal scene in your life and the ease of reading your storytelling. I’m sure i would’ve wanted to run from the hills like Kellie. In have little patience when I’m paying for any service. This kind of added challenge makes me thankful my wife and i don’t want children.
    windycitywardrobe.com

  8. If it makes you feel any better, I am from a big city at a fancy clinic where the doctors are all women and all amazing (I am a single mother by choice) and I am not getting pregnant – with no medical reason so I am sure it won’t be the status of the clinic that allows you and your partner to become amazing parents!! Love your blog!

    • Thanks Nicole. This was a flash from the past, and now I do have two sons. It took me over two years to conceive my first son though, and I too had no identifiable medical reason. Good luck to you!

  9. Wow! Great writing! The sensory details had me with you and Kellie in the clinic. Then the psychological details, which really enhanced this story. Sorry for your experience, which is the reason for this wonderfully written piece. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. Now that I know you’re doing Memoir Mondays, I have to follow your blog.

  10. Wow, Jenn – what strong writing. The awkwardness and discomfort was palpable. And the whole situation – so much different from my own, in my little liberal bastion here. Our doctor took it as a matter of course with nary a blink. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, by the way. We’ve missed you at yeah write! 🙂

  11. I love your perspective on this! Instead of being offended, you saw things objectively, compassionately and ultimately walked away from this awkward situation happy.

    All the best ladies! 🙂

  12. Love this! Thank you for sharing it!

    Understanding completely, we had to travel the 45 miles to reach the one clinic that does inseminations *and we live in a city of -75,000. Ridiculous? Yes. Especially in 2012. But our daughter was worth all the driving, waiting in weird offices, awkward moments, and dense doctors 🙂

    Congrats on being featured! So glad to have found you!

  13. I loved this post! You have a great writing style and I appreciate that you are opening our eyes to how misguided the medical profession is. Why does everything have to go by the books every time? Anyway, congratulations on your daughter!

  14. Oops, just realized from your other post that you have a son (so do I!) Sorry for writing “daughter”!

  15. Hi, Jenn, I know you’ve probably heard it a lot before, but I absolutely loved your post because it was so real. Somehow, it just seemed as though you were telling the story in person rather than writing it! 🙂 Looking forward to reading the next installment…

  16. Great read! You tipped the waitress extra to apologize for being a customer. That actually made me laugh out loud. I’m looking forward to reading more. Thank you.

  17. India, if am not sounding too bias is a better place to the complex ailments like infertility. Though I am a practicing Pediatrician, I have an astute infertility specialist among my friends and catering their services very generously. The services they provides are on par or Tantamount to the fees they charge.

  18. How did I miss this? Love the idea of you sharing bits and pieces of your memoir over time. Your description of these offices, these weird moments that were so intensely visceral and private played out in coldly, public waiting rooms with people who could never know you… they send me right back. Moments like when an ultrasound tech can only point out one heartbeat where there should be two or when doctors write cold things like dysgenetic pregnancy on your chart.
    This is heartbreakingly beautiful.

    • Ugh. In writing this I’m finally seeing how many of those moments I’ve had. And in sharing it I learn how common they are to everyone, which I think is deeply reflective of our current medical system.

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