fertility

A Body Alone

2

“Stop taking the progesterone,” Dr. Xiao commanded me during our first meeting. Dr. Xiao was an acupuncturist and herbalist who lived sixty miles away from me, and who had a reputation for helping her patients solve mysterious fertility problems. After six unsuccessful inseminations and four failed months on progesterone supplements, I had finally decided that needles and herbs were worth a shot.

Dr. Xiao had a round, freckled face and wore her long black hair in a braid. She had put on a pair of black reading glasses to examine the thick stack of fertility charts I had handed her, all of them crinkled and some of them tea-stained. As she glanced at each one, I felt a small sense of accomplishment, as if all of the months of logging my temperature finally counted for something. Dr. Xiao held up my most recent chart and pointed to the line that indicated the second half of my cycle. “You have plenty of days here,” she explained. “Progesterone not helping you.” She moved her finger to the mid-point of the chart, the sudden line that signaled ovulation. “We work to make this stronger,” she said. “I want to see sharper rise.”

I had mentioned from the beginning that my partner and I performed six inseminations using donor sperm, and wondered if she understood that we were lesbians. I braced myself for questions, but either Dr. Xiao understood exactly what was going on, or she didn’t care. Perhaps the lines on my chart told the only story she needed.

“Don’t inseminate for three months,” she instructed. “Don’t spend your money. Give me time to do my work.”

For Dr. Xiao I kept my clothes on, but rolled up my sleeves and my pant legs. I lay down on her table, closed my eyes, and pretended to relax. Her office smelled like dark herbs and sounded like rushing water. She stuck needles in my wrists, my ankles and my feet. Sometimes she stuck my ears, and sometimes she stuck between my eyes. Always, the last thing she did was place a call bell beneath my right hand. “You call me if anything not right,” she instructed.

When she left she closed the door behind her, and I would feel how the needles were shifting things around, opening veins, rerouting blood, stretching my nerves. I knew people who claimed to love acupuncture, who said that the needles relaxed them, that they fell asleep on the table and left the office feeling restored. I was not one of those people. Sometimes an ache would move up and down my leg. Sometimes a particular needle felt especially sore, and then the pain would pass. Sometimes my stomach turned. Sometimes a great wave of discomfort would travel through my body. The discomfort was never great enough that I considered ringing the call bell. I treated these feelings as the magic doing its work. But what drove me crazy was the waiting. Sometimes Dr. Xiao returned and removed my needles after only twenty minutes, but more often she left me there for so long that I could no longer track time. I would hear a door open and close, hear her footsteps in the hallway, and think that she was finally coming to release me only to hear her enter another room and talk in muffled tones to a different patient. My stomach growled in hunger. I had to pee. I thought of the piles of student papers waiting in my office sixty miles away. Often I wondered if she might have possibly forgotten about me, if perhaps I should ring the call bell to remind her I was waiting.  I never did. When she finally returned, she set about her work of removing each needle and asking me how I felt. “Good,” I always answered.

At the end of the first visit, Dr. Xiao sent me home with a bag of brown powder and instructions for making tea. “Once your temperature rises, you stop,” she commanded. “No more tea. You come back; I give you different tea for next phase.”

I did as I was told. I took comfort in the tinctures, in drinking each cup until the liquid was cold, and there was a sludge of spent herbs at the bottom.  I imagined my ovaries heeding the instruction these herbs provided, my eggs rearranging themselves. They were getting ready in the dark, like bulbs beneath the ground.

I took comfort also in Dr. Xiao’s view of things. She seemed to treat conception as an indefinite process, a thing that would take many tries and involve many failures. There would be no instant gratification. So far, she was the only doctor who seemed to respect the complexity of our bodies. Dr. Norman and Dr. Katz had protocols, the same for every patient. Dr. Xiao had herbs, a knowledge of meridians, and ideas about my chart.

By the time we inseminated again, our seventh try this time, I had driven alone to Seattle and back seven times. I tried to make luck out of this number—superstition was available to me everywhere—but what I felt more than anything was lonely. After every visit to Dr. Xiao’s office, I walked down the street and dined alone at a small Thai restaurant where I was often the only customer. As I pushed brown rice across my plate, I recognized and eerie feeling that had marked my life in different eras, one that I first noticed as a freshman in college. Every weekend my dorm roommate went home overnight to visit her parents and I happily claimed our shared space as my own. But though I enjoyed the solitude, I often felt like my own shadow waking, eating, and dressing with no one to bear witness. Often as I did my own dishes I sang this line from a Throwing Muses song: a kitchen is a place where you  prepare….and clean up. It seemed like a throwaway line, and yet it spoke to me,  calling attention to the strangeness of doing something only to undo it, to make a special meal, only to have to do all of the dishes and put them away. Which was, in a way, what my life had now became. All that effort into preparing my body every month, over and over, only to bleed it away.

Try number seven ended in blood. Try number eight ended in blood. Try number nine ended in blood.

Try number ten was the last try we had, the only remaining vial of the stockpile of sperm we had purchased, the last of the samples our selected donor had left at the clinic before moving on to the next phase of his life.

Note: This is the second installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. I don’t promise to move chronologically or reveal the whole story, but you can read the first installment here.

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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.

Some of the Ways I Didn’t get Pregnant

Image(image from http://www.webmd.com/baby/ss/slideshow-conception)

1. I didn’t get pregnant by intrauterine insemination, the procedure that requires a doctor to insert a catheter into a woman’s cervical os—a tiny and tender hole—and slowly release sperm. The sperm has been washed and frozen, thawed and spun. Meanwhile the recipient lies in a hospital gown, her feet in stirrups. Ten times that recipient was me, lying there trying to will those expensive sperm towards my patient egg. But each time my egg failed me, or the sperm failed me, or my body failed me—it’s hard to say which. I didn’t get pregnant, just a little hurt and broke.

2. I didn’t get pregnant “just by looking at a penis,” even though a number of women informed me that they themselves were so fertile this was all it took. “All I have to do…” they’d say. It became a surprisingly regular conversation. At the time, I thought they were inadvertently rubbing it in my face that they could achieve so easily the very thing that was costing me so much time and expense. But maybe they were trying to be helpful, hinting that maybe there just weren’t enough penises in my life. In fact, it may be true that in the two years it took me to conceive my first son, I did not look at a single penis.

3. I didn’t get pregnant by relaxing, though that was by far the most popular suggestion. With every month that passed, more and more people said it: “Maybe you just need to relax.” I tried, but perhaps my problem was that I thought relaxation was an attitude. I told myself to breathe when I felt nervous or hopeless, or when I worried about my worrying because apparently my fears were like corrosive acid to my reproductive organs. Maybe by “relax” they meant an action, like a month in Hawaii or a weekly massage. Maybe what they meant was: have a drink.

4. I didn’t get pregnant from a turkey baster, although my son did develop a fondness for our turkey baster (used, I swear, for basting turkeys) when he was two. He played with it in the bath, he slept with it for a couple of nights, and then he wanted to bring it to preschool one day. I told him no, offering no good reason, because—you know—the kid with two moms wants to bring a turkey baster to preschool, and I worry what people will think. And so I was relieved that he moved on to other interests before doing something really concerning like naming it “Dad”.