TTC

Screw Fate

Memoir Mondays, Installment #3:

All of those stories about infertility, the ones with happy endings, they all seemed to go the same way. The pregnancy didn’t happen on the sixth try or the seventh, it happened at some critical juncture, when all hope was on the verge of being lost.

Maybe it happened after three failed rounds of in-vitro fertilization, or after the husband learned that his sperm were immotile, or on the mother-to-be’s forty-second birthday after half a dozen miscarriages.

As we prepared for our tenth insemination, I tried to have faith in the happy-ending stories, to believe that my own good news was imminent. I imagined calling all my friends and telling them: It was meant to be. Our last vial of sperm. Fate was testing us, but in the end it was kind.

Kellie met me at the fertility clinic for a procedure that had now become routine. Each visit had included the same painful exam where Dr. Norman entered me with gloved fingers and announced that my uterus was retroverted, and each time I wondered why he couldn’t have just written that in his notes and skipped this part of the ritual.  This time, if Dr. Norman had noted that we were using our last vial of sperm, that there was nothing left of our original stockpile, he didn’t mention it. He headed for the door with no special goodbye, no good luck wishes.

“Wait!” I called as he entered the threshold. “One last question.” I asked if he had any advice if I wasn’t pregnant by the end of this cycle. We had been trying for a while now, I reminded him. Should I be taking some tests? Were there treatments I should consider?

He opened his manila folder and glanced over my chart. “This is your tenth attempt,” he told me, as if perhaps I hadn’t been keeping my own count. “We normally recommend in vitro after six failed tries. So that would be my recommendation: in vitro fertilization.” He nodded and left the room.

“What’s in vitro?” Kellie asked me. It took me a minute to answer her. I felt like he had hit me over the head with a tire iron, and as I lay there in a hospital gown, I tried to gather my composure.

“That’s the thing where you pay them a million dollars, and you inject hormones in my ass every day. Then they harvest a bunch of my eggs and make embryos in a petri dish.”

“Oh,” Kellie said, unfazed. “We’re not there yet.”

I agreed with Kellie’s assessment more than I agreed with Dr. Norman’s.  I had asked him the question in a moment of recognition that he was a doctor, a specialist, and perhaps he had untapped wisdom. But no, all he had were protocols, and those protocols were irrelevant to my situation. For a straight woman to arrive at six failed intrauterine inseminations would have meant that she had already tried to conceive naturally for over a year. It also likely meant that she had undergone a series of tests. But Kellie and I had done none of that. We’d simply walked through their door. I’d had acupuncture and three months of progesterone, but so far no one had even drawn my blood. As desperate as I felt, I wasn’t ready to be told that I was IVF material.

When I rose to leave the building I was alarmed by the rush of fluid to my underwear. This had happened every time, and yet it never ceased to dismay me. Though one vial of sperm was less than a tablespoon, and though I remained supine on the exam table for half an hour to better guide the fluid towards my uterus, it always spilled out of me in a rush the moment I stood up. It struck me as an expensive way to juice up your underwear.

On the car ride home, I held onto Kellie’s hand. I dispelled Dr. Norman from my mind, and tried not to consider the indefinite future. For two weeks I waited and played that hopeful story on a loop. I told myself maybe, maybe, maybe. Maybe soon I’ll be calling my friends with good news.

But I didn’t make those phone calls. My period arrived on time.

There was no special way to mark it, this period that arrived thirteen months after our first attempt at conception. We’d been through summer, then through autumn, winter, spring, and now we were coming to the other side of summer again. I took the dogs on a long walk under a flat gray sky and thought about what I would have by now if things had gone the way I expected: a baby strapped against me, nearly four months old. I wondered about these eggs that I’d expelled, each one carrying its own unique code of who it might have become if given a chance. Some of them were girls and some were boys. They assembled in my brain, a party of babies, all of them wearing onesies, some in bonnets, some in tiny leather shoes, some of them laughing, some of them crying, some of them gazing contentedly at nothing in particular as newborns often do. These were the kinds of thoughts I entertained every day, but never spoke out loud.

Note: This is the third 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 earlier installments here and here.

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.

How we Made our Family (…with a little help from our friends)

I’ve written on this blog about some of the ways I didn’t get pregnant.

This week in Mutha Magazine, I’ve got an essay about how we did.

Here’s a teaser:

It had been nearly a year and we still weren’t pregnant…There had to be another way.

Kellie reminded me that there was. If we could find the right man, we could move this operation into our home. We wouldn’t pay doctors. I wouldn’t have to lie on the cold exam table every month; there would be no clamp, no stirrups. Somehow, my desperation gave way to optimism. Maybe he was out there.

You can click on the link to learn how Smoke and Stump came to be.

http://muthamagazine.com/2014/08/jennifer-berney-on-how-a-village-made-our-family/

Truth be told, this essay is a highly condensed version of the full-length memoir I’m currently working on. For me it’s the story of how a single act of generosity has shifted my definition of family. Thanks for reading!

Introducing Stump and Smoke

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

Smoke and Stump circa 2013

“Did you know we chose a donor?” I asked our friend Dee. Kellie was driving, Dee was riding shotgun, and I was in the cramped backseat of our truck. I had scooched to the middle and leaned forward between them so that we could talk over the roar of the diesel engine. We were headed to our cabin in northern Washington. At this point in the journey, the sun was high, we’d all finished our coffee, and we were driving up a mountain.

“Finally,” Dee said.

Earlier that week, Kellie and I had finally decided on two potential donors from a catalogue of hundreds. I filled Dee in on our choices. Our top pick was a guy who was listed as six foot two, athletic, a native Canadian of Ukrainian descent. It was hard to explain why we had chosen him. We had looked at endless questionnaires, the answers hand-written, and it seemed that, more than any particular answer, the handwriting itself told a story. Overly neat handwriting made me suspicious, like the donor had something to hide. I took comfort in handwriting that was legible, but hurried.

“So you’re going with the Ukrainian Canadian?” Dee clarified. She thought that was funny, and she made up a song, envisioning him as a bearded lumberjack. In a low voice, she sang, “The Ukrainian Canadian came through for us today!” The tune was catchy. Soon we were all singing it as we crested the mountain pass.

“Say goodbye to your dreams of having a girl,” she warned Kellie. From the beginning, Kellie had clung to an idea that she’d make a better parent to a girl than she would to a boy. “You’re going to have two burly sons, and everyone’s going to call them Smoke and Stump.” We laughed some more and, strangely, I could picture it: two little boys in denim and striped shirts, running around with dirt on their knees. Maybe it was the mountain landscape we were passing through, but I imagined us living in a Podunk town where they’d spend their days building forts out of fallen branches and learning to chop firewood.

Kellie laughed along. The idea of Stump and Smoke seemed to make her more comfortable with the idea of having a boy or two—so comfortable that she advocated for actually naming our kids Smoke and Stump. “You’re not serious,” I said. But she was.

We joked about Stump and Smoke for months, but in the end we all but forgot. The Ukrainian Canadian didn’t come through for us after all, and after two years of trying to conceive and failing, no one was making jokes about the names of our future babies. So it wasn’t until last week, when brooding over what pseudonyms I should give my children for this blog, that it hit me—we have two boys! We have our Stump and Smoke! Dee’s joke had been prophecy.

It’s clear to me who’s who. Smoke is my older son, my five-year-old. He is wily and elusive, in many places at once. He may look as if he’s sitting at the kitchen table, but in reality he is spread throughout the universe, entertaining multiple daydreams. Any discipline tactics I attempt can and will be used against me. The other day he warned me “Mommy, you better hand me that milkshake by the time I count to five.”

No fence can stand in Smoke's way.

No fence can stand in Smoke’s way.

And Stump suits my one-year-old, with his brute strength, my baby who, as I’ve mentioned before, I once caught hanging from the counter ledge like an action hero. Currently, Stump likes to pull large stones from the birdbath and hurl them like shot puts. He thinks it’s hilarious to pinch my bare skin with his determined little fingers and hear me cry in pain.

Stump is so hearty, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Stump is so hardy, he eats mustard greens for breakfast.

Kellie may once have dreamed of a daughter, but we are pleased with Stump and Smoke, our family of two women completed by two boys. Dee must have known they were our destiny, and she prepared us for it in her way, by inviting us to laugh at sperm and strength and boy-ness.

Better than Band-aids: some things that made infertility suck a little less

Last week I wrote about my struggle to get pregnant with my first son. During those two years, I heard all kinds of advice and remarks that were generally unhelpful—unhelpful in the way that I’m sure I am when close friends are going through some kind of personal turmoil that I have no experience with. I may listen and nod, but when it comes time for me to say something, I come up short. I say the equivalent of “Just relax and it will happen,” or, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” But this week I want to point a bright ray of sunlight on the few things that helped me during that time.

1. After about six months of trying to conceive, I sat cross-legged on a friend’s couch, explaining how I had assumed I’d be pregnant on the first or second try. She looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you know, you’re still one of the most fertile people I know.” I carried that sentence around with me for the next year and half like a stone in my pocket. Infertility had made me feel broken, but my friend’s statement helped me see the larger picture, to understand that fertility might mean more than making babies, that my person still had value.

2.  A counselor once told me, at the end of our session: “Seek as much pleasure as you can.” In some ways, this statement might not be so different from the ubiquitous advice, “Relax!”, but I found it far more helpful. To me, “Relax!” was an admonition; it implied that I was doing it all wrong. But “Seek pleasure” was instructive. It didn’t promise a baby, but it reminded me that in the meantime I could enjoy myself. It helped me sleep more, eat better, and listen to the whisper inside of me that told me what I craved.

3. In the spirit of seeking pleasure, I stopped spending a fortune on acupuncture (which I did not enjoy) and instead sought out a massage therapist. During our first session, she asked what I wanted to work on, and I told her I’d been trying to conceive for over a year. She looked at me with empathy and revealed, “It took me three years to get pregnant.” And suddenly, just like that, I felt hopeful again.

4. This last one is impossible, but it would have solved everything. One day, when my first son was two, we were on a walk together and I realized: if I could have a photograph of this moment, and if I could time travel back two years, I would have had so much patience. If I could have seen a single photo of my son, there would have been no dread or urgency to my waiting. They say that faith is knowing without proof, and apparently I’m incapable of that, which is what made those years painful. If the future me could have provided the past me with proof, I’m certain those two years would have felt like twenty-four months instead of an impossible eon.

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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”.