I can’t remember the last day that passed without my wife and I talking about our child. Which is only remarkable because we don’t have one. Yet.
We married 4 1/2 years ago, met another 4 and change before that. Those early, wandering, subtly probing conversations covered a lot of ground, but our respective desires to have kids never came up, which I later came to interpret as its own kind of statement.
To be clear, I didn’t want a baby. I also didn’t not want a baby. I was indifferent on the subject, as many guys are, I think. My general attitude was: I like our life, and I’m perfectly OK with trying to preserve it. It was selfishness mixed with a tablespoon or 2 of insecurity. Most days, I felt like it took everything I had to pull off the role of Functioning Adult. I was pretty sure I didn’t have a reserve hidden somewhere to dedicate to raising a Functioning Kid. Clare, my wife, had her doubts, too.
The catalyst for her change of heart came from a not-entirely-unexpected source. Clare’s the youngest of three sisters. A few years ago, the middle sister had twins. At first, they were the best form of birth control. Twin babies lay waste to everything in their sights. Their parents can only hope to survive until adolescence, or maybe early adulthood, as far as I could tell. My wife offered us up as babysitters for a night—an hour or 2, really. It would be their first away from the boys. Within 15 minutes under our watch, one started choking himself, he was crying so hard, and the other rolled off the couch, took a few steps into the middle of the living room (when he didn’t even know how to walk yet) and projectile-vomited Exorcist-style. The 3-hour drive home was spent mostly in stark silence, save for the occasional burst of crying that Clare couldn’t stifle.
But, quickly, those babies grew into tiny boys who started to recognize us, or, at least, look in our general direction. And as they did, it occurred to Clare that they were unique. They were her blood. They were doing things, her sister would tell her, that she used to do when she was a young girl. When months lapsed between us seeing them, Clare felt like she was losing touch with a piece of herself.
The trouble was, we were a very fragile couple at that point. Our first year of marriage was spent careening between silence and shouting, the second year, in weekly therapy sessions. We had just begun to find our way back to each other. Approaching every day with a hyper-awareness of ourselves and each other is exhausting work. For a long time, it felt awkward, and deliberate and cold, but we committed to it until it didn’t. And it was right around that time that we finally got around to talking about having kids.
I resisted. Again, not because I didn’t want a baby, necessarily. We poured too much time and energy into making our marriage whole, and it was still very much a work-in-progress. I wasn’t willing to jeopardize that. Nor was my wife. But she also wasn’t willing to get pregnant after 35, and that birthday was looming two years away.
We agreed to keep talking while we continued mending our marriage. A couple weeks would pass without mention of it. Somehow, that became misconstrued as me trying to shelve the matter. Clare was only keeping silent, she said, out of courtesy to me. So there was a lot of fumbling around, talking about a baby when we really weren’t talking a baby and vice versa. It took her looking me square in the eyes and promising me that we were going to be OK, that having a baby was committing to our future, a future that wasn’t there just a year earlier, for me to come around.
So You Want to Have a Baby
That should be the end of our story. The three of us lived happily ever after. But the reality was that Clare was a couple months shy of her 34th birthday, and I was a 38-year-old who rode his bike for the last few years like it was his job, in part, to put as much distance as I could between myself and our deteriorating relationship. So while Clare was being run through a gamut of tests by her gynecologist, I was being treated for a persistent case of prostatitis, which eventually revealed two troubling facts: First, I had the prostate of a 70-year-old man. Secondly, my sperm were plentiful, but they were lazy as hell. (My motility, to get technical, was 1 on a scale of 5, with 5 being ideal.) Neither was a lethal blow to our cause, but they definitely didn’t help.
Also not helping was my adverse reaction to scheduled sex. My indifference to having a baby all this time made me naïve. I’d spent all of my adult years praying that I wasn’t going to get someone pregnant, so I thought getting my wife pregnant was just a matter of having a bunch of unprotected sex. Which, technically it is, but according to a strict schedule. With our recent, ever-evolving reunion, sex was still kind of new (read: unnatural) to us. Forcing it at times when you couldn’t be less interested in doing it wasn’t exactly easing the tension. In fact, it tripped something in my subconscious. Outwardly, I was projecting this image of the husband that was totally on board. But my insides were in total upheaval, and eventually that began to manifest in the physical. Four months into trying to conceive on our own, I found myself sitting across from a therapist, the very same one we saw as a couple, trying to come up with positive mantras to get me over my erectile dysfunction.
That was the longest winter of my life. Most days, I felt like a big, open wound. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t look at my wife. Again and again, she carefully approached me and offered nothing but nurturing, but I always misread it as insult. I was inconsolable.
Blinded By Science
When she suggested, last spring, that we start looking into in vitro fertilization (IVF), I took it as a way out of my hurt locker. Science would save the day. I knew almost nothing about the process, but I knew at least that it was far more exacting and way less emotional than what we’d been putting ourselves through for the last several months. The initial consultation affirmed as much.
You can, of course, keep trying on your own, the doctor told us across his sprawling, dark mahogany desk, but the chances of conception, at this point in your lives, is less than 10 percent, and it’s only going to shrink from here. Instead of reacting with horror, we both thought, OK, so we shell out a bunch of money to do this, but in nine months we’ll be cradling our baby. Where do we sign? (Down the long hall, in a generic conference room, with the financial director.) There was an abundance of hope now where there was only a whisper of it on the car ride there.
The shots got more painful by the night, but our faith in the process never diminished. IVF never doesn’t work. Hell, if anything, it works too well. I watched Jon & Kate Plus 8. And then nothing changed. The injections had basically no effect on Clare. The doctor shrugged it off. We’ll just up the doses and try again. But we were very discouraged. Both of us are cynical people, and in that moment, we saw the arrangement for what it was: a business transaction, not a medical procedure. It was easy to be confused, what with all the doctors and nurses walking around in scrubs. There’s also a clear campaign to hold the process above everything, including emotion, which is reinforced by a constant barrage of positive marketing and up-selling to ridiculously-expensive tests that are supposed to buy you peace of mind. We had no trouble dispelling the latter, but we were too vulnerable not to buy into the former. And when the first round didn’t take, we felt more alone than ever, even as we were surrounded by professionals who face this scenario every day and a huge waiting room full of other couples stuck in the same spot.
We collected ourselves and started in on round two. From the beginning, the injections brought Clare to her knees, literally. But every time, she pulled herself up on the bathroom vanity like Rocky raising himself in the corner of the ring. The morning after the final handful of shots, while I got dressed in a cheap, rental tux for my brother’s wedding, Clare absorbed the knockout blow. An ultrasound revealed the worst-case scenario. Maxed out on fertility drugs, she still wasn’t responding. It seemed clear now, the doctor said, that Clare wasn’t ever going to respond. To couples in our position, he suggested trying a third round, because, well, crazier things have happened. But if nothing does happen, it would be time to walk away.
She was devastated. Until that point, it was easy to blame my lazy sperm. But now there appeared to be problems with both of us. How Clare maintained her composure at the wedding that night, I still can’t say. But once we were home, she took shelter in our bed and didn’t leave it for the next 2 days.
The Beginning of the End
It was another couple of weeks before we were ready to talk about what to do next. My vote was for waiting, catching our breath, regaining some perspective. But my wife was turning 35 in a few weeks, her line in the sand, and she wanted to begin the third round, knowing full well now that it would likely lead to another dead end. It was her say more than it was mine—it was her body, after all—so I closed my mouth and got behind her.
This—I guess the only word for it at this point is struggle—was bringing us closer together than therapy ever did, than maybe even those early, halcyon days as a couple ever did. It was us against the world. No one knew what we were going through except for us. (The experience, of course, is familiar to lots of couples, but it was easy to believe that we were the exception.) And we were enduring all of this in the name of each other.
And so began the third round. Inside, we were both almost hollow, but it didn’t make the shots burn any less. When it came time to register their effectiveness, we braced ourselves, already beginning to plot, mentally, where we’d go from here. The reply, nonetheless, startled us both. Clare was in prime position for some egg-retrieving.
What changed? Acupuncture. I’m willing to heap all of the credit there. Clare’s a little less convinced. It’s actually recommended from the start, but she held off until the weeks leading up to the third round. Again, we’re cynical people. Believer or not, it was the only variable between the second and third cycles.
In short order, they removed several healthy-looking eggs and, in a lab upstairs, over the next few days, bred three viable embryos. Two, in fact, were top-grade, thank you very much. Fielding one in a given cycle, we were told, was rare for any couple, especially one with our collective age. One was implanted, the other two were frozen. And less than two weeks after that, our doctor confirmed that Clare was pregnant. She reacted with an uncharacteristic buoyancy. We kept the news hidden from friends and family, but at home, she was already throwing around names.
I was more guarded with my optimism. It’s not that I expected the worst. I don’t know what I expected, and that was just it. For the last year-plus, we were knocked down on a regular basis by the unexpected. Unbeknown to my wife, I did tell my best friend, who himself was several months into fatherhood. Listen, he said, you’re going to be a ball of nerves for the next nine months. And then it’s only going to get worse from there. Embrace it. That’s all you can do. When we huddled around a monitor in a dark exam room, a couple weeks before Christmas, and heard the heartbeat for the first time, nothing else mattered, and I finally let go.
Where Do We Go From Here?
We sat around our dining table on Christmas day and broke the news to my family. I deferred to Clare. It was enough that I could feel my parents’ pride radiating off of them. The next day, my wife told her parents. Her mom, crying, hugged her. Then her sisters, crying, encircled them. And then her dad, crying, wrapped them all up in his long arms.
Two weeks later, my wife left the house at 5 a.m. and headed to her last blood test and ultrasound at the IVF facility. We were on the verge of joining the ranks of the normal expecting parents. Back at home, I’d just finished a run and was making some coffee. My phone rang on the island behind me. I turned and saw her name on the screen. My body went numb. Clare wouldn’t be calling if everything was OK.
There were no words on the other side, just hysterical sobbing. I started crying, too. After a couple of minutes, she managed to squeeze out a few words. The heartbeat was gone. Come home, I said. I put the phone down, walked upstairs, undressed, stepped into the shower and cried until I heard her car pull into the driveway.
For the first time in months, I felt useful to her. She climbed into bed and I brought her some toast and a glass of water. Adding insult to injury, she’d need to go back the next morning to confirm the result. This time, I’d be there with her, at least. In the meantime, I handled the calls to the family, told them all I would keep in close touch, but, please, don’t call her. As long as I kept moving, I wasn’t thinking. I managed to make it through most days without breaking down until I got her settled at night. For the next few weeks, we moved through life talking a language that only the two of us could understand.
It wasn’t all bad, though. We still had two frozen embryos. Once her body returns to normal and we feel strong enough, emotionally, we can move forward with implanting one of them.
Every day, I think to myself, If I knew what these last 18 months held, would I endure them again? The only conclusion I’ve come to is that there’s no way to answer that. I’ve had parenthood described to me as the most profound love you could ever know. It’s only in being a parent that most of us learn how to truly abandon ourselves. In lots of ways, I think I’ve glimpsed that. I thought I knew how to handle almost anything in life. It’s clear now that I have no clue what I’m doing. But neither, really, does anyone else. The best we can hope for is to be compassionate and resilient.