Repost / Babies Everywhere, But Not For Us

Originally published in the NYT here 

 

KABUL, Afghanistan — It was about a month ago that I realized I may never have children.

I was sitting next to my husband at a small in vitro fertilization clinic in Istanbul, the kind entirely decorated in different shades of cream. We had already had three failed I.V.F. cycles, but we were hopeful and happy. In Afghanistan, where we live, there is no I.V.F., and with our modest incomes it seemed like a blessing to have affordable reproductive treatments a five-hour flight away. Between injections and consultations, we wandered by the Bosporus, holding hands and tearing apart fish sandwiches, as though on vacation.

The doctor, a handsome man with a shock of white hair, walked up as I was thumbing through one of the few books in the waiting room, “Infant Massage: A Guide for Loving Parents.” I expected to be ushered into the surgical quarters for the final stage of I.V.F. treatment: Since their extraction three days earlier, my eggs, fertilized by my husband’s sperm, should have divided into cells ready for transfer back into my body. The doctor’s solemn greeting told me instead that in a petri dish somewhere in that clinic, my eggs had refused to do anything at all.

More than two years earlier, my husband and I had sat in our high-walled garden in Kabul, fingers entwined, and decided that we wanted children. It had not been an unqualified yes. We had debated if it would mean too fast an exit from our new home in Afghanistan: My husband was a journalist, as was I, sporadically; the story was fresh, and other work hard to come by. We often traveled together and would ruminate over how a child could fit into our lives and how much of what we loved we would have to give up.

But the idea of a baby took root, irreversibly. Children are plentiful in Afghanistan — the average birthrate is about five per woman — and in this country mired in war, they have repeatedly stunned me with their ability to conjure joy. I have marveled at a giddy 3-year-old unaware of the enormity that her leg had been lost to shrapnel and at two teenage girls in a ramshackle school who said they wanted to study astrophysics.

We named our baby — Ramona, for a girl; Billy, for a boy — and when Afghans asked me, as they almost always ask, if I had children, I would smile and say, hopefully this year. They would nod in approval and respond, Inshallah.

During two years of increasingly invasive medical intervention, I saw not failure, only challenges. Reproductive medication like metformin and clomid did not work; neither did timed sex, two surgeries, two intrauterine inseminations and three rounds of I.V.F., for which we had to fly to another country. As we dug into our savings, spending $10,000, then $20,000, then more, I became increasingly dedicated. I gave up coffee, declined alcohol, submitted to acupuncture and took daily a range of vitamins sold on websites picturing babies wrapped up as presents.

To be infertile in Afghanistan has been difficult. One intrauterine insemination, which we tried before I.V.F., was canceled when the most reputable clinic in Kabul forgot to order a catheter. Looking sick with guilt, the gynecologist finally broke the news to us after we had waited three hours at the clinic. I howled in the waiting room, clutching my husband, as the heads of pregnant Afghan women and their husbands bowed around us, uncomfortable with seeing a married couple touch in public.

But at least in Afghanistan, we earned enough and lived cheaply enough to afford treatment in Turkey. Had we lived elsewhere — like in my native Australia — we might have gone into debt for it.

I.V.F. is a remarkable medical innovation, responsible for more than five million babies since it was pioneered in the late 1970s. But its success has been oversold, and in my experience the professionals involved rarely articulated the high probability of failure. This is perhaps out of a benevolent desire to maintain patients’ hopes. It is also likely because of the mass commercialization of I.V.F. Rather than being told the truth, I was sold a fertility fantasy.

Our I.V.F. clinic in Istanbul had said our chances of pregnancy were good. I began treatment at 36, and fertility typically declines at that age, though not as much as is popularly thought: According to at least three recent studies, women ages 35 to 40 have around an 80 percent chance of getting pregnant naturally.

Everyone I knew seemed able to relay an I.V.F. success story. And we were healthy, nonsmokers. We asked about living in Afghanistan as foreigners; our doctor said stress has never been proved to inhibit pregnancy. He told us that I.V.F. might not work the first time, but that it often did on subsequent attempts.

What he never told us was that for most women, I.V.F. fails more often than it succeeds.

For such a common medical procedure, statistics are hard to find, difficult to understand and flawed, sometimes even excluding women with the poorest prognoses. One of the more comprehensive reports I found was from the Australia and New Zealand Assisted Reproduction Database. In 2014, it found, I.V.F. cycles in which women used their own eggs had only a 20 percent chance of resulting in the birth of a baby. In my age bracket, 35 to 39, there was a less than 18 percent chance of success. For women between 40 and 44, the odds were under 7 percent.

I.V.F. clinics and associations often claim higher, misleading figures. They publish results for I.V.F. involving donor eggs and surrogates, which often have better outcomes, particularly for older women; or pregnancy rates, rather than birthrates; or figures based on embryo transfers, ignoring that some women who start I.V.F. cycles — myself included — may not have any suitable embryos to transfer.

In any case, statistics are just averages, and we relied on our doctor to be our best resource. After he broke the news of the fourth I.V.F. failure, simmering from grief, I dismissed his usual anecdotes of past miracles. I demanded answers, facts. When pressed, he delivered them: From our initial tests, some nine months earlier, he had estimated we had only a 10 percent chance of having a baby through I.V.F.

“And now?” I asked, my voice rising.

“Less than 10 percent,” he said, peering at postcard-size scans of my womb — misshapen triangles of dark static — neatly clipped to a light green folder.

“Five percent? Seven percent?” I shrieked.

“A slim chance.”

When to stop trying is a formidable decision to make. In the past month, I have grieved for a child who has never existed, and then, remembering I have a friend who had a stillbirth, have felt ashamed of my self-indulgence. I also have thought of the Afghan woman I met who, unable to have children, sat silent over the evening meal as her family discussed how long her husband should wait until he took a second wife. I may be infertile, but I am fortunate, and remain deluded: Our chances keep getting thinner, but the sliver of possibility still seduces me.

 

I’m fine

I am 21 years old when two pink lines tell me that I’m pregnant. To give context to this desperate public bathroom cliche, know that I have wanted to be a mother since I was a child, I knew that He was my life love days into our relationship at 17 years of age and went on to bare two of his daughters some 10 years later. But in this loaded moment the only clarity a clear blue test offers me is an instant knowing that I am not going to have this baby. The unexpected conviction is overwhelming & unwelcome.

There are quiet, well established rules set about how we are supposed to feel in this situation & I’m not comfortable breaking them but it’s difficult to wrestle your conscience with piss wet fingers in the beach carpark amenities.

Plans are made and the motions are unrecognisable. Waiting seems infinite. My natural tradgectory is inward but it becomes tenfold. Introspection places my fear & the truth is horrific to me. I’m scared I won’t be able to have an abortion. I’m scared someone will make me have a baby. This is hard in ways I can’t reconcile, like butting heads with biology. I strive to feel guilt, shame, uncertainty but I cant reach them. I torture myself with threats that this may be the only chance I get to mother but that doesn’t feel like reason enough. How strange to tempt the dichotomy of time and circumstance. I’ve always been plagued by a healthy share of paradoxes but not wanting the very thing I’ve always wanted is the loneliest irony.

The nurse takes my hand and asks me to count backwards from ten. Anaesthesia like ice cold comfort, I too willingly surrender to a black expanse in which everything will cease to exist for a moment in time. Its a relief to disappear, it’s a relief to reappear. In between I dream of He & I hurtling toward forever.

Six years later I am holding a glass of wine in the solace of my mothers lounge room, warm and buzzing with conversation & familiarity as she prepares dinner for the family. I’m only half listening to the news bulletin but something grabs a hold of the pit of my stomach before I can comprehend what I’m hearing. There is a call for women to contact an abortion clinic due to incidents of deliberate infection with hepatitis by an anaesthetist. The clinic appears on the television screen.

I watch my wine creep through broken glass and pool in a deep red circle in the middle of the room. He holds my shaking hand and says it’s going to be ok. I can hear that my mother is no longer talking or cooking. Secrets exposed in a quiet panic and I cannot bare to turn around and face her.

It takes close to an hour to get through to speak to the receptionist and when she answers the phone I don’t speak for a full minute but she waits, breathing steadily until I find words. My voice immediately betrays me because she whispers “it’s ok love, take your time” before I even finish a sentence.

She takes my name and date of birth. Another black expanse of time opens up as I wait for her investigation. I try to revisit the circumstances, the decision, the relief it all bought. I tell myself this is a reckoning. That I deserve this for lack of responsibility. For selfishness. For granting us the luxury of time. I throw anything at myself to try to numb the blow I’m about to receive but nothing sticks. There is no guilt or shame & still no regret, just the quiet first stir of rage.

“You’re fine. He didn’t treat you, he wasn’t here yet. You’re fine darling”

Of course I’ll never forget what she said but how about the way she says it? Euphoric relief rushes through her airwaves so that when the words come she is almost laughing.

I’ll never forget that my safety offered a complete stranger such assurance. Powerless in the tide of someone else’s hate, this is how we realise our value.

So my vulnerability was imagined, this tradgety does not belong to me. The shame of how good it feels completes my rage. I’m angry because I was made to feel sorry for myself. I’m angry because I was so glad it wasn’t me. I’m angry because it was someone else. I’m angry because I still don’t regret it. I’m angry because isn’t it already hard enough. I’m angry because where are we fucking safe. I’m angry because things like this could take away our right to choose.

Is that what this was? A punishment?

Protesters scream on the news, a grotesque vindication. Dead eyes of the perpetrator in handcuffs stare through the camera. I turn off the television and remember the receptionists voice. To how many women did she have to say it wasn’t

alright, darling? How many of them weren’t holding the hands of the person they love when they heard? And now to have to live with illness, everyday a reminder. Their vulnerability in that defenceless time is so crushing to me that I am not game enough to read about exactly how he did it, a cowardice indeed but this heartbreak does not need completion.

I almost never think about this occurance, and don’t feel that it has stayed with me much at all until I find out that I have to deliver my first child surgically. As my obstetrician goes over the details of the procedure I can hear myself asking if I’ll ever be left alone with the anaesthetist or put under a general anaesthetic. No he responds, perplexed.  So I tell him, awkwardly, apologetically. I wait for him to say something but he is silent.

I finally speak and euphoric relief rushes through my airwaves so that when the words come I’m almost laughing. “I’m fine darling, he didn’t treat me. I’m fine”.

Obscurity in the Suburbs

As I sat there in the dark, feeling my way through the fringe at the end of my bedspread – fingers counting each thread one by one, I could feel the anxiety building up in the discomfort of my current sleeping situation.  It was warm enough for me to take off the wool sweater I had accidentally fallen asleep in, but cool enough for me to regret doing so shortly after. The winter had carried into spring, and the days of concrete skies had flowed into the dark and damp nights.

Weather has such an effect on people. I get joy out of the silliness of people saying they prefer rain, which feels like a person stating unwittingly, “I love living without a vital vitamin for a healthy body and life.” Like all self-proclaimed pluviophile’s are somehow equipped to go on without the natural necessities that the sun offers. I longed for the days we spent in California.  Though it wasn’t just for the sunshine, which I always ended up dreading by late summer. It was for the freedom my very shortly lived youth had in the Sunshine State, and the feeling of the summer nights that never seems to go away, even as I age. Half naked on beaches, smoking cigarettes, and drinking shitty booze without the aftermath of death in the form of a hang over for days there after.

Did you know the last time I let go like that? the last time I tried acting as though I was the same wild and free person I vaguely remember from pictures? I actually had to go to the hospital to get rehydrated. I had IV’s in my arm, and a high strength drug running through one of them to clear up the migraine which was triggered from the alcohol, and I felt absolutely ridiculous. The doctor looked at me like I was ridiculous. 

Growing older comes with an unforeseen accountability towards living maturely in ways you wouldn’t otherwise consider – Like a body betraying its owner, more than a whiskey or two will land me in a dire need for outside reinforcements in order to just recover from a night of laughs.

I sat in silence while laying on my bed, thinking of all the things that I had been before, wondering how I ended up falling into such an obscurity. I needed to hush myself, and the stories I tell myself of value and grandeur of what I once was – I needed to try allow my brain to do the real talking. I notice when you allow your brain to do the talking, the letting go of thoughts and direction, you tend to learn more about whats really troubling you. I knew what I thought was keeping me up, but never actually felt complete in the thought.

I turned on my right side, trying to silence my ego out of the sleeplessness, my toddler framing my body like a perfect little spoon – phrases worked through my mind like,  You know your worth,”  on repeat. Just beyond my toddler, my husband laid, fast asleep. He didn’t like to be touched while sleeping, and our toddler seemingly knowing this by pure insight or possibly habit, always pulled towards me at night, although she preferred her dad during the day. This sleeping arrangement would leave her and I curling up in a tiny corner to give him more space, pulled tightly together in unison as if to provide peace of mind for everyone involved.  He seemed peaceful, and unaffected. He always seemed that way.

Unable to calm my mind anymore, I looked at his face, trusting and comfortable, and thought back to our lives together. I met him in private school when I was ten. He was chubby, awkward but not from the small town we found ourselves in. To just to know a fellow city dweller felt like home. He, despite his childhood shortcomings, always found a way with girls throughout grade school – He was my first boyfriend and he strung me along like a rag doll until I was 14 and my parents got divorced, to which I moved away. That should seem irrelevant now with years of marriage behind us, but the truth of the matter is, the stringing along never really stopped. Not for long anyway.

Trust your intuition,” I felt my mind repeat. I went back to counting threads and trying to let go of the stories which had brought us all to this place, all sleeping in this little bed and in the room across the hall. The toddler cradling my body wasn’t the only child that once slept between me and another person – There were three – and each time they lay with me, though the older’s who are almost as big as me now – I felt the same existential guilt. All daughters. All women. All feeling. All insightful. All nurturing. All mothering.

There is quite a burden as a seemingly self-aware woman to raise self-aware women. Women who felt safe enough to be themselves unabashedly. Half the time I felt like I was failing at this, and I considered that while now staring back at my sleeping husband. The nagging feeling returned every time I looked back at his sleeping face; Trusting and secure, not a worry to keep him up.

I had ran out of threads to count, just as my youth seemingly ran out before its time, just as motherhood pushed me to question the purpose of the experience, just as I lay here – curious as to where the next chapter will lead us, or if theres any more chapters left after this, jealous and confused by the ability of my partner to not feel what I feel.

I began to dose off, I could feel myself reassuring in inner self talk, “…But, its good for the kids.”

 photo by Bill Owens 

I wonder if I made you

outright,

my loves;

ridden outside me by

the want for

Dreamers.

The world needs

more Dreamers.

 

Spontaneity,

in the love language

it was,

you came to us;

conceived on the spot.

“Do you want to make a baby?”

He asked.

Unquestionably, Yes.

Two pregnancies like that.

Unquestionably, Yes.

 

Did I pluck her

from Starry Night;

dream her

crescent moon eyes

that turn down

cheeks on a smile?

“Let’s see something that

envelopes joy;

& tucks us in deep.”

 

Did I unearth gentleness

that snowless February

My brown-eyed budding boy?

One in five snows

and the solstice, warm.

“I’m going to ride a rocketship

to Winter,” he tells me.

Here on the ground

we are restless; harsh.

Not quite used to that stubborn sky

withholding our white light.

You tell Mama:

“Everyone in the world is gentle.

Like me.”

I don’t tell him he is dreaming,

because I am not dreaming

Anymore.

 

You will tell me

this poem is crazy

when you are older.

Insist perhaps

that you’ve made

yourselves.

Like baby photos

I will remind you:

who is who

what happened

why we were there.

Because when you are older

you may see war, or pain,

someone may hurt you,

or you’ll have yet to witness

a bright beautiful snowfall.

 

“Is the world still joyful?

Is the world still gentle?”

you’ll ask.

And I’ll answer you,

“Unquestionably, Yes.”