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[Memoir]

False Labor

Giving up on motherhood

“Hospital Room (self-portrait).” All photographs by Tania Franco Klein © The artist. Courtesy ROSEGALLERY, Santa Monica, California

[Memoir]

False Labor

Giving up on motherhood
Adjust

The moment I lost my fertility I started searching for a baby. At age thirty-one, after almost two decades of chronic pain caused by endometriosis and its little-studied ravages, I had my uterus, my cervix, and one of my ovaries removed. Before then, motherhood had seemed likely but not urgent, as inevitable as growing out of jean shorts, but in the days after my surgery I became keenly obsessed with it. Bedbound and tending to the five small laparoscopic holes in my abdomen, I scrolled through adoption websites as if they were furniture outlets. If I could no longer grow a baby in my womb, I could at least get one elsewhere, and fast. But there were a few obstacles. Some of the sites seemed too Christian to want me; others too back-alley for me to want them. Plus, I could barely move, and I was tapering off opioids, so how was I going to handle a six-week trip to some foreign country to collect the child that I did not doubt was my God-given right? I wasn’t delusional enough to think that made sense. But wasn’t there some kind of delivery service?

When my family and friends told me to slow down, I insisted that they didn’t understand. Worse yet, they were being ableist and old-fashioned. What were five holes in my stomach and a Vicodin habit twenty milligrams deep? Michael Jackson dangled his baby from a hotel balcony for everyone to see, and he got to keep it. Who was going to question me?

As an interim measure, I adopted hairless cats. Two of them. I gave them the kind of names I’d give a daughter, classic with a twist: Irma and Gia Marie. Their suedelike texture and general clinginess could pass, in the dark, for the feeling of a newborn’s warmth. I was weeks out of a nearly six-year relationship, highly public and fraught with adult tensions, and I’d hurled myself into a renewed romance with the first guy I had ever really kissed, one that seemed miraculous in its seclusion and sweetness. My new boyfriend called the cats the little wontons, which I took as a sign that he would make a good father.

Around this time, it became clear—first to everyone who knew me, and then, finally, to me—that I was addicted to benzodiazepines. The fact that I had myriad explanations for this dependency (among them chronic pain, heartbreak, the cracking of the brittle facade created by public life) didn’t matter; everyone has good reasons to stay in bed if you really think about it. And so I went to rehab, where I earnestly committed to becoming a woman worthy of the most fuck-you baby shower in American history.

I was in a hurry. I fantasized in the face of mounting evidence about a quick stay at the facility, a blessing from a doctor, and then—nine months later, give or take a few weeks of processing time—a child delivered into my arms. The people who had doubted me would weep when they saw just how right this child looked nestled between my breasts. My parents would feel complete in a way they had never dreamed possible; my father would come to believe in God after seven decades of agnosticism. I would receive nothing but praise on the internet—for having patience, for never giving up, for sticking to my dream, for being a natural mother.

But in practice, rehab really puts the brakes on baby plans. To start with, it’s an awkward place from which to ask for adoption recommendations. And in getting sober, I was realizing how sick I really was. The sight of pregnant women began to make me ill. Their bodies made me think of the stretch and tug of the false labor doctors had induced before my hysterectomy, the way the pain sat in my back and climbed its way up my spine in waves.

While I was there, three of my close friends got pregnant. Each told me she was hurt and confounded by my actions during those months. I had to realize that I was the common denominator. Two pregnant women could be a coincidence. Three is a nation. When they’re angry, it’s a global movement. That’s when I started looking for friends online.

They call themselves IVF Warriors. On Etsy, they purchase in abundance items that claim this title, T-shirts and socks and organic cotton onesies that say my mom is a warrior! infertility met its match. In their photos—shared early in the morning, after perfunctory ultrasounds, and late at night, after trigger shots or missed periods, always with the hashtag #IVFwarriors, which returns hundreds of thousands of Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest results—they appear triumphant, running marathons with their estrogen cranked up to ten times the average of an ovulating woman, flushed and flashing pearly teeth; or bereft, bloated with yet another needle in the curled fat of their bellies. They make charm bracelets from the caps of medicine bottles (I was encouraged by a nurse to save mine for “an art project or something”) and display the dozens of syringes needed for the project of making a person.

When harvests and implantations fail, the IVF Warriors mourn together, and when they succeed, the women celebrate in a swirl of pink and blue, while allowing that some of their IVF friends may be too shaken by the news to attend the baby shower or, perhaps, to ever speak to them again. It’s hard to be happy for anyone when you’ve been through twelve forced menopauses in as many months.

They share diet tips and wellness strategies and images of patient spouses who never expected to gain the medical expertise of physician assistants, shuffling in and out of kitchens that have become laboratories, careful not to spill the synthetic hormone solutions that are as precious as breast milk—and much more expensive.

Once you’re inside, you learn the customs. Celebrate when you start a cycle. Pray as you end it. Save any leftover medication for the next cycle, which is not only possible but probable. Brag: You gave yourself your own injections while your partner was golfing. You screamed at only one co-worker this week, and frankly she’s had it coming for months. You held someone else’s baby without weeping or sniffing the crown of its head too obviously. You fit back into your old jeans, or found a smart way to rig the waist with a hair clip.

Their crest depicts a pineapple, because the fruit contains a blood thinner called bromelain that may or may not help with implantation—and anyway, it’s “a symbol of being a proud womb warrior who kicks ass as they struggle to get knocked up!”

The IVF Warriors are mostly white. (White women are five times more likely than women of color to undergo fertility treatment.) Some, many, are wealthy, while others describe mortgaging their houses, taking out massive loans, and working multiple jobs as they attempt to undertake as many cycles as possible (there’s a consensus among specialists that a dozen frozen embryos comes close to ensuring a live birth). The women have given up jobs, moved across the country, gotten divorced and then remarried, losing friends and precious fertilized embryos along the way, in a process that is designed to make Mother Nature your bitch and to defy a basic fact of human existence dating back to Sarah and Abraham: fertility is not a right, it’s a privilege.

“TV Room 1.”

When I first found my way to the #IVFwarriors, I didn’t know in vitro fertilization was still an option for me. But I’d spent time with related bands: the #endowarriors, #adenowarriors, and #pcoswarriors, also known as #spoonies, which is another name for sufferers of #invisibleillness. These are the hashtags among which I made my home from 2016 to 2018, scrolling through Instagram until my eyelids drooped—from beds in hotels, hospitals, and a residential substance-abuse treatment center where the woman in the room below me used a motorized wheelchair that made her beaded necklaces jangle as she rode to the bathroom each night and the one above me wailed in her closet from unexplained stomach pain.

These hashtags are what you seek out online if you want to ask questions that doctors won’t answer, if you want to be cautioned or pardoned for excessive medication use, or sometimes just believed. There is talk of fertility, too—who still has it and who isn’t sure and occasionally, if you’re like me, who has come to the end of the road and knows without a doubt that she will never, ever carry a child, an isolating grief that seems to justify weeks or months of hot rage at other women just for existing in their bodies.

Chronically ill mothers boast of benign achievements: making chicken nuggets that aren’t still frozen or crisped to black, taking walks to the park, or ordering Halloween costumes early. Many childless spoonies (the term was coined by a woman with lupus who used spoons to explain her limited energy stores—each small daily task costing a spoon) crave babies, crave the eternal connection and lack of judgment that only a child can provide. A baby doesn’t tell you to put on real pants. A baby doesn’t know that you’re supposed to be able to spend a full day on your feet. You don’t have to beg a kid to see you as something other than hysterical. But you could also forgive an outsider for wondering why you want a baby when you’re also looking for tips on how to wash your own hair without standing up.

I switched reproductive-medicine doctors when the first refused to understand that my concern was not my fertility but my pain. (“My pain,” which a professional pain therapist urged me not to personalize. The pain. Some pain. Or give it a name, like Bernard.) I was still hurting almost all the time. But when the second doctor informed me that I might have a chance of harvesting eggs, I flushed with an odd and unearned pride. It turned out that after everything I’d been through—the chemical menopause, surgeries by the dozen, the carelessness of drug addiction—my one remaining ovary was still producing eggs. If we successfully harvested them, they might be fertilized with donor sperm and carried to term by a surrogate.

The next day, my mother woke me up by whispering, “Good morning, little noodle,” and when I saw her face hovering above mine I knew she felt it, too. I was no longer her daughter—willful, ambitious, and terse, whose illness had cracked and bifurcated her life. Now my pain could have a purpose. My body was doing its job.

My boyfriend agreed to offer up his sperm with the cheery good nature of someone helping an old woman cross a busy intersection.

“I have to go to the fertility doctor—will you come?” I texted him. “I know it’s not your problem.”

“BABY!” he wrote. “It’s OUR problem—u know I wanna be there for my girl!”

At the last minute he told me he couldn’t make it. I later discovered he’d relapsed on vodka, and we broke up after he came home in a cropped Forever 21 sweatshirt and another girl started texting me about getting it back. I thought about how I’d lost the chance to change my life forever.

At the office, the receptionist mistook my sixty-nine-year-old father for my husband, which nauseated me, though one look around the waiting room confirmed it was an innocent mistake. We were right at home among the silver-haired men and blondes in yoga gear flipping through issues of Parents magazine. These men—tagging along to start their third families—were the most buoyant patients, the ones who seemed to have the least to lose. The women, meanwhile, were fragile and bloated, boxes of tissues between their knees, waiting shakily for information that would make them cancel their plans for the next two weeks, in either a fit of nesting ecstasy or exquisite pain.

The doctor gave me a bunch of new labels. With one functioning ovary, I was a “good candidate.” Without a husband, I was a “solo starter.” With a gay donor, I was “a user of fresh homosexual sperm” with “FDA-ineligible” jizz. (I didn’t know this when I chose my donor: If you find a hetero art school kid with a ketamine addiction, drag him off the street, and convince him to say he’s dating you, you’re congratulated. If you carefully select an accomplished gay friend of child-rearing age, you are taking a risk that the reproductive authorities won’t sign off on.)

The doctor looked at my father as the appointment finished and extended his hand: “All right, sir, let’s make you a grandpa.”

My father, usually so Waspy and stoic (he was dressed in a three-piece suit for the occasion), was disarmed. “That would be . . . ” he stammered. “That would be wild.”

“Midnight Recipe”

Adjust

In third grade, my class took an overnight trip to a nature camp, where we were given an assignment to carry an egg with us for the whole trip without breaking it. We were each given a cup, which we fashioned, with yarn and a hole punch, into a necklace. We could decorate it freely, with stickers and sequins and colored pens, and we were given instructions on how to properly pad it with tissue paper. That afternoon, we walked carefully along stone paths and through the woods, ate potatoes au gratin in somber silence at long picnic tables, and fought for space so that we could set our eggs down while we built a geodesic dome out of plastic rods and packing tape. At the end of twenty-four hours, if our eggs remained intact, we were praised for our delicacy and focus.

But I didn’t leave my egg at camp. I kept it, and on the way back to the city I put the necklace on underneath the baggy cashmere sweater of my mother’s I was wearing, so that I could feel it on my naked skin. A teacher who looked like Sinéad O’Connor led a busful of white kids in civil-rights protest songs while I huddled against the plexiglass window. Back home, I placed the egg cup on my nightstand and the next day nestled it into the front pocket of my overalls. And then, at 3:45 pm, as we bounded toward the school buses, buzzed on freedom, I tripped on the stairs and the egg hurtled out of its little cup-bed and cracked on the floor. I shook with rage as the smell of rotten yolk rose up from the linoleum.

So on day fifteen of my IVF cycle, when my endometriosis flared and immobilized my distended lower half and I wondered why I had done this in the first place, the answer wasn’t hard to grasp: the egg cup. We were bred for this.

My friend Scotty brought a doula to my place for a ceremony to honor my uterus and help guide the right child to me. I loved the doula, who wore high-waisted jeans and had fluffy red bangs and looked generally like a nanny from 1975. After some tender dialogue about how each of us is on our own path toward the divine, she tied a string around my waist and asked me to select some beads from a Ziploc bag to make a talisman. I felt peaceful and sleepy, angry and hungry, annoyed that she wanted me to stand up for the end of the ceremony.

I remember thinking, as I looked at this perfect Berkeley-vibes fertility guru and at Scotty, who was as pregnant as a house, that anyone could be a mother. It even happens by accident. So why, if I craved it so much, would I be denied?

For three years I’d been in a group chat with a few women I knew professionally. It started on the day after Trump was elected as a means to vent and continued as several got pregnant and gave birth. They recommended CBD creams and Epsom salts, night nurses and high chairs. They were sensitive to my situation, but nobody could be sensitive enough, and as they shared pictures of their positive tests and stories of swelling and nausea, I started to feel the disparity between their bodies and mine.

Most of my texts were sent from hospital beds or waiting rooms or, once I began IVF, from my couch, as my stomach expanded from the hormones. I was erratic and needy, one day obsessed with adoption and another dying to locate a surrogate. I detailed my need for bathtub rails and disability-friendly hotels and maybe, if I were in my friends’ position, I also would have questioned the idea of these two realities meeting.

“Being a mother sounds hard to do when you’re so sick,” one said when I announced I’d try to have a baby within a year.

A few moments later, another said, “I’ll be taking some time off this chat to focus on the new baby.”

Lying in a bed at Mount Sinai, I watched them sign off, one by one, and it was hard to believe the chat had petered out simply because of our busy days and sleepless nights. I had been unable to hide my ugliness—my need and my desire, my obsession and my inadequacy. I was the guest nobody wanted to talk to at the party. There was no place for me in polite company. Back, again, to the strangers, who always seem to expect you.

Elsewhere on the internet, women who have had first-trimester miscarriages find one another using the hashtags #miscarriage, #miscarriagemama, #1in4, #mamagrief, or #lifeafterloss. They share sonograms and due dates, note missed milestones and fluctuating hormones, the rage and jealousy that accompany the loss of a seemingly viable pregnancy. They start their posts with phrases like “had to share” and “for those grieving with me today.” They joke and fight, apologize and reconnect, handing their lives over to a set of what-ifs that the modern maze of apps and timers and early imaging makes possible.

“Pool, Wig (self-portrait)”

“Pool, Wig (self-portrait)”

Some of them find their way to the world of reborn dolls. Reborns are hyperrealistic baby dolls created with painstaking precision by artists who call themselves reborners. The reborns, which resemble the high-end porcelain dolls that used to be for sale in four installments of $19.99 in TV Guide in the Nineties, can be collected for pleasure or, as is increasingly the case, made in the size and likeness of fetuses that have been lost to miscarriage or stillbirth. The dolls are “birthed” in a ceremony called an unboxing and sometimes played with as if they were real infants, a practice that is either therapeutic or delusional, depending on whom you ask. (There are many YouTube videos of the practice—you can decide for yourself.)

In Keene, New Hampshire, in 2016, a police lieutenant named Jason Short smashed a car window in an effort to save a baby who appeared to be passed out in the summer heat, windows up. In a photo, even her flowery headband looked limp. When the lieutenant attempted CPR, Short told the Washington Post, “I went to put my finger in its mouth and it was all resistance. And I’m like, ‘This is a doll.’ ”

The doll, whose name was Ainsley, belonged to a woman who had lost her son a decade earlier. Ainsley was one of forty siblings.

I learned that none of my eggs were viable on Memorial Day, in the midst of a global pandemic. I was in Los Angeles when I got the call from Dr. Coperman, the slight Jewish man who was my entry into (and now exit from) the world of corporate reproduction.

I hadn’t been expecting the fertilization procedure to take place for another few weeks. My donor and I were still working on our agreement with a family lawyer, a boilerplate contract that basically stated that no matter what happened—if I died in a fiery crash like John Denver or was committed to the state after tattooing the words no boundaries on my face—he would have neither the obligation nor the ability to interfere with how the child was raised. Considering the amount of money I had already spent on this process, three thousand dollars in lawyer’s fees seemed like a steal, and I had only just bragged about it to my mother. “Weirdly cheap,” I said, living in the exact state of delusion that I have been attempting to observe in this piece. After all, nothing is really a steal when having a child is supposed to cost the same amount as an orgasm.

I had awoken that day at 2 pm in a cold sweat with a migraine and had this exact thought: If I had a child, how would this fly? I padded to the porch to smoke. I listened to a song called “Young and Sad” on repeat. I spilled a Mexican Coke in my bed and cleaned up the mess with one of my nice towels, leaving it wadded on the floor.

I didn’t understand why Dr. Coperman was calling on Memorial Day. I was as surprised as anyone that doctors continue attempting to make vanity embryos during pandemics, much less on national holidays. When he spoke my name with that sympathetic downturn, the apologetic-doctor voice I have come to know so well, my face crumpled in apprehension.

“We were unable to fertilize any of the eggs. As you know, we had six. Five did not take. The one that did seems to have chromosomal issues and ultimately . . . ” He trailed off as I tried to picture it—the dark room, the glowing dish, the sperm meeting my dusty eggs so violently that they combusted. It was hard to understand that they were gone. That it wasn’t like trying to meet a friend for coffee on a weekend and missing your window, rescheduling for the next. It really wasn’t like that at all.

“You’re such a nice lady,” Dr. Coperman said. The word “lady” revolted me. I’m not a lady, I wanted to shout. I’m just a little girl dreaming of my very own baby. What about that don’t you understand?

“We all would have loved to give you a different result.”

He told me that he knew what I had gone through to get those eggs. That he saw how hard it was. That I was a trouper. I tried to believe that there was some value in the experience, in being tough through something tough. But ultimately, it felt like going on Survivor and acting like the camera crew wasn’t there. I had volunteered for the gig, and so the points were false.

Dr. Coperman said that we would have more results at the end of the week and could discuss my “remaining options,” but he knew that I knew that there really weren’t any. The moment in time when I made those eggs was like a rip in the sky. It rained gold coins for a day. We brought out our buckets.

I was wiping my eyes and thanking him again and again. In my head, I was already telling my parents. The only comfort for this failure of biology was biology, the inherent understanding of the people who made me.

It was almost 9 pm on the East Coast and my parents had already engaged in my mother’s “new favorite activity”: falling asleep while it’s still light out. My mother answered the phone, straining to sound alert. Hearing the telltale rise and crack of my voice, the hysterical alarm that has defined their past thirty-four years, she roused my father, who never tries to sound pleased when he isn’t.

“Oh, doll,” my mother said. “Oh, lovie.”

I wondered whether that meant something, whether I was getting what I deserved. I remembered the reaction of an ex-friend, many years ago, when I told her that sometimes I worried that my endometriosis was a curse meant to tell me I didn’t deserve a child.

She nearly spat. “Nobody deserves a child.”

If there’s one person less welcome among the IVF Warriors than a new mother, it is a woman who has given up on becoming one. For though these communities were created to support women trapped in the fertility-industrial complex, they hold fast to its founding commandment: never quit, because nothing is impossible. In a culture where some mothers are told that their children’s lives are worth nothing at all, other women—women who look like me and most of the IVF Warriors—are told that no expense is too great to bring another child into the world.

A few weeks after I found out that I would never become a biological mother, I started lactating. It was light at first, leaving subtle wet circles on my shirts, the milk as thin and pale as a spiderweb. When my breasts began to ache, Scotty came over to show me how to express the milk into a mug. It wasn’t much, but when it squirted I felt massive relief, as if a pimple had burst. The doctor didn’t seem as alarmed by this incident as I was, not by the health implications or the poetic ones either, and so I woke up every day for a month and pulled at my breast like it was rising dough, wiping away the streaky tobacco-infused beverage intended for no one.

When I was in rehab, my PTSD treatment required looking at a very specific issue of People magazine that—to use the parlance of our time—triggered me. It had been sitting innocently in the common area, a celebration of celebrity mothers, full of rich, glowing women in cushy living rooms and lush, green yards, surrounded by well-dressed kids playing with high-tech toys. Many of the women were pregnant, standing at kitchen counters in leggings and linen tops, chopping vegetables. One sat in bed with an eye mask, a toddler cradling her growing belly.

“The Waiting”

“The Waiting”

I told my therapist that the magazine had ruined my week. “What’s the worst part?” he asked. I described how it made me feel physically—the itchy nausea that set in when I thought about the logistics of a uterus stretching, of a vagina engorging and hips widening. After all, I have had nothing but grief from those parts of my body. Pure grief. I have loved being a woman, but I have hated operating the equipment.

But more than that, I thought of an abstract future in which my ex and his new partner conceived a child. I imagined the paparazzi photo, a loose, long-lens shot from across an autumnal street in our old neighborhood. She has on a camel overcoat. It hangs open around her stomach, which extends like a beach ball under a clean white T-shirt. He is protecting her with one arm, ensuring that their unborn child is not grazed by oncoming traffic. The image—this projected future page of People magazine—is evidence that his journey toward parenthood did not end with me. My story ended with him.

But really, it never started. When I was a little girl, clutching the rotten egg baby in a cup, I had already made every egg I was ever going to have. They were inside me, destined to fail. I just didn’t know it yet. I was another cocky woman-to-be, sure that I would have what I wanted because I wanted it. Because I had always gotten it. Because the world told me it was mine to take.

It’s wild how far you can drift from yourself in the process of trying to get what you want. What started as wanting to carry the child of the man I loved became wanting to have a child with a man who was willing to help me have one. Soon that became hiring a lawyer to draft a contract for a sperm-donor friend and calling a surrogate who came highly recommended by another celebrity. I was forced to admit just how much of it was about finishing what I started. I tried to have a child. Along the way, my body broke. My relationship did, too. In the process—because of it?—I became a functional junkie. I had lost my way, and a half-dozen eggs sitting in Midtown promised to lead me home.

Instead, each step took the process further from my body, my family, my reality. Each move was more expensive, more desperate, more lonely. I stopped being able to picture the ending. The result was simply that Dr. Coperman thinks I am a very nice lady.

There is a lot you can correct in life—you can end a relationship, get sober, get serious, say sorry—but you can’t force the universe to give you a baby that your body has told you all along was an impossibility. Weak animals die in the woods as their pack mates run ahead. Bad eggs don’t hatch. You can’t bend nature.

The irony is that knowing I cannot have a child—my ability to accept that and move on—may be the only reason I deserve to be anyone’s parent at all. I think I finally have something to teach somebody.

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December 2020