Everyone talks about her biological clock ticking but how do you really know when it rings, or more specifically, how many times you can hit the snooze button?
Last call came for me in a tearful visit to an OB’s office. Fresh from a break-up with an on-again, off-again boyfriend of three years, I booked the appointment to discuss freezing my eggs. Supportive girlfriends always offer that “you can always freeze your eggs” advice when a relationship fails to someone who has hopes of becoming a mother.
Dr. Pelino asked why I was there. “I want to add to that.” I said, pointing to the bulletin board of babies and birth announcements of her patients. “Mr. Right hasn’t shown up yet, so I want to talk about putting my eggs on ice.”
“You’re how old?” She asked skeptically.
“Forty-two,” I said.
First, she informed me I couldn’t freeze an unfertilized egg. I mean, you can, but the odds of the egg surviving the thaw and implanting are less than 1 percent and those are with young twenty-something-year-old’s eggs, not my decrepit forty-something ones. “The odds are a bit higher with freezing embryos, but if you don’t have a partner you might as well just go for it now,” my doctor advised. “If I were you, I’d sperm-bank it,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You don’t have any more time to waste.” As if I was just loafing around, letting my eggs rot.
She handed me a flier for the California Cryobank, and she added, “Here are a few referrals to some REs. You’ll want to start with day three blood work for an FSH count. You can try IUI before moving to IVF but I wouldn’t spend too much time with that route.” Acronyms and fertility lingo clouded my head.
I got to my car numb, mouth agape and called my mom sobbing. “How did this happen?” I’d had my share of boyfriends over the years. It just so happened in the musical chairs game of romance, the fertility music was about to stop and I was going to be left standing without children.
During my writing group later that week, I mentioned this OB’s seemingly outrageous advice and one of my writing pals, Wendy responded, “Well, that’s what two friends from my church (Catholic, no less) did. They belong to a group called Single Mothers by Choice. You should check it out. Heck, I’ll be forty next year and if I’m still single I’m doing the same thing.” (Wendy now has a four-month old baby girl).
Single Mothers by Choice sounded to me like a bunch of man haters, or women you’d take one look at and think well no wonder they couldn’t find anyone.
I agreed to go to a meeting and to my surprise, they were mostly attractive professional women who you’d actually think, man, if she couldn’t find someone—really nice women that just weren’t paired up when their biological clocks rang. There was also one woman divorcing her husband because he’d decided he didn’t want children.
The group was divided by Thinkers (like me), TTCers (Trying to Conceive), Pregnant, and those with children already. It was less of a formal meeting and more of a get-together. Women ranged in age from early thirties to mid-forties: the Thinkers tentatively asking questions, a TTCer might be crying on someone’s shoulder because a recent effort failed, pregnant women aglow, mothers with new babies beaming, and other moms with toddlers milling about. The atmosphere was celebratory and supportive.
Some moms brought bags of hand-me-downs. Others drank coffee, nibbled on the healthy snacks, and compared notes on pre-schools, nannies, or potty training. It seemed like a lovely choice for these women.
I, on the other hand, set out for one last-ditch effort to pull out all the stops at finding Mr. Right. If my “Hey, if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen” approach was too carefree, this effort would bare no such criticism.
With the determination of a cave woman going out to club someone on the head and drag him back to her cave, I enlisted the help of the book Finding a Husband Past 35 (Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School) which suggests notifying everyone in passing that I’m available to be set up on dates. I shamelessly told all my friends, acquaintances—even my dental hygienist and a headhunter. That yielded one measly date. It was through the headhunter. Even if I hadn’t minded the circa 1983 feathered-back hairdo, diamond-studded earring, paunch, and the fact that he was considerably shorter than me, he announced he didn’t want or even like kids.
I also signed up for a couple of Internet dating sites. I had no shortage of first dates, yet few that I wanted to go out with on a second date, much less bear children and spend the rest of my life with. “Maybe you’re being too picky.” Married people loved to say. Down the bar lowered. As did the expectations.
I’d try and look at these guys as someone who just might have decent enough genes to make for an amiable ex. But when I’d graciously say, “You know, you’re a really great guy but I don’t feel that spark of something that tells me we’re a match.” I’d encounter angry guys from whom I’d have a hard time getting a sweater back had I left one in their car. If the sweater was our child and we had to share custody of her/him, these guys would be impossible. I felt like I was shopping more for an ex-husband than a lifelong mate.
During this time, I had five girlfriends across the country going through divorces. One woman’s husband changed his mind about wanting children, another woman’s couldn’t endure the stress of fertility efforts, another woman’s husband’s financial irresponsibility bankrupted the family, two other husbands cheated. The message seemed to be, even if I found someone that week, there’s no guarantee the relationship would last long enough to get pregnant, much less a lifetime.
Back to the SMC meeting I went. I was now halfway to being forty-three and the first Reproductive Endocrinologist I went to had shown me the stats on the chart. Age forty-two fell to somewhere under 4 percent odds of getting pregnant naturally and half that by age forty three. If I enlisted certain fertility measures like pumping up my follicles with fertility drugs, I could increase my chances to some degree but it was still no guarantee.
To think all those years I spent trying not to get pregnant. I was ready to make the plunge from Thinker to thinking I’d better get on it and TTC ASAP. I met two other TTCer friends at SMC a few steps in front of me. They had already picked out their donors from the sperm bank assuring me as soon as I covered that end of the equation, stepping off the fertility high dive would become so much more palatable.
The three of us would go hiking together and pass men on the trail. “He’s SW, one of us would say.” Suddenly men were categorized as sperm-worthy or not. I freelanced at an ad agency with an ample supply of SW-looking men—too young to date, but perhaps if they wouldn’t mind taking this plastic cup into the men’s room… Clearly, I needed to start shopping the sperm bank catalogs.
The two biggies were California Cryobank and Fairfax Cryobank. Little did I know the California one was headquartered right across the street from my grocery store in Westwood near the UCLA campus. To my shopping list of eggs, milk, and bread, I could now add sperm—all from one parking spot. Both banks had “branches” at top-rated universities in the U.S.
Shopping for sperm wasn’t much unlike Internet dating, except the guy didn’t have to like me back. Raising the bar as high as it would go, I spent many late nights downloading profiles, medical histories, Kiersey temperament reports, audio interviews, and baby photos. To protect the anonymity of donors, most sperm banks offer baby photos rather than photos of donors as adults. A bank out of Atlanta has open donors (those willing to be contacted by the child at his or her choosing once the child is eighteen) that supply adult photos, but none there struck my fancy.
What isn’t advertised, but I learned at an SMC meeting, is that an attractiveness rating is given to each donor by sperm banks. The rating is on a scale of one to ten, but eight is the highest score given. Fairfax goes to ten as well and rates can climb to nine (not sure if the men are really better looking or if the raters are more generous). It’s certainly a subjective call, but just another factor when weighing whose DNA you want your child to have.
I had to pick some criteria to search by. So I started with height, plugging in the search menu, “5’11” or taller and Caucasian.” That netted about a hundred results. From there I looked at staff impressions—two or three sentences summing up the donor’s personality and overall impressions. They’d tell it like it is. The “shy, quiet, seems to be the brooding type” also “composes and performs his own music as an accomplished pianist”.
Another “quick-witted, gregarious” type is also “a gentleman, seems to genuinely care about other people.”
Much of the information is free, such as: physical characteristics, blood type, ethnic origin, profession, or school of study (most donors are students). A short profile goes further to reveal favorite foods, hobbies, and GPA. My approach was to next download the baby photo for $20. For those that struck a chord or warmed my heart, I bought more detailed information such as medical history that went back three generations including immediate family as well as grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Also available were donors’ facial features and audio profiles. In the Kiersey temperament report (a psychological profile) I looked for two things—extrovertedness, as I can be a bit shy at times, and optimism as depression taints my genes. The medical history held a lot of weight for me. I dismissed anyone whose immediate family members had cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even asthma. These were certainly things that I wouldn’t dismiss if they were included in the family history of the man I fell in love with. I’d simply I’d cross my fingers and hope for the best. But if you can pick someone with a clean bill of health, why not?
In many respects I gathered more information than I ever knew about most of my past boyfriends, certainly from a medical standpoint. I quickly learned if I liked a donor, I should stock up as the more popular ones’ goods went fast. Fairfax had a wait list so when a donor’s new sperm came to market, ten of us might be called to each have a shot at two vials rather than the top one on the list hoarding all he had to offer.
I’d narrow my selects to a half dozen and comb over every detail. Unlike Internet dating, this wasn’t like choosing someone to have coffee with. This would be my child’s DNA for life. I’d email friends the top pick photos to sound in. A few friends would come over and listen to the audio interviews I downloaded. For me, so much came through in someone’s voice.
I’d seen a TV show where a woman was reunited with her mother after being put up for adoption. They both had the same weird affected voice. More than voice, I wanted to hear if this person sounded nice. Whether or not that’s hereditary, I just wanted to feel good about telling my child, “This is who your DNA came from.” I wanted my donor to be kind and likable.
When the interviewer asked the question “What motivated you to donate?” I didn’t want a guy saying it was money to party on but rather something along the lines of, “We had neighbors growing up who couldn’t conceive,” or “ It’s helping with med school costs but I also like the idea of helping those in need.” I wanted someone who grasped the magnitude of what this meant.
Both banks take less than five percent of those who apply, so the lot of donors is pretty good stock. They aim to take those who they know they can market. Every sperm shopper wants stellar medical history, good looks, and intelligence. I also wanted someone athletic and kind-sounding. I didn’t aim for the very best looking as single criteria or just the most intelligent, but an overall best, well-rounded and a feeling in my gut that this one is right.
Arriving at a donor I liked made all the difference in feeling good about moving forward. I had this other DNA half in mind with which to make this baby. The first one I picked was a med student.
My first RE, Dr. Chang started me on Clomid, an oral medication to increase the number of follicles and eggs I’d release. I was like a jacked-up pinball machine. It felt like PMS times infinity. The hormones raged so we could get more pinballs to play this fertility game with—each ball/egg increasing my odds of fertilizing and implanting. Every few days, I’d come in for an ultrasound tracking my follicle growth. Four on one side, three on the other. Go follies!
I’d administer the trigger shot (which triggers the brain to release the eggs) at an exact hour the evening before I’d go in for my IUI or intrauterine insemination. I was so certain I’d get pregnant the first try, I even opted to have them spin the sperm to aim for a girl. I figured if it was as simple as “paper or plastic,” why not. My mom had two grandsons, let’s go for a girl. Only when the results came back negative did I learn that separating the sperm actually decreased my odds for getting pregnant as they inject only half the amount.
I had also ignored the fact that “Mr. Right donor” didn’t have a reported pregnancy yet—something my SMC cronies insisted was critical. Even though the sperm banks guarantee sperm count, motility, and morphology (quality) to a certain degree, some goods just thaw better than others.
I dumped my first sperm donor and went on to one with a success rate. Now my RE wanted to up the ante on the follicle promotion and put me on injections. Twice a day I’d give myself a shot of follistim to increase my egg count more than clomid. I’m someone who has to turn my head when I have blood drawn. I asked a married friend who’d been down this road if she had to, could she have given herself the shots. She said, “no way.” Her husband would leave work to come administer them to her or she’d have to enlist the help of a neighbor.
The first shot I did in my RE’s office. The nurse held my sweaty hand gripping the needle. “Okay, on the count of three. One, two, three.” I couldn’t do it. We’d start over again and again.
“I’ve jumped out of an airplane and bungee jumped five times. Why can’t I do this?” I said, now sweating profusely. It was more the psychological factor of stabbing myself in the stomach with a needle. I’d always thought it’s a good thing I wasn’t diabetic and had never been bitten by a rabid animal. Death would be imminent.
On the next count of three, I asked myself how badly I wanted a baby and plunged the needle in my stomach. “Ow!” I said.
“Did it hurt?” the nurse asked surprised.
“No, I guess that was just a reaction,” I said, taken aback that it really hadn’t hurt.
By the next week, I was giving myself the shots while talking on the phone, not even interrupting the caller to tell them what I was about to do. I’d give myself shots at work in the restroom. I wondered if those in neighboring stalls, who might have smelled the alcohol swabs or spotted the needle in the feminine hygiene bin thought I was a heroin addict.
Sometimes I’d be told to administer the shot in my thigh. The trigger shots went into my rear end which demanded more skill, a mirror, and good aim.
I named the donors based on their baby photo Mr. Right donor #1 was referenced as Kitty Boy as he held a kitten in his photo. Roll of the fertility dice #2 was Overalls Boy, my second IUI, but first medicated one. This popular fertility clinic had standing-room-only in the waiting area on several visits but was riddled with sloppy mistakes.
After my first failed IUI the RE said, “It’s too bad you didn’t respond to the estradoil,” a medication intended to thicken my lining that the clomid thinned. No one had ever given me a prescription for this. The blood work technician repeatedly drew blood for more tests than needed, which was more gauging as I was paying a la carte.
I’d been waitlisted for a reproductive endocrinologist whom I had seen giving a speech at a fertility conference at Cedars Sinai, months earlier. Then I finally got in to see Dr. Najmabadi. On his desk was a plaque of the serenity prayer. He ran a private practice, also in Beverly Hills, but with less fanfare than the other place. I was a few days into my protocol for my first IVF (invitro fertilization). Dr. Naj. thought an IVF might be premature and switched the cycle to an IUI with donor #3, the water polo player. I figured if the sperm donor was into water sports, maybe his sperm could swim stronger and faster. I figured wrong.
Roll of the fertility dice #4 was an IVF which increased not only the odds of getting pregnant but also the cost, from roughly under $1k to $15k. In invitro fertilization, the eggs are removed under surgery, fertilized and grown before being put back in a few days later. And in the case of older eggs, ICSI (another $1500) is also performed where they inject the sperm into the egg with a needle because the egg shell hardens in older women’s eggs, making it difficult for sperm to penetrate.
This round, I decided to have a duel. Every donor thus far had been from the California Cryobank. This round, I enlisted a new candidate from the Fairfax Cryobank based out of Virginia. I had Dr. Naj thaw both vials and review them in the microscope to see which vial had better swimmers: the water polo player or the rugby captain. It was a close tie. We went with water polo player. He sank again.
Now, feeling the toll of being jacked up on the roller coaster of hormones for four solid months, I took a break for a month. I met a guy.
My friend Nancy returned home from taking me to get my eggs transferred. Her husband and houseguest, a guy named Bruce, wanted to know where she’d been. Bruce was so intrigued with this bold single woman wanting so badly to have a child, she’d brave it solo, he wanted to meet me. Nancy and her husband had known this guy for years and years. He’d joined them on their trips to Telluride in the summers where they’d had long hikes and he’d talked about wanting to be a father.
It was a storybook beginning. I could hear myself a decade in the future talking about how I met my husband. It made for an interesting first date for him to already know I clearly wanted children and that I was on a very immediate timeline. This gave all new meaning to term speed dating. The relationship ended even more quickly than it began. I didn’t miss a beat. My one-month holding pattern was finished and I was ready for the next roll of the fertility dice.
Donor #5 was Mr. Tie-breaker from the previous spermathon. He was 6’2″, adorable (rated in the top five best looking at Fairfax) blonde-haired, blue-eyed, captain of his rugby team and as best I could surmise an alumni of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Besides the stellar medical history, scoring well in optimism and extrovertedness, he was smart and seemed likable. He was both athletic and musically gifted. Well, at least he played the guitar. He had a nice voice with a hint of a southern accent if you listened carefully on certain words.
His audiotape interview indicated the one celebrity he’d like to meet was Marilyn Monroe. I was born the same day and year Marilyn died. Under “best vacation,” he mentioned a trapeze school at a resort he went to. The only Club Med I’ve ever been to had a trapeze school, and after mastering a simple knee hang trick, they put me in the show. I’d liked it so much, I took a few trapeze classes when I got back home. It was meant to be. We were sperm mates.
I’d now sunk forty grand into this endeavor. My mother would say, “You can’t just keep dolling out fifteen thousand after fifteen thousand on IVFs.”
Other people would ask, “So how many times are you going to try?” or “Have you considered adoption?” Both are some of the worst things you want to hear when your goal of a baby of your own is all you can envision. My older brother, upon learning my decision to have a child on my own, stopped speaking to me.
A year had passed. I’d been seeing a fertility acupuncturist once a week and then twice weekly as it neared egg withdrawal and transfer. I brewed and drank stinky Chinese herbs three times a day. I had one acupuncturist at the transfer on IVF number one. For this round, I had someone else. I was now going to a fertility therapist as well to cushion the emotional toll.
IVF #2 yielded eleven eggs. By day three, they all died off except two, and one of those looked iffy. My RE phoned while I was in my fertility therapist’s office. He explained normal protocol would suggest with so few eggs we should put them back in on day three but if we did and they didn’t take, we won’t have learned anything. If we push them to blastocyst to day five and put them in then, and they don’t take, at least we know they can make it to blast and would warrant trying again. It’s more difficult for an embryo to survive outside the uterus but if it can make it to blastocyst (in layman terms, a heartier embryo) it stands a stronger chance of implanting.
I’d have to sign consent to take such a risky move. My therapist thought it was a bad idea. So did my fertility acupuncturist. My gut said, trust Dr. Naj.
Both eggs made it to blast, though it took until day six. The transfer was scheduled for December 23. I spent Christmas on bedrest alone. Two weeks later, I was scheduled for my blood test. In previous times, I was certain I was pregnant. This time, I’d mastered the art of being detached. It drove me crazy when well-meaning friends would ask if I felt pregnant. I tried not to feel anything, knowing any expectation could easily be dashed. Yet, being too negative might also sabotage the results.
One day, fourteen days past transfer, I cheated and took a home pregnancy test. They advise not to as they can give a false negative if taken too early, a false positive if it
picks up any HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) from the trigger shot. I can never read the the home pregnancy tests with the bars, so I got the kind that say either pregnant or well, I’m not sure what it says when you’re not because mine said…
It was 6 a.m. I got out my camera and took a photo before the pee dried and it went away. Later that morning I went in for my bloodwork and told my RE the good news. “Is it for real?” I asked.
He said, “No, not until you get the bloodwork results back.”
It would be a long day waiting. I was about to go watch the Rose Bowl game with friends to see UT play USC. I got the call. “I have good news. You’re pregnant!” I can’t even remember who in the RE’s office broke the news.
A flood of emotion from all the months of trying hit the Kleenex box. Most people wait until after amnio results to announce such news. I was ready to call the newswires. Instead, I sent an email out with the photo of the pregnancy test saying it was now official to practically everyone I knew.
When UT spanked USC later that day, I had to contain myself to not jump up and down for fear I’d rattle something loose.
The pregnancy went as smoothly as I guess a pregnancy can for a forty three-year old. I turned forty-four right before my due date. A few days after the first positive pregnancy test, they took another blood test to see my HCG reading. Mine first test measured 448. If it doubled in two days, it was a viable pregnancy. Mine was 1423.I was pregnant with twins.
Since I was a little girl, I’d always wanted twins. I pictured them dressed alike in a cute double stroller. Then I started thinking about the not-so-cute double cost of daycare, double diapers, double crying in the middle of the night and the fact that I was a single parent. It also dawned on me that since I was a little girl, I’d also always wanted a monkey and perhaps I’d now be raising two kids, wild as monkeys, on my own.
A few weeks later, I went in for my first ultrasound. I was warned I might not hear a heartbeat so soon. I listened intently. When the volume was turned on, a thunderous heartbeat belted out just as my RE walked into the room. “Now that’s a healthy heartbeat.” Dr.Naj. said.
“Thumper,” as the little being inside me would be called throughout my pregnancy, was alive and kicking. The bittersweet news was that the other twin didn’t make it. It was sad to see the little embryo that could not, but I tried to focus on the relief of caring for just one kid instead of two. I think if I’d been married and more capable of caring for two, I would have felt more heartache. I was just so thankful to have one very healthy heartbeat.
Those hopes were almost dashed a few weeks later when I passed a blood clot the size of a golf ball. I was certain I’d lost the baby. I raced into Dr. Naj’s who assured me when I walked in with tears streaming down my face that it was all going to be okay. The ultrasound revealed Thumper minding his own business and thumping away. We don’t know if the blood was from the placenta adhering to the lining or the twin’s sack making its way out.
The rest of the pregnancy went fairly smoothly for an old hen. Everything underscored the term, “last call.” My age alone made me bear the title high risk. The CVS (chorionic villi sampling), which nowadays replaces the amnio, provides the same information as an amnio, but with results back much sooner (week ten versus week nineteen).
At the genetics counselor, I learned there are infinite genetic abnormalities and my age alone put me at a one in fourteen risk for one of the more common ones. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my CVS results came back normal. At ten weeks I also knew I was having a…
As soon as I discovered Gymboree and knew they had just as cute clothes for boys as girls, I was elated. I made a celebration purchase of a little monkey outfit.
At thirty four weeks, my OB noted the girth of my stomach stopped growing (it’s supposed to grow one inch per week of pregnancy). I was sent to a specialist who determined my placenta was showing calcifications due to my age. I was told my baby had reached full term in size but likely wouldn’t fatten up much before delivery.
They’d monitor him now twice a week to see if he would grow and if indeed he stopped gaining weight altogether, they’d induce me early. A few weeks later my blood pressure was high. I’d now begun to really start swelling. I could only wear one pair of flip-flops and my feet looked like Fred Flintstone’s. My wrists swelled up too, causing them to feel arthritic. At night they were in such pain, I’d have to wear wrist gaurds.
At week thirty-eight, I was in for a cardiogram and I asked again if my blood pressure was still high. It was. They sent me right over to the hospital to see if I had protein in my urine which would indicate pre-eclempsia. There was. I did. They induced me right away and while the labor initially started out fine, by morning I hadn’t dilated any further and they thought I could have a seizure—putting my and the baby’s health at risk. They had to do a C-section immediately.
On August 29th, I delivered a healthy baby boy at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, 23.5 inches long. He was beautiful and perfect in every way. I named him Ames Somerset. Ames is a family last name whose genealogy dates back to the 1400s in the county of Somerset, England. I remembered visiting Somerset and standing in the church cemetery, surrounded by thin timeworn tombstones, feeling I’d discovered the end of my roots.
Throughout my pregnancy, there were times I wondered if I’d maybe romanticized this notion of motherhood. I also feared my late father’s depression might make me destined for postpartum depression. I feel like I have just the opposite: Postpartum nirvana. Ames is far more joyful than I could ever have imagined. The love I have for him is deeper than any love I’ve ever tapped into.
While Dr. Pelino didn’t end up being my OB who delivered Ames, I sent her a thank-you note for offering such outlandish advice and a picture of Ames to add to her bulletin board.
I’m blessed to have an exceptionally good-natured baby. His little hand clutches onto the top of my shirt, he looks me in the eye, purrs when he’s nursing. He grins ear to ear and has just learned to belly laugh. When I sing to him, he tries to sing along, cooing in harmony. And when I look down at him while he’s sleeping and think that I almost missed out on this, I well up in tears.
This story was originally published in Divinecaroline.com January, 2007. At age 8 now, I can report that solo motherhood was both harder than I imagined but also far more rewarding that I could have ever dreamed. I’d do it over again in a heartbeat.