Things tended to go my way in life. Not because of luck, which my husband sometimes claimed. “You are a lucky person,” he would tell me.
Luck to me implied a certain amount of passivity. I never had much of that. I went after what I wanted fervently. The job. The apartment. The promotion. It didn’t necessarily come easily, but it did eventually come.
And then, almost instantly, it stopped coming. If I try to pinpoint a time and place things changed it was in my Prospect Park West apartment about two months before David and I were planning a Peru vacation. It was to be our first big trip a year after our marriage, and we had made the decision that I would go off the pill that night.
I had been on the pill since I was 18 years old. I thought it’d be a matter of months before I got pregnant.
“If you get me pregnant before Peru, I’ll be so mad at you,” I said.
It turns out I had no reason to be mad. I didn’t get pregnant. We had a memorable trip to Peru exploring wonders of the world and topping those off with sour Pisco drinks.
In fact, I didn’t get pregnant that year, or the following year, or the year after that. In 2015, I did get pregnant via IVF, but that resulted in a miscarriage. We had tried one other IVF round and two IUI rounds by that time and…nothing. That was above and beyond the temperature readings, ovulation kits, timed sex sessions, period tracking apps, and more.
About a year after Peru, we went to see the fertility doctors and embarked on a series of checkups to determine what was “wrong.” I was 35 years old. Those months are mostly a blur.
There was a test that showed a healthy ovarian reserve, despite my age.
There was the hysteroscopy that determined some tissue had invaded my uterine muscle. A follow up procedure scraped that tissue away.
There was a bacterial infection in my uterus that cleared up after two rounds of antibiotics.
There was a reading that showed David had low sperm motility. He underwent varicose seal outpatient surgery in order to “unblock” the veins.
There was the HSG, which involved a balloon and some dye being inserted into my vagina in order to test the flow within my fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs. I left the room crying and shaking that day – it was about as unpleasant as you’d expect, especially considering the balloon deflated while inside me and they had to start over again – and called David.
“If this is what it’s going to take, we may need to think of another solution,” he responded.
That test showed that there was some scarring in one of my tubes that could be an issue. I could undergo surgery to correct that but it would require a week of recovery and wouldn’t guarantee anything. Why do that when IVF, which bypassed the tubes, was an option?
So, to answer our question about what was “wrong” – not much. This didn’t sit well with someone who liked to fix problems. There didn’t seem to be a real problem to fix.
One of our doctors said, “Medicine is the science of uncertainty,” as they wrote “unexplained infertility” all over our charts. We were deemed excellent candidates for IVF. Based on my age, our chances of a live birth, according to the CDC, hovered around 30 percent.
It didn’t work the first time, but it did get me used to the process – the multiple daily shots, the resulting bruises, the arsenal of supplement pills taking over a kitchen shelf, the incessant 7 a.m. appointments, the unforeseen charges, the insurance headaches.
If the shots didn’t bring you down, those insurance calls did. Deciphering the caps, the pharmacy procedures, and what was actually covered could cause hours of frustration. David eventually took this piece over; it was one thing he could control. All else, as Michelle Obama recently wrote, was “the acute burden of being female.”
We waited a few months and tried again. That time it worked, but we soon realized we had to redefine what “worked” meant because I miscarried at eight weeks. We heard the heartbeat drop steadily over a few morning appointments until there was silence.
It was a Thursday and I went to work. David and my boss begged me to stay home, but work allowed me respite – somewhere else to focus my mind and energy. I scheduled the D&C for the following day.
Every time I thought I had the tears contained, someone else would ask me nonchalantly, “What are you here for today?” It must have been hospital procedure. At one point, a woman called me in for a private intake and she asked me the question, which unleashed the flood. When David saw me he wanted to know what they said to make me so upset.
“It’s not what they said. It’s how I feel. Broken.”
About a month later, we joined David’s family for his father’s 50th reunion from West Point. We were touring the elegant-yet-rowdy dining hall, when my phone rang. I saw that it was one of our favorite fertility doctors and could barely hear him when I answered.
“Mariela, I have great news. You miscarried because of a chromosomal abnormality.” He was ebullient. I was annoyed. How was this good news and why was it being delivered at this moment – with people everywhere and so out of the blue?
I hung up quickly. We were in our “taking time off from all things pregnancy” mode and this was not part of the deal. The doctor had unknowingly overstepped his bounds.
With time, I did come to understand how it was good news. There was an explanation for the miscarriage and it was only a matter of time before the pregnancy would’ve ended. The doctor’s message was: better sooner than later. Also: there is still no reason why you can’t get pregnant.
If it had been a perfect embryo, we would have had to chalk the miscarriage up to more of the unexplained, the uncertain.
We eventually decided to try adoption. My mind and body were tired of all things IVF and the disappointments that came with it. Adoption seemed like more of a guaranteed outcome, plus we could help a mother in need.
We started researching agencies and landed on one that specialized in domestic adoption, welcomed all loving, hopeful parents regardless of religion or sexual orientation and pioneered the open adoption model. This meant that the birth parents and adoptive parents would meet and match before the birth, and the child would grow up knowing their story. Studies showed that it was better for the child, who would inevitably have questions about where they came from.
I agreed with the model – transparency is always better than secrets and lies – but found it terrifying. Would I be secure enough in myself and my parenting to have a healthy relationship with a birth parent? And what would that birth parent want from us?
It helped me to frame it as an opportunity for growth. I anticipated personal challenges unlike others I’d faced, and I welcomed those challenges.
We were initiated into all things adoption. The background checks, fingerprinting and birth parent letter. The website, recommendations, and health reports. The hours and hours of time, effort and documents. The payments – so many payments.
Six months after we signed the agency contract, our home study was approved and we were officially being promoted to expectant moms. They called it going “live.” We shared the news with our friends and family.
I recall one conversation with David’s brother where we answered a lot of questions. The last one was: “After all is said and done, will you have a child?” We said yes, as that’s what we’d been told. It could take an unbearably long time, but a child would eventually come.
We went live in September and on January 31 the following year, we abruptly received an email from the agency declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy and informing us that they would be “closing permanently effective immediately.”
Adoption, which we believed to have a certain outcome, simply did not. It was devastating – to us and to 500 plus other waiting families. We had put our trust, time, and money in an institution that floundered it all away. I felt like a fool.
We visited the offices first thing the next morning and they were completely empty. It was an appropriate visual metaphor – empty offices, empty wallets, empty hearts.
Facebook groups launched to piece together information and share grief and anger. Lawyers held conference calls for hundreds of victims. I lightly participated for a couple of months, and then David and I decided that we needed to step away. The emotions were all consuming and kept us looking backward.
By April 2017, I told David that I was ready to try IVF one last time. I recently found an email conversation sharing this update with a friend (who understood all too well the difficult path to motherhood) and this is how I explained it to her at the time: “Now, believe it or not, I feel more trustful of IVF.”
To be clear, that level of trust was capped at 12%, as that was now our expected live birth success rate, according to the CDC.
We went back to the same Brooklyn doctors that we felt comfortable with. Starting over with a new practice felt like time traveling back to 2013. We liked our team and felt that all our work up to that point must have given them deeper clues as to what might work for us.
Those clues led them to recommend preimplantation genetic screening (PGS). Since our infertility was unexplained, what we really needed was the best chances of pregnancy and birth with the healthiest embryos. PGS was a new-ish procedure that tested young embryos for chromosomal abnormalities – at an added cost.
We felt the more science we could apply, the better. It helped tip the scale closer to certainty.
PGS showed we had two perfect embryos – a boy and a girl. They asked us which we wanted to implant and it felt wrong to choose. After all we’d been through, gender was insignificant; health was our priority.
On the evening of April 5, 2018 at 6:38 p.m., our daughter was born at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope. She was six pounds, 11 ounces and in perfect health. She’s grown into a curious girl, who loves to eat and dance, is a mercifully good sleeper, and looks forward to socializing at daycare.
She’s also looking forward to being a big sister. On November 15, 2018, I confirmed that I was 11.5 weeks pregnant.
It was my first spontaneous pregnancy, after more than five years of trying fervently. I missed almost my entire first trimester, mostly because of utter disbelief and denial. I didn’t want to call the doctor about not having yet gotten my period after birth and have their first question be: “Have you taken a pregnancy test?”
I didn’t feel ready. I felt overwhelmed.
But, after a couple of weeks, I certainly felt lucky.