The One That Remains

by Rebecca Swanson
Originally Published: 
Ugurhan Betin / iStock

It’s the embryo in the room, the one we rarely talk about. It’s been almost four years since I did my last and final embryo transfer, resulting in our second (and final) beautiful boy. I was 36 the first time I did IVF, and a few weeks shy of 41 when I gave birth to baby number two. My husband and I had already agreed to stop at two children, and a grueling and painful pregnancy and labor sealed the deal.

Now, one embryo remains.

The first time the bill came, my husband paid the storage fee without discussion. It’s expensive, hundreds of dollars, but I was still pregnant and it was an unspoken insurance policy after years of infertility struggles, a miscarriage, two ectopic pregnancies, two emergency surgeries, and a ruptured (and decimated) fallopian tube.

By the second time the bill showed up, our newest baby was successfully part of the human world. My husband called me at work. He is a straight shooter, not a man of trepidation, but even he was cautious. “We need to decide whether to pay the fee for the embryo storage,” he said carefully. I begged him to just pay it, and we could talk about it the following year. I had two beautiful children—one an infant—and was a mess of exhaustion and hormones. I didn’t even want to think about this embryo.

He paid the next year’s bill without asking.

And now, on the eve of my youngest son’s 3rd birthday, I dread the thought that my husband might be ready to stop paying this bill and might call me any day now to discuss the embryo that remains.

It’s inexplicable, in many ways, this dread that I feel. I am adamantly pro-choice, and strongly believe that an embryo is just a little ball of cells with as much potential for a wonderful future baby as the egg that painfully bursts out of a cyst and bleeds out of me every month or the sperm that comes out of my husband on an indeterminate and none-of-your-business basis.

Before she performed my first IVF transfer (resulting in our oldest son), the doctor showed me a picture via a magical projecting microscope of the two blastocysts that she was about to insert into my cervix. I was high on valium and giggled at the images on the wall that looked like balls of spider eggs. I didn’t feel attached to these cells, just hopeful that they would stick and I would finally be a mom. When one did stick, I didn’t shed a tear for the one that didn’t—I cried with elation for the one that did, and I reveled in a joyful, fairly easy pregnancy.

But when it was time for our second, my husband and I were struggling in our marriage and in disagreement about when (and if) we should try for our second. After a year of therapy, we were ready, but I was a year older, and the stakes felt high.

We’d had three embryos frozen after my first transfer. After months of shots and pills and patches to prepare my body (more than the first go-round, as my body had aged), the day of transfer number two arrived.

I was again high on valium, but anxious this time instead of eager. My husband, in a great display of magnanimity, told me before the doctors came in that we could implant two embryos, if that’s what I wanted. Two! We could have twins! I kissed him and was trying to process the appeal of this through my foggy brain when the doctor came in.

“I’m sorry to tell you, but only one of your embryos survived the thawing and is ready for transfer.”

I burst into tears.

Suddenly, I was devastated. This would be our last try. We would not spend another $20,000 or go through the entire process again. Had another embryo survived, we could have tried again if this failed—the transfer alone is less work than the whole IVF process, and much less expensive.

This time, instead of being elated with the projection of the single blastocyst on the wall, I was terrified. After we returned home, I lay on the couch with my legs up for the next 24 hours, taking no risks of harming this one blastocyst or preventing it from implanting itself firmly into my uterus and into our family.

I cried. I cried all day, all through the night, and all the next morning. My husband occupied our toddler, doing who knows what, so Mommy could cry.

And then, the call came. It was the fertility lab—the people who thaw things, the scientists who seem to me like wizards.

“Ms. Swanson, we are calling to tell you some exciting news! One of your other embryos survived after all! It just needed a little more time to thaw, but it fought its way through! Since you already did your transfer, we just need your permission to freeze this one again for the future.”

I cried harder, a feat I didn’t think possible, with tears that I thought were spent. Yes, yes, I told them. Of course! A little fighter! Save it!

Suddenly, my little ball of cells was a fighter—a fighter that I would keep frozen for as long as I could. Rational thought was lost in an instant, and this embryo became more important than I had ever imagined.

I know the day will come when my phone will ring and it will be my husband, sighing, holding yet another bill in his hand. I know, objectively, that my little fighter is simply a pile of cells. But for now, I long for my husband to quietly continue to pay the bill and wait for the day that maybe, just maybe, I will simply forget that this embryo is waiting. The one that remains.

This article was originally published on