Choice was a buzz word in the suede bell-bottomed Joan Baez 1970s that formed the texture of my childhood. A woman’s right to choose what happens or does not happen inside her own body was on the frontline of political and cultural debate. The very word for me still signals the discourses of freedom and rights of the era: the choice to live and love as you want, freedom from segregation, the freedom to choose whether or not you serve in the military, or even go into the family business.
Now that we have joined the ranks of the infertile, the word “choice” begins to slide around and change meaning. Of course we are different from the traditional couple with fertility issues, and yet our hearts will likely break along the same fault lines should we ultimately be unable to have a baby.
For this reason a kind of instant kinship wells up between me and the woman I sit next to at the fertility clinic. I am here on my own as Viviën and I booked ourselves for fertility tests at different times. We want to be sure that we are physically able to carry babies, since it requires such elaborate arrangements to try. The woman looks over at me with kind eyes. Sure she has Armani on her back and Prada tucked under her arm and I have Chuckie All-Stars on my feet and a backpack full of books under my arm, but in our differently clad chests burns the same bright little flame of hope.
We have the same hope but in a province like Alberta, where most fertility procedures are not covered, we do not have the same options. While a basic fertility test is paid for by Alberta Health, any treatments we decide to undergo are not. It costs roughly 1500 to purchase a single sample of frozen donor sperm. The price includes the process of having the sperm inserted into your uterus, storage and cleaning. The success rates vary from between five and twenty-five percent, and so it is recommended that couples be prepared to shoulder the cost of ten tries in order to give themselves a reasonable chance of getting pregnant.
If we decided to go that route we would need to plan and put extra money aside. To me, it seems to be an excessive price tag for a resource that is renewable and widely available. Excessive, that is, until I heard the woman sitting next to me unfold her story. She of the Armani and Prada (she is so well put together that the apparel seems to form a protective modern armour) leans over and asks me with the conspiratorial air of a fellow inmate: “What are you in for?”
“A test to see if I am fertile. An egg count, I think they call it, ” I reply.
“We tried for eight years before my husband agreed to be tested. You know how difficult it is for a guy to admit …” here she pauses and waits for me to chime in. I sense that she hasn’t read me as lesbian, and although I have no problem coming out, I don’t want to interrupt her flow so I just nod and let her continue.
“Well we found out that he was the problem. No, I shouldn’t say it like that, he’d kill me — I mean he’s not infertile, but his sperm have improperly formed tails so they don’t make it. You know.” Here she inserts a hand gesture that is a pretty graphic approximation of sperm wriggling their way up through the fallopian tubes.
“Ah, the tail. I see,” I say. I didn’t actually know that sperm could have problems with their tails. In fact, before we embarked on this journey I don’t think I knew very much about sperm at all, but now I spend a good chunk of each day in fascinated contemplation. “So you’re using a donor, then?” I ask.
“If only! Oh my god, if only it were that easy but he’d never raise another man’s baby,” she says, shaking her head, and I can’t help but feel the friction between our two worlds. If I were to explain our situation would she still imagine that my wife and I would be raising “another man’s baby?” Maybe it is just an unfortunate turn of phrase but language is telling and important. I can feel my body unconsciously begin to angle itself away from her and my muscles slightly recoil of their own accord. I suddenly remember that the newspaper in my lap needs urgent reading, but Mrs. Armaniprada has more to say.
“Now that we’ve identified the problem there’s a different procedure they can do. They use a needle to extract his sperm directly. A needle in the testicle isn’t any man’s idea of fun, so he wasn’t exactly eager.”
“No, I guess not.” I can’t help wincing on his behalf.
“By the time I could convince him to go for it — it’s expensive as well …” she says.
“How much? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Not at all, it is 12,000 dollars or so.”
“What?” I think I must have heard wrong.
“For the first try. And it didn’t work. Because by the time I could convince him to go for this procedure, I was thirty-nine and — how old are you if you don’t mind me asking?”
“No, I don’t mind. I’m thirty-seven.” Age, money, we’re getting into all of the meaty stuff now.
“Ah,” she says, nodding. Suddenly I feel her eyes looking directly inside mine for the first time since we started speaking. As if she is taking some kind of an emotional temperature check. “Then you know what I’m talking about. By then my eggs had deteriorated to the point where they advised us that trying the procedure again with my eggs just wasn’t worth it. There was a chance, but it wasn’t a good one. So we had to find a donor egg. Then they take out one of my husband’s sperm, slice the tail off and introduce it directly to the egg, which they then implant into me when I go into heat. Sorry to be crude.”
“No, it’s fine. So you’re here to see if it worked?”
“Oh no, I’m here for another try. This is number four, and altogether it is 20,000 each time. Not that we’re counting. I mean you can’t put a price on motherhood, can you?” she says.
Here I want to interject that no you can’t … but it seems that somebody has, but by now she is getting on to the heart of her problem.
“It’s not the money, but the fertility drugs, well they are really hard on your body — you’ll see, they just rip the guts right out of you — and visits to clinic every week, getting your hopes up each time. It can wear you down, you know?”
That I do know. I can see sadness pooled in her eyes. “Well I am crossing my fingers for you,” I say.
“Thanks, I will for you too. So is your husband …” here she trails off, looks around, takes me in again and scans the waiting room.
“No, I’m no husband. I mean I have no husband.”
“Doing this all on your own, you brave girl.”
“Sorry, no. I am married. To a woman.” It is almost as if I see a sixty-watt light bulb fire up directly over her perfectly coifed head.
“Oh for god’s sake, of course. Is your wife trying as well?” I nod in the affirmative, and she continues. “You are so lucky, you have double the odds! Why wasn’t I born a lesbian?” She peers upward, directing the question to the crown moulding above us, or to a higher power — it is difficult to be sure. Now there’s a question you don’t hear every day. Her name is called and she gives me a little pat on the knee as she gets up to leave.
Here I was feeling that we have a rocky road ahead. Here I was feeling just the tiniest bit sorry for us. Now this conversation has helped put things into perspective.
Twofold note to self:
1. Always talk to people in waiting rooms.
2. Don’t do self-pity. Someone else has always got it worse.