adventures in fertility: Chapter III, Icarus regrets, and retires puzzled


(continued from yesterday’s entry)

“I’m the piece of shit the world revolves around.” My friends who have been in AA taught me that one, and if anything comes close to defining my childhood, that’d be it. I’m not quite sure how someone can grow up with world-class self-loathing and a belief that rules are for other people, but somehow I managed to do it. It might have been a combination of my parents, who always praised us as “off the charts” – and my schools, which acted as institutions of daily humiliation.

Either way, it left most of the kids in my family with a deep sense of entitlement and (my favorite word for it) exceptionalism. When we started the fertility process, I dismissed all statistics as boring and depressing numbers meant for someone else. If we were given a 10% chance of something happening, I would think “yeah, sure, if we were regular people. Don’t they know we’re superstars?”

I say this not to be a dick, but to come clean; most forms of exceptionalism don’t do you any favors. Sure, that sense of entitlement led me to believe I could dare string words together for a living (which worked, thank the lord) but when you don’t believe in statistics, you are going to be doubly horrified when your exceptionalism turns out to be completely unfounded.

The day comes when you realize that in some things, you are just a schmo like anyone else, and nothing brings that realization faster than failing at fertility. We were superheroes, I thought, we had Lucy before we even tried, and my wife ran marathons, and I come from a family of gajillions, and my mom had my sister Michelle at 40 (in 1972!) and Tessa’s pregnancy had actually been fun, and… then we got older.

The graph shows fertility falling off a cliff after 40, and maybe we just grew imperceptibly older in those precious months, and some key ingredients inside us followed suit. Maybe one hormone, one little chemical, but it was enough. The day will come when all women will be able to freeze their eggs long before even meeting their partner, and this deadline will become a thing of the past. But we don’t live in that world yet.


in Chicago, 2002

And so we turned to adoption. A couple of weeks after the last IVF went away, we had our first meeting with a very good adoption attorney who gave us a 3-hour briefing on the way it works. I can’t get into the details, but there’s a lot of “selling yourself” to the birthmother, lots of picture books, and LOTS of paperwork.

In the weeks afterward, we followed the directive of the state: a 9-hour class on adoption, a “home study” that involves interviews and a visit to your house, and even a class on trans-racial adoption. It’s all fascinating, heartbreaking, and… nerve-wracking. You’re being assessed by your lawyer, a potential birth mother, and a social worker… fingerprinted, scanned by the FBI, and asked questions that might scare someone who has never been in therapy.

I can’t go into details, because this is very fresh in our minds, but we were placed with a potential “birth mother” about two weeks after our meeting with the lawyer, which is unheard of. We developed a relationship, made travel plans, and spent 6 weeks contemplating the awesome potential of a newborn in our house. And mere hours before a major step was about to be taken, just a few days ago, it was all gone.

Imagine a giant pregnancy test hanging in your home, the size of a massive pendulum swinging under a grandfather clock. Every two days… or every week… it changes from positive to negative, and then back again. And every time it changes, you must massively reset your own expectations of what the rest of your life will be like. It is not for the faint of heart.

We have a wonderful kid, and while I don’t need more reasons to adore and appreciate her, I find myself lingering by her side, utterly transfixed by the miracle of her presence. And my wife, she is a continent of goodness, lapped by rocky seashores of strength, gorgeous blue eyes for skies and blonde prairie hair. She is such an amazing mommy that I am steadfast in making sure another little person may call her such by name.


0 thoughts on “adventures in fertility: Chapter III, Icarus regrets, and retires puzzled

  1. CM

    Incredible. Just incredible. Incredibly written and incredibly honest.
    The ending is especially poignant — It reminds all of us parents how lucky we are to have the children we have.
    I think many of us (particularly the overachievers) go through life assuming certain stats won’t apply to us…until they do. But sometimes we NEED to think that to keep going. Those of us who think to much…need to have a certain amount of fantasy to help us survive the cruelties of the world.
    I have friends who are going through adoption and have ‘almost’ had a kid placed with them 5 or 6 times now. Often, the birthmother decides to keep the child, or something else. Eventually they will have a wonderful baby, and in time, the home visits and probing questions will be a distant memory, but right now, it’s just hard.
    Lucy is going to have, and be, a wonderful sibling someday.

  2. Lola

    Heartbreaking. Just heartbreaking.
    I am a regular reader and comment very infrequently. Infertility is something a lot of people don’t talk about. Everyone thinks IVF is a simple, mostly successful procedure when it’s not. And I don’t think people realize just how difficult it is to adopt these days.
    My sister-in-law had a story similar to yours: Two cycles of IVF which concluded in determining that her eggs were prematurely aged and she would never be able to conceive. A failed adoption of a newborn. The birth mother blew them off the day of the planned C-section after they had travelled from Canada to Little Rock, AK. A horrorific and expensive experience.
    But she was persistent and found a solution in frozen embryo adoption. She actually went through an agency close to you in Anaheim Hills, CA and now has a one year old baby boy. You’ve probably already heard of this, and it seems to be backed by religious right types (the embryos are considered to be frozen children) so I’m not sure how that aligns with your philosophies.
    I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet either because the embryos need to be thawed and transferred, a procedure involving all those horomones and scary looking syringes plus there is all the waiting and the rest of it.
    I do know that my sister-in-law thought she would never have a child, the thing she wanted most in life, and this gave her a child.
    I do believe that there isn’t enough discussion about fertility, especially what can happen while trying to conceive at a later age. The ease of pregnancy is very misrepresented. Not everyone gets preganant on their first try. I have girlfirends who have spent years trying to have babies and would have started earlier if they had known the possible outcomes of appointments for dye tests, scopes, acupuncture and IVF.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I really hope it has a happy outcome.

  3. Anne

    In a way this is like another miscarriage. I am so very sorry.
    I have to be honest, Ian. The unpredictability of domestic adoption in the US is one (selfish) reason we chose not to pursue it. Yes we went to a weekend-long seminar in Vermont. Yes, we prepared our “choose us!” sheet with biographies and beautiful pics of the house and neighborhood and our dogs and our hopeful selves. But I couldn’t bear it.
    We contacted an agency in Boston (that had an office in RI) and began the overseas process. Chose a country right away — my husband was teaching ESL to Colombian immigrants at night, so Colombia it was — and started jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, the home visits by a social worker, baring our souls in long autobiographies, etc. Adoption is so INTRUSIVE and you are at the mercy of so many agency personnel and government officials… I am actually amazed now that my very private husband went through with it.
    Anyway, I always say: Once you’re committed to the adoption journey, you and your child (children in our case) WILL find each other. It doesn’t always happen on your preferred timetable. But there will be a good ending to this saga. Believe it with all your hearts, and be strong, dear ones.

  4. emma

    This all sounds so awful to have been through. I am very sorry. That being said and being my Pollyanna self, I don’t think this is the end of the story and I think the story will have a happy ending.

  5. Sue

    You always think you’re the one who will beat the odds when you start down the road of fertility treatments. I had to learn that lesson too. Adoption is an equally rough road in an entirely different way, but your child will come to you in time. Sorry for all the rough spots on the way to building your family. There are so many other people going through the same thing – I hope you know you’re not alone.

  6. GFWD

    After reading this, I think I’ll try harder to dial back the frustration when my two kids fight or the two year old throws a tantrum. I will know to better appreciate and savor those precious sounds of joy that others would give anything to hear–even at 5:00 in the morning during trial week. I hope that you are one day lucky enough to bring another child into your family.

  7. Lara

    Thank you for writing these three entries. I’ve had to deal with some of these issues and am forwarding this to friends who had to deal with others you describe. I hope writing this was even a fraction as helpful to you as it was to so many of us who have had the good fortune to read it.

  8. Mindy

    I’m so sorry. No one deserves what you all have been through. As Sue said, I hope you know you’re not alone. I survived our years of infertility and treatments by becoming involved in an online community of women dealing with similar issues. Knowing that there were others who really understood what I was going through and all the craziness in my head was worth more than I could say. Some of those women even became friends “in real life”. I wouldn’t say it took away any of the pain, but it certainly helped me deal with it. Again, I’m sorry and hoping you all get your happy ending sooner rather than later.

  9. Scott

    I waited until the final chapter to post anything. I wanted to know the whole story, at least through the present day, before prematurely commenting.
    Our tale, though similar, takes a different path. We, too, started later in life to have children. However, we skipped right to infertility treatments and quickly advanced to IVF. We lived through the initial heartbeats that later disappeared, the post-transfer days of techincal pregancy that led to the self-knowledge to be later confirmed by an ultrasound, the needles, the porn, the whole process.
    Then, one time, it all worked. We had our son. There is much more drama in his birth than needs to displayed here.
    We kept trying after that – it worked once, surely it will work again! But, it didn’t. We’ve talked about adoption, but never seriously pursued it.
    There is a complex emotion, an emotion that feels multi-dimensional, that washes over and through me when I think about where we are now as a family – and where we will almost certainly remain. It’s a combination of great fortune (we have a perfect son), great responsibility (what is the best for him), fear (are we short-changing him by not giving him siblings, or would a potential sibling so change the current balance that it would be worse), gratitude (without modern science, I would not have a son), anger (the current pope feels that how we went about having our son is a worse sin than mass murder), contentment (this is where we are, and it is good, simply because I believe it is so), and, of course, love.
    But the aspect of that emotion to which I return the most often is contentment. We are where we are. It was a strange journey, one that was personal but also so common these days. And the destination was unexpected, though quite wonderful.
    My son was born pre-maturely, and we spent a great deal of time in the NICU. One wall of the waiting room/hallway of the NICU was covered with a hand-painted version of “Welcome to Holland.” (I’ll skip putting in a link since my post would then get held up.) It’s shmaltzy, over the top, tear-jerking – but captures a feeling pretty darn well.
    Ian and Tessa – We’ve never met, and we may never meet. I hope we do someday, for we have walked a similar path. I also hope you reach a point of happiness with your destination.

  10. Kathy

    I so admire you and Tessa for your strength and courage – you have been through so much. I hope you make it to the other side with the family you’ve always hoped for – even more awesome than the one you have now.
    It is a bitter pill to find that after spending your single life trying not to get pregnant, it doesn’t just happen when you’re ready. I am lucky to have 1 beautiful girl, a year older than Lucy, and after problems, tests and careful consideration, we decided to stop with one. I never imagined having only one child.
    One day I just knew it was over. In the car, that Schoolhouse Rock song came on – 3 is a magic number. “A man and a woman had a little baby, yes they did and there were 3 in a family, that’s a magic number.” That made it okay somehow.**
    **with help from Lexapro, therapy and a few pity parties

  11. jje

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Ian. Definitely some of your finest, most moving writing, and of course it hits so very close to home for me.
    I am keeping y’all in my prayers and can’t wait to read the news that your sweet baby is snuggled up in the loving embrace of your family.

  12. Steve

    As incredibly gifted a writer you are, the real gift is your ability to undergo this while both sharing and recognizing the true gifts you already have in your wife and child. I admire your talents and your strength.

  13. Neva

    Thank you for trusting us with the whole story. I know it must be painful to write about it but rewarding for you too in some sort of cathartic way. I wonder if it might someday make an amazing screenplay or novel. You describe the depth of emotion around this issue so well and with so much humor and honesty that I can’t help but want other people to see/hear it too.
    Having been, like you, someone who thought “those bad things don’t happen to me” who was then bombarded by badness of various sorts, I have felt, for the last 10 years or so, that life is about mourning the loss of your imagined dream while not ignoring the incredible gifts you are given. I have to remind myself all the time not to miss the scenery on the road to the future and to remember that today is all we really have. Good luck to you guys. Enjoy each other. You are a wonderful family.

  14. CM

    Sorry to comment yet again, but I want to share a very helpful link. This is a one of a kind message board by the fertility clinic in my part of the country – where real doctors answer any anonymous questions. It’s theoretically just for their patients, but anyone can post and get an answer from one of their doctors, and they don’t check to see if you’re a patient…I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere else. You don’t even need to register. I have asked tons of questions. Here is the link:
    On a more lighthearted note, maybe this will make someone feel just a TINY bit better:
    and a coda:
    Oh, Scott, thank you! I don’t deserve such flattery.

  15. hilary

    i haven’t checked in with you and tessa in so long, and then i logged onto facebook, which i’m not good about doing very regularly, and saw a link to this post. wow. i can’t believe what you’ve been through. and so so so well-told, ian. so honest and completely relatable. a good book to the point: Waiting for Daisy by Peggy Orenstein. thinking of you guys, hilary

  16. Ann

    I am the same age as Tessa, my husband and I test well hormonally and sperm-wise, and we also have done two IFVs, one in 2009 and one in 2010, both of which produced low grade embryos and one of which ended in a chemical pregnancy, the other in a ruptured ectopic pregnancy (despite my tubes being open). I also bled solidly and quite heavily whilst going through both doomed pregnancies.
    I’m now eight weeks pregnant through natural conception, in the right place and no bleeding. I’m all too aware that anything could still happen but so far at least it feels so completely different from the IVF experience.
    We finally had some luck, in that we had been going the assisted route because my husband was on a drug associated with birth defects so we had decided to not try naturally but use sperm he froze before going on the drug, and he was told in March that he could stop taking the drug. We waited a few months and then tried getting pregnant on our own and succeeded on our third try.
    The other thing that was different this time though was that during those months I had been getting treatment from an ayurvedic doctor – herbs, massage, dietary restrictions designed to affect your hormones. Like many people, I sort of and sort of don’t believe in alternative approaches. I’d already tried cranio sacral therapy, reflexology, acupuncture, and hypnotherapy, and was losing the faith. I ended up sticking with this doctor because she was a) so nice and down to earth and worked with me rather than being vaguely disparaging about resorting to IVF; b) I noticed other positive benefits such as no more chronic thrush, eczema less bothersome, less gassy, better digestion, and I dropped a dress size without even thinking about it; c)I’d stumbled across her right after having been to see a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor who worked on Harley Street (I live in London)who had been written up prominently in one of the Sunday magazines as having a lot of success with fertility. The ayurvedic doctor was considerably cheaper and easier to get appointments with, as well as being really nice, so I went with her.
    So to cut to the chase, I think she’s great and deep down believe her approach made all the difference, though my husband doesn’t think so. Our experience with assisted conception made us feel like failures from start to finish, whilst my ayurvedic experience has been nothing but positive. I suppose I am posting this in the spirite of an infomercial, whilst trying to avoid sounding like that, and am completely aware that I’m promoting it on the basis of one known success that may have had nothing to do with it.
    My completely uneducated take though is that it’s all to do with hormones – different women/couples may have different hormonal profiles (eg typical length of cycle, whether or not you get pre-menstrual symptoms) and that IVF may work better for some profiles than others, or perhaps that the dramatic rise in fertility issues reflects something affecting people’s hormones, and that IVF alone is not enough to overcome that. I do feel very strongly that the IVF hormones, whilst they didn’t make me feel bad, were very incompatible with me somehow. It all just felt very wrong. I suppose I’m assuming that if in the future I went back to the ayurvedic doctor and we tried IVF, we could well be more successful that time around.
    These past couple of years I’ve hated it when people offer advice based solely on the fact that they have been successful and I haven’t (eg try to have a more positive attitude…). I know anyone who has been through this roller coaster has thought about it from every possible angle and explored multiple avenues, but I thought I would throw in my experience, partly because I read Xtcian regularly and anonymously and am feeling affected by the similarity of your experience, and also just in case it was the ayurvedic approach that made the difference and someone else might find it useful.

  17. Susan

    I also went through the hell that is the fertility roller coaster for more years than I care to remember. like you we did it all with no explanation. One day I said “enough”. We applied for adoption and 2 months after the paperwork was completed we were chosen. 6 weeks later we brought home our son (he was six weeks old when we got him). Tried to adopt again but took forever. long story short, when our son was 3, we went for an embryo adoption. worked first time!! First and only time I had ever been pregnant. All those years of fertility treatments were all “no, not this time”. That embryo adoption resulted in another beautiful son who will turn 3 at the end of this month. It was a joy and an unbelievable miracle of modern science to be able to give birth to my adopted child. What a story to tell him one day! Adoption is a beautiful choice no matter which way you adopt (embryo, domestic or international). I wish you nothing but the best on your adoption journey.

  18. jif

    I love you guys very much. Ian, this series of posts has moved me to tears. Such a gifted writer, adoring husband and father… I love you guys. xx

  19. CM

    One more useful resource, esp. for older women and those with high FSH:
    And here is a book that gave me hope after my miscarriage. The author and his wife had a baby in her mid 30s, then had miscarriages and infertility for years. He’s a science writer so he did a lot of research. (Some of it is kinda dated.) Anyway, his wife then randomly got prego at 40 and 42 and had healthy babies.

  20. CM

    One more useful resource, esp. for older women and those with high FSH:
    And here is a book that gave me hope after my miscarriage. The author (Jon Cohen) and his wife had a baby in her mid 30s, then had miscarriages and infertility for years. He’s a science writer so he did a lot of research. (Some of it is kinda dated.) Anyway, after failed treatments and giving up, his wife then randomly got prego at 40 and 42 and had healthy babies.


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