IVF and Surrogacy: To Hope, But Not Too Much
My wife and I got married in April 2017 when we were both 36; an age that still felt young in the elongated youth of 21st century norms. But no “40 is the new 30” slogan was going to hide the fact that we were in the dusk of our biological window, so we began trying for a baby on our honeymoon.
However, pregnancy eluded us.
Several months in, we got a little more intentional. We tracked hormone levels, cycles, and mood. We explored the “everyday method” (which is as straightforward and exhausting as it sounds). And we listened as unsolicited advice rolled in from all directions like a train depot. “Have you tried…” “Why don’t you…” “I heard that…” “Don’t overthink it...” “It’ll happen...”
You can’t blame people for caring, but after a while you realize the 3.5 billion-year-old conveyor belt of procreation isn’t working like it’s supposed to no matter how many times you’re told to “let go and trust the universe.”
That’s the thing. We did, and when it came to pregnancy, the universe was saying that we were a cosmic folly.
The underwhelming term we had to live with was “unexplained infertility.” How’s that for a let down? My sperm was shipshape, and Sam was producing viable eggs, and yet our “abracadabra” did not produce any bundles of joy. There were whispers of possible issues with fallopian tubes and uterine walls, but the only definitive thing we got was that eyebrow raise, head tilt, and shoulder shrug you get when doctors don’t know what else to say.
That’s ok. We’re only special to ourselves. Evolution was moving around our genetic blip as siblings and cousins had kids, signifying that our one particular bud did not grow a leaf, but the family tree was alive and well.
“The tribe has spoken. Get over it. It’s not about you.”
And yet, for me, it is. It most definitely is. We considered adoption, but ego is a hard thing to ditch for a species preoccupied with self; and only humans have the audacity (and at times, the means) to look the universe in the face and say: Not yet.
This was one of those times.
Between June 2018 and July 2019, we attempted IVF (the egg retrieval/embryo creation part) four times. I won’t get into the intricacies of IVF, but just know that it’s a gauntlet of injections, checkpoints, hormone levels, and probability, all to maximize the number of eggs that a woman can produce during any particular cycle. Eggs that can then be fertilized, outside of a woman’s body, of course.
For this last part to happen, there is no lovemaking to a Jodeci soundtrack, but rather, my wife in one room—under full anesthesia—getting eggs plucked out of her ovaries, while I was shuttled into another, and handed a plastic cup, giant wireless headphones, and a remote control to a TV with seemingly every porn movie ever made.
Real charming stuff.
IVF’s abracadabra is reserved for the Petri dish. It’s the reproductive version of a fusion reactor; cutting edge science trying to combine tiny things that the universe does with ease.
For our efforts (and the lab’s), we ended up with two viable embryos that were put on ice. Two was less than we were hoping for, but it was more than zero.
IVF is both a miracle and a slap in the face.
It’s like paying a lot of money to put training wheels back on your bike.
You’re happy for what it allows, but you don’t like the reinforcement of your inadequacy.
Ego wants the kid to be yours, pride wants it to be easy.
But with IVF, you can’t have it both ways. The whole process feels like some sort of Faustian bargain. So you get angry at your wife and her body for what it’s not allowing you to do. And then you get angry at yourself for being angry at your wife for something she can’t control.
These are the licks you have to take when you’re trying to outfox the universe.
While I wrestled with these stories in my mind, we waited for Sam’s body to recover so we could transfer one of these embryos into her.
Moldy House Interlude
In June 2019 we bought a house that (unknowingly to us or our inspector) was harboring mold. But Sam’s body knew shortly after moving in. She got quite sick and became reactive to anything and everything. (Getting ourselves out of this situation is another story, too.)
We couldn’t get a straight medical answer about the safety of transferring embryos into Sam. Perhaps if we had even three embryos, we could try one, but because we only had two sourdough starters for the buns we wanted to bake, it made them all the more precious.
Instead of waiting some unknown period of time for Sam’s body to oblige, we eyed the next option on the genetically-stubborn-with-financial-means checklist: surrogacy.
If IVF is a private party, surrogacy is the VIP section.
Surrogacy, in a nutshell: Someone, other than my wife, would carry our child to term.
It sounds almost silly. Like, it’s something that only people like Kanye and Kim do, not us. And yet, us.
To call the surrogacy process during a global pandemic “taxing and glacial” would be apt and yet somehow, insufficient.
You can’t just go find someone off the street to be your surrogate. There are rules and laws and contracts and expectations. With surrogacy, you’re entrusting an oven that you have no control over, to delicately bake your most prized bun, perfectly, over 9 months, on its first try.
You want to get this right.
Throw into this recipe, COVID-19, and you can start to imagine the delicate nature of things.
To go through IVF and surrogacy is not only a monumental financial investment, it’s a multi-year exercise in playing out two truths in your head at all times: I'd like to have my own kids, but I’d also be happy if I can't. You don’t know if either one is true but if you don’t believe in both, you can’t go through the unrelenting limbo.
And yet, the only way to live in both of those realities is to hedge hope and expectations by not walking too far out on either limb. You somehow need to be daring and cautious, but not immobile. You know that optimism might only lead to sadness, but you don’t want indifference to be the reason you didn’t try.
I'd like to have my own kids, but I’d also be happy if I can't.
It’s a hell of an emotion to juggle, and we’ve been balancing on both of those limbs countless times through the past 7 years: every time Sam got her period, every follicle ultrasound, every blood test; at egg retrieval, waiting for updates from the lab on how many eggs fertilized, how many made it to Day 5, and how many were genetically viable; We teetered with each subsequent round of egg retrieval, with choosing a surrogacy agency, with deciding on a match, with financing, with insurance, with various screenings, with the embryo transfer, with Day 10, with Week 20, etc. etc.
I'd like to have my own kids, but I’d also be happy if I can't.
For anyone going through this process, I want to let you know that it’s ok to have two sets of feelings for everything. I feel selfish for thinking that I might not want kids, and for thinking that I do. I feel embarrassed that we have to go through this process, and incredibly blessed that we can. I feel frustrated about the money we had to spend, and I’m 100% thankful that we could.
It’s OK to be a walking contradiction, because there is no rule book for dealing with this Schrödinger’s cat in your life, when something is both true and not true until it’s one or the other.
How long can you live in these Everything, Everywhere All At Once realities? Well, just like no one can show you the line where trusting the universe stops and manifesting your desire begins, no one can point out when exactly persistence should give way to grace.
It helps to have a rock-solid partnership. I’m lucky to have Sam. We’ve always kept communicating, and we’ve always withheld judgment even if one of us might wobble on a limb. Obviously, you’re in this thing together.
For us, we started interviewing various surrogacy agencies in April, 2021, and selected one a couple months after. We finally got our surrogate match, over a year later, in late July, 2022. (We love her!) We transferred one embryo on Jan 9, 2023. We just had the 20-week ultrasound. Our baby boy is due Sept 28, 2023.
I’m sure the summer will be a duel between angst and delight while we periodically get a glimpse of our proverbial bun through the oven light of ultrasounds.
Grow baby, grow.
After a seven year journey, all I know is that I’m hoping like hell to welcome my son into the world, but I know that I’ll (somehow) be ok if I can’t.