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My miracle motherhood: The road to joy is long and difficult
By Lee Hill Kavanaugh
At the convenience store, my 5-year-old agonized over his choices: the miniature Reese’s cup or the mini-Tootsie Roll?
He looked so cute. (Yes, I’m biased.) Seeing life through his eyes, there’s no room to be worried about bad things in the world. He just wants some sugar.
The cashier laughed as my son explained why he liked both of them. I laughed with her, until she said this: “Aren’t grandchildren wonderful?”
Mental note to self: make a hair appointment to cover those gray roots and next time, don’t skip wearing makeup! But (sigh) this wasn’t the first time I’d been mistaken for my children’s grandma.
Truth is I am older than most mamas who have elementary-age children. I remember reading a column by a mom lamenting how much older she was than the other kids’ moms. I cringed as I read it. That mom is still younger than me by almost a decade. And no, I still won’t tell you all my age.
Most of our friends have children in college and (gasp!) having babies of their own. By contrast, in April we registered our youngest for kindergarten.
But having young children now is God’s timing for us.
My husband and I tried to have babies early in our marriage. But the ugliness of cancer appeared as sudden as a shadow on a routine scan. After a surgeon’s touch, it slithered away, but cancer still leaves boot-prints on your soul. So does infertility, an invisible disease that hurts like hell.
Every May on my birthday, so close to Mother’s Day, I grieved that we didn’t have children. How many church services did I cry after because the minister would have all the mothers stand up to get a rose?
I prayed without ceasing. I wished on every birthday candle for a baby. I made wishes on first stars I saw at night, falling stars and even moon beams. I lit prayer candles in Catholic churches despite not being Catholic. I threw coins into wishing wells. A friend who is Native American once laid a totem on my belly and chanted.
My husband and I researched the science of fertility. We learned how reproductive science is an emerging art with new advances each year. We learned how much it costs — about $10,000 a try, and insurance doesn’t pay for it.
Statistics for infertility are high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in six couples are infertile. In 40 percent of cases the problem rests with the male, in 40 percent with the female, 10 percent with both partners, and in a further 10 percent of cases, the cause is unknown and will never be discovered.
I thank God for those pioneering infertility scientists, Patrick Steptoe and Sir Robert Edwards, who made it their life’s work to tackle this problem. Edwards, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2010, died last month. But these scientists’ breakthroughs have brought some 5 million babies into the world since 1978, when their infertility techniques helped conceive the world’s first in vitro baby, Louise Brown. (Who is now a mom herself.)
I was so confused when I learned that some religions forbid infertility help. Is having a doctor repair a diseased heart unethical? Or helping a body heal from an infection unethical? How unethical is it to deny a couple suffering infertility a real chance to become parents?
Well-meaning people have told me: If God meant for you to be parents, you’d get pregnant. Others have said that adoption was a nobler route, hinting that it was selfish to want a child with your own genes. (Most of them ironically were already parents with their own biological children.) I learned through hard confrontations to erect boundaries on this topic.
But I know this for sure: Every birth, every child born, is a miracle. Families come together in many nontraditional, creative ways. Love makes it all work. For us, we wanted to try while I was still young enough to produce eggs. I wanted to see again my grandmother’s smile, my husband’s eyes, my Appalachian great-grandmother’s determination.
My husband and I were years ahead of the trend of making babies later in life, long before over-40 celebrities like Halle Berry and Mariah Carey became first-time moms.
I held hope that I could conceive in my 40s. Both my grandma and my great-grandmother had babies in their late 40s. My 89-year-old mom, who is a World War II veteran, had my younger siblings in her mid-40s. It was in my genes, maybe?
People warned us how grueling in vitro can be. Lots of shots. Lots of doctor visits. Lots of disappointments. One person told us we were wasting our lives waiting. (That was also the first time I heard Frank Sinatra singing the song “High Hopes” — a cosmic hug for sure.)
Anything worthwhile isn’t easy. My husband and I linked our arms and leaned in. We found a top fertility specialist, a doctor who was also trained as an endocrinologist and an OB/GYN surgeon. We checked his live birth and age stats at the CDC, which also compares doctors around the country. We asked about his embryologist team, too.
We had our eyes wide open. Few people know what is involved with each in vitro try. After weeks of daily hormone shots, blood draws and vaginal scans to see how your body is responding, and after the outpatient surgery to remove your eggs and inject them with your husband’s sperm, these precious cells — invisible to the naked eye — are placed in a petri dish, protected from light and kept body-temperature warm.
They’re monitored for five days because scientists have learned this resembles what happens in the womb. Every 24 hours they grow from one-celled organisms into two, then four, six, eight. By Day 5, they have divided multiple times and are filled with fluid. Now called blastocysts, they’re ready to burrow in for the next nine months.
But not all embryos divide and thrive. Each morning, a lab technician takes a peek and counts. Her job is to call the mother-to-be with the count.
Waiting for these calls is tough.
When my phone rang from the doctor’s office, I would start to shake. I sucked in my breath, squeezed my eyes closed and listened as a very kind stranger would tell me how many of my potential babies lived through the night.
Some couples’ journeys stop here when all their embryos die. We were blessed: we always had at least two embryos survive all the way to Day 5, to be placed back inside of me.
Each time before implantation, our doctor showed us these amazing little blobs of life through his microscope projecting on a television screen. He had measurements of my womb so that when he injected the fragile cells, they wouldn’t get slammed against my body, nor would they be too far away from my womb’s walls to burrow in.
Seeing them on the screen always gave me joy. They were beautiful! They seemed to glow like tiny planets from the world of Dr. Seuss. My prayer would always include the quote, “A person’s a person no matter how small.”
Implantation in reproductive medicine is the hand-of-God moment, the “big bang” mystery in this miniature universe. No one knows what makes an embryo burrow in or float off into oblivion. The spark that makes cells turn into babies is still a mystery.
Next comes more waiting for the blood test with the big reveal. But when there is nothing there, it hurts deep.
My husband and I always reassessed our options afterward. But in vitro still offered our best hope because we came so close. We kept believing, kept praying. I knew we were meant to be parents.
We found a great fertility counselor to help with our grieving, to help us work through anger from ignorant comments and to help us have a clear-eyed view of our struggle. I asked the nurses to stop telling me the dismal statistic of the 1 percent chance we had for conception.
I am not a statistic.
Our medical file became the largest in that doctor’s practice. But he learned more with each try — one per year as we could afford it. He saw what worked with my body and what didn’t. New science emerged that a woman’s weight might affect conception. So I lost 45 pounds. How acupuncture could help conception. I started twice a week sessions.
And finally, after our fourth try, there was a positive blood test. After a few more weeks, a tiny shadow on a scan and then the sweetest music ever — a baby’s heartbeat, like a galloping horse.
Our first miracle was born in June on a beautiful summer day. A baby girl.
After a few years, my arms ached to have another baby. My husband was oh so patient to endure it all again. But we had an even shorter window of time while I was still young enough to try.
And this time during implantation when our doctor showed my husband and I the two little blastocysts on the television screen, our daughter was there to see them, too.
She actually saw her baby brother when he was just a swirling blob of cells.
We now have two beautiful, smart, funny, silly children, born six years apart. I try not to think about how old I’ll be when they graduate from high school and, hopefully, college. The fact that they are here at all is a priceless gift.
Our world is full of Santa Claus and tooth fairies, Easter egg hunts, band concerts, music lessons, Thomas the Train and any book on the planet that talks about wolves.
I cherish cooking supper and sitting down together as a family, even if it’s hot dogs and it’s almost 8 p.m. We always light candles. We have bedtime rituals of reading stories and special tuck-ins.
Who knows if I’m extra tired now because of middle-age, or if it’s because I’m a mom who is a full-time newspaper reporter?
My husband and I recently celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. He’s an awesome dad. Whenever I talk with journalism students and they ask advice, I tell them two words: Marry well. Although I was the one who endured the physical stuff, he was always right there, too.
A few weeks ago, as I was tucking my daughter in bed, she told me I rocked as a mom. I laughed because just as I sat on her bed, my knees and elbows popped pretty loud. I practice tae kwon do to stay strong. I’m often sore and always crunchy with arthritis.
There is hope for infertile couples. Science is changing every year, sometimes every month. Don’t give up hope.
But if your hair is going gray and a smiling convenience store clerk thinks you’re a grandma, I now have this answer ready.
“All children are miracles. But I’m proud to say I gave birth to this one.
“I’m a mommy.”
And that’s a title I’ll still cherish even when I really am old.