This essay on parenting after pregnancy loss and infertility
was published by The ART of Infertility.
I scoop up my toddler and carry her upstairs to begin our bedtime routine. Diaper, pajamas, teeth, goodnight Daddy, books, and then — my favorite part — songs and cuddling.
She lies on my belly, her head against my chest. “Saaah!” When one song ends, she looks up and asks for another. And another. And another. Eventually my little ball of energy goes limp in my arms. I hold her for a few minutes, treasuring her chubby cheeks and the smell of her sweet, malty little head before kissing her goodnight until she wakes up to nurse at four in the morning.
Although singing the same limited repertoire until my throat hurts and not having more than a five-hour stretch of sleep for almost two years grate in different ways, I remember how it wasn’t always like this. In the tough moments — like trying to console a teething child having an hour-long exhaustion tantrum at 3 am — I somehow find inner strength. I get to do this.
I am a mother thanks to many people, including a younger mom who donated her eggs so that I could experience the same joy she felt when she held her son for the first time.
It wasn’t joy that I felt when I met my daughter. By then, I’d been through too much to let myself feel anything so big. After miscarriage, infertility, being told I would never have a healthy genetic child, and a high-risk pregnancy requiring me to deliver via planned cesarean, I couldn’t allow myself to believe that I was finally a mom. Not until I heard my daughter’s first cries. Not until I held her. Not until she was furiously suckling did it dawn on me that I was out of the trenches.
But am I really a regular parent now? Parenting after infertility is a strange place to be. As I like to describe it, “I’m no longer in the trenches, but I’m covered in mud.”
The grief of infertility is hard to remember. Like the face of someone you loved a long time ago, it’s hard to recollect its features in detail. That is, until a whiff of their perfume, or a pregnancy announcement, or an innocent remark from someone who has no idea why the question “When are you having another baby?” causes your heart to quietly crack a little.
For many parents like me, we’ve left Infertility Island but we’re moored offshore somewhere else. Play dates with other parents — so many blissfully unaware of everything that can go wrong before, during, and after conception — can have moments that are hard to navigate. How do you relate to another parent who casually announces she plans to get pregnant in March so the baby is born before Christmas? What do you say when someone asks when you’re having another baby? How do you casually explain egg donation when asked where your daughter’s red hair comes from? In time, the answers come.
Don’t misunderstand; none of this is as hard as trying to have a baby. But when you’re a graduating member of a club you never wanted to join, you’re caught between two worlds: the one you had to leave once your child arrived; and the other everyone else assumes you’re in.
I have my “rainbow unicorn” (if a “rainbow” is a baby born after loss, I surmised one born after infertility would be a “unicorn”) and she fills my days with more joy than I thought possible. But joy and pain aren’t mutually exclusive. What a lot of people don’t realize is that having a baby resolves childlessness — not infertility.
Even though we’re parents, we’re still infertile. Unless we fall into a small lucky statistic of spontaneously conceiving after infertility, if we want a second or third child we will have to submit to the invasive, sometimes painful, and always expensive tests and protocols we endured a few years before — this is equally true whether you do infertility treatment or adopt.
If we want a second child, we’re lucky to have eight chromosomally normal frozen embryos to choose from. All we have to do is pick a date for transfer. Most of my infertile comrades don’t have leftover embryos, either because they didn’t do IVF or, if they did, they didn’t have any embryos left over. It struck me the other week that some of my friends are going to have to go through the whole TTC thing all over again. They have my full support and admiration.
For me, parenting after infertility has given me some unexpected blessings. First and foremost, I have this amazing little girl in my life. She’s affectionate, smart, talkative, mischievous, and healthy. We might not share DNA, but we share a sense of humor, a love of Marmite, a dislike of tomatoes, and we’re both pretty tall with big feet. Most importantly, she’s here, and she couldn’t have been created any other way. My journey to motherhood was filled with more pain than I thought I could bear, but I’d do it all over again to have this sweet child that I get to call my daughter.
Eighteen months into this parenting gig, I am more or less at peace with a whole lot of stuff that I never thought I’d be able to accept.
I have a chromosome disorder which means genetic children aren’t possible, so I chose egg donation to build my family. I can say that openly and joyfully now that I’m a parent. I can be open about the way my daughter was conceived because the irrational shame of not being able to reproduce has dissipated.
Breastfeeding has been tremendously healing in this respect. I wasn’t expecting much, so I was surprised that it came to me so easily. Being able to feed my daughter they way I hoped has restored faith in my otherwise broken body. My body can’t make a baby that will live, but it’s pretty damn good at growing and feeding them!
Over the last year and a half, I’ve spent days looking into my nursing daughter’s beautiful eyes fixed on my face — the same eyes I admired in our donor. Not recognizing any of my family of origin’s features in my daughter was, at first, strange. Sometimes she looks like her dad, sometimes she looks like our donor. To my surprise, I like seeing our donor’s influence. It’s reassuring to see something of the special woman I chose to replace my DNA reflected in my daughter.
You might say I had a crash course in comfort levels, though. My daughter’s hair is a deep red, and every time we’re out three people, on average, stop us to admiringly ask if red hair runs in my family. At first the question made me wince. I didn’t know how to answer the question without also sharing the circumstances of my kid’s conception. I’ve got good at saying, “Nope! But isn’t it beautiful?” When pressed, I explain, “Red hair is a recessive gene, which means both genetic parties have to carry it.” In this way, I’m able to acknowledge my daughter’s genetic origins while not divulging too much to a stranger if I don’t feel like it.
I guess that’s what parenthood is about: constantly being surprised and having to readjust expectations, all the while practicing patience, kindness, and even finding the funny side when something’s gone wrong.
And in that sense, my infertility journey prepared me well.