Fear is a part of motherhood that Laurel Hermanson will never escape.
I didn’t believe I would have a healthy baby until I heard my daughter cry and a nurse laid her on my chest. It had been a difficult journey and I thought the scariest part was over. I had no idea it was just beginning. I didn’t realize the fear that had plagued my pregnancy would persist. I didn’t anticipate how that fear would shape me as a mother.
News stories featuring parents who refer to their six or eight newborns as “gifts from God” make me grimace. If a multiple birth is newsworthy, chances are the mother was dosed with Clomid or some hack doctor decided it was a good idea to implant eight embryos in one uterus. God rarely “gifts” couples with octuplets.
My daughter was a $14,000 gift from the team of fertility specialists at Oregon Health & Science University. Had I been religious, I might have thanked God for blessing me with a healthy baby after years of failed pregnancies. Or maybe I would have worried he was angry that I ignored his wishes that I remain childless. But I wasn’t religious, so I thanked everyone at the clinic and the hospital, and was grateful for the medical science that made our daughter’s life possible.
My husband and I started trying to conceive when I was 31. We had it all planned: We would have one baby and adopt another child a few years later. We supported Zero Population Growth and wanted to provide a loving home for an infant in need. We were so earnest and eager.
I thought I’d be pregnant within a year. I was mistaken. It would be six years of personal hopes and disappointments, but also of global tragedies that would erode my enthusiasm about bringing a child into the world.
When I didn’t get pregnant right away, my husband and I promised each other we wouldn’t let baby fever spit up all over our lives. We had time. We would be patient. We wouldn’t panic. We waited a year and a half before we started seeing doctors, having tests, undergoing procedures.
During that year and a half, flooding in China killed 4,150 people. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed during the Kosovo war. Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, was fatally beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming.
We stopped waiting. I underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove endometriosis, a condition linked to infertility. I had a procedure to ensure my fallopian tubes were clear. My husband was tested, and we learned that hot tubs and long bicycle rides were not sperm-friendly. We adjusted our lifestyles and kept trying.
On November 7, 2000, we went to bed expecting to wake up with Al Gore as President-Elect. In the following weeks, my faith in the electoral college vanished, along with the possibility of a son named Chad. I fantasized about raising our future child(ren) outside the U.S.
Life went on. We worked and hung out with friends and talked as little as possible about “trying.” We made travel plans. In the summer of 2001, I jotted down Italian towns and hotels we were planning to visit that fall, considering possible baby names.
On September 11, three weeks before we were scheduled to leave for Italy, my husband and I watched the Twin Towers collapse. After he went to work, I called my parents. In the quavering voice of a scared kid, I asked if we were going to war. I wondered for the first time if having a child was selfish.
For the next couple years my world was myopic and self-absorbed. Friends got pregnant, some easily and some with difficulty, but always with an apologetic announcement. I was truly happy for them, but I knew that taking care of my feelings required them to briefly set aside their joy.
Since adoption was part of our original plan, my husband and I decided to investigate. We’d heard of couples who got pregnant as soon as they adopted. What difference did it make which child came first? We visited an adoption agency. The cost was stunning: $20,000 minimum. They offered no guarantee that the baby would be healthy. The wait was at least a year. We didn’t have enough money set aside to adopt a potentially unhealthy baby years down the road. We didn’t go back.
The next few years were trying. Sometimes my period was late and I felt symptoms of early pregnancy, followed by heavy bleeding and cramping. I never knew if I was losing early pregnancies to miscarriages, and I didn’t talk much about it because of the specter of panic.
We considered in-vitro fertilization. My parents, eager for a grandchild, hinted that they might pay for it. I wasn’t comfortable taking money from them for such an expensive and unpredictable option. When I finally told them I was ready to try, they had changed their minds.
My husband and I were visiting my parents in March 2003 when the U.S. and its allies launched the “Shock and Awe” assault against Iraq. I watched in horror. I couldn’t believe this was the world into which I wanted to bring an innocent child.
Later that fall I told my sister-in-law how long we’d been trying to get pregnant. She was surprised, as her brother hadn’t mentioned it. Within weeks, my husband’s siblings offered to pay for IVF out of the family trust. I was at a loss, unable to comprehend their generosity.
It took a year to find the right fertility specialist and get started. I was nervous, but the process was straightforward once I got comfortable with needles. I injected myself several times a day to stimulate egg production. The shots went under the skin of my stomach and didn’t hurt much. I had frequent blood tests and ultrasounds to monitor my hormone levels and ovaries. The first time around my eggs weren’t collectable, so we switched to artificial insemination.
I was pregnant for one day. I took what seemed like my hundredth home pregnancy test, but this time there were two lines. I started bleeding an hour later, and a blood test confirmed that I had a “weak” pregnancy, one that wasn’t viable. A friend spent the day driving me around, trying to keep me distracted while I cried.
We started over. This time my ovaries cooperated and I produced eggs like a boss. Fertilization was successful, and we ended up with eight microscopic bundles of potential life. Our doctor chose the two he believed were strongest, and a few days later he implanted #3 and #4 in my uterus.
That night we went to bed rooting for #3 and #4. We were also pulling for John Kerry to win the presidency, but we awoke to bad news thanks to Ohio’s questionable voting antics. Was Kerry’s loss an omen that we would also fail? Or would we win because we’d rigged the system in our favor?
When the clinic called to tell me I was pregnant, I was ecstatic. I was also terrified. I was 37 and pregnant via IVF. So many things could go wrong.
The pregnancy required daily injections of progesterone. Those needles were big and went into the muscle in my hip. Every night for two months, I prepared a shot and my husband injected it. It hurt, but he fretted more than I did.
When I was almost eight weeks pregnant, right before the holidays, I started spotting. I couldn’t reach my husband so I drove alone to my OB-GYN’s office, crying. He assured me everything was fine, that a little bleeding was normal. I tried to believe him.
The day after Christmas my husband and I were at my parents’ when a tsunami slammed into coasts across southern and southeast Asia, killing 290,000 people from Sri Lanka to Indonesia. I thought about my high-risk pregnancy, about the high-risk world we lived in.
I was certain I was pregnant with a boy, but when we learned during an ultrasound that it was a girl, I started crying. I cried because #3 or #4 was now a “she” and that made her very real. I cried because I would be a role model for a daughter in a world where it is more dangerous to be a woman than a man. I cried because I wasn’t sure I could do it right.
I bled again toward the end of my second trimester. This rattled me more than anything, because I had a friend whose baby died inside her when she was eight months pregnant. She still had to go through labor and delivery. I couldn’t imagine living through that.
Gigi was born at the end of July 2005. We were in the hospital five days, waiting for my milk to come in and for her to gain back the weight she’d lost. Like many first-time parents, we couldn’t believe they let us take her home. My husband drove 10mph the whole way.
Breastfeeding was not at all what I expected. I wanted to experience the sweet bond of feeding my baby from my body. Instead, I was afraid she wasn’t getting enough milk. When she was a week old, a friend came to photograph our family. Once she developed the pictures, she brought them to me. She said, “Laurel. Look at how chubby she is. Look at her wrists and ankles. You’re both doing fine.”
When Gigi was a month old, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. TV news showed so many displaced families stuck in the New Orleans Superdome without adequate supplies or facilities or air conditioning. Elderly people died in the streets. While Gigi nursed, I watched babies crying in hunger and confusion, and saw the fear on their mothers’ faces. I wondered if Gigi could taste my own fear and sadness and anger. Was my milk as sour as I felt?
The fear didn’t go away. Not after the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome passed, and not after Gigi started walking and talking like a neurotypical toddler. I would have to block out the world to be less fearful for my child, but that wouldn’t make the world less dangerous.
An estimated 260,000 Somalis died in the 2011 famine—half of them under age 5. Two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, scientists can’t agree on possible long-term consequences, but the short-term effects are scary enough. Twenty-seven people died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the NRA is stronger than ever. What kind of world are we leaving our kids?
Gigi recently turned 8. I still freak out over all the bad things that could happen to her, but at some belated point I realized that fear is a part of motherhood that I will never escape, nor should I. It’s in the job description that should be mandatory reading for all parents. We should ask the big questions. And we should learn to accept that we will fuck up occasionally, but more often than not we will get it right.
I have not once regretted bringing my daughter into the world. The joys of watching her grow into her big personality and unique sense of humor far outweigh the dark moments of fear. I don’t know what kind of world she will inherit. What I do know is that for now those worries are mine, not hers. And before they become her worries, I want to show her all the beauty in the world so she can process the ugliness with grace. I want her to grow up embracing that beauty so she will fight to keep it alive. Maybe that’s what I should have focused on all along.
Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.