I have baby pictures of the donors who made my children possible. Sometimes I look at them for resemblance. They are not family photos, but my family wouldn’t exist without them.
On Mother’s Day, after her younger brother has been tucked in to bed, my daughter and I look at old photos on the computer. My favorite of her babyhood, the one where she’s curled on her side on my bed at six weeks, resting her face on her chubby fist. The video of her at 3, where she’s sitting with a box on her head and singing. We’re both laughing at how small she was, how goofy. Every year, she notices, she has the same silly face where she’s sticking out her tongue. And she loves the preschool graduation photos, where she’s wearing an uncharacteristically fancy yellow dress my aunt bought her in Paris.
I have been thinking a lot about the photographs that exist, and the ones that don’t, that never will. How families are preserved, recorded, made on camera. In a separate file folder, I have baby pictures of the donors who made my children possible. Sometimes I look at them for resemblance, my son’s graceful nose and blue-hazel eyes, the curve of my daughter’s jaw. They are not family photos, but my family wouldn’t exist without them.
Diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve at just 36, I fought my body for a long time—20-some rounds of treatment—before finally conceding to my doctor that using a donor would be the fastest—and surest—path for me to motherhood. It was not an easy choice. It meant, among other things, that my second child would not be genetically connected to me or his sister. It meant I really truly was infertile, that my body had, once again, failed me.
But I don’t think I have ever been happier than that split second of two clear pink lines on the home pregnancy test. It was the first week of spring. I bought a new dress, tulip bulbs to plant in the yard.
It was a hard pregnancy: a lost twin, a small gestational sac (which results in miscarriage more than 80% of the time), intrauterine growth restriction, premature delivery. I took daily injections of anticoagulants in case of blood clots, and steroids to mature his lungs. I brought home my not-quite five pound infant two weeks before Thanksgiving and my 39th birthday. There is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful.
Much later, when I am mostly on the other side of sleep deprivation and new motherhood, when I have written myself something closer to whole, I meet the woman I’ll call R at an event for infertile women and couples. We talk for a long time. Laugh about people who have “miracle sex pregnancies.” There is no other way to say this: We are kin.
I see her again. We talk about family photos and phone calls of bad news. Her sorrow hits me like a punch to the gut. Four years after my son’s conception, the distance between us is shifting. I am infertile. I was a fertility patient. I am a mother despite infertility, am mothering in its aftermath. She is still there, in the thick of it.
Every year the fertility clinic sends me paperwork about what to do with the two leftover embryos in the cryobank: use, donate, destroy. Every year they sit on ice because I’m paralyzed, frozen. Donating them anonymously is ethically and legally complicated, often considered analogous to adoption and involving agencies that wouldn’t have let me, both single and Jewish, become a mother in the first place.
By the time my doctor is ready to present me with a better option, almost a year has passed; I’m weaning my son, in the throes of baby lust again, and don’t want to let them go. They sit in storage, waiting. Another year goes by; all around me women my age, women who have used egg donors even, are having “miracle sex pregnancies.” Again I find myself full of envy at every pregnant belly.
Then I turn 42, an age when it becomes unfathomable to me to consider motherhood again. I know I’m not going to use those embryos. I know I can’t destroy them. It occurs to me what I’m feeling isn’t desire for another child; it’s simple jealousy and grief for all that my body couldn’t, and won’t ever, do. Get pregnant in the comfort of my own home. Carry a baby without months of injections and ultrasounds, six codes for “high risk” written across the top of my chart. It occurs to me I’ve already had my miracle, only it came from a whole lot of medical treatment and the generosity of others.
When I researched becoming a mother via donor gametes, I never considered the possibility of an “open” donation. I wanted clear lines between my family and the donor’s. I could not imagine a situation as in the popular film The Kids Are Alright where the donor became a family friend, father figure.
And so thinking about the possibility of donating my own embryos in an open situation, I couldn’t fathom choosing a recipient: On what criteria could I possibly decide? Looks? Ethnic background? Profession? What did any of that have to do with her desire to have a family? But whoever she was, if it worked, our children would be full genetic siblings, a connection too precious not to consider carefully. What I’d wanted (impossible, of course) was for my doctor to handpick someone she felt was right, knowing us both. Someone with whom I had a connection, though I never intended for us to meet.
And then, looking at baby photos of my son, the one where he’s in a “lucky kid” onesie on St. Patrick’s Day, the one where I’ve taken him back to the clinic to visit, and he’s a chunky six-month-old in my doctor’s arms, I see it so clearly. There is only one thing I can do. Before I have even asked, I know how I want this story to end.
I imagine the photograph that doesn’t exist: three parents, three children at a backyard barbecue. R and I pass a baby between us, the older kids swing on a swing, go down the slide. Her husband cooks. We talk about how well the baby is sleeping. She asks if my son was like that, too. We are family friends and more, our children genetically connected to each other and none of the three parents who adore them. Our families built out of different but intimately connected struggles.
There’s an uncanny feeling of giddiness and possibility when I send the email to R, offering my embryos. Spring has come again. The tulips have burst through the ground.
Robin Silbergleid is the author of the memoir Texas Girl and the chapbooks Pas de Deux and Frida Kahlo, My Sister. Her collection of about infertility treatment The Baby Book is forthcoming in November 2015 by CavanKerry Press. She lives, writes, teaches, and mothers in East Lansing, Michigan. You can find her online on Twitter @RSilbergleid or at robinsilbergleid.com.