Longing for a baby at any cost

What would you do for the love of a child, one you don't yet have but want more than anything? Just how far would you be willing to go?

By Kate Brassfield, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

Carefully, my husband helped me into the taxi, then crawled in beside me. We'd been making a baby, and we were tired.

He leaned close to see the photo I clutched in both hands. Our first baby photo.

We thought the babies looked like us, but it was hard to tell. They also sort of looked like soccer balls. Our babies had only eight cells.

What would you do to achieve the most important goal of your life?

Think big, existentially even. What do you most desire?

Hold the thought in your head a moment. Suddenly, the question changes.

What wouldn't you do?

My husband and I seem to have a great life. We have family and friends who love us and furry pets to play with. We've been able to travel a little, meet interesting people, see beautiful places. We are educated and have good jobs in our fields. We have a comfortable home. There's just one thing missing:

Someone for it all to be for.

The day we realized that, we threw out the birth control pill pack. Decision made. On to the next Phase of Life.

I was 32.

When the miscarriage happened - on the day Hurricane Charley hit - we were struck dumb. Living in Madeira Beach, we were prepared to lose our home and all we owned, but not our baby. We wanted to trade.

We put aside our grief and kept trying, monitoring fertility signs and timing our romantic encounters. When nothing happened, I went to the doctor. My mom came along for moral support. I had told her that I was wary of taking Clomid, a fertility drug, because of side effects like headaches and mood swings and hot flashes. Also, taking drugs would be handing control of my body and my life to someone - or something - else. But I all but snatched the prescription from the doctor's hand when he offered it. Mom stared, but I had realized: For a baby, I would do it.

When the Clomid didn't work, the doctor suggested testing my husband - and exploratory surgery for me. By taking a look inside, perhaps he could see something wrong, something he could fix. I was scared, especially when he disclosed the potential dangers. But I didn't flinch as the anesthesiologist put me under. I was on a mission.

How naive those fears look to me now. I used to know where I would draw the line. Now I know better.

Needles and meds

The decision to go through the first in-vitro fertilization was weirdly simple.

In January 2006, my sister-in-law gave birth to a son - my nephew, my parents' first grandchild. When my brother told me she was pregnant, I dropped the phone and sobbed.

"Aren't you happy?" my dad asked me. It wasn't that simple.

I met Braylon when he was 12 minutes old. He was magical.

A week later, I sat in a doctor's office, arms wrapped around myself. I saw his mouth move, his lips shaping the words: "IVF is your only chance." But I couldn't hear a thing. My life had been unremarkable up to now. What he was suggesting seemed like science fiction, but I was just a girl-next-door.

Eleven days after Braylon's birth, I had my first IVF blood draw.

My life became a science experiment.

My meds came from an out-of-state pharmacy, overnight mail, in a big box with a cooler in it. Unpacking the box is like opening birthday presents from your grandmother: You want it because it's a present, but you're scared it might be something you hate, like underwear. There were pills, little vials of powders and saline, jars of hormones. Bags of needles and a big red box to put them all in, the kind with the biohazard symbol on it. I was going to be allowed to do all this at home, with no supervision.

We decided my husband would be in charge of mixing meds and administering the twice-daily shots. I would be in charge of not freaking out.

The first injection: I sat on the bed, looking determinedly over his shoulder, out the window. What I didn't see couldn't hurt me. He clutched the syringe, fearful of messing up. The nurse had said going slowly would hurt me, so with a deep breath and a count of three, he jammed it into my thigh. I screeched, he jumped. Somehow we finished the job. Faster didn't mean "to the bone," I gasped, and weakly, we both began to laugh.

Though his technique improved, after a while the needles bruised me so much it hurt to walk or sit, and the meds made me sick: bloated, headachey. I became exhausted from the many early-morning doctor visits for ultrasounds - and even more, from the stress. I told my husband, "This had better work, because I cannot go through this again. No more IVFs." He looked uneasy but accepted my decision. It was his baby too, but it was my body.

A few weeks later, I held a negative pregnancy test in my hand. We had spent $10,000 for this.

Looking ahead made me ill: a life with no children. There would be no one's bed to check under for monsters, no one's report card to sign, no one's soccer game or dance recital to attend. It felt worse than looking at another IVF. Pretty quickly, I signed up for Number 2.

And then Number 3. The line I had drawn shifted before my eyes.

Pulling out all the stops

A year passed, and we were still not parents. I had seen a second doctor for a second opinion, and then a third. I had been through three more surgeries and three in-vitro procedures, produced more than 30 eggs. We had transferred nine embryos into my womb, none of which lived to become our child.

I skipped my friends' baby showers and avoided pregnant women in the grocery store. Everywhere I turned were reminders of what I could not have.

Life was on hold. I needed to paint the spare room, but I was waiting until I could make it the nursery. We needed a new car, but it felt too weird to buy a kidmobile before we got the kid. Our friends had split into two camps: Some already had children and could no longer play with us; others didn't want them and couldn't relate.

In the beginning, I had combed the Internet, looking for data and for support. According to the CDC, more than 125,000 cycles of assisted reproduction were performed in 2004. I wasn't alone. It just felt that way.

I made some friends in a few online support groups. We helped each other cope with the weirdness of being on hormones and the sadness of being childless. But as our IVF cycles went on, they all got pregnant, and I didn't. It was like being in a class of nerds and still being the last one picked for the team. I was alone after all.

By now I was 35. Relatively young, but I felt old in egg years. It was time to get drastic.

We sought out the best doctors in the country, the world even. After a lot of research we decided the best specialists for us were at Cornell University. Our last hope.

Cornell's facilities are in New York City. Being away from home so long, undergoing such intense treatment in a strange place, was intimidating. So was the expense. Sure, we both work, but we aren't rich. Our IVF debt was already more than a midsize car, and with medical and travel expenses, we were about to double it.

We borrowed more from our home equity line of credit. We had opened it to redo the kitchen, paint the house. Now it was our baby fund.

We were mortgaging our future, at 8.5 percent.

I made out to friends and co-workers like I was planning a Grand Vacation, hiding my dread that Number 4 would go just as the others had. I found an apartment near the hospital, made arrangements to leave my pets and my job, arranged flights not an easy task when the whole trip depends on when you ovulate, and packed (for a month). We hadn't even started the treatment cycle and I was exhausted.

Though our friends had gushed about the shows, nightlife and good times we were about to embark on in the City That Never Sleeps, we knew we were there to make a baby. No romance, candles or mood music. Just doctors, bright lights and intrusive exams. I really couldn't be bothered with what shows were on Broadway. Every morning we went to the clinic. Every night I called my mom.

Eventually, we transferred three high-quality embryos back into their preferred environment - me - and got ready to bring the kids home. I stared at the picture of those soccer ball shapes and called them by their names-to-be.

I knew hope was dangerous, but I couldn't help it. I began taking home pregnancy tests every day. How much had I spent on those tests since 2003? But I didn't want to miss a minute of this pregnancy.

As the stack of negative sticks built up, I persisted. It was too early. We had a late implanter, a slow divider.

A blood test and a nurse's call put an end to the pretense.

My husband stayed busy and refused to brood, but his eyes were haunted. I wallowed. What if those "embies" were my great athlete, my humanitarian, my artist or mathematician? Who would they have looked like? What if the only eggs I had left were the car thief and drug dealer eggs? My babies may never have grown more than eight cells, but they were my family. I missed them.

I lived on raw cookie dough. I bit my fingernails until they bled. At work, I hid in the ladies' room and cried. I fantasized about running away to a place where no one knew me and starting life all over.

Because really, what was my life supposed to be for?

I didn't have any role models for anything except family life. Sure, I knew some people who didn't have kids. But they didn't seem anything like me. Was I just supposed to keep getting up and going to work and coming home and cooking for two, forever?

I try to imagine what a fulfilling, child-free life would be like. I see my husband and me having dinner while my brother is teaching Braylon to drive. I picture lunches out with my girlfriends, and them starting to show pictures of their grandkids but suddenly putting them away when they realize what they've done. Living like that seems so pointless.

It's better not to go down that road. I have blessings in my life, more than I deserve, I'm sure. But without this one thing . . .

We have options. Some people use donor eggs. At first the idea of losing the link to my parents and my parents' parents was paralyzing. Now it just makes me sad.

Or - we have four frozen embryos. Two are here in Tampa, two up at Cornell. Totsicles, snowbabies, frosties, waiting to be thawed and transferred to my womb. The odds for success with frozen embies is even lower than with fresh ones. I want to try them, and I'm afraid they will die inside me like the others did. For now they are safe. Or maybe our family is already here, just waiting to be born under a different sign.

But first, our doctor at Cornell has some ideas on how to improve our chances on another IVF. Later this fall, we're going to give it another shot.

I turned 36 two weeks ago. And the line has moved again.

- Kate Brassfield can be reached at kbrassfield@sptimes.com.

What is IVF?

When you think of test-tube babies - if you think of test-tube babies - you think of the test tube and what's in it. You don't really think about how it all got in there. Drugs, taken by injection for several days, force your ovaries to create lots of eggs, not just the usual one a month. Ultrasounds and frequent blood work show the eggs' progress as they grow. At just the right moment, the eggs are removed surgically and, in our case, each injected with a single sperm. After three to five days in a petri dish (not a test tube), the resulting embryos are returned to the womb. There are lots of other injections involved too, as well as oral medications, to make this all happen. After two weeks, a pregnancy test.

A few words about adoption

People have asked me, "Why don't you just adopt?" There's no easy answer. There are entire books written on the subject. But here are a few of my thoughts.

It's not that my genes are so great or so sacred. It's just that they're mine. I love knowing I have my father's eyes, my mother's figure. I have flat feet like my dad and bumpy heels like my mom. My siblings share a different combination of the same raw materials, so though we don't look exactly alike, anyone can see we are all connected. Even when we don't understand each other, we look at each other and know we belong together. We're a tribe.

Plus, it's not only my genes I'd like to see reflected in a new person. It's my husband's. To me, he's the best, most wonderful person on the planet. Why wouldn't I like the world to have just one more like him?

And there's no such thing as "just" adopting. It is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive process. It's also not a sure thing; adoptions can and do fall through.

We recently went through our first adoption "false alarm." We hadn't planned to adopt yet, but then, no one had ever called offering us a baby before either. In that moment, I knew an adopted child could easily fit into our home, creating a family where once there was none. We said yes, but in the end it didn't work out.

The desire to have a child biologically related to me and my husband is not entirely the same as our desire to have a family. Giving birth to our baby provides a physical connection, to the past and to the future. I am one link in a chain that reaches far behind me and that, I hope, will stretch far ahead.

I understand the odds of the medical treatment we've chosen. I am starting to realize I may never have a biological child. Someday I may begin the adoption process. But it will be a thoughtful, loving decision.

I will never "just adopt."