I have always wanted children, and with more intensity of desire than those five words can possibly convey.
From my earliest memories, I liked children. My mother took care of foster babies when I was little, and I watched with interest and helped where I could. I enjoyed babysitting other people's children. At family reunions, my older cousins were thrilled when I would volunteer to babysit large groups of their cumulative 7+ small children so that they could spend the time relaxing and catching up. These much-younger cousins got on well with me, and I got on well with them: a miracle that I now credit to the fact that I scrupulously never talked down to them, and because they knew their parents were always still well within earshot.
No matter what I planned to be when I grew up -- doctor, lawyer, astronaut, whatever -- I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to be a mother. And as my health problems started developing in my early teens, and it became more and more clear that steady employment was going to be difficult, my dreams turned to being a stay-at-home-mother (SAHM). I would bake fresh bread every day, and would homeschool* my children and I would Martha Stewart my home like whoa.
From time to time, I would share this dream with other people, usually to ill effect. Adults would joke that I was only going to college for my "M-R-S degree". Boys my age, whatever that age happened to be at the time, would frequently recoil with the misunderstanding that I was just looking for a male breadwinner to fit this mold -- any man being equally acceptable, like interchangeable cogs in a machine. And a few feminist groups I joined early in college spoke scathingly about the desire to be a SAHM. I understand now that they were discussing a culture -- the culture that pressures and even forces women into SAHM roles against their will -- rather than a freely-made individual choice, but at the time, I did not understand the distinction being made, and it was reinforced to me (again) that this particular dream was best left unsaid.
But it didn't go away.
When Husband and I first seriously started talking about marriage, I reminded him of my dream and of my disability. Husband was hesitant about having more children, having already had two at an early age and imagining that he was done with all that, but eventually it was agreed that we would have one more, together. A vasectomy reversal that ultimately didn't work was gotten; two in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts were made. Both attempts ended in failure: the cumulative thirty retrieved eggs were fertilized with retrieved sperm, but the resulting fertilized eggs (zygotes) mysteriously stopped growing before they could be implanted in my uterus.
The only reason we knew why the zygotes stopped growing was because I had insisted on genetic testing for the zygotes -- an expensive and controversial procedure because it can be used for gender-selection of which zygotes are implanted. Husband and I wanted, very much, a little girl baby because of some hereditary illnesses on his side that more commonly affected boys and because I knew that if I only had one baby, I wanted that baby to be a girl. But that kind of family planning is controversial in the United States because some fundamentalists believe that the gender of the resulting baby should always be determined by chance, or luck, or god, and never by the parents who are involved with the caring for that child.
And let me take a moment here to interrupt my story to note that these same fundamentalists who are against gender-selection in the IVF process are almost universally against IVF in any case and would like to make the whole process illegal. Anti-choice activists like to say that they're "pro-baby" and not about controlling women, but the people at the top of these organizations are absolutely working specifically in order to control women's reproduction. If you're fertile, they don't want you to be able to prevent having babies; if you're infertile, they don't want you to be able to have babies with the help of science. And that's ultimately because they don't care about babies; they care about preventing women from having control over their bodies. Daniel Radosh, who has himself been through IVF with his wife, had a painful encounter with this ideology in Rapture Ready:
I was walking out when I saw a pile of literature I hadn’t noticed before, promoting Rock for Life’s argument that birth control pills are, in fact, chemical abortions. There was a drawing of an frowny-face embryo wearing a baby bonnet. And then I saw another flier: “IVF Violates Human Dignity.”
[...] Some conservative Christians object to IVF because doctors have to create more embryos than they actually use—and often the ones that do get used don’t successfully implant in the womb. These three-day-old embryos, the argument goes, are actually children, cruelly sentenced to death.
Obviously, I don’t see it that way. An embryo created in a lab is no more a child than an individual sperm or egg, since it has no potential to grow unless it is implanted in a womb—just as the sperm and egg have no potential to grow on their own. Besides, embryos fail to implant all the time as part of the natural reproductive process. Any married couple that regularly has unprotected sex creates embryos and then loses them. An infertile couple could easily “kill” far more embryos trying to get pregnant naturally than during the process of IVF.
So I figured I knew what to expect from the Rock for Life flier, and that it wouldn’t bother me. But as I walked into the sunlight, I saw that it made a different argument, one that stopped me in my tracks.
[...] “‘IVF turns children into commodities,’” I read out loud. “‘When a couple undergoes IVF, they are saying, “We want a child no matter what,” and the child becomes an object.’” I waited until he looked up at me again. “I love these children more than anything in the world. If you honestly believe that I think they’re objects, you’d better be able to say it to my face.”
The kid’s eyes darted left and right. At the other end of the display, his colleague kept her face down and slid farther away. “The main point,” he said, “is just about all the embryos that get killed…”
“No it’s not.” I showed him the section that began “If IVF did not bring death or harm to human embryos, would it be okay?” The answer was no: assisted reproduction violates “marital integrity.”
[...] He didn’t answer, and I felt drained. So I turned around and walked back out to the Midway, gripping my photograph tightly.
“Daniel. Daniel!” Someone was calling me. I looked up and saw Jon, Lori’s friend from the Myriad. “You okay? You look…” He trailed off. [...] I explained, and began to tell him about my confrontation with the guy from Rock for Life. Jon listened carefully and read the flier. He hadn’t even gotten to the part that upset me so much, when he said, “Well, I don’t agree with this.” He fingered the section that asked, “What about infertile couples who desperately want a child?” and read hurriedly, “‘No one has the right to a child. Cooperating with God’s plan for human procreation ensures that all children are accepted as gifts.’”
His brow wrinkled. “To me, that’s the same as saying that if you have cancer, it’s God’s will, so just accept it.” He handed the flier back to me. “I hope you don’t think there’s only one opinion about things like this. Because I hear a lot of shit from my brothers in Christ.”
And I also want to interrupt my interruption to say that pretty much every media that has ever fictionally portrayed IVF has it completely wrong. IVF is one of the most horrible, stressful, awful medical procedures I have been through. The entire process takes weeks and involves multiple daily injections that you have to give to yourself and which hop you up on hormones so that you release more eggs than you otherwise would in a cycle and which leaves you feeling like giant sore egg basket. And constantly stressed and crying because hormones are powerful things, you have maybe one or two attempts at the whole IVF thing before the exorbitantly high prices become more than you can pay after which you face being Childless Forever, and also ovarian hyperstimulation can also be fatal. So there's that.
What I am saying here is that any woman who goes through IVF once, let alone twice, wants that baby. She fucking earns that baby**, through liberal amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. IVF babies are not magically-delivered-by-happy-elves babies just because science.
I didn't get my baby because my Husband and I had a rare enough genetic makeup that despite looking perfectly healthy from the outside, we couldn't build a healthy baby with our internal bits. My eggs were healthy and his sperm were healthy, but together they were just not viable. If Husband hadn't had a vasectomy, or if his vasectomy reversal had worked, we would have unknowingly "miscarried" dozens, if not hundreds, of zygotes while trying to get pregnant "naturally", all because each zygote would have stopped growing within days after the egg was fertilized, just as they did in the IVF lab. As it is, we "only" lost 30 zygotes over two IVF attempts.
So here is a math question for you: How many babies did I lose?
I don't actually want an answer from you, because the funny thing about reproduction is, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. I don't want to know what anyone else thinks, unless that someone else happens to be someone very close to me. For the record, my mother feels that I lost one baby. My husband feels that we lost none. Nobody I know -- or no one whose opinions I care about -- thinks I lost thirty.
But Paul Ryan thinks I lost thirty babies. And Paul Ryan wants to make his opinion the law of the land. Paul Ryan our almost-not-quite-thank-dog-nearly Vice President has co-sponsored (again) the Sanctity of Human Life Act which, if passed, would grant "full legal rights to human zygotes from the moment of fertilization." No one is entirely sure what that means -- Would I be able to bequeath property to my zygotes? Could refrigerated zygotes sue for wrongful imprisonment from within an IVF facility? Could the government be held at fault for jailing a female criminal, since any unknown zygotes inside her are innocent of whatever crime she committed? -- but it would make abortion illegal and IVF probably impossible. And that, of course, is the point.
As Daniel Radosh and I both noted above, I am not unusually blessed with invisible-angel-children thanks to the miracles of modern science. Most fertile women lose dozens of zygotes in their life without ever knowing it. Almost everyone reading this will find in Heaven -- if the fundamentalists are right -- a whole brood of children belonging to them, people they never even knew before. We'll all be matriarchs and patriarchs of immediate families that stretch well into the hundreds; each of us will have thousands of siblings and cousins and aunts and uncles that we never before guessed at. My own mother will be surrounded not by her adoring four children she has here on earth, but by forty -- thirty-six of whom will either need names on the spot, or will have to introduce themselves to their new mother with their Jesus-given names. People who thought themselves childless-by-choice here on earth will be suddenly parents of dozens. And so forth.
If Paul Ryan is right.
But he's not. He may be Right, capital-R, about Heaven, capital-H, though I doubt it. But here on earth where we can't know what goes on in Heaven and where I have the moral right to decide how to frame and understand my own experiences, he is wrong. Because I -- and this is me, speaking for me, and for no one else precisely because other women also have the right to define their own experiences -- I didn't lose thirty children. I most definitely lost something, and it hurts more deeply than I can describe, but what I lost was not thirty children or even one child. What I lost was the potential for a child.
I lost my dreams. I lost a thousand scenes I had played out in my head a million times. I lost teaching my child to read. I lost baking that first cookie for her, warm and melty and crisp all at once. I lost kneeling in the grass with him and showing him the pill bugs that crawl through the yard. I lost taking her to the pool as an infant and running her feet through the cool water. I lost the friendship I wanted that would grow between us and would stand the test of time, the very same friendship I have with my own mother and father. I lost the advice I would give her in college. I lost meeting his fiancee for the first time after he'd proposed, when she was now no longer the girl my son was dating but had become the woman he would grow old with. I lost holding my grandchildren. I lost any chance at a legacy, at children and grandchildren who would carry my unique genetic fingerprint with them into the future, for good or ill.
I lost things that may never have come to pass anyway, even if I'd had a child. Maybe my child would have died young, the victim of a tragic accident or illness. Maybe my child would have been asexual or childless-by-choice, in which case I would absolutely have loved my child just as much (if not more) than anticipated, but those daydreams of marriages and grandchildren and legacies would have still not come true because that is not how children work -- they may be vehicles for dreams, but ultimately you're just a passenger along for the ride. I myself haven't fulfilled all of my parents' dreams for me, but they love me anyway and I love them and we're happy the way we are. We've shaped our dreams around the reality we ended up with.
And that's the funny thing about dreams: they're rarely achieved through a binary yes/no gate that makes the dream either achieved entirely or lost forever. Dreams are much more often things that are built over time, and revised as you go. Dreams represent potential, the potential for things that we would like to see happen, but which do not contain the full set of everything that could happen, or even the full set of everything that can possibly make us happy.
The day I learned that I will never have children, and that the fertilized eggs that my Husband and I had made together were no more, I lost something. But I didn't lose thirty people. Nor did I lose one person, some combined amalgamation of all thirty eggs into one human entity. What I lost was a potential, one possible outcome of my future that I desperately wanted by could no longer have.
But Paul Ryan is trying to force his interpretation of that painful and private day onto me by law. And as far as I'm concerned, what happened to me in that IVF clinic that day is none of his -- or anyone else's -- fucking business.
* Not everyone is on-board with homeschooling, but it worked well for me since a number of things made me a target for bullies from an early age onward, and because my parents were absolutely committed to the school part of homeschooling. Let's place homeschooling in the off-topic bin for this thread, and take any comments regarding the concept to the nearest open thread. Thank you!
** None of which is to say that non-IVF pregnancies are less painful or less valid or the babies less earned or that IVF-parents are more noble or any other such bullshit of the let's-compare-parents-variety because that is not my intention here. What I am addressing is the stereotype in the media that the IVF process is easy and painless and somehow "cheating" over simply trying harder (in the case of infertile couples) or finding the "right" man to do it the "right" way (in the case of single mothers and/or lesbian couples) or taking your infertility with a stiff-upper lip or something, and that is some offensive shit is what that is.