When I was 28 years old, I had nine children: Geo, Raya, Percy, Lulu, Will, Ariana, Ty, Jase, Caleb.
But, if I’m being honest, they weren’t children, or babies, or even fetuses. They were embryos, and they were frozen, but they already felt like our offspring.
Have you ever wished for something so much, that the illusion in your mind becomes the truth?
That was me—2012—wanting so badly to be pregnant, that I fell in love with our embryos. The doctor said that they were little balls of cells no bigger than a pinhead, but I envisioned them as miniature babies swimming inside ice cubes, just kind of suspended there, waiting to be thawed and given life. And I was about to have two of those babies transferred into my uterus. We’d have to wait 12 days, then I’d have a blood test to ensure that both or one of them had attached to my womb, and I would finally be what I had wanted to be for so long: pregnant.
I was still young, and Jamie and I had gotten married just two years prior. So what was the big rush to have a baby? It had everything to do with the picture—the framed one of Jamie as a toddler that sat on our windowsill. I imagined our son to look exactly like Jamie did in that photo—curly blonde hair, distinct nose. He was just sitting—not running, not babbling—just sitting, dangling his chunky legs, and smiling. He was so young in this picture and already so aware of the most important thing in life—marveling in the moment, in the pause.
That was the son I imagined us having. I’d already picked out a name for him: Geo. Our earth, our world. And, as of late, I started noticing the lack of him around the house. On my way to the bathroom in the morning, I expected to step on a rogue toy truck. I’d do dishes and hear a specific tinkling of water that resembled a child’s laughter. I’d turn off the faucet, and think Where is he? Where’s he hiding?
But only the silence answered.
Plus, after what we’d been through over the last two years, I felt like the universe owed us. You know the moment. You’ve all had it. Maybe, after a string of lousy relationships or the loss of a loved one, you look up at the sky, and you say, “Enough. I deserve something good to come my way. I’ve paid my dues.”
And we had PAID our dues for sure.
When we first started trying to have a baby, we had no idea that our odds were much lower than we’d thought, that tests would prove in-vitro fertilization to be our only option. We couldn’t fathom that I would almost bleed to death after my first IVF procedure, that I’d be rushed to the E.R. and undergo abdominal surgery to sew up the ovary that hadn’t clotted, that I’d have a six-inch scar where a baby bump should be. We never imagined that my sister-in-law would conceive a child the exact same weekend of my botched procedure and boast the same due date that we were supposed to have. We couldn’t predict that I would be jealous of everyone with babies, that it would take me six months to be ready for in-vitro again, or that the next round of estrogen would give me such severe headaches that the nurses would fear a blood clot, stop our cycle, and that for the second time, they wouldn’t be able to transfer our embryos into me.
So, this time around, this embryo transfer was going to happen. It had to work, or else I was sure that I’d go crazy with grief.
When you have that realization, it’s terrifying, isn’t it? Because you know that if the universe doesn’t start working in your favor, you’re going to lose it. And not just in that haha crazy way. No, like legit, committed crazy.
Finally, on a beautiful July day we went in for the long-awaited transfer. The doctors injected our embryos through my cervix via a catheter, which felt like the time I pierced my own ear by shoving a post through the cartilage. And afterwards, I expected to feel the weight of two marbles in my abdomen, but I felt completely, undoubtedly, the same. What did grow inside of me over the next few days was the idea that I had to create a super-womb so that our embryos would stay put in there.
I surrounded myself with chemical free, peace-inducing produce and products and publications. I listened to Dr. Oz’s You: Having a Baby CDs and read pregnancy books and took prenatal vitamins and went to bed early and did visualization exercises and gave up hair-coloring and caffeine.
I tried to control the uncontrollable.
But there were some things I couldn’t control, like my wacky cravings for chocolate milk and chicken skin. No joke. I’d sit in the parking lot of the grocery store and peel glistening layers of fatty, herby skin off of that steaming chicken and dangle them into my mouth. Jamie came home one day to find three bald rotisseries chickens in the refrigerator and me on the couch skinning my fourth.
I had to be pregnant.
We got the call with the pregnancy test results when we were out to lunch, and I knew just by the way the nurse said hello.
I wasn’t pregnant.
Turns out the progesterone I’d been taking was responsible for my wacky cravings. When we hung up, I had a full-on public melt down—screaming, sobbing.
I was legit crazy with grief.
And I realized something in that moment: The universe didn’t owe me anything. Not a single fucking thing. And you know what the scariest thought was? What if we never get our baby? I mean the whole world operates on this idea of balance. You study hard; you get a good job. You date around; you meet your soul mate. But what if you try and try and you never get what you wish for?
So, I did the most rebellious things I could think of: I got my hair highlighted. I drank pinot noir. I ate sushi. If the universe wouldn’t indulge me, then I would indulge myself. But none of it felt satisfying. It drained me and my wallet.
Then the next month, I missed my period, and we found out we were pregnant the good old fashioned way with a baby boy. But I barely paused to be grateful before I worried about miscarriage. I tried to control the uncontrollable. But despite how careful I was, one morning I slipped on the ice in my driveway and landed right onto my stomach.
But I didn’t miscarry.
Each ultrasound showed a healthy, kicking baby boy. Until our 18-week ultrasound, which showed a kicking baby boy AND an enlarged bladder, AND distended kidneys, and the doctor saying, “If the baby can’t urinate, it’s detrimental.”
You see, amniotic fluid is what strengthens the lungs, and amniotic fluid is essentially baby pee. Apparently, there was a flap of skin inside of Geo’s urethra that was causing his urine to back flow and bloat his kidneys. Jamie and I joked about Geo’s dick skin, we said the words “dick skin” a lot, because it was the only thing that made us laugh. But we pressed pause on all our nursery preparations and didn’t take a tour of the maternity ward because we didn’t know if we’d have a baby to deliver there.
And I didn’t look up at the sky and say, “You owe me. We’ve paid our dues.” I just said, “Please.”
I said it over and over and over again.
My entire pregnancy was a series of doctor visits and warnings not to get too attached to our son. Just in case. Then, finally, when I was 8 months along, the doctor said, “I can’t believe this, but his kidneys look relatively normal.” The theory was that Geo had outgrown that troublesome flap of skin in his urethra. Jamie and I cheered for the shrinking dick skin. Yay Dick Skin!
And I thought that finally things had balanced out and the worst was over.
On May 19, 2013, on Geo’s exact due date, I went into labor.
I had a doula and a midwife, and when I say this, people imagine me laboring in a straw hut on a dirt floor, squatting down and yanking my own baby out of me. But I was at the hospital, and it was so blissful—listening to Ray La Montagne in the dark as Jamie rubbed my back.
It was my labor fantasy, until, quite suddenly, it wasn’t.
Though I was almost fully dilated and had labored for 23 hours, I wasn’t progressing, and when I tried to push, the fetal monitor went nearly flat. Then I blinked and I was being rushed into a C-section that was so urgent that the doctors didn’t even have enough time to fully numb me. I had no control over anything, and I felt everything—the slicing, the pulling, the tugging. And then I felt nothing and I heard nothing. Not a single cry.
The doctor was unraveling the cord from our little boy’s neck.
There was more unraveling and more silence.
Our baby’s blue face and silence.
And then the most blissful cry.
And even despite the oxygen mask covering my face, when I saw those eyes shaped like mine and that nose—a miniature version of Jamie’s—I said, “He’s so beautiful,” and I mentally told the universe, “Thank you.” I thought, “You didn’t owe this to us, but you gave it to us anyway. Thank you.”
How do you react when you feel completely unworthy, like you’ll never accomplish enough good in this world to deserve the gift before you?
Here’s what you do: You stop lamenting on all the things that have gone wrong in your life. You pause and you marvel in every miraculous moment and you say thank you.
You say it over and over again.
For Geo’s first birthday, we had his party at the zoo. Our healthy, grinning, birthday-hatted boy sat in his high chair with a cupcake on his tray. But, there was no candle, because somehow in the chaos of decorating the pavilion, I’d lost the wax number one.
Jamie and I stood next to Geo, who now looked exactly like Jamie’s toddler picture—blonde haired and blue eyed, sitting, pausing—and when we finished singing our last “Happy Birthday to you…” there was no candle to blow. But in that instant, I was glad for it.
There was no wishing for anything.
This essay is an excerpt of Nadine Kenney Johnstone‘s recently completed memoir about the risks and repercussions of IVF. Nadine received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and her work has been featured in Chicago magazine, The Moth, The Drum, and Pank, among other publications. She has worked in all aspects of writing: as a literary magazine editor, reporter, fiction contest judge, story performer, and creative writing coach. She teaches writing at Loyola University, Story Studio Chicago, and Grub Street online. Find her writing advice at Beyond the Margins,The Review Review, and monthly at Grub Street Daily.