I did not seek Pope John Paul II’s approval, nor do I think he would have chosen me to represent the ideals of Vatican II. But I was born a Catholic, baptized, confirmed, confessed my sins and received the body and blood of our savior. A good Catholic soldier in my youth, I wore the green uniform of St. Vincent Martyr school. Gave up candy for Lent. Got my best grades in Religion. But I was not genuinely devout, I just followed the rules and had a good memory. I even joined a girl’s sodality and attempted to meditate. I sat there with all the other girls on Wednesday afternoons trying to make something happen. Sister Emanuel led us in prayer and meditation. I sat upright in the hard back school chair, closed my eyes and wished, hoped, thought, breathed until some stray thought sent me, Kathy Slane and Corrine O’Connor into sly fits of giggles. I didn’t have the talent to be Catholic.
It was no surprise that I would eventually fall away. Growing up included some heady challenges to my faith. The siren songs of other faiths beckoned when Catholicism became boring and stodgy, the Folk Mass notwithstanding. College education presented the evidence of terrible things done in the name of the Holy Roman Church. There was the pantheism of my major - anthropology. But what really did it in was feminism. I declared myself an ex-Catholic and saved Rome the trouble of excommunicating me.
I took up with the worst sort of feminists, according to the Church, the ones who advocated for sex education, birth control and reproductive freedom. Worst of all, I worked for the Evil Empire itself, Planned Parenthood. But I knew I was in good company, warm intelligent women and men, many with very strong religious underpinnings and equally strong political and moral convictions.
Though we are the experts in forestalling pregnancy, it does happen that some Planned Parenthood employees become with child. Never anti-child, we have the usual lunch time baby showers like everyone else and ooh and aah over baby pictures. After settling into a marriage for a couple of years, I decided my time was upon me and determined to have the most planned pregnancy in the latter half of the 20th century. I was the expert with all the credentials: veteran sex educator, birth control counselor, certified natural family planning instructor. I could cover the waterfront on making babies or not making babies. I was twenty-seven years old and I was ready and I would have a baby within twelve months. I prepared the spouse.
Only it didn’t happen. Everything else was happening for us - jobs, promotions, publications. We were successful Yuppies, just not in the Darwinian sense.
Six cycles passed. I was already an old hand at charting my basal body temperature and I anxiously awaited the telltale rise in temperature that signals conception. Every day I charted my temperature, checked the consistency of certain body fluids. I wrote it all down in the chart and marked with Xs the days of probable ovulation and egg viability. I marked with Os the days of our sexual congress. It was an almost perfect tic-tac-toe overlay, but each month the game ended in a draw. My doctor urged patience and saw no need to rush into action. Action was not the problem, I announced. “We have plenty of action. We have action every other day for a 12-day window of opportunity that recurs at twenty-five day intervals. You could set a clock by us. We don’t need any more action - we need a referral.”
Infertility - the new Yuppie disease. The University Hospital and Clinics welcomed us with a parking voucher and a cheery volunteer in a pink smock to lead us through the labyrinth of corridors and clinics. Spouse and I began a three-year routine of monthly, if not weekly, appointments. Doctors and junior doctors poked and prodded us, explored all orifices, drained and pinched off little pieces of us, measured all the levels and wrote down all the numbers in their charts. The interviews, the questions, the euphemisms. We were cheerful soldiers for a while, optimistic, or able to buck ourselves up when we weren’t. The jokes began, well meaning but quickly tiresome. “Bet you have fun trying.” “Need any help?” If infertility bothered my spouse, he chose not to discuss it. I got weepy on Mother’s Day. We let Father’s Day pass. Our earnest efforts to do everything right became perfunctory, then routine, and finally, an excuse.
The sorrow of loving couples unable to bear children is nothing new. You usually see the stoic side. What we don’t show you is how we close ourselves off to each other, how we second-guess our motives for wanting a child, then second-guess yours. You don’t see the silence that is the literal failure of love.
We were regulars for semen analysis and endometrial biopsies. Ours was a garden-variety problem, one that might respond to treatment, or might not. One of the first things to change is the guy’s underwear. Out go the briefs, in come the boxer shorts. Dutiful spouse went to a men’s shop nearby to pick out his new underwear. The salesman showed the boxer shorts with a manic flourish - “Here is your basic jungle print! Camouflage! A Stewart plaid! And this one I call ‘County Park Camper!” He bought ten pairs.
Meanwhile I trained every OB-GYN resident in Wisconsin in the delicate art of extracting endometrial samples, then peeling the patient off the ceiling. One day I could not go through it yet another time and I sat on the exam table and wept. The hapless resident shuffled out the room, confused, a bit irritated, and silent.
The spouse’s procedure may have held more pleasure for him than mine did. Whatever his private ritual was for making love to a plastic cup, he was a good sport about it. One day a nurse shyly asked us if we would like a room. We didn’t think we heard her right. “A what?” “Would you like a room?” she repeated with great embarrassment. Perhaps this was a measure of how far we had come from the usual way to make babies, but we could not imagine what we would need a room for. We declined.
I said I would draw the line at surgery, but the doctors convinced me to move that line back to allow laparoscopy. Nothing like the ovum’s eye view of all the plumbing before proceeding with any costly insemination. I lay on the operating table in a gown with a tube in my wrist, nervous. In an inane effort to stave off my collapse from consciousness, I posed question after question to my doctor about the current Middle East crisis. He played along for a while, then a quick glance to the anesthesiologist and I was out. When I awoke the news was good - tubes fine, no blockage, all systems go for insemination.
It was in this way we got pushed along. The doctors urged us to try one more test, try one more month, try one more time. Be patient. Remain their patient. It took several years of allowing them to schedule our libido, to ease us into one treatment, then the next, to talk us into their clinical trials, to move from husband sperm insemination to that of donor sperm in less than the blink of an eye. It took that long before one of us said stop. It was I.
I was not too concerned about what Pope John Paul II was saying about Human Vitae, about how every act of intercourse must be open to conception. All our acts were, but now some of those acts were taking place in petri dishes in bench labs. I was more concerned about the messages my own heart signaled. There was something wrong about wanting a baby at any cost, something very wrong about not asking ourselves some questions. There are hundreds of special needs kids available for adoption - what about them? I thought I should not want my own child so badly while they remained at large. What about in vitro fertilization? I was not prepared to decide the fate of multiple zygotes. What about donor sperm? I wanted my husband’s child, not somebody else’s. What about life with no children at all? Yes, what about that? I could no longer claim any semblance of selflessness. I wanted a child simply because I wanted one. I could not pretend sacrifice. I could not feign righteousness. A child was to advance my own plans, my own desire, my own image as a mother. This is true too for most other parents who conceive and give birth with no difficulty, but they are largely spared this knowledge of themselves.
So the drugs stopped, the shots ended, the “buff ‘n shine” inseminations ceased. There would be no baby, there would be only us and this fractured love whittled away by medicine.
Life went on. The basal body temperature thermometer and charts no longer occupied the nightstand. The first day of my last menstrual period was forgotten history. Inquires into our condition we reflected with grace. The boxer shorts stayed.
Life went on for others too. Friends and sisters had babies. We bought baby presents, sent Mother’s Day cards, learned to ask the right questions about the developmental stages of their infants.
Life went on for us. With hesitation we regained some familiarity. With slow touch we sought out each other again. It took years to undo what we put ourselves through.
And so it came that several years passed during which I no longer noted the occurrence of my monthly cycle. I welcomed the release from this observation and gave not one thought to it. I was bored and irritated by physicians who asked me to name the first day of my last menstrual cycle. I never knew and I didn’t care. We were on to other adventures now - travel, study. We took risks we hardly imagined before, fully engaged in some new possibilities for ourselves. I went on long soul-searching hikes that left me tired and pensive. On one of them I resolved that I would pursue a writing life with all due speed and seriousness. Breathless and excited, eager to announce this new decision to my mate, I entered our home and breathed in the smell of fresh brewed coffee, my favorite, and immediately threw up.
Oh no. It couldn’t be. Now, when I have just determined that I would give birth to a different sort of baby? Yes, I had been tired, and there was an odd sort of congestion and heaviness, now this nausea. And I had no clue when my last period occurred.
In a panic I rushed out to buy a home pregnancy test. Me, who could have gone to any clinic in town and obtained a free one. Me, who could have mixed the re-agents herself and read the agglutination perfectly. I would not face anyone yet knowing that I, Ms. Planned Parenthood, might have an unplanned pregnancy. I skulked into a drugstore and hurried home with the test kit in a brown paper bag, with some Band-Aids and Chap-stick just in case anyone asked.
Of course the test was positive. How else could this story end? I spare you the details of pregnancy and childbirth, nine months and four hours respectively. Number and type of offspring - one glorious girl. People ask me what happened, did we relax or adopt a child? No, and in truth I do not know, only that our conception would receive the papal seal of approval. But when pressed further by other couples daunted in their own quest, I pass on this bit of wisdom:
“Quit your job, drop your health insurance - it worked for me.”