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My husband, Paul, and I launched Operation Procreation in perhaps the least romantic spot in the Southern Hemisphere: the windowless room of a $10-a-night hostel in Chile, decorated with faux oak paneling, brown industrial carpeting, a blinding overhead fluorescent light and, on the night table, a statue of the Virgin Mary. Paul was so creeped out by the stained, scratchy bed sheets that as I undressed, he disappeared, fully clothed, into his sleeping bag.
Married one year, we were on one of those last-hurrah vacations—what we expected to be our final chance, before retirement, for a kid-free, carefree, overseas holiday. My monthly window of opportunity landed on a weekend when every hotel room in town was booked; but at age 37, with my biological clock ticking loudly, I would not be deterred. Scratchy sheets or silk, we were going to have sex.
I managed to lure Paul out of his sleeping bag ("We can keep the lights off!" "Remember, I'm almost 38!"), and as we struggled to ignore our surroundings, we laughed nervously, like two novice skydivers about to jump out of an airplane. "Oh my god!" I said. "What if this procreation thing works?"
We never thought to ask: What if it doesn't?
What if it doesn't?
In every fertility book I've read—and I've read plenty—there's a final chapter called "Other Paths to Parenthood" or "There's More Than One Road to Motherhood" or something similar. These chapters talk about egg donation and adoption, about grieving the loss of your fertility and accepting a different path. When you're starting fertility treatment, these are the chapters you avoid. You think they're for other people—women who began trying to conceive at age 42 (Hey, what did they expect?) or who lost an ovary to cancer (Unfortunate, but at least they have options). You suspect it would be awful to be in their shoes, but you barely give the scenario a passing thought. Given all the high-tech procedures you've heard of—IVF, ICSI, PGD—you're confident that something will work for you. Maybe not on the first try, but eventually.
At least that's how my own thought process unfolded. Then one day, a year and a half after our trip to Chile, Paul and I found ourselves in our fertility doctor's office facing bewildering news: We'd never conceive using my eggs. After four cycles of intrauterine insemination and two miscarriages, we decided to try in vitro fertilization, but we crashed right out of the starting gate. All 11 of our embryos, the products of Paul's sperm and my eggs, had flunked genetic testing. There was no point in transferring any of them to my uterus, the doctor said, and there was no point in trying again. Although I was barely 39, it appeared that my eggs already had exceeded their use-by date.
"I'm sorry," the doctor said, gently. "I didn't expect this at all. But you'd be a very good candidate for donor-egg IVF."
At every stage, Paul and I had been in sync, emotionally, about what to do next, but that changed the morning the embryo transfer was canceled. My sweet redheaded husband had burst into tears, and despite my hugs and assurances that we'd figure something out, he seemed inconsolable.
Nothing's so bad that it couldn't be worse
I was deeply disappointed, to be sure, but I wasn't devastated or even shocked. After four years and 50 dead-end blind dates on Match.com, where Paul and I ultimately met, I'd developed an all-purpose coping strategy: expect disaster. If you prepared for the worst and got something better, I figured, you could only be pleasantly surprised.
I immediately thought of my Grandpa Julius' favorite saying: "Nothing's so bad that it couldn't be worse." It was true. I hadn't been attacked by flesh-eating bacteria or kidnapped by terrorists or diagnosed with cancer. Surely there were circumstances more dire than harboring expired eggs.
These days, in vitro fertilization is so common that the stigma has virtually vanished; of my six friends who underwent IVF, only one kept it quiet. But donor-egg IVF is a different story. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a substantial 12 percent of all IVF cycles in the U.S., about 16,000 a year, involve eggs retrieved from a donor; and donor-egg IVF has the highest success rate of any fertility treatment—52 percent nationally, upward of 75 percent at the top clinics. Yet few women admit to going this route.
Plenty of celebrities—TV commentator Nancy Grace, political wife Elizabeth Edwards and actress Geena Davis, among them—have given birth in their mid- to late 40s, and you can bet that nearly all have used donor eggs because the odds of a woman 44 and older conceiving via IVF with her own eggs are 0.8 percent, according to CDC statistics. But no one has come right out and said so. Desperate Housewives star Marcia Cross, who gave birth last year to twin girls at age 44, came the closest, telling the media, "When a woman gets older, they get donor eggs, which doesn't make the baby any less beautiful or perfect. One's own eggs only last so long." But she has never indicated whether she used donor eggs herself.
Even at my own fertility clinic, when a pregnant donor-egg IVF patient "graduates" to the care of a regular obstetrician, the doctors ask, "Do you want your OB to know you used a donor?" They seem to view egg-donor IVF as a touchy subject. Remarkably—alarmingly—some women who use donor eggs don't even tell their own children.