This was a mistake, I told myself.
I’d been ritually repeating that phrase for the eight weeks I’d been pregnant, as the morning sickness became increasingly unbearable. Did cancer patients feel like this, I wondered, as though their bodies had been hijacked by malignant cells? Immediately ashamed of the thought, I still couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d been invaded by a 1.23 cm thing with two arm buds and a pumping heart. The yolk sac I saw on the first ultrasound, attached to a roundish nub the doctor said was the baby’s head, looked like a halo.
“Will that turn into the placenta?” I asked.
“It actually becomes part of the digestive tract.” Her voice sounded amazed.
This scientific miracle did not amaze me; I had cried all morning, and was more than half hoping the scan would reveal no beating heart.
But that was the great irony: cursed with sub-par fertility, I have never managed a “mistake.” My husband Ben and I elaborately planned my second pregnancy, using resources only available to those with means. We traveled to a fertility clinic in the Czech Republic and created two embryos using Ben’s sperm and the oocytes of an anonymous 22-year-old egg donor. We had been trying to make our son a sibling for five years, and nothing had worked, not IUI, IVF, acupuncture, visualization, or prayer. The one time we conceived, the pregnancy was ectopic and my fallopian tube ruptured. I lost over a liter of blood. An emergency surgery saved my life.
The doctors told me that because I had been pregnant before, my uterus had a good chance of accepting an embryo created from a genetically normal oocyte. So when we flew to the Czech Republic, we went in search of a beautiful and abstract idea: a good egg (at a fifth the price it would cost in California). I had not read much about egg donation, or wondered what I would tell my family, my friends, or my children if it worked. Or if I had entertained those questions, it was with the pale yellow glow that colors everything you hope deeply for. You expect the best outcome, because to move forward, you have to.
At first, my transcontinental birth caper seemed destined to end in failure. The first embryo didn’t take, and I nearly declared us a one-kid family once and for all. But because we didn’t want to leave a piece of our family in cold storage in Eastern Europe, I flew back alone in the dead of winter five months later. Barely a soul knew I’d gone, including my parents; I invented a long weekend at a writing retreat with no cell service to explain why I couldn’t pick up the phone.
And as sometimes happens with the most last-ditch of efforts, that frozen embryo transfer worked. My initial HCG numbers strongly indicated a viable pregnancy, and within a week the nausea and breast tenderness asserted themselves like squatters. I should have been elated. I should have felt like the luckiest woman in the world. Instead, I couldn’t stop crying. I was quite sure I would never make peace with my choice to have another child.
Another woman’s child, that is. Because that was the only way I could think of the baby, in those early weeks: as someone else’s.
I felt so ashamed of these feelings—not just the embarrassment of having changed my mind, but questioning the legitimacy of a child who was not genetically mine. A year earlier, we had seriously considered foster adoption. We knew plenty of kids conceived with sperm donors. Genetics didn’t, in theory, matter to me. But when it began to look like this stranger’s egg would stay put in my uterus (the fetus was male, the clinic called to tell me one day, and knock on wood, all testing had come back A-okay), I couldn’t help but look more closely at the strange and enchanting six-year-old who had come from my egg: our older son. His brown eyes are mine, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s—and like me, he has an outsized anxiety about rules. One morning he requested a salty fried egg with his waffle. Ben couldn’t believe he’d inherited my love of that combination.
“He looks just like you!” people commented when I posted a photo on Facebook, or “Wow, he’s such a perfect mix of you and Ben.”
Our second child would not have me in the “mix” at all. He would be genetically related to my mother in law, but not to me. I wondered if anyone would notice, talk behind my back, other me, and when we finally began telling people our news, I felt a sick urge to rationalize it.
“Maybe I’ll say, ‘I’m pregnant, but it’s not my baby,'” I told Ben.
He was furious. “Of course he’s your baby. Your body is housing him, feeding him, nurturing him. You and he are sharing blood.”
It was true that after five days in a petri dish, the embryo could not have survived without me. True that three people’s DNA swirled in my blood—a scientific miracle, for sure. But it’s one thing to be a human incubator, and another to be a mother, and I just didn’t know if I would love my second son like I loved my first, in whom I saw so very much of myself, good and bad.
In more lucid moments, I knew some of this could be chalked up to normal second-pregnancy angst. Friends who’d conceived naturally told me they’d felt depressed and scared the second time, too. Since you knew what was coming at the end of nine months—joy, sure, but also deprivation and physical hardship—you couldn’t go as blithely into Motherhood, Round Two. And I’d been prescribed enough supplemental estrogen and progesterone to make anyone a little crazy. Madly Googling “prenatal depression” helped some; it affects one in ten women, one Internet source assured me. But I still couldn’t shake the unsettling feeling that I was carrying the love offspring of my husband and some obnoxiously fertile 22-year-old hussy. Who was she, anyway, and why was her egg making me feel so terrible? Was my egg donor a bad citizen, a sociopath, a jerk, possessed by the devil?
Ben crossed his fingers and cheerfully brought me toast and tea while I came up with a hundred reasons not to continue the pregnancy. For one thing, at 42 I was clearly too old. I might never see my grandchildren. And the superstitious part of me figured the odds were high the universe would bestow upon me a baby with significant special needs.
“You just have to get through the first trimester,” a kind friend told me. “You’ll feel better.”
But what if I didn’t feel better? What on earth would I do if I didn’t?
And then, early one morning, I did.
I had spent the previous week weaning myself off the supplemental hormones, doling them out in smaller and smaller numbers until, that morning, there were none left to take. The awful nausea had abated, too. I woke to the hard knot of my womb pushing in every direction, my swollen breasts. I had a fierce urge to pee. The baby was holding on for dear life, despite my weeks-long battle to accept him.
“Hi kiddo,” I found myself whispering in the half light. “I know you’re in there. I’m sorry I’ve been so awful.”
It may sound crazy, but I felt him forgive me in that moment. I felt us forge the commitment a mother and her child make to one another, that intangible connection, that invisible thread. I felt a gust of joy, some of that yellow glow of hope returned.
I’m pregnant, I thought to myself. That’s my baby in there.
My son is now five. He was worth every vial, needle, dollar, and disappointment, even those soul-crushing six weeks when I desperately wished he didn’t exist. He has bright blue eyes, nothing like Ben’s. But he has the same towhead my older son had at his age, the Germanic cleft chin that’s run in the family forever. People who don’t know about his provenance comment that he and my older son are the spitting image of one another, and since my older son looks like me, somehow we all look like each other after all. He’s fearless where I’m cautious, stubborn where I’m acquiescent. Where did you come from? I sometimes think. He feels like much more than a scientific miracle. He feels like magic, the most extraordinary thing that’s ever happened to me. And he also feels quite ordinary, as it should be.
I think often about my son’s egg donor, and I bet someday he will, too. Maybe as an adolescent, angry about something or other, he’ll lob an insult like “you’re not my real mother” at me. Maybe he’ll want to find her, and I don’t know if that will be possible. I’m still working on the right words to explain it to him. But I know the stranger in the Czech Republic wasn’t possessed by the devil. She was an angel. She gave me a new beginning, helped us end a quest that had lasted five wrenching years.
She gave me everything.
So for now, I tell my son that we wanted him so very badly that we flew to Europe and borrowed an egg.
“From who?” he asked the other night.
“I don’t know,” I told him.
This uncertainty strikes me as a small price to pay for what I have wound up with: the child I was waiting for.