I met my husband when I was 26 on a train traveling through the South of France. I was returning from the Cannes Film Festival, which I'd gone to with an actress friend; he was a pilot in the French Navy. As cliché as it sounds, it was absolutely love at first sight. We've been together for 23 years, married for 12.
I had never longed for children, but being with Bruno slowly changed that: I realized that there is nothing more incredible, practically supernatural, than the idea that two people can make another person out of their love. By the time I was in my 30s, I wanted to see our DNA blended into a new being.
But that's not, as it turns out, how my babies were created. Their DNA comes from Bruno and an egg donor I've never met and never will. She did a tremendous thing to help our family, but for me, the path was not at all straight or simple.
My twins were born when I was 46, but they were not my first pregnancy, or my first children. Our first son's name was Enzo. We knew when I was 16 weeks pregnant, at age 36, that he was going to be born with spina bifida. The doctors gave him an excellent prognosis, though he'd have to have surgery immediately and stay in the NICU at first. We lived in Oklahoma, but we made arrangements for him to be born at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, where I grew up and where most of my family still lives, because of the excellent pediatric neurosurgeons there and the Newborn Center's family-centered philosophy of care. I was worried about him, of course, but I loved being pregnant, that connection I had with him.
When he was born, I barely saw him before he was taken to the NICU. He had an open lesion on his spine that meant I couldn't hold him; it was excruciating to watch him cry and not be able to take him in my arms. But Bruno started singing a French maritime tune he used to sing when I was pregnant, and Enzo stopped crying - he knew that voice. And I knew his face: He looked just like Bruno! It was exactly like I'd imagined. We'd created this baby, and he was ours.
We spent every day with him, giving him baths, reading, changing his tracheostomy tube. Then one morning I came in and just knew something was not right. The nurses said, "Well, you're a first-time mom, you don't recognize his cues," and "You're stressed out by him being in the NICU." Which was all true. But the next morning he was whisked away for a CT scan, and then into surgery, and we never saw him awake again. He died from an infection. While I don't think Enzo could have been saved if my concerns had been heard sooner - he was very, very sick - I do wonder if he could have been spared some suffering. The experience was heartbreaking.
My babies' DNA comes from Bruno and an egg donor I've never met and never will.
It ended up being years before we were ready to try for another baby. We'd moved from Oklahoma to Texas permanently (me first, then Bruno a year later after he finished his Ph.D. in biosystems engineering) so I could take a job at Texas Children's Hospital as their first Family-Centered Care Specialist. I wanted to use my experience to help empower families and build partnerships between them and health-care providers. My doctors told me I was going to have a hard time getting pregnant, since I was 42 by then, so I started taking fertility drugs. I knew that if I wasn't pregnant in three months, I didn't have a good chance. So when it hadn't worked by then, I stopped the drugs - and that's when I got pregnant with Ezra.
He was growing right on target, and then, when I was 16 weeks pregnant, I woke up in the middle of the night. In my dream, someone had said, "The baby died." I woke up Bruno. "I was having a bad dream, too," he said to me. "Is the baby okay?" No, I said to him. He wasn't. I wasn't bleeding, no contractions. But I knew that he was gone.
The next morning, the doctor confirmed that there was no heartbeat. It turns out Ezra had Trisomy 9, a rare and very serious chromosomal disorder. I could not believe that lightning had struck us twice, but I was at peace knowing that he died inside me, listening to my heartbeat. I was comforted by that, after Enzo's traumatic death in the hospital.
I opted to deliver Ezra: I wanted to say good-bye to him, for my husband to hold him. In the week it took for the induction process to take effect, I was at work, planning a memorial ceremony Texas Children's hosts for NICU families. It may sound like I'm a strong person, but I'm not. I have a strong conviction: I knew what I had to do for my family and for the other families who had lost children. Their devastation was my devastation.
When Ezra was born, we baptized him and spent the night with him. He was cremated, like Enzo was. For both of my boys, I asked to put them in the crematorium at the funeral home myself. I wanted their mom to be the last person who touched them and gave them back to God. When I pushed the ignite button, I wanted to die - but I also felt privileged to have experienced an extraordinary little person's life, however brief.
I don't believe that one heals from losing a child, but I think there's a type of recovery that's possible. I never stopped wanting a family, but my doctors and I agreed I would probably continue to miscarry. I might have a stillborn child again. Even so, I knew in my heart that I wanted to be pregnant, because carrying my sons had been my greatest joy. The optimal chances for a pregnancy meant younger eggs: donor eggs.
When you decide to use donated eggs, you can look through databases of potential donors, see what they look like, try to discover what they are like. I spent months poring over these, not with eagerness, but crying as I struggled with the fact that this was where I had ended up, this was how I was going to have my family. I wanted to be the 40-something woman who proved everyone wrong. I believe that miracles can happen, but I had to come to terms with the fact that my miracle would not be a natural pregnancy. Bruno didn't fully understand what a leap it was for me to accept using another woman's eggs. In his mind, we were going to have a family, and that's what we wanted. For me, it was giving up that first, very meaningful reason I'd wanted children: to create one with him.
I didn't particularly seek out donors who looked like me, and as I looked through the profiles, I was shocked to see that the eggs from blonde, blue-eyed women were more expensive than the ones from dark-haired women. It was in this extensive search that I started to discover what was important. Many of the women were very candid that they were becoming donors for monetary reasons - which I understand. But it felt like a business transaction, and that made it hard for me, as if it were taking away all that is beautiful in making a baby with someone you love.
Then I stumbled across this donor, a student who wrote in her bio that as a young and fertile woman, she felt it was her obligation to help people who wanted to create a family. Yes, she would be getting paid, but I believed - and still do - that there was a genuine altruism in her. I realized that this was what I wanted to pass on to my children: kindness. More than raising a child who looks like me, I want to raise a good person.
I am so grateful, especially to our egg donor, this stranger who unknowingly holds a piece of my heart.
She had already done a donation, so we had to see if she'd agree to do another, then wait for her to finish the semester. After a lot of panicked waiting, we received 30 eggs from her. The lab fertilized half via intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where a single sperm is injected directly into the egg. (The other half were fertilized "naturally": The eggs were placed in a petri dish and the sperm did their thing.) My doctor transferred a fresh embryo to me, and put the rest on ice in case it didn't work. I never got a positive pregnancy test with that one.
The next time, I got a positive just four days after the transfer of multiple embryos. I was thrilled until the six-week mark, when I hemorrhaged so frighteningly that I was sure I had lost the baby. I cried for a long while alone in the bathroom before calling my husband and doctor. I thought I had jinxed myself by being so excited by the early test. And I had lost a baby: It turns out I'd been pregnant with triplets, and now there were two. Afterward, though, I felt a strange sense of peace. That night, I slept well and dreamed of a blond baby in a crib, reaching up to me. I think the mother's intuition that told me something was wrong with Enzo and Ezra was letting me know that these babies were okay.
After other bleeding episodes, my doctor put me on bed rest for more than seven months. The bright spot in that long and worrisome time was that, because I was high-risk, I got to see my babies via ultrasound every week. Their little profiles, their strong heartbeats, the hiccups on two sides of my belly... those carried me through. I got them to 37 weeks and they were delivered via C-section at nearly 7 pounds each. They screamed and they cried and they opened their eyes, and I got to take them back to my room. I was drunk with emotion: It was one of the most glorious moments of my life. I was so proud of the beautiful little beings I had made, and grateful to God and my husband and family and doctors. And especially to our egg donor, this stranger who unknowingly holds a piece of my heart.
Six days later, we put Remi and Emma in their car seats and took them home. I'd never been able to do that, and I wake up every single day with an overwhelming sense of relief. Infertility had been on my mind every minute, and now the burden is lifted. In its place are my children. They are 2 now, and brilliant - every parent says that, I know, but I think they are. And also: They are loving. They are kind.
But here's another, brutally honest part of my story: While there are women who conceive babies with donated eggs and then deliver and immediately feel like the baby is theirs, utterly theirs, for me it was different. Remi looked just like Bruno, like Enzo had. But Emma - she looked like her donor. It hurt. People have said to me, "Do you think the twins get this or that from their real mom?" and it's easy for me to correct them. I am their real mom. But it's also true that when they do something new, I wonder whether that's just them, or if they take after the donor. I think about her a lot. Experts are starting to discover that the mother carrying the pregnancy with donated eggs may influence her baby's genetics. It gives me some comfort that the twins may have a piece of me in them. Their stubbornness, for instance: That just might be from me.
The ongoing shroud of secrecy over women's infertility issues makes using an egg donor seem shameful. It isn't. I'm not embarrassed. I was apprehensive, because of my own preconceived notions about motherhood. I wish we had tried to have kids earlier, but I want people to know that there is no failure in having children this way. I have a friend who is thinking about egg donation, and I told her: If your heart says you want children, as mine did, this is an option. There will be things that are painful, but the joy, the relief, and the happiness you can have completely outweigh any compromises you might make.
I am a mother. Not exactly the one I thought I would be - what parent is? - or in the way I wanted to be, but I am. It is an overwhelming gift, to have children, and I'm grateful to the process that got me here.
I wanted our children to be a mix of our family history and the tangible fruit of our love. Today, as I watch them grow, I can see, so completely, that they are.
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