Published on October 22nd, 2013 | by Sarah Maria Medina0
Sarah Maria Medina and Linda R. Enter the Land of (In)Fertility: An Interview
The heavy gray clouds are rolling in over the rooftops of San Cristobal de Las Casas. I watch them from behind a tall window, from the balcony of my friend Linda’s kitchen. The terracotta rooftops stretch out from below her house to greet the rain that finally begins to fall as we sit down for coffee at her kitchen table. The roof tiles were once formed by women shaping clay over their thighs. Inside, the kitchen is warm, our gumboots piled by the front door. I first met Linda at Abuelita bookstore in the center, and we happened to live across the street from her in one of the small houses of Casa Blues at that time. She has a striking resemblance to my daughter, and for that reason they bonded quickly. My daughter is downstairs, happily watching Doc McStuffins on Linda’s laptop. She is immersed in the program, singing along, which gives Linda and I some time to talk, to really get into her experience with ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology), her experience of loss, and her experience with her surrogate. I want to know the best way we, as a community, can support someone going through ART. As new methods of creating families are becoming more popular, as more queer families turn to ART, and more straight families too, it seems there are still many questions left unanswered. There are many details that form the choices a couple or a single parent makes to begin this process of making a baby in an alternative way. I am searching for words, of what to say and not say when a friend suffers a loss, when they begin trying, and that first month turns into two years. Linda sits across from me, willing to speak about her very personal experience, and I am thankful for her candidness. She is someone who always bares a broad smile, and finds laughter around her, but there is also loss present at times. And this is what we have come to discuss today. Coffee cups in hand, the rain pouring down, we begin.
Tell me a little about yourself, where you come from. And your background, what has lead you to ART.
I come from New Orleans, born and raised. I went to college at LSU, not far from New Orleans. Left New Orleans after college, because I decided the South was not where I wanted to live. Moved to California. Then moved to Paris for a couple of years. Then came back to the states, and went to Law School.
In the middle of law school, just after turning thirty, I found out I was about seven weeks pregnant with my first child. My partner and I at the time were having problems (we were more off than on), and this was completely unexpected. Eight weeks and a few days later, it was discovered that the pregnancy was ectopic, and after a very painful night and surgery to remove one fallopian tube and leaving my other tube fairly damaged, I had a conversation with the surgeon who performed the surgery.
I had come out not really knowing what happened, but knowing that I’d lost the baby. Not knowing what else I’d lost. The day after the surgery, I talked to the doctor who had done the surgery. She said, “So, normally in that situation when we have an ectopic that big, we go in and it’s a hysterectomy. However, you’re young, and I know you’re going to want to have kids again. And ART is available to you, so I made a decision while you were under to remove the tube, the damage, but to keep your uterus intact with your other tube. Which, I saw, and your other tube looks a bit damaged as well, but you can do some testing when you’re ready again to start trying to have a baby.”
She said, “I think you would be an amazing candidate for IVF, because I did this surgery on you, and your uterus seems intact and strong and good.” So, I knew from that point on, ’cause she said, “When you’re ready, probably you’re going to be looking into Assisted Reproductive Technology.”
I met my husband a few years later, and then we got married a few years after that. And that’s when he and I, when I was thirty-six, started talking about wanting to have kids. We wanted to get right on it. I started my first full cycle in April of 2011, which was almost a year after we had gotten married. But that cycle got delayed, because they found a polyp on my uterus, which sometimes I think they go ahead, and sometimes they don’t, but this was on the back wall of the uterus where embryos like to implant, apparently. So they were like, “We would like to remove it, let you recover, and then retrieve the follicles, and then transfer healthy embryos.” So 2011, July/August was my first transfer, and the months leading up to that were the medicines, and all of that stuff.
I want to ask you about your interracial relationship, and how your two different families’ religions play into your experience with ART.
So, interestingly enough, my husband’s family is very open to technology. They are white, they’re WASPS and they’re really incredibly knowledgeable about technology. I’m African, and I’m of mixed heritage, but I’m African primarily. I’m from the South, but not just the South, I’m from New Orleans. So those two cultures have different ideas about Assisted Reproductive Technology, and technology in general. Which is, in general, a Southern Black person is a little more distrustful of placing sperm and egg into a petri dish, just like they’re distrustful of those computers. And this is a generalization, and I’m basing it mostly on my mother who does not have or use computers. (Laughs) But if you at some point have a room full of Black women and they’re from the South, I would guarantee you that most of them would say well that just seems to be against the nature of God’s work.
Which brings me to the religious question. My husband’s parents, Episcopalian. And they’re like, “Yeah, God is good, and that’s great, but this is technology, so we’re working with numbers. And this is science.” But my mom is very religious. And she has mostly religious friends who are people of color. And their attitude towards what I’m doing, ’cause I’m open with everyone about what we’re doing, their attitude is like, “Well, if God wants it to happen, it’s going to happen, no matter how much you try to manipulate it with all of this science.” And that’s kind of what I’m up against. My mother, although she does not say those things to me, when it comes to what I’m doing and how I’m trying to have a baby, I’m pretty sure she has mentioned to my sister how weird she thinks it all is. My sister though, who also lives in the South, has lots of friends who are single and are doing ART, and have had some failed attempts, and a lot of success.
It doesn’t cross my husband’s parents minds to think this is weird that we are trying to get pregnant with science. They know they live in the age of technology. And they rely on it, and they trust it to an extent. So jump down to where my family is, and only my mom and my sister know. And I’ve just recently told my aunt, my father’s sister. My mom is like “Oh no, I don’t tell anyone, that’s your business.” My mother has always been like that. “It’s your business, I’m not going to put your business on the street.” But in this particular issue, I know it’s also because she doesn’t really understand the technology behind it, and the medicines I need to take.
And I think she is pretty confused and maybe a little bit ashamed that she has a daughter who isn’t getting pregnant. Which I see here in Mexico as well. I see a few of my friends, who are older than me and don’t have kids. They’re single and its not on their career path. I see mothers who jokingly say, “Well, you know I’m not going to have grandchildren from this child, but I have grandchildren from my other children.” Here in Mexico. And my mom, is much more conscious about that. She wouldn’t say that to me.
I think that although she doesn’t blame me for this, she definitely blames me that I don’t have enough religion in my life, which could be the thing that is going to fix this problem (according to my mom.). Where I have a very simple problem with my reproductive system. I’m missing a tube, and the other tube doesn’t function well. That is a really serious thing with regard to fertility. And I think it’s hard for her to kind of wrap her head around, that me praying for something isn’t going to make it happen. ‘Cause it hasn’t happened. And my mom, I’m sure is praying every day that this will happen for me, and it hasn’t happened. So I think if she is somewhat ashamed, her shame is a little more based on my lack of religion. Not my lack of spirituality, but my lack of religion.
So, in total you have had five attempts.
So, myself, with my body, I have had five attempts, with one cancellation, because of thin uterine lining, which anyone who is reading this article, and is doing ART either knows someone who has had this happen to them or has had it happen. My fifth try is when it happened, my latest try. And that’s when I was kind of ready to give up. It was something that was thrown at me that I wasn’t expecting. We had had these full IVF cycles, and had had these transfers. And it wasn’t working; it wasn’t working. The first try, one of the two did stick. Then with the second we had no success. Then with the third, we achieved early pregnancy, but loss (and D&C) at about six weeks. This was the first time we had any issues with my uterine lining. It was a surprise to the doctor as well.
The first couple of attempts, I was still pretty positive, and I had a pretty good experience with other people, about my experience, and sharing my experience with other people. Once it got to the third attempt, and the fourth attempt, and people would make remarks like, “Oh, we just want this attempt to work, and we want you to have these babies.” And even though that is totally coming from a good place, they’re frustrated for me, it doesn’t help. People are like, “We just want to get these babies in you. We just want you to have these babies.” And these are people coming from a really good place. Of course they want that for us, but it’s not happening. And it’s kind of like stating the obvious all the time. Well, of course we want these babies to come. We wouldn’t be doing all of this work if we didn’t want that result.
Can you talk a little bit about your surrogate?
My sister-in-law and brother-in-law actually volunteered to do surrogacy after my D&C in Mexico in September 2012. I went back up in January/February and that’s when I had the cycle cancellation because of thin uterine lining. So, after the cancellation of my last frozen embryo transfer attempt, because my uterus wasn’t thick enough, I was kind of close to giving up, but definitely at a point where I needed a break from this. So, without me asking, my sister-in-law told me the offer for surrogacy was still available if we wanted to try and have a baby that way. Which was amazing, and unexpected, because we weren’t sure that the offer was still open.
In Washington state, you are not allowed to pay a surrogate. It has to be, like, a love surrogacy. And we didn’t have that much interaction, except making sure the contracts were all fine. She has two boys and a household, so I’m certainly not calling her every day asking how the pregnancy is going. The first attempt didn’t work. The second attempt was canceled because of thin uterine lining. The last time I was in the Pacific Northwest, she and I were able to do the second transfer together.We were able to be in the transfer room together, with all the hope in the world that it would work. And I was just kind of there watching the screen. And she was having acupuncture done. It was a really nice gentle time. And it was good.
So she did that, and we came back to Mexico. We got the news about four weeks later that it hadn’t stuck. She had to go through a D&C. I think because she’s so result oriented, she was perhaps willing to make another attempt, but I preempted that. I said, “No, thank you for these tries, but we are not asking you to do anything else for us in terms of surrogacy.” I know she wants to leave the door open to have more children.
How was your mother when you told her you were going to have a surrogate?
She was amazed. She was, I think, really pleased about it, because she was in a La Leche group. And at the same time she was breast feeding me, she was breast feeding a white baby. This was the early seventies, and she was getting some flack from some of her friends for feeding a white baby when her brother had just been gunned down in the streets by a white man. My mom was like, “You can get out of my face with that, because babies are babies.” So I think my mom was able to identify with our surrogate, because what my mom did at the time was pretty radical: breastfeeding a white baby at the same time she’s breastfeeding her own black child. I’m (also) the one who breastfeed until three and a half. (Laughter)
Let’s get into the Dos and the Don’ts, of what to say and not say to a friend going through ART. What makes you want to pull out your hair. What feels good, and helpful.
So really, really, first and foremost, if someone is open enough with their friends to say, “We are going through Assisted Reproductive Technology, and we are making these attempts.” Don’t ask, “Did it work?” You can make an assumption that if you don’t hear anything, it didn’t. (Laughs) And if we make an announcement about three to four months later, it did. (Laughs)
The other thing I would add to that is to not asking people about adoption, because if you know that a couple has just gotten married and are trying to conceive a baby naturally, you don’t say, “Oh why are you trying to conceive a baby naturally? Why don’t you adopt a baby?” So that doesn’t help. And then throwing on this couple who are already having a stressful time, because they are not able to conceive naturally, throwing on them this guilt. “You’re spending all this money on trying to have your own baby, when there are all these other babies out there.” I actually had someone tell me that.
We weren’t even thinking about adopting here in Central America. First of all, because it’s Mexico, it’s hard to determine whether or not that adoption is as legitimate as the paper is that you’re signing, because it’s so easy to pay people off here. And I don’t know that I could live with the guilt of adopting a Central American baby that I’m not quite sure that the mother and parents understood what was happening. It’s just as expensive as IVF to adopt a child, actually I think it is a little more expensive. I think that is why people go to places like Africa, and Asia, and Russia to adopt babies, because it is cheaper. So that is another don’t. The whole adoption thing. Obviously, if a couple is going through IVF, they have weighed their options.
I don’t have any kids, but some women are doing Assisted Reproductive Technology, because they have one child, and they’ve tried for years to have another and couldn’t. So they try ART, and they have some failed attempts. And people say to them, “Well, at least you have one child.” Hey guess what, still a loss. It doesn’t help. It’s not comforting for someone to say, “At least you have the one.” Even though I have thought it before. You know, you go to the clinic and these women walk in with their strollers, and you think, “Fuck you.” (Laughs.) “It worked for you, and you’re here wanting another one. You’ve got the one. I just want the one.” You know. (Laughs)
Don’t keep asking. There’s no need to keep asking, “So how’s it going. So how’s your surrogate feeling.” Different people asking at different times, feels like it’s being repeated, and it’s overwhelming. So, when someone tells you that they are going through ART, let them tell you. Let them let you know.
Don’t assume anything about a couple that’s struggling with fertility issues. They are going to tell you what they think you need to know. I actually had someone ask whether the problem was me or my husband. Because, “You know, it could just as easily be your husband.” I think this person was coming from a good place, trying to help me not blame myself for my infertility, but this was just one of the weirdest things anyone said to me. And to be fair, I did say we were going through ART. So it is kind of a natural thing to be curious about, but don’t assume anything about a couple. Don’t judge, because people are struggling with shit everyday. Some people are struggling with fertility shit, and some people are struggling with other shit.
Don’t judge me for treating my dog like a baby, because I may never have one. I don’t know that I will actually be able to have children, and he (Bebe a long haired chihuahua) is like a child to me. I have had him since he was four months old. He knows only me as a caregiver. And I know him as the little thing that gives me comfort, and kind of feels like a baby. (Laughter) So, don’t judge me. (Laughs)
Don’t tell people that the solution to their infertility is switching clinics. They’ve all got the same protocol. They’re all doing the same things. Maybe some clinics do focus on why are you not getting pregnant, instead of on getting you pregnant. Perhaps some clinics do have a different focus, when it comes to that, of answering the mystery of your infertility. Even the clinics who aren’t saying they do that, they are still doing that. So, don’t suggest to a person struggling with ART that the reason they are not having success is that they picked a bad clinic. I picked one of the best clinics in that part of the country that I’m going to. I was already traveling from Mexico to go to the clinic to do this. Am I really going to try to travel to some place where I don’t know anybody?
If you are intellectually curious about the process, do ask. Ask away. I had a great resource before I went into this. I actually didn’t have any friends who had done this, or any friends who were open about having done it, so I didn’t know who to talk to. I couldn’t talk to my mom. And then a friend of mine here in San Cristobal had a sister who has children as result of success with IVF, in the states, in Chicago. This clinic in Chicago is actually legendary. It is a really good clinic, apparently. I was lucky to have my friend’s sister send me an email, and say, “You can ask me any questions you want, because this is a really hard process.” If you are curious because you are trying to have a baby, and you are wondering, ask, within reason of course.
Do ask people about things you’ve looked up on the internet, like, “Oh, well why aren’t you doing it in Mexico?” I mean people ask me that all the time, and I’m actually not that offended at all. (Laughs) I was looking at a clinic in Guadalajara, and I was like, “What are your success rates for women my age?” At the time I was thirty-eight. And she was like, “Sixty-five percent!” So, of all the clinics in the whole US, Canada, and Europe, there is not one that has a sixty-five percent success rate with women of my age using their own eggs, except for this amazing doctor in Guadalajara. (Laughter). I was like, “Oh girl, I will get back to you.”
Do be supportive. Do understand that no matter how badly you react to hormones, or how well you react to hormones, there is still a reaction. And you’re still going to be a little more emotional than you normally were. So do ask how a person is feeling, like, in general. “Are you feeling like you want to tear off my head or do you want to have some tea?” (Laughter) Which is it. Do ask how a person is feeling in general during the process.
If you know they are going through this, then they are open to talking about it. If you don’t know then you can’t ask, right? I now understand why people don’t say shit when they do this, because you tell people I´m doing this thing, and then it doesn’t work. You have to go back and tell all these people that it didn’t work. Or when you see them, that is the first question they ask. “Did it work?” And you have to say, “No.” And then you have to go through all the, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And you’re just like, “I’ve kind of moved on from it.” That kind of thing. Again, it’s a normal human reaction to be sorry for someone’s loss, but in this particular instance of trying, having, losing multiple times, it just gets old.
I mean, you were really good. I never know what to say! (Laughter) I was kind of out of it, and there was something that was happening and I didn’t want to go. You were (via text message) like, “Hey, can I bring you something. Maybe you don’t feel up to going, or that’s cool.” You were kind of like, “I feel you, that is shitty news. That sucks.” And that’s kind of what you want, someone to be like “Girl, that sucks. This shit hasn’t worked, and I’m frustrated for you.” That kind of response. “That sucks!” You know. “I’m sorry,” brings up all this pain you have from losing yet another embryo, and you’re probably still on an emotional roller coaster from the hormones, and you don’t want to start blubbering in this person’s face, because you’ve already cried and cried because of the failure.
It’s hard in Mexico culturally. Especially where we are in Mexico, people do not understand spending money on science for pregnancy. They just don’t understand it. Like the people at the lab. I go to the lab to do a bunch of tests here. I have orders from the doctor. It’s in English, so I have to explain in Spanish what is going on. So the second time, I’m there, she asks, “What religion are you?” And I was like, “Do you have to put it on the paper?” “No, I’m just wondering what is your religion.” And I was like, “I don’t have a religion, I just have a general sense of the universe, and my spirituality.” And I could tell she wanted to say something else. I was shocked that she asked me what’s your religion. It seemed to me like she was trying to say that your lack of religion is directly related to your lack of a baby.
It seems like a lot of people are getting pregnant, are getting knocked up here and having babies. So what about friends who are also in the process?
For me I am truly happy about the success my girlfriends are having. I am truly happy that they are bringing beautiful healthy babies into the world. I love all of the kids that I am able to interact with, because I also have to recognize, I may only interact with other’s children. I may never interact with my own. And so, for me, it’s really important to show love for all of my friend’s children, and for their new babies. I want to have relationships with these kids, ’cause I may never have one of my own. So, why not throw a baby shower for my girlfriend who is a teacher in Southern Mexico.
I think as a friend if you are pregnant, and you have a friend going through ART, you have to gage your friend’s fragility. My girlfriend who is older than me has attempted twice to get pregnant, and is now pregnant. And she did it the first time she attempted it, and the second time. She knows I’m strong, and we’ve talked about a lot of things. She told me she was expecting again, but I know it was hard for her to tell me, because I’ve had so much loss, and I think she identifies with my incredibly strong desire to have a baby, but not having one yet. You know, and I just think, I can celebrate your success with you, at the same time being a bitter forty year old that it’s not happening for me. Those two emotions actually coexist at the same time. I would say, if you have a friend who is kind of fragile, and maybe just coming off a loss from a failed attempt, that is not the time to tell them.
It’s hard, because I’ve lived my whole life, planning out when I’m going to have a child, when I’m going to be ready to have a child. And fifteen years ago, I didn’t want a baby. I was not thinking about having kids. So getting pregnant, nine years ago, was weird, because I wasn’t planning on it. And I had prevented it for so long that I was a little shocked that I had kind of dropped the ball on that. I’ve spent my whole life saying, “I want to be ready; I want to plan for this.” And I wasn’t ready to get married and partner up with anyone, until I did. I wasn’t looking to partner up with anyone, until I met my husband, who I just adore and can’t imagine my life without him.
Here, it’s so hard, because it’s the land of fertility. People come here to do fertility work. Did you know that? They go to Palenque, because of the Mayan jaguar goddess of midwifery, Ix Chel. And do fertile goddess rituals, and stuff for fertility. And then they get pregnant. I live in a place where people come to be fertile, and I am not. And that sucks. It’s hard to deal with. You know, to be between thirty-eight and forty-two here and having a baby is not rare. It’s common for a forty-one, forty-two year old woman to have babies. It’s really common. So, it’s hard for me to look at a mother who has six children. And I just want to have one.