Published on August 11th, 2020 | by Ellie Lobovits2
On Not Getting Pregnant During a Pandemic
My buzzer rings, the first in a quick domino of buzzers. Mine—the loudest—then next door, then upstairs, and so on, getting progressively quieter and quieter. This is how the delivery person gets in: try every apartment until someone (anyone) buzzes back.
The headlines announce: the borders of New York State might be closed within 24 hours. My immediate thought: I should flee.
So I walk to Prospect Park. I walk and walk, up the derelict stone steps forming crooked teeth in an overcrowded mouth, down the mulched paths, into the open meadow. By now, it is almost dark. The dimming light cuts the harshness of the day, like sugar cuts the bitter. Red-breasted robins call; a familiar portent of spring. One, unearths a worm; another, perched on the low-hanging branch above me, opens its beak and sings. The birds are here doing their thing, I think, unbothered. I lean against the trunk of the tree and decide to stay in Brooklyn.
This time, the package is for me, and I buzz for the delivery. It is a navy blue corrugated plastic box, two and a half feet tall, with a lid like a top hat. Inside that is a liquid nitrogen tank, and inside that, two pinky-sized vials of frozen sperm. I carry it up the stairs of my walk-up and place it in the middle of my living room floor. The package stands there for three days. It stands so still, but around it a cyclone of quick-shifting decisions, rising and falling, and mad dash phone calls will swirl. I got as far as taking off the lid.
I’d wanted a kid for a while, but this year, my 39th, began with a big break-up, followed by many months of contemplating having a baby on my own. Then intensive Internet research, debates about the merits of an unknown sperm donor versus a known donor, conversations with friends, and consultations with a midwife. I let go of one dream—the one of having a child with a partner—and a new vision solidified—the one where I become a radical single mom. I decided to try to get pregnant in March. Everything was set—the donor, the midwife, the schedule.
Then March arrived, and brought the virus with it, and time began to melt and morph like an old pane of glass. Businesses shuttered, large gatherings were banned, and I stayed home, alone. Birdcalls and the high-pitched ululation of ambulances were the only sounds coming through my second-story windows. The pandemic grew; and with it, my fear. I woke up every night at 3am, my mind racing so fast it was as if sleep was a dream. And yet. My gut response was a complete and total commitment to my plan. Adrenaline can either drive you towards the fire or away. Mine was like a powerful motor throttling towards. Everything else is on pause, I thought. Everything else is out of my control. But this pregnancy thing, this thing I’ve been planning and preparing for—this I can still do, this I can move forward, this I can celebrate. It felt like a bright spark on an otherwise bleak and blurry horizon.
I wanted a speck of joy. I wanted something to hold onto in the face of the rising death toll. I wanted a reason to rejoice in the face of a murderous president. I wanted something to celebrate in the face of my ex-boyfriend’s Instagram posts of him wearing a sweatshirt that I gave him, that used to be mine. I wanted something to celebrate in the face of my face in the mirror. I wanted to say, yes, here. I wanted to proclaim it loudly to streets that were going quiet. And I was about to ovulate.
And so, feeling defiant, neck muscles and jaw tight, I emailed the sperm bank and asked if they were still shipping during the virus. Manny from the shipping department wrote back. Yes, we are hoping to continue for as long as we can so that people can move forward with their plans. We want to support you as best we can. I read this email and immediately started sobbing. Manny, whoever you are, thank you! I thought. I had been alone in my apartment for four days and Manny had thrown me a lifeline. I could see it out there, a white foam buoy floating at the end of a rope. I grabbed on. I ordered the sperm.
I made sure I had two midwives who could do the insemination, just in case one of them ended up quarantined. (This was before we all ended up quarantined.) A few hours after I made the order— confirmed my address, sent a little prayer up—I got a text from the first midwife: Someone I work with tested positive for Covid-19. I felt myself start to sink. Maybe this was a terrible idea. But the next day, the second midwife emailed me and said she was available. Maybe this wasn’t a terrible idea! I was back on top, riding the wave, buoy firmly in my grasp. Maybe this process doesn’t have to abide by virus time, I thought, maybe I don’t have to let it go. But the next day, the day I was supposed to inseminate, I woke up to a text. The second midwife: I’m so sorry. I was just quarantined this morning because a co-worker has coronavirus symptoms. I wish things could be different.
My back muscles clenched up like two fists along my spine. I paced my apartment, full of tension and questions. Should I return the sperm? Should I do the insemination myself, without the midwife? Inseminating myself is supposed to be less effective. So … is it worth it? Is this a good time? Even if this isn’t a good time, maybe I was meant to do this now? When is there ever a good time? Why this, now? My body frenzied, rushing between computer and phone, between email and Instagram. I texted three friends who had self-inseminated: How would I do this if I want to do this myself? How did you do this? I had twelve hours to decide.
I shoved my puffy winter coat on, grabbed my keys and let myself out to walk the empty streets. I stared into blank metal faces of closed stores, then looked up at the sky, perfectly blue. Slowly, from under the dense crush of anxious questions, an answer arose. The phrase this is my time, this is the time, repeated in my head. I said to the sky, I want this. I’m going to do this on my own. I willed my body to get behind this answer, but my body turned away, further into the tension. I kept moving forward anyway.
Back at home, I watched multiple amateur online instructional videos (illegible font, high-octane electronic music playing in the background) about how to open the tank and remove the frozen vials safely. I re-watched the videos but my memory was meshy, able to hold only small scraps of the information. The anxiety continued to build, my breath shallow.
It’s time. I stared at the top-hat box, willing it to become mobile, to come towards me somehow, but it stayed locked. I called one of my oldest friends who lives a few blocks away.
“OK, I’m going to do it. This is the time,” I said.
“Really? You sure?” She paused. “I support you, but is this really the time? During quarantine? With the virus raging and all of us stuck inside and we can’t even come over and be with you?”
“Yes,” I said, “I really want to.”
“I know you’re saying you want to, but you don’t sound like you want to.”
She was right. My voice sounded dead. But still.
“But this is the time!” My words streamed out of me. “I can’t wait! I’ve been waiting for years to have a kid. I’ve waited on relationships, I’ve waited for partners to be ready who never were, and then I finally decide to do it on my own and now this?!”
“I know,” she said. And then, “I just don’t want you to be alone in this,” she said.
And suddenly, I was crying. And suddenly I could feel the softness of the couch beneath me, like the sensation that happens when you’re high, when everything your body touches feels like the first time it’s ever been touched. I sank in.
I had believed if I yearned for something so hard, the yearning itself could bend the universe to my will. But my body knew all along: It didn’t want to be alone. All the trapped tension, all the mental flailing, was my body saying: Not now. Saying: This is the virus’ time. I needed someone else’s words to create an opening in the net that I had tangled myself in. I needed to hear it in the voice of someone who loved me, so that I could let myself out. All the forward movement towards the fire, the dream of the baby right now, in this way, now … I let it float away. I let it go. I got up, opened the lid of the box. Then I carefully closed it.
Early the next morning, I took the white zip ties the sperm bank had mailed and zip tied the box back up. I unpeeled the return label they had included and stuck it onto the top of the box, careful to fully obscure the original label. I carried the box back down the steps to the eerie streets below and put it in the passenger seat of my car. A funny passenger.
And so there I stood outside of a Walgreens, holding a box of sperm during a pandemic, waiting for an employee wearing a mask and latex gloves to signal that I could enter. Only ten people allowed in at a time. Behind me a woman on her phone: “Well, exactly, I told him we should stop working, but he didn’t do it and by the time Carina and I got sick, then it was too late…” I turned around and saw that her face was half sun, half shadow.
Yesterday, this whole thing—the unused tank of sperm, the FedEx box standing mute on my living room floor—felt tragic. But today, out in the sun, I am laughing. I release you! I say to the box. I send you back! A customer exits the store and the Walgreens employee with kind eyes above her mask gestures me in with her gloved hand, the sliding glass doors slide open. I pick up the box, my hands in the holes cut out for holding. I carry it to the back of the store to the FedEx desk where another employee comes out from the back room and pulls on a pair of latex gloves. We engage in the dance of social distancing. I put the package on the floor and step away. He steps forward and picks it up. He scans it and then hands me the scanner so that I can type in my phone number. I hesitate to touch the scanner. I’m not wearing gloves. I reassure myself: I will wash my hands when I get home. I type my number in. Looking down at my hand typing, it suddenly feels detached from me. I can see it typing, but I’m separate from it. Keeping away from my own hand. Once I wash it, it will be fully mine again.
The next day I call two friends, tell them about my decision. They are also thinking of getting pregnant. I ask them if they are still going to try. One says yes, the other says maybe. Another friend is three months pregnant and another is about to have a baby. One says, well, would a mama deer have a foal right now? Maybe not. The more I talk about pregnancy the more bizarre it becomes; like my detached hand at the FedEx counter. I’ve unloosed it. I am waiting for it to return.
I get my period a week later (it was the time). I’m astounded that my body is still right on schedule, when everything else has no schedule, when my body feels like it’s inside the body of the pandemic, the body of disruption.
Another week passes. Muted days. My little loss enveloped inside massive loss all around me. Death toll racking up, the unknown future, friends who are sick. Daffodils bloom, but their bright yellow hearts look garish. It’s only been two weeks, but the desire for a baby now seems like a far-off thing. What I feel in its place is a gnawing desire for things to be different than they are. I mailed the package back, but the longing remained. How to stop the ceaseless longing, how.
It’s been three weeks since the package was delivered and today I walked up the stone steps in Prospect Park to the top of Lookout Hill. From up here, the rest of the park seems far away, the people below small black dots against green expanse. The top of the hill is quiet. I looked at the catkins, thin and fluttering. I looked at the hyper-green leaves of early spring and was surprised to find them beautiful, again. I found a warm patch of sunlight and I stood, eyes closed, face tilted up. I felt the yearning pour out of the back of my head like a weightless liquid, the sun its own force field. I heard someone coming up the steps, but I didn’t open my eyes. I didn’t move at all.
When the sun shifted, I walked a little farther on the looping path and there, in the thicket of trees, perched in the crook of a thick branch, was a bird, a flicker. A flicker has yellow feathers hidden on the underside of its tail and a bright red patch on its otherwise gray head. It’s said to symbolize intuition and trust in the unconventional path.
I fell in love with flickers years ago, back when I lived rurally and worked on a farm with a man who had lion’s eyes, with whom I also fell in love. At the end of a long hot summer day, we walked, coated in dirt and sweat, the energy that had been building between us at that point still reined in. I remember wanting to touch his arm, but instead letting the space between us remain. We walked by the farm’s blueberry patch and noticed a bird, wings flailing. To keep the birds from eating the farm’s blueberries, we had enclosed the bushes in a diaphanous black mesh cloth, but somehow this bird had managed to find its way in and was flying frantically back and forth, its wings slapping uselessly against the soft netting. My adrenaline shot up in response to the bird’s frenzy. But at the same moment of desiring for the bird to be free, I also noticed its beauty. Because it was caught, I was able to see more: the bright red streak running along its neck like a glowing gash, black polka dots covering its muted brown chest, the brilliant yellow tail feathers, the color of sunset, spread like a woman’s fan in church. It’s a flicker, he said, and we let it go.
Two months later and fewer ambulances now. The sudden onrush of bodies in the street; we’re shouting together, call and response. A woman on her fire escape hits a metal spoon against a silver frying pan in a sharp rhythmic bang and a woman in the street waves a glittering sign: Black Lives Are Gold. We weave around stopped cars, drivers leaning on their horns with one hand, other hand a pumping fist in the air; we walking are like sluicing water and they are the smooth stones. Together a stream. There is a whirring in the sky and we look up, an NYPD helicopter hovers low above us. An ominous flying thing and I will never say bird-like. We only get louder, more flowing.
Tonight, my midwife arrives. I buzz her in. She stands in my doorway with a light blue mask on. Ready? she asks.
All images (c) Ellie Lobovits