Published on October 20th, 2022 | by Cheryl Klein0
Book Excerpt: Crybaby
This essay is adapted from Cheryl E. Klein’s new memoir, Crybaby: Infertility, Illness, and Other Things That Were Not the End of the World, (Brown Paper Press)
My partner C.C. started grad school the week I started a common fertility drug called Clomid. We went to a diner so she could study (psychology, with a plan to get licensed in marriage and family therapy) and I could write, and at exactly 10:00 p.m., I took my first pill—a small, white disc that turned bitter on my tongue and would, hopefully, convince my ovaries to make more egg follicles in advance of the IUI. The plan, if it could be called that, for dealing with my possibly-faulty fallopian tube was essentially trial and error.
The only vegetarian items on the menu were salad, mashed potatoes, and milkshakes. I ordered black coffee and poured in two plastic tubs of cream. I was trying to eat extra healthy; I had a feeling that today my real life was starting.
I had been starting and restarting my real life almost daily since fourth grade, when I began imagining that I could abandon my unruly hair and dorky habits if I just tried hard enough. As soon as I step over that crack in the pavement, I’ll start over and never say anything embarrassing again, I told myself. In seventh grade, I started dieting, not because I was fat but because I was tall. It didn’t occur to me that this was a recipe for failure. I pinned a picture of teenage contortionists on my bulletin board and imagined that if I ate only apples and bell peppers, I, too, would be waifish, ethereal, and exceptionally talented.
The summer before tenth grade, I whittled myself from 130 pounds to 110. I learned how to take an hour to eat a granola bar, one oat at a time. My too-big breasts shrank, my period stopped, and a downy layer of hair grew on my lower back. Everyone complimented me, even teachers. I lived in a beach town that regularly sent volleyball players to the Olympics: Manhattan Beach liked its residents thin and athletic. I dressed up as a go-go dancer that Halloween, my first “sexy” costume ever, but in my vinyl boots and thrift store minidress I felt both sexy and sexless. I gave myself the night off from dieting, and my best friend and I melted down our Halloween chocolate and dipped marshmallows in it.
I felt sick the next day. Even though I’d planned to pig out (that was always how I referred to it in my mind: pigging out), I felt like I’d failed. As fall gave way to the holidays, I pigged out more and more. By spring I’d gained ten pounds.
The school guidance counselor pulled me out of English class one day and into her office, where I sat on an itchy upholstered chair and studied posters of University of California schools.
Ms. Aldrich got right to it. “A couple of your teachers have noticed some changes recently, and they’re worried about you. They wondered if you might be pregnant.” They had noticed my weight gain, my bigger boobs. Ms. Aldrich didn’t phrase it that way, exactly; she said, “Everyone develops at a different rate, but they just wondered if maybe—”
I was wearing cutoff jean shorts and a loose tank top, the kind a girl might choose to cover a three-months belly. I burst into tears.
“I’m not even sexually active,” I said, borrowing a phrase from the family life unit of biology class.
I’d never been on a date. I’d never kissed anyone, not even during a game of Truth or Dare. I was a fifteen-year-old old maid. During the day I harbored a crush on a boy from the drama program. At night I stayed awake worrying I might be a lesbian, although I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t a tomboy, and I didn’t fantasize about girls. I just had a creeping sense of dread that there was something terrible about me.
Everyone said Ms. Aldrich was a dyke. She coached girls’ volleyball and wore her hair in a blond mullet that was lighter than her red-brown face, except for the pale outline of sunglasses around her eyes. She went to the same gym I did, and once I’d seen her playfully snap her towel against the butt of a woman on a treadmill. If Ms. Aldrich thought I was a pregnant heterosexual, I was officially, completely invisible.
She handed me a box of tissues. “It’s okay, it’s okay, a lot of girls just go through puberty later than others. It’s all completely normal.”
I’d gotten boobs in fifth grade and started my period just before sixth. She had it all wrong, except for the assumption that there was something terrible about me.
For years, I told no one but my mom about what Ms. Aldrich had said. That night I closed my eyes and mentally recited the same prayer I always did: Family and friends. Pets and plants. Earthquakes and other natural and unnatural disasters. Please let me be normal. Please let me be normal.
It evolved into a kind of rosary. My family wasn’t religious, but I had inherited some sort of recessive Jewish-Catholic gene, prone to guilt and ritual. What would organized religion do without obsessive compulsive disorder? And what would OCD do without a flair for religiosity?
On the thirteenth day of my cycle, at exactly 10:00 p.m., I pinched a half-inch of skin to the left of my belly button, like the nurse at Dr. Saadat’s office had demonstrated. I held the refrigerated syringe in my left hand and pushed the needle in, slowly compressing the plunger. The spot of blood grew ladybug-sized, and I pressed on it with an alcohol wipe. I might have moped too much about my infertility; I might be prone to anxiety; I might not even make a very good mother, but I was not afraid of needles.
The previous day’s ultrasound had confirmed three good follicles in my left ovary, five in the right. Eight grainy jelly beans on a screen. Eight chances for a baby. A plastic tube would deposit Donor #5850’s sperm directly into my uterus, no long swim required. And that night’s “trigger shot” of the pregnancy hormone hCG would ensure I ovulated right on time. I did a kind of magical math in my head and concluded that while the average woman had a one-in-five chance of getting pregnant each cycle, I had at least a two-in-three chance. Subtract a couple of points for frozen sperm, which tend to die once thawed. Add points for eating whole grains and exercising regularly, which must have something to do with this, right? Add points for acupuncture, which I could get at Dr. Saadat’s office for an extra $125. The acupuncturist, a nice, not-too-woo guy named Ryan, said it would help me relax and stimulate blood flow. How could I not get pregnant?
Exactly thirty-four hours later, C.C. and I took separate cars to Dr. Saadat’s office again, sitting side by side on the 110 freeway as traffic bottlenecked toward downtown. The morning felt historic. My coworker Jamie, who was currently on maternity leave, had described the decision to become a parent as “jumping off a cliff.” Being pregnant, she said, connected her with the animals. The nonclinical language of pregnancy did have an animalistic ring to it: brood, nest, welp, suckle. I wanted to taste all of it.
I thought of my mom, gone seven years, and felt connected to her too, and cried. Now I would finally understand something amorphous but important—nothing short of the secret of life.
C.C. met me in front of Dr. Saadat’s building carrying the dry-ice canister—it looked like a small beer keg—that contained #5850’s sperm. The sperm bank was near her office, so she’d been tasked with picking it up. I quizzed her relentlessly about whether she had let it sit in her car for more than a few minutes, risking an early thaw. She hadn’t.
What we knew about #5850: He was Mexican, like C.C., and a professor of anthropology (we called him “The Professor”; choice number two was “The Graphic Designer”). In his baby picture, he had bright, sincere eyes and a dimple.
“Do you want to keep the vial?” asked the nurse, once we confirmed that the number matched the one on the packing slip.
C.C. and I looked at each other. Was that something people did?
“I’m good,” I said. “You?”
“No, we’re good,” C.C. told the nurse.
While the sperm thawed, I had my first acupuncture appointment. White towels and long slender needles. New Age music and my thumping heart.
And then Dr. Saadat got his speculum and syringe and tubing. When I’d first learned that fertility doctors do an ultrasound on the first day of patients’ periods, I cringed. My body was closed for business at least two days a month, as far as I was concerned. But already I was becoming immune to any need for privacy. Every question about my body seemed to end with an ultrasound wand up my vagina. If it got us a baby, it was worth it. (This would become a mantra: If it gets us a baby, it’s worth it, as the universe upped the ante on what “it” was.) CC held my hand and made little jokes.
I lay on my back with my hips tilted upward for ten minutes afterward, while C.C. played a mellow mix on her iPod. Despite drugs, old fertility tricks were still invoked. The general thinking seemed to be, It can’t hurt.
It can’t hurt to do acupuncture. It can’t hurt to avoid alcohol during the two weeks before pregnancy can be detected. It can’t hurt to wear the rose quartz ring my sister gave me for good luck. It can’t hurt to give up sugar. It can’t hurt to do yoga, but not inversions. It can’t hurt to stop jogging.
These precautions can’t hurt as far as the baby is concerned. The tightrope walk might hurt the mother, but when has it ever been about the mother? All the rituals, all the googling of statistics and symptoms, would drive wagon ruts into my brain that are still there a decade later, but back then I thought I was Doing Everything Right.
Anxiety, too, is considered bad for fertility, so better not to worry about all that worrying. That was the one part I could never nail.