Our Story

I was always more sure I’d have kids than that I’d get married. I told myself if I turned 32 and didn’t have a husband on the horizon, it’d be time to start thinking about adopting or choosing a sperm donor.

As luck would have it, I was engaged at age 32 to an amazing guy who was excited to have kids. It all seemed sorted. We’d get married the next summer and start trying right away. Score!

I’ve always had a healthy, active lifestyle. I’ve kept my skin out of the midday sun, never smoked, rarely drank. I recycled. I figured it’d be smooth sailing, and I was as giddily excited as I used to be before embarking on a trip around the world. As many books as I may have read, I still never really knew what to expect. And this was even more amazing, because we’d be creating a new human being. How crazy is that?

I bought the obligatory What to Expect When You’re Expecting and read it cover to cover. In a moment of exuberance, I even bought a maternity dress at Goodwill.

Then we “just relaxed” with the best of them. I knew it took a healthy couple an average of six months to conceive, so it was only mildly disappointing when I found myself not pregnant for the first few months.

Then in the fall, when I was on a book tour, instead of my cycle starting, I felt like battery acid was flowing through my chest. I had bouts of outrageous exhaustion, as if I’d been shot up with Valium, and moments of Extreme Rage and Impatience, which I called “Progester-Rages.” I was on a tour and among strangers, so I had to find a way to behave myself when the ‘Rages came. It wasn’t easy.

But it was magical. I felt an ineffable presence, and I felt lighter than air.

I felt kind of like this mosque looks
I felt kind of like this mosque looks

I was too smug to do something as quotidian as ask someone to drive me to a CVS so I could pick up a pregnancy test. Whatever this was, I was just going to ride it like a wave…

Even worse? I actually told people on the tour that I thought I might be pregnant. It seemed so cosmic and cool, why not share it with the people around me?

Well… It ended several days later, when I was back in Oklahoma for a quick PBS interview and a visit with my family on the way back to New York. Because I didn’t take a pregnancy test, I’ll never know if it was real or psychosomatic.

Either way, I was shaken, but not gutted. I knew (because I had studied) that about 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually in the first trimester. I figured it was just a normal setback. We were only on Month 4 anyway.

Back in New York, my doctor found a type of cyst on my left ovary that indicated I probably had endometriosis. I’d also been having mysterious, excruciating abdominal pains for the past couple of years. But I could knuckle through them. No big deal. (Piece of advice: If you’re having pain that you feel like you have to “knuckle through,” you should probably go to a doctor quicker than I did…)

The look on her face suggested this might be serious, but I was all sunny excitement and rose-colored glasses. My other ovary was fine, after all! You only need one, right?

(Endometriosis, I would soon learn, is a disease characterized by abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen that can cause pain, adhesions, cysts, and reproductive issues. Most women who have it can manage to have children, but for many it makes conceiving difficult and sometimes impossible, even if it’s mild and even after it’s cleaned up via surgery. Doctors aren’t sure why. Up to 10% of women have endometriosis, but numbers are hard to come by because you can only diagnose it through surgery, and many doctors are content to tell women to just relax and take an Advil.

Here are two lists of celebrities who have endometriosis, since we all know things are easier to bear when the rich and famous have to deal with them, too. Among them are Padma Lakshmi, Jillian Michaels, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Hough, Whoopi Goldberg, and Marilyn Monroe.)

Pretty seaside mosque. Just cuz.
Pretty seaside mosque. Just cuz.

My cyst just kept growing, though, and the pain kept getting worse. We moved to Oklahoma in the spring, and I signed up for affordable insurance through ObamaCare. (Yay!) By the time I was scheduled for keyhole surgery in April 2014, the cyst was the size of a grapefruit, and I had a brand new cyst on my right ovary.

When that second cyst appeared, I finally started to realize this might actually be a tough road…

The doctor found most of my internal organs glued together by adhesions (scar tissue). He was able to fix that, which got rid of most of my pain. But he decided the cysts were too big to remove laparoscopically. He drained them, which bought us some time, but eventually I’d need to be opened up to get those suckers cut out.

We kept trying for a baby, but with the cysts distorting things (including, possibly, the hormonal environment of the abdomen), we had little hope. We tried an IUI (intra-uterine insemination), which cost a thousand bucks, just to see if we’d get lucky. Nope.

In December 2014 my abdomen was sliced open and my ovaries were dissected. The doctor said the (now-orange-sized) cysts came out beautifully, very cleanly, and they should heal well.

Morphine is phun!
Morphine is phun!

But none of this stuff is exactly good for my internal organs. I also have mild hypothyroidism, which may or may not indicate autoimmune issues that could affect embryo implantation.

All in all, he said, if we really wanted kids, our best bet would be to head straight for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) as soon as I healed from the surgery. Otherwise our chances are probably 5% or less per cycle (compared to 15-20% for a couple without endometriosis). We could easily try for two or three years without hitting pay dirt.

Plus endometriosis usually comes back within a few years of surgery. The best way to keep it at bay is through birth control pills or pregnancy (both of which put your cycle in suspended animation). The more time we spend not-pregnant and not taking birth control pills (i.e., trying naturally), the better chance we have of the disease creeping back in, necessitating another surgery and, probably, IVF anyway.

Doing IVF now is the only way to get our chances up to the same as couples without endometriosis in a reasonable time frame. In addition to putting more eggs in play, it takes a lot of steps out of the body, where things could go wrong, and makes them more precisely controllable.

(I wish, by the way, that I’d had any idea clear what endometriosis was or that I might have it or what it might mean when I was first having symptoms. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have waited until the wedding to start trying, and we might have had a toddler by now!)

If you’re not familiar with it, IVF is a process of using the same hormones your body produces, just in higher doses, to trick the body into letting several eggs grow and mature on the ovaries instead of only one. It doesn’t affect your ovarian reserve because the extra eggs would have died during that cycle anyway. A healthy woman loses about a thousand eggs per cycle.

A woman doing IVF can produce anywhere from zero to 50 or more eggs, with 15 being the optimal number. Your chances for pregnancy don’t increase if you get more than 15, but your chances for side effects do.

Once the eggs are mature, a surgeon removes them with a needle attached to an ultrasound wand, incubates them with your husband’s contribution, and lets the resulting embryos grow in a special medium, either into eight-cell cleavage-stage embryos (at day 3) or blastocysts with more than a hundred cells (at day 5).

Embryo development, from day 1 to day 6. The last is a blastocyst hatching out of its zona pellucida (shell) and ready to implant
Embryo development, from day 1 to day 6. The last is a blastocyst hatching out of its zona pellucida (shell) and ready to implant

It’s safer, arguably, to let them grow only to day 3, as growing them becomes more complicated after that, and half of embryos tend to die between day 3 and day 5. Some argue that only the non-viable embryos die, so there’s no real loss, but others aren’t so sure. Some also say culturing embryos outside of the body until day 5 can have unknown epigenetic effects.

Basically it’s still a young science, and there’s a whole hell of a lot nobody knows. Every individual body is also different, and each doctor has his or her own preferred protocol. You just have to hope the stars align in your favor. Fewer than 50% of IVF cycles, even for people at my tender age (35), are successful.

IVF costs about $15,000 a try in the US, which is extortionate if you ask me. A lot is involved, but not enough to justify charging the cost of a new car. Luckily there are plenty of other countries that do IVF, luckily our jobs are mobile, and luckily one of the cheapest and most popular IVF destinations happens to be my husband’s native country, Turkey. In Istanbul you can do a cycle — medications included — for less than $4,000. Still not cheap. But not ridiculous.

I’m also lucky in that I have few side effects from the treatment and don’t find it particularly difficult. What’s tough is the cloud of uncertainty hanging over our lives and the loss of thousands of dollars with no guarantees. And not having air conditioning in a stifling Istanbul summer.

The peaches, cherries, grapes, and tea are amazing here, though.

Some of the views aren't bad, either
Some of the views aren’t bad, either

Why IVF?

You might ask, though, why try IVF at all when there are plenty of kids in the world who need homes? I’ll write a post later to address this question more fully, but believe me, if someone offered to give me a healthy baby right now, no strings attached, I’d take it. I have no problem with adoption as such, and I want to be a mother yesterday.

The problem is that it costs about $30,000, and agencies prefer nice middle class homeowners, not freelance nomads like us. There’s a good chance we wouldn’t even qualify.

Adopting through the foster system can be low-cost or free, but the kids are usually older and sometimes, even if you make it clear you wish to adopt, they can end up going back to their biological parents. The idea of falling in love with a kid and then having him or her taken away is more than I think my heart could take at this point. We may consider it down the line, but for my first kid, at least, I’d like to be as sure as I can that it’s for life.

Accepting a donated embryo is another possibility. More than half a million embryos are sitting in cryo tanks in the US, left over from other couples’ IVF attempts, and some couples would rather donate them than destroy them or keep them in tanks forever. Transferring a donated embryo is cheaper and easier on the body than IVF, and there’s very little red tape.

But while I don’t care too much about my own genetic contribution, I think my husband will make beautiful babies, and I’d like him to have that chance. We live in the US away from his family. It would be nice for his kid(s), at least, to be biologically (and ethnically) related to him.

There’s much more to say about all the different options for building a family, and I’m always glad to hear from people who’ve been down those roads. They might well end up being our roads, too. If so, we’ll dive into them with full and open hearts.

We’re just not quite there at this time.

Treatment in Turkey

After three months of healing from surgery, I had another book tour in March that took me through Scotland, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. It was fun but totally exhausting. My Turkish publishers also set up a stressful line-up of interviews (including one on live TV) as soon as I arrived in Istanbul.

That's me trying to look like a Serious Person for the Turkish media
That’s me trying to look like a Serious Person for the Turkish media

That week of interviews was the same week our first IVF cycle started. Just as the interviews were ending, I came down with a horrible summer flu. The night before egg retrieval, I had a fever of 102. I was afraid the eggs would come out hard-boiled.

To our relief, we got six mature eggs, four of which fertilized, and we ended up with two day 5 embryos that looked great. About half of a couple’s embryos will, on average, be chromosomally non-viable (aneuploid). We had high hopes at least one of these little cell balls would be our kid, maybe even both.

But we had them genetically tested, and both were non-viable. Our first roll of the dice had come up snake eyes.

It didn’t help that we got the results on our second anniversary.

Then the Blue Moon came up to cheer us up
Then the Blue Moon came to cheer us up

We were also missing friends, family, events, and playing soccer three times a week back home. We were renting a room in a place that had a tiny, dirty kitchen and a moldy shower that overflowed onto the floor and could never make up its mind whether to freeze or scald us. It’s not good when even your showers are stressful.

We just wanted to get this over with, get back home, and put the whole unfortunate episode behind us. So we rushed into a second cycle with no break despite the fact that there were some red flags indicating we’d be wise to take a month off before trying again.

That cycle was an even bigger disaster.

So, with several thousand bucks down the drain and not a single embryo to show for it, we retreated to an island off the Asian side of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara.

The ferry that took us to the island
The ferry that took us to the island
Our island home -- a penthouse for the price of a Motel 6
Our island home — a penthouse for the price of a Motel 6

After some hours of mourning and three days of hiking, cooking, and chilling, we decided to take a full month off, cleanse our minds, settle into the fact that it was our fate to be in Istanbul for a half a year (not the worst fate, honestly), find a more relaxed neighborhood (and a cleaner place) to live, go for long seaside walks, pet a lot of semi-stray kittens (Istanbul is loaded with them), meditate, write, read, take ferry rides, drink tea, watch the sun set over the Old City and its fairytale minarets, and change our mindset from “Let’s get this over with!” to “Let’s do this right.”

Cats cats everywhere
Cats cats everywhere
The seaside promenade near our house where we can watch the sun set over Old Istanbul
The seaside promenade near our house where we can watch the sun set over Old Istanbul

I did hours and hours (and hours) of medical research on established practices and experimental treatments. We decided to quiet my system with birth control pills, then try a Microdose Lupron Flare protocol, which super-charges your own hormones before adding more. (For the first two cycles, we did the short antagonist protocol using Gonal-F, Menogon, and Cetrotide, with no down-regulation.) We also chose some peripheral treatments that have shown promising results in recent scientific studies.

Out of that we were lucky enough to collect 13 eggs, which is pretty close to the magic 15. Five of them fertilized and grew into day 3 cleavage stage embryos. (We didn’t want to chance letting them go to day 5 this time.)

Four look beautiful (8-cell), and one is lagging behind a little. (I call it Ghost after Jon Snow’s runty direwolf that grew up big and strong.) We decided to freeze them all since there’s evidence it’s healthier to let your body rest and heal from IVF and then transfer the embryos into your badass baby-gestating muscle balloon (uterus) when your body’s more calm and natural. We also decided not to genetically test them this time because there’s a chance — however small — of false positives, and we just don’t want to risk it.

In a couple of weeks we’ll transfer the two nicest-looking embryos (Nymeria and Summer?) and then head back to home sweet Oklahoma. If it works — fabulous.

If not, I’ll play a lot of soccer to make up for lost time, and we’ll go back to trying naturally for a while. Then, if necessary, I’ll come back to Istanbul in January and transfer the final three contestants.

Here’s hoping at least one of our five embryos can find its way to us as a child.

If not, it’s wonderful to know there are other amazing ways to become parents. We really can’t wait to meet our child(ren).

UPDATE FROM MARCH 2017: Our first frozen embryo transfer, of Summer and Nymeria, ended in a blighted ovum miscarriage at nearly 6 weeks. I went back the next summer to transfer the remaining two (one didn’t survive to blast), and it was negative. (There was also a coup the day after our embryos were thawed, so that added some stress, plus my idiot doctor made at least one crucial mistake that might have tanked our chances. All in all a horrible summer.)

We’ve moved on to donor embryos, and our first transfer ended in another blighted ovum at 7 weeks in February 2017. We paid in advance for up to six tries, so… five more to go.

UPDATE FROM SEPTEMBER 2017: Our second attempt with CC resulted in a beautiful bouncing fetus that looked perfect on its week 12 ultrasound. Here’s hoping the little frog makes it! Due in March 2018.

I’m writing a novel in the meantime (in addition to my work as a freelance editor). Almost finished! 🙂

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P.S. It’s times like these when you really find out what your marriage is made of. Let’s just say… I’m a lucky woman. 🙂

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Lady Parts are Badass

In the spirit of Angelina Jolie, I’m going to talk about lady parts.

It is, of course, difficult to talk about reproductive issues without talking about lady parts.

But we live in a society where women’s reproductive organs are, if not shameful, at least not to be spoken of in public. (Witness the Michigan congresswoman who dared to say the word ‘vagina’ on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives during a discussion about access to health care, and the clutching of pearls and reaching for smelling salts that ensued.)

This squeamishness is another barrier to discussing reproductive issues in an open and straightforward way. So I wanted to unpack that squeamishness and see if we can’t unravel it enough to get over it so we can talk about the female reproductive system like adults.

I speak as someone who was totally squeamish for years. When I was first forced to talk regularly about my uterus and ovaries at the Tulsa Fertility Clinic, I felt a warm flush of embarrassment and resentment. Not just because they might have issues, but because they existed at all. I knew I shouldn’t feel that way, but I did, which created cognitive dissonance that caused another kind of embarrassment and resentment.

Finally I stopped trying to fight those feelings and started to examine them. Where had they come from? Why were they so persistent?

During my childhood, reproductive organs were basically unmentionable except by tacky people and bad kids, or as crude or silly innuendo. I was left to figure out how things worked on my own. (Finding a Playboy hidden in a stump in the woods didn’t exactly clear it all up.)

Things still weren’t explained very well in our totally inadequate sex ed in middle school. The boys were sniggering, and the diagrams looked absurd and alien. I couldn’t actually see my ovaries or uterus, so it was hard to associate those weird cartoon drawings with anything in my body. Not to mention I was going through puberty at the time, which was awful and terrifying and embarrassing enough without having to think about it — especially in a class full of boys and a middle-aged teacher. Ew.

Is that the Pink Panther?
Is that the Pink Panther?

Besides, it would be ‘trashy’ (not to mention dangerous) to have sex any time soon, much less a baby. So how was this vaguely shameful, squishy, invisible stuff that looked kind of like a Muppet relevant to me anyway?

If all went well, some day, far in the future, those things would do whatever the hell they were supposed to do, a baby or two would emerge, and I’d never have to think about them again.

As time went on I became more enlightened — at least on paper. I fully believed in women’s equality and would tell anyone who asked that our bodies are beautiful and natural and deserve to be celebrated. But then just a few years ago, when a friend said, “She has some serious ovaries,” the way you’d say, “He really had some balls,” I didn’t feel empowered. I felt squeamish and embarrassed.

Now, why would that be? Once I finally allowed myself ask the question (instead of denying my feelings), I realized the word ‘ovaries’ made me think of a combination of a discontented, adulterous French housewife and a prissy 1950s sewing circle. It made me think of hormones, which made me think of ‘hysterical’ or illogical women. And I couldn’t manage to associate any of that with courage.

(Awful, right? Well, strap in, there’s more internalized misogyny to unpack…)

Furthermore, I was someone who studied physics and traveled the world, and society told me a woman couldn’t do those things, or couldn’t do them as well as a man. So the last thing I wanted to draw attention to was the fact that I had ovaries.

Here’s the thing: Maleness is held up as the default for consequential human beings in our society. Unless you want to be a decoration or a wife or mother, femaleness is basically portrayed as a liability.

For centuries we’ve been seen as weak, irrational, incapable, less than. We’re paid less, we’re represented less, our bodies and hair and faces are constantly judged and scrutinized and paid more attention to than our minds or talents or kindness. Our health is legislated by old Southern white men. We live with a constant low-level fear of being attacked or harassed by men who feel entitled to reduce us to nothing but bodies to be commented on or abused.

And when we dare to try to talk about any of that, we’re accused of hating men.

In my conscious mind, of course, I totally believe women are every bit as good as men, and I believe my body is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.

But whatever you believe, it takes a toll to live in a society that bombards you with certain messages, explicitly and implicitly, from the moment you’re born. Even shows that try to critique or parody these norms can inadvertently end up reinforcing them. Your conscious mind might say, “Yeah, these are the norms we’re railing against!”

But your subconscious mind — formed during our hunter-gatherer days, when a single social faux pas could cost you your life — might stop at, “Yeah, these are the norms.”

For whatever combination of reasons, for most of my life I subconsciously denied or downplayed my womanhood, even to myself. I knew (through cultural osmosis) that women could be successful, but only to the extent they were man-like or fit in with what men approved of and felt comfortable with. Men did not feel relaxed around pretty women they couldn’t have sex with, so one’s options were either to use your looks and sexuality to get ahead (or at least be perceived that way) or mold yourself into a Sexless Serious Person.

I’m caricaturing a bit. But even now I tend to change my Facebook photo to something more “plain” when I’m trying to be taken seriously in a conversation or I’m on a book tour and I think Serious People might look me up.

Regardless of whether a woman flaunted or repressed her sexuality, she was most definitely NOT supposed to have reproductive organs. (Or bodily functions in general.) A woman could have boobs, a butt, a pretty face, and nice hair. She could even have a baby and a cute baby bump. But not reproductive organs. All those bloody or squishy or incredible biochemical details were airbrushed right out. (You could almost feel the dicks wilting when Angelina Jolie was brave enough to talk about her medical issues.)

(I feel bad even writing this post, because I don’t want to reinforce the things I’m talking about. But for me at least, I’ve found that examining some of the worst messaging I’ve inhaled like second-hand smoke for three decades has helped me on the road to overcoming them.)

I tried hard to ignore all these messages, and I felt pretty satisfied that I had carved out a nice middle ground for myself. I’d lived a lot of life by the time I got married at age 33, and I was still plenty young enough to have two kids and get all my trying-to-conceive over with at the relatively safe age of 35. (That was the plan anyway.)

When my lady parts were finally up to bat, I fully expected them to sit down, shut up, and do whatever they were supposed to do without me having to think about them.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. And when I was forced to think about them for long stretches of time, the aversion went from unconscious to semi-conscious, and eventually to fully conscious. And once it was fully conscious, I felt ridiculous. Why on earth should I be a snob about some of the most incredible parts of the human body?

Because at the same time I was uncovering so much internalized misogyny, I was also learning more about the female anatomy. And it turns out, it’s pretty cool.

We all came from there.
We all came from there.

Whoever you are, from the highest to the lowest, you had your beginnings with an ovary and a uterus.

The ovaries are the deeply mysterious nesting dolls of the universe. Before women are even born, they have all the eggs (technically primordial follicles, which have the capacity to become mature eggs) they’ll ever have — a couple million.

Which means — if you think about it — the egg that created you was once inside your grandmother!

By the time a woman reaches childbearing age, she’s down to less than half a million. So she could populate Tulsa if every egg were fertilized and gestated. (What happens to all the other eggs? They just kinda die off for some reason. The human reproductive system is absurdly inefficient.)

With each monthly cycle, a thousand follicles are lost and only one matures into an egg. Over a woman’s lifetime, a total of about 400 follicles mature into eggs. (And the Duggars only had 19 kids. Psh.)

What IVF does is try to prod more than one of those thousand follicles to become mature eggs. That’s why IVF doesn’t deplete your ovarian reserve. It just recruits follicles that would otherwise naturally die. The idea is that out of those thousand, there may be a best one, but there may also be lots of other plenty good ones. On average, they’ll try to extract about ten eggs per cycle.

As for the uterus, it’s a human-gestating muscle balloon that goes from the size of a light bulb to the size of a beach ball and back again after expelling a new human being.

We don’t have anything CLOSE to technology that can do that.

Our first home is a pretty amazing place.

And don’t get me started on hormones. The more I learn, the more in awe I am of the power of biochemistry, complex feedback loops, and the way a single kind of molecule can do so many vastly different things in different parts of the body (and mind). And how the exact same hormones that do certain things in the female body do something completely different in the male body.

While humans can be swayed by them, though, we most definitely don’t have to be controlled by them. We can influence our hormonal palettes through medicine or mindfulness, even as we respect their power and necessity. It’s fascinating stuff.

Just some of the cool-ass hormones that keep life going.
Just some of the cool-ass hormones that keep life going.

There are many more lady parts, of course, and there’s lots more to say, but I wanted to start with those invisible life-creators that I initially had the hardest time relating to.

I don’t know how many other people — women and men alike — still think ovaries are dumb and the uterus is gross and embarrassing. But as for me, due in part to my own reproductive issues, I’ve learned to truly care less about what society thinks about them, or what it taught me to think about them. And I’ve learned to respect my own body much more — not just in words or beliefs, but deep in my soul.

It’s quite a gift.