Essay: Creating a Life

Alice Ruvane ’86 is a promotional and education writer and serves on the Editorial Board of The Lyon Review.  This is her first published personal essay.  Alice’s other works can be found online and in a yellowing copy of the New York Times Magazine (letter to the Editor and www.poetsagainstthewar.org, Truth & Justice.) While performing her autobiographical cabaret act in and around NYC, Alice delighted in using words to great effect and applause. Now living in Maine with her husband and dogs, Alice teaches yoga and spends as much time as she can writing anything and everything including her first novel.

Years before the second hand on my biological clock began thrumming like the wings of a thirsty hummingbird, my friend T confided in me that she didn’t want a baby. She whispered her admission late one night over beer and chips.

“I want to experience pregnancy,” she explained, “I just don’t want to be stuck with a baby.”

The Menstrual Cycle and Sperm Factory

The Menstrual Cycle and Sperm Factory

“Oh,” was all I could think to say. While T saw a baby as an unwelcome intrusion into a marriage and career she liked as it was, I saw a baby as the ultimate reward for having pushed hard through school and into life. A baby would give me permission to coo and giggle, to grow up all over again. I woul

d be the parent I always wanted to the child I ached to have. I couldn’t tell T that her assessment of motherhood felt like an assault on my pre-feminist childish dream. Instead I shoved horror down my throat, crunched my judgment into jagged pieces and tried to soften the mixture with swigs of sour beer. T was twenty-eight, married, just a few years older than me. It was her time. I was biding mine, waiting for the pieces of my life to fall into place. I had dreamed of motherhood ever since I was a little girl, but I was still settling into a new marriage. I was playing the part of career-minded college graduate. In sharp contrast to T, I had no real desire to experience pregnancy. I just wanted a baby. The title I coveted was Mother.

A couple of years later, T became pregnant. Her husband was thrilled. She was still nervous about being a mother but the idea was growing on her in direct proportion to the growing life within her. T’s transformation gave me hope and courage that my husband and I could be likewise transformed. I deluded myself into believing that the pieces of my life were aligned and that it was time for parenthood. I had done the requisite work of a working woman: reporting to an office looking like a go-getter, getting in early, staying late, performing well. I didn’t care for or about the work. I was much more devoted what I achieved at home, where I had stripped wallpaper, sewn curtains, learned to cook. I had built a nest and was ready to fill it. When it came to domesticity, there seemed to be nothing I couldn’t do. Well, one thing. I couldn’t tell my husband that I’d gone off the pill. Not exactly. I had told him that I wanted to stop ingesting chemicals and find out what my body would do of its own accord. But I wasn’t able to tell him that I’d actually gone off the pill until my period was about a month overdue.

He had told me before we tied the knot that he did not want children. I understood his hesitation at the time. “He’s been through a lot,” I reasoned. Three years before we met his time was spent feeding, bathing, diapering and finally burying his dad. He had already been a parent to his own father and despite his best efforts, the outcome was not good. Needless to say, when we got married, fatherhood was the furthest thing from his mind. But in my heart, I had convinced myself that his resistance would fade over time.

On the day I knew I finally had to tell him I thought I was pregnant, I reminded myself that time heals. That’s exactly what our priest had said before we took our vows, as he counseled my wounded man to “remain open to the possibility of children.” The idea that my husband really did not want a baby was simply unthinkable to me until the unthinkable happened. After I cautiously and apologetically shared my secret delight at the thought that I might be pregnant, my husband unleashed his anger, denial and dread.

“No!” he said, firmly stating if a baby was lying in wait, no amount of waiting would make him want to parent it. “You need to ‘make it go away.’” That evening revealed far more than our struggles with secrecy and manipulation. I discovered that night that there was no marriage. Soon thereafter, I also discovered that there was no baby. Heartbroken, I got divorced, floundered, moved, made new friends and, by the time our not-a-baby would have been a year old, I had started my life all over again.

Although I was far from excited about being single again, I had finally fallen into a career that ignited my interests and tapped into my skills: Medical communications. Long hours, good pay and the satisfaction of a job well done, however, did little to quell the nagging thoughts that my chances of getting pregnant were becoming more remote with the passage of time. Lack of husband aside, as I neared thirty I knew my eggs were limited. The millions I’d been born with had likely dwindled to a few thousand by my third decade. That’s just the nature of womanhood. I was learning a lot about the female cycle and reproduction from work. I had been assigned to write promotional materials for a drug to treat infertile women. Poor women, I thought. Actually, rich women, I discovered. The drugs and the procedures related to them are rather pricey. Infertility treatments are primarily marketed to women who can afford them: upper class, educated women who often delay pregnancy. I swallowed hard, shaking off any notion that my life might look anything like that of an infertile woman.

My friends and I told one another that we were young, smart, vibrant, alive. We took on life with a vengeance. We were hard working, hard playing city-dwellers who treated ourselves to summer beach shares and drinks after work—whatever the hour. We left work at work, and feigned contentment with our roles as young, successful careerists. But we knew we were all looking for mates, confiding in one another over endless glasses of chardonnay. Our male friends didn’t need to put their desires into words. They just reached out to the ready, ripe array of women within reach. Still, I fancied myself different from all my female friends. After all, I had been married before. I had lived their dream of having been publicly celebrated as a bride, only to have been privately humiliated and stripped of my honor. When it came to getting involved again in a relationship, my fear was naked. My ache, well concealed. My defenses, sharp. Men had reason to be wary of me, but that didn’t stop them from trying to ease their way into my life, my bed or my heart. My goal was to keep them close enough for my satisfaction and distant from my inner world. I couldn’t let my heart go to just anyone. Not anymore. I was nearly thirty. I had work to do. Romance was no longer the point: I had to find Mr. Right, the father of my unborn children.

Meanwhile, at work, I kept writing materials to help women undergoing infertility treatments learn that it wasn’t too late for motherhood, that they weren’t alone, that there was hope. But first I had to help create a unique identity for a nascent brand that represented the next generation in the science of infertility. Medically speaking, Product X was sexy. It was genetically modified which meant that it delved directly into the DNA of FSH, follicle stimulating hormone. Stimulating stuff, FSH. It nurtures the development of eggs and kicks them out of the proverbial nest during ovulation. Unlike other infertility products that used FSH derived from cleaned up cow piss or the urine of virginal nuns, Product X was pure. What mother to be wouldn’t want to give her baby that advantage?

We were launching our brand into a market that was focused on babies. Imagine! Cute, dimpled, diaper clad babies were everywhere. Red gummed, wide eyed Gerber-esque images sat rippled and drooling on ads, brochures, posters in doctors’ offices around the country, making infertile women’s mouths water with want. But focusing on babies, my team and I decided, set these women and their treatments up for failure because success measured in pounds and inches and slapped on the behind to breathe, is actually rare in the treatment of infertility. The unjust truth is that infertility products, even new, pure, genetically modified ones, don’t make babies. They make ripe eggs; they induce ovulation and make conception possible. But being able to conceive and actually creating a life are entirely different. Our brand would dare to be different. We would delve into the science of reproduction, celebrate conception itself, and name it Success. Women, we reasoned, didn’t just want a baby. They wanted to experience pregnancy. I thought of my friend T’s once secret desire and realized that some women longed to experience the power of their creative selves. A power made manifest in conception.

Conception is like an underwater ballet. The swaying of fallopian tubes, the suspension of ovaries, the cloud of newly released sperm and their sudden and furious race to find and fertilize the egg. The dance is difficult and dramatic. It requires precise timing and an absolute commitment to form. But don’t hold your breath–the human body does not make creating life easy. In direct contrast to the near constant news about the overpopulation of the world and the ever-present clusters of pregnant teenagers on street corners all across America, biologically speaking, survival for an ovum, sperm or the fusion of these creative elements is a long shot. The fact that teenagers, if not an entirely foreign species, are a defiant breed might explain their ability to thumb their noses at biology and find their way, en masse into “trouble.” For the rest of us, the obstacles to having an OB-GYN on speed dial are at once, microcosmic and overwhelming.

Proteins bubble up around the newly released egg the instant it sneaks out of the ovary. Like good guardians, the proteins provide nourishment and form a fiercely protective crust around the follicle that 99.9% of sperm will not be able to penetrate. Of course, sperm have their own survival to worry about. Their first order of business is to make it out of the vagina alive. Nature made this eerie canal intentionally inhospitable. Its acidic climate is designed to preserve and protect. In short, only the strongest and fastest sperm make it to the gateway of the uterus alive. Most often, those Herculean swimmers are greeted by a mucosal blockade. That’s right, twenty-six out of twenty-eight days in a woman’s cycle, there’s a big DO NOT ENTER sign hanging at the entrance to the womb. That means there is a 93% likelihood that sperm will arrive on the wrong day. Men and timing. Need I say more? There are exceptions to every rule, about 6.9 billion of them according to worldwide population data, but stats aside, the biological obstacles to conception do not end upon entry to the uterus. Sperm that make it up and in, must navigate this vast, uncharted ocean. In a life-or-death game of hide and seek, those courageous self-flagellators need to swim like hell to find the egg. Most die en route.

But don’t lose heart, our bodies aren’t completely insensitive to would be mates.  The female reproductive system performs two alluring actions to bring sperm into the creative seed.

“I’m here,” our follicles taunt, sending a hormonal come-hither signal to the millions of scurrying sperm.

We need only one. But if the sperm doesn’t arrive within a few hours, the follicle dies.  But if the spirit moves, the fallopian tube might move too. The tube’s dance reduces what could be a two-day journey for the voyaging sperm to as little as 30 minutes. “Whatever Lola wants…Lola gets.” Or does she?

Thousands of sperm may finally find the egg. They’re exhausted, they’re trying to get a job done, they’re banging their heads against the follicle’s protective coating saying, “I’m here!” “Let me in!” Poor little buggers. They’ve been blindsided. Only one of them can do the deed and biologically speaking, he must be “Mr. Right.” The winning sperm has to have a set of receptors that fit that egg’s proteins like a glove. All other sperm are S.O.L. (sperm out of luck.)  We females are fickle right down to our follicles. If the stars are aligned, the moon is in its seventh house and the body’s biological defenses all fail, life succeeds in taking shape. The single sperm lays his weary head on the follicle, becomes attached and burrows in for what he hopes is a long, transformational snooze. Sperm fuses into follicle and it’s fertilization, baby!

But fertilization does not a baby make. Every few hours the newly fertilized follicle divides and continues on an arduous journey through the fallopian tube toward the uterus. If all goes well, it’s blast off. A cluster of cells called a blastocyte emerges in the uterus five days later. It’s been a long five days and this multi-celled wonder wants to eat and sleep. It needs to put down roots and seek out nourishment fast. To do so, it must shed its protective coat. This heroic, life-affirming act triggers our immune system.

“Foreign body!” our T-cells scream

Our bodies, it seems, view a baby-in-the-making as an intruder, much as my friend T viewed a full-blown baby before she took to mothering. But, unlike my friend who warmed easily to her changed circumstances, our body’s knee-jerk reaction is to kick into high alert and attempt to kill off what it interprets as infection. Nature is a cruel and resistant mother.

I spent a lot of time at work reading about creating and carrying life. I was fully versed in the countless hurdles, hazards and hardships inherent in conception and throughout pregnancy. At the same time, artistically dyed in utero images of the building blocks of life and its romper room touched something deep and primal in me. I found myself throbbing with desire. I had fallen in love with the science of reproduction. Looking at photographs of life’s inner sanctum, I felt as if I had plunged into the primordial sea. I saw that it was vast, deep and inside of me. Life was mine for the making and, as ready as I was to feel it growing in my womb, I needed to wait. I was determined to have my life unfold in fairy tale fashion: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby.

Six years after I had first written about infertility, the fairy tale ending seemed possible. I was remarried, higher up the corporate ladder in the world of medical communications, hungry for a child, and compelled by my animal nature to reproduce. I met R when I was thirty-one. The attraction was instantaneous. He understood that pairing had a lot to do with parenting. He said that overcoming a multitude of obstacles in his forty-two years of life had prepared him for the task. He was ready. He owned his own business, had been in therapy, had recovered from drugs, was passionate, musical, sensitive and kind. This man had penetrated my protective core. I felt my insides quake when he said he wanted to create a life with me. I settled into the certainty of our picture-perfect future as partners and parents. But four years into our new life, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we had failed to create life. Month after month I was betrayed by my body’s refusal to reproduce. I was angry with it, fascinated by it, determined to change it. I was furious with R, who seemed torn between relief and horror each time I bled and wept and ranted. How could this happen?

I had spent fifteen years on the pill with the twin goals of avoiding pregnancy and regulating an erratic menstrual cycle, but I couldn’t maintain regularity on my own. Without a steady stream of artificial progesterone, my life returned to its natural, irregular state. To get pregnant, I would have to delve into the mystery of my reproductive self. I relied on all that I had learned from writing about infertility. I became like an astrologer, staring into the darkness of space, using reference points to measure the distance of stars, planets, galaxies, to learn the science of my cycle. I learned how to predict the timing of ovulation and flow, how to map the rise and fall of tiny moons through their orbits and into extinction. I went on morning and nighttime expeditions, plunging a thermometer into the darkness of my being, taking my temperature, feeling the viscosity of my fluids, but to no avail. The world of my womb must have had encountered some unidentifiable object to conception.

By this time, my relationship with R posed another obstacle. He seemed disgusted with my reports of each day’s data. While the science of reproduction caused my innards to soften and undulate, R did not find it sexy at all. It became harder and harder to get him, shall we say, interested. Creating life without making love compounds the difficulty of what for most people is an effortless and joyous process. Doing it alone is also awfully lonely. As I turned to medicine, Jack Daniels became R’s constant companion. In an unspoken bargain, R didn’t stand in the way of my quest to conceive and I turned a blind eye to his drinking.

I encountered yet another obstacle at work. From the perch of my high-rise window office in a chic New York agency, I discovered that my company’s insurance plan did not cover infertility treatments. I was already angry and this news set me into a rage. “Wait,” I thought, they cover birth control and vasectomies. Of course, the reality is that there is no insurance that a woman will or will not conceive, but if a company is going to offer financial support, I thought they should be very cautious about favoring one outcome over another. I took a deep breath and took up my cause with our CEO. At first I felt righteous, strong, empowered. Then I felt exposed. I had drawn my private drama into my professional life, but what choice did I have? R and I couldn’t afford infertility treatments without coverage. Who could? My company saw the error of their ways before I had a chance to ponder my own errors in further pursuing pregnancy in the context of a second troubled marriage. “Victory!” I thought.

I turned to Dr. Q to finish the job. Dr. Q was the uncontested father of reproductive endocrinology in my corner of the world. He was revered by his peers and worshipped by women like me. Although I didn’t look like Dr. Q’s regular patients, young, dark-wigged women who were unfailingly accompanied by their bearded Hasidic husbands, we had a lot in common. My Irish Catholic heritage and their Hasidic culture shared the value of children. We needed them. We were nothing without them. I realized that I looked more like the profile of the women to whom we had marketed Product X all those years ago, than any of the women in Dr. Q’s waiting room. Maybe something deep inside of me had known all along that the assurance, comfort and hope I tried to give to women undergoing infertility treatment, was exactly what I would need some day.

Dr. Q’s success in delivering the fairy tale ending was displayed all over his examination rooms: pictures of bald-headed, wide-eyed toothless newborns swaddled in blue and pink hung on the walls as women like me, bared our souls, our bodies, clung to our dreams and shivered in paper-thin gowns. Thousands upon thousands of long-awaited babies were here all here thanks to Dr. Q. I was here for mine. I had spent too many years waiting for pink lines and plus signs to appear on plastic strips freshly bathed in my urine. I had waited out my first husband’s outright refusal. I was wading through the return of R’s inner demons, the ugliness of his drinking. I had been working to quell his growing hesitation about fatherhood and grapple with my increasing fear that something was desperately wrong with him, with me, with us. After two years of worrying and waiting I had stepped right over his gnawing doubt and was demanding what was rightfully mine: a baby. I was here with his still-warm sperm, conjured up despite his complaints, poured into a glass jar and pressed to my breast as I took the Metro North train south to see Dr. Q.

I knew the routine. In the previous six months, I had done it twice before. Third time’s a charm, I told myself. First I had to stop by the lab and relinquish that jar with its creative contents to a young woman in blue scrubs, who no doubt did everything in her power to prevent life from taking root in her firm belly, and who would most certainly pop-up pregnant the instant she started “trying.” She took the barely-there spoonful of what looked to be thin meringue down a hall and into a room where a centrifuge whipped it up and washed out impurities.

My child would be pure, unadulterated joy. My baby would wake R up from the darkness of his depression. She would sound a cry that would motivate him to work, make friends, make love. This baby would force me to kick off the high heeled, high-powered self-importance I thought I’d earned after climbing to what I decided was the apex of my career. He would tear away the trappings of success and sink strong roots into the depths of my truest self. This baby would give R and me the twin pleasures of life and love.

Not fifteen minutes later, the technician returned with my cleaned sample and a report that it contained a multitude of healthy, active sperm. I blushed, feeling proud and protective—a mother in the making. I nodded up and down as she dangled the vial in the air between us, instructing me to place it in the pit of my arm and make my way carefully and quickly to Dr. Q’s office. I cradled that sample with the warmth of my whole being, checking my desire to sprint and coming instead to an awkward trot. I was terrified that I might crush this hard-fought chance somewhere between aching need and what I’d labeled “love.”

Higher, higher, higher the elevator rose, and with it my conviction that this time, the procedure would take. Intra-uterine insemination: IUI. The unknown “you” pressed safely in the folds of my flesh. I knew that this was the last stop before Petri dishes and frozen bits in banks that I never wanted to invest in or draw from. I didn’t allow myself to conceive of an outcome that didn’t scream, “Mama!” My womb was ready—I had seen it on a sonogram just days before. Slender self-inflicted needles followed by an injection plunged mercilessly into my expanding gluteus maximus, had prepared my body. I smiled to myself knowing that the great IM, that final injection, had sent bursting follicles down my fallopian tube to nestle in the thickening walls of my uterus. I am going to be a mother, I thought. My uterus was throbbing. My follicles were waiting to be fertilized and I had the goods.

The elevator stopped, opened and deposited me in Dr Q’s waiting room. A nurse pried R’s seed from my fingers and hurried me into the examination room to wait. I changed quickly. And waited. I grew cold and clasped my paper gown. I stared at the baby photos. Blew into my hands, hopped from one foot to another. Waited. The babies stared back at me. I touched my belly, feeling my bloated body. It made me happy to think of my ripened follicles just waiting. I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes. I hugged my arms to my sides. Twenty minutes, I put on my socks. Thirty minutes, I put my clothing on over my gown and walked into the hallway.

“Excuse me, where is Dr Q?.”

“Oh dear, go back inside. He’ll be with you in a moment.”

I complied.

And sat, and waited. And thought about how long I had waited and how hard I had worked, and how little I wanted. And how much I wanted it. A baby! That’s all! Forty-five minutes. Thirty-five years. And here I was waiting for Dr. Q—the man who could conquer my unexplained infertility.

An hour and fifteen minutes later in walked Dr. Q. He smiled. I glared. He reached for the hem of my paper gown, “Good morning and how are you?” Without waiting for an answer, his gloved hands were silently prying my knees apart. A lump rose in my throat. Latex fingers leaned into my most tender parts and pressed for access.

My eyes pinched closed. Angry tears stung my cheeks. A voice rose up from deep inside my belly shattering the silence. DO NOT TOUCH ME. It said. I felt its force. Its power caused

Dr. Q and the nurse to step back. I must have spoken. Dr. Q started to speak. And there it was again. This voice.

DO NOT TOUCH ME. I was shaking. I slammed my knees together, retracted my feet from the cold, metal stirrups and rose up. My mouth was moving, releasing a thundering cascade of words. DO NOT TOUCH ME UNTIL YOU HEAR WHAT I HAVE TO SAY. AND THEN THE ONLY THING I WANT TO HEAR YOU SAY IS THAT YOU ARE SORRY. AN HOUR AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AFTER THIRTY-FIVE YEARS IS TOO LONG. DO YOU HEAR ME? I HAVE WAITED TOO LONG! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, GOD? YOU COME IN AND FILL ME WITH LIFE AND IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW LONG YOU’VE MADE ME WAIT? SAY IT!

“Now, Alice.” He stepped toward me.

“NO! SAY IT. I WANT TO HEAR YOU SAY IT NOW!”

He looked at me in silence. His jaw dropped. His head bowed. His words were soft but clear.

“I’m sorry.”

He looked at me not knowing what to expect. His raised eyebrows questioned, what next?

I nodded and pressed my hand in the air to keep him from stepping toward me.

“Just wait. I need a moment.”

After a lifetime of wanting, fifteen years of wondering and worrying, an hour and fifteen minutes of waiting, I needed time. The door closed. I was alone again. My legs swayed like pendulums, side to side. Tick-tock. I laughed. After all the rushing and racing, the pushing and pleading, the testing and blaming, I needed time. I sat in Dr. Q’s examination room and took what I needed. No more. Just long enough to know that as much as I wanted a baby, I needed to let go of the fairytale and accept the life I had.

I invited Dr. Q and the nurse back into the room and watched on the monitor as he guided the syringe deep into my swollen body. He released the fluid, showering it over three fluffy orbs that suckled the sides of my being. The chances looked good but I knew they were slim. Compounding the grim realities that make conception difficult under normal circumstances, statistics show that success rates of IUIs diminish with each trial. This was my third and would be my last. I left Dr.Q’s office knowing that I would go no further. My body was holding onto the last medically assisted attempt I would ever make at creating life. I was releasing control—or the illusion of it. I was losing myself, relinquishing the whole concept of procreation as the centerpiece around which my life had orbited. I was launching into the great expanse of the unknown. My marriage, my baby, my future all floated in a sea of uncertainty.

I was certain of only one thing. I needed to focus on being the steward of my would-be child; to cherish it for as long as it lasted; to teach it the lessons of my life before it even came into being. I decided to parent possibility and nurture myself. I resolved to let Nature take its course. Two weeks later, my body gushed and relieved itself of all that it had tried to carry: hopes, failures, dreams. The time had come for me to bow to the wisdom of biology, the inner knowing of my body and my being, to stop kicking and screaming, to stop fighting entry into the childless life that was mine. The waiting was over. I had given birth to a new way of being me in the world. “Ready or not,” I realized, “here I am.”

All rights reserved.  Copyright reverts to author upon publication.

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This entry was posted in Creative Nonfiction, Featured Work and tagged , , , by Sandi Sonnenfeld. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat.

6 thoughts on “Essay: Creating a Life

  1. Pingback: The Ticket by Alice Ruvane ’86 | THE LYON REVIEW

  2. Alice – You are an amazing woman, always have been. Thank you for sharing your deeply personal story. I miss you. Kristen

    • Thank you Kristen! I’m so glad you read this and were moved by it. The story is deeply personal and yet strangely universal. We all have moments in our lives when we have to let go to let life in. Love you. Miss you! Keep reading The Lyon Review and if you’re writing, share your work.

    • Thanks so much for reading. It’s such a privilege to know that this story moves people and that there’s no escaping the fact that birth and life touches us all. Love you!

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