Monday, April 11, 2005

Miles of Love

Miles of Love
Vanessa Ross

When I was younger, I never thought much about having children. I assumed I would do so one day, in the usual fashion. It never occurred to me that I would have what is now called an “alternative family”, probably because the only types of families I knew were the married and divorced parents varieties (mine being the latter). The first time I encountered a family with same-sex parents was in the Quaker meeting I attended in Memphis in my early 20s. In that oasis of acceptance in the midst of the conservative Memphis desert, their family was treated no differently than the others. Yet I remember remarking to my then-husband that while I liked this family and thought the women were great parents, the situation felt unnatural to me; I couldn’t get around that fact the “natural” way babies come into the world is via the union of a man and a woman. While true in a sense, my attitude at the time now seems to me a bit of internalized homophobia, something most lesbians and gays deal with and often recognize in our pre-coming-out mentalities. When I came out a few years later, one of the deepest realizations I had was that for me, being with women came much more naturally than being with men, and aligning my life with that fact created a sense of “rightness” I’d never experienced as a straight woman.

Living in San Francisco and getting to know more “alternative” families made the idea of same-sex parenting less and less strange to me. When I met and fell in love with my wife Liz, it became even clearer to me that regardless of their sexes, when two people love each other and want to spend their lives together, expanding that love by having children is the most natural thing in the world. The first night we met, we talked about babies, never daring to imagine we’d have one together. I am a midwife, and Liz was baby-crazy at the time, so of course it came up. As our relationship grew and developed, and we made a commitment to each other, having children was always something we intended to do. I knew that I wanted to conceive and bear a child myself; Liz was unsure if she did and was also interested in adopting someday. Nearly three years later, with neither of us getting any younger, we decided I would get pregnant first, and then we would decide about how to have the second one later.

We both felt strongly that we wanted to conceive using a known donor, as we assumed our child(ren) one day would want to know who their biological father was. While it sounded easier in a way to select sperm from an anonymous donor through a sperm bank and never have to worry about our children “belonging” to anyone but us, we suspected that like most adopted children, our children might feel a need to see and know the person from whom their other half came. We did not want to deny our future children this knowledge, and so we considered our options.

Our first choice was a common one among lesbians: the brother of the nonbio. mom; in our case, Liz’s brother Dan. Initially Dan was very moved by the idea and agreed to the proposal. However, upon meeting some resistance from Liz’s mother and reconsidering his comfort level with this unorthodox family structure (i.e., being the child’s bio. father and uncle; Liz being the child’s mother and bio. aunt), he changed his mind. Liz and I were of course very disappointed. We had loved the idea of our child being biologically connected to both of us and the potential of seeing a resemblance to both of us in our child. But we also appreciated Dan’s honesty and the seriousness with which he approached the matter. Mutual biological connection was not as important to us as finding the right situation and relationship for us as parents with our donor.

Each of us had a male friend in our lives who we considered as potential donors, but neither felt like great choices for different reasons. We started perusing a few sperm banks online that had donors who agreed to reveal their identities after the child was born, but that felt a little dicey to us as well. We wanted our kids to know who their biological father was, but we also felt it important that he be someone we would want to know. Selecting sperm online did not seem to meet our need to ensure we would like the donor himself and feel good about our children potentially having some kind of relationship with him one day.

One day, my good friend Stacey called us up and on behalf of her husband Warren, offered us his sperm. I was blown away. All of my friends were very engaged in creating their own families, and I never considered asking any of them for their husbands’ sperm. Warren and I were not extremely close, but I knew him to be a kind, intelligent, incredibly creative, and politically aware guy, the type of man we would want our children to know. He is also not bad looking and in good health, and I knew who he’d been sleeping with, so we didn’t have to worry about STDs. After several conversations between Liz and me and Warren and Stacey, as well as other friends from whom we solicited advice, Liz and I decided that it felt right. We knew that we would always want our families to be connected anyway, and Warren being our donor would make us extended family in a more official way. We also felt that no matter what challenges this new relatedness might bring, we would be able to communicate with one another and negotiate uncharted terrain as we came to it.

Almost a year later, we were ready. After researching our options for insemination, we opted for the long-distance DIY method. This plan entailed Warren sending us his sperm sample mixed with a nutritive medium that would keep it alive during its cross-country FedEx journey to us, courtesy of “Overnight Male”, the kit developed by the University of Illinois just for that purpose. The trick was that we then had to separate the sperm from the medium before inseminating, which required a rinsing and spinning procedure in a centrifuge generally only found in fertility clinics and sperm banks. Luckily, however, my research had brought me in contact with Leland, the director of the Rainbow Flag Sperm Bank, who upon hearing that I was a nurse midwife/nurse practitioner said, “Oh you can do this yourself; it’s not rocket science!” He agreed to teach me the whole process and sent me to the website of the medical supply company, where for the price of one round of insemination, I could purchase my very own variable speed centrifuge. Even better, I found a barely used one on Ebay for almost half that price, and Leland sold me most of the other necessary supplies.

Because of the concentrated nature of the sample after being rinsed and spun, the acidic climate of the vagina was too perilous for these sperm to traverse, and they would need to be directly deposited in my uterus via intrauterine insemination. This procedure entailed an operator savvy with speculums and finding the cervix, and while I myself was such a provider, doing my own insemination would be a logistical nightmare, if not impossibility. As fate would have it, I had trained my partner Liz in the art of speculum exams several months prior when I had an abnormal Pap that she helped me treat naturopathically. So with a brief orientation on the new equipment and sterile technique, she was ready to roll.

All of this might seem like a lot of trouble to some people, but we wanted our technology-enabled conception to also feel intimate and loving, and we knew that could only happen in the privacy of our own home. We also assumed that we would have to make several attempts before getting pregnant and feared the cost would be astronomical if we went through the official channels. Grabbing a cross-country flight when I was ovulating also seemed impractical and expensive, so this plan was best for us.

So by January 2004 we were mentally, emotionally, physically, and logistically as prepared as one can be for conceiving a child. The Overnight Male kits had arrived in Memphis, we had discussed the probable days of ovulation based on my cycle history and schooled Stacey and Warren on when they should or shouldn’t have sex around that time in order to ensure the freshest and most plentiful sperm possible, and we had the FedEx drop-off points and schedule in hand. Now we were just waiting for that egg to pop out, as evidenced by a positive ovulation predictor test. Unfortunately, my prediction was that I would ovulate on a Sunday, the one-day FedEx did not pick-up or deliver packages, except for a small fortune. So we decided to err on the side of an early insemination, as fresh sperm can survive for up to 5 days in the uterus and tubes. After an overnight flight, we knew they wouldn’t last quite that long, but we hoped they’d last a couple of days at least until the egg arrived on the scene. Given that Stacey and Warren had gotten pregnant every time they thought about it with no planning whatsoever, we were banking on him having some super-sperm.

So we went ahead and scheduled for Thursday and Saturday inseminations, trusting that my calculations were accurate. But both days, my morning pee test came up with not-quite-fertile-yet results, indicating that my cycle was running longer than usual. Liz and I were disheartened that all our effort now seemed poorly timed, but told ourselves that it would be good practice anyway. We peeked at a drop of squirming sperm under a mini-microscope I’d bought for fertility purposes, and told the sperm we hoped they’d had a nice flight and how happy we were they survived the journey. We rinsed and spun and rinsed and spun the sperm again per the instructions, drew them up into the tiny catheter that would safely deposit them in my womb, and then had a moment of silence to center ourselves and give the little guys a moment to recover from all that spinning. We lit candles around our room, put on a Tuck and Patti CD, and shared a last look into each other’s eyes full of the enormous importance of what we were about to do.

And then my cervix wasn’t open. I mean it was shut so tight Liz could barely insert the catheter a centimeter into the external opening, another sign our timing was a bit off. Luckily, another midwife friend who does inseminations had told us that if this happened, to deposit the sperm slowly into the fertile mucus coming from the cervix so that they could swim up it into the uterus. So that’s what we did, hoping they would eek their way through.

On Monday morning my ovulation test turned positive, and we prayed that some of those little dudes would hold out for the next 24-36 hours until the egg emerged. But 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 days later, my pregnancy tests were negative. Remember, I’m a midwife and had access to the tests at work, so I took them compulsively until the two-week mark when it should have been definitive. Then I resigned myself to not being pregnant, and Liz and I started looking at the calendar for our next attempt.

We were very disappointed, but life distracted us from being too down that weekend by throwing the San Francisco gay marriage extravaganza our way. We got married on Monday and had a one-day honeymoon on Tuesday, and were so high on our excitement about the whole thing that we had no time to be sad about not being pregnant. Back at work on Wednesday, my mind couldn’t help but go back there, what with pregnant bellies everywhere I looked. I was now on day 37 of my cycle, and still no period. I attributed this to excess scrutiny and stress around the whole thing and wondered how I would ever get pregnant this way. On several trips to the bathroom, I looked up at the pregnancy tests and resisted reaching up for one, but finally I couldn’t hold back. I told myself that I just needed to see that negative result one more time so I could let it go, and then my body would get back on track.

As I watched, the test line appeared immediately, and then nothing. I waited a couple of minutes and was about to throw the thing away when I saw a second line slowly materialize in the test window. I didn’t trust my eyes because it was so faint, but my coworker and friend Amy took one look at it and confirmed, “It’s positive!” I locked myself in the exam room and called Liz right away. She wasn’t so happy about me taking the test without her, but was thrilled to hear the news. I went home, and we did another test together so she could see the truth for herself. And there we were - married and pregnant in the same week, and in total disbelief about the whole beautiful thing.

As I sit here typing listening to my 10-week-old son Miles cooing at Liz in the other room, I am still in disbelief and wonder if it will ever end. To think that part of this amazing little boy came in a FedEx box is a little too much for even my brain to comprehend. He is such a gift, and I hope one day he understands how much love brought him into this world and how lucky he is to have not only two mommies, but fairy godparents who helped make our wish for him come true.

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