I’ve been lucky to get close to a thousand personal emails from women who’ve visited this blog, women who’ve generously shared their stories and their hopes–and frequently their sadness–with me. Many have also asked me the same question: When did I know, or how did I decide, it was time to stop fertility treatments?
In my book, I wrote about how I dealt with this question, and how my answer ultimately–and with a huge dose of great luck–led to my natural pregnancy at 45 and the birth of my first child, a healthy baby girl who was born 4 months after I turned 46.
I also wrote about how it felt to mourn the child I believed at one point that I’d never meet, a strange mourning of missing what I never had, after spending almost everything I had inside me trying to achieve it.
For those of you struggling with this question now, I’m happy to offer here the part of the book where I write about all of this, in the hopes that, like so much of what’s already on this blog, it helps you feel less alone:
For God’s sake, you’re not going to get pregnant, Tracy,” my mother—never one to mince words—tried to level with me a few months later over Skype. She worried we were wasting precious time. Toru and I had stopped the IVF treatments, but I insisted we still try every month with ultrasounds and hormone support from the clinic, plus new twice-a-day injections of a blood thinner for a “clotting disorder” the clinic had diagnosed, which they claimed could cause early-state miscarriage. My stomach bloomed with red and purple welts, but I was undeterred.
My eldest sister said she cried for me, she was so sad that I wouldn’t have a child with Toru, but she also couldn’t understand why we didn’t “just adopt.” “I mean,” she said, “If you’re still not willing to do egg donation.” Both she and my mother pointed out that with adoption too, we might need to hurry, since many agencies had age cutoffs.
“A therapist once told me,” one woman wrote on my Over-40 online TTC forum, “that if what I wanted most in the world was to be a mother, then I would be one; I would find a way, no matter what.” The writer found deep comfort in this truth, and when I read her post, I admired her, but I knew that wasn’t true for me.
What I wanted most in the world was to be with Toru, and then to have his biological child.
When Toru had told me years before that he wasn’t open to either egg donation or adoption, I felt an unexpected sense of relief. Since adoption in Japan is so rare, I wasn’t surprised by his stance. But as we’d begun the process of trying to have a baby years before, I’d realized that my growing longing to parent our biological child didn’t necessarily translate into a yearning to be a parent in general.
By now, the experience of going through years of treatments had confirmed another surprising truth to me: just because we think we are open to certain possibilities in the abstract—like adoption—we never know where our true limits lie until we are faced with actual, lasting choices. Rational or not, I felt safest in my gut with the idea of a baby who was half Toru. I believed it would be harder for me not to bond with, not to love a child whose every cell contained half of him. And if Toru and I couldn’t make a baby together, I’d still rather be together and childless than a mother apart from him.
In any case, with my forty-fifth birthday now looming just past summer, the whole issue would become obsolete soon. We’d agreed we’d stop all medical treatment when I passed that milestone. Most fertility studies don’t even consider women giving birth at forty-five or beyond, when the average chance of a someone having a baby with her own eggs drop below one percent. The most recent U.S. National Health Statistics report’s definition of a woman of child-bearing age: one between fifteen and forty-four. I’d entered the territory of a statistical non-entity.
A few months later, I lay curled in bed past midnight, sobs shaking through my body. Toru lay beside me, wiping strands of wet hair from my cheeks. “You know,” he said, his steady eyes locking into place my teary ones, “If we can have baby, that would be like miracle,” he said. “But it will still only be like dessert, because you will always be main course.”
I couldn’t believe we weren’t ever going to meet our baby. It seemed both so obvious and so inconceivable. Another paradox I felt deeply carved into my body but still couldn’t quite wrap my head around: how I could mourn something I’d never even had, how to grieve the loss of something that had never actually existed. The tension between my fear of parenthood and my longing to have Toru’s baby began to transmute now into a kind of weird emotional torsion, a swirl of missing and nothingness, numbness and nostalgia.
But as my birthday came and went, I reminded myself of my enduring good luck in other ways, and I knew it was crucial to remember such a fact. The previous January, Toru and I had celebrated our fifth year of marriage, and we’d laughed when we remembered my original “three-year nuptial plan,” long forgotten once I’d gotten over my initial nerves. The night of our anniversary, sitting at our favorite Italian wine bar, bubbles rising in clear flutes, we’d toasted each other, and then Toru had turned momentarily serious. “Thank you for marrying with me these five years,” he’d said, and once again I couldn’t believe my luck that somehow we had found each other across cultures, continents, and half the world’s wide curve. I’d already gotten my most important wish: to be a family, with Toru.
I thought back to him telling me we were “together in always.” I had no idea where I was in my life, how I would start rebuilding after fixing my existence on a dream that now seemed dead, how I would emerge from the limbo of the past four years. But I realized finally that those years wouldn’t be wasted—and I wouldn’t even choose to do them differently, now that I knew their outcome—because they would stay a testament of our love for our baby, even if we never got to meet that baby. It was a testament that felt precious to me, despite the failures that accompanied it. Really, there was no better place to be, I knew, despite the sadness in my chest, than together where we’d been, and now where I was still, with Toru in always.
Excerpted from the book The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World (Putnam, 2015), by Tracy Slater.
More about Tracy is here.