My partner Charlie and I had been married for a little over a year when we decided to start trying to have a baby in August 2013. Despite being the butch in our relationship and using male pronouns, Charlie knew from the start that he wanted be the gestational parent. He's always had a fascination with pregnancy and birth — a fascination that once led him to briefly pursue a midwifery apprenticeship — and he was excited to experience all the highs and lows of carrying a child. I, on the other hand, dread physical pain, and was overjoyed by the prospect of becoming a parent without going through pregnancy.
Charlie's cycle operates with clocklike precision, so we figured it would be easy enough to identify the opportune moment. We started by trying to conceive at home — all you need is a syringe and a clean jar. We painted our guest room in pastels, recruited a dude we know and love to donate sperm, and got underway.
Unfortunately, the magic I'd anticipated was pretty much gone the first time I went for a walk around the block so that our friend could jerk off in our bathroom. After that, we decided that it would be less awkward if he made his donation at his own home, then dropped by with the jar — sperm can live outside the body for several hours, especially if they're kept warm — but calling and saying, "Charlie's ovulating, can you come over?" wasn't very romantic either. We had to skip insemination one month because our donor couldn't escape his roommates, who didn't know about our conception attempts, for the requisite five minutes. Also unforeseen was the discomfort of making small talk every time he dropped off his jar, camouflaged in a paper bag — no one really wants to chat about how work is going at such a moment, but without a little conversation the whole thing felt too transactional. "Thank you for your genetic material, Unit B. Your service is no longer required."
And there was a squick factor that neither Charlie nor I anticipated. We were competent, sex-positive adults who wanted to have a baby — surely we could handle a jar with a little semen in it! Turns out that other people's bodily fluids are disconcerting, no matter how chill and mature you promise yourself you'll be about the whole thing. I'm sorry to contribute to the body-shaming and negativity that pervades our culture, but let's be real: A jar of sperm is super gross. Every month, Charlie would calmly draw up the sperm into the syringe while I shrieked and covered my eyes as though it was the gory scene in a horror movie (no, that's not true — movie gore bothers me way less).
The insemination wasn't much better. We had originally looked forward to this part — the two of us alone in our room, sharing the beautiful, intimate moment of creating our future child. Inseminating just before or even during sex is supposed to up your odds of success, which we figured was a bonus. We'd read about it online and it seemed easy, straightforward, and even fun. But it was almost impossible to get into the moment, since we were pressed for time (sperm were dying by the second!) and limited by the necessity that Charlie stay lying on his back with a pillow under his hips. I tried to help with the syringe, but couldn't find a comfortable angle, so Charlie had to take over.
Nothing kills a mood like a syringe.
Technically you're not considered infertile until you've tried to conceive for 12 months straight with no result, but five negative pregnancy tests in a row made us question the efficacy of our approach. First we investigated the possibility of Charlie taking Clomid, an ovulation-stimulating drug used to treat infertility — if we could up his egg production, we might increase our odds of a successful at-home insemination. But we couldn't get anyone to prescribe Clomid.
"It's not safe to take if your insemination isn't being overseen by a doctor," said the nurse Charlie talked to on the phone.
"But if we were a straight couple, we could just take Clomid and have sex, right?" Charlie argued.
"Well, yes, we would prescribe it for a normal couple," the nurse said.
Oh. Although in some subsets of our culture the phrases "artificial insemination" and "lesbians" go together like peanut butter and chocolate, the medical infrastructure surrounding assisted reproduction is still staunchly heteronormative. We tried to appeal the Clomid decision, but got nowhere; every doctor we talked to agreed that, for no reason they could pinpoint, taking fertility treatments and then trying to get knocked up at home was much more dangerous for lesbians than for straight people.
The next step was to try intrauterine insemination, or IUI. We had to set up a directed donation account with a local sperm bank, meaning that our donor's sperm could only be used by us, as opposed to anonymous donor sperm, which is available for purchase by any of the sperm bank's clients. Directed donation is expensive — they test the donor for all kinds of communicable or congenital diseases, and we had to pay for all those tests, whereas with an anonymous donor the cost is spread across multiple customers. We were spending hundreds of dollars and still acting as reluctant consultants for our donor's masturbation calendar, but at least there were no more jars of semen.
On our first visit to a reproductive endocrinologist (RE), Charlie was officially diagnosed with infertility, despite being well below the threshold for unsuccessful conception attempts. Being part of a reproductively incompatible couple is apparently, in itself, a medical condition. This reminded me of the time Charlie's doctor wrote down that his birth control method was "abstinence." Is there a rule somewhere that says doctors can't write or speak the word "gay"?
The IUI process, which was both invasive and impersonal, carried us even further from the romantic candlelit conception of our dreams. Charlie had to take pills, undergo transvaginal ultrasounds (which he termed "the snatch wand"), have blood tests and X-rays, and get inseminated via a cervical catheter two days out of every month. Physical modesty and privacy went out the window. There were medications for everything. Charlie was briefly put on a diet — in fact, the doctor suggested that I should lose weight too, as though the size of my ass was somehow eclipsing Charlie's fallopian tubes. The underlying message was clear: There is something wrong with you, or you wouldn't be here. And of course, that "infertile" diagnosis lingered, growing more and more ominous as more months passed without a positive pregnancy test.
While Charlie's experience with IUI involved being constantly scrutinized and objectified, mine was alienating in a different way. Our doctors all but ignored me. I still remember the rush of excitement I felt when we came in on a Saturday and the weekend RE actually shook my hand. I exist! It's possible that as a male partner of a straight woman undergoing IUI, I would have been more included in the process, but maybe not. I only know that frequently, the doctor would come in, perform the procedure, and leave without so much as a word to me. I'm not sure any of our providers knew my name. Or Charlie's, for that matter — they continued calling him by his legal name, despite all the forms where he wrote CHARLIE in big letters under "name you prefer to be called." We could have made a drinking game out of it: Take a shot every time a doctor gets one of our names right on the first try! It would hardly have interfered with Charlie's medically endorsed sobriety.
Contrasted with the doctors and nurses in reproductive endocrinology were the lab techs in the basement, whom we saw several times a month — Charlie more often than me — for blood tests and to defrost our sperm samples. Knowing nothing about us except that we wanted to be parents, they were still warm and welcoming. Each month after the first time, they gave a sympathetic sigh as we walked through their door: "Back again, huh? Hopefully this time it will work!" They ushered us out with our thawed vial and a cheerful "Hope we don't see you again!" Upstairs, no one ever acknowledged that our repeat visits were a source of unhappiness and stress — they just pulled out the speculum and got down to business.
One month, we happened to show up for Charlie's procedure on the office's unofficial Dyke Day. There were two other lesbian couples in the waiting room, clearly for the same reasons as us, and we all shared an informal little Queer Solidarity Salute.
"This has got to be a good omen," said one of the other women, who was a textbook Crunchy Granola Lesbian. "Awesome lady-power vibes." We smiled at each other, and I felt an irrational jolt of optimism. This was perfect! I was already imagining what I would say later: We knew it was our lucky day when we walked in and saw that the waiting room was full of lesbians…. Sadly, population density of queer women is not an accurate predictor of fertility. I don't know if either of those other couples came out of their visits expecting, but we did not.
After five months of IUI and five more negative pregnancy tests (necessitating five weekends spent at home, crying and watching Juno), we've moved on to in vitro fertilization, adding injections and hormone side effects to the list of things Charlie gets to guilt-trip our child for, assuming we ever have one. On top of that, we burned through our savings paying for IUI at a rate of about $1,000 a month, and had to take out a loan to cover the cost of IVF. With all the money we've spent trying to conceive a child, we joke that we can no longer afford to actually raise one. (It's a joke in that we laugh when we say it, but that's mostly just to mask our fear that it's true.)
We still have nothing to show for our efforts, and there's a part of me that feels like, for that reason, I should keep all this to myself. As a culture, we're very uncomfortable with the concept of trying and failing. We prefer to see the finished product, not the struggle and sacrifice it took to get there. Thus, many individuals and couples who are trying to conceive keep that fact to themselves until and unless they get pregnant, all the while fielding questions like "So when are you going to have kids?" from well-meaning family and friends.
I wish it were more acceptable to talk about this. Trying to get pregnant using assisted reproductive technology is hard, and people going through it deserve support and sympathy. We need to be able to talk about the sometimes obstacle-filled journey to parenthood openly, but without fielding tons of intrusive questions that further fracture our already tenuous privacy. And as queer people, we need culturally competent health care providers who understand and sympathize with what we're going through. Assisted reproductive technology isn't anyone's ideal way to start a family, but if it's needed it can be an enormous blessing. I think it's worthwhile to share our stories and realize that, while this issue is emotional and deeply isolating, those of us going through it are not alone. I'm tempted to end on some kind of platitude — like "I know it will all be worth it when I finally get to hold our child" — but the sad truth is that we might not succeed. Some couples don't. Some stories don't have happy endings, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be told.