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What happens when a 40-plus woman decides to have a child? One woman’s window into L.A.’s booming fertility industry
‘‘Who’s your fertility doctor?’’
This is a frequently asked question among women of a certain age and economic status in Los Angeles. More common than “Where do you do Pilates?” or “How much should you tip the valet?” After you answer, serving up a name, there’s nothing worse than hearing this: “Hmmm. Never heard of him.” There are three top specialists in L.A. whom everyone name-checks: Richard Marrs in Los Angeles (who performed the first U.S. frozen embryo transfer in 1986 and is the author of the best-selling Dr. Richard Marrs’ Fertility Book: America’s Leading Infertility Expert Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Getting Pregnant); Mark Surrey in Beverly Hills (whose center’s Web site until recently boasted, “We believe we can help you conceive!”); and Michael Vermesh in Tarzana (who recently added flat-screen monitors to examination rooms for more complete views of ultrasound images and wrote the foreword to the new book How to Make Love to a Plastic Cup: A Guy’s Guide to the World of Infertility). Women flit from one doctor to another when they don’t get results right away. They even liken their former doctors to ex-boyfriends. You’ll hear someone bash her last physician by saying, “He was so cold and arrogant” or “It took him three days to call me back.”
Me? I consulted with all three clinics and ultimately went with Dr. Marrs. A burly, silver-haired 63-year-old Texan, he’s got a great smile, a soft drawl, and the natural confidence of a man who can soothe a skittish horse. And that’s exactly what I felt like—eyes wide, nostrils flared—when my husband and I entered his practice, California Fertility Partners, not long after my 42nd birthday.
The chance of delivering a child with Down syndrome—about 1 in 350 births for a 35-year-old—jumps to 1 in 100 for a 40-year-old. For a 42-year-old, that figure rises to 1 in 70. Late-pregnancy complications can include preterm labor, diabetes, and preeclampsia as well. Sadly, many women over 40 don’t make it to their second trimester. Miscarriage rates increase 25 to 35 percent for women ages 35 to 45. Over 45, a woman has only a 50 percent chance of carrying a baby to term, which partly explains why fertility doctors with successful track records are as in demand here as honest Prius mechanics.
Typically you wait six weeks for an appointment to see Dr. Marrs. To walk into his clinic is to know right away that you’re in the company of fertility experts. The front desk, a bulkhead staffed by a trio of warm receptionists, is conceptual art constructed of recycled paper and made to look like files with papier-mâché eggs nestled between the folds. The white leather chairs and tufted couches are more W Hotel lobby than doctor’s waiting room.
Dr. Marrs set me on a new in vitro fertilization, or IVF, protocol. There would be more injections to endure and a veritable tornado of hormones coursing through my system. We would shell out tens of thousands of dollars on top of the chunk we’d already spent (a sum we’d siphoned from our house fund). My team would include the best physicians in the field, not to mention a psychic and a much-sought-after herbalist. We were desperate for a baby. The window was closing fast. This had to work.
II. It’s the middle of the night, and I am sitting in our home office gazing at my inspiration board: a thumbtacked collection of images that depict my all-consuming desire to get pregnant. Almost every photo or drawing—by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Anton Stankowski—shows a radiant woman cradling a baby. There are free-floating infants as plump and naked as Thanksgiving turkeys. There is a 1972 glamour shot of a haughty Anjelica Huston, sleek in couture Valentino. I’ve glued a picture of a little girl onto her belly. My favorite item is an old Polaroid of my mom, pregnant with me, in a chic ’60s maternity dress. I tenderly trace the curve of her telltale bump with my finger and then touch my flat stomach and beg for some immaculate transference, whispering, “Please, please, please.”
I need a miracle. My mom, with her auburn updo and jaunty cat-eye sunglasses, is just 26 in this picture. I’m 16 years older. My odds of conceiving a child naturally are 1 in 25. I’m more than three times as likely to die of cancer. Having a family always seemed like it would simply happen when I decided the time was right. I never doubted that I could schedule my pregnancy on my own terms and timetable. Now inside my head is a nagging refrain: Why did I wait so long?
I’m not the only woman asking this question. The most current statistics available show that while the overall birthrate is declining among American women in their twenties and thirties, in 2008 the number of women ages 40 to 44 having kids increased by 1 percent (for women 45 to 54 the increase was 4 percent). From 1990 to 2008, the number of women over 35 having babies jumped from 368,000 to 603,000. The number of women over 40 in California giving birth increased by 300 percent in the 1990s. And in L.A. last year, 4.1 percent of the women who became mothers were over 40 compared with an average of 1.4 percent nationally. That’s about 6,200 babies.
I didn’t seriously start trying until I was 40. I know what you’re thinking: Monica, don’t you remember the dancing baby on Ally McBeal? Surely you know that the longer you wait, the harder it gets. You’re a journalist, for goodness’ sake. You get paid to be informed. As I ask myself why I pushed the snooze button on my biological clock, I realize the answer is as much denial as ignorance. It’s as if I knew and didn’t let myself know at the same time. I simply figured I could wait. That’s not by accident. In recent years any warnings delivered to women about their waning fertility have been labeled sexist at best and an insidious attempt to scare ambitious young women out of the workplace at worst. Plus, all I had to do was saunter through Brentwood and see yoga-taut, middle-aged moms pushing Bugaboo strollers, right? It seemed like everyone was having babies well into their forties.
“The women here are in better physical shape than anywhere I travel,” says Dr. Marrs. “And this whole craze of cosmetic surgery makes it even harder. I see women who are 42, but everyone tells them they look 32, and they do. I have to convince them that Botox can reverse their crow’s-feet, but I can’t do that with their eggs.”
III. I met the man I would marry, Gadi, when I was 36. He was three years younger, but still, on the topic of kids I didn’t mince words. About six dates in, while sipping pinot noir on my couch, I asked him whether he wanted a family. I recall taking a big gulp of wine and curling my toes while I waited for what seemed like an aeon for his response. I was relieved to hear we were on the same page. “I never thought about it before,” he said, “but I’m definitely open.” Two years later, when I was 38, we were married downtown at Union Station. About six months later I started monitoring my monthly ovulation with a sophisticated $200 machine I’d bought after a friend told me that I should begin paying more attention to my cycle. I felt no anxiety, no sense of being late to the game. Everything seemed right on schedule.
During our early attempts at getting pregnant, Gadi directed his first feature film—a horror flick—and his availability and energy understandably flagged. So did mine: While on a business trip, I accidentally left the fancy ovulation gadget behind at a hotel in Switzerland and never replaced it. We weren’t too stressed about it, though. Our efforts to conceive were more whimsical than dedicated. “We were casually trying to have a baby,” Gadi remembers of that time. “There was a sense that we should do it sooner than later, but I wasn’t concerned when it didn’t happen. I had zero sense of a ticking clock.”
Six months later, when I was 39, I got a job as a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Baby making took a backseat to meeting intense deadlines at an understaffed newspaper. During that period, I never consciously thought I was putting career ahead of family. Good job opportunities—especially in wheezy print journalism— didn’t come every 28 days, like ovulation. Even when I was ovulating, if I was too exhausted for sex or my husband was reshooting gory scenes at an abandoned hospital at 3 a.m., I rolled over and thought, “There’s always next month.” The opportunity to cover the Cannes film festival for the paper cost us another four months: I put Operation Infant on hold as soon as I got the go-ahead to attend. “I don’t want to be pregnant in France,” I told my friends. “What a hassle.”
In August 2007, Gadi and I met with our first fertility specialist after a friend urged me to “get serious.” Of the 383 fertility clinics scattered across the nation, 37 are in Southern California. In Beverly Hills alone there are at least six clinics, many of them known by discreet abbreviations like SCRC (Southern California Reproductive Center) and CRH (Center for Reproductive Health). The offices are usually posh, with stylish couches and artwork depicting fertility goddesses and abstract expectant women. When the stars of TLC’s reality series The Little Couple decided to try to have a child with a surrogate last year, they went to a top clinic in Pasadena. In 2005, a 65-year-old woman from Madrid traveled to Westwood’s Pacific Fertility Center to receive treatment and conceive twins, which then made her the world’s oldest mom at 66. (She had lied, claiming to be 55.) Fertility specialist Dr. Geoffrey Sher, who now oversees a chain of nine clinics across the nation, opened three of his first four locations in California and attracted patients from all over the globe.
We walked into the doctor’s office at USC and sat down, shiny with excitement about our future. After some talk about my menstrual cycle and what the doctor called our “not-so-focused” attempts to conceive thus far, he scribbled a few notes on a piece of paper, which he pushed across the table to us. I gasped. According to his stats, we had a 3 to 5 percent chance of getting pregnant naturally. “Jesus, we have a better chance of being attacked by the same shark,” I later said with a laugh, but for the first time I was scared. Gadi told me he felt dumb for not knowing that my fertility had taken a nosedive. “We didn’t just miss the window,” he said. “We’re getting started five years late.” With assisted reproductive therapy—i.e., IVF—the doctor told us our chances rose only slightly, to 12 or 15 percent, for a live birth. “These odds really suck,” I said accusingly to the doctor, as if it were his fault.
I had a fantastic husband and wonderful friends, a six-figure deal to cowrite a book, and a sudden longing for a baby that made me sob in the shower. I was angry at myself for being so irresponsible. Why wasn’t I one of those dutiful girls who plotted out her life objectives? Why didn’t I take a hint when our parents stopped asking us about children? How would I forgive myself if I couldn’t get pregnant?
“Reproductive endocrinologists are always telling me that they see 38- or 40-year-old women who say, ‘But I read in People magazine that so-and-so just had a beautiful baby,’ ” says Barbara Collura, executive director of Resolve, a national nonprofit dedicated to infertility support, education, and research. For years she’s been trying to persuade a prominent actress to speak out about declining fertility and the realities of starting a family late in life. “I respect celebrities’ privacy, but I truly wish they would talk about how they got pregnant.”
Only last summer an Us Weekly headline screeched, “Age is just a number! Hollywood’s ‘miracle’ moms beat the odds” in an article that featured mature mothers-to-be like Mariah Carey (now 41), Celine Dion (43), and Kelly Preston (48). Dion has spoken publicly about her ongoing infertility struggles—she has undergone six IVFs and recently delivered twins—but hers is a rare well-known voice. As much as I like to think that I’m immune to the delusional “Stars…They’re Just Like Us!” mind-set, I distinctly recall feeling a whoosh of relief three years ago, when my peer Nicole Kidman gave birth to a daughter at 41.
One actress who decided to speak out about her infertility got pushback from her career advisers. Desperate Housewives costar Brenda Strong developed an exercise program in 2000 called Yoga4Fertility after suffering from secondary infertility (she couldn’t conceive a second child). In 2005, she joined the board of the American Fertility Association to help other women by sharing her history. But her management team “wasn’t too happy about it,” she says. “This industry is all about how you look, and infertility just isn’t very sexy.”
Stars aren’t the only ones who internalize that message. Let’s face it: Not a woman alive is eager to acknowledge a loss of youth, beauty, or bounty—all the attributes associated with fertility. Almost every culture, from Christian to Celtic to Inuit, has an icon or goddess of fecundity. She’s curvy and capable, with full parted lips, tea cake breasts, and an enviable expanse of hips. Conversely, synonyms for infertile—barren, depleted, drained, and effete—conjure an image of a weary, raw-boned Walker Evans portrait, a hurricane fence of a woman full of holes.
“You feel ashamed and kind of broken,” says a 40-year-old public relations executive who has been trying to conceive for four years. “It’s like you’re half a woman if you can’t get pregnant.”
IV. At 41 I was abruptly laid off from the L.A. Times, on the same day that I had my first front-page story. It definitely stung my ego, but I reasoned that all the work stress was probably keeping me from getting pregnant. I vowed to make becoming a mom my new job. At the time my husband and I were experimenting with more aggressive fertility measures. We tried an intrauterine insemination, or IUI. As millions of Gadi’s sperm were injected into my uterus, I pictured my womb as a football stadium roiling with rowdy fans. The IUI failed, which wasn’t crushing, since we had known going in that our chances were slim. It was time to call in the big guns with an IVF, which works like this: Your ovaries are stimulated with daily hormone shots to produce as many eggs as possible. Those eggs are then retrieved and fertilized with sperm in a lab. The healthiest embryos that develop over a few days are then implanted into your uterus. Two weeks later you’re either celebrating or lamenting.
Assisted reproductive technology has come a long way since 1981, when Elizabeth Carr became the first test tube, or IVF, baby in America. (Three years earlier Louise Brown had been conceived via IVF in England. Her doctor, Robert G. Edwards, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last year.) Back then the two fertility clinics operating in the United States—one of them at USC, the other in Virginia—dismissed women over 34 as too old for treatment. Nowadays advances include genetic testing to determine an egg’s viability to fertilize and thrive and cryo-preservation of fertilized embryos. The costs have increased, too. In the United States, where treatments are the most expensive worldwide, one IVF ranges from $10,000 to $15,000. In Australia, an IVF tops out at $7,000 and in the Czech Republic, at $3,000.
Nonetheless we would-be mothers, ever tenacious, find ways to keep hope alive. As I made my way through the maze that is the infertility circuit, women told me inspirational stories that I greedily pocketed in fistfuls like caramels. “This friend of my cousin got pregnant at 43 after one IVF, and she only had one ovary!” I heard someone say at a party. “This woman in my yoga class tried for five years and gave up. But right after she signed up to adopt, she got pregnant naturally!” Was that the trick? Giving up to get what you want? As the months ticked by, I knew I’d try anything.
Going into it we were ridiculously naive. We never doubted I would conceive within a couple of tries. My faith wasn’t spurred by some ovarian hubris or creative visualization. Rather, it just seemed like a) we would best the rotten odds because we wanted a child so badly, b) my egg supply hadn’t dwindled dramatically for my age, according to our specialist, and c) this was advanced science, damn it. At the clinics you can always tell which couples are just starting out. They hold hands, and their faces are bright and eager. The veterans look drawn and distant, separated by their resentment.
Undergoing infertility treatments is a lot like taking a crappy minimum-wage job. The schedule sucks, you always feel cheated, and you have no control over your situation. Once you’re cycling—or stimulating your ovaries for an IUI or IVF—you must administer daily shots into your abdomen or upper thighs. You have to alternate where you prick yourself and end up with lots of quarter-size bruises. I have heard stories of women doing their shots at the movies and in dressing rooms. I once poked myself right through a Prada dress at the InStyle Golden Globes party.
What’s more, you have to visit your specialist every other day for vaginal ultrasound monitoring, so you can’t travel. The drugs mimic those freight train hormones responsible for PMS and cause exhaustion, severe mood swings, and intense bloating. You’re suddenly as snarly as an old dachshund, and your jeans won’t button. To shrink an ovarian cyst, I received daily shots of Lupron, which simulates menopause and turns your reproductive organs into an abandoned car factory. During that month, I felt hopeless and awoke most nights sweating and slippery as an eel. Forty may be the new 30, but on these drugs I felt 60.
Still, once we got started, things moved quickly. Our first IVF in March of 2009 fizzled, but the next one, two months later, took. We stood in the living room and hugged and teared up and held hands while we called our families. But at the first ultrasound two weeks later, our then-doctor had bad news. “I’m sorry,” she said, pointing to an inky blood clot inside the embryonic sac on the monitor. This baby wasn’t going to take. Devastated, we went to see a remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 at the Grove. It somehow felt right to sit in the dark, our senses assailed as we cried silently and I started to miscarry. We decided to take a couple of months off—to try on our own before enduring a third IVF. Fortunately our insurance plan covered up to $25,000 for infertility, and so while we were maxed out on benefits, we had paid only about $16,000 out of pocket thus far.
During this time, I reluctantly investigated other options. We could spend an additional $8,000 to $15,000 on donor eggs from a younger woman we handpicked from an agency. It wouldn’t be difficult to find a donor with my blue eyes, fair skin, and, well, a higher IQ. I had to admit, however, that the thought of buying eggs from a younger woman made me feel old and passed over. Adoption, too, was a possible plan B. Often people will ask, “Why not adopt?” when they hear the harrowing stories of women undergoing a dozen IVFs or of couples refinancing their homes to pay for treatments. Well, adoption of an infant costs anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, and the process can take one to five years. This far down the road of trying to conceive a biological child, I felt like a hyped-up gambler at a Vegas blackjack table, convinced that against all odds we could win back our losses with just one more hand. Moreover, adoption didn’t seem any easier, cheaper, or more certain. Close friends of ours had had a newborn wrenched from their grasp when the birth mother suddenly changed her mind.
When nausea struck a month or so later and the familiar squiggly blue vein reappeared on my left shin, as it had the last time, I felt sure I was pregnant again. A blood test confirmed my hunch. This time, though, the ultrasound revealed an empty uterus. That meant one of two things: twins (the sacs often take longer to develop) or an ectopic pregnancy, in which the embryo implants in a fallopian tube. Because I had none of the pain or bleeding associated with an ectopic, which is never viable, we banked on twins. A week later, at my doctor’s urging, I checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but not before driving out to Reseda during rush hour to see an old Turkish psychic, who held my hand and assured me that I would have a boy and a girl. For four days radiologists and reproductive endocrinologists debated over the two misshapen sacs that had begun to slowly take shape in my womb. I listened to the doctors but inwardly deferred to my psychic; thinking positive seemed like the best course. During that time, my levels of hCG—the hormone that doubles every 48 hours as a pregnancy grows in the first 12 weeks—rose steadily. When the Rorschach blots on the monitor stopped growing on day four, they were dismissed as “rogue sacs”—decoys, we soon learned, that the hormones produce during an ectopic to trick you into thinking that the pregnancy is normal. (Rogue sacs? I already felt so betrayed by my body. Now my uterus was harboring biological traitors.)
Once I sadly conceded that there would be no double stroller, my doctor injected my upper arms with methotrexate, a toxic drug used for treating cancer and for swiftly terminating ectopic pregnancies. I could feel the aggressive medicine surging through my body like a line of red ants. I was discharged, and my mother came from Florida to visit and soothe me because Gadi had to dash to New York for the opening of his film. Mom and I watched grisly crime shows about murderous women and ate a whole box of See’s candy. I cried during the commercials while she rubbed my feet. But the worst was yet to come.
That night the phone rang. It was my doctor: I needed to have my lungs x-rayed right away for cancerous tumors. Tests of the embryonic tissue from the last pregnancy loss had shown some abnormal cells that lab technicians had missed. That’s what had caused the rogue sacs, and there was concern that that wasn’t the only damage they had done.
Finally I had a diagnosis: a persistent molar pregnancy, a rare precancerous condition that afflicts 1 in 1,000 pregnant U.S. women and is most common in Southeast Asia and Mexico; women over 40 have a higher risk. We sped back to the hospital that night for a quick X ray and met with a gynecological oncologist the next morning. Thankfully my lungs were clear, but I would need a D&C to fully eradicate the cells. To ensure that they didn’t return, three months of weekly chemotherapy shots awaited me. Sure, I felt sorry for myself when I went in for chemo treatments. But it’s hard to wallow when you’re the only person in the waiting room who doesn’t actually have cancer. I had “precancer,” which sounds like nothing so much as a Woody Allen punch line. The final blow? The specialist advised us to wait a year before trying to get pregnant again. “We don’t have a year,” I said to him, crying. “I’m already too old.” That night I had a dream of eggs rolling off our granite kitchen countertop—one after another—and smashing on the floor.
V. I’ve always felt more peer pressure to achieve than to conceive. In my circle women brag about promotions, not pregnancies. My mom bypassed college and a career to raise me and my brother and sister. Growing up in Queens, New York, and then a lovely suburb in northern New Jersey, I know that we wore her out. When I was ten, all I wanted was a dollhouse with matchbox-size Persian rugs and a mini chandelier and to play family. Each of my friends had a dollhouse. I begged my mom for one, too. She sighed and said, “Why would you want that? You’ll see what it’s like when you grow up.” That defeated look on her face always stuck with me. For all its rewards, motherhood seemed to come at a cost.
After graduating from college, I did crave a child for a spell. In my early twenties I was single and living in New York and felt anxious about my career and my future. I imagined that having a kid would give me day-to-day direction and lifelong purpose. I could bear waitressing for such a noble cause, and I would never be lonely. Young punk moms in the East Village looked so cool with their little punk tots in matching leather jackets. But once I landed my first reporter job at a magazine, the urge to be one of them didn’t evaporate exactly; it just got replaced by another calling. During my thirties, as my colleagues began to have children, I only half-listened to their joyous tales of that first smile or bath time. Baby showers felt interminable. If anyone asked me if I wanted a family, I nodded without hesitation. And I did, eventually—once I had met the right man and made more money and traveled to distant continents. It was a priority, just not a pressing one.
In 2001, the nonprofit American Society for Reproductive Medicine tried to better inform women about how age affects fertility. The organization launched a national campaign on subways and buses that featured an upside-down baby bottle as an hourglass and the words Advancing Age Decreases Your Ability to Have Children. Feminist groups like the National Organization for Women bristled, accusing the organization of exhorting women to trade in their briefcases for diaper bags. I remember reading about the hoopla. Back then, when I was a dewy 33, I resented what I viewed as a patriarchal pinch on the rear. How dare they reduce me to a pair of wizening ovaries and an empty uterus?
To blame feminism entirely for our delay in family planning, of course, is overly simplistic—not to mention self-defeating. Certainly there are other forces nurturing our ignorance. But the we-can-have-it-all battle cry rings awfully hollow when motherhood eludes us.
“I used to say, ‘Bring back the ’50s,’ ” Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Lisa Cholodenko says half-jokingly of the days when women started families in their twenties. She postponed making The Kids Are All Right in 2006 when she became pregnant with her son at 41 after three IUIs. She and her partner, Emmy-winning composer Wendy Melvoin, who was also in her forties, took turns trying to conceive with a sperm donor for more than two years, and both suffered miscarriages. “Why were we taught in the ’80s that we could have babies and we could work at the same time and it was all doable? That’s bullshit.”
VI. Everyone who manages to eventually get pregnant has a surefire scheme: Quit caffeine, give up booze, stop eating sugar, befriend kale. “I have become a fertility whore,” says television producer Alicia Gargaro-Magaña, 44, who has been struggling to conceive for four years. She underwent two IVFs, had a natural pregnancy and miscarried, and now is planning to try IUI. “If something will get me pregnant, I will eat it, suck it, or sniff it. It makes me feel better to try anything.”
I felt the same way. Six months after my ectopic, we enlisted the help of Dr. Marrs. He said that my ovaries were still recovering from the toxic onslaught of chemo. (He would monitor them over the next three months.) Then I sought out the renowned Dr. Dao. Daoshing Ni is a Chinese acupuncturist, the founder of the Tao of Wellness clinic in Santa Monica and author of The Tao of Fertility. For months I’d been hearing about his “magic tea.” When I called for an appointment, the wait was eight weeks.
Two months later I was finally sitting in his office. He walked in, listened patiently to my story, and clucked sympathetically. At 47 he exudes an alert energy and has a sly sense of humor. “Oh, my God, nearly 50 percent of my patients are over 40,” he said when I told him my situation. Later he would tell me, “They’re a very anxious community, and they want to throw all their money into the kitchen sink. But I tell them this is more about changing work, sleep, and diet than about money.” Dao recommends that his patients buy bags of herbs that he formulates for each client. Every other day you brew these gnarly plants—mine were a mix of dong quai (angelica), Chinese yam, and rehmannia—for exactly 30 minutes in a special ceramic pot. The brackish concoction smells like stale bong water and tastes like burned broccoli rabe with notes of citrus and dirt. Without hesitation, I held my nose and drank it down.
On March 29, 2010, two weeks after my third IVF, which brought our total expenditure to almost $35,000, I had a blood test in the morning and received a phone call from Marrs’s office at noon. It took just five syllables to change our lives: “Congratulations!”
A few weeks later the first sonogram showed a rice grain-size embryo with a fierce, fast heartbeat that echoed in the examination room like a bass drum. I was carrying an apparently healthy fetus. The transition from anxious and infertile to triumphant and pregnant wasn’t as easy as I expected. For months I spent more time scouring infertility support groups online than I did researching cribs and birth plans. Partly, I realize now, I preferred the determined spirit of the wanna-be mothers to the sometimes smug and sanctimonious attitudes of mothers-to-be. When hearing their advice about breast feeding and sleep cycles, I frequently wanted to say, “Do you know how easy you’ve had it?”
As my pregnancy progressed, I grew to appreciate the tips and knowing eye rolls of these women. Like them, I loved being pregnant. In late October, as a heat wave descended on Los Angeles, I cheerfully stayed inside by the air conditioner to keep myself and the baby cool. It was as if the person in my abdomen had become my primary motivation. Around that time I wrote to a friend, “It’s actually quite interesting to have your belly become the center of your gravity. Like bumblebees, we pregnant women should grow wings and stingers, though. Come on, evolution.” In November, at eight months along, I found myself with a deal to develop a TV show and suddenly realized that, against all odds, I seemed to “have it all” after all.
VII. Tess Darling Harel has my ocean blue eyes, Gadi’s full lips, and the long, slender fingers of a pianist or a pickpocket. She entered our lives on November 30, 2010. My induced labor lasted just over an hour, which felt short after what we had been through. Tess is almost four months old as I write this, and I’m still astounded by the bliss of motherhood. Just yesterday she pooped right through her pink onesie, and my heart swelled. How could I have known that I would wake up in the middle of the night simply to stare at my daughter? Or that Gadi and I would look forward to getting older so we could watch Tess grow up?
But our happy ending is not the end of this story. For in addition to at last becoming a mom, I have changed in other ways. I’ve become that interfering (and frequently unwelcome) voice of reason for my single and childless girlfriends who have talked about wanting a family. “What about kids?” I prod them over dinner while we’re discussing their latest promotions and treks to India. No one’s embroidered pastel fantasy of motherhood includes doctors shooting embryos through a catheter into your uterus—I get that, really I do. But when one of my career-driven peers recently told me she planned to wait until next year to start trying, at 42, I lobbed statistics at her like dinner rolls. She frowned and nodded—it got awkward—but I couldn’t stop until the check came. Another friend who’s in her midthirties and single gets zealous updates from me whenever we meet. The topic? Medical advances in the art of freezing your eggs. “I probably should…,” she says, staring into her martini. And I know exactly what she’s thinking: Keep a stockpile of unfertilized ova on ice? Hell, no. That’s not the way I envisioned it going down. To which I say: Uh huh. Me neither.
Monica Corcoran Harel’s work has appeared in The New York Times, InStyle, and O, The Oprah Magazine. This is her first feature for the magazine.
Photograph by Tom Hollar