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Trying to get pregnant after 40: a story of infertility

When in doubt, bake. I didn’t come up with this concept; people have been doing oven therapy for ages. When I’m so anxious that my atoms are vibrating visibly, I prefer making bread or sweet things, like cake, muffins and my Nana’s lemon meringue pie.

My grandmother, Nana, married when she was 21, but she didn’t become pregnant for a while; her doctors had advised her against it because of a heart condition she’d had from a young age, something she had in common with her namesake grandmother. But at 25, Nana did get pregnant. Despite her doctor’s recommendation to get an abortion, she went ahead with her pregnancy and gave birth to my mother without incident.

My mom had me when she was 21, and she was always honest with me about the fact that I was a surprise. She saw no point in lying to a kid who could tell there was no love lost between her divorced parents. On my 35th birthday, Mom laughed as she told the story of going to the hospital and getting wedged in the cab between the backseat and the front when the nervous cabbie made a short stop. Looking back from an adult perspective, I knew she’d never had it easy as a young, single mother, and I also knew she’d had a choice in the matter.

“Why did you have me?” I asked suddenly.

Mom thought for a moment, still smiling from the cab story. “I don’t know,” she finally said, but the look on her face showed that she was pleased with the outcome.

My mother didn’t remarry until I was 17, when she finally found the right man, a man who was not my father by blood but who became something far more important to me: my dad. All turned out well, but when I started thinking about marriage and children, I vowed I’d wait for a man who would stick around and be a husband and a father. I didn’t realize that, in my case, waiting for the former might mean having to give up on the latter.

When I was 37, my gynecologist told me, “If you want to have a baby, it’s now or never.”

This was not the kind of thing I wanted to hear when my legs were in stirrups and there was a plastic speculum lodged in what I’d hoped would one day be part of a baby-construction site.

“Uh: my boyfriend doesn’t want to have kids,” I admitted.

“Well, if you do, you should find a new boyfriend fast.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said, shifting my bare butt on the crinkly paper covering the exam table when she removed the speculum. “You’re telling me to break up with my boyfriend, find a new one ASAP, and get pregnant, all within the space of a year – that’s your professional advice?”

She shrugged and pulled off her rubber gloves with a snap of finality. “All I’m saying is, you’re running out of time.”

I ended up getting a new gynecologist before I got a new boyfriend, and by the time I met Nathan, when I was 41 and he was 43, we’d both given up on the idea of having children. But this new, committed love made us hopeful. One day, I asked him, “What if we tried to have a baby?”

He thought about it for a moment and said, “Then I guess we should discuss names.”

“Okay, what should we call the baby – if we have one?”

“Tex.”

“What if it’s a girl?”

“I meant Tex if it’s a girl,” Nathan said.

From then on, we referred to our future baby as Tex. Even though I was a statistical long shot, we were officially Trying. And why not? As my mother said, “If you could find a smart, sexy, straight, available man – in New York, and you over 40, no less – anything is possible.”

Two years of trying the good old-fashioned way resulted in a few near misses in the form of periods that came late and heavy. I decided to seek help from an acupuncturist. Twice a day I drank a mixture of Chinese herbs designed to keep my childbearing hormones active. It tasted like someone had swept up the forest floor and made a brew of it, but I distracted myself as I gulped it down by thinking of middle names that would go with Tex. Twice a week I played human pincushion at the acupuncturist’s office. At least twice a month, someone would encourage me with a story about a woman over 40 years old they knew, or had heard of, who’d gotten pregnant without IVF. (Nathan and I had discussed the in-vitro option, but our hearts weren’t in it.) I added a specialist to the team. Two times we did what we called the “March of the Penguins”: Nathan “delivered” his contribution to our effort into a sterile plastic cup, which I would then shove into my bra to keep warm as I raced to be artificially inseminated at my fertility doctor’s office on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And every month, I got my period.

“What are we doing wrong?” Nathan asked, his voice catching.

“Nothing,” I said. “Nothing at all. We’re fine.”

It was the truth; we were fine, I realized. We were fine before we started trying, and we would be again, when we went back to just being. I said good-bye to my doctors. I gave up drinking forest tea. And now I stop trying to beat egg whites that, for whatever reason, aren’t meant to be meringues.

Fast forward to February, 2009: I take the lemon pie from the oven. I bring what was more like a tart close to my face; it’s warm. I sniff: tangy, sweet. It even makes tiny crackling noises as it continues to bake, a group of formerly separate ingredients humming together to form something new. I put it on the kitchen counter and wait for it to cool. I know now that there were many things Nana wanted to do in her life – go to college, become a teacher, be a writer and at the very least stop having to worry about money. And there are probably some other things I don’t know about because she made a practice of acceptance. If she was able to change her situation, she did. If she wasn’t, she did the best she could and didn’t waste time complaining. This is yet another lesson I have learned from her that will serve me well, in this case especially.

I had always pictured the day when I would pass my family’s stories down to my child. Now I have to accept that, for whatever reason, this isn’t meant to be. There will always be a sadness in me over this, but it won’t cancel out the joy I feel over what I do have.

The love between me and Nathan fills this house. We have people, family as well as friends who are as close as blood, with whom we build more love. And I’ve had the privilege of spending thousands of days following my heart’s desire and making a living from it. My family may have reached the end of the line, but they will be with me always, through hard times and good. And they sit with me now in the kitchen. Nathan and I share a slice of the tart that had hoped to be a pie, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

From CHERRIES IN WINTER by Suzan Colon. Copyright (c) 2009 by Suzan Colon. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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