I lied down on the table, adjusted the pillow underneath my butt and stared at the perfect swirl of lubricant on the wand next to my head. It looked like the smallest amount of soft-serve. The fact that it was already applied to the tip struck me as slightly cold and efficient, just like everything else about the process I was going through.
Ten minutes later, the curly-haired tech whom I recognized from previous visits entered the room and plunged the ultrasound wand deep into my body, so that she could count the number of eggs that were maturing inside my 36 year-old ovaries. “I thought you’d be pregnant by now,” she said as she measured a follicle, her eyes concentrating on the tiny blobs on the screen. “Me too,” I muttered.
Like most women in their mid-thirties who have trouble conceiving, I never thought I’d have trouble conceiving. But after 18 fraught months that included trying on our own and then a succession of expensive, invasive and time-consuming infertility treatments, I was starting to think that having a baby wasn’t in the cards.
My husband and I were never one of those couples who planned to have a child all along, but now that it looked like we couldn’t, we were forced to ask ourselves – what would life be like if it was just the two of us?
We could travel, pursue our interests, have more money, more time for ourselves, we reasoned. My husband started talking to our friends about getting me a Pomeranian, an idea he’d flatly refused before the months upon months of negative pregnancy tests. But our doctor’s suggestion of IVF (in vitro fertilization) – an invasive procedure not covered by our insurance – was in the back of my mind, so I wasn’t quite ready to consider adopting a “fur kid” or even a member of my own species.
And anyway, I had been doing just fine, living what I had to admit was a mostly self-centered existence. Maybe it was time to do something to help others. I’d always been into girl power, but mostly in a Spice-Girls-listening kind of way, not an actually-doing-something kind of way. I thought back to when I was a kid, attending weekly Brownie meetings, proudly dressed in my sash and beanie. Maybe I could be a Girl Scout leader, I thought. If I couldn’t have a daughter of my own, maybe there was a whole troop of them just waiting for my guidance.
When I told people my idea, I was mostly met with skepticism. “Are you a parent?” asked the woman running the Girl Scouts training session. “A teacher at the school?” No and no. Was it really so weird that I just wanted to help out? Friends and relatives wondered why I would waste my time on someone else’s kids, but in my mind, the next best thing to being a mother was being a mentor. I could show them how to tie a double overhand knot, start a fire using two twigs, mold a makeshift shelter with a Swiss Army knife, maybe take them camping. Okay, so I didn’t actually know how to do any of those things, but surely I had something of value to offer them? Luckily someone in charge thought so.
On the day of our first meeting I entered the school cafeteria and found the seven girls, fourth and fifth graders, who had signed up for my troop, waiting for me at the designated table. After offering them a box of Munchkins, which they devoured in seconds like a pack of hungry wolves, I led them upstairs to the classroom where we’d hold our biweekly meetings.
All of the girls in my troop had stripper names, like Crystal and Jazmin and Charisma, but standing before me, they looked like innocent kids, with backpacks and ponytails and clothes that to my relief, were not slutty, but rather, slightly uncool.
Our first activity was the “toilet paper game.” Each girl had to tell one thing about herself for every square she had taken. As we went around the circle, they spoke in shy, little-girl voices that were almost inaudible. “I’m nine, I like reading, my favorite color is pink and purple and silver : ” But then there was Eden. Standing up to command everyone’s attention, her introduction was more like performance art as she free-associated different aspects about herself while tossing squares of toilet paper in the air with manic energy. “I’m black and white and Hispanic and Asian, I hate my brother, I have an annoying dog, I like pizza, I hate school, I hate homework, I like purple and cats and water parks : ”
In the weeks that followed, I planned activities for the girls that I thought were enriching and character-building. We gave out crepe paper flowers we made at a senior center on Valentine’s Day, learned how to sew, visited an animal hospital and played charades as part of the “Theater” badge. I imagined that the girls were developing new skills and self-esteem from our meetings and that one day, one of them might even thank me in her speech as class valedictorian. But in all my fantasizing, what I didn’t anticipate was that they could also be unruly, loud and disrespectful. In other words, normal kids. During a trip to a yoga studio, I found that most of them couldn’t sit still on the mats for more than five seconds. I felt terribly for the young woman who was trying to get them to listen up and execute some of the poses. “And now let’s all move into downward dog,” she instructed and my girls, apparently taking a very literal interpretation of the practice, all started barking in unison.
During one of our Monday meetings, my cell phone rang and I recognized the number on the caller ID as the infertility center where we were set to begin a round of IVF. Leaving the tallest and most responsible-seeming fifth grader in charge of the group, I hovered in the hallway, jotting down the names and prices of the injectable medications I would need. Then, unbeknownst to my girls, I spent the next several weeks shooting my belly full of hormones, shuttling back and forth from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side for check-ups and preparing to go under anesthesia for the most serious step of the IVF process – the egg retrieval.
But what if it didn’t work? Would being a positive influence to a group of girls who weren’t really mine be enough?
Two weeks after the procedure, I waited by the phone for the nurse to call me with the results of my blood pregnancy test. “I have good news,” she said. “You’re pregnant.” I asked her to repeat herself because I didn’t actually believe it.
By the time the girls got back from Spring Break, I told them the big news. “I have two babies inside me,” I announced after we had recited our opening pledge. “Twins? A boy and a girl?” they asked, shouting out questions in excitement. Yes and yes.
The girls decided that the babies should either be named “Skylar” and “Tyler” or, with total lack of regard to the fact I had told them I was a Hanukkah, not Christmas, celebrator, “Kristen” and “Christian.”
Weeks later, when I was six months along, we took an end-of-the-year field trip to a doll factory using the money we’d raised from selling cookies. As we walked through the doll museum, the rows of googily eyes staring out at us from intricately painted plastic heads, I realized that the girls standing next to me, funny and awkward and physically unable to obey the signs that said “Please Do Not Touch” actually had something in common with the two precious babies growing inside me – I was their leader and they were my troupers.
At the end of the tour, Destini, one of my fourth graders, followed me into the ladies room. “I’m going to miss Girl Scouts,” she said.
As I hovered over the toilet, trying to pee while holding my now-gigantic belly, it hit me: These were my girls. Not biologically, but for one hour, every other week, they had looked up to me and, for the most part, listened and possibly learned something. Maybe I would be a better parent having known them, too.
*The names of the Girl Scouts mentioned in this essay have been changed.