Over 40, three miscarriages in, and assigned to the five-percent-chance-of-conception club, I kept on plugging the only way I knew how.
March 17, 2009: The Beginning
I’m on top. It’s not the recommended position for conception — that would be missionary style with my hips elevated to retain precious seminal fluid long enough to let nature take its course. But I like to be on top. I say something like, “Let’s make a baby.” Jay laughs. This is foreplay.
It’s been eight months since the miscarriage — the third over the course of our almost nineteen-year marriage — but only three months since we started trying again. He was gone on deployment in the Navy during the miscarriage and didn’t come home until three months later. That pregnancy had been a fluke — a four-day weekend together in St. Augustine and I’d turned up pregnant at forty-one. The odds were phenomenal, really. But the odds of getting pregnant were always better than the odds of staying pregnant. So he’d been gone when the bleeding started, and was still gone when the damned doctor at the naval hospital — “Dr. Austin, like the city” — so cavalierly put my odds of carrying a pregnancy to term in the three-to-five percent range. He ticked off my advanced maternal age and uterine fibroids as reasons not to get my hopes up, and talked about my “egg reserve” and how he’d liked to run further tests.
I never went back.
Using over-the-counter ovulation predictor kits, I determined for myself that I was ovulating every month like clockwork. It didn’t really matter if I was ovulating when Jay was gone, but I would still pee on the stick for a few consecutive days, waiting for the smiley face that would tell me it was time to have sex. I had first bought the ones with two lines, like the cheapie pregnancy tests, but even though I have a master’s degree, I couldn’t interpret the lines. Was the second line as dark as the control line? Was it just a trick of the light or wishful thinking? Sometimes the second line would get darker as the test sat on the bathroom counter. One of those fertility sites — the ones that are filled with message boards that read like some sort of secret code: DH, DTD, DD, DS, OPK, POTS — warned against reading an old test because of something called an “evaporation line.” I never did figure out what that was. I just switched over to the digital tests that gave me a smiley face if I was fertile and went through two seven-day kits a month, just to be sure.
Fuck you, Dr. Austin, I ovulate. I ovulate like clockwork. I’m sure of it.
And tonight I am sure I’m ovulating. “Let’s make a baby,” I say. We’ve been actively trying for three months. The first couple of months after he was back, I wasn’t ready. It was too soon after the miscarriage. I knew I couldn’t afford to wait — I’d put it off for so long I was now in the three-to-five-percent chance of success range. After my first miscarriage, I waited seven years, after the second, I waited ten years. After the third, I could only afford to wait a few months. And now, “Let’s make a baby.”
I wasn’t even absolutely, positively sure I wanted to have kids, be a mother, start a family. I just knew my time to make that choice was running out, the window was closing, and it was, as everyone had preemptively been telling me for almost a decade, “Now or never.”
I’m on top and it feels good. It feels right. The message boards warn about sex that is done according to the calendar becoming a “chore,” but I refuse to get caught up in that mess. Sure, I do the tests, mark the days on a chart — days I bleed, days I might be fertile, days we have sex. This is the first month the timing is absolutely perfect. Last month, we were a day too late, the month before, a day or so too early. We still have sex the rest of the month, but during this brief period — the fertile window — it feels like a kind of magic. Cross my fingers, say a prayer to the goddess of fertility, practice positive visualization. I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m having sex with my husband. He’s sliding into me, filling me as I rock back and forth. There’s extra lubrication, thanks to the slippery stuff my body produces during ovulation, and I’m done before he is, grinding on him, caught up in a moment that has nothing to do with making babies. But we are, we are.
Some women swear they can tell when they’ve conceived. They talk about how sex felt “different” that time and they just knew they were pregnant. It wasn’t like that for me. It was good sex, warm and intimate, one hand braced on the wall, the other curled around his shoulder. Crying out, loudly, because there are no children in the house to hear. Just us, him and me, making a baby.
* * *
December 4, 2009: One Last Time
It’s four a.m. We have to be at the hospital in a couple of hours. Jay has been home less than forty-eight hours and he’s still jetlagged after the long flight from Dubai. He’s been falling asleep off and on since he got home, struggling to stay awake and do the last minute things that need to be done, according to me, the panicked first-time mother.
I’ve been doing my best over the past couple of weeks to induce labor naturally and avoid this scheduled induction. I’m scared to death. If I could keep this baby inside me for another six months, I would gladly tolerate the extra weight, the restrictive diet, the swollen ankles, the heartburn, the sleepless nights, all of it. Even having to give up caffeine and alcohol. I’m not ready, but it doesn’t matter. Today is the day. My blood pressure is climbing and for the past couple of weeks, my doctor has been pressuring me to schedule a Caesarean section. I refuse. I want a natural birth — if I could birth my baby at home, I would. But I’m forty-two years old, and my obstetrician has already told me that he put a note in my file saying I’m acting against medical advice by not having a Caesarean section. AMA, I’m always AMA. Advanced maternal age, against medical advice. That’s me, against all odds. I’m having a baby today.
I’ve taken long walks, I’ve eaten pineapple (which is supposed to soften the cervix) and spicy food (ditto, but it gave me horrible heartburn). I’m not ready to drink castor oil because I’ve heard the side effects are awful, but I’m desperate to help this baby come naturally so I don’t have to endure the Pitocin induction. I’ve read that inductions fail at least fifty percent of the time. I’m scared. I have a reason to be. I don’t know if he’s scared; he never seems scared of anything. I’m afraid to talk about how scared I am.
“I’m nervous,” I say instead. “Let’s do it one last time before we’re parents.”
Sex is on the list of possible ways to induce labor, so here we are, just an hour before we have to leave for the hospital, having sex. Quietly, uncomfortably having sex, both of us exhausted for different reasons.
My best friend is visiting from Chicago for the month and is sleeping in the guest room down the hall. The nursery is ready for the baby and my bags are packed with more things than I will need, but I don’t know that right now. It’s the last time I’ll be in this house without a child. I’m terrified, but I’m having sex. My whole body feels swollen, my stomach is rock-hard and the baby’s head is an unyielding lump low in my pelvis. I feel like my body can’t accommodate anything more, but there I am on my side, my legs scissored around Jay’s hips. The baby is very much a presence here between us and I can’t handle more than slow, shallow thrusts, but for a few precious minutes it’s him and me. One last time before our lives change forever.
We get where we’re going, but it’s a bumpy ride.
* * *
December 20, 2009: Remember Who I Am
I cannot stop crying. Rationally, I know it’s a combination of exhaustion, my rollercoaster hormones and the fact that Jay is getting ready to return to his naval command in Dubai. Knowing I have several good reasons to be in tears does not stop them from coming. I cry in the shower because it’s the only place no one can hear me, especially the baby. He’s big and healthy, nearly nine pounds at birth, but breastfeeding has been a nightmare and he lost enough weight to warrant supplementing with formula. I feel like a failure as a mother, as a wife, as a human being. I thought I had it all together and now, holding his small, sleeping form nestled in the crook of my arm, I realize I’m in over my head. I can’t do this. I can’t. I must.
I don’t know anything about babies. I had never even changed a diaper until we brought him home from the hospital three days after my C-section, which came after my failed induction. And when Jay leaves, it will be just baby and me. No family, no babysitter — nothing but a few friends who are busy with their own lives and families and the approaching holidays. I will be wholly responsible for this little life and all I can do is cry. Sometimes the baby looks at me, startled, and starts crying, too. It’s as if he knows I’m not equipped to do this job, that he is in the wrong arms. That makes me cry harder — that he might instinctively know I’m a bad mother.
I take another shower. It’s the only luxury I let myself enjoy, punishing myself for being a failure at breastfeeding by doing too much, pushing my exhausted body too hard. Jay is downstairs with my best friend, the two of them cleaning up from dinner, taking care of the pets, letting me rest and try to nurse the baby. My only job is to feed my child and I’m failing at it. I stand in the shower for fifteen minutes, sobbing against the wall. I can’t stop even when I hear the bathroom door open and hear Jay say, “Are you all right?” from the other side of the shower curtain.
I manage a muffled, “Yes,” choking on the lie.
The shower curtain slides back and he’s in the stall with me, turning me around and wrapping his arms around my thick waist. My entire body rejects his touch in an almost violent way. I have spent two weeks in near-constant touch with my newborn, and my skin feels overly sensitized, raw from too much contact, scalded from the hot water. But he doesn’t let me go. He holds me while I cry, his hands working my hair, rinsing out the shampoo, adding conditioner, massaging my scalp — perhaps the only part of me that isn’t sensitive or sore. I can feel his erection, but I ignore it. Even if I wanted to, I’m two weeks post-partum. He doesn’t say anything and I relax and let him finish rinsing my hair.
He guides me out of the shower, and I resist his help, feeling like an invalid. I resisted it in the hospital, too, which was ridiculous since I had staples in my stomach and an IV in my arm. But now, in my own house, I almost resent being treated this way. I’m physically stronger than I’ve been since the birth, but I’m too tired to protest as he dries me off, helps me slip on a robe and tells me to go lie down. The baby is downstairs with my friend and I don’t hear anything but blessed silence. I am so tired. I lie down, marveling that it’s not uncomfortable or painful to do so. I couldn’t stretch out on my back for the last trimester of my pregnancy and for the first week post-partum I couldn’t curl up on my side because the staples dug into my skin. Now I can do either without fear of hurting myself or the baby. It’s a tiny victory, but one I cling to as a sign of returning normalcy.
Jay stretches out next to me, touching me here and there. Not sexual; soothing. Unbelting my robe, spreading it open, I sense that his intentions are shifting. I protest as he touches me: “I can’t do that, it’s too soon,” though the real answer is, “I don’t want to.” He hushes me, tells me to just relax. I trust him, I do, but this… my body is at odds with my mind – they war with each other. Yes, no, yes, no. Who has sex two weeks postpartum?
As if reading my mind, he says, “You can have an orgasm. You just have to be careful.” I researched it before the induction — what I could and couldn’t do if I ended up with a Caesarean. It’s major abdominal surgery, all of the pregnancy websites tell me, but sexual intercourse is usually easier and can often occur sooner than after a vaginal delivery. My body is ravaged, but the most sensitive part of me hasn’t been affected at all; there’s hardly any blood now. I realize what this means as his fingers slide between my thighs, opening me up. I relax. This feels normal and I’m all about feeling normal. My body is responding, the hormones that make me cry also provide adequate lubrication elsewhere. I don’t know if I would call it sexual arousal, but perhaps it’s a reawakening of sorts.
Just as I’m getting into it, thinking I might have an orgasm under his knowing fingers, he shifts and kneels between my legs. I tense again. Just as quickly, I relax. I trust him. He’s still rubbing me, sliding along my wetness with his erection. This is better than before. I don’t feel like a pity case. I can see desire in his eyes even though I can’t bring myself to look at my flabby, stretchmarked belly with it’s red-raw scar. He wants me. Now. And just like the morning the baby was born, we get where we’re going. The ride is just as bumpy as it was then — harder in some ways, easier in others. The slow, if premature, return of normalcy. I feel a sense of feminine pride.
He wants me. Still.
* * *
May 12, 2010: Family Reunion
Before, homecoming had always been a celebration for two. Seeing him from the pier, kissing him for the first time, that shocking feeling of familiarity that comes with touching him after months apart, walking hand in hand, being a part of a couple again. The awkwardness, almost shyness, of going home together — after stopping for lunch or dinner to catch up and just absorb each other — undressing, making love, reuniting. We’ve done it so many times at this point, it is a part of who we are, our life together. But this time is different, it might as well be the first deployment we’ve ever experienced. This time, I’m waiting for him in an airport hangar, holding a tired, teething infant as we wait for his plane. He hasn’t seen us in five months and I’m fifty pounds lighter, a lot more emotionally stable and only slightly less exhausted. But the baby, that little bundle that only ate, slept, peed, pooped and cried — the one I affectionately called a sack of potatoes for the first three months of his life — is now this mobile, engaging, chubby-cheeked cutie with drool soaking his navy blue T-shirt.
I’m just as shy as ever when I see Jay for the first time post-deployment, nervous about presenting his son to him. New dads are first off the plane, and there he is, beaming at us. The baby hasn’t developed stranger anxiety yet. He will go to anyone — including the father he hasn’t seen in five months. I hand him over to Jay — weighing more than twice he did at birth and grinning gummily at this uniformed stranger. This moment for two has been expanded to include a third — and it is a homecoming like no other. We pack up the baby and head home. It’s lunchtime, then naptime, then time for the new parents to get reacquainted.
There is so much for Jay to learn, so many things that I have learned by trial and error that he now gets to experience. What each cry means, when the baby eats and how much, when he sleeps and how long, what his favorite toys are, how he likes to be held. There is a new person in the house; he’s no longer a newborn who sleeps sixteen hours a day. Our lives are changed forever, and that includes our sex life. While the baby naps we go to the bedroom, kiss and…fall asleep. He is jetlagged from a long day of travel from several time zones away and I’m a very tired mother who has been a single parent for five months. It is, in so many ways, an unfamiliar, unique homecoming. Five months apart and the first thing we do alone together is take a nap.
Sex comes later, of course. We’re tired parents, but it’s still been five months and while my body will never be the same again, it is certainly stronger and lighter than it was the last time he saw me. After the baby goes to bed for the night, when we’re both still tired, we have sex. Not pregnant sex, not post-partum sex, not sex where I’m concerned about how my body or my baby will be affected, but sex for the two of us. Hard, quick, driving, bendy sex.
Good sex. I’m back. I’m me. We’re us.
* * *
December 11, 2010: And Baby Makes Four
Eight months of protected sex. Packages of condoms bought because I’m not interested in hormonal birth control or something more permanent. I’m forty-three years old and it seems like maybe Mother Nature might be her own kind of birth control by now, but still I buy the condoms and we use them. Almost all of the time. I’m still keeping track of my cycles, marking when I think I’m ovulating. In those risky days, I’m adamant about being careful. For eight months, at least.
I don’t know if I want another baby. I have friends with children around the age of my now-one-year-old and they’re insisting one is enough. That feeling rubs off. One is enough, right? We’re lucky we had one healthy baby, after all. Life is good and we shouldn’t push our luck. One is easy, affordable. Two is so much work. These are the things I tell myself when I pack away another too-small T-shirt or see a pregnant woman rubbing her belly. I wasn’t even sure I wanted one child; I know I don’t want two. Right? Right.
Eight months of being careful because, even though I don’t want another baby, I can’t quite bring myself to give up entirely on the idea. I chose not to be sterilized. There is a sense of finality about that word, that procedure, that I reject on a purely emotional level. I don’t want a long-term birth control method for that same reason: At forty-three, a multi-year birth control option like an IUD or injections would amount to sterilization because, even though it could be reversed, I know I wouldn’t make that choice. If I chose a long-lasting birth control, it would be choosing to not have any more children. Hormonal birth control isn’t an option because I spent years on it and don’t want to put my body through the side effects again. So condoms and charting my cycles it is.
I don’t know why I say “One time won’t matter” when he asks if he should use a condom while standing beside the bed one night. The condoms are right there, an arm’s length away, but I don’t move to get one. I do believe that one time won’t matter — but I also know I’m in my fertile window, all the signs are there. But this one time, at my age, couldn’t result in pregnancy. The odds are beyond astronomical (and I have been quoted the odds enough times to know) and it seems silly to worry about one time when he’s right there, pressed against me and I’m feeling that hunger that has returned so fiercely this year. “One time won’t matter, it’ll be okay.” I want this, I want him. One time won’t matter, and damn, it feels good. And part of me thinks, “What if? Wouldn’t that be amazing?”
The next night I will say, “We didn’t use one last night, why bother now?” And the morning after that I will laugh and say, “Well, it’s too late now to worry about it. If I’m going to get pregnant, I already am.” One time or three times, the odds are still against me conceiving. It’s been a long, long time since we had sex three days in a row and I know it’s no accident that this stretch coincides with us going condom-free. Risk-taking is a turn-on and even though I have not said the words, “I want another baby,” I am more than willing to enjoy the risk, enjoy the sex, enjoy how rough he is, that look in his eyes that tells me he does want another baby and doesn’t mind at all that I’m willing to risk it.
Turns out, one time is all it takes, even at forty-three.
* * *
October 7, 2012: Reclaiming Us
We’re in a hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia, three hours from home. It is the morning of our twenty-second wedding anniversary. We’ve been here two nights, all alone, while the boys are at home with very good, generous friends, enjoying a weekend with them and their little girl. It is the first time we have had two nights alone since before we had children. We have spent two days making love in this bed, three times so far. We have gone out for meals, visited Monticello, taken a long drive in the Shenandoah Valley, picked apples, shopped in quaint stores, held hands wherever we’ve gone, had long uninterrupted conversations, stayed up late, read books, ordered room service desserts and had some really good, loud sex. It has been a perfect anniversary weekend in every way.
We are going home today and while I’m excited about seeing the boys after two days away, I’m also surprised by how quickly the time has gone by. Even more surprising is how easily we slipped into our old routine of being just the two of us. It’s been nearly three years since our first baby was born, but we had nearly two decades together before that to establish who we were as a couple. And that memory of us is in the way he holds the door open for me and the way I tuck in the tag on the back of his shirt and the way we return to a rhythm of two adults alone together instead of parents always conscious of the children’s needs. Our time has been our own, and it has been nothing short of magical.
I listen to him breathe, newly awake and still groggy. The room is cool, but the down comforter and his body keep me warm. I climb on top of him, one arm braced against the wooden headboard. I suddenly flash back to the night we conceived our first son. Same position, same feeling of urgency. “Let’s make a baby,” I said to him then. There will be no baby this time — I am on a birth control pill that has been working beautifully for me. There are moments when I consider a third child, but the odds are even more against it. I’m forty-five now, there’s no way… right? I think my subconscious must be wanting to take a chance because I’ve forgotten to take my birth control pill three days in a row before this trip. It’s funny how the heart and mind conspire against each other. But I’m fairly certain even missing birth control won’t be enough of a risk this time; there will be no baby. And yet, the need is there, that yearning to be who I was, even if only for a little while. To reclaim not only my sexual self — the vocal self who has to muffle my cries against his shoulder or my own arm at home, who has quick sex while the boys nap or sleepy sex after they’ve gone to bed — but to reclaim who we were, before kids. To remind myself that “Mama” is not who I am, it’s a part of the whole; to remind him that I’m not just the mother of his children, I’m his wife and friend and lover — and right now the lover needs to be satisfied. Demands it.
I’m straddling him, taking charge, but I’m just rubbing against him right now. Teasing, not quite ready yet for him, not ready for this weekend to be over. “One more time before we go home,” I say, half-question, half-insistence.
There is no hesitation. He’s gripping my hips, my hair a curtain around his face, cocooning him the way this place in the mountains, this hotel, this room has cocooned us for two days. There are no words, there are only sounds. There will be time later to talk. Three hours in the car on the way home to wonder if the boys have missed us and what to have for dinner and what to get them for Christmas and whether they’ll go to bed later than usual tonight. There will be time to worry about what the next two decades will be like with two little boys growing up as we are growing older. Time to make lists and complete them, time to stress out over things we can’t control and things we want to change. Time even to wonder for a few weeks if those three missed pills will mean a third baby, despite the crazy odds, despite two doctors telling me it would be best if I not have any more children. There will be time for all of it — and there will be time again for just the two of us. But right now, here in this moment, there is only time for this. Time to find our rhythm here in this king-sized bed, time for him to touch me just so, for me to clench down on him the way he likes, time for us.
We lie next to each other later, with time still to relax before we get on the road. I memorize him all over again: the hardness of his chest, the thump of his heart, the smell of his arousal and sweat, the scratch of his unshaven face. I wonder if I could do it again, if another baby could possibly be in our future before the clock ticks down to zero. I don’t know. I really don’t. That’s not what this weekend was about, but I’ll take whatever comes.
“Let’s go home,” I say.
And we do, taking the memory of us and all we have become.