THE BABY TRAIN
by Bryanna Licciardi
“I’m not much of a kid person.”
“Do you mean infants? Toddlers? Young children?” the therapist asked.
“All of the above?”
“I see,” she said casually, writing something down in her yellow notepad, though we both knew the question was anything but casual. In this society, it’s always asked shouldering the answer, because everyone wants children, even if only “someday.” As a woman who has never enjoyed the company of children—who in fact has been known to hide when she hears one coming—I’ve found it easier to just evade questions like this with humor. However, this was a serious decision I was about to make, so I answered truthfully.
Without looking up, she said, “And I’m assuming you’re not married?”
Assuming? “Yes, I’m single.”
“Why do you think you’re single?”
What kind of question was that? Because men suck at dating me? Because I suck at dating them? Because I’ve become an expert at not dating?
Instead, I said, “I’m a virgin. And guys tend not to know what to do with that.”
Her face was priceless—mouth open, eyes crooked and bugging. She looked stunned, like she’d just discovered the missing link. “Virgin…” she mumbled. “And you’re twenty-four?”
She leaned forward, pen pressed hard onto her notepad, and spewed out textbook clichés trying to unlock the secret: was there a history of trauma; was I controlled by the church; had I any daddy issues? But alas, as hard as it was to believe, I was a virgin simply because I’d never had sex.
“Well, being in your…situation…as an egg donor is unusual. Do you think that would affect your inclination to meet the child?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, glad to finally have a question I felt comfortable answering. “I couldn’t see the kid as being mine in anyway. No attachment; nothing to compel me.”
“And why do you want to be a donor?”
“Have you tried being a professional student lately?” I scoffed. “Graduate school is expensive. I mean, I’m glad I can help people by doing this, but honestly, I need the money.”
She handed me a business card in case I ever wanted to “talk about things.” I looked at it curiously during the elevator ride down. In the lobby, I threw it away and walked out of the big revolving doors.
After the doctors and agents confirmed my health and sanity, I was transferred to a lawyer because, apparently, the legalese behind egg donation is elaborate, and I’d need representation. I scheduled an hour with the lawyer, thinking that an hour was a bit ridiculous. Until, that is, I opened the computer the next day and watched the contract download for almost twenty minutes. In it, every detail of every possible scenario was discussed: I’d only get paid if I followed procedures exactly. If the baby came out deformed, it may or may not be as a result of my eggs. I could be investigated accordingly. Do I understand that the eggs become the parents’ property, to do with as they please? Though the donation is anonymous, the child has a right to request my identity after it turns eighteen. I have a right to decline…
Every section, subsection, and sub-subsection grew more specific. Around page thirty-eight, I finally realized how serious this was. I was giving away a key ingredient to life. I was giving them a baby, essentially. This child would have my freckles, my eyes, maybe even my cowlick. It was surreal to think of some kid growing up with my genes, never knowing that she (I’m picturing a girl) came from me. Would I ever want to meet her? Even though I have such unease around children, with their sticky fingers and lack of social skills, I thought I wouldn’t mind seeing her. Though maybe just in a picture, happy with her parents. That way I’d feel good about what I did. Unless she came out distorted or psychopathic. I would not take credit for a serial murderer.
Once my contract was finalized and signed, the pharmacy delivered a very expensive egg-making kit. I set alarms, placed my hormones in the fridge next to the orange juice, had my last glass of wine, and mentally prepared for what was to come.
Each morning, for one month, I woke at dawn to inject myself with synthetic hormones. The nurse explained that the goal of these treatments was to over-stimulate my ovaries so that the lab had plenty of chances to get it right when combining eggs with the father-to-be’s sperm. The nurse mentioned side-effects but brushed them off as no big deal. Seeking reassurance, I scoured online forums for others who’d also taken these injections. I had a hard time finding anything written by donors but found a few from women who’d taken the same medication to get pregnant: Weight gain! Strange food cravings… Migraines… I never stopped peeing… Forget sleep! It didn’t take me long to live out their complaints for myself.
As someone who’s afraid of needles, I never thought I would be capable of sticking myself with one. To my surprise, I did it with little hesitation for thirty mornings in a row, barely awake. I sat on the toilet, grabbed a handful of stomach, and stabbed. Though my instinct was to get it over with quickly, fear that I’d mess up slowed me down. I’d try to go back to bed, rubbing the sore spot on my stomach, but sleep was often too far gone.
My nightly shots—the hormone stimulators—were even worse. The needle was thicker and the syringe harder to push. After a week, my stomach grew blotchy with bruises. It got harder and harder to find a spot to inject that wasn’t too tender. I moved on to my thighs, but ran out of room there, too.
After almost three weeks, discouragement began to tinge my thoughts. I kept trying to tell myself, One month, one less student loan. Because, after all, this decision to donate began with my mounting debt. They say everything in your life is there for a reason. Graduate school was making me a better (though broker) writer. What was this donation doing for me? I decided my mom would be the best person to talk to. She has always accepted me for who I am, even if she doesn’t understand my choices.
Over the phone, I whined about my bloated and bruised belly, my sporadic emotions; how I actually cried when a contestant from The Voice got eliminated. She paused, hmming, and said, “You know, if we could only get some semen in you, you’d be having triplets at least…and I’d have my grandchild quota.”
Becoming a donor began devoid of any emotional entanglement. Helping out a couple in the process was a karmic bonus, but my incentive was mostly selfish. And because it made my parents, aunts, and cousins extremely uncomfortable, their incessant questions into when I would have children finally ceased—definitely a perk. Sure, there were other motives: guilt that I might mess up the couple’s child; an urge to prove that my body belonged to me, that I was responsible, strong, and could see whatever I wanted to through to the end.
After I started the hormones, started going to the hospital every morning for testing, I noticed my commitment deepening. I was vital to this family. My body was vital to this family, and I needed to take care of it. I read the ingredients on food boxes, avoided caffeine and steered clear of liquor stores. I went home after class because I was too tired; called it a night when parties got too smoky. It became a bizarre relationship—me and my eggs. I was the mother to a tiny thing, or to several tiny things. Though I wasn’t caressing my stomach and singing it lullabies, I knew that my eggs needed care.
I felt out of place. No one else I knew was going through this. This was especially true in the fertility clinic waiting room, a place I visited all too often during my donation. Couples sporting eager faces filled the room. During my first ultrasound visit, I sat waiting impatiently. My foot bounced so hard that my shoe kept falling off. I flipped through the pages of a People magazine. The woman next to me, who appeared to be in her mid-thirties, took notice of my jittering.
“Your first time here?” she asked, glancing not-so-discreetly at my belly. I shrugged, smiling back, not wanting to lie but realizing she assumed I was either pregnant or trying to get there. After a few seconds, she said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”
I could guess what she was thinking: How old is she? What’s wrong with her? Is she like me? Where is the father? I didn’t belong in that room with those people. When no one was looking, I slipped my silver JCPenney ring off of my right hand and onto my ring finger. I held out my hand and looked at it, laughing quietly to myself. I left it there until my procedure ended.
When they finally called my name, I was relieved to leave the public eye. The nurse, a pretty woman not much older than me, led me down the zigzagging hallway and into a dark room. In the middle of that room was the chair. Any woman who’s gone to a gynecologist knows the chair. It’s high, usually with a stool beside to help you climb, draped in thin paper, equipped with the dreaded stirrups at one end. A large machine was set up next to the chair, its screen blinking dark blue. My nurse pointed to a bathroom door on the opposite side of the room. “You can leave your clothes in there,” she said, handing me a hospital gown. “Take off everything below the waist.”
I felt ridiculous climbing into the chair, paper crinkling underneath, my gown tangling and slipping open behind me. The nurse placed my feet up in the stirrups and entombed my legs with a sheet. She unsheathed the ultrasound probe from a drawer. It was a thick, long, white, rounded weapon-of-an-instrument covered in clear plastic. When the nurse handed it to me, telling me to guide it in myself, I looked at it gravely.
“No. You don’t understand,” I said weakly, laughing, seeing how awkward this conversation was about to become. “This isn’t going to fit. I’m still…I’m pretty much…I’m a virgin.”
“Really? Well,” she said, hesitating a bit. “There might be some slight tearing, but it will go in. I promise.”
Liar. That’s what I tried to say, but then the probe moved its first millimeter, and a scream/laugh/gargle came out of my mouth instead. I pretended it was funny because she kept laughing. I’m sure it was, to her. Especially if you ignore the blood I had to wipe from between my legs.
As luck would have it, the extraction surgery fell on Thanksgiving Day. The nurse called me two days prior with instructions to stop the hormones that day and details to administer one last shot. The big one. They called it the hCG, or in layman’s terms, Human Chorionic Gonadotropin. I looked it up, and, according to the web, its job was to force my eggs to tear from my ovary wall in preparation for surgery. Because this shot needed to go all the way into my muscles, the nurse said that the buttocks would be the best injection site, and she recommended I find someone to inject it for me. Since it was a holiday, everyone I knew was leaving town, leaving me alone to put this shot in my butt.
One of my roommates, who was studying to be a nurse, offered to set up the syringe before leaving town. She pulled it out of its box, and I almost fainted. The needle itself, not including the syringe, was the length of my hand and almost as thick as a pencil. As she mixed the medicine, she explained that since I couldn’t reach my butt, I’d have to inject this monster into the next thickest place—my thigh.
“You’re pretty small,” she warned. “So be really careful not to hit any bone. That could do some serious damage.”
I watched all of my roommates leave and, once alone, set my alarm for 2:40 AM. I thought it might be easier to stay up but I didn’t make it past midnight. When my alarm went off, I was awake instantly. I ran to the fridge, snatched the ready-made shot, and jumped back into bed. With the lights on and my legs spread out before me, I stared at the left thigh, the chosen victim. How fragile it looked; how much it depended on me to keep it safe. Before I could chicken out, I stabbed.
After every last drop had left the syringe, I slipped the needle out. When the last of it escaped my skin, a steady stream of blood followed. I hadn’t prepared for that and tried to stop the bleeding with my hand while I grabbed the nearest thing, a yellow bandanna, to tie around my thigh. When I woke up the next morning, I had a bloody yellow tie-dye bandanna tied to my leg, and a limp. My thigh was swollen and sore. I spent the day in bed, massaging it, avoiding any thoughts of my impending surgery, of what I was doing to myself.
I arrived at the hospital in the early afternoon on Thanksgiving Day, aware that families across the country were already on their second helpings of casseroles and turkey legs. The hospital was busier than I’d anticipated, and it took a while to check in. I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep, so I was tired, and luckily so. Sleepiness overrode my nerves, though the nerves built up the longer I waited.
Eventually, a nurse called Kathy led me through double doors covered in cautionary signs. “WARNING: NO PERFUMED CREAMS, LOTIONS, OR DEODORANTS BEYOND THIS POINT!” I couldn’t remember if I’d put on any deodorant and discreetly sniffed my armpits.
Kathy ushered me to an empty bed and gave me a gown to change into. As she prepared the anesthesia, she asked me to hold out my arms so she could find a “juicy” vein. She gasped at the bruises on my arms. “Oh, honey.”
I looked down at them, seeing the many needle marks left behind from the countless blood tests I’d been subjected to. Her reaction startled me, and, whether from exhaustion or fear, I started shaking. She tried to get the anesthesia into place, but none of her needles found a vein. Three stabs and bloody swabs later, Kathy gave up. “You’re too cold and dehydrated, and your veins are too beat up,” she said, rubbing her warm hands over my cold ones. Before she left, Kathy wrapped my arms in a blanket and placed small heating pads in my hands. I was so weak I could barely hold onto them, and the weakness felt like defeat. A few minutes later, Kathy came back with a tall, very pale man, an anesthesiologist, who quickly slipped the needle into my forearm. He spoke with a European accent I couldn’t place and told jokes without smiling as he followed Kathy and me to the operating room.
While the nurse secured my IV drip, one of the doctors helped me climb onto the operating table and flung my legs from the side of the table into very tall stirrups. I didn’t think I could reach them but somehow slid in my legs up to the calves. As I tried to ignore the fact that my lady parts were now very exposed, I noticed how many people were there with me. I counted at least eight faces, half-concealed by masks, before the anesthesiologist slipped a plastic mask around my face. This was beginning to feel like torture.
“Please put me out,” I murmured to him, my voice muffled by the plastic of the mask. There was a slight, bitter smell I recognized as the laughing gas from the dentist, but my nerves kept me alert. “I don’t want to be awake for this.”
“Ah,” he said in his quiet accent. “Since this is your holiday, I make you a special cocktail. It tastes bad, but you will no care.” In my last few seconds of consciousness, I saw the crowd of scrubs creeping in.
My stepmom told the rest of our family that I’d missed Thanksgiving because I had “come down with something.” She said she did it to keep my privacy, but I think she did it out of embarrassment. “My family wouldn’t understand,” she said. “They’re Catholic.” I didn’t know what my eggs had to do with being Catholic, but I didn’t care. It was over. My check would be in the mail Monday morning, and I had finally seen this thing through. I thought I’d feel more accomplished, more relieved. But I lay in bed for three days, bleeding and lonely. At first I thought it was because nobody could understand what I’d gone through, that I’d worked so hard for so many weeks and it was suddenly over. I later read that this is a normal reaction, that my body was crashing from hormone withdrawal.
If someone asked me to describe donating eggs, I’d call it awful, fascinating, transformative, hilarious, and, of course, lucrative. I’d half anticipated that my maternal instincts would emerge, but children still look cuter from way, way, way far away. It did make me realize that this urge to have a family is very real for other people. What I’d undergone to donate must be ten times worse for the woman on the receiving end of my eggs. I want people to accept my choices. Therefore, I must also accept that other people are not me. A simple idea but one that took me more than twenty years to learn.
So perhaps I’ll never want to give birth. Perhaps I’ll never want to raise a family. Perhaps I’ll never be able to look at an egg and see a child any more than I could look at a child and see an egg. Then again, eighteen years from now, if one of my donations asks to meet me, I might be forced to change my mind.
Bryanna Licciardi has an MFA in poetry from Emerson College, an overweight yet incredibly agile cat, and a passion for humiliating herself for the sake of an audience. She is currently a doctoral candidate, studying literacy and reading disabilities. Visit bryannalicciardi.com to read about her past and forthcoming publications.
Image credit: Andrew Mason on Flickr