An Open Letter To My Wife’s Frozen Embryos

Dear Embryos,

On a particularly hot night in August several years back when I was living in Los Angeles, I found myself lazily swiping through a popular dating app when your mama’s profile popped up. She was cute and her bio said she would only be in town through the weekend, which couldn’t have suited me better. Back then, I was still calling myself a recent college graduate and I didn’t feel so guilty asking my parents for money or showing up to work hungover. The prospect of getting married and having kids couldn’t have been further from my mind. I was a 20-something Millennial stumbling my way into adulthood. My life felt like a prelude to the main event, like I was still just making my way to the starting block, and only once I’d gotten there, steadied myself, and heard the gun fire would my future really begin.

Because the future was terrifying, I took your mama on a date that we knew to be both our first and last night together. Of course, it wasn’t. Thursday night became Friday, and Friday became Saturday, and we never said goodbye. After three and a half inseparable days later, I drove her to the airport, and we talked with feigned indifference about whether or not we’d ever see each other again. I walked her to the security entrance line, we kissed, and I really didn’t know that my life had just been forever altered.

Four months later, I packed up my apartment and Izzy (our dog—you’ll meet her, she’s great) and I moved to Paris for two months to see what this thing between me and your mama really was. But just as it had done to us in Los Angeles, two months turned to six, and six months turned into a year. Time carried on moving, and our next steps were always obscured by a cloud of unknowns and uncertainties. We lived together in Paris for two years. Every few months we’d have to wade into the white pea soup that greets a skier at the top of a mountain on an overcast day as we decided whether or not to renew our visas for another six months or year or however long we could eke out of the French government. Anything longer than that was untenable. Much like the mountain is to that skier in the soup, our future was a beautiful void with the promise of reckless joy but could just as likely lead us straight off of a cliff if we weren’t careful.

Our future hasn’t become all that much more certain since then. Because Mama is a Saudi Arabian national, and because she is gay, her status and safety in this world have never been secure. When our French visas could no longer be renewed, we came to New York and got married, and the list of uncertainties we faced somehow had never felt longer. We had to find a place to live, had to build a new life with new friends and new jobs, all while we waited for your mother’s green card application to be processed so she could work and travel again. It was at this time that my father (your grandfather)—a physician specializing in infertility—suggested that because your mama was 32 years old and because we weren’t planning on having children anytime soon, she should test her AMH levels, which serve as an indicator of a woman’s ovarian reserve.

Before meeting your mama, I never paid much attention to children. If there was a dog coming my way on the sidewalk, you better believe I would be stopping to give them some pets, but neither toddlers trying to catch bubbles in the park nor babies in bucket hats made any impression on me. I assumed I’d eventually have some kids of my own, but all I could think about when I saw small kids was the kind of world that awaits them. The longer you live in this world, dear embryos, the more you learn about and experience it—it’s easy to grow cynical. Our planet is catastrophically overpopulated, and the climate change that we refuse to adequately fight promises more frequent and more devastating natural disasters. The global move toward authoritarianism and national populism hasn’t felt this dangerous since the 1930s. Right now, in the summer of 2020 in New York City, equality and justice are illusions we’re tired of telling ourselves. After electing a narcissistic, incompetent, race-baiting buffoon to the highest office in the land, the United States is in the midst of three of the worst crises in the nation’s history all at once. This administration’s incompetence and an inability to feel empathy has propelled us into the worst public health crises in a century, the fallout of which has caused the worst economic crises since the Great Depression, and in the wake of all of that, the government’s insistence on maintaining an inherently racist system and the violence it causes people of color has led to the greatest civil rights crisis since the 1960s. When I think of the world as it is and try to think of a good reason to bring new life into it, it’s hard. Mama is just the opposite. Ever since she was a little girl, all she wanted was to be a mom, and every baby she sees makes her ovaries flutter. When Mama and I talk, she tells me she wants to make more good people. It’s not that she doesn’t see all the bad or all the uncertainty, it’s just that new life offers her hope, a future filled with possibility.

Mama has always had a primal desire to procreate, and it was this feeling, along with the fact that her periods are always regular, and that her mother (your grandmother) had your mother—her sixth child—at the age of 41 without any medical intervention that Mama took as evidence of her own indelible fertility. I, on the other hand, have known since I was 17—and realized I liked sleeping with girls more than I liked sleeping with boys—that if I was ever going to have a child, it would only happen through a very deliberate process. I knew there would be doctors and donor profiles and fluorescent lights and transvaginal ultrasounds; I knew that it would cost money and there would be legal matters to settle. That’s not to say that all heterosexual couples have it easy. About one in six straight couples of reproductive ages will struggle with infertility in their lives, and even couples that don’t ultimately require medical intervention will often still fail to conceive for months or years at a time, and many will suffer devastating miscarriages along the way. I just mean to say that while the fact of my sexual orientation had long prepared me for the sterility of reproductive medicine, the news that Mama has decreased ovarian function landed like a punch to her gut.

All cis women begin losing their eggs as soon as they are born, but this decline grows exponentially steeper after the age of 35. This is why egg freezing has become so popular for single women and working women and any woman, really, who is unwilling to give up on the prospect of ever having a child just because she hasn’t already done so by the age of 35. In fact, many companies are subsidizing egg freezing as a means of both attracting and retaining valuable female employees. It doesn’t matter though. All the science and rationalizing in the world can’t stop that feeling from creeping in when you learn that your assumed capacity to reproduce is actually not up to snuff. When your mama found out that her egg count was low, she said all of the things that I’d heard so many women say before her in interviews I had conducted with IVF patients: that she was less of a woman, that she had somehow failed; that she had failed me, or herself, or her future child; that she was broken. None of these statements are true, not then, not ever, but all the same, we grieved together.

After I met your mother and we fell in love and started dreaming up a future together, I started to notice how cute baby socks are and how happy it made me to discuss what we’d name you. You were still just an abstract idea then, but a mirage child began appearing in visions of our nebulous future. You were just a smudge that could still take the shape of an incomprehensibly infinite number of geno and phenotypic possibilities. Because your Mama and I are extremely privileged and lucky to be born in this time and place, Mama’s poor AMH results presented us with a solvable problem. My father advised that your mother freeze her eggs, and since we’d eventually use a sperm donor anyway, and because embryo freezing technology is still slightly better than egg freezing technology, we went ahead and chose a donor and inseminated Mama’s eggs right then. Then we tested the chromosomal normality of those embryos that developed into blastocysts and now the seven of you, each no more than a few hundred cells, are frozen inside of small plastic straws labelled by color and code and enclosed in a vacuum sealed canister that is kept at -196º Celsius by liquid nitrogen. Your Mama and I have never had a clear future, but now, of the infinite variations of theoretical people that my child could become, there are just seven very real possibilities.

When I imagine your face, I wonder about whether you’ll get mama’s freckles or the donor’s sweet droopy eyes, and in these new details you have become more real to me. Statistically speaking, most of you won’t ever be thawed or implanted into your mother’s womb, most of you won’t continue to grow and develop in utero, and most of you won’t leave that cozy kangaroo pouch to breathe and cry and witness the world. In fact, most of you will be discarded before ever being visible to the naked eye, but you still have more potential to live than my last period or some guys come in a tube sock, and your imminence has allowed me to feel hope where there was once nothing but despair.

Last night, your mama made the face she makes when she wants to tell me something she thinks I might not want to hear.

“Yes?” I asked. I was sitting on the couch reading, and she flopped onto her back on the seat beside me and looked up at me.

“I was just thinking,” she said, in her most playful voice, “we could have a baby now. Just really quick pop an embryo in me.”

“How quick?” I joked.

“Reeaally quick. Just pop it in and then: baby.”

I smiled. “Come here,” I said, and so she sat up to face me and I kissed her. Then I said, “You know we will have one. I just want a tiny bit—”

“I was just joking,” she said, cutting me off.

“But really I am almost—”

“I didn’t want to have a real conversation,” she said, exasperated, and got up and left me there with my book.

I don’t know where exactly my starting block is in this story, I don’t feel like I ever steadied myself, and I never heard a pistol go off, but all the same, embryo, I’m living in the future I had tried so hard to avoid. I suppose in the end, time has a way of catching up with you. I always thought there’d be some moment where everything clarified and I would feel ready and confident as I forged on ahead, but instead I’m still just stumbling forward from one day into the next. I can’t say it’s any easier living in the fog, but at least without a goal or a dream, there can’t be any loss, failure, or disappointment. But now, because of you, embryos, I can see the shape my life is taking. There are still clouds filling the path before me, but when I reach out, they begin to dissipate, and I can hold the shape of my life in my hands and bend it and twist it and change it. One day, one of you will be born into this world, and it will be scary and dark and bad, and I won’t be able to protect you from it all. But there will also be so much good for us to stumble through together.

About the author

In Copenhagen, I slept on a boat that had previously sunk

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