Friday, June 14, 2013

Livin' for Baby

In every human endeavor with unpredictable outcomes and high levels of chance, advice gurus proliferate. Each promises the secret to improving my fertility. Over-the-counter supplements, bottles of wheat grass, special yoga poses, acupuncture treatments, meditation mantras, no alcohol, no coffee, so soy, no fish, no fun. Preparing to harvest my eggs apparently requires an intense commitment to clean livin'.

I've always been a relatively healthy eater, and I exercise often. But extra strength coffee is manna from heaven to me. It's the one dietary vice I embrace wholeheartedly. Years ago, I wondered how I could possibly give it up during pregnancy. It scared me. Literally, I was horrified that pregnancy would require it and I might not be able to do it. I dreaded coffee abstinence more than breast feeding and constant poop wiping.

Booze, the other big dietary no-no when training for the fertility Olympics, holds less sway over me. Generally, my intake is less than 8 drinks a week. That amount is considered beyond what scientists call “moderate” drinking. Really? I think stopping myself from ordering a third drink after two drinks have greased my inhibitions is a very good sign of moderation. I'm not a scientist, but I know some of you are with me on this.

But I do over-imbibe occasionally. And truth be told, I over-imbibed rather frequently in the month prior to this cycle. This worried me. I imagined my budding eggs swimming around in a toxic alcoholic soup. In a panic, I emailed Dr. P early in the process to ask if I should sit the cycle out because of it. I figured he probably got weird panicked questions like this all the time. As usual, his calm knowledgeable response settled me down. He didn't think the alcohol would have an effect on the microscopic pre-eggs (officially known as immature eggs), which at the time of my imbibing were still safely ensconced in my ovaries. Besides, those microscopic immature eggs have been in my body since I was an embryo. If they weren't already damaged from the kaleidoscopic variety of toxins I've blithely ingested since adolescence, then a few more drinks won't hurt them.

Again, I went back to the internet to educate myself more on the path these microscopic machines of life make through my body. Women are born with tens of millions of eggs in our ovaries. By the time we hit puberty, we've already lost 65 percent of them. You know the story of how their numbers steadily decline until they are a sparsely populated desert when you hit mid-40s. They die in a constant war of attrition, where every month, new recruits are called up for a year-long march toward the uterus. If you've seen Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, you might remember the scene of the sperm lining up like astronauts about to launch. Eggs do a similar thing, but just like a woman, we take our time. Once called up for the march, the immature eggs grow ever so slightly each month until they move into position to bloom from follicles on the ovaries. That's when the death match to become the dominant egg begins.

So basically, for a year prior to pregnancy, the egg has been growing in the mother's biological environment, whatever that might be. That's a long time not to eat sushi. But there is no consensus or even much talk that I could find about how the mother's biological environment might effect the immature eggs, the budding follicles, the resulting egg, its fertility chances, and the potential child. The focus of medical science is on how the mother's biological environment might impact the egg after it is fertilized, not prior to its release from the ovary.

After spending hours “researching” my eggs' long journey and fertility diets on the internet, I asked Dr. P to weigh in with his own recommendations. He ever so slightly rolled his eyes. Clearly, he's seen all the advice, heard about all the different “programs” from his patients. He said nothing has proven to increase ovarian output. If something had shown success, there'd be proof, lots of evidence, a ticker tape parade.

Also, he stressed that I'm “harvesting” eggs to freeze, not trying to get pregnant, so the standard practice rules about alcohol and caffeine do not apply specifically to my situation. Alcohol has proven to effect the growing embryo in the womb. Caffeine is linked to higher incidences of miscarriages. We're not worried about either of those problems when we're just sucking eggs out of my ovaries.

If cleaning up my diet, however, made me feel better about the process, Dr. P told me to follow what he tells his IVF patients... “one cup of coffee in the morning and one drink a night is OK.”

So I've cut down to one cup of coffee in the morning and cut out alcohol. I also cut out the soy milk, which I love in my coffee, because a friend told me it mimics estrogen and can subsequently cause your body to produce less real estrogen of it's own, hence decreasing eggs growth.

All of this fretting over how my eating, drinking and living habits might ultimately effect whether my child is born with six toes or half a brain makes crystal clear the huge burden of responsibility a woman carries with her child. It's enough to overwhelm a lifelong free spirit. In a moment of frustration, when I really wanted to have a drink with friends, I actually thought, If my baby can't handle my occasional drink, then maybe it's not my kind of baby. Of course that thought was immediately followed by abusive self-admonitions, If you can't sacrifice your fleeting pleasures for a few months to protect your child, how are you going to handle sacrificing the next 21+ years of your life to said child?

It's not an easy balance, nor is it easy to know when we are being too obsessive. One of my friends who recently went through several rounds of unsuccessful IVF treatments told me she was strict as a Spartan for several cycles. On the last one, at the end of her wits and in high need of a drink, she said, Fuck it, and stopped torturing herself about what she ingested. That was the cycle that produced her beautiful baby boy. And I'm not just saying the kid was beautiful in the generic all babies are a gift from God way. This little thing was literally the prettiest baby I've ever seen.

These things are not predictable. We do what we can to assist and not impede the process, but in the end, it all comes down to chance. But changing our life to live for baby does begin the lifelong conflict every mother faces when we have a child: Our individual desires versus our motherly instinct to sacrifice those desires for the child's needs. I know men experience this too, but I suspect it's not quite as biologically deep wired.

Experiencing something provides knowledge and a perspective that cannot be gained any other way. Living through something is a full body experience, not just an intellectual exercise. For nine months, women live with another human being growing off of our body's biological system, feeding from what we eat, affected by how we live our everyday lives. Women experience an awareness of that child's full reliance on us, and how what we do or don't do can impact whether the baby thrives or dies. The experience is seared into women's psyches as new mothers. And I think it's probably nature's way to prime us to care for the child's every need once born. Living as one, mother and unborn child, we cannot avoid the awareness that the buck begins and stops with us in this child's life. Our job is to make sure that what we do helps instead of hinders the child, regardless of what we might have to sacrifice to do it.

I have to admit that my awareness of the sacrifices I'd have to make as a mother are a top reason I waited so long to even try having a baby. I didn't want to bring a baby into my life if I would resent it for taking my time and focus away from pursuing my career. Plus, my early marriage was a disaster, emotionally untenable and a financial black hole. I could not responsibly bring a child into such a precarious situation. I always knew that when I had children, I wanted to devote myself to motherhood. I did not want to shortchange them with poverty, an unstable home life or a distracted mother. So in the decision process, I was also thinking of my child's life, not just my own.

Did I sacrifice my chances to have children because I was too concerned about their well-being? Perhaps. But equally, I must consider how my ambitions, my desires to pursue a new career in my mid-30s, might have kept me from focusing on finding a way to make my life safe for a child. Perhaps if being a mother had been my top priority, I would have found a way to make it work. But I don't regret my decisions. I know I could not and would not have done it any other way. I'm glad I did not bring a baby into a tumultuous marriage. I'm glad I don't have a child stuck in the middle of a bad divorce. I'm glad my child and I are not suffering from the stress of my being a single mother. But I do feel a sense of deep loss that my choices have perhaps left my dreams of motherhood on the cutting room floor.

And I know I am not alone.

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