Space For A Family: My Journey To Get Pregnant As A Single Woman With MS

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family in sunset

It’s the late 1990’s and I am a young, divorced English teacher with Multiple Sclerosis. Those factors do not define me, but they’re pertinent to the upcoming story, the one where I’m 30 years old and ready to have a baby.

At this point in my life I’d done the things in the order I thought you were supposed to: I went to college, got a teaching degree, and got married. Then I immediately got sick and got divorced — in that order and (it felt like) at that speed.

The story wasn’t proceeding as I’d planned. Having kids, though — I’d always wanted that to be a part of my story. Now that 30 years old had reared its alligator head and I hadn’t met anyone interesting in years, I didn’t see it happening.

I was starting to think my biological clock was a cuckoo clock. I am woman, hear me roar — right? I didn’t need a man to make a baby — at least not since they started growing them in Petri dishes.

I was filled with self-righteous feminism, or maybe it was just this dream I’d had since the age of seven, looking like it would come to a crashing end if I didn’t get on the stick. Or…er…no pun intended…if I didn’t get off the stick and on to plan B.

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Pregnancy Attempt Number One: Sperm Donation

I started researching sperm donation. Now you might be asking: What about the MS? Don’t you know you have MS? You’re going to purposely become a single mother and completely ignore the potentially debilitating disease you are living with? There’s no space in your world to raise another human — you’re barely taking care of yourself. Why would you do this? Does your mother have an opinion here? Aaaarrgggh.

I know, I know.

Everybody knows nowadays about cryobanks, where sperms and eggs are frozen. Each has files where prospective mommies could learn anything: hair color, race, eye color, education, medical history, favorite superhero ... you name it. The cards were completed by hand.

I thought I was the first person ever to analyze the handwriting of the donors as a part of my selection process, but of course, everyone did that. Number 3442 (I called him ‘Christopher’) had neat, small handwriting.

I didn’t really research what that would mean if you were, you know, an actual handwriting expert, I just took the small, neat letters as a sign that Christopher was probably neat. 

Christopher AKA 3442, was born in 1975 of French, German, Polish, and Russian descent. He was 6’2” and 175 pounds, with no negative medical history, plus the cryobank had provided me with an audio snippet of him talking. His voice was gentle.

I also got a picture from his toddlerhood: an adorable little boy with a curly mop of sandy hair and big green eyes. The clincher for me was his occupation: he had a degree in FILM and get this, he was a WRITER! I figured if I was going to pay for somebody’s sperm it should definitely belong to somebody I’d want to date. So, 6 foot 2 inches, 175 lb. filmmaker slash writer Number 3442 was the winner.

The next step was to pay an exorbitant amount of money to ship a vial of frozen sperm my way. Well, not my way exactly: can you see me opening the door to receive one of those foam boxes like they put frozen Omaha steaks in, and popping that puppy into my freezer? No, it was sent to my OB-GYN, where it waited for my cue.

The day finally came where the ovulation predictor did its thing, so off I went. I got there, did the usual party prep undressing (don’t forget to put the gown opening in the back), and other fun gynecologist stuff: feet in the stirrups, speculum cranking away, oh joy.

My OB-GYN is a great one — his dad was my family practitioner — diffusing a lot of awkward situations with humor. But make no mistake: having a stainless steel can opener inserted into your vagina so un-thawed sperm can enter is a very un-fun way to get the sperm in there.

And the swimmers don’t just get dropped in once that hole is stretched out, no siree. I’ve heard rumors about Insemination Parties — tequila and turkey basters, whoopee.

That seems like fiction to me, but I suppose if you’re just collecting sperm samples from someone who’s at the party instead of paying 600 bucks a pop to have a vial sent from California, then hey, let’s celebrate! Turkey basters are cheap too, so you could get your party pregnancy groove on once a month without breaking the bank.

But here at the doctor’s office, he doesn’t just drop it in, shout Bon Voyage! at your crotch and hope one of them can make the transatlantic journey, oh no.

The doc has to take a skinny little tube — called a catheter — and maneuver it up through your cervix (this is a small space, your cervix, and it’s tricky and uncomfortably pinchy to get a tube in there) so he can deposit the sperm directly into your uterus.

That way the sperm isn’t making a transatlantic journey, just a jaunt up the coast, and maybe one amongst the gazillions has a better chance of making it all the way into port.

After he’s finished, I have to lay there, knees up, for a while — another technique to help the swimmers go the right way, and then I’m done and I go home.

Of course, it doesn’t work.

My period came two weeks later. As I sat on the toilet and stared at the familiar stain, I wondered again if it was a good idea to try and do this by myself. By myself and with MS, which even though I knew the pregnancy part would be okay, the after-pregnancy could be a doozy.

And once a baby’s in my life? Not even considering that as something really hard to do by yourself seemed to be my blind spot. I wanted a baby so bad. I wanted it so much I dropped those dirty undies into the laundry and ordered another vial of 3442.

I had more appointments with the OB-GYN before I tried sperm donation again, complete with a very trippy test where they shot some radioactive dye into my fallopian tubes to make sure the eggs had a clear line of progress, and then he tried to help me figure out how to fix my late ovulation problem.

See, you’re supposed to ovulate right in the middle of a 28-day cycle, say Day 14. That way the uterine lining is still all full and fluffy and ready to embrace a fertilized egg.

I was apparently popping my eggs out on day 22, which means the lining at this point is neither full nor fluffy, instead, it is prepping to hit the road and get outta town. No interest in embracing anything. So the doctor gave me drugs — drugs that are supposed to help fix your reproductive schedule.

Pregnancy attempts 2–10: Pharmaceuticals

I do not like drugs. Anything with a list of side-effects that takes a two-minute commercial just to spell them all out makes me sad. But I’m always learning it’s okay to accept help sometimes. I’m still trying to learn, anyway, and accepting help sometimes includes pharmaceuticals. So I started on this drug called Clomid.

I didn’t really have any side effects while I took it, but it didn’t fix my ovulation schedule either. By mid-2003, after three unsuccessful IUI (Intra-Uterine Insemination) treatments, and almost $2000 poorer, I gave up on my own version of the tequila and turkey baster dream. I hadn’t given up on the entire dream, oh no. I just tabled it for later contemplation.

Which turned out to be a good thing, because while I was scheduled to meet my husband in April 2002, I didn’t actually meet him until October. There’s another love story there, too, beyond a wish for babies and well into the creation of a space for a family.

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Pregnancy Attempt 11 — Up Until September 2005

Apparently, something should have happened before I dove headlong into the sperm donation puddle, and that is clarity into WHY I wasn’t ovulating until practically the end of my cycle. Sure, the Clomid was supposed to fix that, but I could go back now into the reason I don’t like pharmaceuticals — because they seem to exist primarily to try and repair problems, as opposed to preventing them.

Anyone who wants or has wanted children can relate to this story — those days when everyone you see is pregnant or pushing a stroller — and if your body doesn’t “take to pregnancy” right off the bat, the steps you’ll take to get that way are draining and discouraging.

I stupidly tried to get pregnant in my early 20’s to maintain a marriage that had failed before it started, and then when I turned 30 and still hadn’t found a partner to begin again with, I tried it with that aforementioned sperm donor. Stupid, but there you have it — wanting a family however you can do it is powerful.

After all of these failings, I found a man I wanted to spend my life with and have babies with.

But still, l wasn’t getting pregnant.

Why? It turned out I wasn’t ovulating until super late in my cycle, like day 22, so he and I spent another two years trying to figure that out. Good grief, Charlie Brown! For those of you who find out a wonky menstrual cycle is an issue, there are many ways to change it. Yes, I said CHANGE IT.

Not everyone with menstrual cycle issues can resolve them — it depends on the issue — but many women can. The solution to my cycle conundrum turned out to be acupuncture. After six months of needles, stinky tea, and a complete diet change, and those temperature charts started to look more like the ones on the doctor’s office walls.

One month I ovulated on day 21, the next month it was day 20, and it continued coming one day earlier each month. My doctor didn’t believe me, and I was like, “look at these charts!”

By early September of 2005, those sex-on-command-to-try-for-pregnancy days were more exciting than usual, because the temperature spike came on the fifteenth day of my cycle. It had gone down a whole week! From stinky tea and little needles and a plethora of cooked veggies. It was a celebration.

I had a pregnancy test in my bathroom drawer. I had lots of them, actually — a whole assemblage of pregnancy tests. There were some that bragged they could test positive as soon as one week past ovulation. Now, I’m not a complete masochist, so I didn’t wait just one week. I waited for two.

Two weeks past ovulation, and I woke up at the crack of dawn. My eyes flew open before the sun rose and I stared at the ceiling for fifteen minutes until I could stand it no more and had to get up.

Our house at this time was a teeny little box home in the center of town, and the bathroom sat between the two bedrooms. I quietly got up and padded over the hardwood floor in my sock feet, and I sat down on the toilet to examine the test. The white cover was unmarred and intact. Satisfied that it hadn’t been tampered with (because of course, that’s the reason I wasn’t getting pregnant in a ten-year span — defective tests), I ripped it open and stared at the two little white windows — one rectangle, one circle.

I re-read the instructions, although I probably could have cited them verbatim at this point, and I dropped my pants and peed on the stick. Then I turned it upside down and hid it at the corner of the sink.

I had done this before, a lot. The little stick is like a white plastic voodoo doll to me, and if I touch it the wrong way or turn it over too soon, it will lay its hoodoo curse upon me, and then, there I am…barren again.

So I simply stood there staring at the white stick, kind of balancing back and forth on the balls of my feet like a boxer who is thinking about where he’s gonna land the right hook. I counted the seconds until five minutes had passed.

Then I wiggled my fingers like a magician and swooped the white stick into my hand. I squinched my eyes closed, turned the stick over, and there were two blue lines, one in each window! Now, “my” pee line was fainter than the other one, but there was definitely a line. I ran back to the bed where Jim was sleeping soundly, and I shoved the white stick in front of his closed eyes. “Honey?” I said.

“Hm?” he said, eyes still closed. This was a taboo territory, waking the hibernating bear, but I didn’t care.

“Honey?” I said again. “You have to look at this! Do you think I am pregnant? I’m pretty sure this says I’m pregnant. Look here.”

I won’t say his eyes flew open and he saw the positive test and we both whooped for joy and started dancing around the bedroom because that is not what happened. He sat up, ran his fingers through his hair, and looked at the stick. “I dunno,” he said. “Do the directions say that means pregnant?”

So I ran back to the bathroom, read the instructions to him, which said ‘One blue line equals not pregnant, two blue lines equal PREGNANT.’

“I think I am!” I hissed into the quiet pre-dawn bedroom. “I think I am really pregnant!”

To which he smiled sleepily, said, “That’s great, honey. Let’s go get a blood test later.” And then he turned around and went back to sleep. Which, I guess if I took a minute to review my actual knowledge of the man, I’d have to say was exactly what I expected.

My sons are now fifteen and thirteen years old. The youngest one tests me at every opportunity, and the fact that I only had sisters growing up means my mothering of boys had (has) a wicked learning curve.

Making space in your life for a family, in my experience equals FINDING ANOTHER WAY TO DO IT.

It’s totally worth every moment of work and worry. Just remember, after it happens, you’re now boarding a whole ‘nother work and worry train, so smile and hop onto that Child-rearing ChooChoo!

I found a family that’s just attended its oldest son’s eighth-grade graduation! It didn’t happen in the way I planned it, or with whom, or in ANY WAY the way I thought it would. If you want it, though, take a deep breath and know that it can and will happen. In whatever space you create for it!

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Kelley Gusich is a contributor to Medium and writes young adult and mystery novels. She is a former English and drama teacher and since her 1994 MS diagnosis, she has been a devoted mother and writer. Follow her on Twitter @kelkay1202.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.