My Future, My Fertility What I Did for the Chance to Have a Baby Someday
I flew to Taiwan the year I turned thirty-six, a trip I’d booked solely for the purpose of freezing my eggs.
This is My Future, My Fertility, a monthly column in which Karissa Chen wrestles with her questions about fertility, motherhood, and future-planning after thirty-five.
The first time I dreamt of you, I was in my mid-twenties. In the dream, I labored for what felt like an eternity and a mere minute (time being fluid and paradoxical in dreams), and then you were pressed against my breast. I could see the tuft of dark hair plastered against your scalp, I could feel the down of your skin prickle against my cheek. Your warmth filled my greedy body with something unnamable and I drank it in, the weight of you all that I had not known I wanted.
When I woke from the dream, it was too soon. The absence of something ghostly ached in the crook of my arms. I spent the hours after in a muted haze, an emptiness I had trouble putting a name to, until I recognized it for what it was: I missed you. It wasn’t the same as longing, exactly, because it felt deeper, sadder, more confusing, more like grief. I felt the absence of a family I had yet to create, as if you already existed somewhere but were not mine to have.
I’ve had many dreams like this since. Sometimes you are a toddler, a little girl who loves dresses and climbs into my lap, chattering about a life I know instinctively includes me. Sometimes you are a boy who grows rapidly before my eyes into a young man. Sometimes you have distinct features, so known to me in the minutes after I wake that I’m certain I could pick you out of a picture. Other times you are anonymous—only a powdery smell, a soft heaviness in my arms, a giggle, a cry. In every dream, I know I am your mother, meant to love and protect you. Each time I wake, I am filled with the same ache. I wonder, each time, if there’s a word in the English language that means to miss and mourn someone who doesn’t exist.
I flew back to Taiwan the year I turned thirty-six, for a three-week trip I’d booked solely for the purpose of freezing my eggs. In the two weeks leading up to the first appointment, I’d been taking estradiol and norethisterone (normally given to alleviate symptoms of menopause) to help me regulate my cycle and prevent the formation of cysts—a cyst had been the reason I hadn’t been able to start the process several months earlier. My period arrived right on schedule, two days ahead of my first appointment at the IVF clinic.
I woke up at 6:45 that morning, jetlagged, jittery, and under the weather. As I got dressed and headed toward the train station, I fretted—would a cold affect the efficacy of the procedure? Would I produce fewer eggs because my body was too busy fighting off a virus? I thought about taking a cocktail of Vitamin C, Zinc, and Echinacea tablets—what I usually took when I felt myself coming down with a cold—but then worried they might somehow interact with whatever injections they were going to give me. I bought a bottle of orange juice instead.
At the clinic, I was first called to have my blood drawn to test me for my hormone levels. I dutifully gave the nurse my left arm, looking away as she filled two tubes with blood. Afterward, I was called into another room for an ultrasound. The technician swiveled the wand around inside of me, taking pictures, drawing X s that I guessed were to mark my follicles, typing in comments I tried to decipher. As I was pulling my underwear back on in the small changing room, I heard whispers, and then the technician called me back. “We have to do an outside ultrasound,” she said, pouring gel on my belly. She pressed a different wand to my skin, and then marked something on the screen. Myoma , she typed. I didn’t know what a myoma was, but it sounded like bad news.
For the next two hours I sat in the waiting room, inwardly panicking. What if they’d found another cyst? What if I wouldn’t be able to start this round after all? I had been counting each cycle that had gone by without egg retrieval, aware of the fact that the number of “good” eggs I had dwindled with each passing month.
When the doctor finally called me in, I was so nervous I thought I would puke. She was the doctor I had met with months earlier, a woman with kind eyes and a slight smile. She waited until I was seated and said, “Everything looks good for us to begin.” I almost burst into tears.
It didn’t matter that I had no partner to help me. It didn’t matter that I was far from my family. I was taking control of my life.
The doctor explained our plan for the next fourteen days. She showed me a table, with days marked across the top and the names of various medications and tests marked from top to bottom. She marked off the hormones I would take for the next four days: one long-acting Elonva shot, nightly injections of Merional, and oral dosages of Duphaston to be taken twice daily. The first two would stimulate my ovaries to produce multiple eggs this cycle; the latter would suppress early ovulation. “We’re going to give you more medications because you’re over thirty-five,” she said.
She wrote down the date and time of my next appointment and the two days she thought when we were most likely to do the extraction. She told me to drink at least 1500 mL of water every day and to eat plenty of protein, particularly red meat. She warned me not to exercise. “As your follicles grow, your ovaries will swell,” she explained. “If you exercise while they’re swollen, they could get twisted.”
Outside, I was called to the cashier’s desk and presented with the day’s bill. It came to approximately $1220 USD. Of that amount, $40 was for the doctor consult, ultrasound, and bloodwork. The rest went toward the hormones. I picked up the medication—presented to me in a silver, insulated bag with an ice pack—and was brought into a room with a low leather couch, warm lighting, and a television showing slides on the IVF process. A physician’s assistant was waiting for me. “I’m going to teach you how to do the injections,” she said, smiling.
This was the part I had been dreading. The idea of having to stick a needle in myself even once was awful enough—to have to do it every single day was something I wasn’t sure I could actually do. Most people I knew who went through this process had a partner to administer the injections, but I was doing this alone. I had been curating a list of friends who lived nearby who might be willing to help. One of them was a nurse—maybe she wouldn’t mind me coming over every single night so she could inject me?
The PA showed me how to prepare the Merional solution and draw it into a sterile needle. “Now we want to inject in the fat of your belly,” she said, and showed me where to pinch. Thank god I don’t have a flat stomach , I thought. Maybe more fat means less pain! “It has to go in straight, not at an angle. Let me show you—take a deep breath.” She picked up the Elonva needle and stuck it in. “Push the fluid in slowly and steadily.” When the liquid was dispensed, she handed the prepared Merional solution over to me. “Now you try.”
I held the needle between my fingers. It was so slight, its tip tiny and sharp. I pinched my belly fat and took a deep breath.
“Don’t look away,” the PA warned me. “You have to see where the needle is going.”
I shoved the needle in. To my surprise, I didn’t feel a thing. Elated, I pushed the fluid in, watching the hormone solution drain into me.
As I walked out of the clinic, silver bag filled with needles and more hormones in hand, I suddenly felt like Superwoman. I was proud of myself. I had already proven I was capable of more than I thought. It didn’t matter that I had no partner to help me. It didn’t matter that I was far from my family. I was taking control of my life. I could do this.
A few months earlier, I’d gone to visit a friend, a single father with two young children. Every morning, we were woken before 6:00 a.m. by his almost-two-year-old son. I helped my friend shuttle his seven-year-old daughter from school to after-school activities. I tried to feed his toddler toast. I played hundreds of games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I hugged the kids and held them and cuddled them and talked them down from tantrums and held dance parties and played games and more games and more games even when I no longer wanted to play any more games. I was there for just three days, and I was exhausted. I was in awe of my friend’s resilience.
“Are you sure you want kids?” he asked me at one point, our eyes locking over the heads of his fussy children.
The answer, I knew, was yes . It was yes more than ever. Because all through my own exhaustion and the kids’ occasional unruliness, even though I was aware of how this would be a thousand times more difficult if and when this became my everyday reality, I never once thought, I don’t want this. Instead, what I thought was, I am ready for this, I am willing to do all of this.
What I mean, of course, is I want you, and will do whatever it takes to love you.
Within a day of those first injections, the hormones kicked in. My sense of excitement was replaced with a heavy exhaustion like I’d never felt before. Almost immediately, most food became intolerable, despite my ravenous and unrelenting hunger. I tried to eat as much red meat as I could, remembering the doctor’s orders, but more than a few bites of it made me nauseous. The only thing I could stomach was hot pot and, strangely enough, fried chicken.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself that I’d be a better mother now than I would have been when I was younger.
Other symptoms began to appear. I was continuously angry—not in an irritated, passionate sort of way, but in a detached rage that sat in the background of my existence, one that left me with no tolerance for acquaintances’ poorly timed political jokes and fueled my calm but cold response to a man who told me in a tweet that my hormonal symptoms would be a lot less miserable if I were actually pregnant.
I slept a lot. This was an unfamiliar fatigue, one that wasn’t about sleep deprivation, but merely about my body’s total redirection of resources towards producing follicles. I felt like a heavy cloak was draped over every single one of my cells. The one time I tried to go to a friend’s housewarming party, I had to leave after an hour. The symptoms of my cold mingled with the symptoms from the injections, making it hard for me to track what was causing what. By the third evening, I was already over it—over the injections, which were getting more painful to administer each day; over my exhaustion; over my growing unfamiliarity with my body.
On day five, I went back to the clinic. This time, I noticed that nearly everyone else waiting was with a partner, and loneliness began to wind through my veins. During my ultrasound, I watched the technician count only two blobby follicles in one of my ovaries. Twenty was the magic number for an 80 percent chance of one live birth. I had hoped for fifteen. Before starting this procedure, I’d told myself if I retrieved anything below twelve, I would do another cycle.
While I waited to meet with the doctor after the ultrasound, a waterfall of regret poured through head— I wish I had done this sooner, I wish I had done acupuncture and taken Chinese medicine to help my fertility, I wish I had drank protein shakes, I wish I had forced myself to eat more meat. In what was becoming a routine, I sat in that bright, sunlit lobby and felt on the verge of tears.
When I met with the doctor, she told me that in fact they had counted nine to twelve follicles—I had been mistaken in what I thought I saw—but that they were maturing too slowly. “Drink more water,” she reminded me. “Eat more protein.” She prescribed new meds, changing the dosage and type (including a click pen that the PA had to coach me to use, lest I overdose)—another $520 USD—and sent me home.
The next day, feeling like I’d been run over by a truck, I intermittently napped through an entire morning and afternoon and forgot to take my morning dose of Duphaston. By the time I remembered, it was late afternoon. A few hours later, I discovered blood in my underwear. Panicked, I called the clinic, which had just closed for the day. I left a desperate message, then texted Denise, my contact at the clinic. While I waited, I wondered if I was getting breakthrough bleeding, if I’d ovulated, if something bad was happening and this cycle was forfeit. A familiar tornado of self-blame whipped through me.
An hour later, Denise called. She told me the bleeding was probably due to the instability of my hormones due to the missed Duphaston, but that everything was probably okay. If the bleeding continued, she said, I should go to the clinic the next morning, a day ahead of my scheduled appointment. But if I experienced no more bleeding, it was probably no big deal.
I hung up the phone and started to sob. I didn’t see any more blood.
I spend a lot of time trying to convince myself that I’d be a better mother now than I would have been when I was younger. I’m more mature, less insecure, more patient, more thoughtful. Although I may be more set in my ways, more used to my own life, more “selfish” in some respects—I think a lot about the ways you would drastically alter my life and the freedom I have—I’m also completely sure that motherhood would be a choice I’d make because it’s something I want , not something society expects of me. What I hope you know is that even when I was miserable and exhausted, I always thought,
I would do this again. I want you to know how much I wanted you.
But I also worry about the ways being an older mother might work against the both of us. I have less energy and stamina than I used to have to chase after you. By the time you’re a teenager, I’ll be going through menopause, and I can only imagine what colliding hormonal beings will be like. I also worry about your future, about what having an older parent will mean for you. Will you have to worry about taking care of me when your adult life is just getting started? Will I leave you too soon to see you get married, to hold the children you might have, to be there for you for as long I’d like to be? I know there’s no point in thinking about this, because I can’t change what has happened and I can’t control what will be. But I worry for you—for us—anyway. And isn’t that, too, a part of what motherhood is about?
Over the next week, my life consisted only of sleep, clinic visits, hot pot, injections, crying, more sleep. I was always hungry, but had no interest in food. I was constantly battling headaches from the Merional, and had to force down water even when I felt I could not drink anymore. My boobs hurt. I was bloated. I could feel my swollen ovaries banging around painfully inside of me when I walked, so I walked slowly, my hand pressing down to stop them from moving.
The visits to the clinic became harder. My arm was covered with purple blotches from increasingly painful blood draws as they searched for new veins. Simple instructions—the addition of injections (up to four in one evening at one point); the directive for me to remove my nail polish before the surgery (for purposes of monitoring the anesthesia)—made me want to cry: the former because I just couldn’t tolerate any more needles, and the latter because I was reminded there was a surgery at the end of all of this and it would require more needles. My loneliness and grief over freezing my eggs as opposed to trying for immediate conception was compounded with each clinic visit, surrounded by women flanked by their partners. Most of all, my mood was fragile, revolving around news on whether or not my follicle count had gone up; whether or not they seemed like they were maturing at a high enough rate.
I had completely underestimated how taxing the process would be. When I realized it had been less than two weeks since I began injections, I was stunned. It felt like a lifetime. Before I started the process, I had considered doing another round if I didn’t get the number of eggs I wanted, but now, in the midst of it, I couldn’t bear the thought of suffering through all this again. Mentally, I was fraying at the edges. Despite loved ones who sent me messages of support and checked in, despite how grateful I was to have this option at all, I felt so isolated—emotionally, I felt I was walking this path alone.
I no longer had the energy to be angry about anything. I was tired, I was lonely, I was sad in ways I didn’t know how to explain. I no longer felt like Superwoman. I didn’t even feel like myself.
Listen: I’m not complaining.
Or maybe I am complaining, just a little bit. I know that actual pregnancy and motherhood are hundreds of times harder than those two little weeks. And I want to repeat that I was and am grateful to have even been able to do it. But it was still hard, physically and emotionally, and I kept wishing so many things had unfolded differently, in a way that didn’t end up with me doing this thing that was so hard and tiring and lonely.
I never want to be the kind of mother who guilt-trips their child for their existence. That is to say, if someday I am blessed enough to know you, blessed enough to watch you grow from a sweet infant into a sullen teenager, I never want to point to this time and say, Look how much I suffered to have you . These were my choices. This is what I wanted. What I wanted was—is— you.
What I hope you know is that even when I was miserable and exhausted, even as I thought I can’t possibly ever do this again, I don’t think I can bear it , I also always thought, But I would do this again, I would spend all my money, I would inject myself with all these shots, if only it means I can have a baby.
I want you to know how much I wanted you.
On the tenth day, my last clinic visit before retrieval, I was sitting in the reception area, waiting for my final ultrasound when two couples came in, each carrying chubby babies. One of the babies had a headband with a bow wrapped around her head, like she was a pink gift; the other baby was in a white jacket covered in dinosaurs. Both babies looked to be about seven or eight months old, and they squirmed in their mothers’ arms. The fathers were holding big flower bouquets. They went up to the receptionist and spoke to them briefly. A few minutes later, my doctor and a doctor I had never seen before appeared. The couples went up to them, shaking their hands and then handing their babies over. The doctors bounced the babies, cooing in their faces, touching their fat cheeks, everyone laughing and smiling. A receptionist took pictures of them standing together: the parents, the doctors, and the babies. And then the parents exchanged the bouquets for their babies, safely ensconcing them, and left.
I wanted to weep with envy and joy. I felt, in that tableau, all the possibilities of what could be—and at the same time, all that I didn’t have. Look how happy they are, how wonderful it is . That could be me someday, bringing my baby to show the doctor . But also: Those couples did IVF together because they could. What if I never get to be them? Despite how grateful I was to have this option at all, I felt so isolated—emotionally, I was walking this path alone.
Later, when I met with the doctor, the image of her carrying that baby still fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that she was Superwoman. She was a hero, a magician, a genie. She made wishes come true. As she explained everything I had to know leading up to the extraction—the final four shots I’d have to administer the next day to trigger ovulation; the process of the extraction itself—immense gratitude washed over me. Even though I had no idea if any of this would lead to a baby someday, she had guided me through it. I thanked her profusely, hoping to convey everything I felt.
The next evening, with two friends by my side, I injected myself with the four trigger shots at exactly the time my doctor had directed me. They were large shots, the most difficult and painful shots of all, filled with so much fluid that I had to take breaks in the middle of pushing them in while a friend massaged my back. When it was over, I almost collapsed in relief. I had gotten through these eleven days, and now the hardest part was over. In two more days, I’d go in for my egg retrieval.
Is it strange that I didn’t dream of you the entire time I was going through this process? I had dreamt of you before I started; I would dream of you in the months afterward. But through all the hormone-induced naps I took, you never once made an appearance.
Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was too busy, mired in the details of the thing; too busy dealing with symptoms and making sure I did my injections when I needed to and trying to keep myself from collapsing. You were the point of this whole operation, and yet a concrete idea of you, of some future in which you were a real-life person, was something I consciously dwelled on so rarely during those weeks that perhaps it makes sense it wouldn’t occur while I was sleeping. Or maybe it was just too much, living with these surges of hope and fear and grief during the day, and my subconscious spared me of stirring it any further at night.
After nearly two weeks of injections and symptoms, the retrieval, in comparison, was over so quickly it was almost anticlimactic. I went in with a friend in the early hours, before the clinic opened, for blood tests and ultrasounds. I filled out some forms and talked to a nurse and was made aware of the risks. I changed into a gown and went into the surgery room and lay on the table, putting my feet in stirrups. I made small talk with the anesthesiologist, a kind man who joked with me and clucked his head in disapproval at the bruises tracking my arms. He then poked me with an IV needle—which I had been dreading—but I barely felt it. The last thing I remember is a slight metallic taste and the anesthesiologist murmuring something to me.
I awoke, groggy, to the nurses telling me to rest. I lay with my eyes closed for several minutes, and then called the nurses. In my hazy state, it felt particularly urgent for me to know all of my doctors’ (including the anesthesiologist) names. “I want to thank them,” I slurred to the nurse. I wouldn’t be able to remember the names later. My mouth felt numb and I wanted to pee, but the nurses insisted I “sober up” for a bit longer. After half an hour or so, they removed gauze from my nether regions—which I didn’t even realize was there, and could barely feel. After another twenty minutes, they finally let me leave the bed and change into my clothes. They called my friend to wait with me in a different room.
A PA came in and told me they had extracted seventeen eggs, only two of which were fully mature. A remaining ten were semi-mature, and five were immature. They’d stimulate those to try to coax them into maturing. By the next day, they said, I’d know my final count for freezing. My friend looked at me, worried that I was disappointed, but I was too foggy for the implications of her words to sink in—all I cared about was that it was over and successful and I could go home and sleep.
The PA went over some other details: what to expect (pain, a heavier than normal period this month), how to care for myself (prescription painkillers, antibiotics, 2000 mL of water a day, non-oily and non-spicy foods), the signs of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (low urine output, fever, a swollen and painful abdomen, rapid weight gain), and when to come in for my follow-up (two days later). Then, with my friend’s help, I went home.
As I lay on the couch, waiting for my friend to bring me some soup for lunch, my phone rang. It was the clinic. “We were able to stimulate the ten semi-mature ones,” the woman on the line told me. “Your final count of eggs is twelve.”
Twelve. The minimum number I had told myself I wanted to get, the number that was a line drawn in the sand. A lukewarm relief trickled through me. I thanked her and hung up the phone.
The next few days were rough. When the anesthesia had worn off, I discovered my insides hurt so much that a short walk to the bathroom had me panting and in tears; even painkillers only dulled the edges of the pain. I slept on my couch for three days before I started feeling normal again. But in those days, I also immediately felt a difference as the effects of the hormones receded. I was no longer so exhausted. My emotional state was brighter, less fragile.
At my final clinic visit, the doctor said while it would take another week for my swollen ovaries to go back down to normal size, all tests indicated I was recovering normally. She greenlit me to get on a plane to leave the country.
All in all, the total cost of the process, including my first year of freezing, was $4,400, with about $2,190 going to medication/hormones, and $1800 for the procedure itself, and everything else toward physician fees, lab tests, and other associated fees. Though it was much less than what it would have cost in America, it was still a good deal of money for me. Maybe I’d need to do another round, but I told myself I’d think about that later, after I’d had time to recover from this one.
For now, I had twelve eggs. And twelve was enough: if not for certainty, then for my peace of mind.
Sometimes I think about the story I’d tell about how you came to be—if, indeed, you end up the product of one of those eggs currently frozen in Hsinchu. You’d probably hear the bits and pieces of all of this, everything I’ve already written about, from my symptoms to the blood in my underwear to my absurd request for the doctors’ names as I woke from surgery.
But I imagine the story I’d most like to tell you is this one, about my final ultrasound. That day, I nervously watched the technician swivel the wand, doing her final count of follicles before I would go in for retrieval. In my right ovary, there were a cluster of jellybean-shaped follicles, and the technician counted them one by one. She repositioned the wand, and suddenly a large spherical egg came into view, so perfectly round it looked like it belonged in a conception video. It eclipsed all the other eggs in its sheer symmetry and size.
Maybe it was the hormones at their peak, or maybe it was the lingering effects of having seen the IVF babies in the lobby. But in that moment, I felt a surge of pride and affection for that egg. My little overachiever. My little perfectionist, trying so hard to grow up, to get to be . That’s it, I thought. That’s the egg that will be my baby.
It was as if you were waving to me.
Sometimes I think about the story I’d tell about how you came to be—if, indeed, you end up the product of one of those eggs frozen in Hsinchu.
I still have dreams of you, but when I wake, I don’t always have that feeling I have no name for. Sometimes I have the opposite feeling, a feeling I had when I woke in the days after my surgery, knowing it was over. It’s more than the security of knowing that you are safely tucked away in a drawer somewhere, waiting for me to come back for you one day. It’s also recognition. Because I had seen you on that screen, I had known you. You were tangible in that moment, real to me. You weren’t a ghost, or a figment of my dreams. You were right there in front of me.
The thing is, I don’t know who you are, who you’ll be. I don’t know whose DNA will mingle with mine to create you, or what you might look like. I don’t know if you’ll be the result of one of those eggs I froze, or if you’ll be conceived from an egg still sitting in my ovaries. I hold onto the belief that whomever you’ll be, you’ll get to be , because I have to keep believing that. And if it turns out the half of me that is you comes from one of those precious eggs, I know I’ll always secretly believe that perfect, beautiful egg I glimpsed was the one that made it. Maybe it’s silly how much comfort that idea gives me, but it does.