I couldn’t accomplish the simple things that came easily to others: marriage, motherhood
The first person to learn that I was pregnant was my partially deaf, doddering 80-year-old father. I would imagine that, after learning she is pregnant, a woman first announces the good news to her partner or her mother. But I had neither.
A year and a half ago, in my father’s home in suburban Sacramento, I woke up to a congratulatory voicemail from a nurse at the New York City fertility clinic I’d been going to for two years. I burst from my room at 6:30 a.m. to run downstairs to tell, well, someone. It seemed appropriate it would be my father, but he wasn’t in his usual position on the ground inches away from the television blaring satellite news programs from India.
Worried, I yelled “Papa” outside his bedroom door a few times. He finally emerged, hair standing on end and muttering under his breath, “I think I have Alzheimer’s. I’m sure of it.”
“Papa, I don’t think you do. Let’s go downstairs,” I said.
Still disoriented, he sat down at our kitchen table and I took his warm palm in my mine. “Papa, I have something to tell you,” I said. My father had begrudgingly accepted my decision to have a baby on my own when I first started treatment at the eleventh-hour age of 43, but his befogged state betrayed no inkling of what I was about to tell him.
“Papa, I’m pregnant,” I said, to which he gave no response. Soon I realized he wasn’t censuring me with his silence, he’d fallen asleep. I nudged him awake and repeated, “I’m pregnant,” several decibels louder. After a few seconds, he seemed to finally register what I’d said but remained quiet.
“Papa, aren’t you going to say anything?” I implored.
He shrugged and delivered the most joyless reaction to ever accompany a pregnancy announcement: “Beta, I just wanted so much more for you.” I acknowledged that I’d dashed his hopes that I’d come by a family by more conventional means. I said, “I know, Papa, I know. I wanted more for me, too.”
The truth is I couldn’t blame him. Since the day I was born, it had been his singular, urgent, all encompassing wish that I get married, the 50% divorce rate be damned. Even when I was 45 years old and pregnant, he could think of little else.
A decade ago, I wrote a memoir called Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India, which chronicled my own attempts at marriage in India — where I lived for five years — while bearing witness to a once traditional nation hurtling headfirst into a technology-addled future.
When I left the U.S. for Delhi at the age of 32, I might have been pushing the limits of marriageability by conventional Indian standards, but in New York City terms, my single status hardly marked me an outlier.
India was in the throes of its own sexual revolution, and many of the young men and women I met were enjoying this new openness. I certainly encountered commitment-phobes who resembled ones I’d met in New York City, but I also found myself too Westernized for overly traditional men.
Five years later, at 37 and still single, I moved back to New York City. I consoled myself with the fact that I had plenty of time to get pregnant. Maybe I was lying to myself, but I found warnings of a woman’s diminishing fertility to be faintly alarmist. Hadn’t the vast majority of my friends given birth in their late thirties or early forties?
Also, I was keeping one eye on those statistics and my ebbing fertility. In fact, the month before I left India, seemingly on a whim because I would never need them — and wooed by the cut-price rate — I froze my eggs under the care of a highly regarded fertility clinic in Bombay, one that had helped a former Miss India (and subsequent Miss World) get pregnant from an egg that was frozen for eight years.
Back in New York, 37 turned to 38 and 39. And then, as the logic of time and mathematics dictates, 40 and 41 and 42. Like the final years of a great empire, the last years of a woman’s fertility speed by, leaving historians struggling to account for them. (Why couldn’t Rome fend off the Goths? Why was I dating that unemployed actor?)
Thus marked the desperate years, when my dating life took on a monomaniacal quality as I tried to find somebody to have a baby with. Around this time, I began hearing of women within my extended circles who were having children by themselves — with no man. Slowly, grudgingly, even self-pityingly, I began to think I might follow this same path.
David, the art director I was dating at 41, stepped into this maelstrom. Our sensibilities lined up in so many ways I hadn’t encountered for years, and we haltingly began envisioning a future together — despite my desire to bear a child and his equally matched aversion to raising another child. He already had a teenage son.
Panic and pressure aren’t the only characteristics of the desperate years; denial balances out the third side of the triangle. I was determined to have a child the “normal” way and David was the likeliest candidate. We juddered along for a year-and-a-half, taking weeks- and months-long breaks after which we would joyfully reunite.
Nearing my 43rd birthday, I could no longer put off the inevitable and began to contemplate having a child on my own. By this time, I knew about a dozen women who were pursuing motherhood alone, including my high school frenemy turned friend, my undocumented cleaning lady (she was using donor sperm at a fertility clinic), and several friends of friends and colleagues.
Yet I still couldn’t square this with my own fate. My upbringing had been a modest and traditional one, worlds away from this newfangled era in which women substituted frozen sperm from an anonymous donor for a husband.
At two years old, in the cramped Baltimore apartment my parents rented when they first arrived in the U.S., I recited the mantra of our Hindu religious sect, Jainism, by heart. My parents wed in an arranged marriage that lasted half a century, and while I had flouted this and other Indian traditions, I always expected to have a child with a partner, even one called “husband.”
Most women I’ve spoken to who pursue single motherhood invariably say they always wanted to be a mother. I’m the same — I took it as incontrovertible that I would someday have a child. I wanted to nurture and guide a baby from birth to adulthood and experience the unconditional, nothing-like-it love that all mothers profess for their children, always as if it comes as an utter revelation.
Not only did I feel the proverbial twinges of longing when I saw babies, I also felt the urge to help 12-year-old boys decide on a science camp, or take a 17-year-old girl on college tours as some of my friends were now doing with their own children. Sometimes I would surprise myself when, in the course of supervising a 22-year-old intern or a 26-year-old colleague, I would imagine myself as their mother.
One Buddhist teaching asks us to avoid frustration and anger by imagining others, such as the difficult boss or the loud subway passenger, as our mothers. I seemingly inverted the teaching to position myself as the mother of all those I encountered in my daily life.
It was time for me to have a baby — with or without a father. Before heading to California for the holidays, I asked on-again off-again David once more if he would have a child with me. He kissed me farewell, saying, “I love you and we’re in this together.” Later, when he didn’t return my calls or messages, I realized that he had, in today’s parlance, ghosted me. I was on my own.
The day after I arrived at my parents’ home, I sat them both down at the kitchen table, saying, “I have to tell you something.” They both excitedly took their places, certain I would be announcing plans to marry, although I’d never mentioned a boyfriend to them.
I began, “I have been dating this man…” My mother, who had been diagnosed with leukemia a year earlier, leaned forward in expectation of the good news. “…But I would like to have a child, and he already has one and doesn’t want more. A lot of women I know are having children by themselves without a man. Remember Gemma from high school? She just had a baby and she’s not married.”
From my right, I heard a high-pitched keening. Since we didn’t have any pets, I wondered where the strange noise was emanating from. It soon became apparent it was my father:
All of his long-held hopes of my marrying, burnished with pride in my twenties and then panic in my thirties, were now being dashed against the hard stone of my forties. My mother firmly interjected, “Let her finish.”
I continued, “That’s what I want to do. I want to have a baby. It’s very important to me and I don’t have much time.” Before responding to my idea, my mother first aired her dismal opinion of David, “What’s the point if he’s not going to have a child with you?”
She followed up with, “It’s every woman’s right to have a child. We will support you, beta.” A homemaker most of her life, my mother surprised me every few years with a devilishly modern remark. Hadn’t it been she who had warned me a few years earlier about my waning fertility and said she’d heard of women having babies on their own? I wasn’t ready at the time to consider the prospect and didn’t engage her further.
Meanwhile, my father was slumped on the table. He cried in anguish, “Gemma did it too?” He desperately wanted to confirm that this inconceivable scenario existed somewhere outside his home.
Upon returning to New York City, I started fertility treatment, knowing that my chances of getting pregnant at 43 were 5% to 10%, and would drop to less than 2% at 44.
I underwent four failed in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles before moving on to another clinic and enduring another few fruitless rounds. I was lucky to have good insurance that offset a majority of the costs. Unlike other women undergoing IVF, I wasn’t getting multiple eggs. I would usually get one egg, upon which I would bring the full force of my — and my mother’s — hope to bear.
Meanwhile, my mother’s once stable leukemia had begun cannibalizing her bone marrow, crowding out healthy white blood cells and leaving her defenseless against minor infections, for which she was repeatedly hospitalized that spring and summer. Doing back-to-back IVF cycles with an eye toward beating my ticking fertility clock, I flew home often but wasn’t able to stay with her during what would inevitably become her last few months.
Memories of my final visit are permeated with regret. My mother had just been readmitted to the hospital for a fungal infection in her lungs after being discharged a week earlier. During an earlier two-week stay, she battled and eventually vanquished half a dozen infections that would have been harmless to the healthy.
I felt guilty I hadn’t been able to visit during her long stay; I had just begun an IVF cycle and was going to the clinic for ultrasounds almost daily. As soon as my fertility doctor deposited the embryo into my uterus, I flew back to California. The doctor’s work was done and now it was up to the embryo to attach to my uterine wall in order for me to be declared pregnant.
I flew home believing my mother was gravely ill, not on her deathbed. When I arrived at the hospital mid-morning, she had been mobile and lucid enough to leave her hospital bed to use the bathroom.
We often hear of people holding on to see a loved one arrive at their sides before sinking into the longest sleep. I believe my mother waited for me. Her face lit up when she saw me; she complimented me on my blouse and then chided me for buying it because she had one just like it at home.
We only spoke for a few minutes before the youthful resident doctors wanted to meet with the family. They broke the news that she had “days and weeks, not months.”
“We believe this will be the infection that kills her,” one doctor said. When we returned to her hospital bed, she had slipped into the coma-like state in which she would remain for the next few days before she died.
Not being by her side the summer she was dying will remain one of my life’s biggest regrets.
I wasn’t panicked after a year of failed treatment, though. I had eggs in another basket, literally speaking. I called the doctor in Bombay who had frozen my eggs seven years earlier and asked him about my chances of getting pregnant. Dr. Majumdar bellowed down the line, “99%!”
Up until a few years ago, India was known for a booming surrogacy industry, estimated at two billion dollars, with would-be parents from all over the world descending on the country to link up with clinics like Dr. Majumdar’s.
Elected in 2014, India’s own Trump-esque leader, Narendra Modi, cracked down on reproductive tourism, restricting surrogacy to domestic heterosexual couples. This had a trickle-down effect on all aspects of fertility services. A few years earlier, I would have been able to ship my eggs to New York City (or my chosen donor sperm to Bombay). Now I would have to fly there.
I’ve liked all my IVF doctors, but Dr. Majumdar was my first love. Barrel-chested and exuberant, Dr. Majumdar never hesitated to toot his own horn. Far from recoiling from his cockiness, I was heartened. If anybody was going to, Dr. Majumdar would give me a baby. I booked a trip to India, a country I had not visited since I left seven years earlier.
I landed in Bombay just before dawn and a few hours later, I was in an Uber heading to Dr. Majumdar’s clinic. It occupied two tiny rooms in a hospital, crammed next to the ophthalmology unit on one side and the ear, nose, and throat clinic on the other.
In Mr. Majumdar’s spare office, the only other objects besides the desk and two chairs were six metal cryogenic barrels containing eggs and embryos. I wondered if my own eggs might be sitting in one of those kegs inches away from me.
Indian hospitals always astonished me. The higgledy-piggledy disorder, the barebones structures, the unusable bathrooms (why is the floor always so wet?), the crowds of people spilling out in corridors everywhere, and yes, the cryogenic barrels sitting in doctors’ offices. In Bombay, I was worlds away from the well-appointed rooms and handsome equipment of New York’s fertility clinics. And yet, I had frequently put myself in the care of the Indian medical system and its mostly honorable practitioners with full faith. I unhesitatingly did it again.
Even though I only had four eggs frozen at the age of 37, Dr. Majumdar still pegged my chances of getting pregnant at 99%. I recognized he was being hyperbolic, but who was I to quibble? I was thrilled.
Soon, I was led to another room and handed long lists of sperm donors to choose from. Line after line read: 175 cm, 75 kg, wheatish, Msc Biotech; 163 cm, 59 kg, fair, MBA; 180 cm, 69 kg, dark, B Comm.
As the sperm donors’ height, weight, skin complexion, and education credentials morphed into a mysterious code, I wondered how I would decipher it. I took out my calculator to convert centimeters to inches and kilograms to pounds but I was still stumped.
Three young female doctors, whom I’d noticed trying to steal peeks at the unmarried foreign woman having a baby by herself, filed in to help me. With brutal precision, they began crossing off donors: “Too short, too thin, too dark.” Finally we settled on a donor. He had a Master’s in Science. No wait, I think it was an MBA. I honestly can’t remember anything about him.
After staying in Bombay for nearly two weeks, I smuggled two (growing, I hoped) embryos in my belly back to the U.S. (The other two eggs did not fertilize.)
And yet, back in Brooklyn, I still wasn’t pregnant. As much as I’d assumed I would have children, I also assumed they would be my biological own. I had invested so much hope in those four microscopic eggs, and now they were gone. I was devastated.
Much like when I had to decide between becoming a mother or staying with my reluctant boyfriend, I’d reached another inflection point. I had aged out of my fertile years. I know several women, married and single who, upon reaching this crux, decide against trying to have a child by another means.
People always ask me about adoption, assuming that it’s part of the natural progression after failed IVF. Adoption is just as arduous and expensive a process, if not more so, for single women. A single woman might wait years to be chosen by birth parents or an adoption agency, and that years-long wait had a good chance of being fruitless.
I knew a single woman undergoing fertility treatment who hedged her bets by also putting herself on a waiting list at an adoption agency. She meticulously prepared the Manhattan apartment she had purchased for just this reason, yet never received one call for a home study.
I was renting a tiny apartment in overpriced Brooklyn and had just started working freelance. It seemed unlikely that an adoption agency would choose me over other suitable parents, the vast majority of them couples.
I understood international adoption to be equally fraught. I recalled a Washington D.C. power couple I once knew that had adopted a daughter from India, but had to fly there half a dozen times within a year as part of the rigorous adoption process.
Not only did I hope to exercise more choice and control than is involved with adoption, I also didn’t want to forgo pregnancy and childbirth — which had always seemed kind of up there on life’s big rewarding moments.
I longed to experience the intimacy borne of carrying a baby inside of me for nearly a year. I wanted to feel her kicks and wonder what she would look like on the other side. I also relished the idea of being a mother on day one of a human life.
Thanks to modern medicine, I could use an egg donor (in addition to a sperm donor) and implant the resulting embryo inside me. Indeed this was the route chosen by the woman who never got a call from the adoption agency she signed up for. (She is now a mother to an effervescent three-year-old girl.)
Yet I mourned the fact I would never see what a genetic child of mine would look like on this earth. As I mulled it over, I thought of how parents had been raising children who were not their biological descendants since the dawn of time. A warring tribe delivering a captured toddler to a childless couple or an infertile king commandeering the cobbler’s newborn and raising him as his own.
As I deliberated over whether to use a donor egg, it was, surprisingly, my father who tipped the scales. A few months after my mother’s death, while accompanying him on an errand, I explained my dilemma.
He told me about how his own father, my grandfather, had been informally adopted by his paternal aunt and her husband, who could not have children. While he was raised in close proximity to his biological parents, he insisted throughout this life that his real father was the adoptive one: “I am the son of Gulshan Rai; I am not the son of Chuntan Lal.”
When I asked whether he was worried that my child would not share a genetic connection with us, he said, “Bah, I don’t care about that. We don’t have such great genes, beta. Maybe you’ll get someone who really does.”
As we drove around Sacramento in his minivan, he offered up some excruciating final words from my mother. Watching me go through one failed IVF cycle after another, she had remarked in her final months, “Our daughter, it is so difficult for her to do these simple things that come easily to everyone else — get married, have a baby.”
I decided to move forward with an egg donor. And then I awoke in Sacramento that day, pregnant. The following spring was idyllic — I traveled constantly with my daughter growing inside of me. I’ve never been of robust health but, despite my age, my pregnancy was surprisingly healthy. I neither developed the diabetes nor the high-blood pressure I assumed I would.
Given my easy pregnancy, I crisscrossed the country on three separate occasions and then, nearly five months pregnant, traveled to New Delhi to tell friends and my extended family of my pregnancy.
My extended family lived two hours outside of Delhi in Meerut, one of India’s “small” towns that is actually huge (population: 3.5 million). Accompanied by a friend from Delhi, I arrived at my aunt’s home to find a swarm of more than a dozen relatives — cousins, cousins’ husbands, sisters-in-law, aunts, uncles, nephews — assembled in the tiny front room.
After some small talk, I made my announcement. The Hindi word for pregnant, garbhavati, is seldom used, so I told them in my halting Hindi that I “was not married but would soon be having a baby.” A split second of bafflement passed before my friend Pooja explained, “She used the seed of a man and did in-vitro fertilization.”
A hubbub of something akin to goodwill, certainly not disapproval, ensued. “That’s good, the husband can come later.” “I guess she never found a man to her liking.” “We have enbeethro in Meerut too.” “Is it a boy or a girl?” “Girls are better than boys actually.”
Even my provincial Indian family offered nothing but support for my decision. I didn’t have the fairytale of a man with whom to raise a child that was genetically connected to both of us, but none of it seemed to matter anymore. After four and a half decades riddled with self-doubt, I had seemingly slain all my demons.
Shortly after returning from India, I went in for a routine 20-week fetal scan. My baby was moving too much to capture her brain, so my doctor sent me to get a fetal brain MRI. She was being extra careful, it seemed.
After the MRI, the radiologist called to tell me that my unborn daughter was growing a massive and likely malignant brain tumor. I thought of my mother’s heartrending words: “Our daughter, it is so difficult for her to do these simple things that come easily to everyone else — get married, have a baby.”
The day after the radiologist called, I went in and met with three of New York City’s top doctors — a pediatric neurosurgeon, a neo-natologist, and a radiologist — in a hospital boardroom. I think it could be described as a scene only possible in the city. All three doctors were female and they were meeting with me alone, a distraught single mother.
I soon learned fetal brain tumors were exceedingly rare. The radiologist had only seen four in her entire career. She told me one study showed that only 15% of babies born with a brain tumor survive, and if they do, they live with severe mental impairment. The numbers were grim and my options limited.
I was five and a half months along. I could either be induced and deliver my baby or undergo a D&E (dilation and evacuation), essentially a second-trimester abortion that would not preserve the integrity of my baby’s body. I could stay in New York for both procedures, but had I been a week further along I would have had to travel to a state like Colorado, which permits late-term abortions. (New York state changed this law earlier this year).
I chose to give birth to my daughter; it was the least I could do for her.
The day unfolded like a nightmare. I next visited my obstetrician who, as I lay weeping on a table, stopped my daughter’s heart by injecting potassium chloride into the umbilical cord binding us together.
Later that evening, I was outfitted with a hospital gown, hooked up to an epidural, and my arms ringletted with a blood pressure cuff and an IV set-up. I was given misoprostol to induce labor and dilate my cervix.
It could have been the epidural but it was likely the misoprostol that caused my temperature to spike to 103 degrees and remain there for the next 24 hours. I dozed off and on through the next day, even as friends came and sat by my bedside. The misoprostol was administered every few hours, and while it was doing a good job of keeping my temperature elevated, my cervix still wasn’t dilating.
By nightfall, I was delirious from the fever. A doctor came to tell me they were worried I wasn’t dilating enough and that if things didn’t progress, we would have to consider the D&E, which would not leave my daughter’s body intact.
I pleaded with him to give it more time; I wanted to say goodbye to my daughter. Another couple hours of restless sleep later and then everything happened at once. At midnight on the second night of my hospital stay, my fever broke, my water broke, and my cervix opened. “This is the breakthrough we’ve been hoping for,” the attending resident said, incongruously sounding like a sports commentator.
A few hours later, I delivered my one-pound daughter, whom I had named Rumi Lila. Her mouth, shaped like a heart, was obscenely red. All I could think to say to her was that I was so, so sorry. “I am so sorry I didn’t get to be your mother.” “I am so sorry you didn’t get to live.” “I am so sorry.”
I’ve had to divulge my tragedy to not just friends, but also the well-wishers in our lives that we see cyclically — the favorite coffee barista, the hairdresser, my cleaning lady, the dentist. My brush with motherhood was so fleeting, I feel like an impostor when I say “my daughter.” I’m a woman pretending, like a girl playing with her dolls. I’m not sure if any of it happened at all.
The first week of May, I was ejected from motherhood and unceremoniously returned to my lifelong status quo of un-pregnant. Over the past two-and-a-half years, I’d lost my mother, my boyfriend had vanished, I’d endured nearly a dozen rounds of IVF, gone to Bombay for my frozen eggs, and come to terms with not having a biological child. Now, it seemed so inconceivable, so outrageously wrong, that I should be in this position once more. I thought of all the happy couples with one, two, sometimes three kids, and I raged at the unfairness of it all.
I was numb and exhausted when summer arrived. I possess a legendary love of the New York summer, when walking out the door in the morning in barely-there clothing to buy an iced coffee feels like a benediction, yet my tragedy had stripped me of our — mine and my daughter’s— future.
I couldn’t enjoy it, but at least it was summer. I couldn’t imagine having to mourn my daughter’s death during the barren winter. I drank the aforementioned iced coffee by the pint and threw myself into yoga classes to build up my physical strength.
And then, in the fall, I returned to the fertility clinic. I was back in stirrups, spread-eagling my legs when my doctor remarked, “Hmm, this looks unusual. It could be a cyst but it seems solid. Do you see it here? I want you to get it checked out.”
A few weeks later, I underwent a seven-hour operation to remove the three-centimeter tumor growing on my left ovary. My mother had cancer, my baby had cancer, and now, befittingly, it was my turn.
I was diagnosed with Stage 1C ovarian cancer and had a rare, aggressive type of tumor — yes, it was Stage 1, but the absolute worst possible kind. The chances of a recurrence were a not negligible 30% within five years, and if my somewhat chemo-resistant (never an encouraging phrase) strain does come back, it could be a death sentence.
My seemingly endless quest to have a child might have saved my life. Usually detected at an advanced stage when it is too deadly to reign in, ovarian cancer has one of the worst prognoses among cancers, so in some respects I was…lucky?
I’ve had to go through just three chemotherapy sessions, not the half dozen or more others have suffered. I lost my hair but was able to hang on to my uterus, which the surgeon left in against medical recommendation in the event I wanted to undergo a pregnancy.
My annus horribilis had turned me into Job, smote by repeated tragedies. Again, my mother’s words rang in my ears: “Our daughter, it is so difficult for her to do these simple things that come easily to everyone else — get married, have a baby.”
Now I find myself at the mother of all junctures (pun somewhat intended). A journey that had started out with such naive hope three years ago when I stepped foot in my first Manhattan fertility clinic had left me reeling and crushed, not to mention bald.
Most (all?) women, given such a devastating turn of events, might take it as a blaring sign that motherhood was not in the cards for them.
Given my new circumstances, it is risky to get pregnant again. For cancer patients, the likelihood of recurrence is highest in the first two years after diagnosis. Yet, my cancer was early stage and I’d undergone chemotherapy, which has hopefully wiped out any stray cancer cells. Understanding the risks, my doctor has given me the go-ahead for another pregnancy.
Some might say pursuing a pregnancy now would be foolhardy, while others could call it resilient. Losing Rumi and then getting diagnosed with cancer have made for a cataclysmic year, sinking me into if not quite a depression, then a protracted cheerlessness. I’d like to think I’m due for some joy in my life.
I know you’re wondering. Will I do it again?
If I do, I will be 47 when I deliver and a first-time mother as the children of my peers are well into their school years, some of them having already graduated from high school and moved on to college. I run the numbers: when my child is 10, I’ll be 57; when my child is 46, the age I am now, I’ll be 93.
But then I think, I’m 46 and I feel like I’ve already lived several lifetimes. If I have the good fortune to live 46 more years — another literal lifetime — I can’t imagine doing it without having made some grand, unutterable alteration to my existence. Like becoming a mother.