2nd Place Winner in the 2021 LifeWriting Contest.
by Carrie Steckl
We behaved like it was a given, though deep down I think we both knew the odds we faced. Dave and I married at the ages of 43 and 41, respectively. Each new to marriage and childless, the future shone before us like a beacon. We wanted to start a family.
But eight months later, I felt barren in body and spirit. What were we doing wrong? We sought help from our local fertility clinic and endured a variety of tests that suggested intrauterine insemination (IUI) was our starting point. My 42nd birthday was bittersweet: we received word that our first IUI was unsuccessful a few hours before I was baptized – a long journey in and of itself. News that our second IUI failed came as we prepared to attend a friend’s baby shower. The cruel timing began to take its toll.
Our doctor decided we best move on to in vitro fertilization (IVF). My world was overtaken by self-administered injections, exercise restrictions, pills, bloodwork, and transvaginal ultrasounds. Despite my “advanced maternal age,” Dave and I managed to create three embryos via medical technology. We were ready to be parents to all of them, but it wasn’t meant to be. None of the embryos implanted in my uterus, crushing our hopes right before Christmas.
As I walked through the shadow of infertility, I thought of my Great Aunt Mina. Though she never married nor had children, she “mothered” for decades, caring first for her own mother, then her brother, and finally her sister, devoting her entire life to others. “This is God’s work,” I thought. She fulfilled her purpose. Maybe I have a purpose, too. Maybe I will be a different kind of mother than what I had imagined. A mother like Great Aunt Mina.
I was sick of trying. One night, I punched the wall in our hallway and sobbed, “I can’t do this anymore.” I told Dave he should have married someone younger, that he’d be better off without me. I said I was sick in the head. I needed help.
I found a psychologist specializing in the trauma of infertility. I told her I needed to get over this. I wanted to stop wanting to have a baby and move on with my life. She listened, patiently. “You’re not ready to move on,” she suggested. I was furious. But then she said there was another option – a different fertility clinic, across the country, that might be able to help. I went home cursing her, vowing to never go through this kind of hell again.
But she was right – I wasn’t ready to move on. Two months later, Dave and I traveled to the internationally known clinic and received complete workups. Two words from that trip are etched in my mind forever: “uterine septum.” The doctor found a large strip of tissue running down the middle of my uterus, dividing it into two parts. The chance of pregnancy was virtually zero while this congenital defect was in my body.
We were reeling. How did the first clinic miss this? So many procedures, inflicted for nothing. All kinds of time, wasted. I was almost 43. Time was running out.
And the embryos. The three precious embryos. Could they have survived if my uterus had been normal? The guilt felt like thick fog enveloping me, dragging me under quicksand. Would God ever forgive us?
As I walked through the mire of regret and missed opportunities, I thought of Deborah in the Book of Judges. Scripture never mentions her having children, but she used her motherly characteristics to guide, encourage, and spiritually nourish a nation. She seemed to understand that God’s use of her motherly gifts might differ from more traditional ways. Maybe I will be a different kind of mother than I had imagined. Maybe I will be a mother like Deborah.
We needed to act quickly. The doctor advised that we retrieve my eggs as soon as possible and freeze any viable embryos before surgically correcting my uterus. Waiting until after surgery might be too late, given the dramatic drop in egg quality and quantity in a woman’s 40s.
We complied, going through another round of shots, tests, and travel. But as I turned 43, we learned that Dave and I were not able to create even one viable embryo. There was nothing to freeze, yet my surgery date was already set – a tricky scheduling challenge based on my menstrual cycle.
The doctor said though our chances were slim, he would approve one more IVF attempt after surgery if we chose to go through with it. Our minds clouded with grief from the latest setback, we had to make our hardest decision yet. Should I go through with a surgery that might be unnecessary if we still can’t create any embryos? We prayed. We cried. We decided God was giving us one more chance, and we needed to take it. If we didn’t, I would probably have a mental breakdown someday when the door closed forever. I could not live with the “what if.”
The three-month recovery period after surgery gave me time to prepare for the final egg retrieval in new ways. I worked with a nutritionist, therapist, and acupuncturist to build my body and mind for the creation of healthy eggs. In essence, I was empowering myself. Whatever the outcome, I could look inside myself and know I had done all I could do.
As I walked through fields of fading chances, I thought of a summer afternoon long ago when I jogged down a residential street and heard a child crying. The boy was in a rusty pick-up with the windows down, alone. “Are you okay?” I asked. He pointed at a house nearby and said his mom was inside. He had fallen asleep on the ride home, and she left him there. I went to the house and knocked. The mom was clearly irritated when she answered the door. I said her child was in the truck, alone and crying. “Mind your own business,” she snapped, but she got him out and took him inside. The boy stared at me longingly as I waved goodbye. I was a mother that day. Maybe I will be a different kind of mother than I had imagined. Maybe I will be like…myself.
Three might be a magic number, but I’ve learned that one can also be. One more try. One good embryo. One good uterus. One precious baby.
It worked. We are now parents of an incredible six-year-old girl. And she was worth everything we went through to get her here.
When this journey began, I felt desperate to have a child. Who would I be if we failed? But over time, that feeling transformed into something more peaceful and inclusive. I knew I no longer had to birth a child to be a mother in this world. I could be a Great Aunt Mina, or a Deborah, or just me. And now that our daughter is here, that self-knowledge makes me a better mother in the end.
I’m a late bloomer, three times over—I married at 41, had my daughter at 44, and started writing screenplays at 47. In 2020, I won Best Feature Script at the Lake Travis Film Festival for my screenplay, “The Twisted Apple Sweetness Patrol.” I'm also exploring other forms of fiction as well as creative non-fiction. Born near Chicago, I’m a 6’0” Cubs fan living in Austin, Texas with my 6’9” husband, ever-curious daughter, and loyal rescue dog.
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