Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email email@example.com and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.
Elli says she never really considered motherhood one way or another, which might be why she and her husband waited until their late 30s to talk seriously about whether they wanted to become parents. In the end, the couple — who are Americans living and working in France — did decide to try, and Elli went off the Pill. She discusses her original thoughts about pregnancy and the Pill, the lengths she went to in an effort to improve her fertility, the experience of IVF and motherhood in France, and the reason she’s not sure she’d be a parent if she lived in America.
On considering motherhood. My husband and I were on the fence, both of us, when we decided to go for it, which is probably why we waited so long. We were some of the last of our friends to have kids, which ended up being really annoying — they took all the good names.
I went off the Pill when I was 38. Neither of us felt a massive parental urge, though we did sit down to discuss the pros and cons in a very analytical way. The cons were a lifestyle change, overpopulation, the impact on the environment. The pros were as simple as: We want to experience it. We wanted the most human experience you can have.
I’d been taking the Pill for about 20 years, and I had the naïve idea that having a baby is just as easy as not having a baby, meaning that if you can control one side, you can equally control the other. Controlling your fertility with the Pill is so easy — you just take one every day. I thought, If you stop taking it, the opposite happens. It’s ridiculous, now that I look back.
My husband and I were living in Paris at the time; we’d moved so I could do research for my Ph.D., then ended up both finding jobs and staying. The first month off the Pill, I was truly surprised when I got my period. It was only after I went off the Pill that I saw my doctor, who prescribed folic acid. As the months ticked by and nothing happened, I started to get concerned. But my doctor — who was very French in this way — told me not to worry, to relax and have a glass of wine. There was never any sense of urgency for my doctor, which perhaps was a natural pushback against my very analytical and planning tendencies.
On psychics and pineapple cores. Our initial tests looked fine. On the surface, there was nothing to keep me from getting pregnant. That was when I really dove into research on what I could do for my own fertility. After about a year of trying, I started looking into alternative medicines, researching fertility and my body. I did everything. If you Google “infertility,” whatever comes up, I tried. From changing my diet, to acupuncture, to going to a hippie-dippie midwife and using essential oils, to talking to a psychic. Everything under the sun, I did it. I was told by two different psychic healers that my body was too acidic, so I researched that and changed my diet to make it more alkaline.
I have a scientific mind to begin with, so a lot of this was uncharacteristic. I’m a linguist and I do quantitative research. My mind is used to working in a very analytical way. But I just reached a certain point where I thought, Why not? It can’t hurt to eat some pineapple core. It can’t hurt to talk to a psychic. So why wouldn’t I?
Throughout it all, my husband was wonderful. He never really thought we would not have a baby at some point. He kept a level head, while I started to get depressed every month, when my period would come. He supported every decision that I made; he was just there for me at every turn. I don’t think he could have been any better. He just never went down the rabbit hole of despair and depression. And thank god — because personally, I would not have wanted to be married to me, during a lot of that.
About two years after going off the Pill, I did my first IUI — intrauterine insemination. I did three IUIs over a span of about ten months, and none of them worked.
On moving to IVF. I’d never loved my doctor, who always seemed condescending to me. The specialist I transferred to, I immediately felt more comfortable with. He was the most renowned IVF specialist in France — also famous because he’d been married to Kristin Scott Thomas. He was very sweet, very kind.
I told him that I’d been told to keep doing IUIs, but that I wanted to move to IVF. He agreed with me. I was excited — IVF was definitely our best shot at having our own biological child. But I was also terrified. When you do IVF, that’s it, that’s the end of the line, as far as getting pregnant with your own eggs goes. If it didn’t work … I didn’t really let my brain go there.
On doing IVF. The first round did not work. It went well, as far as all the stats go: We did the egg retrieval, and they got nine eggs, which for my age was pretty good. I was almost 42, at the time. All of them fertilized, which was very rare. Even our doctor was surprised.
We did a three-day fresh transfer — by then, six of the nine were developing normally, which was also quite good for my age. Before the transfer, we had this discussion: Did we want to transfer two or three embryos? We decided to do two, but it didn’t work. It sounds so cynical now, but finding out just felt like more of the same. We’d gotten so used to everything new we tried not working. I’d reached this point where I kind of expected failure.
I do wonder, sometimes — would the third embryo have been my son? And maybe he wouldn’t have made it that time, for some reason … We just can’t know.
Four embryos were still growing after the transfer, but only two made it to the five-day point, when we froze them. Our next step was to try a frozen embryo transfer.
On trying not to hope. We waited two months, and then we started on a “natural” frozen embryo transfer. There were no drugs, and my ovulation wasn’t suppressed. My doctor followed my natural cycle through blood tests and ultrasounds and then transferred the frozen embryos at the same time an embryo would naturally be implanting. There is the tiniest of possibilities, that month I did get pregnant, that I got pregnant naturally. But I’m sure that’s not what happened; the chances are minuscule.
By this point, I was so used to trying to suppress any hope — which sounds like such a sad thing to say. It had been over three years, so it had been almost 40 cycles of waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting. I tried to keep really busy. I tried to not think about it. I limited my activity; I stopped riding my bike and doing strenuous activity. The difference, with IVF, is that you know there is an embryo in there. The stakes feel high. You can let yourself have this feeling that there’s life in you. That sounds like a very pro-life thing to say, but I’m not — I’m very pro-choice. Still, going through this did make me feel very connected to these tiny little balls of cells, which I had not expected.
On the first nine weeks. You always imagine peeing on a stick, like in the movies, but we found out online, after we got an email saying our blood test results were ready. And then you log in, and there’s a PDF which gives the level of hCG in your blood. When I first looked at the results, I read them wrong: I saw a zero. But then I realized that was the test from the fresh transfer two months before,. Then I looked at the next line, which said 81. I will always remember that number. It’s pretty low, for an initial blood test. But it was a positive.
Every 48 hours, the number is supposed to double or more. The second test, two days later, it was the same thing — the number had increased, to 132. It had increased, but it didn’t double. So there was a crazy limbo: It was good news, but it was not the best news, either. Finally, the fourth blood test more than doubled, it did what it was supposed to do. We were joking that because the embryo had been frozen, it was just taking a while to thaw.
The next step was a seven-week appointment: There was a heartbeat, everything seemed on track. But then the doctor said, “Okay, so for your age, your situation, you have a 40 percent chance of miscarrying over the next two weeks.” When you’ve been going through this for years, you imagine — naïvely — that the day you find out you’re pregnant will be the day when it’s all okay. And then you hear a statistic like that. For the next two weeks, I didn’t even let myself sneeze. Again, ridiculous — but I was just walking around in a cloud of worry.
At the nine-week appointment, we were nervous; I think our doctor was nervous too. His job is full of negative pregnancy tests and pregnancies that don’t stick. He mostly works with women in their 40s who don’t have a great success rate.
I got up on the chair, and he inserted the ultrasound wand. We were all holding our breath. He let out a breath when he found the heartbeat. “It’s all okay,” he said. You always hear that 12 weeks is the mark where everything’s “okay,” but for our doctor, that mark was nine weeks. I’m not quite sure why that was, but that was the day we left him — I graduated from being his patient to being a “normal” pregnant woman.
On being infertile and pregnant in France. The health care system in France covers fertility treatments up to a woman’s 43rd birthday. You can have six IUIs and four rounds of IVF, all covered by the national health care system. Lots of medical care here is covered at 70 or 80 percent, but this is covered fully. There’s another tier to this: You can also go to a private specialist, who charges a bit more, but you’re still within the French health system. It’s still reimbursed to a certain level. We paid about $1,800 for everything.
I can’t imagine going through the hell of infertility while also having to worry about costs. I’m not sure we would be parents today if we had been in the United States during all of this.
Going into prenatal testing, we were nervous; because of my age, the pregnancy was at a higher risk for chromosomal abnormalities. We were prepared to terminate if tests found something serious. We did not want to bring a child into the world who would suffer or not be able to experience a life we would want to give a child. But we were lucky — the tests all came back normal, no red flags.
On giving birth. Going through infertility and IVF did influence what I wanted out of birth — because you know that the creation of what becomes your child happens outside of your body. It’s about as unnatural as you can get. I wanted birth to be as unmedicalized as possible.
I didn’t go as far as to have a home birth, and I was still considered a bit of a high risk because of my age — I knew I wanted to be in a hospital and have access to medical care. The name hypnobirthing is totally goofy, but it’s something I would recommend to anyone who’s interested. You learn meditative, calming techniques for giving birth; breathing and affirmations you repeat. You also learn in great detail about the actual physiology of birth, which is what helped me the most. I know a lot of women will want to punch me for saying this, but I didn’t find birth all that painful. I think we call contractions painful because we don’t have the right word for them. I’d describe them as intense, intense pressure. Having a natural birth is unusual in France, I should say — there’s a very high rate of epidurals, and a general attitude of, Why would you choose to suffer?
I was so lucky, and pretty much everything went according to plan. My labor was relatively easy; I only physically and consciously pushed two times, right at the end.
On early parenthood in France. Another great thing: You stay in the hospital a lot longer than in the U.S. The standard stay after giving birth in France is four nights for a first baby, three for subsequent babies. We ended up staying five nights because my son had a little trouble getting the hang of breastfeeding. This was all covered by the French health care system. All I had to do was push a button and I had breastfeeding support, help bathing, someone to change a diaper.
Once we were home, I just kind of made a little cocoon with me and the baby. We just cuddled and breastfed and hung out. It was exhausting, of course, but it was also a dreamlike time. Yet another perk of being in France: Midwives come to your house to visit and make sure everything’s okay. This is also covered. A midwife came twice to examine me, weigh my son, check things over. Another woman, who worked for the city, came to check out our living environment and make sure it was okay. She told me, for example, that our apartment was a little bit too hot for her liking. She also looked over the baby’s bed to check for any risk of SIDS. I also could have called a midwife for additional home visits, at any time, if I needed them. In France, they don’t really let you slip through the cracks. There’s a lot of support. Maternity leave is 16 weeks, fully paid.
French women look at motherhood very differently. I’m overgeneralizing, but a French woman doesn’t assume a mother personality like women in Anglo-Saxon culture do. French women are women who then have a child. But they’re still a woman. They don’t says things like “Now that I’m a mom …” They’re very interested in losing weight and getting back into skinny jeans and heels and not being consumed by having to put another being’s interests ahead of their own. Breastfeeding is just not seen as something that is necessary to do. It’s like the epidural — why would you suffer if you don’t have to? There’s no pressure to breastfeed. It’s more like there’s understanding if you do want to breastfeed. That said, my breast pump was 100 percent covered. I had breastfeeding support when I needed it. But breastfeeding is not the norm.
On infertility and motherhood. I think struggling through infertility made me a better mother. I think all mothers feel gratitude for the existence of their children, but I think this level of gratitude is more than I would have felt had I gotten pregnant that first month I went off the Pill. I’m not a religious person; I’m not really a spiritual person. But every night I thank the universe, hokey as that may sound, that my son exists.