“Want to watch Private Life?” my husband asked. “It got great reviews.”
“It’s about a New York couple in infertility hell, like we were.” I shook my head. “Sounds awful.”
“We weren’t like that,” he said.
“We’re exactly like them. We’re married, childless Manhattan literary snobs.” The movie hadn’t started and we were arguing already.
Sitting on the couch in our book-filled den, we turned on the acclaimed dark comedy about a middle-aged lefty Greenwich Village couple, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn. They were in bed, her shapely behind sticking out, and seemed to be making love. But he was actually giving her a fertility shot. I winced. Needle-phobic, I recalled Aaron coming to my doctor appointments a decade and a half before, holding me when they’d taken blood. As Giamatti joked, my husband had also given me Valium.
“I can’t handle this,” I told Aaron.
“You hate my foreign murder mysteries. So here’s a chickflick. We’re watching.”
I rolled my eyes when Giamatti tried to ejaculate into a cup during a bad porno he couldn’t turn off.
“Remember when porn didn’t do it for me either?” Aaron said.
Instead, my husband had requested the photograph of me he’d taken in a black nighty on an L.A. vacation. How romantic. I moved closer to him. He held my hand.
“That reminds me of when I tripped and spilled the sperm all over,” he added.
I laughed, staying to watch the rest of Private Life and cringe in self-recognition. I saw myself in Hahn’s Rachel, a tall, brainy, Jewish author. Years ago, I was sick of decades of dating heartbreak, and decided I’d felt fine alone. Then I met Aaron, a comedy writer as smart and sardonic as Paul Giamatti’s Richard (though taller and more handsome, with better hair).
Aaron’s Westchester parents were conservative like mine in West Bloomfield; he seemed almost too familiar.
“Smart, sweet but not my type,” I told the friend who’d introduced us after our first date.
“Your type’s neurotic, self-destructive and not into you,” she said. “Try him again.”
I tried him again. After three years of dating, I joked he was “the man I want to father the children I don’t want to have.” He was hilarious, patient, with a gentle, paternal way that chilled me out. Broke and unsure if marriage would cramp our chaotic freelance career and independence, we were both mixed on parenthood. Yet Aaron’s kindness and loyalty made me see why couples settled down and had kids and convinced me to try.
At 35, I wore black to our Soho nuptials, dancing to our song, “Runaround Sue.” My father didn’t say “Congratulations”; he said “Hallelujah.” We borrowed money from both sides to buy our East Eighth Street apartment — which, by the way, was just a few blocks from Richard and Rachel’s East Sixth Street pad. Theirs was also overstuffed with novels, political tomes, and poetry, though I was happy to note that ours looked less cluttered. And we, too, delayed discussions of parenthood, living for our art, midnight movies, and each other.
Two years later, when Aaron’s father fell sick with cancer, Aaron rushed to the hospital daily, making sure his dad got the bagel and lox he’d craved at the end. Their deep bond stirred me. At 37, I decided I wanted to quit birth control, hoping to get pregnant naturally. I told Aaron. Reluctantly, he agreed to try, and I soon became as baby-crazy as Rachel. I pictured having a tall, brainy son like Aaron. We could call him Isaac, after his Dad. Or Sophie, a girl named after my mother’s mom, the raven-haired grandma I never met.
Unfortunately, several $500 out-of-pocket doctor appointments with specialists we couldn’t afford confirmed we were both carriers of Tay-Sachs, an Ashkenazi Jewish genetic disease usually fatal to the child. The doctor suggested a sperm or egg donor. In the Netflix movie, there’s a scene where Rachel freaks out at the thought of using someone else’s eggs to have a kid without a genetic connection to her. Watching, I remembered Aaron’s reaction to the Sperm Donor Selection List we were handed at a clinic.
“This Russian guy, #023 looks good. He’s 22, in graduate school,” I said. “Brown curly hair and tall, like you.”
“I’m not raising a Russian spy!” said Aaron putting #023’s packet in the reject pile.
“Next one speaks two languages and wants to be a comedy writer,” I tried.
“Let’s see,” Aaron grabbed the report from my hands. “Not one of his answers are the least bit funny.”
He was getting competitive with the packets. “It’s not a Saturday Night Live audition,” I said. “Nobody’s amusing answering a medical survey.”
“I would be,” Aaron said.
The Private Life doctor scenes re-created our heartache: Further tests showed he’d require surgery to increase his testosterone; I’d need in-vitro fertilization with genetic engineering which, in the ’90s, cost $30,000 a round. I wouldn’t know if the baby was healthy until an amniocentesis — a needle inserted into my uterus — which came with a risk of miscarriage. If our baby had the disease, we could abort and do it again in three months for $30,000 more, the doctor said. In the film, the problems only made Rachel and Richard try harder. In real life, as our obstacles mounted, we retreated. The thought of going $60,000 into debt for a child we might never get was too frightening, and we gave up trying to have our biological baby.
There was one option left: At the time, I recalled a younger relative of Aaron’s with a strong family resemblance. “Ask your cousin if he’ll give us some of his sperm,” I said.
“Are you insane?” Aaron said. I finally convinced him. In the movie version, Rachel and Richard come up with a similar plan: They ask their step-niece, Sadie, if they can use her eggs. Things go better for our Netflix counterparts than they did for us: our cousin said no, and Aaron was humiliated. That was it for him. “I’m not trying anymore,” he told me.
For a long while, I resented his decision to quit. When my ex-boyfriend came to town, I daydreamed about jumping him, getting pregnant, and pretending it was Aaron’s. But I knew another man wasn’t the answer; I’d never love anyone as much as my husband. It seemed an unfair choice: my mate or my maternity. Depressed, I smoked, drank and got high. Eventually, he pushed me into therapy. In time, I brought my focus back to my neglected passions. Aaron and I became workaholics, freelancing by day, moonlighting as teachers by night, rechanneling our parental instincts by cherishing our students.
“Our marriage is so great because we both get to be the kids we take care of,” Aaron said on our tenth anniversary. But our empty extra bedroom haunted me.
When I fixed my brother Brian up with a New York girlfriend, they married and raised four kids in Michigan. My other brother Eric had a creative daughter who came to stay with us. My parents reveled in grandparenthood. Becoming close to our relatives’ kids, I acted like my childlessness didn’t bother me.
“In some ways it’s a biological tragedy,” my therapist said. “If you don’t deal with it, you’ll feel shocked at unexpected times.”
I argued he was sexist and out of touch. Studies showed 47 percent of U.S. women didn’t have children and many of my friends felt liberated to be child-free. Others were more successful than we were at navigating the reproduction industry, an annual $4 to 5 billion-dollar business in America, according to Forbes.
Our own businesses thrived: Aaron worked on TV shows. I published books. We were out of debt and contentedly unencumbered, and I convinced myself we’d made the right decision. Then my dad got sick.
On his 85th birthday, he was hospitalized with heart failure, surrounded by his wife, children, and their offspring. With Aaron a decade my senior, I feared if I made it to 85, I’d die alone. I regretted not having kids, feeling like a failure for not trying harder. “I wish Aaron and I had given you another grandchild,” I told Dad that night after everyone left.
“You introduced your brother to his wife so you get credit for getting me four grandbabies,” he kidded. “And you’re a great aunt and wife.” He kissed my forehead. Four months later, Aaron held me while I sobbed through my father’s funeral and shiva.
Last August, spending time in Michigan with my widowed mother, I did some readings for my new book. Tired of people calling him “Mr. Shapiro,” Aaron nonetheless came with Mom each night. Looking into the audience, I felt supported, with a weird sensation that they were my parents now.
With marriage, you get to pick your own next of kin. In a way, Aaron — an older man who took care of me — was taking Dad’s place. As I got older, I trusted and depended on him more. In the movie, the couple remains hopeful they’ll get pregnant; after 22 years together, Aaron and I were resigned to live as two. But I was lucky to have him as my family and my home.
Susan Shapiro, a New School writing professor, is the bestselling author of 12 books, including the memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart and the new writing guide The Byline Bible.