A long journey to motherhood By Erica Salem
Erica Salem cuddles with twins Sophie, left, and Charlie.
Editor’s Note: In honor of Mother’s Day, we thought readers would enjoy Erica Salem’s unconventional journey to motherhood.
I first thought of becoming a single mom when I was 36 years old. Mr. Right was nowhere in sight and somehow the idea of conceiving and raising a child by myself was much less intimidating than the idea of dating.
My parents, who live nearby, have always supported almost everything I’ve done—or at least spared me the burden of sharing with me their disappointment. Yet, I still felt the need to steel myself with saki as I laid out my desires over sushi one day.
“You know if you do this, you’re going to have to start cooking and find someone to take care of the baby while you’re at work,” my mother said, pointing out two of the few things already obvious to me.
But it took two more years of considering, doctor consulting, talking with single mothers, assessing my options for the father and very little dating before I decided to move ahead.
I viewed an anonymous sperm donor as the least complicated option. The donor selection process was somewhat like I imagined a dating service to be. I selected a popular sperm bank and was able to do much of my search on the Web.
My eyes, his SAT I entered the features I desired in a donor, focusing on eye and hair color, race and ethnicity, and other features similar to those of my own family. But there were many other choices, such as religion, years of education and occupation.
Yes, you can actually select an aerospace engineer or that Jewish doctor your grandmother always hoped you’d marry. The Web site provided brief summaries of the donors who met my basic qualifications—a little bit regarding their mathematical and artistic abilities; their favorite colors, animal and foods; their life goals.
Once I finished the initial screen, I was able, for $12 per donor, to order longer reports, including histories of recreational drug use, allergies, a three-generation family medical history and the essential: SAT scores. For a little more money I received a physical description, along with an attractiveness rating from one to 10.
I consulted with friends and families, and when I selected Mr. Right, it turned out he was on back order and would be in the deep freeze for another four months. So, I went with bachelor No. 2. Later, there were bachelors 3-5 as well, since I ultimately ended up using five different donors.
After such careful consideration, I found that the longer it took to get pregnant, the less I cared about the donor’s characteristics.
Concerned about my “advancing age,” my doctor put me on clomiphene, a pill that stimulates egg production. Mid-cycle I would go to the office, get an ultrasound to assess my progress and ultimately get a shot in the bottom to trigger ovulation.
Twenty-four to 36 hours later, I was back at the office with my legs in the air, receiving through catheter my donor sperm. The whole procedure took about three minutes (followed by 20 minutes on my back) and felt like a pap smear. I repeated the process the next day and was told to look for signs of success in two weeks.
It takes some time for the drug that makes you ovulate to leave your system, so a home test to identify pregnancy often reads that hormone and returns a false positive if taken too soon. But I started testing almost immediately. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have bought stock in home pregnancy tests.
If I got a positive test, I would of course obsess over whether it was false and then continue testing, sometimes twice a day. There were times I would actually bring a test to work and, with squinting eyes, ask a close colleague, “Does this look like a line to you?” I took every opportunity to drive myself crazy. During some cycles I could do this for eight days in a row, which at $12 a test proved costly—and depressing, because inevitably, each time, my period arrived. After eight months of insemination, my doctor and I agreed it was time for in vitro fertilization. We didn’t know why I wasn’t getting pregnant, but if this next step failed at least it might help with a diagnosis.
Shot to hell In vitro is a process filled with drugs, most of which are given as shots. This was one of the many times where it would have been nice to have a husband. There’s the lupron (in the belly), which throws your body into a menopause-like state, and for many, including me, brings severe bouts of depression coupled with road rage. (I read of one woman who was so affected she freed a tank of lobsters in the fish market. She was sure one was begging her to get out.)
After the lupron suppressed my estrogen levels enough, I added daily shots of follicle stimulating hormones. During this period there were daily trips to the doctor’s office for ultrasounds and blood tests, all of which required me to arrive at 6:30 a.m. and stand in what my best friend called the “lady line.”
This is where I met all the other women who, like me, desperately wanted to be mothers, needed to be monitored, but still had to get to work by 8:30 a.m.
When the planets were aligned (follicles plump and uterine lining thick), about four to six weeks later, I was directed to give myself the shot in the butt to prompt ovulation. This is a tricky maneuver but one that got easier over time because the longer it took to get pregnant, the more I ate and the larger my target became.
Thirty-six hours after that last shot, it was back to the doctor where, under twilight sedation, the follicles were removed and eggs counted. I awoke in a daze to the doctor cheerfully reporting the count—19 eggs. I then went home to rest while in some candle-lit lab, music playing gently in the background, my eggs met my donor’s sperm in a petri dish.
The next morning the embryologist called to tell me 14 eggs had fertilized—unexpectedly good news given my age. They immediately froze eight embryos for future use. Five days later I was back in the office, where two embryos were transferred into my now thickly lined uterus. After an hour on my back I went home to bed for another day. Eight days later the stick finally turned blue. The next day, I went to the doctor. You know that cocky look men get when they find out they’ve impregnated you as if they were the sole participant in the process? Turns out fertility doctors have that same sense of pride.
But this wasn’t to be. One miscarriage and two more failed in vitro attempts later, in July 2001, I found myself pregnant—this time with twins. While most everyone around me expressed concern over my (in)ability to raise two babies on my own, I was delighted. By this time I was 40 and knew that I would never be able to again endure the turmoil of getting pregnant if I had a child. If I was going to have two children, they would have to arrive together. I found out fairly early that I would have a girl and a boy, or Baby A and Baby B as my doctor immediately named them. I felt as though I had won the lottery.
So, I’m pregnant My pregnancy was characterized by two primal reactions, the first being elation. I was absolutely thrilled to finally be pregnant. How could I ever feel happier? Happiness is not unusual when people become pregnant, but in my case it was impressive I was able to sustain elation in light of my second reaction, the really, really bad morning sickness.
I don’t just mean routine nausea that comes and goes and then after three months simply disappears. I mean for eight months, morning, noon and night, I pretty much threw up. Nothing specific triggered the morning sickness—other than being awake—and pretty much nothing would take it away.
But I still managed to shop. First for me. I figured if I was going to feel so ill I should at least be well dressed. Then, for the babies. My mother accompanied me on many trips.
Initially, she used the time to talk about her many concerns about my impending single motherhood. Since this was not helpful to me, I told her she needed to start enjoying that she was going to soon have two new grandchildren who, unlike her others, would live only minutes away. I doubt this stopped her worries, but from then on she stopped sharing them with me.
This freed us both. We gawked at babies and, more important, the brand and quality of the strollers they were in. During these first few months, I researched. Strollers, car seats, bouncy seats, cribs, high chairs, portable cribs, swings—all in duplicate. My mother got carried away with me.
In addition to the baby stuff, she bought me a complete set of silverware and an indoor grill. Not typical gifts for an expectant mother, but then I was not a typical mother and, let’s face it, I had not had any reason to register for silver and cookware.
My obstetrician provided me with a laundry list of courses to prepare myself, including infant massage, infant CPR and safety, prenatal exercise, baby basics, pediatric care for a new baby, transitions to motherhood, breastfeeding and, for later, postnatal exercise.
With a full-time job, I was able to take just two classes: preparing for the birth of multiples and breastfeeding multiples. In the birth class, there were eight married couples and me. Another moment when it would have felt better to have a husband.
Midway through the course, the arrangements for my coach fell through and my mother reluctantly volunteered to play the part. With 40 years since her last delivery—me—and with my lack of experience, we knew almost nothing about what to expect. And while I had very much wanted to be pregnant and was certain that I wanted to be a parent, I really wasn’t all that interested in actually giving birth. The class, films included, did nothing to change my thinking on this. Fortunately a colleague (now a dear friend) volunteered to be my doula (someone who provides support during pregnancy and birth). This offer provided almost as much relief for me as it did for my mother. Now all we had to do was wait.
It’s time Labor came in week 36. I returned to the hospital just after I checked out. Stomach flu on top of eight months of morning sickness had taken its toll and so, to avoid dehydration, I spent three days on an IV. Sunday afternoon I was discharged only to awaken my neighbor at 2 a.m. Monday when I could no longer ignore five hours of contractions.
I waited until 4 a.m., when the doctor broke my water, to call mom and my friend and doula to come join me. Each came within the hour, my mother with my father in tow. During my contractions my friend rubbed my back, my mother wiped my forehead and got the ice chips, and my father played a different role entirely. When I would have a contraction and make a noise (perhaps it was a quiet scream), my dad would look at me, grit his teeth and wince. I didn’t particularly appreciate his empathic response then, but now I find it endearing.
After two painful hours I received my “mandatory with twins” epidural. It is a wonder to me why anyone would choose no epidural. Dad went home to nap and for the next several hours I slept, awakened periodically to have my cervix checked. My friend would periodically check the monitor and occasionally report I was having a very large contraction. If not for her, I wouldn’t have known. Did I mention how much I loved the epidural?
At 3 p.m., after six hours with my cervix stuck at five centimeters, the monitor showed my son’s heartbeat slowing with each contraction. My doctor told me it was time for a Caesarean section. By this point I was more than ready to meet my babies and felt like I had given a vaginal birth the old college try.
I was wheeled into the operating room where a sheet was installed to block my view. My friend held my hand while my parents waited down the hall.
After five minutes of hearing “now cut through this layer of tissue,” and “a little to the left,” my daughter was born. I would not have known she had arrived if not for the sound of her crying, which started my crying as well. This was certainly not the first time I had cried during the past two and a half years, but it was the first time they were tears of joy. One minute later, my son was born and my family was complete.
Sophie and Charlie were a little on the small size (it’s hard to gain weight when you’re always throwing up), but they were otherwise quite healthy.
Since then ... It’s been just over a year now and time is moving way too quickly. There have been many surprises in the months since their arrival, almost all of them pleasant.
The older they get the more surprises there are, and every day is its own adventure. But I think the greatest surprise to me is how absolutely heavenly my life has become.
By no stretch of the imagination did I ever think that motherhood would bring me this much pleasure. I didn’t know that seeing them crawl for the first time would bring tears to my eyes. That when they say “mama, mama” I would feel a pull at my heart, even if they don’t know what it means. That all these months later, my home would see such a constant stream of family and friends coming to check on me and the babies. That at the end of the work day my heart would beat faster the closer I get to home because I am so excited to see them. And most of all, that as much as I loved Sophie and Charlie on the day they were born, that love would continue to grow so powerfully that some days I think I might burst.
I had known for years that I wanted to be a mother. And I knew I would be missing out on something major if I never had children.
But I just could never have imagined that all of the pain and emptiness I felt during my two-and-a-half-year effort to become a mom would be so immediately and completely obliterated in the instant when I held these two precious babies in my arms for the first time.
What I learned in my first year as a single mother of twins
• If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. A few weeks after their births, I had no more night help and found myself truly alone with my children for the first time. When they cried one at a time I was fine. But when they cried together, I was lost. Initially, I sat with them on my bed, sobbed right along with them and apologizing profusely for getting us into this mess. They would look at me curiously as if to say, “Hey we’re the babies here, shape up!” And with very little time and a likely hormonal shift, I did.
Thereafter, when they both cried I would sit in the glider and cradle one baby in my arms, while the other was propped in a car seat which I simultaneously rocked with my foot. I would then sing to them about what a bad mom I was but that even if they had a dad, he’d probably be at work or out of town on business (apologies to the many devoted dads out there, but we all need our crutches). And on rare occasions, I would call people who I knew were not home and let the babies cry loudly into their answering machines. This made me feel better.
• The transition from a 36B to a 40DD, while initially enchanting, is in no way a predictor of successful breast-feeding. Neither the size of my breasts nor my commitment to nursing was enough for success. Charlie nursed readily, but seemed hungry when finished and often required a formula chaser. Sophie had no real interest in latching on and for several weeks my breasts became a battleground. On the occasions when she did nurse, like Charlie she didn’t seem full, no doubt confirming her belief that this breast thing was a waste of her time. Thus, after 10 weeks of trying, $600 in lactation consultant fees and three painful bouts with mastitis, I very sadly threw in the towel. The quality of our lives improved dramatically and instantly.
• Mom is not allowed to get sick (or if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em Part II). By nine months, we had our rhythm down and I was feeling like a pro. Then late one night, Sophie awoke crying in a pool of throw up. An hour later, I had bathed her, changed her sheet and rocked her back to sleep. And in what I imagine is considered a “twin moment,” Charlie awoke in the exact same manner not 10 minutes later. I repeated the steps I had completed with his sister only to have him get sick again as I carried him back to bed. By 2 a.m., Sophie was up again and by 3 a.m., I was sicker than a dog myself. It is virtually impossible to comfort two sick babies when your face is in the toilet. Within two days, their nanny was sick and after a day of pitching in, my parents were sidelined as well. I suppose if I had a husband, he would have been sick, too.
• Shopping is no longer fun. Clothes shopping just isn’t the same since I am still in mourning for the elastic waistbands and panels that were so good to me during pregnancy. I took the babies shopping at the mall once, but the side-by-side double stroller took up most of the space in the dressing room, and I felt like a contortionist trying on clothes. I could stop at the store on the way home from work, but then I am missing valuable time with them. Not worth it. Grocery shopping also has become a challenge. If I take Charlie and Sophie with me to the store, I can’t push the stroller and shopping cart simultaneously and most of the checkout aisles are too narrow for us. So I’ve started ordering my groceries on the computer for delivery from Pea Pod. It’s just like the commercial, I can shop at night and don’t have to schlep heavy bags in from the car. If I run out of something I desperately need, such as diapers or chocolate, I pack up the team and 30 minutes later we’re out the door.
• I’ll sleep when they’re in college. I’ve been trying to teach Sophie and Charlie about sleeping in on weekend mornings, but they don’t get it. The first one is often up at 6 a.m. and although I think about leaning over and saying, “Honey, will you go get them,” I know there’s no point. I can never sleep in and that’s something I miss. I try to nap when they do, but lately only one of us really seems to want that afternoon nap, and apparently my vote no longer counts. I am very tired.
• Being a single mom of twins is hard. Despite my extreme happiness, there are serious challenges to doing this alone. Child care is eating up more than half of my take-home salary. Getting two babies up, fed, dressed and dropped at a day care site, while getting myself to work on time, would have required waking up at 4:30 a.m. So I opted for someone to come to my home each day—the right, albeit expensive, decision. And lately I’ve been wishing I could be a stay-at-home mom. Without a husband (and one with a very good income at that) or a winning lottery ticket, this will not happen. It is also getting to be physically difficult. Carrying two growing babies (now 20 pounds each) at the same time is hard, but sometimes necessary. The world no longer feels safe enough for me to leave one child in the car in front of my house for a moment while I carry the other into the house. My back has started to hurt. Did I mention I’m very tired?
• Turns out it really does take a village. Despite my single status, I am by no means raising my children alone. Devoted grandparents and very good friends are often with us and extending a hand. I learned early on to accept all offers. After the very sudden and unexpected departure of a nanny who I thought was good (but was more likely highly unstable), I found Emily, a phenomenal young woman who I suspect loves my children almost as much as I do. In addition to caring for and amusing Charlie and Sophie for the 50 hours a week for which she was hired, she typically goes above and beyond and makes everything much more manageable and enjoyable. I am lucky and grateful. I could not do this if I were truly alone.
Erica Salem is the deliriously happy mother of Sophie and Charlie. She lives and works in Chicago.