Reader essay

True love took 10 years


Joe Shacter


Long journey to parenthood ends with two bundles of joy

How do you know you’re in love? When you can’t wait to see a smile? Want nothing but happiness for the other person? In my case, both are true … and it’s not just one other person, it’s two. They entered my life on April 2 at 3:32 and 3:33 p.m. They are my twin sons, Benjamin and Jason.

Check that. They really started entering my life—and my wife Sara’s—almost 10 years before that. In March 1994, after one month of “attempting,” Sara was pregnant.

Wow, we thought, was that easy! Within days, we told my parents. My mom cried, my dad beamed.

One month later, miscarriage. The rest of 1994 became even sadder. My mom died of a sudden heart attack on Labor Day, and we lost Sara’s grandmother three weeks later.

As 1995 dawned, we decided to try again. In April, we were pregnant. Then came May. Miscarriage. April 1996. Pregnant again. This time, we got far enough to see an ultrasound picture.

We talked to the fetus, caressing Sara’s tummy while doing so. But we spoke too soon. As we neared the end of the first trimester, miscarriage. We were tested for everything, but there was no cause, no theory, no nothing.

I felt powerless. All I could do was hug Sara, wipe away tears (both hers and mine), and try to help us both move on.

We started seeing fertility doctors. No one could explain anything.

Except now, we couldn’t conceive. No pregnancies in 1996, 1997 or 1998, despite ovulation kits and sex guided by the clock.

In 1998, a friend referred us to Dr. Charles E. Miller. We first tackled the conception problem, relying on the wonderfully romantic artificial insemination procedure, with me pressing the plunger to send my little fellas on their merry way.  Finally, in 1999, pregnant!

Miscarriage No. 4. And a fifth, also in 1999. And a sixth, in spring 2000. And then, in December 2000, a seventh, and last.

We took a few months off and then met with Miller in spring 2001, seven years after beginning what fertility support groups euphemistically call our “journey,” and heard officially that we were in the 2 percent of couples who experience repeated miscarriages with no traceable cause.

What to do? We already had gone to a few adoption sessions, both domestic and international. And yet, we hesitated. Perhaps when you’re pregnant seven times, it’s not as easy to stop—our own biological kids always seemed within reach. My own feelings didn’t help, either. I’m the only son of an only son of an only son of an only son. I didn’t want the Shacter line to end.

Over the years, we both had heard about gestational surrogacy, in which a woman is hired to carry another couple’s embryo to term. However, we hadn’t pursued it because we thought our problem could be solved medically—until that day in Miller’s office, when he recommended gestational surrogacy and told us that in Illinois the law regarding custody is straightforward: The intended couple goes on the birth certificate.

We signed up with Alternative Reproductive Resources, an agency that would match us with a carrier. Another long waiting period began.

Our first match ended in sadness as the body of a wonderful woman didn’t take to the fertility drugs necessary to prepare her uterus to carry our child.

How much more bad news could there be? We swallowed hard and remained patient. I did the math. I was 42; I’d be in my 60s when the kid would go to college. Yikes!

Then ARR suggested we meet Angie and Felix Ramos. What kind, funny, down-to-earth people! We all liked one another right away, and agreed on issues such as how often we’d call one another, what would happen if too many embryos implanted, what contact there would be after delivery, and so on.

The next few months sped by as we experienced the novelty of nothing going wrong. And we began doing what became a nightly event—we called Angie and talked about the day.

The most difficult waiting period began after the embryo implantation.

It would be two weeks before Miller’s office could tell us if Angie was pregnant. Sara and I spoke with her nightly. As the 14 days dragged on, the suspense became palpable; Sara and I could talk of nothing else.

The day before we were to find out was unbearable. Sara visited a few girlfriends, while I took a day off and treated myself to a White Sox game. Good omen. They beat the Royals.

Finally, the big day. I kept the calendar free; I wouldn’t be able to concentrate, anyway. We wouldn’t know Angie’s early morning test results until about 2 p.m.

I kept looking at the clock. I couldn’t taste my lunch.

Finally, 2 p.m. Then 2:05. I couldn’t stand it. Where was Sara? Was my phone at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, where I am CEO, dead? I called someone to make sure it was working.

Around 2:30, the phone rang. Angela, my marvelous assistant, only said quietly, “It’s Sara.” Then she discreetly closed my door.

“She’s pregnant!” Sara shouted. For truly the first time in the 10-year debacle, I allowed myself to give in to the feelings. I sobbed, saying incoherent things to Sara, and she back to me.

I let myself enjoy the adrenaline surging through every nook and cranny of my body. Because I knew this time it would work. There would be no miscarriage. I just knew, although I never dared tell Sara throughout the nine months. To cushion herself against what seemed like the inevitable heartache, she was constantly cautious. 

And on April 2, Jason and Benjamin were born.

For several months starting in November, both Sara and I will be stay-at-home parents. Why? To enjoy our guys, to treasure moments we thought we’d never experience. 

This month, Joe Shacter steps down after four years as chief executive officer of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum to spend more time with his boys. After a several-months-long stint as a stay-at-home parent, he plans to look for other work that will ensure he has plenty of time to watch the twins grow.

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