In the mid 1990s, when I burst from the closet at 16 years old, waving my rainbow flag, I began my long journey out as a LGBTQ person. I was, all at once, alive for the first time in my life. I recall the moment when I finally allowed myself this identity. A weight was lifted, I felt intensely strong. I felt the truest sense of myself in my bones; this is who I was meant to be. However, I was also deeply conflicted in these early years. The question that plagued me, how could I be a lesbian and also be a mother?
At the time, I knew no lesbian couples that were parents. LGBTQ people in my world were outcasts, and they did not have children. My own parents probably thought they had gained a gay daughter and lost their chances at grandchildren, all in one fell swoop. But this did not compute, this made no sense to me. I knew that I was a lesbian and I also knew that I was meant to be a mother, full stop. These identities were not mutually exclusive. Instead of dwelling in a conflicted place, I swore to myself that I would not be swayed from lesbian motherhood. I would be steadfast and fulfill my calling no matter what challenges lay ahead.
A tomboy with short, untidy hair, scraped knees, frogs caught in jars and Lego fortresses, I cared little for most feminine gendered toys or clothes. I wanted to do the most pull-ups in gym class on the steel bar, or beat the boys in sprinting races or arm wrestling. However, the one thing that I could not live without were my dolls. I had endless plastic and cloth babies to feed, to wrap in tiny blankets, to rock to sleep. I began practicing for my starring role at a very young age.
When my wife and I decided to begin trying for a baby four years ago, I was wide-eyed with hope. I would prove the naysayers and bigots wrong, this androgynous feeling and looking lesbian would make a baby after the first IUI, because, as we know, I am meant to be a mother. Egg and sperm would join together effortlessly and do their magic dance. My uterus would welcome the perfect embryo with lush lining, and my miniscule breasts and gangly, boyish parts would swell and bring this new being into our lives. This would be an organic, spirited process, every step taken flawlessly. After I gave birth naturally, with doula and midwife standing by, we would then be recognized as the best lesbian parents the world had ever seen. Our grand plan outlined with precision. Unless, of course, this evil thing called infertility strikes. But that won’t happen to me, I already have other crosses to bear. But strike, it did, and hard.
Like a monstrous wave of murky, frigid, swirling water, which pounds all those in its path against the rocks, infertility takes hold of you with a relentless, unforgiving current. The wave rolls in with hope and the wave rolls out with negative pregnancy tests. The wave rolls in with new hope, a new treatment, a new doctor, and the wave rolls out with negative pregnancy tests. The wave rolls you over, under, upside down and inside out to see the sides of yourself that you did not know existed.
To give you a clear image, the wave goes as follows. Say it with me now . . .
(Best if read quickly, as if you were caught in rushing water)
OPK, ICI, IUI, catheter, donor sperm#, directed donor, basal body temperature, prenatal vitamins . . . Oh my!
Day 3, Day 14, luteal phase, phlebotomist, smallest butterfly needle, FSH, LH, acupuncture . . . Reproductive endocrinologist, Hysteroscopy, HSG, biopsy, D & C . . .
Progesterone, estradiol, HCG, spotting, heavy flow . . . This is getting out of hand!
Clomid, Gonal-F, Menopur, Ganirelix, Ovidrel, Lupron, Medrol, Crinone, Estrace
We need a new sharp’s container already?
Ultrasound, follicles, 10 to 12 in number, right and left, sizes 11, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, and some smaller ones . . . 4:30 am, 6:15 am, 10:00 am, 12:30 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 4:40 pm, 9:10 pm . . . I am trying to catch my breath!
Retrieval, OHSS, ICSI, assisted hatching, transfer one/two, implantation, cryo-cycle?
Embryos, grades 5A, 5B, 4B, too much fragmentation, arrested . . . Insurance denials, insurance approvals, money, money and more money . . . Negative, negative, negative, negative, negative . . . I can barely hold on any longer!
The most despised contraption of them all: the dreaded tenaculum . . . Or maybe the award goes to the infamous intra-muscular injections directly in my skinny, boney behind . . . Gasping for air!
Now, take a breath, if you can . . . Unexplained infertility . . . IVF, moving into cycle #5 . . . A tiny sac, a slow heartbeat, dying inside of me. The doctor calls my first child, products of conception . . .
I am no longer recognizable.
This became my experience of lesbian parenting; this became my version of motherhood. This was not supposed to happen. How could we be cursed with endless doctor’s visits, moods from hell, empty wallets, and nothing to show for our beaten bodies and hard work? How could this be my day-to-day when I was trying to prove the most important personal and social point of my life? How could I become so angry, so lost, so silenced? As LGBTQ people, we WILL make good parents. If we want to be parents just as much as others, then we WILL make babies like the rest of them.
We ARE meant to be.
In recent months, I have risen from a dark place of despair to see my version of motherhood more clearly. I am a mother because I think about my child each and every second of the day. I am a mother because I worry about whether my child will be cold and scared with strange people in the embryology lab, or whether he or she finds my body’s warmth comforting and my body’s rhythms nurturing. I am a mother because I have worked tirelessly to meet my child for the first time. No matter how, in the end, we will eventually arrive in each other’s arms, I am a mother because I am filled with love for my child. This drives me forward; this allows me to swim on. I now see motherhood more honestly, with all of its triumphs and all of its anguishes.
As LGBTQ people with infertility, we face fears that are very hard to hold alone. Consequently, I have chosen to find strength in numbers. In starting a LGBTQ peer support group at RESOLVE New England, I have found a place to honor shared experience, a space to steady ourselves against the rushing waves, a place to acknowledge how infertility brings specific challenges for LGBTQ families. It is my hope that we can, at least, ride these waves together. It is my hope that we can, at least, be there to pick each other up when we crash upon the rocks.
Rachel Vorkink runs the LGBTQ-Focused General Infertility Peer Support Group in Waltham. She and her wife, Martina, live outside of Boston. Rachel is a school psychologist, a gardener, and a hopeful future parent facing infertility.