I can’t for the life of me understand why they call it an egg donation.
First things first: they collect photos and all the facts of me to make a profile that will live behind a plastic sheet in a three-ring binder full of women, which clients can flip through to compare our respective assets from the safety of a private clinic office. Height: 5’7. Weight: 125 pounds. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Auburn. Skin: White. Freckles. No family history of mental illness, heart attack. Very little cancer. Athletic. SAT: 1450. GPA: 3.3. Bilingual, English and Spanish. Highest level of education: Masters degree. Some history of drug use; nothing serious. No previous pregnancies.
I am poked, prodded, stripped down, exposed. It is only now that I am writing this that I am discovering I have feelings about it. Then, at least, I do somewhat enjoy seeing my insides projected on the screen, stretched and moving beneath the doctor’s lubricated wand, even if there’s no beating heart to witness.
Thank you for your generous donation, say the doctors and the caseworker, as if it were their own wombs that would receive my gift. It’s not a donation, I want to tell them. You are paying me a lot of money, remember?
I go to a shrink, who will evaluate my mental stability, who will ensure that I understand the implications of what I am about to do. Truth or dare, she says. Inferiority complex, she says. Impulse control issues, a low affect. You are more depressed than you think you are. She straightens the papers against the desk and files them away with the rest of me.
What would you do if, one day, you approached a table with your usual plastered-on waitress smile and found what was surely your very own offspring staring back at you from a highchair? You should see a psychologist, just to be sure.
In the waiting room, day after day, I thumb through back issues of Town and Country alongside oodles of pregnant and hopeful women. I wonder if the other women can identify me for what I am, if it is immediately evident that I am poor enough, young enough, desperate enough to sell my own bloodline. I wonder if the woman who has chosen my eggs, out of all the eggs, might be sitting in that very room, heart racing, silently evaluating me against my plastic-wrapped profile in the three-ring binder. Would the flesh-and-blood girl seated across from her, fiddling with her cell phone, measure up to the image she has for her child?
The caseworker, Christine, tells me I am a very popular choice. This is because my genes are the kinds of genes that tend to set people up for success. I struggle to work out how I feel about that. I feel proud, or flattered, I guess, but also ashamed because I fucked up such a lucky draw.
People love natural redheads, says Christine. They are lining up around the corner to work with you. I imagine Christine meeting a couple, the man in loafers and the woman in pearls, in a dark alley somewhere with rats and standing water and fog of indiscernible origin and everything. Yes, perhaps I can bump you to the front of the line, she says to them. But what can you do for me?
Christine, in her pantsuit, courts me like a good saleswoman should. She gives me her home phone number and says that I can call if I ever need to talk, about anything. I can smell the desperation on her like an acrid perfume. If she can convince me to stay, to produce litter after litter after litter of fertilizable ovum, perhaps she will be able to finance a new house.
I am here because I had to move out of my apartment and into a new one, and even though it is only one block away, I still ended up buying groceries on credit. Again. Then I did not pay the minimum acceptable amount to one of my credit cards, so it was deactivated. Don’t they understand? No one eats at restaurants in winter. Before that, I spent most of my money printing the first issue of a literary magazine I started. That part was my fault. I did that because I have a pathological, existential fear of being remembered only for my much-remarked-upon ability to carry four pizzas at once. But they don’t understand that, either.
I figured I’d sell my stuff. I did a quick inventory as I was moving all of it and realized that nothing I owned was worth anything. But listen: young women always have something to sell.
My body is young and healthy; it can do astounding, glorious things. With the aid of industrial-grade hormones, it can also do highly unnatural things, such as produce 40 eggs at once.
I store various pharmaceutical concoctions in my refrigerator door, next to all the salad dressings. These are required, day and night, to keep me producing right up until the surgical retrieval, and Christine coaches me on how to inject myself with them. Make sure there aren’t any air bubbles in the syringe. Pinch the belly fat between your fingers. Don’t flinch. Disassociate yourself from your present reality, pretend that that flesh belongs to someone else.
One day I am steaming milk for a cappuccino, keeping one eye on the pizza pick-up window, and it occurs to me that perhaps this is what it feels like to be pregnant. My abdomen is distended, full, tender to the touch. Everything else about this is wretched, wretched, wretched, but you know: I’ve waited my whole life to bear this particular weight, and now here it is.
I am 28, and I still don’t know if I want babies. My indecision is a shadow that trails behind every career or romantic ambition, demanding to be considered. This question manages to wedge itself into every conceivable corner of my life and mind. When I think about babies, I think about glass ceilings. I think about climate change and war and heartbreak and sex offenders. I think about what my parents’ lives would have been like without me. I think about autism and cancer, but I also think about Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes, I even flip the question on itself to see what happens: would babies want me?
I think a lot about money. I think about how I have mishandled money. Oh, let me count the ways: impulsive travel plans, unwise educational pursuits, fated creative projects. I have never been that good at supporting myself. I doubt that I will ever have the minimum acceptable amount of money to raise a kid. But then—I guess I do have this friend who is also a waitress and who does okay raising her kid.
You wouldn’t think, from looking at a cervix, that it could accommodate an eight-pound baby, but somehow it does. You wouldn’t think that $20,000 a year could support mother and child, but what once seemed immovable suddenly makes way for that which cannot be denied. I wonder what truths would be pushed aside if I were to find myself in a similar situation. Where would the boundaries of reality as I understood it bend to the will of another human being?
For example: when I say that I cannot survive on fewer than four hours’ sleep, what do I mean by survive? For example: when I say that I am too flighty and too selfish and too much afraid of vomit, am I talking in absolute truths?
Perhaps by the time I turn 30, I will learn. Perhaps then I will want babies, and babies will want me. But then, perhaps, the eggs I’m giving someone else will be a debt I’ll come to regret. I’ve been reminded a million times—we don’t know enough yet about the effects of the procedure. Someday, perhaps, I will be wearing the pearls and flipping through the binders and taking out a second mortgage on my house.
Like Gretel from the fairy tale, I am evaluated daily to determine if I’ve plumped up enough yet. But instead of squeezing my finger, they put their cameras inside of me. Here are your ovaries, they say. Now they are the size of golf balls. They congratulate me.
ABSOLUTELY NO SEX, they warn. There are horror stories about quintuplets, sextuplets, and whatever you call it when there are even more babies than that.
The retrieval goes just as well as they had always planned it would. I have to stick a very long, thick needle into the meat of my ass to inject some substance or other at an extremely precise time the night before the procedure, but otherwise it is paper gowns and anesthesia, just like usual. It’s forbidden for me to know if the procedure results in pregnancy, if the pregnancy results in successful birth, if my eggs are used to create one or two or ten children over the years.
I move again, this time to a whole new city with lots and lots of people in it. So very many people! And so many anonymous children.
Rumpus original art by LA Johnson.