Day 1: Egg
It begins, of course, with division. We forget this fact; we overlook it, caught up instead with communion: a man, a woman. Some act of will.
But in conception, communion is a cause, not a conclusion. As soon as life begins, its impulse is to divide. Cells split of their own volition: cleave, shrink, multiply. Life complicates before it decides to connect.
Six days: that is how long it takes a fertilized egg to quit its uterine free-fall, become a blastocyst, and dig in.
In the in vitro lab, they call this process “getting to blast.” That is the goal: for a fertilized egg in its solitary glass vial to make it to blast. If it does, it is ready to implant. Strong enough now on its own, it can be reintroduced to a woman’s womb, and survive.
When it comes, though, the call surprises me; it is Monday morning. I am at work, in my office at the university. “The lab works on a Sunday?”
Yes, the nurse tells me, my turn had come up. The day before, an embryologist had thawed my twenty waiting eggs, implanting, carefully, a single sperm inside each one. “Fourteen,” she tells me. “Fourteen of them are growing.”
I lay the phone on my desk, set it to speaker. Try to catch my breath. Fourteen?
“Yes—that’s how many fertilized.”
As though hope were a thing you could count.
It feels wrong, somehow, not to have known. Wrong not to have been present. Twenty tiny conceptions, lined up in little glass cells. Conceptions I’d so carefully planned for, paid for, and arranged, growing in my absence.
“Fourteen,” I breathe again. But is this really what I’d chosen? Is it what I’d wanted?
Each day, though, the nurse warns, some of them will die. This is to be expected. “Arrested.” That is the term they use to describe what, after all, happens inside women’s bodies all the time: tiny conceptions that amount to nothing.
Instead, she explains carefully, we must wait for division: enough complexity that survival becomes possible. Because survival, of course, is never simple.
Day #2: Zygote
Fourteen of them—then twenty-eight. In the space of a day, everything has doubled. Cells split slowly at first—then more and more rapidly. I look up photos online. Twin nuclei tucked within a sphere, like a pair of eyes. Two halves of a self. I stare into the mirror. One woman, fourteen multiplying lives.
In so many ways, this is not how I’d envisioned my life: alone at forty, waiting for my cells to divide in a series of tiny glass chambers. A decade ago, when I’d promised myself that I would take on motherhood alone if it came to that, I hoped it never would—a possibility, perhaps, but not a desire.
Now, I learn how division increases, and strangely that is what makes life viable. But this early division is also about alignment. It is about every known facet coming together—chromosomes and nucleotides—lining up, making their plan. 208,000 of them every second. This first step—alignment, division—takes little more than a day, an entire lifetime at that point. For these two-day-old beings, whole universes exist within an hour. What was one becomes two. What is two will quadruple. All that human organization, finding itself, slowly, carefully, at the head of a pin.
Be careful, though, what you ask for. The scientist who first produced rabbit embryos in a lab in 1934 was kicked out of Harvard for it. His superiors had found it distasteful—him, a Jew. They’d accused him of playing god, which he, in their eyes, was not entitled to do. Years later, though, his findings helped create the first birth control pill. Years after that, in vitro fertilization.
So, it seems that agency does not come without a price. When people have an opinion about me, a single woman creating new life on her own, it is usually this one: “You shouldn’t have waited so long.”
Lines at the grocery store.
Airport check points.
So often, waiting is innocuous: patience, rather than postponement.
To anyone who asks, I tell them: This isn’t about waiting. Not, at least, in the way they mean: a delay, an intention, a plan. As though a woman like me must have brought solitude on herself by wanting too much, by trying to have it all. But my waiting has no singular cause; and this moment, which sees me mother to those fourteen lives, is both planned and unplanned, my intention and something far from it.
Because I never intended this: at thirty-eight, when I’d thought I was pregnant and then wasn’t, he left. My partner: wanting a family, but also afraid. As we are all wanting—and afraid of what we desire. Be careful what you wish for. It was never clear to me which was worse for him: the idea of our child, or its failure to appear.
A few months later, at the fertility clinic, my remaining eggs were removed, frozen, and set to wait as another year passed—an extra job, a pair of new credit cards—while I saved enough to finish out the process. Becoming pregnant alone, it turns out, is costly. I had no fertility coverage, no mate, no diagnosis. What, really, could I claim to an insurance company? Mine is an absence, not an illness.
Day 3: Morula
And now, how many of them will survive? After fertilization in the lab, several days pass, and I hear nothing. Patience is everything; patience is impossible.
But it’s not the waiting itself that hurts, it’s the doubt. Because waiting, of course, is nothing but space. It waits for you to fill it.
Months earlier, in the examining room, my physician had asked what troubled me. “Are you ashamed?” Of being single, she meant—of being alone. Startled, I’d begun to cry. “Don’t be ashamed,” she had insisted, as I’d continued weeping, never having considered my feelings in those terms before.
Shame? No, that wasn’t quite it. “This is not,” I’d told her, “the way I’d planned it.” Because what else could I say? The details are not elaborate; they are not unique. What I had wanted was a family, a union: communion in place of division.
Though she is right, in her way. Shame, I suppose, is unavoidable, as society pressed me further to make a choice about my choices: endure this process like a stronghold of liberal super-strength, wield my choices like a weapon, or acknowledge my humanity. Was it any surprise, then, that I felt duped? I thought I’d been offered the choice to mother alone, though I had been told that I had to do so in certain ways. How, then, could I create life the way I needed to? In acknowledgement of the opportunities I was denied and the sacrifices I’d made?
On the third day, division speeds up. Molecules crowd. The new self begins to reorganize. There is no other way.
In the 1970s, there was still only one path for a woman. My mother married because it was what you did. “I knew I couldn’t have a career,” she’s told me. “So, I had you.”
Twenty years after that, when she’d come out of the closet, she’d insisted that I must have known.
But how could I know?
“Your grandmother, she knew.”
But that was because my mother had known, too. At twelve, she’d brought it up once, briefly, her feelings for girls, on the way to school—and her own mother had asked her to stop, blanched knuckles gripping the steering wheel: Please don’t speak of that again. This was not, of course, what her daughter was supposed to want.
Decades later, my mother left her marriage in a quick, unexpected crash of destruction, tearing shelves from walls and smashing bowls from tables. She’d shattered our kitchen in a quick fit of rage, no longer able to sustain them: those split selves within her.
But she does not regret; she does not look back. This is the choice she made, and we don’t talk much about it. We talk, instead, about lesbian book clubs and Patsy Cline albums. My mother giggles; she enjoys this new life: its agency, its choice. Though there are moments, too, that have slowed her—moments that stall her out entirely. “I don’t know what I like,” she’s confessed to me. Early on, even trips to the grocery store haunted her: “I don’t know what to buy.” For so long, that simple choice—what she wanted—had not been hers; though if it had been, I, of course, would not exist.
Some years passed, and in time, my father married another woman who, early on, had had even less choice: someone who’d once been a coal miner’s daughter, pregnant at fifteen. She’d had one child only, and raised him by herself—because that, people had told her, is what fallen girls must do.
Intention, though, seems to matter less as options run thin. When my mother’s partner—the woman she’d left a marriage for—died suddenly, she moved into my studio with me, finding herself without income, without companionship. No one would choose this. Now, she watches daily as I plunge IVF needles into my stomach, my hip. This is not what she’d expected her life to look like; this is not what she’d hoped for. This is not how she’d ever imagined her grandchild coming into being.
Day 4: Zona Pelucia
The blasts, the ones that will make it, are getting close. There are fewer of them now, certainly. Not fourteen any longer—but how many? Ten? Eight? Six? Defenses shed as they get closer. The zona pelucia, that gauze layering meant to protect those dividing cells on their way through the fallopian tubes, is cast away. Hatched out. Things are getting ready now. I breathe; we shed our extra coats. In order to create, you must first lay some things aside—and wait, even if such deep vulnerability can make no promises.
Abortion was not made illegal in the United States to protect the unborn alone. As immigration numbers increased during the late nineteenth century, so did the newly coined concept of eugenics. With so much perceived need to keep the existing population pure and thriving, birth lines became important; Anglo women became important. Suddenly, there was something to keep safe, so birth—and pregnancy itself—could no longer be left in the hands of women. At the turn of the twentieth century, midwives were increasingly replaced by doctors—trained and certified as the medical field itself burgeoned—whose paychecks depended on women going to clinics rather than birthing at home. Now there was a right way—a safe and responsible way—to bring life into the world, though less relative choice about doing so. And so, morality became tied to pregnancy, to ending pregnancy, to directing what a woman could earlier have decided for herself.
We talk about choice because it matters. I do not disagree. But I begin to wonder, too: Is it sufficient? Is it enough?
The first time that a doctor used artificial means to help a woman become pregnant, he didn’t tell her, inseminating her, while unconscious, with sperm from his medical student. For decades, the husband didn’t know that the child was not his. This was in 1884, just a handful of years after abortion was first criminalized.
If this had been my fullest intention—to do this alone—would it feel any different? How would I know?
There is an organization for women like me: women parenting alone. But its name, “Choice Moms,” troubles me, as though the only legitimacy in motherhood is to do it knowingly. Willingly. How many thousands of women does that assumption undercut? Unplanned pregnancies, abandoned teens, victims of abuse. “Choice,” claimed this way, takes on meaning through division, as we name ourselves in contrast to what we are not: irresponsible, unlucky, injured, poor. As though if you are not in control of what happens to you, you must be doing something wrong. Shame: it can come on so easily. As though this were my fault. Or anyone’s.
Choice, I think, can become a burden, when we assume that it alone must save us.
Online, I search for financial support for single mothers. In Seattle, where real estate soars, housing support exists but I fail, narrowly, to qualify. With childcare subsidies, it is the same. Educational offerings I could qualify for, but I already have a PhD. So, instead, I give up my home and move into a rented room to pay my medical costs. There will be a day, I whisper, when women won’t have to do this. When they’ll have insurance to help—when they’ll have more of a choice.
But when are such choices too much—or not enough? What happens if you can prolong all that waiting—all that life? Decide to turn off the future with a pill and back on with a vat of liquid nitrate? How much control do we really have—or want?
I am a liberal. I support the choice to conceive a child or not; increasingly, though, I fail to trust what “choice” claims: that the right to choose will protect me, and my body. As I plunge needle after needle into my stomach, my ass, purposefully, though somewhat blindly, I don’t really know what all of this medicine is doing to me, what dangers—cancer, hypertension—I might face later because of them. In the meantime, after a period of days, all my hopes—each surviving blast—will be put back on ice. Life suspended, until I can take enough drugs to get my body ready for implantation. Is this a choice? Does it count? I think we cover up too much. I think we can forget what choice really looks like. Pressed between two terrible options, my mother tore apart our kitchen. Decades earlier, my grandmother’s knuckles whitened over the steering wheel. With an abusive husband at home, no one had ever asked her what she wanted—or why. Please, she’d insisted, her young daughter’s eyes wide with the wrong kind of desire, please don’t ever speak of it again.
Day #5: Blastocyst
People tell me that it’s a shock, whenever you find out the gender of your child—whether through ultrasound, or the birth itself. Or, in my case, through the genetic testing of a five-day-old embryo. Because once we reach the end, there is only one: one blastocyst from among my twenty eggs. From twenty, to fourteen, to one. Division exhausts itself. Shock indeed.
I cup the phone to my ear, as though this information might save me. Do you want to know the gender? the nurse asks; and I accept, because it makes the whole thing more real. Like some kind of mad clairvoyance—as though they could tell me already, five days after his conception, the shape of my son’s future.
Division means creation. That is what life is: the dividing and dividing and dividing. How many genetic combinations are established now, after no more than a handful of days? Billions upon billions. The cells of my child, branching out and out and out: over a hundred now. They align; they nuance; they take shape. They have not given a thought, just yet, to what we might decide to call them.
Back at work, a student arrives at my office to discuss her research topic: donor eggs. She is interested in the idea that young women like her might be able to donate, to help a couple in need, though she’s worried, too, about trying it. “It seems like there’s a lot of good, with the science.” But also danger, she fears: “In the way that people can choose things, like what eye color your baby will have. It just doesn’t seem right.” So, we worry about choice, it seems, as much as we crave it. We think we want choice, but we’re afraid of pushing things too far. Of playing god. Of getting close.
Still, she is missing a degree of accuracy—what is possible or not—not having seen firsthand the medical uncertainty of it all, the limited rates of success, or even the bureaucratic maze of the experience, the veto of chance, the number of people prepared to give you choice, then take it away.
“You don’t really get to choose all the details,” I try to reassure her, because what she fears is not a reality—not yet, at least—though the process, no matter the outcome, remains painful. “You can know some things, but you can’t decide them.” Not like a paper doll, anyway, or a menu order. “It takes a lot of science, and luck,” and even that reminder leaves me dizzy, “to make a pregnancy like that work.” Though what I don’t mention is how that’s a relief. Because here is my real shame: in some ways, I don’t want that power. To have choice, after all, is to have responsibility. Agency includes a capacity to fail, and to hold all that possibility—me, alone—is the worst kind of division.
At home, the phone sits still against the table. After five full days of waiting, there is no more news. Instead, that one surviving embryo is frozen again, to preserve it, until it is time. Then, there are six more weeks of drugs: six weeks of injections and medications to prepare my body to sustain life.
But life creates its own conditions. I can accept things, perhaps, though I cannot decide them. Because what, really, do we design? Desire doesn’t matter. I do not truly get to choose. I do not decide. I do not wait.
And yet, I desire. At its most fundamental, that is what this is about: to create, to connect. But even the Buddha knew this: what your heart desires will haunt you—not because you want it, but because the wanting itself has nothing to do with the getting.
Day #6: Ice
Where does life begin? Politically, we ask this question all the time. What makes us human? Is connection the marker of life beginning? Or is it separation? Debating and debating, as though we could ever really mark the beginning of ourselves—as though such a thing were possible. Still, I want my son to be real, even if this is not for me to decide. Insistent, I count those calendar days: Now, he is five days old. Five days old and a hundred cells. Five days old and frozen. Though I know that is not quite right, either. This is an idea, not a beginning. It is not communion, or life—not yet.
In the night, I start to sweat. It’s the drugs, of course—though maybe there is something more. That old craving: not just for agency, but for creation. That insistent pushing on. There is so little of this process that makes sense. Who do I think I am? A woman, and alone. Forty years old, and trying to will another life into being?
These questions are beyond me. This push—this will against time—is beyond me. At some point, it pushes past me in a way that leaves me still.
Before abortion was banned, not even the Catholic Church necessarily thought that life began before a woman could feel her baby move. I can’t feel him move; he isn’t even inside me. But already, he is burning alive to me. And if I, alone, do all of these things, what does that make me? Who I am? Am I playing god? Has some god played with me?
But this is always how life begins, no matter the conditions. It is timeless; it is nothing but time. And what, in the end, will come of it? My child? My own life, both altered and expanded by motherhood? There is no guarantee; all that’s left now is the waiting: endless, as all this medicine promises to preserve my womb—and my son—for however long it takes. Waiting, with an end in sight, I think I could endure. But this waiting is about more than patience. It’s like driving in the dark, my headlights going out: first one, and then the other. It is the mystery of liquid nitrogen: uncertain and unseen. My own internal ice age.
For now, all I can do is go back to the clinic for my check-up, where, yes, I continue to feel my son’s presence. Standing just beyond the doors to the lab, I know he’s inside: that five-day-old frozen child. Alive, but not: suspended in whatever careful mechanics they can use to stop a life without destroying it. Liquid nitrogen, like a joke on the both of us: life started, then paused. I walk past the door to the lab, and for the first time, it breaks me: all of that silence and waiting and expectation. Everything I’ve been promised, everything I’ve tried so hard to claim. It breaks me open, finally, and I think I cannot possibly bear to wait any longer. My god, my child, my life—on hold. Rage: that’s what ignites me now. The rage of any mother, distant from her child. Already, I am half of what I was—and twice as much. Already, I am infinitely breathless. I am walking around this world already with half a heart.
As soon as there is creation, there is fear. Because creation is possibility, and possibility is the twin of agency. And agency, though we want it desperately, if we are truly honest about it, is also what we fear the most.
But now I am out of time—or, perhaps I am nothing but time—and move on, pushing past the doors to the lab, taking a seat in one of the deep-backed chairs of the waiting room, to sit until the nurse calls my name, and when she does, I follow her back into the recesses of the clinic, open myself up again to examination: to see if I am ready.
Ready? Still, I don’t know. How could I? But this, I understand, may be the closest that I will ever get to humanness: to what is both within me and beyond me. This will, this hunger, this enduring desire to connect. To receive whatever comes, without design or apology. My son is not yet born, not yet even, in the truest sense, conceived, yet his entire map is already created—gene to gene, point to point, aligned and poised—and just waiting now, to begin.
Rumpus original art by Rosie Struve.