I blew-dry my hair and put on makeup before every embryo transfer so that I’d be camera-ready, and I posed for a photo with the small image the embryologist handed me of my little blastocyst. Embryo transfers are generally done with a full bladder, and I was required to stay flat for twenty minutes following the procedure. Mike always sat with me in recovery, holding my hand while I complained that I was going to pee all over myself. This was when we took the customary photo that my family waited for with baited breath.
In the first photo, I hold the image by its two bottom corners, smiling sideways, almost flirtatiously, nails painted neutral; in the second, my nails are hot-pink, a consciously optimistic color, and I’m leaning over the side of the stretcher in the recovery room smiling straight into the camera; in the third, my nails are clear but my skin is tan and I hold the image of my hatched embryo in my right hand with my elbow bent; in the fourth, my hair is in a ponytail and the image covers my mouth, though my eyes are smiling; in the fifth, a close-up shot, my hair is the longest it’s been in years, with a deep side part, dark purple nails, and newly developed crow’s feet accentuated by the camera-angle; the sixth shows off a new shoulder-length haircut—I’d had an accident with a candle and a ponytail that needed professional assistance—and bright red nails; number seven still has short hair and red nails, the pose the same as the first, image clutched in both hands at the bottom corners.
Number eight is a selfie taken in the dressing room. Mike wouldn’t take the photo from his chair in the recovery room during number eight.
“It’s never worked,” he said, eyes downcast, “so can we please just not do it this time? Let’s try to do things differently and maybe the end result will change, too.”
I humored him. I nodded silently. I tucked the embryo image inside my release instructions and waited until I was alone in the dressing room, after I’d been told I could stand up, use the ladies room, and change back into my clothes. I took longer than usual. I couldn’t get the angle right. In one attempt, I looked fat; in another, my hair looked greasy; in another, my nose too big. I hate selfies. The final version showed my chipped lavender nails, and my haircut grown out a bit since numbers six and seven. The florescent light caught on my forehead, which looked abnormally large at that angle. I hoped this wasn’t the one.
I feared Mike would be upset if he found the photo in my phone, and he’d be angry if he knew my silly superficial wish. Because, of course, I wished this would be the one—but if it was, if this little blastocyst turned into our baby, I wouldn’t be happy with our first photo together. I wouldn’t look as glamorous as my mom did in our first photo.
The first photo of my mother and me doesn’t showcase the cone-head that she claims I was born with. When I look at that photo, which I programmed into my phone to pop up every time my mom calls me, I see a slightly alien-looking infant-me wrapped in a thin blanket held in the arms of my twenty-eight-year-old mom, who looks flushed and beautiful.
I don’t think this picture was taken immediately after labor—my skin was too smooth, and more noticeably, my mother looked too glamorous. Her nails were painted Coming Up Roses, her favorite color of my childhood, and her short brown hair looked recently smoothed with a hair dryer. (She blow-dries her hair obsessively.)
She’s wearing a thin gold necklace that drapes long, and it’s partially covered up by my body, which she cradles almost upright in her left arm, her right hand open against my baby torso. She doesn’t look nervous or exhausted, the way some first-time mothers look after their labor. She looks natural and relaxed, her smile radiant, her skin dewy, her large green eyes wide and striking in one of the few moments she’s ever been photographed without eye makeup or lipstick.
Mike was not allowed in the room during the embryo transfers. It’s a sterile operating room, they told us. We have standards to maintain, they said. I held the nurse’s left hand as a substitute for Mike’s while she pressed my full bladder with the ultrasound in her right hand to help the doctor guide the catheter. I silently cried and prayed while she made small talk, told me I was doing great, asked me if it hurt, complimented my wedding ring. This weather is indeed crazy, I agreed. I’m fine, I told her; it’s nothing. Yes, my husband really does have good taste.
All of the romance had been taken out of our baby-making, too. Mike and I couldn’t laugh secretly about where our child was conceived, look back on our careless and carefree pre-parenthood life. This baby wasn’t conceived that time when I surprised Mike in just an apron and heels when he walked into the kitchen. It wasn’t conceived in our tiny room on a ship in the Galapagos Islands. Or that time we were late to work because we didn’t want to miss an opportunity. Or before our date at the jazz club when I wore the leopard print tunic and leather leggings and he kept his hand on my thigh the whole night. Or the night I sent him a sexy photo while he was at a work dinner, and he made quick excuses to leave the table and get into a cab to race home.
My sister was conceived in my Aunt Linda’s bed, I once heard my aunt joke with my mom. Or Aunt Linda conceived her daughter in my mom’s bed. I get the story mixed up because I was young when I heard it. I don’t know if either version is true; I didn’t realize what I was hearing. But they were drinking wine and they were laughing in our kitchen and I spied on them from the other room. I know there’s a story there, the sort of story about parents that children are never privy to.
Our baby was conceived in a laboratory that we’ve never seen, with scientists we’ll never meet but whom we trust not to mix up our genetic materials with someone else’s. This baby won’t have a story I will laugh about over a glass of wine with my sister.
But there are some small miracles. When you make babies the old-fashioned way, you don’t get to see your baby as a cell. I’ve seen images of my eggs before they were retrieved, and then of the embryos created with them. I’ve seen possible babies before my reproductive endocrinologist placed each into my uterus through a thin catheter tube. Each time I craned my neck to see the embryo outline (and confirm my name and social security number on a screen angled awkwardly above my head).
I wanted to capture the moment when my baby was a thawed five-day blastocyst, only a collection of cells. I wanted to one day show my son or my daughter this photo.This baby, when it would come—and it would come, we had to believe that it would come—would be the product of a lot of work and money and time and energy and heartbreak. But one time, it would work. The clinically miraculous would happen. One of those embryos inserted through the thin catheter tube would become our baby, we had to believe. Whenever that happened, I wanted to have our miraculous first moment together captured, like the photo of my mom and me. I wanted to capture the moment when my baby was a thawed five-day blastocyst, only a collection of cells. I wanted to one day show my son or my daughter this photo.
My silly superficial wish came true with our eighth embryo. It didn’t work, and the awkward dressing room selfie is not my first photo with my baby. It didn’t work the ninth or tenth time, either, though I have a photo for each. On the eleventh try, my mother escorted me to the embryo transfer. She snapped the photo of me in recovery: hair in a messy bun, fingernails painted bright pink, holding the image of my two transferred embryos as nonchalantly as a practiced mother balances a baby on her hip.
One of those embryos, forty-one weeks later, became my daughter.
Yesterday I showed my daughter, who just turned one, our first photos together. For the earliest photo, I told her: “I don’t know which of these little circles is you, but one of them is! And guess who took that picture? Your Bubbie.”
“Bubbie!” She repeated. She likes the sound of the word Bubbie. She giggles. She doesn’t understand what I’m saying but she seems to realize that my tears mean something because she reaches out for me to hold her.
The next photo shows my daughter and me minutes after her birth. My face is turned toward the side, smiling, my hair messy on top of my head, small hoop earrings visible. I recall the first photo with my own mother. I’m older than she was, and less glamorous, but I look natural and comfortable in my first moments of motherhood, just like she did, with my baby’s little body curled on top of mine. My newborn daughter is turned toward the camera, her cheeks mottled pink, eyes open, and it looks like she’s smiling as she burrows her head into my chest. The expression on her brand new face, already so full of life, looks satisfied, happy, as if she knows she’s what we’ve been waiting for all this time.
Holly Schechter is an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. She also serves on the editorial staff of Intima: Journal of Narrative Medicine.
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