A Thousand Babies
 

Dream
1986: Age 15
 
I am married. He is a handsome brunette man with blue or green eyes (looks like 80s Tom Cruise blended with Jason Bateman). He is outgoing, positive, funny, smart, just your overall amazing man.  It’s true love.  Our families get along swimmingly.  We live either on the coast of California or in upstate New York. We have a big two story craftsman or Spanish style home with a spacious back yard, a swimming pool, and a greenhouse. I grow my own vegetables. I am a 12th grade honors English teacher. We have 4 kids: 2 boys and 2 girls. I have a boy first because there should be a big brother. I am a soccer mom and relive my youth playing soccer through my kids. I bring the orange slices and Capri Suns for half time. I throw the soccer team parties and never miss a game. We have 2 labrador retrievers, 2 cats and maybe even a horse. I have a slight obsession with England and Ireland where I grew up, so we visit there every year to keep connected with my roots. We live happily ever after, growing old together with lots of grandkids. 
 
Reality
2017: Age 45

I’m single.  I’ve had some long-term relationships but they never panned out. I live with my dog-like cats in a cute, but old, little California-type bungalow in Venice Beach, just blocks from the ocean.  It used to be called the yoga compound because at one point four out of six tenants were yogis. Now it’s just me.  My home has charm and character.  I went a little overboard with colors when I moved in.  Some days I look at my walls and chuckle at the purples and blues.  Most of my furniture is the furniture I grew up with, Danish style. I’m nostalgic I guess. I have a garden, although in planter boxes and not in the ground.  Sometimes I grow tomatoes.  I’m a yoga teacher and I love what I do. I travel around the world teaching trainings. I have 3 nephews and one niece. I look forward to attending their life events. I do not have any children.


And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?  Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself, “My God!  What have I done?””…
(”Once in a lifetime" by Talking Heads)

 Photography by Paul Cabanis

Photography by Paul Cabanis

I guess you could say that for the past year or so I've been mourning the loss of something.  Something I always envisioned having. Something that feels deeply rooted in my cells. It could still happen, but at the same time I just don't know.  Like almost everyone, my reality does come with some regrets, some sadness and some loneliness.  Some of the ¨shoulda, coulda, wouldas.¨.  Probably the hardest reality I struggle with: the likelihood of not having children of my own. The reality of meeting someone, getting pregnant and starting a different version of the family I once thought so easy to come by is slipping away.
 
I always wanted to feel what it was like being pregnant.  I wanted to experience life growing inside me.  I wanted to feel how one’s body changes through the different trimesters. I wanted to feel the baby move.  I wanted to read books and sing to the baby in the womb.  I wanted to bask in the pregnancy "glow".  I wanted to feel the “pain” of birth and the joy that comes right after.  During teacher training there is a two hour lecture on how to teach yoga to women who are pregnant.  Every time I teach this segment I want to be pregnant, even after we talk about all of the side effects and possible complications. 

Children and marriage weren’t even a possibility in my 20’s. Despite my teenage dream, my real 20’s self had no need, desire or wish to settle down. During my early 30’s, I thought I had a few more years of looking for a husband and having kids. I had a plan that if nothing had happened by 35 I would get more serious. When 35 arrived, I pushed my deadline back to 37. I swore I would get serious about making my dream into my reality no later than 37. Getting serious meant really hitting the dating sites hard. It meant the possibility of resurrecting the dreaded “friend pact” - asking a beloved man friend in my life if they were finally ready to have a kid with me and fulfill our early 20’s pledge. You know how that goes: “If you and I are still single when we are 30 or 35 or 40 we’ll get married and have kids.” As things turned out, my late thirties came and went, pledges were forgotten, husbands were never found and children…
 
What the heck was I doing all of those years?  Was I too picky and waiting for that man who fulfilled everything on my list?  Was I in denial of how hard it was to meet one’s “true love”? Was I projecting this independent attitude that made it appear like I wasn’t available?  Was I “too this” or “too that”?  Sometimes I wonder if I was too tied to my expectations that I didn't see everything around me.  Or was I actually afraid of getting what I always wanted?

 Photography by Paul Cabanis

Photography by Paul Cabanis

The sadness hit me like a brick at age 42.  It was hard to ignore the heaviness in my heart and the rock-like feeling in my gut. I decided to take things into my own hands and did some research. I said to myself:  “Maybe I'll freeze my eggs. I am healthy and I have faith in my body. I can be that woman who has children in her forties.  I can do this with or without a husband. No problem.”  I hatched a new plan - find a doctor and freeze some of my eggs. I figured, once this was done, when I met the man of my dreams I’d be prepared. I naively thought it would be a pretty easy process. Events soon proved otherwise.
 
My first meeting with a fertility doctor took place in an incredibly fancy office in Beverly Hills. The doctor coldly explained how much lower my chances for pregnancy are in the 40-43 age bracket and how those numbers drop even lower in the 44-48 bracket. To illustrate this, he reached for a big jar of Starburst candies on his desk. There were red ones and yellow ones. Part of me felt at ease seeing it described to me as if I was a kid and then part of me felt it was so weird. Does he keep these Starbursts on his desk just for this presentation? He dumped them out in front of me. He used the scattered candy to show me how egg retrieval works: “After we do all of the fertility drugs and when the time is right, the clinic will go in and retrieve your eggs. Inevitably some of your eggs will not be viable.”
 
My “non-viable” eggs became yellow candies within Dr Starburst's (his name from that moment onward) scenario. He pushed the squares aside. A few fell on the floor. Watching my eggs discarded so cavalierly was painful. He then proceeded to show me what a 20 year old’s fertility possibilities are versus a woman in her forties. The difference was stark.

Candy demonstrations morphed into Dr Starburst drawing a lot of charts filled with more and more birth statistics attached to increasingly higher dollar signs. Seeing my “possible birth scenarios” written in cold black ink and movie theatre candy was jarring. I never realized how expensive this process could become.


“It IS still possible to freeze your eggs,” he said with little of the enthusiasm he had in his voice when speaking of women in their 20’s, “but the sooner we act on this the better.”
 
Before he was even done speaking, I was hit with massive disappointment regarding my past choices, “my wasted fertile womb of my 20’s and 30’s”. Why didn't I explore these fertility options earlier when my brother suggested it to me?! But I thought… well, you know what I thought.

 Photography by Paul Cabanis

Photography by Paul Cabanis

I flash back to a conversation I had with a woman around the same age as me who had already accepted that she wasn’t ever going to be pregnant.  “Don’t you think it’s too late for you to still consider having kids?  Not sure how to say this, but maybe you should start accepting reality.”  I was crushed.  I hoped her sentiments were said with innocence and love, but on the inside I was pretty angry at her insensitivity.  Her words brought up immediate stabs to my heart. Although I stayed silent, I wanted to yell back at her:

“You don’t know my body.  Please don't tell me it’s too late.  Maybe you feel that way in your body, but I don’t.  There are women who are successfully having children in their late forties. I still hope to be a mother.”

Maybe I’m in denial.  Maybe I’m not the only one who struggles in these ways.  I receive wildly different advice from women and men about what do.  Some speak with kindness and compassion.  Some are harsh and dismissive.  Some say “just have a kid, already. You’ll never look back.”  Some say, “It will change your body forever.  The risks, at this point, are too great.  Your pregnancy will be way too difficult.”  It’s hard not to internalize these opinions.   

But it’s my choice.  I rallied myself out of the shadows and continued exploring this freezing egg journey I started.
 
Unbowed by Dr Starburst’s bedside manner, I showed up a few days later for my 7 a.m. ultrasound. Still bleary eyed, nervous and battling small doubts, I was greeted, not by Dr Starburst, but by a completely different doctor who walked into the room and very bluntly and coldly said, "you do know that because of your age you,  you will need to fertilize it with a sperm donor?"  Excuse me?  I was numb and speechless. I was barely awake and now I had a doctor telling me something I didn't want to hear. But what about my dream of meeting prince charming and using my frozen eggs with him? 
 
A nurse soon took over for Dr Coldness and explained the process of choosing and using a sperm donor. With more kindness, she walked me through the details of the process. Basically, I could choose how many years I wanted to store my eggs in their storage lockers while also stating,  “now, it is my obligation to inform you that we, the clinic, are not responsible for any acts of God or nature such as a flood, earthquake, tsunami, etc. that might occur and result in the unfortunate loss of your, or any others, stored deposits.”
 
Oh, great! Now, my future baby is a “deposit” that would be hanging out in a frozen storage unit with less protection and security than my television receives under homeowner’s insurance. You have got to be kidding me.
 
At this point, I got in the car, called my sister and had a good cry.

Going to all of these appointments alone was daunting and overwhelming. At every step of the initial process I never felt supported or encouraged. I was treated more like a number, part of an assembly line and the doctors just saw dollar signs. The amount of forms seemed endless. Each new sheet of paper contained a “choice” of treatment that was linked to a different cost “estimate,” dense with options and scenarios, but could never be pinned down to an exact total or even a moderate guarantee of success. Can I just get a grand total of how much this is going to cost?! I feel like I am at a car dealership.  I panic at car dealerships.

 

 Photography by Paul Cabanis

Photography by Paul Cabanis

I love being a yoga teacher. I truly believe that this is what I am supposed to be doing. But raising a child as a single mom on a yoga teacher’s salary would be very stressful and challenging.  I would have to take time off from my career.  I do not have a maternity leave option, so if I do not work I do not get paid.  Besides the public classes in LA, I have spent the past 8 years traveling, sometimes every month to teach for 4-7 weeks at time on occaisions.  If I were to have a child I would not be able to take those money-making opportunities.  It would be different if my parents were younger and lived in the same state and were able to babysit, but I don’t really have anyone to help me raise a child.  Unless I have a partner, the yoga teaching lifestyle is not the most conducive to being a single mom, although it can be done. 

After a couple thousand dollars into the dizzying world of early 40’s fertility, I decided to take a pause. I kept pondering my idealized dream of having children with the actual reality of what it would mean to have a child at this point. This was so far from the image of my younger dream.  How much did I want a baby?  I knew I couldn't raise a baby alone, nor did I want to do it alone.  Maybe I would freeze my eggs and then never end up using them.  It's a big expense to maybe not use the eggs.  Woudl I regret not freezing my eggs?  The conflicts became twisted within me. I started to question my core beliefs.  Do I really want kids?   Or is it just society's upbringing that makes me feel like I want kids?  I definitely have many moments where I feel it in my soul and skin that I want children.  But then I see screaming kids at the airport or in grocery stores and say "hmmm, maybe I don't want kids."  I hear what it’s like from the “other side”:  the stresses of raising children, the no sleep and how not all children are angels.  But I also engage with my friends and their children who speak to me about what a life-changing experience motherhood has been through all the struggles and hard work. It is beautiful to behold .
 
I do believe that I would be a great mom. When I drive past soccer or little league fields, I get a pang in my heart. I so want to be a proud mom on the field rooting for my kids.  A few years ago, I was attending my twin nephews’ high school graduation and I cried when I saw them get their diplomas.  Would I ever be at my own children's graduation?  I start to do the math in my head.  On this occasion, at the graduation, I was 42.  If I had a kid at 44 then I would be 62 at their graduation. I find myself doing potential pre and post baby math in my head more times than I’d like to admit. Why can’t I just decide?


Yoga can be and has been a sanctuary. I didn't find yoga until my late 20s. Sometimes I think yoga found me.   As a yoga teacher it's common to teach the ideal of santosha - being content with what you have versus what you don't have. Easier said than done.  With little things, no problem, but with the reality of not having children, it's quite challenging. Motherhood has been a deeply engrained dream within me for so long, letting go will be "my work". When I lose my center, which used to be often, I can beat myself up over past decisions. I am learning that I am supposed to be in this specific place in this time.  In my younger years, my strategy, before I found yoga, was to cut and run, or, at my worst, stay and accept pain. I acknowledge these old patterns of myself and I try to practice differently now.  When I'm on my "mat" I have the space to sit with everything and these are the moments where I find the most clarity.  It's here I realize I'm still conflicted and that's ok.  It has taken me 45 years to finally get glimpses of what it's like to live in the moment and to embrace life and all of its feelings.

Last year, still caught up within the web of my motherhood dilemma, I started to explore Reiki.  One definition of Reiki is a technique that helps reduce stress and promote relaxation.  The practitioner, guided by Reiki energy, uses light hand touch to help unblock energy, whether it’s emotional, physical or mental.  What I didn’t realize is that, even though I was learning Reiki to help heal others, I discovered this was a way to practice self-healing and self-care.  The first class required that I was given the Reiki energy or attuned to Reiki.  While I was sitting in a chair with my eyes closed and with my hands on my heart, a vision came to me.  A bright light shimmered in front of me and there was a peaceful and reassuring voice telling me that everything is ok. 

I have already birthed a thousand babies.  

 Photography by Paul Cabanis

Photography by Paul Cabanis


A Thousand Babies

By

Anne Van Valkenburg


Cover Photography by Paul Cabanis