My son’s life began, as all babies’ lives do, with an egg.
Although, in my case, the egg that started it all — the egg that set off the Rube Goldberg machine leading to Finnegan’s life — was released not 10 months before his birth, but 10 years.
And released isn’t quite the right word. More like extracted. Because, those 10 years ago, I was an egg donor, and my eggs went to a wealthy Upper East Side couple. I, in return, got $8,000.
I used the money to pay rent on my East Village sublet. I used it to pay back taxes. And when my visa expired — I’m Canadian — and I needed to temporarily leave the United States, I used it to pay for a flight to Europe. It was there, in a 16-bunk room in a hostel in Prague, that I met my husband, Emmett. Still buoyed by my doctor’s comment, during a post-donation checkup, that she’d retrieved an “impressive” 29 eggs from me, I joked to Emmett, half-bragging and half-warning, that I was “aggressively fertile.” I was aware, even as the words left my mouth, of the dangerous karmic territory I was putting myself in.
A decade later, I was back on the Upper East Side, watching a sonographer slide a scanner across my slick stomach. On the screen overhead, our son surfaced, then slipped away, a grainy creature rising and receding from view.
At first, I thought the sonographer was just deep in concentration. A few minutes ago, she’d let us listen to our baby’s heartbeat, and having heard it, I’d relaxed. A heartbeat meant alive, after all. But I hadn’t considered another possibility — the space between “everything’s fine” and “we’re so sorry.” That in-between space was this silence, stretching from seconds into minutes as the sonographer arced and dipped, slid and burrowed, performing an artful slalom along the contours of my abdomen.
A lifetime of television and movie watching had taught me what to expect from an ultrasound image — bigheaded babies swimming in inky seas of amniotic fluid, extending their spindly limbs like in utero E.T.s. What we were looking at — it wasn’t that. Our baby didn’t float in space, because there was none. Instead of lolling around in a lush pool of liquid, he was balled tight, cloaked in something resembling Saran Wrap. Everything beyond that was static gray and solid. I stared hard, struggling to interpret what I was seeing. The technician left to get the doctor.
Amniotic fluid doesn’t seem like much. At that moment, the 16-week mark of my pregnancy, it was basically saline. But for unborn babies, that briny bath is everything — the air they breathe, the food they eat, the home they live in. And our baby was living with very little of it. The fact that he was living at all, the doctor explained to us, was a minor miracle.
“Your membranes have collapsed,” she said, the tip of her manicured nail indicating the thin layer that clung claustrophobically to our baby. “And we’re seeing very little amniotic fluid.”
“If your fluid levels fall any further,” she explained gently, “it’s likely the baby won’t be viable.”
The baby. Interesting that she didn’t say “your baby,” the way other doctors had before. It already felt as if he was slipping away from me.
Another thing that slipped away from me in that moment was certainty. Specifically, the certainty that having an abundance of something at 22 meant being able to count on it at 32. But bodies aren’t like that. And women’s bodies, understudied and misunderstood as they often are, frequently defy easy explanation.
Just as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported that 50 to 75 percent of women who suffer from recurrent miscarriages will never know why, and the Obstetrical and Gynecological Survey found that as many as 30 percent of couples who struggle to conceive are diagnosed only with “unexplained infertility,” I couldn’t draw a definitive line between the eggs I traded so cavalierly and the baby barely surviving inside me.
But after my sonogram, as the cab carrying me and Emmett home came to rest, briefly, in front of the entrance to the egg donor clinic I had frequented so many years ago, I didn’t feel like being fair-minded. Instead, my eyes narrowed, as if looking askance at an enemy.
You did this, I thought. It was you who cranked up my hormones. You who sucked the stuff of life out of me. You who made me flippant about my fertility. I nearly hissed these accusations aloud.
But then I imagined the cool glass and chrome of the clinic’s revolving doors hissing back. Saying: Anything could have caused this. Saying: Without me you wouldn’t have met your husband. Saying: You should be thanking me that you’re pregnant at all. It was so vivid I could practically picture the revolving doors slinging words as they spun. And the doors would have been right.
I spent the next four months on bed rest — lying on my left side, drinking gallons of water a day. And though my fluid levels didn’t rise, they didn’t fall either. My son and I persisted in the liminal space between life and death, right on the razor-thin edge of viability, watching time tick away. I tracked the passage of that time not only by how far along I was, but also by how old my egg donor children might have been. They could have been in the fourth grade. They could have been old enough to ride the subway alone. They could have been clipping me with their bike wheels as they rounded a street corner near my home in Flatbush.
I made it to 33 weeks before Finnegan arrived. He was born folded and twisted like a street cart pretzel, with knee, hip and elbow dislocations. He was born with lungs so weak he needed the help of machines to breathe for nearly two months. But he was born. And as I stared down at him in the NICU, noting his similarities to me — the blue eyes, the brown hair, the upturned nose that got me called Miss Piggy as a kid — I wondered: If Finnegan and I were out together someday and we saw kids who shared our same constellation of features, would I notice? Or, having been mixed with some unknown Y-chromosome, would my egg donor children be unrecognizable even to me?
Recently, I listened to a podcast about the children of a serial sperm donor. Each of them innocently submitted swabs to 23andMe, expecting to find out what part of the world they were from and what diseases they were susceptible to. Instead, they discovered they had dozens of donor siblings (or “diblings,” as they called each other). This floored me. I’d never imagined there would be a line — traceable and discoverable for a mere $199 — from Finnegan to the children who might have been born from the eggs I sold. The cloak of anonymity under which I donated my eggs couldn’t have predicted the rapid rise of consumer DNA tests. Which meant I couldn’t predict how the decision I made 10 years before Finnegan’s birth might reverberate for the rest of his life.
As Finnegan, now 2, gets healthy at home — ditching his medications, outgrowing his casts and walking on his own — I’ve begun to consider how Emmett and I will talk to him about his possible part-siblings someday. It’s forced me to question, after all these years, how I see my egg donation.
Was it a means to an end, simply a way to supplement my meager intern’s salary?
Was it the ultimate gift, making the dreams of would-be parents possible?
Was it the thing I’ll always suspect damaged my womb and endangered Finnegan’s life?
Or was it, as I imagined those revolving doors saying, the necessary precursor to everything in my life that I love? Not so much a revolving door as, to borrow a Gwyneth Paltrow rom-com metaphor, a sliding one?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And, yes.
And so, when we eventually tell Finnegan his birth story, it will be a story of circumstances, close calls, a fateful meet cute, and so much love. A story with at least one happily ever after. Or maybe as many as 29.
Justine Feron is a writer and advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.