This is Part Two of a 3-Part Guest Series from my good friend, Kate. You can read Part One here, if you haven’t already.
Life moves on, hey? My brand new husband and I had planned to wait until my third year in the midwifery program to have a baby. There’s a sort of natural pause in the program at that point, where many women take some time off to have a baby. But, well, as one of my lovely friends says, “The heart wants what the heart wants”. In October of first year, we stopped using birth control, and took a “Well, we’re not going to try, but we’re not going to avoid, and we’ll see what happens”. We knew full well that this meant we’d likely have a baby long before third year. In December I got pregnant. In January I got un-pregnant. I sat in the shower and bled and cried and begged that baby to please stay, live, be born, have a wonderful life. And then, eventually, I was able to tell that baby that I loved her and wanted her but if she had to go, she should go knowing that she was loved. After that, we started actively trying to get pregnant.
I think it was April when I *knew* something was not right. I was lucky to have the most amazing campus physician who took me seriously and started off with some routine testing. When the basic stuff on me came back normal, she ordered an analysis for my husband, and sent me off to Toronto for more invasive procedures. Again, everything was normal with me, but my husband’s initial analysis showed that his body made about 8 sperm, and that 7 of them swam backwards, had three heads, or some other problem. People say, “It only takes one!”, but the science actually shows that it takes many little sperm to break down the egg enough to allow one sperm in to do its thing. He did the recommended diet, supplements and lifestyle changes, waited three months and repeated the test, only to find that his numbers were *worse*! The explanation for our lost babe was that it was some sort of miraculous conception, but that the faulty sperm had led to chromosomal abnormalities that were “incompatible with life”.
Stick with me, this does have something to do with my midwifery journey! We were referred to a fertility clinic, and I think they were salivating at what our young (we were 23), healthy selves would do to their success rates. We found out that the only way for us to have a baby biologically related to both of us would be through IVF. But, not just regular IVF, oh no, we would need aspiration and IVF with ICSI. Lots of accronyms to tell us that there would be a boatload of laboratory and drugs involved in our child’s conception. And lots of money. A lot. At the time, my husband was earning 500$ a month, and I was a full-time student with three part-time jobs. When I sat down and played with our budget, I calculated that it would take us about 15 years to save the required 12,000 – 14,000$.
I’m not in any way anti-IVF. We just came to the conclusion that it wasn’t for us: toxic drug load for me, insane amount of money (we had always planned to adopt anyway, and that money could be much better used in that arena), no guarantee of success, etc, etc. And then, the kicker, we learned that any son we had would also be highly likely to be infertile. No way could we knowingly inflict this torture on our child, so we put IVF away. There was month after month of disappointment, and there seemed to be an correlation between my grades and the length of our infertility.
I returned to second year in a pretty unhealthy headspace. My thought life basically revolved around getting pregnant, and school did nothing to pull it in another direction. I knew I was unhealthily focused, but I couldn’t seem to pull myself out. A classmate told me that if I would just “Get right with God” I would get pregnant. I was pretty despondent. And yet, everyday I went to class and clinic and labs, and everyday I was surrounded by women doing the amazing work of growing and birthing their children. I was so, so blessed that I never felt anger or resentment or jealousy towards the women who got to get pregnant like normal people, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t break a little every time I saw someone do what I wanted with every fiber of my self. School became a painful thing. Midwifery became an intensely painful thing.
How do you spend your life being a part of a miraculous thing, while knowing that *you* will never be allowed to experience it? How do you help women and families carry and welcome new babies, when you want that for yourself and know you’ll never get to carry your own child? Where do you find the grace and maturity and resiliency and love to do that work the way it deserves to be done? My answers were, well, I can’t. I can’t be a midwife. Not now, and maybe not ever. I just knew I needed to get away and figure out if I could develop the heart I needed to be a good midwife. So, instead of going in to third year, I went to Yellowknife. Logical step, hunh?
My husband got a job in the North, and we headed out. His company paid for our move, so I wrote exams and packed our house (he had already left), and bought the things that people recommended I buy (mostly laundry soap, canned goods and dog food, all supposed to be much more expensive in the North). Off we went. Life in the North was bleak, initially, but we fairly quickly found ourselves completely in love with so many aspects of life there. We skied and skijored, rock climbed, paddled, hiked, “swam” (polar bear dips, in August, for real) in pristine lakes. We lived in a house that was spitting distance from a lake and hiking trails. I biked to work year round. I worked as a sled dog handler, a substitute teacher, earned a spot in a professional dance company, we made friends, and, really, life was pretty good.
We also decided to pursue donor sperm and adoption. We filed out paperwork, requested paperwork, chose a donor, did our homestudy, got approved to adopt, bought some sperm, found a doctor who would deal with the sperm, became foster parents, and lived through four failed cycles with donor sperm. Canada then announced that it was changing some laws surrounding donor gametes, which sounded like they were going to make using donor sperm pretty close to impossible. We were fed up, torn down, and ready to be *done*. So, we sold our sperm back to the bank. I did a lot of work to get to a place where I thought I might be able to function as a healthy person without experiencing pregnancy. I made plans to induce lactation for our to-be-adopted baby, even as we knew that was going to be a bit of a wait as we gathered up the required funds.
And then, one of my best friends from the midwifery program wrote to me, and offered us her husband’s sperm. This might sound like an insane arrangement, but it was one of those things that is so perfect that I still get teary when I try to explain it. My first trip to them was so filled with stress (for me!), and we made a few rookie mistakes in terms of timing and stuff. It didn’t work. We had to wait several more months before we managed to get together again, but our second try was so simple and normal, if you can use that word for something not quite normal. And there was Maren. Perfect.
I thought I could go back to midwifery the fall that Maren was 8 months old. We moved from Yellowknife back to Ontario, and spent the summer in Toronto where I took an elective course to lighten the load in the fall. The plan was for my husband to stay home with Maren. The midwifery program in Ontario requires moves every three months (there are exceptions in fourth year, but you can need to move that often) once you’re in the clinical portion of the program (the last 2.5 years of the program), so finding work for him would have been next to impossible anyway. It was a disaster. I would go to the library to get some school work done, and ten minutes later Papa would show up with the babe in tow, “I think she needs to nurse!”, or he had some other important reason for interrupting me. The reality was that, while he loved to hang out with his kids, my husband did NOT enjoy being the primary caregiver. Not to mention that leaving the baby I had fought so hard to have broke my heart.
You’d think that midwifery would be a really family friendly profession. It is not. Of all my classmates, not a single woman with children graduated on time. A good many dropped out. Practicing midwives do not qualify for maternity leave (they’re considered “self employed”). Anecdotally, divorce rates are very high among midwives. Student midwives have the added challenge of, you know, school. I watched classmates go to clinic all day, rush off to a birth in the late afternoon, get home at 4 in the morning after not having seen their children since two days earlier, and then have to feed themselves and grab a few hours sleep before finishing a paper due by noon. Conference call tutorial followed by post-partum home visit, shadowing two (or more!) preceptor midwives, attempting to eat a meal somewhere other than their cars, maintain a semblance of a relationship with their stressed spouse, etc, etc, the list of crazy goes on. Their family relationships really suffer, and while they all look forward to when they’re “real” midwives as the point in time when the crazy will diminish, the reality is that they remain tied to a pager. They miss birthday parties, dance recitals, talks in bed with partners before sleep, *sleep* (!!), and so many other things. They are living their dreams, in many ways, but not without a cost.
Before I knew better, I think I pictured this lovely midwife life of a few hours of clinic, dinner with my family, tucking the kids in to bed and then heading off to a perfect birth and being home in time to get a decent sleep before getting up with my kids. That’s not the reality. It’s gritty and beautiful and fulfilling, but it’s a long, hard slog. And I chose to put it away for awhile. I felt at peace with the idea that it was not my season for midwifery. I chose to spend my time with my family and I loved the daily rhythm and wonder of motherhood. I don’t at all regret my choices.
Don’t miss Part Three of Kate’s story tomorrow!