This week’s blog is a guest post by Fred Harlan. We want to disclose a trigger warning, which is something we will do from here on out when we feel it’s needed, that this post does include images of a baby and of parenting. Fred and his wife Andrea are ART of Infertility project participants who we met in Southern California. They shared their story with us via an interview and also attended our pop-up art exhibit and workshops in Calabasas during National Infertility Awareness Week this year. Thanks, Fred, for sharing your family’s story!
From Infertility to Fatherhood – My Journey So Far
I am going to tell you something that I always hated to hear. At least, I used to at a point in time in my life. My wife and I were far along down that lonely path we were traveling in the midst of our infertility journey. The meandering road had become increasingly dark and dank. It was becoming more apparent that the chances of a successful IVF cycle using my wife’s eggs and my sperm was unlikely. Some people in our lives would say the obvious thought to them, and insensitive comment to us, that we could “always adopt.” Even the medical and therapeutic people that we sought out had begun to talk to us about “other options” to parenthood. I simply wasn’t ready to hear it, let alone think about it.
As time passed reality crept in. After many failed procedures, buckets of tears and a ton of soul searching, my wife and I eventually came to the realization that some how, some way, we really wanted to have a child. In order to make that happen we slowly began to look into other possible options. Now, after eight plus years of infertility and 10 months of fatherhood what I want to tell you is this: regardless of how long you have been battling or the reasons for your infertility, that if you are resolved in your desire to have a child no matter what, my message of hope is that there is a way. It may not be the way to parenthood that you envisioned but there are paths that can take you there. Not all roads are available to everyone for various reasons – emotional, cultural, religious or financial. But I know there is a potential path(s) available to everyone. You just have to be in a place along your own journey to be open to consider other possibilities.
Ten months ago my son, Gehrig, came into our lives. He was born of my wife’s womb, my sperm and a donor’s egg. Being his father is a joy that is incomparable to any other, a reality that I still almost cannot believe and an opportunity, considering the circumstances, which I long thought I never would consider. Like I was saying, my wife and I decided that parenthood was what we definitely wanted. However, with each failed IVF cycle the medical opinion increasing appeared evident that the quality of my wife’s eggs was our challenge. Knowing my wife’s heartache and my wanting to always tackle infertility as a team, I suggested to my wife that our future child should be either “both of ours or neither of ours” genetically. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine how I would feel had the circumstances been that of our future child being biologically hers and not mine, so I didn’t want her to have to imagine it either.
Egg donation seemed so unnatural, so complicated and so not us. We didn’t want to be “one of those couples.” Besides, there were so many questions that came along with egg donation. Would my wife be able to completely accept and love a child that was not biologically her own? Would the donor want to be a part of his and our life? What if he doesn’t look like us, and then what would we say when asked, “whom does he look like?” What would we tell family and friends? And what if years down the road our son had a health issue and would benefit from knowing detailed medical history? And the really big question: what would we tell our son? Although we knew several people who had chosen the egg donor route and were very happy with their choice, it just didn’t feel like the right option for us. So we closed the door on this alternative and proceeded in educating ourselves on the different avenues of adoption, including that of embryo adoption. During this time my wife realized that the concept of being pregnant and carrying a child was extremely important to her, especially considering her doctors believed she would be able to carry a child. So it appeared that embryo adoption was the answer that life was steering us toward. At least that is what we thought until a comedy of errors (a story for another day) resulted in my wife’s sister volunteering to be a surrogate or give us her eggs or whatever we needed, led us to think about egg donation one more time. It was during this period that I realized that having a child who was biologically mine was more important than I had allowed myself to think. Another series of events led us to our eventual donor (another story for another day) and the rest as they say is history.
Looking back on everything we went through I have one more thing to say that someone struggling with infertility may not want to hear either, and I understand why – I was in your shoes. But now I need to say it, I have to say it, because it is my truth. I would not change a thing. At least not if it meant I wouldn’t have Gehrig today. If you told me ten years ago, “Fred, I have good news for you and I have bad news. The bad news is that you are going to go to hell and back again and again and again in your attempt to become a father. You are going to doubt yourself as a man, a person and as a husband. You and your wife are going to go through heartbreak after heartache, and you are going to have to be the rock that supports your wife all while you can barely stand on your own. You will doubt your dreams, your wife, your faith and life itself. You will sit in the depths of despair that appear to have no escape, no hope and no resolve. However, at the end you will be given an amazing little boy to love!” Knowing everything that I know today, I would sign up for that in a New York minute.
We have all heard some variation of the motivational phrase, “Life is not a destination, it’s a journey.” I always wanted to believe that was true but some how never found a way to make it work in my life. Stress and frustration seemed to win out more than I would have liked. Then one afternoon, after my wife and I participated in a vision board workshop – an activity hosted and encouraged by our infertility counselor – in order to assist us in visualizing the life for which we hoped, I realized my board was not complete. I had one picture with a saying to represent my life’s journey that simply was not ringing true for me. In fact, it was pretty lame. So decided to scour the Internet for an image that would adequately represent my life’s road. Beaches speak to me and as I scanned many coastal images I came across one. As soon as I saw it I know my vision board was complete. It was the picture of foam-crested waves gently meeting the sand in which were inscribed the following words: “The journey is the reward.” That rephrasing of all those old Successories/Sky Mall posters spoke to me differently somehow. I didn’t know it exactly at the time, but now I do. And as I look at that photo posted on my desk as I type, I can say that my journey is indeed my reward.
I often speak about infertility as a journey. Each couple, each person who is faced with the disease goes through similar experiences and yet at the same time a journey all her or his own. I did not realize it as I was going through it – how could I, it was just too emotional, too raw – but in retrospect, I realize that I was being prepared for what life had in store for me – not just to be a father, but to be a father to this little boy, here and now. I have always wanted to be a dad, and had I become one earlier in life I’m sure that I would have relished it and been a good one. However, becoming a parent at this point in my life I know that I am so much better prepared for fatherhood than I would have as a younger man. I am more grounded, more secure emotionally and less anxious. I am not missing as much time with Gehrig as I am sure that I would have years ago while building a previous business. I am home more and with Gehrig frequently despite building a new practice. I’m often the lone dad in the “Mommy and Me” new parent classes.
The dad I am today is not solely because of the length of time it took to become one, but also as a direct result from my infertility journey. For example, I am more patient and flexible than I used to be. This is a benefit to Gehrig but also to Andrea as we parent him together. Also, the perfectionist that I am has been able to let go of having to do things in a specific “right” way and being tied to specific outcomes. When Gehrig didn’t nurse right away I didn’t panic (don’t ask me about my wife), rather we sought help. He turned into a nursing machine. When Gehrig didn’t crawl when he should have we enjoyed what he was doing (rolling everywhere) and asked for advice. Now Gehrig is on the move. Had I been a parent years ago I would have been looking at the situation thinking: “what is wrong with my kid!”
Once we found out that Andrea’s pregnancy was viable I made up my mind that I would “take it all” – I would change every dirty diaper, listen to every cry, dry every tear and wipe up every spit up with a smile on my face. I laugh when I fly Gehrig over my head like Superman and he drools on my shirt, my glasses or even my mouth. I do not care. No, that is not true – actually I care a lot, in fact I love it. He is my son and I waited too long and tried too hard to have him to not enjoy every moment. And I have learned that some of the best moments are the simplest, such as at the end of the day when I am rocking him to sleep. His head lays on my shoulder and has he surrenders to sleep his neck gives way to the weight of his head which nestles into the nape of my neck. I continue to rock him for another ten minutes or so to ensure he is asleep, but mostly because that time is priceless to me. Each and every night I think to myself how life prepared me those moments, and I’m so grateful that I’m not missing a second of it by simply hurrying to get my son to bed.
You may be saying, “well, that is great for you Fred, you are one of the lucky ones, you were able to have a biological child. What about your wife? What about all the people who are not able to have a biological child?” My response is this: those are fair questions and it is reasonable to ask them. It is important to note that during the process of choosing egg donation, I grieved significantly for the child that I always thought Andrea and I would have together. In the end perhaps I am lucky – I am definitely fortunate – or perhaps we made our own luck to opening ourselves up to other possibilities to parenthood. This is not a commercial for egg donation or parenthood, rather it is intended to inspire hope in infertile couples who have definitely decided or are at least thinking they still want to be parents some how, some way. And as for my wife, she feels pretty fortunate herself. She will tell you, what I will tell you, that Gehrig is 100% hers. She carried him in her womb, feeds him from her breast and is a completely devoted mother in raising him and that is what is important to her. Likewise, I know many people who have adopted newborns, babies, children and even embryos, and all without fail will tell you that their child is indeed their child and was from the moment that child entered their lives. At the end of the day it is the emotional bond that matters, not the means by which the child arrived in your life.
I wholeheartedly believe that Andrea and I were meant to be parents, and once we figured out that part, life opened new opportunities for us to become so. I also believe that my son was meant to be and meant to be in our lives at this moment in time. He didn’t come to us the way we thought he would, but that no longer is a concern. Years ago it was difficult to think about, let alone see, that life’s journey was preparing me, actually all three of us, not for the live we envisioned, but the life we were meant to live.1 That’s my journey – so far.
1A variation of a quote by Joseph Campbell.
Fred Harlan, MA2 is a resourceful Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who works with couples and individuals on relationship issues, and men and couples coping with infertility (theirs or their partner’s). Fred holds Master’s Degrees in Clinical Psychology and Speech Communication. Fred@FredHarlan.net.