At age eight, I cradled a tiny newborn baby in my arms for the first time while the young mother cautiously spotted me with her hands below mine. I would like to say it was an enlightening experience that illuminated the true joy of womanhood forever. I would like to say that ever since that moment I have had the alarming urge to smile at, wave to, long for, and hold all other women’s young ones. But the truth is the only emotions I can remember are nervousness, a slight sense of terror, and the eagerness to run back outside to play.
I knew this was not what I was supposed to feel. I was raised in a conservative part of the South, where a proud culture dictates that men should work hard to earn a living and all women should desire babies. After all, what else is there for a woman besides giving birth to another life and growing the family tree?
But I was the littlest of my Brady Bunch-style family—always trying to keep up with my older siblings and step-siblings. Unlike cute pigtailed Cindy, I was a scraggly-haired tomboy. Much to my relief, a baby doll was nowhere near my collection of toy dinosaurs and precious cicada shells. Eventually I learned to wear dresses and flirt with boys, leading to the inevitable off-key chorus of kids teasingly singing, “First comes love! Second comes marriage! Then comes Bonnie with the baby carriage!” And my heart beat with uncertainty.
Twelve years after my first baby-holding experience, an incident at my hometown grocery store solidified my fears. Turning down an aisle, I saw a horrifying sight. There was a woman standing near the charcuterie counter, and she had babies all over her. One was attached to her chest, another was falling out of her shopping cart, one was clinging to her leg, and another was poking her with a stick of salami. I froze, bug-eyed, and tried to envision myself in the same scenario. Anxiety ensued but I could not run away. After graduating college, I was now working at this very grocery store—a miraculous career option among the joblessness that surrounded me. Wearing my employee apron and baseball cap, I finished stocking the shelves and cautiously shuffled around them.
Don’t get me wrong – I have been a nanny and am excellent at short-term interactions with kids. However, the demands of motherhood have always felt unnatural to me.
Aside from being distraught about my anxiety towards babies, like many during the recession, I was apprehensive about life in general. I was an ambitious recent college graduate who reluctantly returned home to live with my parents. I always had dreams of a career in which my actions impacted the world—of the intoxicating adrenaline of art, originality and passionate work. Instead, I was scooping grated Parmesan cheese into plastic containers. I both appreciated and hated my job. I felt trapped.
A trip to the gynecologist changed everything.
While getting an annual checkup, I saw a flier on the wall advertising an egg donation program. Suddenly, I had a revelation: I could help someone else have those desirable babies, allowing me to contribute to the world—and the value of family—in my own way. When the doctor finished the examination, I shyly inquired about egg donation and her eyes sparkled with elation. Apparently, given the proportions of my ovaries (they are larger than normal) and my follicle count (also above average) I had perfect egg cultivation possibilities. Returning home, I secretly researched the life cycle of eggs. Fearing the judgment of friends and family, I told no one.
I read about how all women are born with billions of eggs cells that are lost batch by batch during menstruation. In the donation process, the eggs that are typically lost through the monthly cycle are cultivated using hormones and then removed through a vaginal surgery. Knowing that the abundance of eggs filtering through my system would probably never be used, it seemed only natural that I should share my gems.
Although I was determined to be an egg donor, I was even more determined to escape Alabama, so I decided to wait until I reached my planned destination: New York City. Besides being the ideal location for my boundless aspirations, the monetary reward was twice as much there, at $8,000.
After pestering a grocery store in New York for a transfer, I soon found myself living in Queens, sleeping on the floor of my friend’s apartment and arranging interviews for Columbia University’s fertility program. Glowing with farmland innocence, I answered questions about my family history and interests. After a slew of medical tests and paperwork I was stamped as fit for the program. Then the coordinator gathered all of my information to present to perspective recipients. It was an anonymous program—my name, image and true identity were never shared, nor would I know the identity of the recipient. But I was confident that the right person would choose my eggs, and me.
A few weeks later, I had a match, and we began taking the daily capsule hormones together so that our menstrual cycles would be in sync.
All the while, the world around me shifted. I moved to an apartment in Brooklyn. I balanced a full-time job at the grocery store, and a full-time internship with a nonprofit. For a few hours every month, I sat in the waiting room of the fertility clinic, watching strangers enter the doctor’s office, wondering if they would receive my eggs. Even during the challenging final two weeks—when I received daily steroid shots in my abdomen and was prohibited from caffeine, alcohol, and sex—I had the sensation that my eggs, like me, had a destiny. After some setbacks due to hormones, the egg retrieval finally occurred nine months after my first visit to the clinic—enough time for me to have developed a full-sized baby.
On the day of the retrieval, as I was going under anesthesia, I heard the nurse say that my eggs would be paired with donor sperm. Off they went—my eggs along with another stranger’s sperm—through plastic tubes and scientific wizardry, allowing a family to create their happiness.
It was a painful healing process from the vaginal surgery but I braved it alone in my room. My hormones and bloated body were all out of whack but they gradually shifted back to normal, although my life was never the same.
The monetary reward arrived when I needed it most—allowing me to quit my job at the grocery store and focus full-time on working in the arts. One year after scooping cheese and stocking shelves, I had produced sold-out avant-garde plays, received a rave review from The New York Times, went on a storytelling tour with a World Poker Champion, and collaborated with renowned artists, writers, and filmmakers. I created my happiness, too.
This strange city and the strangers within it are part of my family. Somewhere in the chaotic mass of human beings exists the story of who my eggs became. I don’t ponder it daily—in fact I often forget and laugh aloud when I suddenly remember, “Oh yeah! There might be a small child out there with my features.” I will never really know that child’s story, but I feel no claim or regret. I feel no urge to repeat the process, simply out of respect to the off chance that years down the road I receive an inquiring phone call from the clinic—as I have requested to be notified if the child seeks to know me. And although I still nervously fidget when I see a man or woman covered in babies—on the subway, in the park, on the street, wherever they may be—I now also rest with peaceful content and grin with a flutter of curiosity.