When You Can't Have A Baby Like You Always Dreamed

How one couple struggled to watch everyone but them become parents.

May 9, 2016
mother and baby loving each other

Not far from my home in rural North Carolina, across the Haw River from an access shared with neighbors, bald eagles have nested for at least a decade. When my husband and I bought our house—a cabin on 5 steep wooded acres—with plans to start a family, the chance to watch the eagles raising their young was one of the attractions that sold us on the place. I grew up along the Mattaponi River, in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay watershed, and had memories of sighting bald eagles as a kid. In school, Richard and I both learned about how the once-prolific raptors had dwindled in number as a result of hunting, habitat destruction, and the pesticide DDT. How lucky we felt to watch their comeback. 

I imagined that one day soon, Richard and I would walk with our children to see the eagles across the river. I envisioned myself hoisting a toddler to my hip and pointing to the wide, ragged shape of the nest, and I could almost feel a child’s legs wrapped around my waist, a little hand holding my shoulder for balance. The river turned out to be a great place to observe the rituals of all kinds of family life—ducklings dutifully following their mothers, spotted fawns sidling up to watchful does.


I could almost feel a little hand holding my shoulder for balance

My own family story went differently than I expected. Month after month, we waited for the good news of pregnancy. Then the months turned into years. We finally saw a reproductive endocrinologist and learned that we were unlikely to conceive without medical help. We tried oral medication, then intrauterine insemination, before our doctor recommended in vitro fertilization, an expensive process with no guarantee of success. We investigated adoption and discovered it was similarly expensive and uncertain, and our cabin—a one-bedroom “hippie house” (that’s the actual label, listed on the plat)—was unlikely to impress a social worker. 

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I had never imagined my life without motherhood, and I was devastated. Seeing families with children left me paralyzed with longing. In the children’s section of a bookstore, I fell apart in front of a Frog and Toad display. These were books my mother read to me, books I’d imagined reading to my own children. I avoided holiday gatherings. I grew distant from friends and family. 

In spite of the apparent rebuke of the fertile natural world, I still found solace in walks to the river. I’d crane my neck and squint through binoculars, trying to peer inside the great nest at the gray-fuzzed eagle chicks and their serenely guarding parents. Though the nest signaled absence for me—another reminder of what I wanted but did not have—it was also becoming a powerful force in my imagination, a kind of talisman of endurance and recovery. Life along the river felt so different than the one I feared was gradually consuming me, a highly mediated dance of appointments, tests, and worries. Doctors and nurses, boxes of injectable medication, a sterile room in a suburban clinic: This was not the way I’d imagined starting my family. And yet it was in many ways the most direct path to a family. We decided that it was the best choice for us. 


The summer before I began treatment, a severe storm tore through the woods near my home. Afterwards, I jogged to the river and was dismayed to see that the eagles’ tree, a tall pine, was gone, toppled along with the nest, which by then must have weighed hundreds if not thousands of pounds. On walks by the river after that, I gazed at the spot where the pine once stood and thought about my own nest, full of books and music, and hope. 

We confirmed my pregnancy on a warm spring morning and celebrated with a walk to the river, where we spotted one of the eagles in flight—a good sign, we thought. I had a healthy pregnancy and gave birth to a strong, 7-pound baby girl. Beatrice was beautiful, with round cheeks and pursed pink lips, a fast grip, an appraising gaze. We were smitten.

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A few days after we brought her home, our heater broke, and while it was being repaired we took Beatrice to a hotel in town. We met friends at a nearby restaurant with an outdoor patio; I tucked Bea into a wrap that held her, warm and sleeping, against my chest. A friend took a photograph, and I was struck when she sent it to me later by how happy I looked, how in love. 

The past two years have been a joyful whirlwind. I often wake before Beatrice, and even though I depend on those uninterrupted minutes to write, I’m never sorry to hear her yelling, “Mama! I’m awake!” I bound up the stairs to lift her, smiling, from her crib. She is an avid mushroom hunter (we taught her early to look, not touch), says hello to every animal she meets (even spiders), and requests her own beloved Frog and Toad stories. She has started to make up little songs; my favorite, which I often hear her singing softly to herself, goes, “I know Mama...I know Dada.” 


My daughter is kind and gentle, funny and smart: I feel so lucky to know her and to be known by her. One of the projects I’ve worked hardest on since she was born is a book about the emotional, cultural, and financial barriers faced by infertile people. As part of my research, I interviewed women and men who built their families through adoption or foster care or assisted reproduction, and some who chose to live child-free. Though it was important to me to be up-front with my readers that I eventually had a baby through IVF, I don’t write much about Beatrice in those pages. Writing about her in some ways felt dangerous; it also felt impossible. I didn’t think I could capture, in a few paragraphs or chapters, the utterly absorbing, transformative love that belongs to mothers. And I didn’t want to, in case reading about that love caused pain for someone who yearned for motherhood but had not experienced it.

My daughter is kind and smart: I feel so lucky to know her and to be known by her

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The same winter that I became pregnant, the eagles built a new nest near the top of a huge, stout pine. It now faces away from the river, so it’s no longer possible to see the eaglets as they jostle for the best feeding position. I miss being able to watch them, but I also understand something I only guessed at before I had my daughter. In all my years of longing for a child and daydreaming about my life as a mother, I never came close to understanding what it would be like. In some ways, I expect this mystery is protective—how could I have coped if I’d known? How could I have waited? No matter how long I stare at the nest, the life inside will remain unknown to me. Still, I tilt my head back and crane my neck to look—who can resist? My daughter, who will turn 3 this year, has started looking too.