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Infertility Begets a Family

By Adam Pertman, Author of Adoption Nation

As Judy and I understood the rules, which were strictly adhered to by all other members of our immediate families, the process after marriage was supposed to work something like this: Through an act of love and passion, we would ignite a new spark of humanity imbued with our finest traits. We would cherish every day of the following nine months, the proud father-to-be monitoring the expanding belly of the expectant mother, who would be reveling in the fulfillment of her enduring dream to feel a baby grow inside of her. Then we would become doting parents who would give our nearly perfect child all the warmth and wisdom that we could muster and he or she could tolerate.

This is what happened instead: We discovered that we are among the ten percent of American couples who can't produce a viable fetus.1 Both genders suffer equally from infertility, but women account for a steadily escalating proportion of the problems as they get older because their eggs and uteruses age with them, while most men continue producing new sperm. Only about ten percent can't get pregnant when they're in their twenties, but the number skyrockets to nearly ninety percent by the time they reach their late thirties. That's the vital statistic that explains why career-minded, late-marrying baby boomers began herding into fertility clinics in the 1980s and the 1990s, and why many have left empty-handed - success rates are rising, but they still only hover around twenty-five percent - kept going right into the offices of adoption agencies and lawyers.

No one who hasn't confronted infertility can fully grasp the raw brutality of being deprived of something so fundamental as the ability to reproduce. Any biologist will tell you we were built to do it. Every culture glorifies it. Whatever power put us here secured its commanding role in life by making it a compelling instinct and an ecstatic experience. So sometimes, though I agree with the principle, it's hard for me to hear another earnest social worker or aggrieved birth parent or disaffected adoptee chant the reformist mantra that "adoption should be all about finding parents for children, not children for parents."

It is as though we are being asked to pay the price for violating a social norm, as though our feelings of shame, embarrassment, or inadequacy aren't penalty enough. We're supposed to swallow our loss, internalize our pain and move on. It all sounds hauntingly, disconcertingly familiar. Some people undoubtedly aren't cut out to be parents and shouldn't reflexively turn to adoption just because they assume adults are meant to have babies, but isn't that the same reason some of our fertile friends try so hard to get pregnant? Unquestionably, more of us should also adopt challenging children - a phase of the revolution that has, in fact, begun - but shouldn't that be an equally responsible option for couples with perfect plumbing who are thinking about enlarging their families?

Disparaging infertile people for following their elemental impulses, while implicitly suggesting denial as a coping mechanism, is neither a compassionate nor effective way to accomplish anything. Until we arrive at the point where everybody's wishes are granted, the most productive course we can take is to try to understand and address the core realities of all of adoption's major players. This imperfect arrangement of ours will improve more quickly, and will normalize its place in society more readily, if people in and out of the triad temper their stereotypes and expectation with empathy. The trip today is characterized by seemingly ceaseless choices rather than simple instructions, often starting with whether to undergo fertility treatments, which ones and for how long. Then come more bewildering questions: domestic or intercountry adoption, through a lawyer or agency or facilitator or on your own, an infant or older child, a boy of your own race or girl from another culture, and where's the money going to come from? Before and after resolving those issues, parents-to-be have to reveal personal details in multitudinous forms; interview and be interviewed by birth parents; take classes to adopt from foster care or make provisions to travel abroad; and , finally, agonize over whether they've go the strength or the money to try again after the pregnant woman who selected them realizes, after her baby is born, that she can't part with him.

And these are just the preliminaries. Once your child is firmly ensconced in your home, living in this selfless, inclusive new world of adoption means letters and /or phone calls and /or visits with birth parents, learning about and keeping your daughter in touch with her racial or cultural roots, becoming vigilant about the sensitivity of schools and relatives and friends toward adoption,and wondering every time a behavioral issues comes up for your son whether it's the result of adoption or something innate or something you did, of too much information too soon or too little openness too late.

Yet I've never met adoptive parent who would magically make their most aggravating moments disappear, or would travel back in time to start over with healthy eggs and robust sperm, if it meant not getting the children they have. "In the end, it gives you so much that you forget what you went through," says Georgia Salaverri, a marketing executive in Massachusetts who with her husband adopted an infant several years ago. "I do believe somebody up there has a plan, and this was all part of it. One thing I want to tell Daniel is that we couldn't have a baby because God wanted us to have Daniel."

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1. American Society for Reproductive Medicine, "Fact Sheet: Infertility" (2000). On-line:

©2001 Copyright Adam Pertman.
Originally published in Adoption Nation . Reprinted by permission of Adam Pertman. All rights reserved.

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