How Technology Gave Me a Family


by K.K. Goldberg

Originally published on

If we could fall in love online, just maybe, we could make a baby in a dish.

That’s what I told myself after three years of infertility, as another season of fake smiling through Christmas festivities left my face sore and my heart heavy. Nothing could soothe the ache of so much failed babymaking, except perhaps the strength I felt in my marriage. I would never have found Ken anywhere but cyberspace—he’s a physicist, I’m a writer—so maybe our DNA also needed technology to meet. We’d be a modern family in every way. With my fortieth birthday looming, we both agreed: It was time for a reproductive hack.

I’d always preferred “natural” interventions, like acupuncture. Wheatgrass. Prayer. Denial. I had wanted to conceive in our bed, and give birth there, too. I distrusted doctors, with their needles, wands and scalpels. I had a reality-based aversion to the high expense and low odds of fertility treatment, in particular IVF. I also harbored irrational biases. “I’m not a bread machine,” I’d say to Ken. “I don’t want a bunch of doctors dumping ingredients into me to force up a loaf.”

“I get it,” Ken would say, though he longed for children, too.

Then one day it struck me: My objections to IVF echoed my once-upon-a-time resistance to online dating. It had seemed so unnatural. Wasn’t I supposed to meet a mate at a party, the bar, the office? Not that I went any of those places. Still, the notion held sway.

After one of my “natural” relationships ended with the guy cheating, which according to Darwin is also natural—I decided to open my mind. My uncle, in his sixties, found love on JDate. Why shouldn’t I?

The online dating profile felt liberating. It allows long-form explanation of what you actually want—those things that otherwise might only come out in the context of a breakup. As I clicked the box acknowledging upfront my desire for “marriage and children,” it felt like a truer expression of myself than I would ever dare in person.

Within days my courtship with Ken began, server-to-server. A week after our initial emails, the relationship went analogue. Two years after that, we merged our networks forever. At our wedding, we should have toasted those unknown armies of math-folk who brought us together. Cheers to DARPA, for inventing the Internet. Database programmers, bless you for the digital yenta that is JDate.

Because courage from one life success can be mortgaged into strength for the next risk, I relented to IVF. The doctor felt this was our best option, and I agreed. In a weird way, this felt like fate, too—I’ve noticed the things I rail against almost have more power to emerge, as if mere mentioning, and certainly ranting, tempts fate. If fate exists, it has a sense of irony. For example, I’ve always scoffed at huge, double strollers—but I’ll get to that in a minute.

After paying the fertility clinic with a credit card, our drugs and needles shipped overnight. We picked them up at a UPS store—thank you, commercial pilots, and bless you, drivers of boxy brown trucks—you were our storks. We unpacked our hormones into the refrigerator—thank you, inventors of ice. Then began nightly shots, which Ken prepared over a complex spreadsheet—thanks, Excel, for keeping track—and at last there’d be tears, jokes, injections. I would never claim IVF was romantic, nor was it ideal, but the intimacy of endurance, together, was sometimes profound.

Weeks later, at the fertility clinic, minutes away from the final “transfer,” we still did not know how many embryos we’d have, and whether to put in two. We were open to twins, but also afraid.

“I guess I’m going to make a major life decision with my pants off,” I said to Ken. “On ten milligrams of Valium.”

“I’m sure that’s how a lot of people get pregnant,” he said back.

At last our doctor whirled in with pictures of our five-day-old blastocysts, two white dots, one big, one small. Thank you, clinic incubator, for the awesome daycare. “I recommend putting both in,” she said

“What should we do?” I said to Ken.

“Let’s do it.”

The conversation took ten seconds. With IVF there was still the random element, a moment where desire trumped reasoning and our middle-aged selves embraced a teenage attitude to chance—perhaps, in line with nature’s plan after all.

Then the small, sterile room filled with people—Ken, the nurse, our doctor and two techs, masked women who appeared from a back room. The mood was upbeat—almost festive. We were trying to make a baby, no matter how clinical, no matter the crowd. Forget it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to make a child.

Except we didn’t make a child, we made two. Twins. Though my husband had only recently contributed his DNA to a plastic cup in a clinic bathroom while I’d submitted to surgery on my ovaries, it still felt like a shock. During the grueling pregnancy that followed, I often thought of our twins as the product of IVF, not nature. The only respite I had from the angst and agony of my high-risk gestation was glimpsing the babies on the frequent ultrasounds—thank you for that, inventors of sonography. Seeing my sons on a screen, I’d feel stunned with excitement, with love.

Pregnancy complications required a C-section at thirty-six weeks. It was close to Christmas, a holiday I’d loathed through infertility but now barely noticed, though the hospital had bright decorations, paper cut as pine trees. By then I’d forgotten about birthing in bed while Ken grilled soy burgers for the midwife. I would have an unnatural end to an unnatural pregnancy.

I grasp all reasons why C-sections are both common and condemned, but my twins were breech and transverse. Also, I’d had a prior surgery. Above all, my particular gestational complication was associated with stillbirth. Death, too, is a natural process, one that as parents we wanted to cheat. In such circumstances, the science of a surgery, the option of a C-section, is nothing short of sacred.

I greeted my doctors in the hospital lobby, where they clutched paper cups from Starbucks. Thanks, Starbucks, for keeping my surgeons alert! Soon I was prepped, tabled, and drugged, and as the C-section commenced, the room turned to fragments: bloody latex gloves, fluorescent light tubes, remote garbled talk.

An infant cried.

“We’re going for the second one!” my doctor shouted.

“You are doing so awesome,” Ken said to me, hoarse.

A second infant cried.

You’re born alone and you die alone, the saying goes, but my twins were born together, in a crowded room, just as they’d been conceived. A team of waiting protectors surrounded them—two surgeons, two pediatricians, three nurses, an anesthesiologist, Ken, and of course me—exhausted, thrilled, scared, and relieved.

I held my sons, and the world went light. With morphine, the world went dark. Thanks, big pharma, for that needed break.

It still startles me that people make babies with sex. Privately. Intimately. Easily. I feel like I spent a year at Reproductive Burning Man: with masses of people, piles of drugs, and anticipation of a final, cathartic event. Though people say technologies like IVF unnaturally control things, the opposite is true. It opens you to whole new levels of randomness, hazard, surprise and wonder. I speak lightheartedly of things that often cause anguish because I was lucky, lucky in the outcomes, but also, as I see it, lucky to live in a time when technology tempers fate.

From JDate to IVF to C-section, science let us alter the command line of nature. Without it, I might be solitary still. This family we built, with tons of support, is the grace of technology. I no longer think of my sons as a product of IVF. I think of them as a gift from God.