This First Person article is written by Sameer Gulamani, a lawyer who lives in Toronto. April 23 to April 29 is Canadian Fertility Awareness Week. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
Our two baby girls are four-and-a-half months apart.
“No, they’re not twins,” we respond to the strangers who inquire as they pass by their double stroller. “Yes, they are very close in age.”
My wife, Fariya, and I met in 2004 when we were in high school volunteering for a community event. I was 16, instantly in love and in over my head. Our parents decided that we should focus more on our education than on each other, so our time together was initially supervised, then discouraged and later totally forbidden. This was the beginning of a determined romance that continues now nearly 20 years later.
Our relationship endured through high school, completing our undergraduate degrees in different universities and brief periods of working abroad. It wasn’t just a long-distance relationship, but a long-distance marathon relationship. When I was getting ready to graduate from law school, I asked her parents for their blessings. We married in 2015 with the excitement of enjoying our newfound freedom to enjoy time together. We sometimes talked giddily about one day having children: How many do you want? Girls or boys? What would their names be? But we were still reveling in our new lifestyle. “There’s lots of time for that,” we said.
We were wrong. Around our first wedding anniversary, Fariya realized that her ovulation cycles were not just irregular, but were actually slowing down. We saw a fertility doctor who confirmed our suspicions. Without ovulation cycles, there was no hope for sperm and egg to meet to form an embryo and we would need assisted reproduction to have children. Our questions to each other changed: How long do we have to still have kids? What can we do to become parents? Will we ever become parents?
Fariya was put on a regimen of fertility drugs to clear her uterine lining, to stimulate egg development, to prevent the egg from dropping prematurely from her ovaries and another to trigger ovulation at exactly the right time. Many of these drugs were in the form of needle injection. Some of those had to be administered daily at home — a duty which I took up to do my small part. Then there was intrauterine insemination, a procedure that involves a co-ordinated insertion of sperm into the uterus to optimize the timing and probability of fertilization.
Each time we tried a cycle, we would stare at the pregnancy test together, hoping to see that second line that never came. The storm of doctor appointments, needles, side effects and procedures was unrelenting. Fariya’s hopeful enthusiasm turned into dogged determination. I aimed to be her unwavering pillar of support, fearing that if I fell short of that aim, I would merely be a witness to my wife’s suffering.
In 2017, there was at last a pregnancy. The ultrasound picked up a heartbeat that was music to our ears. We learned our baby was a girl. Fariya surprised me with pink balloons when I got home from work. There were challenges in the pregnancy that required some emergency hospital visits. Every time the emergency nurse searched for our baby’s heartbeat, we held our breath and we counted, and our baby girl was always right there. We chose her name, Nylah, which means “warrior” in Arabic. She loved moving around in her mother’s belly when we played music and when she heard my voice. We painted the nursery, we bought a crib and onesies. Life took on a new meaning of getting ready to welcome our baby girl to the world.
Two months before her due date, Fariya went into premature labour. Though we were reassured by the doctors that Nylah’s chance of survival was good, the emergency delivery was complicated and traumatic. Nylah survived for two hours before she died. I held her for the most precious minutes I have ever lived in my life. Fariya and I sat in the maternity ward struggling unsuccessfully to find the words to help each other cope with the utter shock and grief. Before we went home, a doctor told us we would have to wait for up to two years before trying to have children again. Our devastation overwhelmed us.
For the first time in my life, I felt a sudden loss of self-purpose. We struggled to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We realized that in our state of grief, we were not in the right frame of mind to try again, so we attended grief counseling. We committed to each other to do the simple things: wake up, eat, shower, exercise. If we were ever going to become parents, we had to process our grief, get healthy and find strength again to climb the mountain. That became our new purpose. We went for runs together in the middle of winter and we lifted weights. I took up cycling.
When we started fertility treatments again, the treatment plan was more aggressive. Fariya would undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF), in which the egg is extracted from the body, fertilized in a lab and the resulting embryo is implanted in the uterus. IVF is more invasive but also more likely to result in a successful pregnancy.
Several times, we got a positive pregnancy result and celebrated quietly and hopefully, only to have it end in miscarriage. A sense of despair threatened to betray my optimism, especially when seeing what the treatment cycle and each negative result was doing to my wife. I watched helplessly as she fought to realize our dream of becoming parents.
“I can see our children on the other side of the glass,” she would say. “I just need to reach them.”
I wanted to be supportive but I could no longer bear to watch my partner tear herself apart. There could be other paths, I offered: adoption, or maybe surrogacy? In January 2020, on a trip to Los Angeles, there was another miscarriage. I could almost always find the words to offer my wife some comfort. But this time, she quietly looked past me, having heard it all so many times before. I offered to take her to meet with some surrogacy agencies while we were there as we knew that L.A. had a robust gestational surrogacy network. She looked up at me through tears and said, “OK.”
We had the embryos we had made through countless IVF cycles stored cryogenically and we took a break from fertility treatments. We worked with a surrogacy agency in Los Angeles as they tried to find us a match.
As a result of the break from fertility treatments and the work-from-home policies widely implemented during the pandemic, Fariya was able to focus more on her health. We noticed that her cycles began to regulate. We began to wonder whether it was worth trying again with some modest fertility treatments to help induce ovulation.
“It’s a moon shot,” our doctor said, “but stranger things have happened.”
Our surrogacy agency found us a match and an amazing surrogate started to prepare for an embryo transfer. Around that time, we found out that our moon shot had actually worked. Fariya was pregnant! We muted our excitement, having been disappointed too many times before. We decided we would continue with the surrogacy transfer after discussing the new circumstances with the surrogate. Fariya and I had waited a long time for children, and we wanted at least two. After so many years, we could still see our babies behind the glass, but now there was finally a way to get to them.
Our surrogate got pregnant on the first attempt at embryo transfer. Though we still approached the news with contained excitement, we had two confirmed pregnancies four-and-a-half months apart.
Fariya gave birth to a beautiful baby girl in Toronto after going into preterm labour in Februrary 2022.
Four-and-a-half months later, our surrogate gave birth to our youngest adorable daughter in a hospital near Los Angeles. We are forever in awe and gratitude for the good spirit and kindness of our surrogate for helping to bring our daughter into this world.
In a way, our youngest daughter is “older” because she was conceived in vitro in 2019, three years before her older sister.
Our babies were each wildly wanted, and had to find a unique way into the world. When I look at them, I see their ferociously tenacious mother, who loved them before they were born, before they were even conceived, and whose love would not quit until they had arrived safely in her arms. I am overjoyed in their smiles, their laughs and their little baby steps which fill me with more pride than my own greatest accomplishments. And I am excited that while this is the end of this story, their stories are just beginning.
In 2019, four years earlier, Fariya and Sameer’s child died shortly after birth. Read Fariya’s column about what it means to be a mother after that devastating loss.
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