For Millions of Couples, the Curse of Infertility Breeds Pain, Pressure and Desperation
"Be fruitful, and multiply." For nearly a decade that Biblical injunction has haunted Tony and Karril Kornheiser, who, along with 2.8 million other American couples, find themselves biologically unable to produce a child. Unfortunately, the traditional solution—adoption—has become virtually impossible. In 1979 only 22,000 infants were available through agencies.
Faced with the prospect of never having a family, Tony and Karril were tempted by a black market in which, for $15,000 in cold, untraceable cash, they could buy a baby. Though they finally chose not to go through with it, they wandered for nearly two weeks through a nightmare of late-night phone calls, suspicious arrangements and unrelenting doubt. Tony, 35, a Washington Post columnist, has detailed those 12 harrowing days in his book, The Baby Chase (Atheneum, $12.95). Recently, in the kitchen of his Washington home, Tony talked with Assistant Editor Deirdre Donahue about the pain of infertility and the strain it placed on his marriage.
You know what I really hate? You're at a party and some kid acts up. Then the mother comes over to me and Karril and jokes, "Boy, are you guys lucky you didn't have any kids. You want kids, take mine." God, if Karril and I could have taken that kid home.
For me, having a child was bigger than the American Dream. I might not have that car or house in the suburbs, but I'd be a father. I had grown up believing that, in the natural course of life, my wife and I would marry for love. Out of our love, we would make a child. It never occurred to either of us that this opportunity would be denied us. That's the hardest thing to accept about infertility. For reasons completely, totally out of our control, we would never make a baby.
There was never a time in our lives when we didn't want to have children. This separates us from a lot of people of our generation who have serious doubts about becoming parents but who eventually decide when the woman is in her 30s, "Hey, let's have kids." We wanted them right from the start. In fact, when Karril thought of a career, she thought in terms of motherhood. Infertility affected her more than me, because I saw fatherhood as a separate issue. Infertility denied her not just a family but a career as well.
Infertility might not bother you when you're in your mid-20s, maybe not in your late 20s, but when you turn 30, boom. Everyone around you, all your friends who are married, are starting their families. We couldn't bear it. I left the New York Times and we moved to Washington partly because so many of our friends were becoming pregnant. We couldn't watch them swell, figuratively and literally, with their great joy; it just hurt too much.
Of course, in Washington, with a new group of friends, it was the same. Even when Karril's little sister had a boy, I thought, "Why couldn't this have happened to us first?" It hurt us to go to parties where our friends were so happy about having children that they could talk of nothing else but what little Bobby did today. It ached even more when they would talk about the upcoming birth of a second or third child.
Our solution was withdrawal: We just didn't go to the parties, so our social circle narrowed. We did it voluntarily, but we felt ostracized. And as our circle became smaller, we began to look at one another with blame and anger. We wanted to make a baby more than anything in the world. We believed a baby would prove that no monstrous divine judgment had been passed upon us. That's the worst part of infertility: We felt set apart, cursed.
The strain on our marriage was deep. We even talked about a divorce so that one of us could go out and have children with someone else. In the end, we always dismissed that idea. We had married for love, a love that remained with or without children.
Infertility drives you together. We shared the pain as we would walk through a zoo and see all the families. We wanted so much to wheel our child around, past the pandas, the lions and the tigers. We carried this sorrow with us all the time, but only occasionally would we take it out and grieve over it together.
Infertility also drove us apart. I remember lying in bed, thinking, "I can't talk to Karril anymore. This is driving me crazy. I want a baby so badly." The strain on our marriage was worst when, each month, we'd try—and fail—to conceive a child.
Eventually, when Karril and I recognized that we could not bear our own child, it didn't diminish our desire for a family. There was no reason to believe that we wouldn't be terrific parents. Then we found out that there are so very few babies available for adoption. We could handle not being biological parents, but to realize how long the odds were against our adopting through an agency, that staggered us.
Which is why we considered buying a baby on the black market. The risk is high that the adoption could be voided if the natural mother later claims coercion—too high, it seemed then—and it can never be right to buy another human being. Yet, if we were offered the chance to buy a child tomorrow—and if that's what we had to do to become a family—I can't swear we wouldn't consider it again. More than 3,500 black-market adoptions occur each year in America, and I would never condemn those adoptive parents.
Some say Karril and I are bad people because we didn't adopt a "special needs" child: older, handicapped, of a different race. After much soul-searching, we decided we wanted to adopt the child we couldn't have.
Luckily, a friend alerted us to the impending availability of a child, and last summer we were able to adopt Elizabeth openly and honestly. And I can tell you that parenting—everything from watching her crawl to being awakened by her cries at 3 in the morning—has given us a joy and contentment we never thought possible. My advice to other infertile couples who are trying to adopt is: Never take no for an answer, always be pleasantly but persistently aggressive in your own baby chase.
One thing we should have done earlier is join a support group. We eventually got together with four other childless couples to share our feelings, which, in the end, were simple. We were two, and we wanted to be three. We were a couple and we wanted to be a family. We wanted a child for the best reason on earth: to love.
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