The Diagnosis I Never Expected Was Revealed To Me On TV

Photographed by Eva K. Salvi
Last year, my wife and I were on a reality show, and while some situations were planned or manipulated, what viewers saw of our relationship was real. And like real life, certain things happened that we never saw coming.

The show, season 2 of Newlyweds: The First Year on Bravo TV, followed us from our September 2013 wedding through fall of 2014 in our New York City home. We scheduled monthly shoots with the producers who shared suggestions from the network — anonymous executives we would never meet — many of which we rejected, like playing sexy board games or shopping for lingerie. For one shoot, the producers asked if we were open to visiting a fertility clinic. The network wanted us to have our eggs tested. Wouldn’t viewers be interested in seeing how lesbians make babies?

"Ugh," I said when I read the email.

"It could be interesting," said Sam, my wife.

We were both 29 at the time, and years away from babies, we thought. We didn’t know yet the kind of planning, both financial and emotional, that lay ahead. Sam owned her own production company, and I was a freelance writer. We were just finding our professional footing and assumed we would be more financially stable a few years down the line. We always assumed we’d have kids "someday," and we both wanted to carry one. As to who would try first, we had no idea.

The production team found a clinic in Brooklyn, NY that permitted them to film. The network paid the fees not covered by our health insurance, and I wore a full face of makeup and a microphone as I prepared for a vaginal exam. We met Dr. R, a soft-spoken blonde with the smile of a kindergarten teacher. She remained professional in the face of lights and cameras, and didn’t mind that we had to twice reshoot the first scene, where we entered her office and shook her hand. She was pregnant and patient. We loved her.

The exam room was tiny; bringing in bulky TV cameras made the space even tighter. Dr. R lubed up the wand, and I watched the cameraman for a reaction. He was stoic, focused and hidden behind the lens. "This is fun, huh?" I asked him. It wasn’t always easy to get a laugh from the crew. They were all hardworking and incredibly nice to us, but they were also doing their jobs, which meant following us around with cameras as we performed hopelessly boring tasks, like packing for our honeymoon, opening credit card bills, and getting our dogs groomed. I swear there is footage of this stuff.

I turned to my wife. "I cannot believe I’m lying here without pants on letting them film me." She laughed and held my hand. She took this fertility thing as serious business, while I was worried about how fat I’d look on camera with my head back and my feet in stirrups. Sam asked if I was nervous. "Why would I be nervous?"

When Dr. R completed the exam, I waited for the cameraman to leave, peeled off my mic, and waddled to the bathroom. I didn’t want the audio guy to hear me complaining about the goop dripping down my thighs. I quickly forgot about the fertility tests. They were just for TV, I said. The summer passed and the producers scheduled a return so we could get our results.

I quickly forgot about the fertility tests. They were just for TV, I said.

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Dr. R, ironically, was out on maternity leave, so we met with the fertility clinic’s founder. The team lit up the office and removed the artwork from his walls. He was shorter than me, but taller than Sam, and he gestured us into the spacious room. He could be a friend of my father’s, I thought, as I shook his hand. Before this moment, I’d never cared if my doctors were male or female. Now, I peered at his poker face. He had all the answers about my body, about my wife’s body, but I thought it unlikely he could empathize. Our producer sat silently out of frame. There were two cameras on us.

The doctor’s face was friendly, but I found myself glaring. I thought, You talk too much, as I slipped my fingers through my wife’s. "There’s actually a bunch of issues to speak about," he began.

My mind wandered as I stared at the yellow paper with the computerized image of women’s reproductive parts. There were diagrams and statistics on average egg production. The doctor told us he was concerned about Sam’s history of fibroid tumors.

"I know what Laura is thinking," he said. "Why don’t I just get pregnant? But we need to talk about the most important test that was done, the AMH test." Sam interrupted, "That’s the eggs, right?" In the scene, you can see me flash a mischievous smile, as if to say, All right, lay it on me. He asked, "You’re the same age?" We nodded.

I was shocked and not shocked when the doctor reached over his desk to the yellow paper, which he was looking at upside down. He pointed his steel pen and dragged it over to the lowest number. He clicked the pen, the tip shot out, and he circled the number as I stared, making no sense of what I saw. "97% of women your age have more eggs in their ovaries than you." He continued on, but I’d stopped listening.

This is wrong. This is bullshit. My wife squeezed my hand and I almost pulled it away. Don’t you pity me. But really, I was being unfair. She was pitying us both.

I offered Sam a defeated smile. "You’re feeling so sorry for me right now," I said, pushing her away with one hand. "My heart is breaking," she told me, knowing I would brush it off.

Even when someone tells you that you might not be able to get pregnant, there’s always that voice that asks, 'But what if I can?'

I asked the doctor to give me a hypothetical idea of what to do if I wanted to get pregnant the following year. "Don’t wait till next year," he warned. "The lower your egg reserve, the higher your rate of miscarriage." I didn’t like the idea of a forced timeline. I was not emotionally ready to attempt a pregnancy, because even when someone tells you that you might not be able to get pregnant, there’s always that voice that asks, "But what if I can?"

We had been so in control up until that point. We never got caught on camera in a private fight or during an unguarded moment. But there we sat. Notoriously incapable of promptly processing emotions, I endured the bright lights as he went on to describe Sam’s bountiful egg supply. One might wonder why my infertility diagnosis mattered if I had a wife full of eggs, but it’s not as simple as that. I had always dreamed of carrying a child, and I wasn’t going to give that up so quickly. The emotions that eventually came to me were complicated, but I never once felt resentful toward my wife. If anything, her numerous eggs could be beneficial. As a same-sex couple, it’s easy to think about what’s missing — whether it’s sperm or a uterus — but Sam had enough eggs for the both of us if it came to that.

The producer sat with us as the crew was packing up. "I know this is a lot for you right now, but if you can wait to discuss your reactions we’ll be ready to film outside in a few minutes." As the crew set up the shot, Sam asked me if I was okay. "I’m fine," I told her coolly. As a writer, I’m often public about my experiences and I’m prone to sharing personal details — but only after I’ve processed my emotions and come to some conclusions. I didn’t want the cameras around for the unedited version.

The scene was tense, as we walked painstakingly slowly through throngs of staring Hasidic children in Brooklyn. I remained aloof, but Sam was clearly rattled. I didn’t want to think about this, so talking about it on camera had me squirming. "That was intense," we both agreed. Then I stopped talking. Sam reminded me that it was important for me to try to have a baby. "I would like to try," I said, "but I don’t wanna try next week." She turned to me in frustration, "You’re not gonna take his timetable even a little bit seriously, are you?" I raised my voice as the scene concluded, "Okay, go find some sperm if you’re in such a fucking rush."

We did find some sperm, but not for many months. After the filming, we agreed that, in spite of the news, we weren’t quite ready for motherhood. We agreed to start seriously exploring fertility options the following year. In the meantime, we decided against asking a friend or family member, and explored various cryobank websites to narrow down our sperm search. Buying sperm is a funny thing. Aside from the obvious absurdity of designing your baby via hair color and eye color selections, we were essentially guessing as to how much sperm we would need. To be safe, we purchased all six of our chosen donor’s vials, which were about $800 each. We started making storage payments and hoped that when the time came, six vials of sperm would be enough to impregnate both of us.

I never came to terms with the test results, because it’s impossible to mourn something I’m not sure I won’t have.

We were reluctant to discuss the news with loved ones, but in the months leading up to the show’s airdate, we warned family about the episode. My mom cried, as moms do, but I reminded everyone that nothing had been decided. I never came to terms with the test results, because it’s impossible to mourn something I’m not sure I won’t have. I told Sam, "If the time comes to be sad, then that’s when we’ll cry."

When Dr. R came back to work, she still had a warm smile and patience for our abundant questions. We arrived for my appointments — this time, without makeup or a camera crew. She ran more tests to find out if my fallopian tubes were open and to check my thyroid levels, then told me her recommended course of action: IUI (Intrauterine Insemination) with fertility drugs. I would go to the clinic and the donor sperm would be injected directly into my uterus via a catheter. We tried this three times and have recently moved onto IVF (In Vitro Fertilization).

I don’t regret waiting. I don’t think the outcome would have been different had I tried these methods a year ago or even two. Sam and I don’t dwell on this. I was likely my most fertile self in my early teens, and no one would have pressured me to get pregnant then. I also don’t regret filming these intimate moments. I think that many women, myself and Sam included, don’t know enough about our own bodies or the fertility process, and I’m comfortable sharing the details that might raise awareness and help others.

The show has come and gone. During its run, I relived that scene in the doctor’s office on previews, recaps, and commercials, and the more often I heard that line, "97% of women your age have more eggs in their ovaries than you," the more desensitized I became. When I watch the segment now, all I notice is how great my hair looked that day. I’ve disconnected my real life from that which was captured on reality TV. Occasionally, Sam and I are recognized by viewers who ask if we have a baby.

"Not yet," we say and smile.

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