The chairs had been removed from the fertility clinic’s waiting room due to the pandemic, so I stood alone, studying the wall of success stories, a collage of babies, all of them white. Rosy cheeks blurred into wrinkled noses blurred into light wisps of hair. Suddenly, it felt like someone punched me in the stomach and I doubled over, gasping for air. I didn’t belong here.
I never planned on freezing my eggs. I’d always assumed I would tumble into the mom phase of life at some point. The other girls made it look inevitable, going from boyfriend to Mehndi-Sangeet-Ceremony to motherhood, so I put a lot of energy into avoiding that trajectory, dancing away from what was expected of me, a second-generation South Asian woman. I was suspicious of joining their club too quickly; I wanted to make films, travel, try everything; there would be time to have a family later, when I was done living. But then I suffered a serious concussion. And, when I re-entered the dating world, the pandemic had shut it down. By this time, I'd realized I wanted to have a baby. Except that I was 36 and single, and I’d never even heard a South Asian woman speak about freezing her eggs.
Getting married and having kids is the true marker of success for South Asian women, but getting help with the latter was an act so foreign that I felt like a failure even considering it. Not to mention, visiting the clinic felt like screaming surrender — proof that fighting cultural norms had backfired. I’d spent a lifetime kicking and screaming to do things my way, on my timeline, and now I might’ve “missed the boat,” as my dad would say.
Getting married and having kids is the true marker of success for South Asian women, but getting help with the latter was an act so foreign that I felt like a failure even considering it.
Because of my age, my doctor suggested skipping straight to a sperm donor, which brought up its own complicated feelings. What kind of Desi girl uses a sperm donor? I thought, ashamed. The kind that can’t find a husband, was the reply. That some Sima Auntie was now narrating my life came as a shock. My self-worth had never been tied to marriage. I'd always brushed off this sentiment at parties and the temple, to the prying aunties I run into at the supermarket in the fancy cheese aisle.
Try explaining to someone with a traditional mindset that achievements don’t come in the form of bridal sindoor; that you are cautious about choosing a partner because spousal despotism is a birthright in our patriarchal culture; that you are weary of that joke about a mother-in-law and her rolling pin. (Which I know from experience, is a cartoonish stand-in for culturally acceptable abuse and discipline.) You will respectfully mumble. Your mom will shine with embarrassment. You will buy lots of fancy cheese. But maybe Sima Auntie was right. Being in this predicament felt like punishment for disobeying my ancestors. I pictured an old man wagging his finger and saying, “Kudi, tere kol ikk naukari si,” which is, “Girl, you had one job,” in Punjabi.
I slunk into my next appointment and swiped my line of credit, keeping my back to the Baby Wall of Fame. That night I started hormone therapy. As the needles pierced the skin around my stomach, insecurities bled out. I didn’t fit in. I never had. I was an Indo-Canadian fusion recipe, with too much of this and not enough of that. That was why no boyfriend had ever wanted to marry me. I was Amy Schumer and they wanted Aishwarya. Or was I too Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and they wanted more Coachella? Maybe if I had followed The Rule Book for Indian Girls, or thrown it out altogether, I might be quarantined with my own family instead of watching COVID-19 steal the prospect of having one away. Woozy, I lay down. Obviously, feeling sick was a side effect of the drugs and not because I hopscotched between cultures and had grossly misstepped. Obviously, Sima Auntie replied.
Quickly, I ballooned to look four months pregnant, due to the hormones. I waddled into my check-ups in oversized clothes, embarrassed to look like I was expecting. As I watched the ultrasound on the big screen, the doctor pointed out my ovaries and the follicles growing around them. There weren’t as many as he would’ve liked. They were also not maturing. If they didn’t reach a certain size, he wouldn’t be able to do the surgery. “Let’s hope,” he said, pushing the date back. I nodded, glad the lights were dim.
At home, I wept and texted a friend. “When you do things with love it always works out,” she said. I looked at my bruised abdomen and realized I hadn’t been. I resented the experience, that it made me regret not listening to my parents. I knew that my reaction was connected to a culture — rooted to a country — that was bigger and older than I was, but I couldn’t let the image of what my life as a South Asian woman should have looked like destroy me after all these years.
I glanced around my pink apartment, a space I created after leaving a rolling-pin relationship. Knick-knacks from solo trips littered the shelves while DVDs of movies I’d worked on, like the last Shrek and Wonder Woman, collected dust under the TV. The beginning of my novel lay open on the laptop. I’d always been proud of the life I’d built; now that I was ready to fold a family into it, didn’t mean I’d made a mistake. I never had to give one up to get the other, I could see that now.
I spent the next two days cheering my follicles on, then walked into my appointment wearing a miniskirt and tank, bump on display. If I've learned anything from living through a pandemic, it's that sometimes you have to stay a little longer than you want to. While there, you need to forgive yourself, shift your perspective, and adapt. Your survival literally depends on it. So culture be damned, I bid Sima Auntie adieu, and my procedure went on as planned.
The day after my surgery, the nurse called, “We got six eggs.” I screamed into the phone, I was so excited. It was more than we’d expected. It was perfect.
“Thank you,” I said. More to myself than to her.