What my frozen embryos mean to me

By Jordan Namerow

I carry photos of two frozen embryos on my phone. Grainy and colorless, they look like moon craters—abstract bumpy blobs, colliding and stretching into the potential for life. These photos are buried among thousands of images of people and places I love: my child riding his turquoise bike, my partner sleeping peacefully in the sun, the lavender rhododendrons in my backyard.

Sometimes I catch myself in the middle of the day thinking about the cold, sterile space where those embryos are stored—skinny glass vials enveloped in a fog of dry ice. I imagine entering the cryogenics facility, wearing a white lab coat and elastic safety goggles to prevent nitrogen vapors from burning my eyes. Then I would stare into the cloudy, cauldron-like tank and wonder how those tiny cells hold so much power. My DNA mixed with someone else’s, preserved inside a test tube, poised to grow in a body.

“Embryo” is one of the prettier words in the language of my infertility. The other words and phrases are clumsy: hysteroscopy, LH surge, Lupron, Progesterone, follicle count, ovarian reserve. And then there’s the language of my pregnancy loss: abnormal growth, smaller-than-normal measurements, “no heartbeat,” “it just wasn’t meant to be.”

That embryo stopped growing. But what about the others? I often ask myself what those frozen embryos represent for me. Maybe it’s longing, self-discovery, or a connection to the future. Or maybe it’s the simple truth that those embryos are mine. They are literally my property, my assets, existing in a liminal space between homelessness and homeward bound.

When I was seven, I would lie on the grass in my childhood backyard and gaze up at the blue and white sky. Then I’d close my eyes and pretend to shrink into the earth to be as small as a ladybug. I’ve always struggled with how much space I should take up in the world. My embryos occupy tiny amounts of physical space, but they hold an ocean’s worth of ‘me-ness.’ That ‘me-ness’ could stay confined to an icy harbor. Or I could set it free.

I’ve thought about what it would mean to donate my embryos, to have part of me living or becoming or growing inside someone I might never meet. That uncharted mystery is a surprising source of comfort for me. But I’m not sure why. I have no bioethical qualms with destroying genetic material or donating it to science. Yet I worry that I’ll be tethered to the feeling of ‘what if?’ should my embryos get tossed away. Swinging between the desire to hold on and the relief of letting go, I ask myself, “What will make you feel more whole?”

I have a beautiful child who shares none of my DNA. At night, we sometimes read a book called The Tiny Seed. It’s about a seed that journeys through many climates and landscapes—icy mountain-tops, wind-swept plains, deserts, oceans—before it drops into the earth and grows into a giant sunflower.

Now the tiny plant from the tiny seed is all alone, the narrative reads. It grows on and on. It doesn’t stop. The sun shines on it and the rain waters it. It has many leaves. It grows taller and taller.

Two frozen embryos are part of my life’s topography. Tiny specks on my map of choices, loves and losses, hurts and heartbreak. It’s strange that those microscopic cells are inlets to the past and bridges to the future—waiting to thaw, waiting to grow, or remaining exactly as they are while I walk through the fog and breathe under the sun.

Jordan Namerow is a feminist writer and communications professional. A graduate of Wellesley College and Columbia University, she lives in Boston with her wife and son.

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