A Short History of Infertility and Ducks
When you are a granola Mennonite couple just getting started on a little homestead, free stuff is gold. So when my father-in-law called us a few days before the 2008 Virginia Mennonite Relief sale and asked, “You want some ducks?” we said, “Of course,” arranged to pick them up at the sale, then hurried to research Muscovy ducks.
A few words first for the uninitiated about our relief sale: thousands of Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley—from bonnet-wearing to Bible-thumping to Global Village to granola to college students—gather for a weekend of eating homemade donuts, potato chips, and Brunswick stew, watching church people grind cornmeal and churn ice cream, purchasing apples and grapes, and participating in conspicuous generosity at an enormous quilt auction, all to raise money for Mennonite Central Committee, a global relief organization.
After stuffing ourselves with pancakes for the good of the world, we went out to my father-in-law’s truck to see the birds, who sat placidly in a wire cage, dipping their beaks into a coffee can of water. Stella was a blue-eyed white duck with a demure gray cape and a bandit mask of red skin. Black-and-white Stanley was larger and had a fright mask that covered his entire head in red knobs and warts. These caruncles are supposed to be very handsome—to ducks. A child visiting us sometime later had another opinion: “It looks like his brain is on his head.”
Muscovy ducks are perching birds with talons at the ends of their webbed feet. They fly, but won’t fly away. They enjoy water, but just need a pan, not a pond. They don’t quack—they just whisper and huff, and they are close enough to their wild roots to brood and hatch their own ducklings. Muscovies seemed right for us—low-maintenance, no-nonsense, quiet-in-the-land birds. A good match for a down-to-earth woman like me.
I never worried about my weight or my looks, beyond learning that long and straight was the easiest style for my hair. I liked natural fibers, knew how to wear makeup but rarely did, didn’t have cramps, hardly ever had headaches, slept through the night, would eat anything (but didn’t keep that processed crap around the house), and often found myself to be the more rational, less emotional half in my marriage with Jason. I balanced the checkbook and paid the bills, and my favorite color was brown.
I wore my good health like a virtue, without any conscious sense of entitlement. When we decided, in early 2009—the same time the ducks began nesting—that it was time to grace the world with our offspring, I was comfortably certain that the first would arrive soon, though I had no illusions about instant pregnancy. I stumbled into—and then quickly out of—the obsessive mommy-wannabe Internet forums:
OMG! DH and I just started TTC, did the BD as soon as I had an OPK+, now I’m in the 2WW and I’m sooooo nervous!! My sister had to have IVF with ICSI, and it was soooo expensive, but she has three beautiful babies so it was soooo worth it!! Do you think I should go on Clomid? This is probably TMI, but for the past couple days I’ve had this discharge that’s kind of like rubber cement, but not really, plus a bad headache right now. Do you think I could be PG?!? Plz answer ASAP!!
It was the era of the Octomom. I rolled my eyes and powered down the computer. Some of the advice out there conflicted anyway: Don’t consult a doctor unless you’ve tried for six months without success. Some perfectly normal couples take two years to get pregnant. Consult a fertility specialist before you ever try. I decided to do what I do best in regards to the medical establishment: nothing. I wasn’t even thirty yet. I’d find my health in our weedy garden—with a few B vitamins and folic acid thrown in for good measure.
We got down to the fun part.
Stanley and Stella started going at it as soon as the days began to lengthen. Chicken mating, a modest cloacal kiss, left me wholly unprepared for what I saw when Stanley and Stella did the deed.
Drakes are among the few birds endowed with a real penis. In a Muscovy, the organ is corkscrew shaped and can be as long as sixteen inches when unfurled from its counterclockwise spiral. They have been in an evolutionary arms race with the female ducks, who have developed clockwise reproductive tracts to stymie unwelcome suitors. As Stanley and Stella demonstrated, a drake is large enough to flatten a duck to the grass. From the amount of necking my ducks engaged in before mating, Stella seemed pleased to be made into a rug. Afterward, as she went off to bathe and Stanley splashed water on his back in post-coital celebration, his dangling phallus still retracting slowly, the proof of their fertility remained hidden in her unhatched eggs.
After she began to brood on the eggs, I spent too much time online trying to determine whether they would hatch and finally, following the guidelines of a development paper from Papua New Guinea, measured the eggs during one of Stella’s bathing breaks, wrapping them in a bit of white eyelet ribbon suitable for baby showers. They were large enough to be viable, a relief, but then Stella sometimes had trouble keeping the eggs warm. I’d come home from work to find she’d left the pen but couldn’t figure out how to fly back in. As she marched around the enclosure whistling her concern, the eggs cooled.
After a few months of hoping for our own babies, I did take a peek at the classic Taking Charge of Your Fertility. A granola Mennonite like me can get on board with do-it-yourself fertility tracking with a combination of charts, thermometers, and divination over secretions and anatomical details. She invests in only enough ovulation prediction kits to confirm her theories. For me, everything was working well, like clockwork.
A granola Mennonite would consider a grandmother’s prayers to be a welcome ingredient for conception, but would never tell her grandmothers, mother, or mother-in-law that she was hoping to conceive. (That wouldn’t matter; they would have been praying for grandbabies since the wedding.) And she might, in a fit of mysticism, go out back to the creek, Briery Branch, to invite the spirit of her child to come from the land and the flowing water of the place, and when she found herself further downstream—say the Dry River in Bridgewater—she might fancy that her child’s spirit had drifted past last month, but she would catch it here. If not here, today, then next month as the Shenandoah ran through Harpers Ferry, or later in the summer at the Chesapeake Bay, or perhaps in the fall at the Atlantic Ocean.
I eventually gave up on the spirit baby—until much later when I learned to repeat the mantra Spirit baby in the back of the car… spirit baby in the back of the car while I drove, in order to combat one of the side effects of the fertility drugs, aggressive driving. But that would be much later. A granola Mennonite isn’t a fan of drugs of any sort, and fertility drugs sound like something for high maintenance people. A granola Mennonite takes what comes. A granola Mennonite finds satisfaction in her childfree life.
After all, there were ducklings in the world. After two slow days of hatching, six ducklings emerged, and Stella abandoned the nest. It was far from a perfect hatch, with quite a few unbroken eggs left. Stanley, banished from the pen, waited outside the chicken wire while Stella showed him the new brood. The scene looked like a prison visit. The babies were wobbly on their little webbed feet and collapsed quickly, taking naps under her wings.
One egg didn’t have time to hatch. A little bill jabbed frantically at the shell, peeping, still trying to enlarge its window. I tucked the egg in my jacket pocket to take inside to an old incubator. The hopeful egg went quiet. Ducklings help each other hatch, peeping encouragement and sometimes pecking at the shell. I thought this one might be lonely, so I queued up the Dresden Philharmonic and duckling number seven began to sing along.
After a whole day of music, she managed to hatch: Chopin piano études, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, a Baroque mixed disc, twice. When the music stopped, the chick grew quiet—when I put on a new disc, she cheeped and struggled against the shell. Late in the day, she pushed off the top of the egg and flailed free. But she died by morning, a trifling thing, no more than a scrap of dandelion fluff. It was nothing to hollow a hole in the turf at the outside corner of the poultry yard, to tuck her in and fold the grass back over. Perhaps I should have followed Stella’s lead. Perhaps I should have left the duckling in its shell, in the down-lined nest and the quiet darkness.
I told the story of the duckling who lived a short life of determination and music a few months later at a bonfire where friends remembered a daughter who died in her first year. Any baby takes care and love, but the ones who have the fiercest struggles—who need all we can give, who leave us in the end—change our hearts in violent ways. I was not ready for this, I thought. No one could be ready for this.
Within a couple summers, Stella had hatched dozens of ducklings, and her children and grandchildren were brooding new generations of ducks. Up to our ears in Muscovies, we butchered some, and sold others each fall. True to form, I was the one who wrote the names of the ducks on the freezer bags, Jason the one who said, “no… please, no.” With no sign of human offspring, we submitted to simple tests. It was still just a matter of weeks or months, I believed—and if there actually was any problem, it wouldn’t be mine.
We both looked good. Some of our numbers weren’t quite in the normal range, but no one, not even studies I found through the infallible Google Scholar, could tell us whether that mattered. We added on more vitamins, decongestants, and some dubious folk wisdom from the Internet.
Eventually, I followed up on my midwife’s referral for an HSG to confirm that my fallopian tubes were open. “Oh,” said the technician. “You’re here for the infertility work-up.”
I wasn’t ready to use that term. Some wicks are just slower to catch fire, I told myself while he pumped dye through my cervix. Normal fertility is sometimes defined as the ability to conceive within two years, and by that definition I still had a few months left.
“Perfectly normal,” said the radiologist, showing me the dye flowing through my open tubes on the monitor.
“Where’s your husband?” asked the nurse.
I stayed away from physicians for six more months, then took Jason with me to appointments. I didn’t mind the duck-billed speculum, but it was nice to have a hand to hold when that long metal tenaculum clamped down inside my privates.
Meanwhile, this granola Mennonite learned and grew. She taught writing. She edited an anthology about Mennonite martyrs. She planned a writing conference. She also nurtured. I taught people to walk. My grandfather, in assisted living, stumbled on his feet and wasn’t allowed to leave his chair by himself, but together we could roam the halls, he with his walker, I with his wheelchair, offering encouragement. One duckling hatched with a curled foot. I worked to straighten it out. This delicate work, taping the foot of a struggling duckling to a little plastic shoe each morning, felt like grace—a new chance to save a duckling—or perhaps make a bargain with the God who watches over sparrows.
My mother says I was born with my legs crossed and curled, and I remember walking across an examining room while a pediatrician watched my toed-in walk. “She’ll probably grow out of it,” he said. “A brace is psychologically difficult.” I like this philosophy of medicine, that time is a healer, that given enough space the organism will grow beyond its disorder.
Most first-line treatments for unexplained infertility include ovarian stimulation, which carries with it a high risk of twins or multiples—ten to thirty percent, depending on the drugs used. To me, it was a terrifying possibility. I was no duck; one baby at a time was more than enough. When we found ourselves at last in a specialist’s office, he didn’t pressure me to try these procedures, but neither did he emphasize the very real risk of multiples when he laid out possible treatments.
We decided to stick with “expectant waiting”—an accepted form of treatment for unexplained infertility, but one that was waning in effectiveness as we approached the three-year mark and our monthly odds of conception kept dropping, based on population studies. We considered further diagnostic steps. The specialist suggested that I might have endometriosis. The only way to know for sure was via a laparoscopy, minor abdominal surgery, but I couldn’t pick up the phone to schedule one.
The last time I tried to assist with a hatch, Stella hurled herself at me, scattering ducklings, her bill lashing, and I drew back a moment too late. Her perspective on intervention was as clear as the bruise darkening on my forearm. The duckling had caught its wing in the process of hatching, and I chipped away enough of the egg that the little creature could work itself free. Stella stood protectively over him while he pushed his way out. But he remained weak and didn’t survive the next day’s heat wave. I resolved that forevermore, I would let hatches happen naturally for the ducks.
When they could hatch eggs, that is. One duck, Delores, kept building her nests in a rocky spot under the yucca plant. One after another, the eggs would crack, and in late summer her nest would be a stinking mess. Things didn’t go perfectly for the drakes, either. Stanley’s impressive phallus prolapsed and we had to separate him from the other birds for months while the long swollen end of it dried up and fell off.
All this time, many of my friends were having babies, and I attended blessingways, circles of women who offer support to the expectant mother. At each of them we introduced ourselves, naming our mothers and their mothers. It was a reminder that we were part of an unbroken line of women who gave birth. With my gathered friends I felt in touch with generations of women who were mothers and then, to my surprise, with all of the rest, the women who waited and the women who stopped waiting, or chose not to wait. There’s a long tradition of them, starting with the Biblical stories of Hannah and Sarah straight on down to maiden aunts of family legends, friends who carry on after a miscarriage, acquaintances without Fallopian tubes, one who tried in vitro fertilization unsuccessfully for years, one whose partner refuses to have children, some who prefer other ways to be generative.
In the bathroom at work, I chatted with a mother who dealt with infertility for years. She told me about her own surgeries and wished me well. Her embrace gave me the courage I needed to go home, pick up the phone, and finally schedule that laparoscopy.
I came home from the pre-operative appointment to find five ducklings missing from the black duck’s nest. We searched the weeds all through the nursery enclosure, but feared the worst. Gray Julia sat calmly on her nest of waiting eggs. The cat yawned when I asked whether he ate the ducklings, showing off his fangs. I moved the mother and her remaining brood to a cat-proof pen. Only a few days later did I discover Julia, who should have been on her own eggs for another two weeks, wandering through the potato patch making mother-duck whistles, a handful of stolen ducklings behind her.
I apologized to the cat for doubting him and then, for simplicity’s sake, returned the ducklings to their original flock. It was too late for Julia to return to her own nest. The mothering hormones were pumping and she wanted babies. She staked out a pen full of brood, thinking she might pick a few ducklings out of this larger flock, pacing the fence and whistling to them. OMG! I found some ducklings and think they like me, do you think it would be okay to take them? Plz answer ASAP!!
I was spared that precise sort of desperation. I never understood the attraction to babies. It was easy to be around my friends who are mothers of infants; I only grew wistful when watching older children. Actually, I Facebook- and blog-stalked a few families, really fine granola Mennonite types with good-sized broods of kids, building treehouses and gingerbread lighthouses; I clicked through every single picture in the album of that family trip to Europe. One girl in particular stood out. With her long brown hair and coltish confidence, she might have been mine. Simply put, I fell in love. If I hadn’t, I could have stopped right there, taken what came—or didn’t—like a good granola Mennonite, waiting for the universe to call me some day and say, “Hey, you want some kids?”
Our children would not come to us freely, but I needed to meet them. I already loved them. I wasn’t quite putty in the hands of the doctors, but in time I became ready to submit to needles and invest in long woolly socks to cut the chill of the stirrups. I would decide a baby was worth more than a Prius, even if they would cost the same. I would decide, eventually, that twins were a risk worth taking. I would take it slowly, since my endometriosis turned out to be mild—a non-issue—and my eggs were in good condition. I would advocate for better insurance coverage. I would end up posting regularly on an infertility forum online. I would learn to view treatment as a right and a privilege, a justice issue, and would eventually share our story in my community, but I would still ascend the ladder of interventions one reluctant rung at a time. It would take a long while, these first awkward steps in the work of mothering, the long process of letting go.
Kirsten Eve Beachy is Assistant Professor of Languages and Literature at Eastern Mennonite University. This essay is part of a presentation given at the Mothering Mennonite Symposium at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas on October 26, 2013.