7.09 / Parenting Issue

Nine Babies on Ice

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We have a cohort of children-one for every reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, an entire baseball team of kids.

Caleb hates mashed peas, Rhea perks up in the afternoon, Geo is a future astrologist, Jase sucks her pinkies, Ariana is near-sighted, Ty prefers to be alone, Will has a slight lisp, Percy plays with trucks, and Lulu likes anything that sparkles.

But, if I’m being honest, they’re not technically children, or babies, or even fetuses. They are embryos, and they are frozen, but they already feel like our offspring.

Tomorrow we have an appointment with the specialist to discuss the process of transferring one of these zygotes into my uterus.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I should be pregnant right now. In fact, if things had gone right, I’d be delivering the baby in three months. But that’s how we used to think-that things would happen simply because we had planned them out. That was before my IVF procedure gone wrong. Before the internal bleeding, before the emergency surgery, before they had to take our nice fresh embryos and freeze them for later use. Now I have a six-inch vertical scar where a baby bump should be.

I imagine that our embryos look like miniature babies swimming inside ice cubes. In fact, nowadays, I only fill nine squares of our ice tray. Every night before dinner, I plunk four cubes into Jamie’s glass, five in mine. I like to think that our babies are with us at the table, comparing stories from the day.

This is what women undergoing IVF do-we imagine, we fantasize, we develop eye-brow-raising rituals. Of course, I’d never confess this to anyone, not even Jamie. When friends come over, they get luke-warm drinks. I say that we’re out of ice.


Tonight, before dinner, Jamie and I sit on the plaid couch in our sun-porch. The April sun sets in slits through our bamboo blinds. I sit up-right, but Jamie lies across the couch, his legs draped over the armrest, his head in my lap, the collar of his work-shirt unbuttoned. I rub his head.

We discuss how lucky we are. I could have bled to death; I could have had a hysterectomy; my eggs could have rejected Jamie’s sperm; the embryos could have died in the petri dish. But I’m alive, healed, with a functioning uterus to boot. Most importantly, though, we have nine babies.

Jamie takes a sip of his iced-tea, then rests it on his stomach. The ice cubes are melting now, turning the brown liquid a soft amber, but I’m reassured that our actual babies are in a temperature-controlled home, protected from liquefying, from evaporating. I envision them in an aquarium-like tank, floating around, safe in their respective ice-blocks. Rhea zooms around in her dice of ice, while Geo drifts lazily.

Jamie closes his eyes when I scratch his scalp. We talk about the embryo transfer, and I list worries that begin with “what if” and end in “miscarriage,” in “birth defect.” Jamie opens his eyes, pulls my face down towards his, and kisses me upside down. The stubble on his chin scratches my nose.

“We have nine tries,” he says. “One of them has to take.”


When the porch turns grey, it’s time to prepare dinner.

I pull a bag of broccoli out of the freezer. Our dog prefers it over kibble, so I pour the frozen florets into her dish. We’re out of fresh veggies, and I consider using some of the  broccoli to accompany the cod we’re eating. But I hate how even after cooking frozen veggies, there’s still the faint remains of freezer burn, the after-taste of the other items-like Hot Pockets and breakfast sausages-that had pressed against it in the freezer.

I wonder-Will our sons and daughters be different because they were frozen? Will they have brains that are mushy from thawing? Will they behave less jubilantly than a naturally-conceived child? Will they smell faintly of ground turkey?


The next day, we arrive at the doctor’s office grinning but clasping each other’s hands tightly. We talk to the nurse who’s escorting us to the doctor’s office. Her pregnant belly protrudes so much that she can’t button the bottom of her white coat. I must resist the urge to ask her if it’s an IVF baby. This is something else that hopeful IVF mothers do. We believe that if another woman conceived through IVF, our own cycle is more likely to end in pregnancy. Success stories mean more to us than stats.

Jamie asks the nurse where our babies are being stored. “Stored” seems like the wrong word, as if they’re stacked in cardboard boxes, getting dusty at a warehouse. I hadn’t thought about the fact that our little gang is in this very building. I want to visit them the way one might stop by a hospital nursery, peering at them through the glass-chubby kicking legs in blue and pink socks, gummy mouths cooing and screaming.

The nurse pets her belly then points down a hallway with paintings of flowers that resemble vaginas. “The cryo lab is down there.”

“Are the embryos kept in ice-cube trays?” I half-joke.

She laughs and says no; they’re actually in tubes. “Like coffee stirrers,” she says.

“How big are they?” I ask.

“Smaller than a pin head.”

I frown but Jamie’s eyes widen. He whispers, “That’s unbelievable.”

The doctor welcomes us into her office. Her cheekbones are severe. She’s drinking a Diet Coke through a bendy straw. She has feathered bangs and a son who was conceived naturally. I know because I couldn’t stop myself from asking her the last time we were here, when I saw all the framed pictures on her desk of a little boy.

After she explains how we’ll prepare my body through pills and injections, she asks how many embryos we want to transfer.

“One,” I say. “We’ll save the rest for the future, so we can have more children. I just don’t want to have them all at one. I have no desire to be an octo-mom.”

The doctor says that we can’t count on having a plethora of embryos left for the future. Women should feel lucky to have one or two good embryos to transfer.

“Why is that?” Jamie asks. He shifts in his chair, reaches over, places his hand on my knee.

The doctor takes another sip of her Diet Coke and says, “Well, they have to survive the thaw.”

Jamie’s voice is steady, but his cheeks flush red. “What is the survival rate?”

“50/50,”  the doctor says, not looking at us.

I look at Jamie, grip his hand.

Jase and Ty and Lulu and Percy melt in my mind.

“So, hypothetically speaking,” Jamie says. “We have four potential babies.”

“Not necessarily,” the doctor says. The next hurdle, she explains, is that they have to attach to my uterine wall.

“Only about 30 percent of thawed embryos take to the womb,” she says.

Caleb, and Rhea, and Will, and Ariana dissolve into puddles. Only Geo is left.

“But if you transfer two,” the doctor says, “you raise your chances.” She throws her now-empty can into the garbage. “Then again, you could always end up with twins.”

Rhea re-solidifies.

“Well, that’s not the end of the world,” Jamie says, turning towards me. “We could get part of our family out of the way all at once.”

“Yes,” the doctor says, “but you also have to consider that they most likely won’t reach full gestation. All twins, IVF or not, are typically born early.”

The room is quiet. I bite my nails.

“So, you have a decision to make,” the doctor says. “If a couple of embryos survive the thaw, do you want to transfer one or two?”


That night, I pull out the ice cube tray to fill our glasses. I can no longer envision the squares as our children, or fetuses, or embryos. They are crystalized water. They are not swimming around; they do not have names; they do not have personalities. We don’t know if any will endure the great defrost, and if they do, we can’t control if any of them will be strong enough to hold on once inside.

I turn the tray over, twist it a bit, and let the frosty contents fall into the sink. I watch lines shoot up the center of the cubes, crevasses forming.

Just as I’m about to leave them to drip and drain, I peer down and examine them closely. Though some of the cubes are dented, most of them are still in tact, still solid. They are not as fragile as I thought.

I pick out the two without cracks and gently slip them into my glass.


Nadine Kenney Johnstone received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. This piece is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress. She has been published in The Drum, Chicago magazine, and Hair Trigger. A Windy City native and Massachusetts newbie, Nadine enjoys exploring the outdoors with her husband and their dog. Visit facebook.com/NadineKenneyJohnstone