Photo by spaceamoeba
Photo by spaceamoeba

Tough Odds, Lady Bird

I first noticed the robin one day in early June, as she swiped dead stalks from one of the two potted lavender plants on our deck. The rear of our row house faces a landlocked square of backyards, untroubled by the noises, foot traffic, and the predatory rats of an alley. The sounds of the city are muted in my neighborhood, and because many of the yards are just a little bit wild, there is a sense of unfettered nature that’s usually hard to find here in the middle of the nation’s capital.

On some days, when the weather is just right, I can sit and work on the deck, my laptop screen and my skin shaded by the patio umbrella.

I didn’t know when I first saw the robin that it was a she, although I learned a few days later that among robins, it is the females who build nests, using the wrist of one wing to press their materials into a cup shape. I thought the bird was using the lavender for a sweet-smelling nest elsewhere; it took me awhile to realize she had been building a nest right in front of me, in the planter on the railing near the deck steps. Four blue eggs appeared over several days, tucked inside a nest she had interwoven seamlessly into the lower stalks of the lavender plant, which, when blooming, buzzes with bumblebees. I had a homesteader’s pride in my small role in fostering a pollinator-friendly urban ecosystem, but I had even more pride in the nest, as though it were my wrists that had molded it into place. I had created a safe haven for a little family, I thought smugly.

At the same time though, I tried not to think too much about the significance of the nest, or why the robin had chosen my deck, of all places, to lay her eggs. She had arrived at an awkward time, as I was recovering from a miscarriage and preparing to start a third and perhaps final round of in vitro fertilization. The nest was such an obvious fertility symbol. I knew better, intellectually, than to ascribe too much character or intent to my mama robin, or any other wild bird. But emotionally, I couldn’t help but see it as hopeful.

Robins are so common they’re almost unremarkable. Give them a nice lawn with plenty of worms and a few trees and they’ll do fine, Randy Dettmers, a Senior Migratory Bird Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told me when I went hunting for more information about the birds in my backyard. They err toward quantity, rather than quality when it comes to sex, rubbing their sex organs, called cloacae, against each other for a few seconds multiple times throughout the day—a cloacal kiss, Dettmers called the act.

Female birds have evolved to have one ovary, and when they release an egg from the ovary, the egg travels down their oviduct, becoming fertilized en route with the sperm. Calcium compounds secreted toward the end of the journey become the distinctive robin’s-egg-blue of the outer shell. They lay one egg a day, often later in the morning after they’ve gorged themselves on worms. Robins almost always lay four eggs, which they’ll sit on for about two weeks. Dettmers told me that robins in this part of the country often produce three broods in one year, and I figured she was probably on her second nest of the summer.

If only I could just pop out a blue egg and sit on it for a few weeks. But my eggs, old and at the end of their usefulness, had to be carefully stimulated with medication that tricked my body into releasing more than one at a time. Then, they had to be retrieved with a needle and fertilized in a lab. I had to wait for five days to see whether they incubated properly, and if they did, a doctor would return as many as three of the blastocysts to my womb, via a catheter threaded through my cervix.

 

A few years earlier, I’d spent the day on the Delaware Bay with some scientists who were studying red knots, shorebirds that live part of the year on the shallow beaches and mudflats of the Mid-Atlantic shore. Changing climate patterns in their Arctic habitat have diminished their numbers, and I was writing about whether the federal government would list the red knot as endangered. The observation and counting of birds can be tedious for people like me who have trouble sitting still, and my mind wandered during our bird stakeout. I asked one of the biologists whether the red knots ever had “fun.”

The birds we were hoping to trap and band fly epic journeys each year, all the way from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to the Delaware Bay. They pause only to gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs before flying north to nest in the Arctic. This grueling migration deserved some sort of compensation, I thought at the time, like the human equivalent of a cocktail at the end of a long work week. The biologist raised an eyebrow. “Fun?” he asked. Embarrassed, I shut up and watched the birds through binoculars, helping the team identify banded specimens. One could admire their perseverance, resiliency, and beauty without anthropomorphizing them, the raised eyebrow said.

I knew birds could also be ruthless. Once, in the early evening as I exited the D.C. federal courthouse after covering a trial, I watched a hawk dive low enough to snatch up a squirrel by the neck. The slant of the early evening light offered no warning of the hawk’s silent arrival. Droplets of blood spattered to the earth as it flew off with its prey. I found it more amusing than surprising that the brazen killing took place only a few hundred feet from Constitution Avenue, within view of the U.S. Capitol. Plenty of worse things had happened in cold blood near here, I thought.

Yet birds are capable of poetic imagery, too, particularly in flight. I had seen a red-tailed hawk circle overhead during a funeral service at Arlington Cemetery to mark the passing of a World War II aviator. It was difficult, in that moment with the hawk above us, to believe the bird was ignorant of its own beauty or symbolism. They preen, after all. They sing.

We like stories of triumph over adversity, and birds give us plenty. The red knots, with their marathon journey from pole to pole. Albatrosses that, each year for 60 years, will return to lay an egg on an atoll in the North Pacific. The flock of wild turkeys in a suburban office park on a quiet Sunday morning. It is no accident that we’ve assigned the word murmuration to a flock of starlings swarming overhead. Birds are entirely separate from us, yet among us, the beauty and fragility of their life cycle an echo of our own.

I often eat lunch on my deck, even if it’s too hot to work out there, and over the years I’ve become a close observer of the bird dynamics in the yard. The numbers have improved since last summer, after our cat died. No bird killer, she nevertheless had scared off nesters. I suspected my robin’s partner was the fat, rust-breasted bird who often sat on the rusty chain-link fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s overgrown patch of urban wilderness. A fiery red cardinal liked the fence, too, as did a pair of pigeons. If birds do have fun, this was it: perching on the bird world equivalent of a bar stool, watching the comings and goings of the neighborhood.

For a week or so, I watched my mama robin as she incubated her four eggs. I checked on her during thunderstorms. She sat placidly, keeping them warm, yet also keeping a wary eye on me. I suspect the red knot biologist would have raised an eyebrow, but I named my backyard robin Maha Shakti, a nod to the yogic notion of the divine feminine power of the universe. She mostly seemed fine with me sitting quietly at our patio table, working on my laptop. She was doing her thing, and I was doing mine.

Friends cautioned me not to get too attached. One told the story of a mama robin who had made a nest in his rosemary bush. Crows had been keeping watch, and when the timing was right, they swooped in for a dinner of baby robin. Nature is ruthless and efficient, I told my friend. I’ve given her a sweet-smelling sanctuary, I told him, but I’m not going to interfere.

Yet a story was unfolding on my deck, and it paralleled mine. How could I not care about the outcome?

I worried about my robin’s numbers. Only 40 percent of nests are successful, I discovered on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, when I was scouring the Internet for more information about robins. Just 25 percent of those survive to November. That meant that, if Maha Shakti had three broods of four chicks each this summer, just one or two of those 12 or so fledglings would survive. Tough odds, lady bird, I thought.

My numbers weren’t great, either. As a woman enters her 40s, doctors say that fewer than one in 10 eggs are chromosomally sound. Of the 19 eggs that had been retrieved from my ovaries in March, eight had fertilized. Only four of those embryos had flourished in the lab after five days. In the spring, just two months before the robin made her nest, my doctor transferred the three most promising into my uterus. Just one made it and only for eight weeks.

Other numbers troubled me, too. Women my age underwent 11,757 IVF cycles in 2013, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. About 1,800 of those cycles ended up in what the agency calls “live births,” or babies. That meant of all the attempts women my age made at getting pregnant with IVF in 2013, they were successful just 15 percent of the time. That meant just 1,846 babies were born to those women.

One final number was bothering me that had been buried offhandedly in a May New York Times story about childbearing trends among highly educated women. A Pew Research Center analysis of census data had found that highly educated women are much more likely now to have children than they were in the 1990s. I took a closer look at the numbers. In 1994, when I was in my third year of college, about one-third of women older than 40 and with advanced degrees didn’t have children. Now, only about one-fifth of women older than 40 with advanced degrees don’t have children.

It was heartening to know that women now feel as though an advanced degree doesn’t preclude children. The statistic, though, that troubled me was that among all women ages 40-44 in America, only 15 percent are childless. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. Most women my age have children, I realized.

I had some choice in my minority status, and I also had some regret about it. My husband Chris and I would sometimes talk about how we wished we had met when we were younger. We didn’t have this conversation often, because not only were our ages and life experience implicit in our love for each other, but it wasn’t helpful to dwell on something we couldn’t change. We both knew that children were not a guarantee for people who met at nearly 38 and married at 39, and we were realistic about our chances. It wasn’t something we could explain without sounding cloying or sentimental, but in our minds, meeting later in life meant that we were more devoted to how we spent the rest of our lives together. We had less time left to get it right.

Still, we wanted to be parents.

 

The baby robins hatched about two weeks after I first noticed the nest. I could hear the chicks chirping downstairs on the deck, in the early mornings, before my alarm went off. They were loud and insistent, hungry for food. Once she had mouths to feed, Maha Shakti didn’t like it when I banged the heavy screen door on my way outside to the deck. She would fly out of her nest, squawking loudly at me from the fence below or the telephone wire above, while she calculated when she or her partner could return to her chicks with worms. Once the eggs hatch, robins, like many new parents, are overwhelmed by the amount of energy it takes to tend to newborns. I’m surprised I didn’t notice Maha Shakti’s partner feeding the babies, but the males do. His days of leisurely fence sitting were over.

June was rainy, so rainy that we started having problems with flooding in our basement. After a heavy downpour, Chris would check the sandbags out front and the towels rolled up in the corner between the foundation of the house and the basement floor. I’d check on Maha Shakti and her eggs. I was excited to see the fledglings try to take flight. And a little worried. Although the deck was a safe spot, it seemed far to the ground for the baby birds, farther than most trees. They might flail on the deck before learning to fly, and I didn’t want my dog to pounce. The dog had little interest in a nest out of her reach, but she would attack a weak baby bird on the ground. After all, she’s little more than a housetrained scavenger with sweet brown eyes.

Just before dawn on my 42nd birthday, a violent storm swept through the city. The Capital Weather Gang called it the worst summer storm in the region since the fast-moving 2012 derecho that killed more than 20 people and knocked out power to millions as it swept from Illinois east to Maryland.

Chris went downstairs to check on the basement. I opened the blinds in the bathroom to look out at the backyard, lit up by multiple thunderstorm cells that had merged south of the city after midnight. The storms were enhanced by what the Weather Gang called “a dynamic region of high-altitude spin approaching from the west.” That spin, known as a vorticity maximum, was part of a ripple in the jet stream that had triggered the thunderstorms as it moved across Ohio and West Virginia, the Weather Gang noted the next day in its roundup of storm damage.

I woke up again a few hours later to teach a yoga class. I went downstairs for coffee. The patio umbrella and our table had been knocked to their side. I straightened them, and went back inside. I was so surprised by the toppled table and umbrella that I had forgotten to check on the birds. It was Chris who, a few minutes later, noticed that the lavender pot had been knocked 15 feet down to the earth. He called to me, just as shocked as I was by the mayhem. The baby birds were nowhere to be found, perhaps already crow food.

The biologist would have told me that birds don’t grieve. Maha Shakti was still around, though, seemingly confused and distressed. She hopped along the ground near the pot, crying out in an urgent voice I hadn’t heard before. It was as though she thought her anxious call could summon her chicks back to her. I also cried on the deck, Chris’s arms wrapped around me. I’m sorry, pretty lady, I thought. I’ve been there, too, knocked askew.

At our very first ultrasound after I learned I was pregnant, the doctor had given us difficult news. Technically, I was six weeks pregnant. But no one at the clinic had yet said the words “you’re pregnant,” not even when they called me with the positive blood test results. Our doctor had identified a gestational sac and a fetal pole, but he’d not seen a heartbeat. The gestational sac was smaller than normal, and our doctor asked me to return in five days to see whether it would grow larger and whether he could identify a heartbeat.

Chris and I walked out of the first ultrasound sad and uncertain. It seemed so cruel to have this information. Early pregnancy is fragile, and as many as 50 percent of all pregnancies fail before women even know they’re pregnant. Once women actually know they’re pregnant, an estimated 15 percent of those pregnancies fail. And many women do not have ultrasounds so early, so they have no indication of how their pregnancy is advancing until it is as much as eight, 12, or even 20 weeks along. They just know they’re pregnant. They are allowed to be happy.

But IVF patients always have ultrasounds. Lots of them, almost all transvaginal. Thousands of dollars and a sizable emotional stake are on the line. The odds for success are so terrible that we rarely give ourselves permission to feel happy.

I understood the doctor’s lack of exuberance. If the pregnancy failed at that stage of embryonic development, it was because the cells were flawed and incapable of life. My body’s finely tuned error system would quickly shut down any further effort and redirect its energy toward the next cycle.

The next week, we saw a heartbeat. Our doctor was kind but still cautious. He warned that the gestational sac was far smaller than he hoped. The pregnancy was at least five days behind. He wanted to see us back in a week. In the meantime, he told us, travel, have sex, live our lives.

He didn’t say it, but we knew what he meant: You may not get this. But you have each other.

Two weeks after that first ultrasound, we returned to the exam room. The doctor inserted the probe. It took mere seconds to determine that it was over. There was no heartbeat, no fluttering in the white blob on the screen like we’d seen the week before.

“Take your time. I understand that this must be devastating,” my doctor told us, touching me lightly on the shin.

It wasn’t devastating, I thought to myself. It was something worse. It was exhausting. It wasn’t just the physical toll of the injections and the egg retrieval and the endless appointments, but the exhausting prospect of not being able to live our lives fully. We’d have to contain our emotions around our friends with babies. We’d have to keep holding our breath, if we wanted to keep trying. We’d have to temper our hope, once again.

The doctor left us in the exam room, where I got dressed and Chris and I embraced. I think Chris would have cried had I been crying. But I didn’t feel like being upset right then. I couldn’t do anything about what had happened. I couldn’t change the outcome. Nature is ruthless and efficient, I told myself.

In his office, my doctor reminded me that I had done nothing wrong. I knew this.

“What are you feeling?” he asked me.

Intellectually, I understood that these cells weren’t supposed to be a baby, I told him. They were flawed, genetically unsuited for life. He nodded. One of the most common causes of miscarriages, particularly among older women, comes from what’s known as aneuploidy, an abnormal number of chromosomes. Such chromosomal errors, which include Down Syndrome, aren’t visible under a microscope, only through genetic testing. Our clinic didn’t specialize in it, insurance doesn’t usually cover it, and our doctor never suggested it, so we didn’t pay for the genetic testing that would have identified chromosomally abnormal embryos. Eggs are capable of repairing some cell division errors, even some that come from sperm with damaged DNA. But older eggs are less adept at it, and as a result, older women are far more likely to experience miscarriages.

Emotionally, I was worn out. “We worked so hard to get here,” I told him. “That’s all I can think of right now. That it took so much effort just to get here.”

The biologist’s raised eyebrows aside, Maha Shakti must have also felt something at her loss. Her distress, I imagined, was instinctive. She had built her nest somewhere sheltered and safe. She had laid four eggs. They had all hatched, secure and hidden in their lavender bower. Her chicks were flourishing, thanks to the ample worm and insect life in our backyard. A freak storm had knocked a 50-lb pot off the deck. All her hard work for nothing.

A robin would probably stick around for most of the day, Dettmers told me, just to confirm the chicks were dead. Within days, though, she would probably start building another nest. “Pretty quickly they’ll start gearing up for another try,” he said. “That’s in their genes to try to successfully raise some young.”

When we first started trying to have a baby, I would practice a yoga sequence for fertility, often on our deck. It wasn’t just for women trying to conceive babies—the practice was aimed at anyone who wanted to give birth to an idea or project, too. I’d rise up into a headstand, my legs freed by the support of my arms and core. I’d bring my legs into a wide V-shape, my toes tickled by the breeze. I would scissor my legs forward and back and out to each side. I felt strong and receptive, the whole aim of the practice. On the video, the teacher would suggest envisioning the most abundant possible outcome of your deepest creative desire, whether it was a book or a baby. I was working on both things, and the practice made me hopeful. The phrase buoyed me along when I was low. For nearly three years, I tried every day to envision the most abundant possible outcome, even in the face of multiple personal and professional failures.

The lavender pot, though, was too much, especially on my birthday. The symbolism stripped me of all hope for an abundant outcome. Death on my birthday, on the same day that a UPS driver delivered an insulated cooler of fertility drugs. These were the worst sort of 42nd birthday offerings, ones that made me feel older and less optimistic than ever.

Chris returned the pot back to the top of the deck. I sorted the needles and stashed the drugs in the basement refrigerator. I had another ultrasound in a week, this time to check whether the lining of my uterus was ready for another IVF cycle.

A few weeks later, my doctor transferred three blastocysts into my uterus. That afternoon, I saw the fat male robin on our fence again. That meant Maha Shakti was out there, too, building another nest, maybe in a better location this time.

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2 Comments

  • Zaria Q. says:

    Thank you for this beautiful story.
    As a nine -year old child, I discovered a nest of gorgeous robin’s eggs in a hedge in my back yard and, with dedication and wonder, kept a journal of their progress every day. Of three eggs, one somehow ended up cracked on the sidewalk, my first heartbreak, and two were bOrn, but their fate is a mystery. I remember the horror and desperation in finding the nest empty one day after school… too soon after their birth. Panic and eventually tears followed as I reached out to my grandmother for wisdom, answers, assurance…of which there was none. What had become of these babies I’d had such high hopes for?
    Today, I’m a woman who has also found love a little later in Life. But we are earlier in our love journey and not even at the stage of having kids. So I can’t help but be slightly haunted by the what ifs… and the memories of my little ill- fated little robin babes of yesteryear.

  • Louise says:

    It is a credit to your tremendous skill as a writer that I, a woman childless largely by choice, found your story gripping and moving. (I admit I clicked on your headline because of the robin story, but I stayed because of the gorgeous prose.)
    While it is common now for memoir writing to echo personal experiences in the natural or social environment, you brought a fresh perspective to this trope.
    Brava!

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