The fertility clinic waiting room was not what I expected. I had imagined leather couches, warm lighting, and potted plants — the kind of décor that might suggest to clients that the thousands of dollars they were spending was being directed, at least in part, to their own care and comfort.
Instead, I opened the door to find two rows of uncomfortable chairs, outdated wall paper, and fake plants that frayed at the edges. The reception desk was empty, but Kellie and I weren’t alone. A woman in a long dress and bonnet stood watching her two boys play in the corner while her husband, dressed like his sons in a collared shirt, pants, and suspenders, sat reading a magazine with one leg crossed over the other. I recognized them as Mennonites; I’d seen other Mennonite families before, not at the downtown library or at the local drug store, but always, remarkably enough, at Costco, walking through the aisles with a passel of children, filling their cart with rotisserie chickens and boxes of cereal. I tried not to stare in Costco just as I tried not to stare now. It was hard for me to understand that someone with two sons already would pursue medical intervention for infertility. Two kids seemed like plenty to me. If you found that a third child didn’t come easily, wouldn’t you just call your family complete?
Neither the husband, nor the wife, nor either of the sons made eye contact with us, but surely we had crossed their periphery and they had questions about us as well.
Kellie sat anxiously, her face hidden behind long hair and a brimmed stocking cap. Normally, she moved through the world with ease. Just a week earlier she’d amazed me when she met me for happy hour at a bar that I normally frequented without her. It was the kind of place where the waitresses are notoriously grumpy — it’s part of the décor, and you tip them extra to apologize for being a customer. That day the waitress and I had a typical curt exchange, but when Kellie arrived she greeted the waitress by name. “Hey there Anne,” she said, sliding into the booth.
“How you doing?” the waitress responded. It was the first time I’d seen her face bear any expression other than a scowl. They bantered for a moment before Kellie ordered a beer.
“You know her?” I asked Kellie, awestruck.
“Not really,” she said. “We’ve just both been around for a while.”
It would never occur to Kellie to fear a grumpy waitress. It was a rare situation, like being in this clinic, that made Kellie feel she had to hide.
Eventually, a nurse called my name and led us down a corridor to deposit us in a room with a giant desk. “Dr. Lu will see you in a moment,” she explained. “And then you’ll consult with Dr. Norman.”
We sat in silence for several more minutes. Kellie marked time by tapping her foot. I examined my nails, and pushed at my cuticles.
Dr. Lu entered through a door at the back of the room and we rose to shake his hand. He was a middle-aged Korean man, broad-shouldered and lean.
“Who’s this?” he asked, nodding at Kellie. “Your mother?”
My heart dropped. “My partner,” I corrected, and watched his face to see if his error registered, but his expression did not change.
“Ok, fine,” he said, and looked at me. “You carry?”
He took out his clipboard. “How old are you?” he asked.
“How many times have you been pregnant?”
“Are you sure?”
Kellie and I exchanged panicked glances. In my mind, the worst case scenario hadn’t been this dramatic. I’d imagined an office that felt like the real-world incarnation of all of those brochures and websites I’d looked at. I imagined doctors who were welcoming, who smiled at us and treated us like regular patients, but quietly signaled they were less than comfortable. I imagined they might avoid making eye contact with Kellie, but I never imagined they’d ask if she was my mother, or question my very definitive answers about my body’s own history.
“I’m certain,” I told Dr. Lu.
He kept rattling off questions, his eyes fixed on his clipboard, and I kept answering them; my entire body was tense as if I were waiting for the right moment to flee. I could feel the same tension in Kellie’s body. It was like we were one animal.
The questions ended. If there was one thing I could credit Dr. Lu for, it was that he didn’t waste any time with small talk. “Dr. Norman will come soon,” he informed us while rising with his clipboard. This left Kellie and me alone in the office once again.
“I want to walk out of here,” she said.
“Do you think we should?” I asked. I wanted to support Kellie in her reaction to our treatment so far. I told her that if she wanted to leave right now, I would follow. But I felt trapped. This was the one fertility clinic in our town. The fact that there were two larger cities within sixty miles of us, that they might easily welcome us, didn’t occur to me. This place had a file for me. They were already storing our sperm. I didn’t want to wait another month. And besides that, I couldn’t imagine walking out mid-appointment. What would we tell the receptionist? What would the Mennonites think? I straightened my back in the chair, and told myself it didn’t really matter where or how we conceived our baby. Sure, this clinic sucked. But did this process really have to be magical? In my mind, I willed Kellie to cool down.
“Maybe this next doctor will be better,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said, with no trace of hope in her voice.
Dr. Norman entered the room in his white lab coat and shiny brown loafers. He introduced himself with a soft voice; his hand, when I shook it, was dry and cold. He resembled Mr. Rogers, only taller, stooped, and aloof. He did seem like an improvement on Dr. Lu, if only because he wasn’t barking questions at me, and because he seemed to understand our situation.
“So,” he said, looking over the clipboard that Dr. Lu must have handed to him backstage, “we want to have a baby, and we’ve agreed that the younger one of you will carry.”
Kellie and I nodded. He looked up. “I’m going to write in your chart ‘Male Factor Infertility.’” Kellie and I laughed together, assuming he was making a joke to break the discomfort, but Dr. Norman returned his gaze to the desk and proceeded to write down exactly that.
Months later, I would remember this moment and understand it from a new angle. Dr. Norman wasn’t being funny; he simply had no protocol for lesbians. He was preparing to administer a medical treatment and, even though we were paying out of pocket, we needed a diagnosis. Apparently, it wasn’t standard practice to simply scrawl out: Lesbians.
We left that day with instructions to call their office at the first sign of ovulation. During the car ride home, Kellie and I barely spoke. Instead we looked straight ahead at the road, the crosswalks, the traffic lights; we replayed the uncomfortable moments on a loop in our minds, privately, as if by not speaking them aloud we could erase them.
Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Brevity, Nailed, and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She is working on a memoir about her quest to build a family out of donor sperm, mason jars, and needleless syringes. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already, where this piece originally appeared. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.