They had given up trying for a baby. In college, fearful of their parents’ disappointment, she militaristically took hormonal birth control and he wore a condom every time. Graduated, newly married, and happily working at the entry level, they let the condoms expire, but her pills still came by mail every three moths. After her thirtieth birthday party, in a sentimental champagne haze, she threw away the pill packet and he agreed she should not order more.
Optimism and excitement turned to disappointment and shame after the first year. They invented prior commitments on the days of friends’ baby showers. As time ticked by, visits to fertility specialists took the place of workday lunches out together. Strangers were the only ones who still asked when they would “welcome their own little bundle of joy.”
After listening to a sixth doctor declare “unexplained infertility,” their eyes met. Immediately they rose and left the office, his arm around her. Over the next few months, they refocused on each other and their work, remodeled their kitchen, walked their dog, and cooked dinner with friends. Their life was different, surely, than they had hoped, but full nonetheless.
She was startled then, one afternoon in her thirty-fifth year, when she thought back to the day of her last cycle. Could that have been March? And now it was May?
Picking up a home pregnancy test from the drug store on the way home from work felt unnervingly familiar, so she said nothing of it to him as they completed their evening routine. Waking early the next morning, she grabbed the packet from its hiding place under her sink, tore it open, and peed on the stick.
About six weeks before, one of his gametes, the sperm, must have met one of hers, the egg. The sperm sensed a perfectly timed chemical invitation from the egg, which led the two closer and closer. As they met in the middle of the oviduct, one of the molecules in the thick matrix of protection surrounding the egg bound to proteins on the sperm’s outer membrane layer, physically joining them.
Immediately, a reaction initiated within the sperm and caused a release of molecules, rendering the egg’s protective matrix soft and allowing the sperm to burrow its way through. As the sperm finally reached the egg, their membranes fused. The egg then secreted proteins into the space between its membrane and protective coat, creating significant difficulties for any other sperm trying to join the party, an essential step because each gamete carried precisely half of the needed genetic material, known as DNA.
Protected against the entry of another sperm and safely inside the nutrient rich egg cell, the two complementary copies of DNA moved toward each other. Fifteen hours after the sperm and egg fused their membranes, the two genetic halves met, making a complete blueprint for development of the fertilized egg cell.
The fertilized egg then progressed through the oviduct toward the uterus. During its seven-day journey, the cell divided enough to make a blackberry-like clump of eight, then 16, then 32 cells. The outermost cells secreted fluid and drew water into the middle of the group to form a space. As this cavity grew, the hollow ball of cells, called a blastocyst, emerged from the protective matrix that originally surrounded the unfertilized egg and then from the oviduct into the uterus. The sticky molecules on the surface of the uterine lining caught the blastocyst, which began to implant itself cozily in the uterine wall.
At the point of implantation, the placenta, tissue linking the uterus and the developing embryo, began to form. The placenta released increasing amounts of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, into her blood and urine. When she peed on the stick, its absorbent material drew the liquid toward the part of the test’s fibers covered with molecules termed antibodies, which stick to hCG. Because her urine contained hCG, the antibodies bound to the hormone, then to a dye, and appeared as the second pink line.
Five minutes later, she took a deep breath, looked at the test, and, weak-kneed, abruptly sat down on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. She turned her head back and forth for a lifetime’s worth of moments from the instruction pamphlet in one hand to the test in the other. The corners of her mouth eventually turned up to make a wide smile, and she went to wake him with the news.