Come What May
As my son and I approached the theater to see the musical Annie, Miss Hannigan’s song ran through my head: Little girls, little girls. Everywhere I turn I can see them. The crowd outside was swarming with them, a sea of tulle and sparkles punctuated by pops of red—many had come wearing Annie’s signature dress.
Little shoes, little socks… I headed for the doors with my boy, who on this (and every other) day wore his light-up Stormtrooper sneakers.
I do not share Miss Hannigan’s animosity toward female children, but the sight of all of them was overwhelming. For the first time in a while, I was struck by the absence of my little girl, who would have been about the same age as many of the children there. She was lost seven years earlier, before she had a chance to be born.
I first saw Annie when I was 5, and the experience knocked my own little socks right off. My parents bought me the cast album, and my dad taught me to gently lower the needle of the record player into its grooves. I listened to it over and over, our shag-carpeted living room transforming into a dingy orphanage in my mind.
When the billionaire Mr. Warbucks meets Annie, he is confused. “Orphans are boys,” he insists. Of course, he eventually comes to see that Annie is just the person he needs in his life. He sings about it (naturally) in a number called “Something Was Missing.”
Though it takes Warbucks until the middle of Act II to realize this, it was obvious to me that he had lucked out by getting a girl. Who would want a boy? Boys were destructive and frequently disgusting, they wore boring clothes, and you couldn’t do anything fun with their hair. I knew this firsthand—my prayers for a baby sister had yielded two little brothers.
After my mom announced that no sister was forthcoming, I focused on mothering my brood of dolls and made lists of the names I would give my own daughters someday. These changed over the years according to the books I happened to be reading at the time. In the eighties it was Elizabeth and Jessica, after the twins in Sweet Valley High; in college, Esmé and Anaïs topped the list. I never bothered choosing boys’ names.
When I got pregnant, many years later, I was sure it was a girl. It had to be. At some level, I was still holding onto opinions I’d formed as an 8-year-old: girls meant ballet lessons and tea parties; boys meant trucks and sports and things that didn’t interest me. I was imagining a playmate instead of a child.
Also, I knew the terrain of girlhood. I had a lot to share about cliques and periods and the precious, treacherous nature of female friendship. Conventional wisdom tells us that “boys are a handful.” And, worryingly: “A son is a son till he finds a wife. A daughter is a daughter for life.” I wanted to help my daughter pick out a wedding dress. I wanted unfettered access to my grandchildren.
My mother chided me, “As long as it’s healthy, that’s all that matters.”
As usual, my mother was right. Also as usual, I learned this lesson the hard way.
At my 20-week ultrasound appointment, the doctor stared for a long time at the fuzzy, black-and-white image on the monitor and then said, “There’s definitely an abnormality here.” He told us that the baby was much smaller than it should be, and that its body was swollen with fluid. These issues were, he said, “not compatible with life.” It wouldn’t be long before the baby’s heart gave out.
It took several moments for the doctor’s words to sink in. We had long ago passed the first trimester, when a miscarriage is most likely to occur, so it never crossed my mind that this appointment would be anything other than a celebratory gender-reveal. (The blood test that determines gender much earlier in a pregnancy was not yet available.)
When the doctor asked if we wanted to know the baby’s sex, we said no. I couldn’t bear to know anything more about this almost-person that we were not going to be able to keep.
A week of horrors followed. There were excruciating treatments to dilate my cervix in preparation for a D&E—a late-term abortion. Continuing with the pregnancy was out of the question, as my body had become dangerously swollen as well—I’d previously brushed it off as “normal pregnancy stuff”—and my own heart was now at risk.
In the months afterward, we stewed in grief, surfacing only for doctors’ appointments and blood tests that would hopefully tell us what had gone wrong. During this time, I received in the mail a thick manila envelope containing all of my medical records up to that point. I flipped through, not conscious of what I was looking for until I found it: a page describing the D&E and subsequent testing of the female fetus.
Eventually, we learned that my husband and I are carriers of thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder that affects the production of hemoglobin. The word thalassemia is Greek for “sea blood,” so named because the first cases were identified among immigrants who had come to the United States from regions along the Mediterranean Sea. My husband is Greek, and I am Italian. Our daughter had inherited the most severe form of thalassemia, which meant that her body had been completely unable to manufacture hemoglobin. Almost all babies with this disorder, known as Hb Bart’s hydrops fetalis, die in the womb or shortly after birth. If we tried for another baby, there was a one-in-four chance that it would happen again—and doctors wouldn’t be able to detect a problem until I was again at least 20 weeks along.
Unwilling to risk it, we opted for a combination of IVF and preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which meant that our embryos would be screened for thalassemia and only healthy ones would be transferred. It sounded miraculous, but there were still a lot of ifs: If the IVF yielded viable embryos. If any of those embryos tested negative for thalassemia. If a healthy embryo implanted itself in my uterus and decided to stick around.
The IVF was a success. We ended up with four thalassemia-free embryos—more than we had dared to hope for. When my doctor asked if I wanted to know their sex, I said I didn’t; my husband and I had agreed that gender would not be a factor in choosing which embryo to transfer.
But the doctor added, “They’re all the same.”
“OK,” I said. “Tell me!”
They were all boys.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a pang for the daughter I now knew I would never have. But mostly I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Our children were out there, waiting to be born.
The four embryos became two sons: first Theo, then Nicholas. They are occasionally destructive and frequently disgusting. They are funny and kind. They are healthy.
And Theo, now 5, loves to sing. He’s crazy about Hamilton and The Beatles, and his obsession with Moana rivals that of his female friends. When I heard that a touring production of Annie was coming to town, I thought it would be perfect—it would be his first live musical, just as it had been mine.
If Theo noticed that he was one of the few boys in the theater, he did he didn’t seem to mind. When the lights dimmed and the overture began, he grabbed my hand and stage-whispered, “It’s starting!” My eyes filled with tears. But soon Theo had to pee, and then he wanted a snack, and then, about three numbers from the end of Act I, he announced, loudly, that he was falling asleep.
And so, when the lights came up for intermission, we left. As we threaded our way through the lobby, Theo was already campaigning to stop at the toy store we’d spotted in town. We thereby ended our theater date with the purchase of a Spider-Man Lego set.
Perhaps 8-year-old me would have considered this a tragic ending, but grown-up me took it in stride.
I wish our daughter could be here with her brothers. But, like Mr. Warbucks, I got the opposite of what I was expecting, and it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I have been surprised by how much I love the boyness of my children—the wrestling and belly-flopping, the huskiness of their voices, the wild, cowlicked hair. I find myself calling out “Firetruck!” when I see one on the road (even when the kids are not in the car). And along with the superheroes and roughhousing, there is so much sweetness—when Theo tucks his robots into the shoebox beds he made for them, when Nicholas puts his small hands on my face and says, “I love you, Mama!”
I still wonder what my relationship with my boys will be like when they grow up, but I’m usually too busy picking Legos off the floor to worry too much about it. And I’m too familiar with the whims of nature to think that there’s any part of the future I can predict.
Michelle Vames is a freelance writer and editor whose most recent work has appeared on GoodHousekeeping.com, Scary Mommy, and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is the editor of Mommy Poppins’ New Jersey site, and she blogs at thefirstfortyblog.com. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons, ages 5 and 2.