Hello, I’m Lynn Chen! I’m a long-time actor, first-time filmmaker (my directorial debut I Will Make You Mine was just released!) and for ten years I was a body image activist with my blogs/podcasts “The Actor’s Diet” and “Thick Dumpling Skin.” The story I’m about to tell happened around the same time I became a cupcakes and cashmere reader, so it’s a tremendous honor to share it here, with all of you.
I always wanted to be a mom. Ever since I can remember. From my first Cabbage Patch Kids doll that I tucked into an open dresser drawer next to my bed, to the notes I scribbled in the margins of my diary: “See kids? Your mother was such a geek in junior high...” It was never too early to begin manifesting that Mom Life. In my early twenties I began hoarding cute baby clothes on sale and saved oversized, flowy tops that would look good over a pregnant belly. So when I married my college sweetheart Abe, and we were on the same page about how many children we wanted (two—a girl, then a boy three years later), I never doubted it would happen. My mother had nine siblings, my father had six. My brother had five kids. It should have been easy. It wasn’t.
After going off the pill for a year, I took charge of my fertility with the help of Toni Weschler's book. I upped my yoga classes and meditations. I quit caffeine, alcohol, and artificial sweeteners. In solidarity, Abe altered his diet too. Even though his sperm count was well above normal, he stopped biking and wore boxers. And, of course, there was plenty of sex, followed by the recommended postcoital 30-minute positions, going against everything I had learned about preventing bladder infections. “We’re making a baby! Rah! Rah! Rah!”
But there was nothing. Not one false alarm. And we never miscarried, which would have proven that pregnancy was possible. I started to get concerned.
In the meantime, everyone around me was getting pregnant. Friends, family members, co-workers, women in line at the grocery store, bloggers whose recipes I bookmarked. I couldn’t escape these reminders that everybody’s womb was a magical wonderland… except mine. I made no secret about my baby-making attempts. In fact, a few people began assuming I was pregnant since I had put on a few pounds.
Everyone told me to just relax, not to worry. I was in my early thirties. I was healthy. My gynecologist did the requisite blood work at my annual, neglecting to inform me that my free "well woman exam" was now being billed as "preconception counseling." When that hefty invoice arrived, I discovered our health insurance didn't cover infertility treatment. Still, Abe and I made the decision to see a reproductive endocrinologist, using the money we had put aside for the down payment on a house. Every time a doctor’s mouth opened, I heard a cash register ringing up all the test charges and hormone treatments. But we did everything they asked, and we did it perfectly—I never missed a procedure or a pill. In the years that followed, we saw several more experts, welcoming natural healers, therapists, and support groups to our fertility squad.
A little less than two years later, our bank account was depleting and so were our spirits. I’m an actor, and to have sex on schedule, I had been saying no to work that filmed on location. Abe stayed at a job he didn’t really love for the health insurance, in case I actually got pregnant. And we rarely saw anybody because we were trying to save money for doctors’ bills. My best friends became strangers on the TTC (Trying to Conceive) Boards, where we spoke mostly in acronym: “BBT and CM are looking good. FX that our OPK is accurate and IVF is successful!”
As I turned 34, our (third) endocrinologist’s official diagnosis confirmed what we already knew: “Unexplained Infertility.” My heart sank. I had done everything I was “supposed” to do, and still it wasn’t enough. I felt like my body had betrayed me. This really wasn’t going to “just happen.” Getting pregnant would not be natural, it would be sterilized, medical, and scheduled. She recommended Intrauterine Insemination (IUI) or In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). We should undergo the procedure before I turned 35 and had a “Geriatric Pregnancy,” after which age the IUI/IVF risks would double. I should add here that it isn’t as if the success rate for either of these is particularly high—I don’t remember what the exact percentages were in 2010, but they were well below 50% and in my mind that wasn’t reassuring. None of this felt hopeful. It felt like a bigger problem.
The decision weighed on us. My biological clock had turned into a ticking time bomb, and an expensive one at that. Abe took me to Disneyland to cheer me up. I know it’s the happiest place on earth for a lot of people, but I really love it there. We were sitting outside of The Little Mermaid Ride eating soft serve, right after I hugged Pluto, and I was actually feeling happy, dare I say hopeful, for the first time in months. And then we got the phone call.
It was Abe’s little sister, letting us know she was pregnant. This wasn’t our first time becoming an aunt/uncle but it was the first time I really accepted that our lives weren’t going to turn out how I had envisioned. On the one hand, I was thrilled for her, and on the other, I was overwhelmed with this horrible feeling. Jealousy? Anger? Depression? Grief? Guilt? Kind of all the above, wrapped up in pure heartbreak. I knew what our family get-togethers would look like, that our needs and desires would never come before those who had grandchildren.
I hated myself for these thoughts. How was I ever going to be a good mother if I was so selfish? Well, don’t worry about that—you’ll never be one.
And so I congratulated her, hung up, and collapsed. Hunched over my knees, crying. And crying. And crying. I cried so hard that when I removed my sunglasses, a pool of water dribbled down at my feet. The ice cream cone had melted. Maybe it was the hormones I had been on all year. Or maybe I was just mourning the idea of being pregnant. Trying to let go of the person who believed that having a baby would make her whole, give her a sense of purpose. If I was not her, who would I be? Abe reminded me, “We’re at Disneyland! We’re having fun!” But it didn’t matter. Being at a place designed specifically for children, where I allowed myself to be childlike because I believed one day I’d raise one, it was all too much. I didn’t want to believe in living happily ever after anymore. We went home.
We spent the next few days asking ourselves many questions: Did we want to take our infertility journey to the next level? Could we even afford it? Would we be able to handle the hormone regimen? Would we want to be parents of twins—or even triplets, an outcome the IVF made more likely, if it worked? Did we want to be parents this badly? I was surprised that not one of these questions yielded an enthusiastic yes. They were mostly “I don’t know,” which felt scary. Crazy. We weren’t ready, not like this.
Shortly thereafter, we made a decision. We weren’t going to risk the gamble of borrowing money for IUI/IVF. We were going to have to stop living for a future that wasn’t happening and face the truth of our financial, physical, and emotional reality. We reminded ourselves that if we wanted to have kids past 35, we could always consider adoption or foster care. But we knew we had to take a break from baby planning. We actually made a pact: We would take full advantage of our flexible schedules, and our still-youthful energy. We redefined Parental FOMO from “Fear of Missing Out” to “Freedom of Missing Out.” We resolved to embrace living childless by choice.
At first, this decision felt completely awkward. Going from 24/7 pregnancy talk to avoiding the subject entirely was unnatural. Still, we stuck to our thesis: To do things our friends with children couldn’t do because they didn’t want to hire a sitter. So we dined out constantly, going to double features and concerts. We took day trips and traveled. We started taking jobs that didn’t pay the best, but fulfilled us artistically. We prioritized these things—even when we felt it wasn’t financially responsible—because it was essential to our emotional foundation. I’d say it took about five years to have the sting go away. At first I just avoided children completely. This pained me, because I used to be known as someone who was great with kids. I spent many years as a teacher, camp counselor, and nanny, but I accepted that being someone’s occasional playmate was too triggering. I didn’t want to get attached. But after I turned 40, things became a lot easier. Subconsciously, I guess that was the age I needed to cross.
Now I’m almost 44 and I’m finally at peace—even as I watch my friends undergo infertility treatments with success. I don’t feel like those years trying were a waste of time, or money. I’m grateful for that experience because I’m now familiar with my route to acceptance. Not that things aren’t still difficult. Baby showers and mom talk can be kind of weird, and if it does get too emotional, you’ll find me off in a corner, snapping photos of the dessert table. Sometimes I hear that old voice—You’re being selfish—and then I quickly remind myself, Maybe. But that’s the only life I am responsible for: my own. Holidays with family are a challenge, so we devote that time to ourselves. We now try to spend Thanksgiving and that last week of December by ourselves, and plan visits around our nieces and nephews when the societal pressure of tradition and legacy aren’t looming in all our psyches. That’s when we can best embrace the role of Aunt Lynn and Uncle Abe, sending random gifts, taking them on shopping sprees, and yes, even trips to Disneyland.
Once a year, we’ll revisit the question: “Do we still want to be parents?” Even as our health insurance has changed (it now covers infertility treatments) our answer has always remained unanimous: “No.” We really appreciate not having to worry about the future of another human being. Instead of saving money towards a college fund, I invested in myself. For the last three years I have become a filmmaker, a career change I’m not sure I would have taken if I was a mother. In a lot of ways, my directorial debut I Will Make You Mine became my baby. I nurtured and grew it. And now that it’s been “birthed” (aka released on VOD/DVD) I’m an empty nester, ready to figure out the next phase.
We have diversified our friend circle because we don’t have kids’ birthday parties or school musicals to attend. We purposefully seek out other childless adults. Some are much younger and not at that phase of life yet, others are still single, and a few never had any desire to be parents. Very rarely do I meet other couples like me and Abe, who always wanted to have children but still decided not to. Last year we became godparents and this past week we adopted a dog.
I love that it’s never too late to find new relationships to nurture and dedicate ourselves to. I share my story because it’s what I needed to hear—that what makes me happy can change. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. Whenever my heart feels like it can’t accept the pain of my dreams not coming true, I’m reminded that what we want can evolve. I have proof of that now, and so do you.