Read an extract from Otherhood in Ensemble magazine


Ensemble has featured Lil O’Brien's essay ‘Our American fertility dream’ from Otherhood: Essays on being childless, childfree and child-adjacent edited by Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien and Kathryn van Beek:

This essay features discussion of pregnancy loss and miscarriage; please take care.

‘When she heard why I was visiting New York, she responded via email, ‘Oh gosh, well it is SUCH a fertile apartment.’ I was subletting her place for a couple of weeks. ‘You know the fish that you’re feeding?’

I’d looked at the tank, gurgling away on the bedroom dresser. There were about 40 tiny translucent fish in it, each one shot through with electric red.

‘Well, when we bought the fish there were only THREE of them! Everyone who stays in the apartment will spawn! Ha-ha.’

I was on day seven of the nine-day wait between an IVF cycle’s embryo transfer and the day I could test to see if I was pregnant. What a bitch those nine days are. You’re exhausted. You veer between positivity and berating yourself for daring to hope. You’re probably also broke, you’d quite like a large glass of wine or maybe half a bottle, and then on top of everything else, they say: no masturbation allowed. Please, no orgasms — lest you dislodge the blastocyst trying to burrow its way into your uterine lining. And so you wait. To find out if you’re pregnant, but also until you can get yourself off again. Not that you feel like getting yourself off, but you want to be allowed to. There are many cruelties on the treacherous road that is IVF, but this is the one that felt like a real ‘fuck you’. It reeks of the patriarchy. I don’t know how that’s to blame, but somehow it must be.

A couple of days later another email arrived from the well-meaning woman while I was lying on her bed, wiping tears into her bedding. The embryo transfer had failed.

‘I forgot to tell you, more evidence of the fertile apartment,’ the woman’s follow-up email read. ‘Our son was both conceived and given birth to in that very bed! So you’ll definitely have success this time, I can just feel it!’

We were now down to our last embryo, which my wife and I had left here in New York on ice when we moved back to New Zealand. We’d had two years of fertility treatments, getting pregnant, losing the pregnancies — the last one had a particularly brutal ending that left me bleeding and leaking breast milk for weeks afterwards. 

People don’t talk about how when you lose a pregnancy after a certain number of weeks, there’s no procedure to remove the tissue. You have to go through all the pain and trauma of delivering, knowing that a baby won’t be placed into your arms at the end. The doctor who’d tried to save the foetus had done an operation that no one in New Zealand had ever done before, including her. What had gone wrong in my pregnancy was so rare that most doctors have never heard of it: a form of TRAP sequence. When we were told the operation to try to fix the problem had failed and there was subsequently no longer a heartbeat, my grief was overshadowed by the terror of having to go through a birthing process, although you probably can’t call it that.

I was desperately homesick that last time in New York, but not for my home in New Zealand or even for my wife, who hadn’t been able to join me due to the financial costs. I was homesick for the New York I used to love; the one that made me feel like I’d found my place in the world, and all the other gushing clichés the city provokes. That feeling was being wiped out by the grind of this trip, which would now be a month longer than we’d hoped, because I had to wait for my body to pull itself back together for one last attempt.

It also meant I had to find accommodation to cover that extra time, on a limited budget. That long wait in New York would include two nights in a hoarder’s apartment hidden behind a respectable brownstone front, where the pillows on the bed made me sneeze and where I slept fitfully, watched by the eyes of more than a hundred stuffed toys.

I’ve always been good at actively managing my happiness, believing you can build on your resting happiness level by doing things you enjoy every day, and consciously appreciating them. And so, during those long weeks in New York while waiting to do the final embryo transfer, I’d tried doing the things that used to make me happy when I lived in that crazy place: sickly sweet iced chai lattes from Black Star on Metropolitan Ave, walking through Union Square to author talks at Strand Books, live storytelling events at Housing Works in Soho, or just walking around, waiting for things to happen. 

During our first week in New York in 2015, my wife and I were walking to brunch when we saw a collection of people coming out of a church near our new apartment.

‘Look how beautiful that woman looks in her Sunday best,’ I’d said.


My wife’s mouth was hanging open, and there was the woman with her pink frilly dress hoisted around her waist, pissing right there on the pavement. That’s the brilliant thing about New York. You don’t need to be doing anything interesting when you live there. Interesting things just happen to you.

But on that trip, trying to get pregnant again, I was miserable, despite my efforts towards mindfulness. Perhaps it was all the fertility drugs my clinic had prescribed me. I was on a double dose of progesterone because the pills they’d given me at Fertility Associates in Auckland hadn’t raised my levels enough. When I’d made it to New York the doctor had tutted and prescribed the injectable progesterone I was supposed to be on — which wasn’t available in New Zealand — on top of the pills. Every morning I managed breakfast, a shower and an injection in the soft flesh of my hip before I crashed into unconsciousness, finally surfacing from a dreamless, black sleep around noon.

Buying sperm in the US is much like searching for an apartment online. You create an account on the website and add your credit card. You input your filters to see a tailored selection of results, then read the short blurbs to see if you want to click into the listing to learn more. It’s just that instead of number of bedrooms or bathrooms, you’re selecting hair colour, ethnicity, education level, religion, height — or even who the donor’s lookalikes are, just in case you’re looking for a donor who bears a similarity to Jake Gyllenhaal (the one man I would consider sleeping with). Actually, this is a silly analogy. There are far more filters on California Cryobank than on Trade Me, or 

Eighteen, in fact. So, perhaps it’s actually more like Airbnb? But without the pretty pictures. You have to pay to see the pictures.’


Read the rest of the extract here