The Infertile Embryologist

by Erin Robinson

To put it simply, my body has betrayed me. For twenty-something years, it has put forth a front of smug healthiness. “Getting over the flu in record speed? You got it!” “Punish me by playing rugby? That’s cool, I can TOTALLY deal.” “You’d like to never have ANY medical concerns EVER? SURE! I’m on board!”

So imagine my surprise when, at twenty-two, I applied to be an egg donor, and was promptly denied. Then the nurse nonchalantly told me that if I wanted to have my own biological children, I should do it by the time I was thirty, or else I’d probably miss my opportunity.

Um. Wut. Because that was definitely the phone call I wanted to get out of the blue with no warning while I was at the local zoo with all of my coworkers from my old job.

Turns out I have high FSH and low AMH, a diagnosis that causes heartache for tons of women every year. After copious amounts of research on the interwebs, as well as discreet grilling of the doctors I work with, I am sufficiently terrified. Now that I’m married, my husband and I are thinking we should attempt to start a family, like, yesterday. Because we have the information that we do, because we want some babies of our own, and because most likely, we will end up in my workplace for some assistance.

I am an embryologist. I work in the lab of a fertility clinic. I willingly chose to work in a place where I may have to rely on coworkers to examine my uterus and artificially create children for me and my husband. Ohgodwhy.

I took the job after receiving the news of the egg donor fiasco. I love my job. Every day, I get to help give women a chance at pregnancy and motherhood. I get to sort out their eggs, put them with sperm (“spermcicles” as my Russian coworker has termed them), transfer those embryos into patients, and freeze the remainders. It is incredibly rewarding to check someone’s file after the dreaded “two week wait” and see a positive pregnancy test.

But my job also shoves my own infertility issues in my face. Every. Single. Day. When a woman who is forty-four shares my current FSH level. When a twenty-nine-year-old is receiving eggs from a donor who is thirty-one. Sometimes I spend the entire hour of my commute home crying. Listening to “Sea of Love” on repeat and bawling my eyes out (for some reason, that song just punches me right in the uterus every time I hear it).

Infertility is just not fair. It’s not fair that seemingly everyone I know is pregnant. And that they all just “missed just one pill, OH MY GAWD, isn’t it so crazy, I swear he just LOOKED at me, and BOOM, now I’m PREGNANT, isn’t life just SO FUNNY that way????” It’s not fair that in my mid-twenties, I should be able to get pregnant with ease, as many times as I want. But it’s probably not going to happen that way. Diagnostically speaking, my good eggs are most likely few and far between.

My husband has been so incredible through all of this. We were dating when I applied to be an egg donor, and he sat with me, listening intently, as I pored miserably over the dismal statistics for women with my diagnosis. He still does, as I repeat that same process night after night, now that the timing is almost right for baby-making.

As I sat on the couch the other night with his arms wrapped around me and my laptop screen displaying yet another scientific study trumpeting bad news, I realized something. I want a baby. I want a baby so bad that it hurts sometimes. I want a baby every time I see one on the street, in a restaurant, on Facebook, or any of those other gazillion inconvenient places babies seem to pop up when you’re trying not to think about how you don’t have one. I want a baby every time my mouse somehow clicks its own way over to Zulily and into all the flash sales with the cute yellow chevron stripe summer dresses in infant sizes that have embroidered crocodiles on the collar. I want a baby more than I’ve ever wanted anything else. But I need my husband. His constant love and support are what get me through my weakest moments.

Infertility sucks. Straight up, it’s super shitty. It’s physical and psychological warfare. But after being forced to confront it, analyze it, research it, and go through all of its cruel “what-ifs?” I’ve realized that even if I can never have a child with half my genes that grows inside of me, it’s going to be okay. There are other options. Donor eggs are not for me (I prefer to give rather than receive), but there’s always adoption, or the childfree decision. Besides, no matter what choice we ultimately make, my husband and I have each other. And baby or not, we’re already a family.

Photo of Erin and her husband by Patrick Pike

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  • Isn’t life so, so ironic sometimes? I am a veterinarian, so even before I imagined this would happen to us I knew all about artificial insemination and IVF, and sperm cells maturation, and embryos and superovulation and GnRH, FSH and so forth.

    This is so random and difficult.

    “…baby or not, we’re already a family.” This, this this.

    And it will make you and your partner’s relationship so strong. Hugs. I hope everything will work for you guys.

    Also, working as an embryologist at a fertility clinic must be so rewarding. We have been treated with such kindness and understanding, and it must be so fulfilling to know you can help couples in such a vital way.

  • I’m right there with you, Erin. Sending you so, so many hugs. It is incredibly unfair, and incredibly hard to spend the first years of one’s marriage dealing with this bullshit. It is hard, and so invisible, which makes it worse.

    We recently applied to adopt and were denied due to our student loan debt, but we *also* recently learned that IVF in Prague may be *drastically* cheaper for us than doing it here in the US of A. The point is, even when one door closes, sometimes there’s a window that opens. At (Quaker) meeting the other day, someone brought up the Emily Dickinson phrase “Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door” and it really resonated with me, because we *don’t know* when the baby-dawn will come, so by god, we’ll be open to not just the door we thought we’d choose (adoption) but the doors we can only imagine.

    Sending you many thoughts of open doors. (I just finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed and now I want to call everybody Sweet Pea. Which, incidentally, has been an incredibly helpful book for me, not because it’s about infertility, but it helped me feel like this is just my path on the human journey and I have to live the motherfucking life out of it, FWIW if you need some reading encouragement that’s not ALL ABOUT HOW INFERTILITY SUUUUCKS.)

    <3 So much love. Life is a motherfucker. In both good and bad ways.

    • Nina

      Denied adoption due to student loans?!? I didn’t even know that could happen. I mean, I guess it makes sense that they want babies to go into financially secure homes but… it seems extra unfair because a lot of really poor and indebted people get to have babies just because their bodies let them. Now I’m angry and sad. Sorry Hayley and I hope that everything works out for you and your spouse.

    • Something else to think about – the Cade Foundation ( makes grants to those who want kids but can’t afford infertility treatments. We’re not using them because they don’t make grants to homos (the same way that insurance doesn’t cover infertility for homos, sigh), but they seem like a good option if you need some extra wiggle room.

    • @ Hayley: ” it helped me feel like this is just my path on the human journey and I have to live the motherfucking life out of it”.

      Yes, this, telling myself exactly that, that our path is different than the standard one has helped me cope so much. This is our path, and we will walk it…. so you hold hands and you go.

      I wish you all the best, as you know, I keep hoping your door will open soon (and to anyone else in this boat).

      • You’re in my thoughts as well, lovely.

    • Breck

      Just chiming in to second your Tiny Beautiful Things rec. It was definitely one of those books that shifted my perspective and brought some important things into focus. A must read, for sure.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for talking about Cheryl Strayed in conjunction with infertility. I’ve spent the morning reading Dear Sugar archives and trying not to cry at my desk because of how enormously helpful her words are. I just clicked purchase now on the Kindle version of Tiny Little Things and I am both anticipating reading it, and worried for how emotionally devastating it might be to me.

      I’ve been thinking about how I wish there were support groups for the various life issues a lot of us have (i.e. family problems, emotional abuse, infertility, anxiety, etc.) and just reading Dear Sugar has made me feel like I found someone who understands my pain and who doesn’t judge me for having it. As someone also struggling with fertility, I can’t thank you enough for basically the most perfect recommendation for me right now at this moment in my life.

      • Anon

        One of my friends actually found a support group for infertility in her area. I believe she found it through her clinic and it has been incredibly helpful.

      • I rarely cry when reading, but listening to the audiobook of Strayed reading her advice made me tear up a BUNCH over several articles, both for joy and sadness and just *perspective* man. She is so perfect in her *human-ness* while never sounding like she’s saying you should feel bad for feeling the feelings you feel.

  • Nina

    Infertility does suck and being surrounded by reminders of it every day must be extra hard but there are other options.

    I was told that I’m infertile at the ripe old age of 14… so I’ve had some time to process that reality. I’ve decided to fully embrace the idea of adoption. There are so many awesome babies out there who need good homes!

    • Adopted and Anonymous


      I’m still not sure if babies are a possibility for me or not. I don’t feel the driving urgency to have a baby like some people do. But adoption is still very much an option for me regardless.

      Reuniting with my birth mother confirmed this for me. Giving me up was painful and hard for her but in doing so she gave me the best life possible. It would be a tremendous gift to be able to provide for another child one day.

  • Margi

    I am so in awe of your resilience. Life keeps knocking me back (nothing on the scale of what you are going through!) and I find it so tough to just.keep.going. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Paranoid Libra

    That last line, baby or not, we’re already a family is just awesome. For me personally it’s a good reminder of the whole yea we should still wait another year or two before trying to make our minions. I am officially in a baby season which just makes me want to have one NOW but I have to remind myself that there are some things we want to accomplish before hand otherwise it’s going to take a whole lot longer to get those goals completed.

    I find it so fascinating that you would rather adopt than use an egg donor when you work where you do. I would not want to donate my eggs but I keep thinking how awesome it would be to a surrogate carrier. Sadly you need to have had a kid to become one which on one hand sucks when it’s like hey I’m not planning on using it this year so why can’t I let someone use it before I can but sadly body parts don’t work that way so much.

  • Sarah

    APW has driven this point home for me — that me and my husband are a family already. And we get to navigate the murky waters of late 30s fertility as that: a family. Wishing you all the best!

    • MDBethann

      Us too. We married in our mid-30s and have been trying since our wedding last year. The hard part for me has been some couples that either married right when we did or after we did who are pregnant already (or in a few cases, got pregnant on their honeymoon and have a baby). And the various tests my doctor has run all indicate normal, yet I’m still not pregnant. And my doc just informed me that even though I’m 34 right now, I am considered an “older mother” because from this point forward, I will be 35 if/when I get pregnant and give birth. It’s incredibly frustrating. I didn’t want to wait this long to have children, but I met my DH 4 1/2 years ago, so it isn’t like I had much of a choice. We are open to adoption, but I really would like the experience and the ability to create a little human who is (hopefully) the best of both of us.

      At the same time, I do recognize (and appreciate the reminder) that we are a family. I love our life, and sometimes I do think “what if we remain childless?” but most of the time I want children and therefore seeing pregnant women HURTS. Babies don’t bother me, but pregnancy does. And I always have to remind myself that I don’t know what those women had to go through to become pregnant, so I shouldn’t be jealous of them. But I still am jealous and infertility sucks.

      I thank the OP for this piece – it resonates with me A LOT and the reminder that I’m not alone (when everyone around me seems to either be pregnant or just had their 3rd child) helps a lot. Thank you.

    • elle

      Exactly this.

  • Laura C

    I had a friend who had trouble getting pregnant. Took her a couple years, and fertility treatments, and in that time, her boss’s teenage daughter had a baby as did a couple of her coworkers. I remember her telling me that another of her coworkers was about to start trying, and if that person conceived before she did, she was going to have to quit her job because she just couldn’t stand it. The happy ending is she now has two daughters, but boy, doing the work you do must be like that to the Nth degree.

  • I would like to give you a million hugs.

  • Emma D.

    Oh Erin, I feel for you, so deeply. My husband and I are currently on round two of IVF, and even though the first failed, you and your colleagues — all the embryologists, ultrasound techs, pharmacists, surgeons, nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists, receptionists, researchers and support staff it takes to make a baby when biology doesn’t cut it — are always, always with us. We cheers you guys (literally) at dinner, we crack jokes about how it takes 50 to tango, we appreciate you so, so much. I just want you to know that. Thank you for what you do. And I wish you the best of luck with how you decide to shape your family.

    • Aren’t infertility jokes just the most inappropriately funny things (as long as you are the infertile person and not a fertile Myrtle)? There is no way my husband and I would share half the jokes we’ve made during our infertility journey with our moms.

      • Emma D.

        Yes!!! And SUCH an important part of getting through it together. If we couldn’t laugh about it, I’m not sure we could do it!

  • Anon for this

    Erin, thank you for sharing your story. Best wishes to you and your family.

    This is very off topic, but I love the photograph of you and your husband. Yosemite is one of my very favorite places in the world.

  • Stalking Sarah

    This is beautiful, and so needed.

  • Erin – Super hugs to you. Both for what you do for us fellow infertiles and for being one of the gang. This club sucks, but we’re all here for you.

  • We are wrestling with infertility right now, and I think I’ve sort of resigned myself to the fact that it may just be us and the doggies. Everyone around us is pregnant (all of the husband’s friends got married at the same time. All of them…except us…are due within a 4 month window).

    It is not as painful as I thought it might be…being around all those pregnant bellies, holding sweet small fuzzes. And I think that’s because my husband is such a rock star. I don’t know how I would manage to get through this without him.

  • Thank you so much for sharing this- we’re in the middle of a cycle and it really hit home. I’m always so thrilled to see infertility being discussed in an open forum and I feel like you so often hear about it ruining relationships, it’s nice to discuss how it can also cement a family together. IF has been a horrible (unexpected) monster in our life, but my husband and I talk frequently about how it has strengthened our bond, love, and commitment. I also just want to second the person who thanked you for all that you do for us! Embarking on this journey has been incredibly taxing both physically and emotionally (truly, “warfare” is not an exaggeration) and we may not have made it this far without the support of people like you. I wish you all the best on your journey!

  • “Besides, no matter what choice we ultimately make, my husband and I have each other. And baby or not, we’re already a family.”

    this – oh, all the time this.

  • There is too much racing through my mind & heart to make a very coherent comment but I did want to say thank you. Thank you for this post, thank you for the previous comments. Wishing everyone the very best with their infertility journey~

  • Helen

    My soon-to-be-wife and I have a same-same-but-different issue: our sex organs can’t combine to make a baby. We’re ok with and hopeful for having two children, birthed to one each of us who share a father. But crikey, we still forget and say stuff like “I hope our kids have your nose”. Biology = the pits.

  • Grace


    I feel like you are writing as me but in the future. I am 23 and have been living with endometriosis since I was 18. I too have been urged to try to conceive well before the age of 30, to give myself a chance. I finish medical school a year from now, and hope to peruse a career in obstetrics and gynaecology. Ironic enough?

    I spent my childhood assuming I would have children myself, and now my biggest fear is that never happening for me. I dream of babies at least 3 nights a week. Seeing babies makes me ache. My partner of 4 years loves and supports me 100% but I think he struggles to understand how torn up and anxious I am about this.

    Oh, and “sea of love”, in one of the final scenes of Juno, made me bawl my eyes out. Because Vanessa finally gets the baby she’s been aching for for years.

    I hope one day, one way or another, we’ll all get ours.

    • I hope you will get your baby :)
      I just wanted to chime in to say that I was diagnosed degree IV endometriosis at age 19. We read all the scientific literature on the disease, and found out it is recurrent, even when all the lesions are taken away with laser (laparoscopy). So at the time, we decided not to pursue the 6 months highly dosed GnRH treatment that would give me a menopause because I was also going to move away from home at the same time.
      I spent all my 20s afraid of never being able to get pregnant because I was also told I should try and do it as soon as possible.
      Fast forward 11 years, at 31 I had a second laparoscopy and miraculously all my endometriosis was gone (except for some tiny spots in unimportant places, that they were able to take , and no cysts or endometriomas).
      Ironically (or not) we still had trouble conceiving, our diagnosis is unexplained, though it’s maybe male factor, but it’s not clear.
      Do not lose the hope though… this shit is hard, our roads are different, but it can still happen.

  • Thank you so much for starting this series and writing this article Erin. I just turned 22 and related to so much on what you had to say I almost got emotional reading it. As awful as the possibility of infertility is their is light at the end of the tunnel, and you never go through it alone “baby or not you are indeed still a family. ” Beautiful words