‘Still Waiting for Father’s Day’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This story from a 39-year-old reader is utterly heartbreaking. He and his wife not only struggled for years to conceive—suffering a miscarriage along the way—but also struggled to adopt. (Perhaps they can find some helpful insight from our reader series on adoption or the one on miscarriage.) Our reader begins his story plaintively: “Being a father was always the thing I wanted the most, from childhood on up.”

I was an only child to an only son from my grandfather who had lost a courageous battle of MS over ten years before I was born. My nuclear family connections were important and I wanted to have a good job, but not a great job because I wanted to have the freedom to be there for my kids when they needed me, like my family had been for me.

I got married pretty much straight out of college and my wife wanted a professional career that required a master’s. We put off starting a family until she was done, after we’d been married three years. We were both 26 when she went off birth control.

The following January we were pregnant. The following March we were not.

The product of our conception slipped away, and we were excoriated for not visiting the emergency room instead of urgent care. We knew that miscarriage was common, so we chose not to tell anyone (or nearly anyone) that we were trying, nor that we were unlucky.

We were told that our miscarriage meant our clock started over, but six months later there were no positive results. Meanwhile, the parade of friends, family and co-workers getting pregnant started to get bigger and bigger. I became more and more desperate and my wife, obligingly, went along—beyond things that she thought were appropriate: Clomid, IUI, laparoscopy, injectables, IVF.

All the while the costs mounted—both the cost of the treatment and the cost on our marriage. I took each drip of bad news as a personal failing, and both of us were more and more separated from family, friends and each other. Instead we felt trapped, bitter, and unfairly persecuted for something that wasn’t out fault.

When our second round of IVF failed to produce nearly enough eggs, the doctor (who worked for a clinic that had said they could make my wife's ovaries do anything) reported that there was no chance we would ever have a child biologically. My life was basically over at that point. There was no more writing on the pages in the book of my life. All I saw was blankness.

My wife tried to convince me to leave her. She wanted me to have what I wanted, and since she couldn’t give it to me, she’d release me. Like I could be happy with someone I didn’t love.

After pausing for several months, we elected to pursue domestic infant adoption —infant because I wanted as clean a slate as possible, and domestic because international made us both feel icky. Both of us are fastidious book learnin’ types, so we started to read and take the necessary classes. We got into an adoptive pool and waited ... and waited ... and waited. Many times we were told that we were the last couple that a birth mother was looking at, but every time she chose someone else. (And once we even got trapped in CPR class with a couple that had been chosen ahead of us.)

The march of negative pregnancy tests and, later, rejection e-mails from our social worker left a mark. We had become failures of both biology and the judgment of birth mothers. We more distant from one another than ever.

And my wife, who had been in school or trying to have a baby for all but 24 months of the 12 years I had been with her, discovered alcohol—and, just behind it, alcoholism. I was too blinded by my need to be a father to see it. So, as were trying to re-up for another year of being judged by birth mothers, my wife took a water bottle full of vodka on an errand in our car, got lost, and hit a telephone pole.

Let’s just say: we didn’t end up adopting.  The empty book returned and we both headed into recovery programs. The good news is they worked. The bad news is neither one of us feels that adding the stressors of adoption would be healthy.  Indeed, I was addicted to becoming a father so much that I was willing to throw almost everything away for it.

There isn’t a day I don’t wish I were a daddy. That child we miscarried would be 12 today.

I still don’t talk about this with anyone. What can they say? They have their kids and their lives and here I am stuck. A failure. I built my whole life around something basic and I have nothing to show for it.

I reel when parents complain about their kids being monsters or burdens.  I worry for my lonely future when no one will be there to help take care of me when I am old. I resent childcare tax credits when IVF is prohibitively expensive. I resent abortion warriors who think I am the reason that other mothers should be required to carry their children to term. I just wish things were different for me.

But I try to live one day at a time now. I try to think about whether we could be foster parents, as if that would somehow be easier. I try to see what the point of all the suffering and anguish was. I have the heart of a parent and I want to do something with it. As I approach 40 next year, I recognize that it would take a Powerball-level miracle for me to ever really be called someone’s daddy, so my job today is to learn to accept that, tears notwithstanding.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to share. I have been looking for more ways to advocate for this community I’m a part of, and telling my story is a way to do that.

If you have any words of support for our reader, especially if you’ve experienced something similar, please send him a note. Update: Here’s one from Leila:

I read your story with tears. When a door to personal life is closed, it can mean we are meant to act on a universal stage. You mention fostering a child, which would be a kindly act. Of course I don’t know what your circumstances are, but you sound like someone who would be a great help in any number of countries, setting up or working with an orphanage to rescue abandoned children from the streets. You could find yourself a Dad to hundreds of children over the years.

I wish you peace in finding your purpose. I am sure it is a different path than most others.

Here’s another note, from Peggy, who addresses another option for our reader:

I am not sure why you and your wife feel “icky” when you contemplate international adoption. But if that possibility remains, do it!

Sure, the process is exhausting, time consuming, and at times painful. But like any pregnancy, the rewards are never ending. Our infant daughters came to us from China. One, who spent many early months in an orphanage, has some anxieties, but then she is a teen now, so I suppose that comes with the territory.

Our 11 and 14-year-old girls are straight-A students with kind hearts and wise minds. And, of course, I think they are as pretty as daisies in a field. My husband and I would not trade them for any other, even children born to us biologically. These are our forever children,  and we are so grateful to have them.

Don’t dismiss this possibility. Please.

One more note of encouragement, from Don:

KNOW THIS: YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE BY ANY MEANS! Life doesn’t always follow the script we develop in our minds and hearts.

I too have wanted to be a Father since I was very young. In my first marriage my wife became pregnant in both of her tubes and they were removed. At that point we reassessed and considered adoption. As time wore on, we focussed more on her three children from a previous marriage and adoption never occurred. In my second long-term marriage, I fully expected to have a child, and after a few years I broached the subject and learned that my wife did not feel the same. I was frustrated and disappointed.

I have spent my life trying to be the best “Uncle Don” I could be to the children of all of my family and friends. Not having my own child will always be the biggest regret of my life, but there is much more to life. You sound like an amazing person and brought your partner through a very trying time. It may be time to rewrite your “script.” I wish you well.