We are that couple. Well rested, traveled, and career centric. We don’t have college funds furrowed away in a savings account. There are no babysitter numbers neatly posted on the kitchen refrigerator, nor do we plan ahead for sex, it can happen on a school night or over breakfast. What is planned is effective birth control. We don’t want children. It’s been decided.
I’m a professor of behavioral neuroscience at a small liberal arts university and my husband Tom, owns a home inspection company. Our life feels full. A joint love of the water, wind sports, and bird watching brought us to the Columbia River. We live in a floating home with an aging cocker spaniel, a golden retriever and a cat. On any given weekend, we share our house with friends and family.
At one point in our marriage, Tom and I discussed children, but neither of us could find room in our life for them. It took us a long time to find our way here, seventeen years together and a marriage that even I envy. But this life choice requires maintenance, regular, daily maintenance. It was time we elected for something more permanent.
Vasectomy required no fewer than three separate consultations, a take-home informational DVD, a six-month waitlist and a final “are-you-sure-you-really-want-to-do-this visit with the doctor pre-surgery. Vasectomy. Not a word that rolls off the tongue. The phonetics alone, “vas-eck-tome-ee” seems to hint at something painful, although, the actual procedure is considered minor surgery. Performed by cutting or ligating the vas deferens, the small tube that carries sperm from the testicles to the penis, thereby preventing the mixing of sperm with semen. In fact, the phrase “going under the knife,” in many cases does not even apply. The “no scalpel method” makes the procedure far more benign, less threatening to Freudian maleness.
For Tom’s initial consultation, he visited his general practitioner without me. As a home inspector, he clambers up ladders, precariously totters on rooftops, braves live wire in basements with drainage issues and risks dismemberment from angry realtors if his report kills a deal. The man is tough. But he averts his gaze during blood draws. He grows faint if a thin ribbon of blood should trickle from a paper cut, literally just one tiny fleck of blood can drop him to the floor. I on the other hand, have stitched my own kitchen wounds, butterflied a fishing injury, and routinely dissect brain tissue. It is really not surprising he elected to forgo the escort to the doctor, opting instead for a man-to-man discussion, free from the biased, overeager encouragement I readily dispensed at the slightest trace of hesitation. Usually this is in the form of sterile statistical support or a decidedly, unhelpful empirical citation.
“You know honey, I read an empirical review detailing sexual function among 16,000 Australian men. The investigators found when age and socio-demographic factors were taken into account, those with vasectomies experienced the same sexual health as those without.” I can literally feel the wheeze and sputter as air deflates from the balloon of my awkward emotional support. Despite the fact that Tom never took biology in all of his formal education—instead electing for horticulture, he became an expert on male anatomy, an almanac of case-by-case knowledge of the potential for surgical error. Not even my mother-in-law, a hospice nurse and gifted caregiver, her verbal tone, the nurturing equivalent of big-eyed, baby animals, could allay Tom’s anxiety. Our office calendar was a series of Xs, as the looming date circled in red ink and penned, “The Procedure” inched closer. In the end, it was Tom’s doctor that assuaged his unease.
On the day of Tom’s second consultation, he came home uncharacteristically chatty, a stream of facts and data concerning the event that would be celebrated later with both a party and a parody of snipping metaphors. It was a Friday, the end of a long week, I was in the kitchen muddling mint for a mojito. He was talking the moment he walked into the door - his usual pleasantries about my day, his day, work. He threw his computer bag on the bar and ambled over to give me a kiss. Absently, he picked up a stick of spearmint and ran the dull point of the twig over his palm, one of his unconscious habits that he did when he was thinking. Movie sodas were drunk without lids, the ice hitting your teeth because Tom had crinkled the soda straw into a twisted plastic stick that he ran along the corners of his fingers. Theater programs were regularly dog-eared, marred into little edges that traced his hand during the performance. I asked about his doctor’s appointment, he looked out the window, admiring one of the sailboats gliding by.
“The appointment was good,” he said, not taking his eyes off the boat traffic, “You know vasectomy is not like a major surgery, it should only take an hour. They give me some ice and I go home,” he said nonchalant.
He drew his huge, Liz Taylor eyes away from the boats to look at me. His dark hair pushed back from his face, a couple curls clinging to the tops of his sun exposed ears, he smiles at me.
“No sweat. In fact, the doctor talked a long time with me about it, even suggesting since we don’t have kids and usually men who have a vasectomy already have kids, that I consider freezing a sample or two of sperm, you know, just in case…”
“Freeze your sperm? Why?” I asked. A ski boat with loud rap music, giggling, bikini clad, girls and two shirtless, college aged men with backward baseball caps, motored past rattling our hanging wine glasses.
Tom looked sheepish, “You know, in case something happens…”
Puzzled, I said, “In case something happens…?” An impish smile pushed his cheeks to the corners of his eyes.
“Oh, you mean in case something happens to me?”
I queried, trying to gauge if he was serious. Tom was grinning now, clearly enjoying this. He winked at me in mock amusement, his smirk clearly audible in his voice.
“Well, in the unlikely and horrible event that something should happen to you.”
“In case I’m bludgeoned on my way to work? Hit by a car? Or perhaps a grocer will stumble upon a bunch of hemlock and mislabel it basil?” I said bemused.
“Well, uh, you know just in case…” I cut him off.
“In the event I’m struck down and you remarry someone who wants children?” He tilted his head, his tone lilting with facetiousness, “Yeah, if my new, Nicole Kidman look-alike wife wants kids, I can still provide her with my seed.”
The grenade pin is pulled and pitched. I envisioned my husband’s future wife – bright, green eyes and auburn hair straight from a Pantene commercial with tawny tendrils gently hugging a 22-inch waist. I imagined her cheeks, dewy and flush with fertility, as she packs her bags, high heels scuffing the polished floor of her apartment, preparing her move into the lacuna that was once my life.
“So what does that mean? I ask. “Under those circumstances, would you suddenly want children?”
He laughs, “God no.”
He hugs me, no longer teasing.
“I never imagined that, but surgery is permanent. It could potentially be reversed but…what if you change your mind? The suggestion of cryopreservation seemed reasonable.”
Looking earnest he says, “We are going to get you off birth control pills, but that means you will still be able to get pregnant. Granted we are no longer in our twenties, but what if you change your mind after this is over?” Not likely.
I opened my first pack of Ortho Novum 7777 when I was sixteen. The foil wrapped tablets, a gift of my preparatory school’s infirmary. My roommate called the school nurse after she found me on the floor of our dorm room, fetal, whimpering and clutching my stomach. Each agonizing abdominal contraction rolled in like waves of paralyzing pain. They were subtle at first. The low growl of throbbing aches developed into a wall of undulating spasms, and then crested and crashed into cinching convulsions that doubled me over. No position offered a reprieve as the waves pounded on, one after another. This went on for several hours before the nurse, Mrs. Gamblin found her way to my dorm room, her face covered in a thick layer of foundation, the tone just a little too South Beach for the Colorado winter. Despite her small build, she managed to lift my body, still contracted in a tight ball and carried me down two flights of stairs to her car.
I awoke six hours later in an infirmary bed draped in Sante Fe style, fleece blankets, a dancing Kokopelli weaving in and out of the fabric furrows across my chest. It was the one and only day I was ever absent in high school. I had a grievous case of dysmenorrhea, medical-speak for really bad menstrual cramps. Mrs. Gamblin, my shining Margaret Sanger, offered me six months of Ortho-Novum to lessen the cyclical pains. A carnation pink, plastic, compact with a rotating whirl of blushing pills, like tiny, marching reproductive soldiers around a central circle of days of the week. These pills vigilantly separated me from pain and parenthood for twenty years.
But at the age of 35, the warning label on my birth control packaging started to shout at me. “Taking hormones can increase your risk of blood clots, stroke, or heart attack, especially if you smoke and are older than 35!” The warning was worrisome, especially as examples of friends and family began experiencing blood clots, stroke and cancer. After a good deal of discussion, Tom and I elected to switch birth control methods. Though at the time Tom didn’t realize I was moving the conversation into the anathema of surgical interventions.
I expected a war - he could not stomach a splinter let alone surgery…on his testicles. I began readying my battle strategy - a collection of medical articles and demographic statistics of vasectomy success rates, recovery times, and awkward first hand accounts, one of which from my father. To my surprise, rather than charge into battle, Tom waved the conciliatory white flag before the guns even discharged. On a Saturday morning, one week after our alternate birth control discussion, we sat at our favorite breakfast bistro and Tom suggested, his expression serious as his Mediterranean complexion paled, that he undergo a vasectomy. I was shocked.
“Honey, I’m delighted you’re willing to do this for us. But I had not expected that you would just volunteer to have surgery,” I said.
“Well, it makes sense. You have been taking hormones forever and vasectomy is fully covered under our insurance,” he said biting into a forkful of potatoes bravas.
“You’re kidding me?” I said indignant, an aloft forkful of spinach stilled in front of my face. “I have paid for birth control out of pocket my entire life, in spite of the fact that we could have five kids fully covered with prenatal insurance, and you can get a vasectomy free?”
“Well it’s not free, we pay for our insurance.” Tom said, taking a sip of his coffee.
I imagined a bloated Sean Hannity-type sitting behind a desk at my medical insurance company, approval stamp in-hand, punching caverns into the gender gap.
“Prenatal coverage?” The stamp slapping the page,
“Reproductive freedom for women?”
“Birth control interventions for men?”
I look over at Tom again as I take a bite of my greens, he is tracking a red pool of sauce around the sides of his plate with a piece of bread, “what about spermatazoa cryopreservation?” I ask. “Is that covered under our insurance?”
He smiles, “Back on that again? You just really have it in for Nicole don’t you?” Protecting Tom’s reproductive future had occurred to me before Tom’s appointment with his doctor, when cryopreservation was suggested, but planning for the infinite circumstances that could threaten our happiness made my blood pressure pitch and yaw. It was scary. There were just too many deadlines, visitors, dogs, hobbies, moves, travels, presentations, papers, and crises to plan against. I could never discipline my mind to consider and process the worst-case scenarios – so I cheerfully repressed them. I subscribe to the “hope for the best” approach. I am not an optimist, an idealist or even a romantic. I am an empirical person. But my rational, problem-solving mind has a capricious twin. Fortunately, this part of my psyche – the superstitious, impulsive and prone-to-denial part - rarely flies the plane…except when I play cards.
I suppose I can appreciate cryopreservation as a preventative measure against regret. I am sure there are those who undergo vasectomy and regret it. In our case, I had not imagined it. I have never felt a uterine tug at the sight of toddlers. I am more likely to feel a maternal pull over a puppy than a baby. And Tom, the elder of two younger siblings, his childhood was largely indentured. Our former parenting discussions were passionless, more akin to purchasing of fish than a considering a baby. The conclusion was not difficult or dramatic. So, it surprised me that Tom’s doctor could so easily yank that confidence right out of our decision, especially in such an uncouth way – in the event I was hit by a taxi and “Nicole” wanted children.
Not surprisingly, spermatozoa cryopreservation is too creepy for most health insurance providers. The typical medical insurance policy does not provide cryopreservation. The out-pocket costs of freezing and storing Tom’s semencicles totals $500 annually unless you purchase the “Executive Storage” deal, a lump sum of $1,500 for 5 years of saved potential parentage. The confidence blown back into our decision, the billfold was put away. Tom’s frozen swimmers would cut into our sailboat account even sperm, were just too much of a lifestyle cost. “Nicole” could take her henna hair and high heels and move back into her apartment.