I began my first cycle of in-vitro fertilization during a days-long snowstorm. It was January, I had a few days off from teaching, and my insurance dictated that all IVF treatment be conducted in one calendar year—so my husband and I found ourselves driving the seventy miles to my clinic on wet, icy roads. The sleet fell in clumps, and our headlights cast spots of light on a dark landscape that looked altogether alien. Frozen, snow-burdened hemlocks bent over the Virginia highway as if trying to grab us, threatening to break over our heads. Our windshield wipers beat back the elements as we tried not to slide off the road. We could see only what lay directly ahead of us, in our small circle of light.
Where were we? I had asked myself this question several times on our long journey to conceive. We weren’t physically lost, but in a deeper sense, I had lost my bearings. We had been trying to have a child for several years, and, bewilderingly, we had nothing to show for it. Month after month passed with sluggish cruelty, as the doctors ran more tests. Answers were hard to come by. The world felt unknowable, the future dark. Struggling with infertility had made the familiar turn strange—so much of what I thought I knew, not just about conception but about myself, my goals, my identity, had become clouded and uncertain.
My daily routine consisted of doctors’ appointments, blood draws, self-administered hormone injections and frustrated calls to my insurance company. Through all this, my thoughts turned often to the novel Frankenstein, which I was teaching that semester to a class of high school sophomores. As I underwent fertility treatment, Mary Shelley’s famous horror story about artificial reproduction became my constant companion. In exploring an extreme and harrowing instance of procreation—the making of a “monster” who himself desires to reproduce but cannot—Frankenstein confronts us with the complexity and contingency of creating life. In between morning ultrasounds and evening shots, I’d open the novel to prepare for class and see my own story reflected in it.
On my way to the clinic, driving on that icy highway, I thought of Victor Frankenstein’s description of the “awful and majestic” alpine surroundings near Mont Blanc. He is hiking alone, grieving the deaths of two close family friends (one murdered by his creature and the other blamed for the murder). “The icy wall of the glacier overhung me,” he describes, “a few shattered pines were scattered around; and the solemn silence of this glorious presence-chamber of imperial Nature was broken only by the brawling waves or the fall of some vast fragment, the thunder sound of the avalanche or the cracking, reverberated along the mountains, of the accumulated ice.” Victor finds solace in this threatening climate because nature’s grandeur pulls him, for a moment, out of his despair. The sublime scene, he explains, could not “remove” his grief but “subdued and tranquillised” it. That night, I felt a small slice of his wonder, but also fear. Where would this journey end?
By now the origin story of Frankenstein is the stuff of literary legend. The novel got its start as an entry in a ghost-story contest hosted by Lord Byron on a rainy night at his estate. I recounted all this when I introduced the novel to my students, but I also told them about Frankenstein’s lesser-known origin story involving Mary Wollstonecraft’s placenta. The famous feminist—author of the radical A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—died just days after giving birth to her daughter Mary Shelley, contracting an infection when a doctor reached into her uterus and attempted to remove her placenta after it failed to expel itself following delivery. The doctor did not wash his hands, as there wasn’t yet a proper understanding of sanitization, and there were no antibiotics. Shelley’s birth resulted in her mother’s death, and this haunted her. Her very existence proved that creating life is unpredictable and laden with risk.
Feminist readings of Frankenstein have long focused on how Shelley’s experience of pregnancy, miscarriage and infant loss shaped the story. In the preface to the 1831 edition, Shelley referred to the book as her “hideous progeny,” which she hoped would “go forth and prosper.” Tragically, her own children, mostly, did not. Shelley lost a days-old baby not long before the famous ghost-story contest that led to the novel’s drafting. She continued to revise the novel throughout her reproductive years, and, as Jill Lepore wrote in an essay on Frankenstein in the New Yorker, by 1823, Shelley “had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice.”
Much of Frankenstein takes place in extremity, on the margins of the known world: it is a story told at the North Pole rather than in the cozy confines of Europe. In the novel’s first pages, an explorer named Walton writes to his sister that, as he sails to the Arctic, he is already beyond the realm of the known, and that what he relays may shock her. When Walton soon happens upon a miserable-looking wretch on an ice floe, it is Frankenstein, the ill-fated scientist, pursuing his creation to the ends of the earth. Victor tells his rescuer that his tale is not for the faint of heart and might seem incredible: “Prepare to hear of occurrences that are usually deemed marvellous,” he cautions. “Were we among the tamer scenes of nature, I might fear to encounter your unbelief, perhaps your ridicule; but many things will appear possible in these wild and mysterious regions.”
“Wild and mysterious regions”—that’s the territory I felt I had been treading in trying to conceive, and my own incredulity was slipping away each day. On Instagram, I browsed infertility accounts where “IVF warriors” shared their individual struggles, chronicling each step of their fertility treatments to offer encouragement, community and, sometimes, promo codes for supplements or other merchandise. But Frankenstein offered something altogether different: the story cuts to the core of the anxiety of reproduction, grappling with the isolation and terror that can accompany trying to create another human being. I had become completely dedicated to getting pregnant, even as I understood the process and the potential outcomes less and less. I started to feel at once like the object of an experiment and like a mad scientist—with my ovulation kits, my endless researching, my careful tracking of all relevant (and possibly relevant) data, the vials of medicines I mixed at night. I recognized myself in Frankenstein’s lonely obsession: “No one can conceive the variety of feelings which bore me onwards, like a hurricane,” he explains. No one can conceive…
I didn’t always assume conceiving would be so fraught and mysterious. In fact, I assumed it would be straightforward: a simple mechanistic process with a fairly predictable timeline. The fertility statistics I had been googling affirmed that my odds were very good; the majority of heterosexual couples in their twenties and early thirties conceive within three to six months of “trying,” a phrase that seemed to mean simply not using birth control. During a prenatal checkup, my gynecologist assured me it would likely happen very quickly and pressed me to wait until I was absolutely ready. I had come to that appointment with questions about vitamins, vaccines and other pregnancy preparations, but she waved away my concerns. “Get a flu shot and take a prenatal,” she offered flippantly—nothing else was necessary. After years of supposedly doing the harder thing—avoiding pregnancy—aiming for it felt transgressive and a bit exhilarating. Conception was like turning a new page, and now that I was ready for it, I figured it was a physiological inevitability, just a matter of time.
At first, I would wait every month with anticipation through the passive, anxiety-ridden time that the online forums call the “two-week wait”—the window after ovulation when an embryo is meant to develop and implant. I tried not to waste pregnancy tests, swapping out the big plastic ones (twenty dollars for a two-pack) for modest color-changing strips that I bought in bulk and used only when I knew they’d be truly accurate. It was hard to wait so long to test, but getting negative after negative was harder.
I thought getting pregnant would happen easily for me because it was something I could not overthink. At the time, I was a graduate student finishing my dissertation, and I believed, perversely, that my lack of control over the reproductive process would promise its success. In other words: writing the book was hard, so I assumed having the baby would be easy—or at least I assumed it was something I could accomplish without mental effort and intention. It was not an intellectual problem; I simply had to show up and let my body do its thing.
This turned out not to be the case. After several months, still mildly cheerful but impatient, I turned to ovulation tests, which assured me of a huge statistical jump in conception success, as if I simply needed to fix my timing. The tests initiated me into a regimen of monitoring my body daily, scanning it for signs of fertility. I had been using a period-tracking app for years, so I had some idea of when I might be most fertile, but these kits would pinpoint the precise 48-hour period before an egg would be released. Perhaps, if I could chart my cycle, I could bend it to my whims.
Though I knew it wasn’t entirely rational, I began to feel responsible for optimizing my own fertility. I cut caffeine, added spinach to my salads and dedicated myself to exercising. The longer I tried to get pregnant, the more technical and esoteric the process became. On the fertility Instagram accounts and online “TTC forums”—for those “trying to conceive”—I was inundated with acronyms and pop terminology to describe the experience. I learned the shorthand quickly: there was “OPK” for ovulation-predictor kit, “TWW” for the two-week wait and the worst and most cringeworthy offender, “BD,” the “baby dance”—because mentioning sex was less desirable, apparently. (Or maybe it was because sex was something you did for pleasure, and this was more akin to obligation.) For those already actively pursuing fertility treatments, there was the lingo of “IUI,” “intrauterine insemination,” and of course, the next and final step: “IVF,” or “in-vitro fertilization”—where most end up if their attempts at getting pregnant (naturally and with assistance) don’t pan out. As time went on, what initially felt foreign and overwhelming became intimate knowledge, a secret language for the unfortunately initiated.
When I went looking for them, I saw reproductive failures all over Frankenstein. In the novel’s first chapter, Victor recounts his childhood (an offshoot of a common Romantic interest in this period of innocence and nurture) as blissfully happy; his parents were enlightened and benevolent shapers of his world. Yet they fail to conceive a sibling for him after five years and instead “adopt” a poor young girl, Elizabeth Lavenza, while on vacation in Italy (her own mother had died during childbirth). Victor’s mother is taken with the girl’s beauty and innocence, welcoming her into the family as the child she could not create. Later, Elizabeth will come down with scarlet fever and indirectly kill the mother who tends to her, in an echo of Shelley’s own experience.
Victor is radicalized by all this loss. Grieving his mother, he pursues a self-assigned project to overcome death, which he considers an “irreparable evil.” He is determined to learn how to reanimate matter, to harness the powers of life and death. Assembling his creature from stolen body parts scavenged in graveyards and slaughterhouses, he is both a crazed graduate student, cloistered in his lab, and a grieving, confused son: “I had worked hard for nearly two years,” he explains, “for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body … I had desired it with an ardor that far exceeded moderation.” But there’s a catch: even while Victor pursues mastery of the physical world, he also wants to preserve its mystery. Take the magic of a lightning strike—how can science explain or manipulate that without diminishing its power? As a boy, Victor dabbled in alchemy and the writings of the occultist Cornelius Agrippa because he didn’t want to dispense with wonder. He resisted relying on the tidy scientific theories that could make the universe feel manageable, but also small. When he begins his studies, he complains, “I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” He wants the objects of his study to shimmer, not shrink, with his explanation.
I, too, felt this desire for mystery: I wanted to know less, not more, about how reproduction worked—or so often didn’t. I wasn’t against medical or scientific intervention, but I hoped to avoid it, with its prohibitive cost and physical discomfort. Also, for reasons I couldn’t fully justify, I simply wanted the process to work on its own. Spontaneous conception held a certain mystique, the aura of cosmic blessing. Learning all the ins and outs of how IVF worked, its lingo, the anything-but-sure success rates—who wouldn’t want to remain in happy ignorance, blissfully awaiting a miracle, which, after all, people experience all the time?
When we had exhausted all other possibilities and were ready to begin the IVF process, my clinic gave my husband and me a twenty-page packet outlining the steps we would take to go through first an egg retrieval and then, if all went well, a frozen embryo transfer. Flipping through the packet with its timelines, medical terminology and disclaimers was overwhelming, but the amount of paperwork seemed to me to match the seriousness of the endeavor. I felt a sense of calm that, after all our futile effort, finally we were not solely responsible for conceiving; our doctors were our co-conspirators now. If we didn’t succeed immediately, at least we could know where things were going wrong. IVF, we hoped, would allow us to peer into a phenomenon that otherwise unfolded in total, unknowable darkness.
IVF, basically, involves harvesting eggs and sperm and combining them to create embryos in a lab. The first step for me was to begin daily injections of hormonal shots that would stimulate my ovaries to produce as many eggs as possible; almost every day, I would have a monitoring appointment including bloodwork and an ultrasound to check on the progress. My doctor would then “retrieve” any eggs when they matured about two weeks later. (She joked that it was like a Nintendo game: she goes in and “collects all the coins,” with what I can only describe as a vacuum syringe.) After the procedure, which is done under light anesthesia, the doctor can report how many eggs were retrieved, how many were mature and, soon after, how many successfully fertilized. The resulting embryos, assuming there are any, must then develop on their own, splitting and dividing into the appropriate number of cells to create a pregnancy. This is something no one has any control over, and waiting for news during the five days after the egg retrieval is a unique agony.
After several years of trying, IVF offered the promise of a solution. At the same time, I knew fertility treatment offered no guarantees. Even for a young patient with a good prognosis, a single IVF cycle has only about a 45 percent chance of success. There were many uncontrollable factors that could derail or delay our plans: my body not responding as anticipated, insurance delays, appointment scheduling hiccups, COVID exposures. Although sex-ed textbooks often make conception out to be a foregone conclusion of sex, nothing—in IVF or in “natural conception”—is inevitable.
Embryos are created by specialists in a lab under highly controlled conditions and temperatures. I would not be there, and I would not see it happening—so I imagined the scene myself. I pictured the embryologist with her microscope combining the eggs and sperm and then carefully placing them in a freezer—or at least a frozen, white-clouded landscape, wisps of cool, sterile smoke emanating from a site of (possible) miracle.
My imagining of this scene was not unlike the atmosphere of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the Sea of the Fog, which graces the cover of the Dover Thrift revised edition of Frankenstein I was using as my teaching copy of the book. I identified with this image for all we cannot see in it: the figure’s face, what lies beyond the fog, any hint of human society or companionship. The man is alone, facing the elements, majestic in his singularity, yet hidden from view. The raw intensity of the natural yet wild scene swirls around him—the painting is often described as a depiction of the sublime, blending awe and terror. The main figure is an explorer, and the mountains and sky look like the sea; like a sailor, this wanderer does not know what depths await him.
I was drawn to this image not only for its moody atmosphere but because it allowed me to think of IVF as natural—corresponding to nature and human wonder, its own slice of the sublime—rather than sterile and unfeeling. There is a lot about IVF that is decidedly unromantic: the shots, the bloodwork, the scans, the bills. As I dutifully attended my many monitoring appointments and administered my daily shots—which my husband mixed and prepared from vials we stored in special containers in our refrigerator, suddenly a makeshift pharmacy—I was keenly aware of the medical side of things. Yet it wasn’t the shots that were the real horror; the intractable situation of not being able to conceive was what my mind had to wrap itself around, where the pain lodged. There was even a kind of beauty in the shared routine we undertook each morning or night as we prepared the injections, a different kind of intimacy.
I began to think about IVF as Romantic, if not romantic in the conventional sense. Much of going through IVF felt elemental, like having a front-row seat to a thunderstorm. I’m not just referring to the mood swings brought on by a hormonal regimen, though those were real too. The whole undertaking was accompanied by highs and lows—the emotional version of extreme weather. I saw myself in Friedrich’s enigmatic figure, marveling at nature’s volatility. I did not know when the fog would clear from my view, either.
The sublime, as Shelley well understood, stimulates the imagination but also devastates. As I began to undertake the process of fine-tuning my body, I felt even more deeply that science offers only the illusion of control. The treatments can only do so much. Victor’s professor puts it this way:
The ancient teachers of this science … promised impossibilities and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers … have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding-places.
In the end, Victor realizes he has no control over the outcome of his labors, just as he cannot control others. When Victor finally animates his creature, he recoils in disgust, not awe. (This postpartum horror is the first of many parental failures.) Terrified by the look of his creature, he seems to equate appearances with moral worth; the grotesque body he created that way, with outsize proportions, blurring the categories of human/nonhuman, living/dead, is inherently threatening because it is “unnatural,” grotesque. But Victor’s horror is misplaced; the creature later argues that it was not his unconventional origins that “made [him] a fiend,” but his “misery,” being rejected by his own creator.
It’s easy to conclude that Shelley is offering up a clear cautionary tale against ambition, scientific overreach and personal hubris, and in many ways, of course, she is. Shelley gave her original edition of the novel a subtitle: “The Modern Prometheus.” Victor’s name is ironic; he has tried to steal fire from the gods and, in succeeding, failed. But while some might read into the novel a simple condemnation of artificial reproduction, the fear and chaos of the tragedy—and Victor’s downfall—revolves around the uncertainty of “natural” reproduction as well. When Victor and the creature meet again in the Alps, the creature asks his creator for a mate, hoping for companionship as an outcast to human society. At first, Victor reluctantly agrees, traveling to the remote islands of Scotland to complete the abhorred task. But ultimately he is worried the two will reproduce, creating a new, monstrous species. The horror of this image—a happy family of monsters—prompts him to destroy his half-finished creation. The creature vows his revenge, later killing Victor’s bride on their wedding night and eliminating the possibility of their children and happiness too. The horror at the heart of Frankenstein is that, whether man-made or “natural,” the act of creation is chaotic and unpredictable; it brings pain and threatens destruction. Even attempting such a thing can have life-altering consequences.
The final stage of IVF is an embryo transfer, during which the doctors insert an embryo through the cervix and into the uterus, with the hope that it will implant and lead to pregnancy. I had been prepping for this with daily injections for weeks, and if implantation was successful, the shots would continue for weeks more. Unlike my egg retrieval, I was awake for this outpatient procedure, costumed in a hospital gown and hairnet, with my husband by my side. They wheeled me into the procedure room (here, I realized, I likely resembled the movie adaptations of Frankenstein’s creature strapped to the gurney). TVs were positioned toward me with ultrasound imaging of my uterus so the doctor could do her job but also so we could watch the little embryo blip shoot across the screen and, hopefully, begin burrowing into my endometrial lining.
The embryologist walked out from the lab with a small test tube; in it, invisible, was our embryo, floating in fluid. She chatted about her weekend, detailing a bachelorette party she had just attended. I had come to deeply appreciate and even rely on this quirk of medical professionals—acting as if one of the most significant moments of my life were just routine.
I was told not to sneeze or make any sudden movements during the transfer, so I focused on the TV screen. It was amazing, in the true sense of the word, to be able to experience this, to witness the precise moment that a pregnancy could begin. IVF offered us this moment of wonder, of radical transparency. Yet still, the mystery remained. The doctor explained that it is actually impossible to see the embryo being inserted. What one sees, if anything, is the water that comes out of the syringe with it. I saw nothing, not even the water, really. Maybe a flash of light that looked like the ultrasound image glitching. The waiting began again. I would not know—one could not know—if I were actually pregnant for about ten days.
In the days post-transfer, there is another acronym the IVF warriors like to use: “PUPO,” “pregnant until proven otherwise.” Some women nervously take a pregnancy test each day. Others wait until what is called “beta day,” when one returns to the clinic for a blood test that is more reliable. I did not test. I was busy teaching, and I found the little white test strips vaguely triggering. But what I really needed was to dwell in possibility for as long as I could.
After the transfer, my clinic gave me a picture of my embryo, with my medical information printed along the bottom. I stared at this image, unsure what I was looking at. The photo is enlarged and printed on photo paper, in gray scale, grainy and blurry. A strange first picture: abstract and hard to describe, despite the temptation to anthropomorphize it. The embryo looked like a perfectly round circle of fizz, with one tiny piece of it overflowing its borders, oozing toward something. This spilling over of the cell was the embryo “hatching,” reaching out to implant in the lining of the womb. This is the all-important last step: online, people encourage their “embabies” to “stick,” and others to wish them luck by “thinking sticky thoughts.”
What was this frothing bubble? What would become of it? Should I hang it on the fridge? What is an embryo photo, after all, but a modern relic of the sublime? Its smallness was a sharp reminder of the vastness of the universe and how little of it we can actually see and know.
Some critics of IVF say that assisted-reproductive procedures are arrogant guards against mutability and uncertainty—think of how casually the term “designer babies” gets thrown around, or the warnings against “playing God.” The latter phrase, which owes its popularity to a film adaptation of Frankenstein, not Shelley herself, implies that humans can control fate and bend the world to their whims, usurping some natural order. At the end of the novel, after everything, Victor leans into moralizing, tidying his story into a neat narrative of what went wrong, to be passed on to those safely at home in England: avoid tampering with the unknown—that is Victor’s parting wisdom. But the results of any creative process, reproductive or otherwise, will always be unknown when you first begin it.
For me, this time, IVF worked. I got pregnant. I stayed pregnant. I now have a son who was born on one of the coldest days of the winter last year. I joked he liked it cold, that he remembered his freezer days. But I couldn’t begin writing this essay until my pregnancy was well underway, as I was intimately aware that nothing was certain, that my fortune could change any second. Creating life is so much more chaotic, so much more riddled with contingency and loss, than we tend to admit. Failure lurks at every turn, confounding the distinction between the natural and the unnatural: we are left with what simply is, or isn’t. Like poetry, science does not dispel mystery but rather plunges us deeper into it.
Art credit: Susan Byrnes, Vessel (Test Tube Group), 2015. Clear sandcast glass block with negative impression of chemistry glass, 7 × 7 × 2 in. Courtesy of the artist.