Trigger warning: descriptions of sexual assault and miscarriage
The prod of the ultrasound probe against my cervix was uncomfortably familiar. The monitor showed a grainy black-and-white image. “That’s your uterus,” the gynecologist said. He moved the probe and I winced at the slight discomfort. “And those things are your follicles.”
It looked like a simple stalk of grapes, but it was the most heart-stopping sight in the world to me. As the probe moved to the other side, the gynecologist confirmed that I had an abundance of healthy follicles able to produce eggs.
Here’s a quick biology refresher: the ovarian follicles secrete important hormones during the menstrual cycle. They also have the potential to release mature ova, or egg cells, at ovulation.
In other words, they’re necessary for those who want to become pregnant naturally – or, in my case, for those who want to donate eggs.
At 20, I wasn’t yet ready or willing to have children of my own, but I wanted to donate my eggs to people who wanted children. I first learned about the process of egg donation from one of my sister’s glossy magazines when I was 13, and I immediately decided to donate my eggs when I was old enough. When I went to college, I stuck to my resolution. I did some research and signed up with a reputable egg donor agency. After being matched with a family, I planned to fly to Mexico from South Africa to donate.
Because I did my research quite thoroughly, there was very little that surprised me during the process. But I didn’t expect that donating my eggs would change my relationship with my body forever.
I’ve had a tumultuous love-hate relationship with my reproductive system.
My introduction to sex happened at the age of 12, when I was raped by an older acquaintance. It was the first time I became aware of my body as something that could be sexualized, with or without my permission.
During the rape, I felt my body shed its innocence like a snake skin: painfully and suddenly. At one point, I stopped feeling like I was still inside my body. I later learned to call this feeling “dissociation.” It was as if my soul and body were tied together with a fine ribbon, and he came along and snipped it. The rape severed my connection to my body, and I thought I’d never feel connected to it again.
My initial feeling of violation was replaced with panic when, a few weeks later, I discovered that I was pregnant. The next few weeks were a blur: I felt elated, confused, and scared all at the same time. I hadn’t told anyone about the rape, and I didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy either, partially because it felt too surreal to be true.
About three months after my assault, I writhed around in pain on my bedroom floor. I could feel blood pooling in my underwear, and I realized that I miscarried.
I began to panic at the sight of menstrual blood, and although I grew up in a home that didn’t stigmatize menstruation, I began to associate periods with shame.
The shame, for me, wasn’t rooted in the notion that menstruation is dirty – an unfortunately common attitude. Rather, it was rooted in my miscarriage. It reminded me of a painful belief I held onto during my trauma: that my body failed me after I failed to protect it. I viewed my vagina as the cause of my rape – it was, after all, something someone wanted and took by force. Menstruation was a monthly reminder of my troublesome vagina and my unruly uterus.
Nobody told me that miscarriage or rape would make me feel like a stranger in my own body. Sometimes it felt like my body wasn’t really mine, but rather a foreign thing that I had only a little bit of control over. It felt like I was playing a video game and my body belonged to a character. I’d tell my arms to move, but I couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t lag, and in that second, I just might be vulnerable.
Then, that day in the gynecologist’s office, I saw my uterus appear on a black-and-white monitor. Maybe you can bring me some joy after all, I thought as I hopped off the table.
There’s a lot of practical information out there about egg donation, and I read it all. I researched the prescribed medication. I anticipated the side effects like bloating and tiredness. And, of course, I learned whatever I could about the retrieval process.
I also read about dodgy egg donation agencies, and about donors who regretted donating their eggs.
None of the information I read prepared me for how I’d be filled with a sense of self-love during the egg donation process.
Throughout the process, we had to take care of our bodies. We had to stay hydrated, get rest, and avoid strenuous activity. We had to take the right medication and administer our injections on time.
I realized that I wasn’t good at taking care of my body. Our society glorifies burnout culture and productivity, so we push ourselves to be productive even when it makes us ill. Treating your body with such tenderness is a rare and healing experience. For a long time, I held my body at arm’s length. My body felt like it was a vehicle I used to get through life, not a part of me. After all, it was easier to say “My body was violated” than “I was violated.” Turning my focus towards my body for two weeks was an experience that made me realize how I’d mistreated myself.
It was my first time overseas, and I was incredibly homesick. But there were unexpected gifts: I got to connect with fellow egg donors. I experienced excitement from watching my follicles grow through another grainy black-and-white monitor. I felt a sense of accomplishment after the retrieval.
After the two-week egg donation process in Mexico, I went home with my soul tethered to my body once again. I don’t believe that people have to reproduce in order to be valuable, but I knew the happiness that a pregnancy could bring to a family.
By helping someone work towards making that dream come true, I put a bit of joy into the world – and that made me feel unbelievably good.
On the final plane trip home, I leaned my head against the plane. The vibration lulled me to sleep. Just before I passed out, I ran my hand over my stomach and felt a sense of magic that I’d never felt before.
Our bodies don’t exist to make other people happy. They exist to house our souls.
But sometimes we can use them to serve our communities, to express love, and to bring joy to those around us. Doing that consciously, by our own rules and with our consent, can be healing.
I’ve gone through the egg donation process three times, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I used my body to do something beautiful, even after something ugly happened to it.
Somehow, despite the fact that my reproductive organs were a site of trauma, they could still be a site of beauty.