THE PARENT: Talissa Ford, 39, of the city’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood
THE CHILD: Zev Noam, born July 29, 2017
THE ORIGIN OF HIS NAME: The baby’s Hebrew name, Ezra, is for Talissa’s great-grandmother Esther and a family friend, Erna, who fled Germany during the Holocaust. Noam is for her great-uncle Norman.
On the day of the third embryo transfer, a nurse at the fertility clinic was dressed as a fortune-teller. That seemed apt — not only because it was Oct. 31, but because the process of becoming pregnant felt, to Talissa, like a sort of impossible magic.
“You’re showing me an embryo that you say is going to go into my uterus and turn into a human … that’s implausible,” she remembers thinking.
Eight days later, the unthinkable happened. “I got the call that I was pregnant as I was about to leave to go vote,” Talissa says. “I felt very much like: ‘OK, little baby, we’re off to vote for your first president.’ ”
That evening, and the weeks that followed, brought a tangle of emotions. “I had a new investment in the future, which was looking like it might be a little harsher than I had anticipated … I was walking around feeling half-despairing and half very hopeful.”
Talissa, raised Jewish in southwestern Pennsylvania, in a family that included two biracial stepbrothers, always envisioned a future with children. “I assumed I was going to have a partner, but I don’t remember the point when I stopped envisioning that and decided that my life would look different.”
After college at Pennsylvania State University and graduate school at Berkeley, a job teaching British literature at Temple University brought Talissa to Philadelphia. She still wanted a child. But first, she had to deal with her hips: after a decade of pain from hip displaysia, she needed surgery to realign the joints.
The two-year ordeal of surgeries, hardware removal, and rehab, which included several months on crutches after each operation, underscored her need for an extended community. Friends delivered meals, cared for her cats, made CD mixes of their favorite songs.
“I called to get an appointment with the fertility doctor days after my screws came out,” Talissa says. “I was ready to go at that point.”
She’d briefly considered finding a friend — or even a willing stranger she could locate online — to donate sperm and co-parent but decided those scenarios were too risky. Instead, she turned to a sperm bank that offered an open-identity option so that any offspring could someday be in contact with the donor.
Initially, Talissa focused only on prospective donors’ medical histories. “But I realized this was a real person whom my child could potentially meet.” She worried about how a donor’s traits might unfurl in the life of her yet-to-be-conceived child: If she chose a nonwhite donor in the effort to avoid Ashkenazi-related genetic diseases, would her child grow up with an unwelcome sense of being different?
“The least complicated thing for the kid was for him or her to look as much like me as possible. I’m short. I intentionally didn’t pick tall donors. I didn’t want some distinctive marker of the parent who’s not here.”
In the end, it was the voice that swayed her: an audio interview with a donor who sounded friendly, funny, and thoughtful. “I thought: I would be friends with this guy,” Talissa says.
Because she was over 35, she opted for IVF, which included chromosomal screenings of fertilized embryos and would, she hoped, reduce the chances of miscarriage. That meant injections of follicle-stimulating hormones, an egg-retrieval process that left her feeling miserable, and a series of shrinking numbers: from 23 eggs to just two genetically intact, fertilized embryos.
At one point, a nurse told Talissa she would need help. “There was one injection she said I couldn’t possibly give myself, an intramuscular injection in the back of the hip. I thought: Well, I have to. That’s the way I feel about single parenthood in general: I’m doing this alone; I’m doing the things I have to do.” She figured out how to reach behind and plunge the needle into the fleshy spot.
It took a second round of IVF, and a third embryo transfer, to work the charm. Talissa already knew her child would be a boy. “I saw this embryo that turned into him when it was under a microscope. There’s something weirdly sweet about that.”
Then came the phone call, the election, and the strange season to follow. “The whole country was focused on our future. I was also focused on future, but in a different way.” Seeing ultrasound images and hearing a small, percussive heartbeat still seemed abstract, disconnected from an actual person, but her son’s rib-bruising kicks were undeniable.
In fact, those kicks were the subject of their first conversation: the baby was pummeling in response to loud applause at a high school graduation Talissa attended, and she firmly pushed his foot away from the spot that hurt. “I realized I could interact with this baby,” she says. “We came to a kind of agreement about where that foot should go.”
She’d set a modest bar for labor and delivery at Pennsylvania Hospital: no exhaustive research, no meticulous birth plan, only a hope that both she and the baby would emerge healthy. They did, ultimately — despite an emergency C-section at 41 weeks, post-partum blood transfusions for Talissa, and two days in the NICU for Zev because of an infection. “I didn’t have the kind of blissful early days that people, honestly or dishonestly, report having had at home with their newborns.”
The joy, she says, comes now: When she wakes to see Zev staring delightedly at his hands or transfixed by light streaming through a window. “He loves the sky. He loves people singing to him. He just discovered cats this week. He laughs about everything.”
The world stumbles on; Talissa reads the news on her phone while nursing, her focus shifting from global to hyper-local, from the president to the baby in her lap. “I have hope in the future generation because it’s here with me all the time,” she says. “I have to believe that he’s going to grow up and help fix things.”