THE PARENT: Hyoejin Yoon, 46, of Mount Airy.
THE CHILD: Han Alexander, born May 28, 2017.
HOW SHE NAMED HIM: Hyoejin listened obsessively during her pregnancy to the soundtrack from the Broadway show Hamilton and knew “Alexander” would be part of the name. The Korean character for “Han” is shared with several of her uncles.
Hyoejin unpacked the kit she had brought home from her fertility doctor: hypodermic syringes, alcohol swabs, vials of the follicle-stimulating hormone that would kick-start her ovaries into producing multiple eggs.
“I remember that first night, trying to do it by myself. You turn the bottle upside down, and the needle goes … where?” Hyoejin recalled. “I was confronting the fact that I was doing this alone.”
As a child, born in Seoul and raised in Northern Virginia, Hyoejin’s image of family was contoured by cultural tradition. Her parents hoped she would remain at home until she married — a Korean man, preferably — then have children who would care for her in old age, just as she was expected to care for her parents.
But for Hyoejin, career came first. She was an English professor at West Chester University in her mid-30s when she met her former husband online. “He was Japanese American — a great relief to my parents.” They dated for two years, married, and began “passively trying” to conceive.
Nothing happened. After some fertility counseling, testing, and an intrauterine insemination, Hyoejin became pregnant — only to miscarry at eight weeks.
“Some people come together during stress. Some fall apart,” she says. The marriage crumbled, in part because Hyoejin was determined to pursue parenthood — even if that meant upping the ante to IVF — and her husband was less sure.
They separated, then divorced. “And then it was just me making the decisions,” she said. “I could move forward fairly quickly.”
For IVF, she would need to select donor sperm: Did she want her child’s genetic father to be tall? To have brown hair? “I joked with my friends, it felt like I was dog-breeding, selecting features.”
Hyoejin settled on a man who was half-Korean, half-European. The sperm bank provided sound bites from a recorded interview, a baby picture, and a writing sample. According to all that, he was “athletic and tall and beautiful and sensitive.”
He was also an anonymous donor, meaning any offspring would not have access to his contact information in the future. “I wanted this to be 100 percent my child,” Hyoejin says.
She managed the at-home injections and juggled a career in West Chester — by this time, she was working in the dean’s office — with endless medical appointments in West Philadelphia. Her doctor extracted half a dozen eggs and fertilized them with the donor sperm.
“They all came back with chromosomal abnormalities. That confirmed it: OK, my eggs are old,” she said. “I thought that was a dead end.”
Then, someone suggested Hyoejin consider using donor eggs from a younger woman.
“There’s this thing in Korean culture about the genetic connection,” Hyoejin says. “I had to deal with the idea that this baby would not be genetically related to me at all.”
By then, Hyoejin had seen so many iterations of family: colleagues, friends, and Mount Airy neighbors who had adopted, formed blended families, used surrogates, or conceived with donor sperm. “The whole thing about genetics had started to lose its power over me. I had good models to help me push back against that prejudice.”
The donor-egg program at Penn Fertility Care included exactly one Asian donor. Hyoejin read her profile, saw a photograph of the woman, and made her decision.
“I surprised myself at how clear and certain I felt: OK, let’s do it.” The first transfer didn’t take. Neither did the second. More tests, this time to measure the receptivity of Hyoejin’s uterine lining and to fine-tune the timing of the third egg transfer.
She was at work when the fertility clinic’s nurse called. “I had this big grin on my face,” Hyoejin recalls, “and then immediately, it shut down. Every piece of good news was followed by … ‘OK, now you have to make sure it sticks.’”
She slogged through morning sickness, trying to spin the nausea as a “good sign,” and collapsed on the couch at the end of each day. Hyoejin’s mother, who had moved in with her six months earlier, plied her with seaweed soup, a mineral-rich broth traditionally given to pregnant and postpartum women. Her mother also served up stories and superstitions — of her own mother’s seven home births, of the tradition for a Korean woman to point her shoes toward the door of the room in which she gives birth as a promise that she will survive and walk out.
As Hyoejin read obsessively about fetal development, she also felt her identity shift from “professional woman” to “pregnant woman.” She worried that colleagues might be skeptical because of her age or single status. Instead, she found a community of people who were eager to connect. “Suddenly, we had another way of relating. Everyone had a story to tell.”
And there was another surprise: In the months prior to trying IVF, Hyoejin had begun dating a man she’d met online, a clinical engineer at Jefferson University Hospital, who was undaunted by the fact that she was 46, trying to get pregnant, and living with her mother. Their relationship, she says, is “evolving.” He was with her during the birth: an admission to Pennsylvania Hospital at 38 weeks because Hyoejin had developed pre-eclampsia, an induction that led to a C-section that led to a frightening moment in the OR when her heart rate plunged and she began to lose consciousness.
Now, she is home with Han, struggling with breastfeeding and exhaustion and the occasional, disorienting sense that, despite all her professional competence, she has no idea what she’s doing.
While she can’t help looking ahead — to Han’s 100-day ceremony, a Korean tradition, in September, to his first birthday — this baby latches her to the quotidian moment: this smile, this yawn, this creamy spoonful of pigs’ feet soup made by her mother.
“I’ve been a professional woman all my life,” Hyoejin says. “It is nice to have something really important and big other than work in my life. It does feel like there’s a little more balance.”