The XX Factor

The Panda Can Get Pregnant But I Can’t

It’s funny how our perspective is kept in balance. This week, after Lara Bazelon’s piece on her surprise at finding out she was pregnant ran, a number of people wrote in with their own positive pregnancy result stories. (I’ll be posting some of those next week.) At exactly the same time, Shawnee Barton’s poignant account of trying and failing to conceive landed in my inbox. Shawnee’s experience will be familiar to many women who have experienced the hunger of wanting a baby and know the monthly sense of loss that comes with a negative test result. I think you’ll agree, however, that she has a unique and entertaining view of this situation, even if it remains extremely sad.


I first learned that Bai Yun, the only adult female panda at the San Diego Zoo, was pregnant again while listening to the radio on my drive home from the fertility clinic. My husband and I live in San Diego. We take the many friends and family who visit our lovely city to the zoo, so we know a lot about the way pandas live. These unique bears spend 10-16 hours a day eating bamboo, and when they’re not eating, they’re sleeping. In the wild, pandas live in complete isolation. At the zoo, every panda, even the youngsters, occupies a separate habitat.

This means that on a normal day, Bai Yun never sees her mate. She is alone, and either passed out or stuffing her face 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Still, Bai Yun managed to get pregnant, and I, frustratingly, can’t. Expensive hormones, an ovulation-predicting machine, acupuncture, an attractive partner in my bed each night, and fancy doctors with high-tech turkey-basters aren’t working.

Each month, I willingly turn myself into a hot-flash-prone, hormonal monster and make multiple visits to those dreaded cold, metal stirrups in my fertility doctor’s office. Then, two weeks later, at the moment I finally allow naïve hopefulness to settle in, I pee on a stick and find out that it was all for nothing.

After this, my doctor tells me that age is one of the most important factors in predicting fertility. Hearing this is comforting, but youth isn’t helping me. It also makes me angry that Bai Yun managed to do for free what I am paying thousands of dollars for. She is 18. In the wild, pandas live about 20 years. Nesting in a cushy zoo will likely give her five to 10 extra years, but by either standard, Bai Yun is no spring chicken.

The fertility gods clearly favor her and don’t like me. My medical records reveal that I have depleted ovarian reserve. Obsessive Internet research explained what this means-I have bad eggs. Women lose good eggs as they age. Eventually, when only bad eggs remain, menopause begins. For some unknown reason, I have the same number of good eggs, and years left to reproduce, as a 40-year-old woman. Since I am 29, this means I should have started trying to have kids back when I was an undergrad. Still, if a mature lady, like Bai Yun, can defy the odds, maybe I can too.

Frankly, it’s remarkable that she, or any panda, ever gets pregnant. Pandas can conceive on only 3-7 days of the entire year. We humans have a couple days each month when baby making is possible, which seems excessive in comparison. Knowing this makes me wonder how Bai Yun was impregnated so easily. You’d wonder too, if you could see the mating setup at the San Diego Zoo and hear the docent describe the process. It isn’t very romantic.

Essentially, mating begins when Bai Yun rubs her “business” up against a Plexiglas gate that looks like a prison door. When the zookeepers see her do this, they open the gate that separates the two pandas’ habitats. Bai Yun then waits to see if Gao Gao, the adult male, is interested. He may not be, since there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be busy sleeping or eating. But if the stars align, the pandas will make some black and white magic happen while crowds of gawking tourists with flashing cameras stand only a couple of feet away.

Fertility clinic baby-making isn’t very sexy either. First, my DH (that’s “dear husband” in infertility-chat-room lingo) watches out-of-date pornographic videotapes in a special exam room outfitted with mood lighting and a pleather couch. Once he’s “provided a sample,” I am called into the stirrup room. The doctor tells me how plentiful my husband’s sperm are and how wonderfully fast they swim. This is supposed to fill me with pride and hope, but it actually makes me more aware of my own inadequacies. Next, the doctor sticks multiple cold metal instruments inside of me. I try not to think about what he is doing down there and instead focus on wiggling my toes, which is somehow supposed to relax the muscles around my cervix.

Once the loaded catheter is nestled where it should be, the doctor does something that makes me realize that medical technology hasn’t advanced as far as one might think. He crosses his fingers and tells me to think good thoughts just before he pulls the trigger on the syringe. Finally, we both watch the ultrasound screen with awe as my husband’s superhero sperm shoots towards my fragile follicles.

All this fancy equipment hasn’t gotten me pregnant yet, but things have worked out surprisingly well for Bai Yun this year. Turns out she was carrying not one, but two panda cubs. This doesn’t seem fair, and I find myself feeling desperate to someday be half as lucky as a bear. I realize that it isn’t normal to feel resentful towards an adorable panda, but my situation encourages irrational thoughts. I do feel resentment, just like I feel it when I log onto Facebook and see countless new baby pictures, or when I have to listen to my good friend, who recently got pregnant during the first month she tried, complain about tight-fitting pants and morning sickness.

I can’t create a filter that blocks chubby-cheeked infants from appearing on my computer screen or tell my friend to shut up, but the next time I go to the zoo, you can be sure that I will head straight for the pandas. It’s going to be hard, and I’m sure I’ll cry a little (I’m crying right now for God’s sake), but I’m going to say some things under my breath to that bear that I will wish I could scream. It makes me inconsolably sad to know that even sleepy, hungry, loner Bai Yun managed to get herself knocked up in a stressful and unlikely situation, and for some reason I can’t do the same.

Shawnee Barton is an artist who keeps a blog on other people’s blogs. If you have a little nook of cyberspace and are open to welcoming a guest poster, please email her at She will be grateful. To see where she is headed next, check out .

Photo courtesy of the author