A month after Anabella and Matteus Potter were born in 2009, their parents, Adriana and Robert, agreed to disagree on what to do with two other embryos created in the same petri dish as their twins.
Grateful for the in vitro fertilization that enabled the Elmhurst couple to become parents, Adriana Potter, 38, believed donating the embryos to advance reproductive technology or treat debilitating diseases would be the most life-affirming choice. Robert Potter, 44, imagined having more children or donating the embryos for another couple to do the same.
Anabella and Matteus made up their parents' minds. Watching the brother and sister blossom into beautiful toddlers compelled them to have both embryos implanted last November.
Adriana Potter used to think that when life was too good to be true, her happiness could come to a halt at any moment. She credits the support of the couple's Methodist congregation for teaching her to accept the surprises that life has to offer, both good and bad.
But what happened next affirmed her faith even more.
Though an ultrasound showed that only one of the thawed embryos had survived in her womb, a nurse heard two heartbeats during a follow-up appointment. The surviving embryo had split, and the couple is expecting identical twins this coming summer.
"How can I not say it's God?" Adriana Potter said. "This womb was made to carry twins."
Even though anything can happen during the first trimester of a pregnancy, the couple has wasted no time telling friends, family and colleagues. Adriana Potter believes in inviting others to share in the joy right away. Thanks to her renewed faith, she is no longer afraid to be happy.
Growing their family
Adriana Potter never pictured herself a Methodist. Raised Roman Catholic in Brazil, she didn't know Methodists existed. Then she met Robert Potter. They married in November 2000.
When the couple bought their west suburban bungalow, they joined Elmhurst First United Methodist Church.
Eager to fill the upstairs bedrooms, the couple began to think about children. But they faced difficulty getting pregnant. A series of tests found that the couple would need help from science.
It took two attempts at in vitro fertilization. On the second try, four embryos were produced. In February 2009, the Potters chose to place two embryos in Adriana's womb and freeze the others in case the second attempt failed or the pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage. Anabella and Matteus were born in October 2009.
When the bill for storage arrived four months later, Adriana and Robert were too overwhelmed to decide the fate of the other embryos. They postponed their decision and paid the $300 fee.
Knowing the invoice was in the mail in January 2011, they weighed the issue again. Adriana Potter made a doctor's appointment to explore getting pregnant again, but canceled it. She refused to let a few hundred dollars force a decision she wasn't ready to make.
By October, she went back to work part-time as a physical therapist, and the twins started attending church day care five days a week. Life had become more manageable and motherhood more enjoyable. Adriana Potter told her husband she didn't want to share the embryos after all. She was ready to grow their family.
"We want to have a slightly larger family if possible, but the main thing is we want to give them a chance," Robert Potter said. "The reason was for the babies, not about us or giving them to someone else. ... I care about the babies. That's what matters."
Doctors performed the implantation procedure on a Sunday when the couple normally would have been in church.
At the couple's request, the Rev. Norma Lee Barnhart asked the congregation to pray for a pregnancy.
"Whatever happens, they wanted to be able to pray their way through that process," Barnhart said. "They have opened themselves in a wonderful way to the spirit and strength in community. We can't do life by ourselves. We need to be in community with other people of faith who are on that journey too."
Adriana Potter knows it is customary for women to wait for a successful first trimester before sharing the news. But as soon as the couple discovered their prayers had been answered, they spread the word.
"As a mother being pregnant once, I never felt off the hook. I felt like things could change anytime," she said. "So I believe in sharing the joy and having people share that joy of the moment with you. They'll know how happy we are. And if that changes, they'll mourn with us too. I don't like holding back."
She and Barnhart view that unbridled joy as a sign of maturing faith.
"Before I was like: 'I'm going to lose everything that's good in my life.' That's where my faith has deepened," Adriana Potter said. "For the first time in my life, I feel like I belong to a congregation — a congregation that makes me feel I belong."
Marie Davidson, a staff psychologist with Fertility Centers of Illinois, where the Potters stored the embryos, said it's important for parents to realize that infertility and the way they confront it does not define them, but it can strengthen them. She sees many couples grow stronger in the process.
"People are transformed even by an experience that is so difficult and cuts to the very quick of their personal being, which is about having children," she said. "Some people are really inspiring in the way they take this, process it and own it."
The couple is grateful to Barnhart and the Methodist Church for giving them the freedom and space to decide at their own pace. The denomination cautiously approves of embryonic stem cell research, though it doesn't dictate that's what a couple should choose.
Barnhart recently started a two-month "spiritual renewal leave" to work on a book about the accidental death of her son Daniel in 1996 — a loss that has informed her ministry ever since.
"I know those feelings of loss and grief and being shattered," she said. "I know that it's always with you. And so is God."
Accompanying the Potters on their journey has reinforced that belief.
"Every time I baptize a baby, I remind people that this is an affirmation that God is still creating," she said. "God is still creating inside each one of us, and we need to learn to live our lives with joy."
She can't wait to welcome the newest Potters into the world this summer and baptize the congregation's 10th set of twins.
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