Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg said she would only have kids with her wife Robin (Robbie) Routenberg-Wilhelm if they could have girls — because Heather was still traumatized from being sexually assaulted on two different occasions after college. Heather and Robbie say that CNY fertility clinic in Latham, NY, assured the Buffalo couple it would not be a problem: The lab could determine the sex of any embryo, created using an egg from Robbie and donor sperm, before it was transferred into Heather.
But when Heather was 15 weeks pregnant — having been assured by the clinic that the embryo was female, she says — they found out she was carrying a boy. The news sent her into a dark depression. After their son’s birth in December 2020, Heather became suicidal and wasn’t able to bond with the baby. Now, with the help of Eric Wrubel of Warshaw Burstein, LLP, Heather and Robbie are suing CNY on 11 counts including breach of contract, medical malpractice and battery. Here, Heather tells AMY KLEIN how much she loves her son and what it’s like to have a pregnancy and new motherhood that traumatizes you.
A lawyer for CNY said they are investigating and had no further comment.
I was always afraid of hospitals and have a lot of physical pain during medical procedures on my reproductive region, so we thought we would start reciprocal IVF with Robbie carrying my daughter. She got pregnant, but at 8-10 weeks we found out the baby wasn’t growing.
Seeing the look of devastation on Robbie’s face after the miscarriage made me feel so helpless. I said, “We have to do it!” And we started my IVF cycle that day to carry her baby. I got pregnant on the first try and I was very excited. I felt like a badass, like I was doing something for my family.
We felt attached to this baby girl, and it was going to be a tiny Robbie, which was the best part.
At our 15-week appointment with our OB-GYN, the doctor went to check the results of the QNatal test [a diagnostic blood test to rule out chromosomal abnormalities which also discloses the baby’s sex]. She said, “Wait, do you know the sex of the baby?”
“We’re having a girl,” I said. “It’s very important to me to have a girl.”
She said, “That’s not what this says … “
Our jaws dropped to the floor. I was convinced it had to be someone else’s result.
I looked at Robbie and said, “What’s if it’s not yours — who is in my body?!” That’s when I flipped out, that’s when I felt my body was taken hostage. I assumed it was someone else’s embryo, not the wrong embryo of ours.
It scared the s–t out of me. I don’t know how to explain this — it felt like there was an alien living inside of me.
I said to Robbie, “If this is someone else’s kid, we will have to give it back.”
Our OB offered us the option to abort. I respect others’ decisions, but that was never a choice I could make in these circumstances. I was hoping beyond hope someone would have our baby and we would switch after birth and it would be this happy story.
We scheduled an ultrasound for the next day. That was the worst night of my life. I had this overwhelming sense of immobility. I remember lying in my bedroom, thinking, “This can’t be happening!” Not only was the baby in my body not ours, but the baby in my body was male and he was put there against my will, just like rape.
I started having flashbacks: I was waiting in the bed, which is what I was doing both times when I got assaulted.
Robbie was afraid to leave me alone. We just had to wait till the next morning to find out if the baby was male. It was dumbfounding and traumatizing.
I met Robbie at SUNY Geneseo as undergrads in 2002. One day during an internship, we were asked to act out a scene as a couple. We were directed to hold hands, and we were still holding hands at the end of class. After I broke up with my girlfriend, we started dating. There was a brief time post college we weren’t together and during that period of time two different male acquaintances assaulted me.
Robbie and I got back together in 2008 and married in 2012. Before, I wavered for a long time if I would choose to have children. But we talked about what our family would look like — two daughters — and I thought, Maybe if I’m brave enough we’ll have a family.
‘I felt my body was taken hostage. I assumed it was someone else’s embryo, not the wrong embryo of ours.’ Heather Wilhelm-Routenberg on finding out she was expecting a boy
When my sister told me she was trying to have a baby with her husband, she said, “I can have a baby that’s partially my favorite person.” And I realized, “Oh my gosh, I could carry Robbie’s baby!” I imagined a tiny little Robbie in my body, and that felt very safe and exciting.
When we retrieved both of our eggs for IVF, we were 35 and considered advanced maternal age. We wanted to minimize the risk of anything going wrong, so the clinic recommended genetic testing of the embryos. We selected CNY because they agreed we would be able to select female embryos. We never intended to use the males.
We didn’t want to have a boy because of the assaults and because of the socialization of boys — there’s constant socialization of what it means to be a “real man.” People say, “Oh, he’s a boy, let him hit you,” and all the camouflage and guns don’t help. It reinforces masculinity, and that’s a reminder of the assaults every time.
After we found out I was carrying a boy, the internal investigation to determine whose embryo it was took seven weeks. I was convinced the whole time it wasn’t ours because the clinic knew not to transfer a male: It wasn’t a preference, it was a need.
During that time, I had no connection to the baby inside — I figured I would be giving it away to its real parents. I tried not to think about being pregnant.
Seven weeks later we got an email that this was our embryo. It was indeed male and it was indeed related to Robbie. No one else had our baby: There was no female baby coming. It brought up the loss of our first baby, like she died again.
I was so furious. It felt like a deep betrayal. How the f–k do you mess up that bad? They messed up something so integral; the fact that there are no legal requirements about these procedures should strike fear in the hearts of all parents using fertility services.
Meanwhile, our family and friends were all so happy. Nobody understood the complexity of my feelings. That was the most isolating thing — that we had a healthy baby, but I had no emotional connection and now I had to wrap my head around having a child forever that I wasn’t planning on.
The whole pregnancy, I couldn’t connect to the baby. I hate saying that. It’s painful. It was a terrible experience.
At about 27 weeks pregnant, I started bleeding and was rushed to the emergency room. I had a placental abruption, which I later found happens to someone who has suffered physical trauma or stress.
I was put on modified bed rest. I just wanted the baby out of me. That’s sounds horrible but it’s true. We were so worried about me going off the deep end, we didn’t talk about the baby unless we had to.
Our son was born in December 2020 and placed in NICU. We went to see him every single day for 19 days. At home, I was trying to breastfeed him but it was really hard. I had wanted skin-to-skin connection but I ended up wearing things so he wouldn’t touch my chest. When he did, it sent electric shockwaves through me.
I started experiencing extreme anxiety. I would look at the baby and it would contort into the faces of all these grown men that I know. It was so creepy. Whenever that happened, I had to give the baby to Robbie.
I literally thought I was going insane. There were several incidences of suicidal ideation, some of which were very dangerous. I had complex postpartum depression.
I never want to come off ungrateful. If I was, he wouldn’t be here.
The baby is a year and a half now, and I think about the mistake all the time. He’s a lovely kid. He smiles just like Robbie, he has Robbie’s dimples, and that makes it easier. Our son is made of magic. He does things to be funny — he’ll use certain tones of voice and laughs to make us crack up. He’s hilarious, and he’s been an easy baby.
I think we connect on our similarities: He’s a very compassionate kid. I used to bring him into the garden when he was in my belly and tell him what I was planting, and now we both love trees and both love dogs. I feel like I know him and how he’s feeling. When it’s just us, it’s amazing! but when we’re out in the world, he’s a symbol of something, being socialized as the same people who did bad stuff to me.
I feel immense guilt and shame because I wasn’t able to be emotionally present for him. I don’t want to play the victim.
He’s an innocent being, he didn’t deserve any of this. The clinic messed with something so integral: our baby’s first formative years. That’s the reason I am doing this — because I love my kid so much. We think our son deserved that bond from the start.
Robbie adds: “During the time we didn’t know the baby was ours, when we thought we were carrying someone else’s child, I had the same experience [as Heather] of trying to connect to the baby. After we found out it wasn’t a girl and it was our baby boy, it wasn’t like a light switch was turned on. Even though I don’t have Heather’s trauma and re-traumatization, it was also hard for me to connect.
It’s not only about the in-utero and birth experience, it’s about the socialization that a boy has in the world — even while we fight against these social norms, this repeated narrative of forced masculinity — and we did not sign up for that. And it’s a reminder for me and Heather of that pain that I shared with Heather as she was going through it. I share Heather’s pain, and I didn’t get to have the celebratory chapter that many people do when having a baby. This is the only child we will have with my genetic material and it was a terrible experience. That changed when we met him and had an opportunity to hold him. We both love our child but we have had to work harder than anyone should have to work to make sure we are all alive.”
By Amy Klein