Birds and Bees 2.0
How do you explain IVF to your kids?
by Jeanne Sager
September 17, 2009
J enny Ferry’s favorite picture of her daughter isn’t one of the four-and-a-half-year-old Hannah with long blonde hair and a cheesy grin. It’s the future Hannah, a four-cell embryo, a photo shot in a lab before Ferry underwent her one and only attempt at in vitro fertilization (IVF).
When Hannah asks where she came from, Ferry doesn’t bring up the birds and the bees. She tells her the story of a lab, of little cells and medical innovations. She tells her exactly where she came from, and Hannah asks her to tell it again.
In a country where the CDC estimates one hundred forty-thousand cycles using assisted reproductive technology are completed every year, resulting in nearly fifty-eight thousand newborns, answering the question “where do babies come from” has gone from a question of what level of sexual details is appropriate to a question of whether parents think their kids need to know every detail of their health histories.
Says Ferry, “My husband and I have always been candid and descriptive with her about the journey to parenthood, down to what amounts to a mass of memorabilia: ultrasound pictures, educational literature, brochures and folders from the doctor’s office. I don’t want her to feel awkward or not normal.”
But the story isn’t so simple for Jennifer Marples. Her three children were conceived in much the way that Ferry bore Hannah – IVF using her egg and her husband’s sperm. Marples likens other parents breaking out the lab pictures to the oversharing phenomenon that’s made popular social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“This is in line with what I call the new craziness that is happening and the need to tell all to our kids,” says Marples. “They were conceived, we are the natural parents and they are loved and supported – the most important things in this life.”
Marples also cops to a feeling that reproductive assistance has a social stigma – even today as it grows in popularity. It has certainly taken an especially deep hit in the eyes of the public in recent months – between the controversy surrounding two-time IVF users and parents of eight Jon and Kate Gosselin and the OctoMom debacle. Even as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced an investigation into the ethics of Nadya Suleman’s doctor, Michael Kamrava, parents who struggled with infertility were left bemoaning the “bad name” Suleman was lending to the assisted reproduction community.
Further complicating matters is the innate narcissism of the human race. “They’re concerned first from where they’re coming from,” says Judith Horowitz, PhD., author of the upcoming Ethical Dilemmas in Fertility Counseling (to be published in 2010 by the American Psychological Association press). Which means parents are thinking not about what effect the discussion of the reproductive process will have on their child, but their own feelings of frustration or failure for having to turn to medical technology to make a baby first. Second, they’re thinking about what everyone else will think about them when the word gets out.