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Birds and Bees 2.0. How do you explain IVF to your kids?

Birds and Bees 2.0

How do you explain IVF to your kids?

by Jeanne Sager

September 17, 2009

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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.

Birds and Bees 2.0

How do you explain IVF to your kids?

by Jeanne Sager

September 17, 2009

400x236.jpg

Parents going through assisted reproduction are a lonely lot – often cutting themselves off purposely from their peers, friends and family to avoid the well-meaning but cutting words to “just relax” and platitudes about success rates.

“I was devastated, I had this dream of carrying a baby and breastfeeding, and it was taken away from me, and during IVF, you feel so alone – you stop telling people what you’re doing because you don’t want people to make the unintentional, hurtful comments,” says Stephanie Caballero, owner of Extra Conceptions, a California law firm specializing in surrogacy, egg donation and adoption law. She’s also mom to Andreas and Arianna, twins born via a gestational surrogate.

Caballero is one of the parents who had little choice about sharing her children’s “where did I come from” story. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine estimates there were four hundred to six hundred births a year from 2003 to 2007 with a surrogate involved. Thanks to Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick and movies by Tina Fey, the stigma from this practice in particular is lessening every day. But for these parents, there are no pictures of a pregnant mommy or an exhausted mom and dad in hospital garb. They’re forced out of the their self-imposed shroud of secrecy by sheer lack of evidence.

“I look back and wonder why (being pregnant) was incredibly important to me.” Caballero revisits her devastation at her doctor’s warning that there would be no pregnancy, and she is not impressed with herself. “I look back and wonder why that was incredibly important to me,” she explains.

Like Ferry, she has photos of her children from the embryo stage. Unlike Ferry, she also has pictures of her pregnant cousin, carrying her two children sixteen hundred miles away from her California home. She first pulled them out when her kids were three, and Arianna said “Mommy, when you carried me in my tummy-”

“I said, ‘No, I didn’t. Mommy’s tummy was broken so Ali carried you.’ End of discussion,” Caballero explains. “They tell all their friends, which does get a little tricky, so now I’ve gone into the process of IVF, but they are ready for that now.”

The Caballero have used books like Elaine Gordon’s Mommy Did I Grow in Your Tummy?: Where Some Babies Come From to share their story. Ferry plans to build a scrapbook with Hannah when she’s old enough, to go through all their “memorabilia” together to tell the story. They both chosen a leveled approach to answering their kids’ questions, beginning with honesty from birth but choosing what information is age appropriate as their children grow.

“It’s really tough to keep a secret your whole life,” says Dr. David Hoffman, a Voluntary Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Miami, School of Medicine. “My philosophy has always been honesty is the best policy.”

Birds and Bees 2.0

How do you explain IVF to your kids?

by Jeanne Sager

September 17, 2009

400x236.jpg

But Hoffman, whose been working in the infertility field for twenty-three years, currently at the IVF Florida Reproductive Associates of Florida, tempers that policy with a well-rounded approach to the variety of clients who walk through his door. He’ll recommend they make a plan of action for telling their kids, but he’s aware that every parent needs to do what makes them comfortable.

That’s where people like Horowitz come in. A licensed psychologist and member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, she counsels the parents-to-be who make use of Hoffman’s office and makes clear the steps parents need to take in order to foster open communication with their kids.

Horowitz warms to an analogy relating today’s parents undergoing assisted reproduction to parents in the adoptive community twenty years ago. The two are different – especially when parents have the same biological material – but the social stigmas and personal stumbling blocks are markedly similar. Where open adoptions have become popular, that’s a relatively new phenomenon. So too is sharing reproductive stories with your children.

Research has largely shown that children told a family secret, are better able to accept and deal with the consequences when told at a young age. “A lot of times, they have no intention of sharing,” Horowitz said of her patients. “But lying to the child is only maybe in one person’s best interest – and that’s not the child. When there’s a secret in the family, they sense it. Children, being the little narcissists they are, think it’s about them, and since no one’s talking about it – it must be a bad secret.”

Research has largely shown that children told a family secret – be it adoption or assisted reproduction – are better able to accept and deal with the consequences when told at a young age. If parents are planning to share their news, Horowitz says before age eleven is best.

“Decide when to disclose, what situations to disclose, how to disclose, who should be around when you disclose,” she recommends.

It’s advice Jennifer Marples has already taken to heart. She’ll tell her three kids their story when – and only when – they come to her with infertility troubles. What other families do, she says, is their business. This is hers.

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