For 18 months, I stuck needles into my wife’s buttocks and masturbated into plastic cups. Together, we trudged the treacherous uphill slope that is in vitro fertilization. The bloodwork results, the egg implantations, the hormones, the waiting rooms—at first I talked openly about all of it, just as a New Yorker might casually disclose the brand and dosage of his antidepressants. To share our IVF story with others would be to everyone’s benefit, my reasoning went. I would demystify the matter, and maybe help others to feel less alone.
How wrong I was.Almost two years after our IVF adventure ended, we are still figuring out when, how, and how much to disclose about our ovary-stimulating and semen-whipping journey. Turns out, when you pay a battalion of medical professionals $20,000 to help you induce a pregnancy that didn’t want to happen on its own, nobody likes you. My wife and I have been called selfish and narcissistic by adoption activists. Religious zealots have condemned us as immoral manipulators of God’s will. And prudes just don’t want to discuss where babies come from. Every time I mention our struggle to conceive a child in an Upper East Side Petri dish, I wander into a minefield of awkwardness, discomfort, and rage. I’m made to feel I’ve provided way more information than is socially acceptable.
We’ve been called selfish and narcissistic by adoption activists. Religious zealots have condemned us as immoral manipulators of God’s will.
What is the protocol for talking about the IVF process? More than 30 years since the first test-tube baby was born, people seem more reluctant to discuss IVF than boner pills or abortion.
“You know when they take an egg and a sperm and then…BLANK STARES,” laments a commenter who goes by the name Somedayhope on the message board at IVFConnections.com, a site my wife still visits for comfort and support. “Yes, I get a lot of blank stares.”
Part of the problem is that we live in a culture of IVF denial. Gossip magazines run pro forma celebrity-moms-of-a-certain-age-with-twins stories, rarely asking said star if a multiple-embryo transfer was involved. How many celebrity couples remain in the IVF closet? You would figure Jennifer Lopez (39, twins), Julia Roberts (36, twins), Angelina Jolie (33, twins), and CNN’s Nancy Grace (47, twins, which she chalked up to “God’s mysterious plan”) might know more about it than they’re letting on. Some do fess up: Desperate Housewives actress Marcia Cross (45, twins) and Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (37 and 35, twins), have talked openly about their IVF and fertility struggles.
There should be more.
Even after the kid arrives, the blank stares remain. Nurses throw future parents out of surrogates’ hospital rooms. Clueless grandparents ask about having more kids, unsympathetic to the rigors of hormones and needles and towering doctor fees.
“That is usually when I say something like ‘well, she is my $50,000 baby that took me six cycles of in vitro to create’,” IVFConnections.com poster Chayes writes. “That usually shuts them up.”
The pitfalls are different with those who regard IVF as subverting the will of a higher power. With 12 years of Catholic school under my belt, I should have known better than to mention it in the halls of the historically Catholic college where I teach. Seems I forgot the Vatican’s “Every Sperm Is Sacred” doctrine, which considers most IVF methods to be sinful, the unsanctioned creation of life outside the integrity of a marital union. The lapsed Catholic conspiracy theorist in me did notice, however, that fertility treatments weren’t covered by our health plan.
Mention IVF in devout company, and one runs the risk of getting proselytized. “Maybe it’s God’s way of saying you weren’t meant to have a child,” a family friend told me at a cookout. (Had my wife heard her say this, there would have been a throwdown.)
I remember one night, over several drinks, I told my friend everything: Am I shooting blanks? I am not, but my sperm count is considerably lower than Superman’s. Does my wife not produce eggs? She does, but fewer than most women her age; early menopause runs in her family. Why wouldn’t clinics treat my wife? High levels of Follicle Stimulating Hormone knocks us out of contention, unless we go to a specialist clinic. How much does it all cost? Varies, but ballpark is between $6,000 and $12,000 a cycle—or more, if you’re a specialized case. Which we are.
To unload all that information was incredibly cathartic. No more secrets. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what some women go through, concealing clinic visits from friends and family.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to keep our IVF experience to ourselves lies in the fact that our story ended happily: We have a 15-month-old daughter, Miriam Lee. Not every IVF cycle produces a bambino—far from it. The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports that, in 2006, the last year for which data are available, 126,726 cycles of treatment were administered on women in the United States alone; success rates ranged from 39.3 percent for women 35 and younger, down to 3.8 percent for women as old as 44.
I would rather our story give others hope and a sense of camaraderie in their search for a child. But it’s hard to gauge how tense things are for those women who want a child but haven’t gotten one yet. Some experience what one Times of London story calls “Baby Envy.” Many fertility clinics suggest not bringing small children to their waiting rooms; IVF message boards forbid even the mention of a child. Out of consideration for women who still struggle with what Sharon Osbourne calls the “mental torture” of IVF, perhaps clamming up is the way to go.
With IVF success, it turns out, comes great responsibility.