Bravo was at it again: adding to the fertility conversation with good intentions and questionable results. They recently posted an article that appeared in my feed, using Meghan King Edmonds (with the caption, “Meghan was very open about the IVF process.”) to launch a conversation about forty-something fertility and its relationship with IVF. The first problem here is that MKE is in her early thirties and, by all rights, perfectly fertile. She used IVF to conceive with her husband’s frozen sperm post-vasectomy, closing out her highly publicized first round of IVF with a baby girl and two PGS-tested frozen blastocysts. The article itself, however, opens by reminding the reader that “Janet Jackson is pregnant at 50 with her first child.” It subsequently goes on to quote Dr. Jackie of Married to Medicine, who details the increased risks for chromosomal abnormalities, gestational diabetes, and hypertension for women who conceive after 40. Late in the article, she addresses Janet Jackson explicitly, and the vague language annoyed me because it still managed to dance around the likely egg-donor reality:
My guess would be with someone like Janet Jackson going on 50, is that she’s got an egg or sperm and did IVF, or in vitro fertilization,’ she says. ‘That would be my guess for her. That is definitely an option when you talk about somebody in their late 40’s. Early 40’s, there’s a chance that her own eggs could be used and that the baby would be fine chromosomally.
The semantics of “got an egg” irritate me, and I can’t decide if this is deliberately imprecise to obfuscate the truth or if the article is poorly written. Where are they insinuating she “got” this egg? From a donor? From her own 50-year-old ovary? From a previously stockpiled cryo-stash? (Albeit, we know this would not have been a viable option for Jackson when she was 35 because the advent of vitrification to make egg-freezing possible came years later.) Did the stork bring her this egg? Did she pray to Saint Gerard? I hate this sentence because I believe information is power, and this plays into a myth perpetuated by Hollywood startlets that lulls women into a false sense of security around the timeline of their own natural fertility. For example, my husband and I spent the weekend at the Jersey Shore with our couple-friends, “Maureen” and “Jack,” when I was newly pregnant and so sick that I had no choice but to disclose. Maureen and I were swimming in the ocean when she unloaded on me stories of the relentless pressure Jack’s mother had been putting on her to have a baby “before it’s too late.” She told me that she was “still not sure” and that “there is a 20% part of [her] that does want to be a mom” but that it just wasn’t feasible at that time in her life because of her highly demanding and financially precarious career in media with its volatile schedule and constant traveling. She is turning 42 this November but nevertheless seemed to believe that she could table the question for now and pick it up again when circumstances became more conducive to family life. I broached the subject of fertility and aging as gently as I could, asking her if the genetic connection was important to her, and she seemed genuinely astonished to learn that 42 is the end of the road for most women using their own eggs. “What about Halle Berry,” she asked. So the kind avoidance I see in this Bravo article, which further publicizes fertility miracles like Jackson’s without taking a hard, honest line on the details of how causes a lot of suffering, and it seems especially cruel since the middle-class women reading Bravo articles likely do not possess the inexhaustible financial arsenal potentially necessary to bring about a child after the decline of natural fertility.
On the other hand, I am not without compassion for these women in the limelight. The imperative to delay child-bearing often stems directly from the demands of their careers: not unlike my friend, the constant traveling and grueling hours in addition to the chauvinist pressure to look twenty-something and ageless indefinitely in order to keep doing what they love. When they finally do arrive at motherhood, their primary obligation is to the welfare of their own children, as it would be for any of us. Are the means of that child’s conception or the nature of his/her genetic origins fodder for public consumption, where they will be sensationalized and bandied about by media vultures to incite public commentary from every close-minded bigot on social media platforms across the world? I think not. Ultimately, the decision to shroud the details of treatment in secrecy is made by a mom in the interest of her baby. Those motives are sort of universally human, so I cannot condemn them.
As a microcosm of this, a drunk uncle blathered to me at Christmas the remnants of an ongoing conversation surrounding my own pregnancy. One of my nosy aunts, who apparently thinks I am 40 instead of 37, had been jabbering about the “miracle” of conceiving twins at this age. There had been some chatter about risks and conjecture as to whether the babies would turn out to be “healthy” (read: not have Downs Syndrome) despite my advanced maternal age. I was more than a little stunned in the moment, and I don’t know that I fielded these notions as gracefully as I might have given time to c0nstruct a more thoughtful response to the gossip. All I said was, “I am not forty! I am the same age as ::other cousin:: and three years younger than your daughter.” This pivoted the conversation toward my cousin, the hostess, celebrating her 40th birthday, and as the subject moved further and further away while I ruminated some on the issue, it seemed awkward to say anything more about it. What do I wish I said? I’m not sure. Do I tell them that these are IVF twins? I’m certainly not ashamed of that. In fact, I thought it was a well-known fact in my family that I was going through treatments all these years. Do I tell them that I conceived these embryos when I was 35 and they spent two years in a freezer? Do I break out the white board and offer a short mini-lesson on PGS testing so they understand how I have ameliorated the risks of chromosomal abnormalities or how I sought out the care of a great MFM who has done extensive non-invasive screenings to rule out problems in their anatomical development? This seems like a bizarre subject to hash out over vegetable dip and cocktail weenies. And yet, I don’t want my aunt going back to Florida and clucking to all her yenta friends the “miracle” of my “healthy” twins “at 40” because it is a kind of betrayal. The truth is that I started trying to conceive at 30, not because I felt ready (I didn’t) but because I was wary of the biological reality. In that way, the title of this post is a question. I certainly have not helped to spread awareness, but I’m not sure how much of my private life I’m morally obligated to divulge in the interest of the public good.