The first lady’s disclosure that she and Barack Obama used IVF treatment to conceive their two daughters is an act of generosity
After her years of living in the fishbowl of the White House, Michelle Obama doesn’t owe us anything. But for millions of people, her new disclosure that she and Barack Obama used IVF treatment to conceive their two daughters is a remarkable act of generosity. Because for all that IVF treatment is increasingly common, it remains an often stigmatized thing to talk about. And for those of us who go through it, knowing that public figures aren’t ashamed to be among us can make a huge difference in terms of feeling able to get the support and space we need to persevere.
IVF has been around for 40 years, now (thank you, Lesley Brown) but till remains something that people find difficult to discuss. The reasons are complex. If you conceive children without medical assistance, it’s understandably quite rude to volunteer the details of your techniques. While you can describe IVF with a degree of sterile remove that may be absent from that night on your honeymoon when you overdid the pina coladas, it still makes people uncomfortable — something that I learned last year when my husband and I started treatment.
For me, being open about what I was going through was helpful because so much about the experience was isolating, painful, and disruptive to my normal life. Silence was a more difficult option for me than honesty. Many people were supportive when I shared with them; several revealed that they’d been through it, too. But others were clearly uncomfortable with my explanations of why I had to dial back my social life or come in late to work. For so many, it’s still crossing a line to acknowledge the realities of women’s bodies — we’re celebrated for having babies but in many cases discouraged from discussing the realities of how we get there, from miscarriages and morning sickness to traumatic births.
For people who want to become parents, the ability to have children can feel closely tied to their sense of identity and self; infertility can be a source of deep grief. Talking about it can mean asking other people to empathize with that grief, and to many, that can feel like oversharing. To others, it looks like narcissism and is grounds for harsh judgment: when I wrote a column about my IVF experience, I was sad but not surprised to be told by strangers that I was selfish, doing something bleak and unnatural, or that I should ‘just adopt’.
The tendency for IVF to be seen as a taboo topic also contributes, of course, to widespread ignorance about what it really involves. Young people get a great deal of information about how to avoid pregnancy, but very little about what to do if they want it to happen and their bodies don’t cooperate.
Media coverage tends to swing between elision of the real, gory details, or grounds for a moral panic that young women are choosing egg freezing and career paths in favour of tracking down suitable husbands. None of this sets people up for success when they’re considering taking the IVF route. Nor, to be honest, do celebrities who celebrate giving birth to children when they’re well into their 40s without acknowledging that they’ve had help.
Of course, no one should be obligated to disclose personal medical information, but it’s easy to get the impression that a Hollywood career can extend one’s reproductive timelines by magic, instead of money and science.
And that’s why Obama’s openness is so kind: she didn’t need to do it. Her treatment occurred before she became a public figure, and her daughters are grown. She probably doesn’t think about it much: a peculiar thing about IVF treatment is that it is deeply preoccupying when you’re in the midst of it and then fades away when you achieve the desired result.
As I approach the end of my pregnancy, I don’t think too much about how it got started. But like Obama, I try not to forget: how I got here, and what I can share from my experience to help those who are still on their way, in the hopes of a future where infertility is not something that makes people feel ashamed.