Writer: Madeleine Throssell
Editor: Miranda Hitchens
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan
Most children get told stories of storks when they inevitably ask how babies are made. My parents chose to handle my story in a different way. From an early age, I knew me and my sister were test tube babies but, more than that, they told me I was cryogenically frozen as an embryo and reimplanted into my mother seven years later (although my language around that subject was significantly less scientific!). For many years, I wasn’t aware that the way I was brought into the world was quite atypical. This was of minimal relevance to my life, and other than jokes about being cold all the time, I didn’t think about it much.
As my life and education progressed, I came to study in vitro fertilisation (IVF) in my biology class. By this point I had become intrigued in how the human body worked, so I was proud enough to tell my teacher, who then offered me the option of leaving the class. This came as a surprise; I thought that while some religions disagree with IVF due to the technology meddling with the natural path of life, this was unlikely to be a sentiment shared by my young, all female, extremely intelligent classmates. She mentioned we would be discussing ethics but I hadn’t encountered any issues when telling my primary school classmates, so why would this be any different?
I was cautious but I still told some of my classmates. Most didn’t take much interest – it wasn’t relevant to our experiences so far so most didn’t have a strong opinion . However, the first exception to this consensus was a girl in my cohort whose Catholicism brought her to disagree with IVF. She never confronted me directly, but I found out through others that she personally disagreed with the concept. Despite this, I was confused and hurt to a degree but tried not to take personal offence.
On the contrary , another girl in the year was amazed, and as she was a friend, I told her my story in some detail. Perhaps it seemed to her that I seemed to be very open about the topic, and maybe I didn’t make it clear that it felt personal. However, she then mentioned it to a boy at the counterpart school. For some reason, the information spread, and before the end of the week, some of my friends at the school were asking me about it. Again, I thought it was very unnerving for people to know this about me.I felt disturbed as it seemed like a part of my identity was being equated to an interesting piece of gossip. I was out of control of the narrative and it bothered me that people I didn’t know were discussing my life. In retrospect, it was likely paranoia, but I was conflicted. How could I both be open and accepting of my own circumstance, but care about who is told?
As I moved further through my education I became more interested in human biology. After I finished my school career, I was looking to gain experience in science. My mum suggested that I contact the clinic that helped my parents to conceive me and they were kind enough to let me shadow various roles throughout the process. It was only then that I came to understand how incredible the process was. I even spoke to one of the doctors who worked with my mother who explained to me how much the field has progressed from the time I was born. Even normally, the chances of an egg and a specific sperm meeting in the womb during sexual intercourse, followed by the successful implantation and a complete pregnancy is complex. The process of harvesting multiple embryos, selecting the healthy ones and injecting the best sperm into them, then reimplanting the best of these back into my mother for my sister seemed an even more tenuous endeavour. For me, this risk was increased by the less-perfected cryogenic freezing process, which meant that some embryos would not survive the process, so it was necessary to reimplant multiple healthy embryos to ensure that at least one was implanted, which in this case was only me. The effort spent into my creation by not only my parents, but a team of scientists and doctors was amazing in many ways. Whether it was some kind of fate or luck or medicine, however you prefer to think about it, my entry into the world was in no way simple.
I also experienced the hurt and pain along with sheer happiness that some of the patients of the clinic felt throughout their treatment. I became more quizzical of my mother and began to wonder what she had gone through. She hadn’t been forthcoming with me as a child, only talking about me and my sister as miracles. I found out she had been diagnosed as infertile due to twisted fallopian tubes and then had undertaken countless procedures and frequent hormone injections to generate my sister. She then had a complicated pregnancy, culminating in an emergency C-section with placenta praevia and a premature infant on a ventilator. After healing and some adaptation to having a child, my parents began to think about repeating this procedure with the frozen embryos they had stored. They reimplanted a few of the healthiest embryos, which now isn’t required due to the improved freezing process combined with the higher chance of multiple implantations. While this took less effort than the initial egg recovery, it still required a lot of energy and was not undertaken lightly.
It is clear to me now why my mum always told us how much she wanted us; she had gone through a lot to bring us into the world. Admittedly, it is something that has bound us together and while I felt it was part of my identity I see it was also part of hers. This is why I believe she chose to tell me from a young age, it was part of my story and she was proud it was part of hers. Realistically, the experience of infertility is not always shiny and magical. Telling me her story took a lot of strength and honesty, but it also opened up our channel of communication and brought us closer.
In actuality, this is not always the case and as a child I was naive and unable to understand the stigma surrounding fertility treatments. Realistically, the numbers show that this is much more common than we think, suggesting many parents chose not to tell their children that they may have been conceived this way. Maybe this is the only downside of knowing my story – I was not prepared for the way the outer world may perceive it, as most children aren’t when they find out some people dislike parts of their identity they were taught to be proud of.
Truthfully, I don’t know that I can comprehend the impact of being an IVF baby has had on my life, if any. Maybe I will never completely understand how it has informed who I am, or whether it has been part of the reason that I gravitated towards science. However,I hope that as time goes on it becomes more common for people to talk about this experience, especially as these treatments become more common and important for those unable to conceive naturally.