Friday, August 1, 2008

Test Tube Babies and Women’s Lib

Today, on my triumphant return from Big-Ball-of-Stress-Land (the not-so-fun theme park where I spent my July), I want to give a shout out to kick-ass women all over this land, and one woman in particular: this world’s first “test-tube” baby, Louise Joy Brown, who turned 30 years old last Friday. In the three decades since Brown was born, 3 million babies have arrived with the help of in vitro fertilization. About 500,000 of them were delivered in America.

I remember the phrase “test-tube baby” from my childhood. I guess I was 6 when Ms. Brown was born, so I wouldn’t have heard about her. But of course she wasn’t the only one, and for a long time “test-tube baby” was just a freakish phrase for a freakish concept. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I thought the baby was grown outside of a uterus as well.) And when I heard the phrase “test-tube baby” as a child, it never occurred to me that anyone was making a baby in a test tube in order to solve infertility, to give someone the child they so desperately desired. It was more like when they cloned Dolly, the sheep. I just thought the test-tube baby was some sort of scientific experiment. Infertility wasn’t a concept I really thought much about. And I never thought to link that crude phrase to much-later awareness of IVF.

So last Friday, when I was listening to NPR as I got ready for work (my morning routine), I was surprised to find myself teary-eyed when they talked about Louise Brown’s birthday. I realized that this first test-tube baby paved the way for my own path right now. Or I guess her parents paved the way, as Louise herself had little choice in the matter. But 30 years ago, while I was climbing trees and eating dirt and digging a hole to China, some desperate and brave couple (and some amazing doctors) were creating life. And maybe they weren’t thinking about it in these terms, but in doing so, they created hope.

I have a love/hate relationship with IVF. I imagine that anyone who’s gone through more than a couple of cycles feels that way. (Sorry ladies, but those who get preggers on the first try just don’t count.) IVF has taken over my life. It has hijacked my body, ruined my sex life (or maybe that was already ruined), exploded my debt, eaten away at my vacation and sick leave, and toyed with my heart. It has raised me to new highs and crushed me down to never-before-seen lows. It has fucked with my soul.

But I am grateful to Louise Brown’s parents for dreaming so big.

I have a bloated gut, and parts of my ass still are numb with random stabs of pain (PIO shots). I have taken out a second mortgage. I have a half-gallon sharps container so full I can’t fit another syringe in it. (I love this sharps container and can’t bring myself to take it to the doctor for disposal. It’s not my first, but it’s the biggest one I’ve ever filled.) I’ve had so many miscarriages that, last week, I told the Court that I wouldn’t be available for any arguments the first two weeks of September due to a “medical procedure”––I literally built in time for my cycle to end in another miscarriage.

But I am grateful to Ms. Brown’s doctors for taking the chance. I am grateful for that tiny embryo that fought its way through to survival.

Today, I love IVF. Maybe I’ll be cursing it tomorrow, but I hope I can remember this feeling. And even if I never bear a child, I hope that I will never regret that I took the long shot, that I gave it my all.

I know Louise Brown’s mama wasn’t thinking of me when she gave herself daily shots, or when they first cut into her to harvest those eggs, or during that agonizing two-week wait. I know she didn’t do it for me. But I thank her nonetheless.

At the same time as I’ve been struck with these musings, I’ve been watching Mad Men. And all I can think about is how frighteningly well it portrays a woman’s role in the early 1960’s. How can it be that this was only 45 years ago? How is that possible?

Two things on this show have struck me hard. First, we’re one episode in on Season 2, and it already is clear that infertility is going to be the plotline for one of the characters this season. We mostly know her husband, who is one of the ad men in the office, but there was a scene between him and his wife that nearly broke my heart. They’ve been trying to conceive for more than a year now (the show jumped a full year-plus between seasons), and she was telling him about everyone around her who’s pregnant. At one point she said, “It’s like they’re all in this club, and I can’t join.” I wanted to invite her to join our blogs. But alas, no internet for a girl in 1962.

(By the way, this show is so eerily accurate for its time that I forget it wasn’t filmed in the 1960s. J will tell me, “you know that actor is on [whatever other TV show].” And for a minute, I’ll be totally perplexed, because they must have been really young when they filed Mad Men to be on TV now! This has happened three times. It’s like I can’t get it into my head that it’s a new show filmed right now by now-time actors.)

Anyway, I find that I’m totally psyched about this plot line. First, I actually trust this show to treat the issue properly. Unlike darling Charlotte, I don’t think this chickie’s going to get preggers just because she adopts a baby, or goes on a vacation, or some other such nonsense. But more importantly, the show makes me feel lucky. Imagine facing fertility if you were a housewife in the early 60s. Your entire purpose would be to have children. No job, no other source of self-respect or esteem. Nothing to do but sit at home and wonder what you were doing wrong. And imagine having no medical support. No IVF, no Dr. Google, no blogland. Yup, this is going to be fun to watch. Because no matter what, I’m going to feel lucky.

Aside from the infertility plot line, I also just freakin’ LOVE this show, because I love thinking about what it means to be a woman today. Back then (when my mom was starting high school), women were secretaries and teachers and nurses. Back then they were harassed and mocked and ridiculed. (I found it really interested that I wasn’t all that offended by the sexual harassment when it was all titillating flirtation between cute ad execs and cute secretaries. But when one of the girls got fat and that became the object of harassment, I realized how horrifying it all was.)

I’m not saying things are perfect for women now. I mean, one of my concerns about Hillary was that this country just wouldn’t vote for a woman to be President. (I did vote for her, however, so back off.) And sometimes my heart aches to think about how long we will have to wait for a woman to take that mantle. And we’ve only got one woman on the Supreme Court, the most powerful body in the land. We’re more than 50% of the population, but we can only have one of nine Supreme Court spots. Sheesh!

But think about this. No one suggested that I couldn’t accomplish anything I set out to accomplish when I was in school. I make 3 times what my husband makes and he’s not threatened—he’s so glad! I appear before the second-highest court in the land (don’t get excited, there are many second-highest courts in the land), as an equal (often superior J) to my male opponents. And if any man tries to grab my ass at work, I can sue the pants off him.

So yeah, I love Mad Men because it makes me think about what it is to be a woman today. Women’s Lib—YES! GRRR.

I’m driving J crazy. Because he loves the show too. But apparently the show isn’t ALL about women and how far they’ve come. And he’s tired of me crowing about it.

Am I the only one out there watching this show? Is anyone else out there on a woman-high right now?

Okay, I’ve written enough. I’m posting


Io said...

Welcome back!!!
I hope that August is much better for you.
Man, I have heard so much about Mad Men. It sounds so good. I totally want to watch it, but I guess I'll have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

Io said...

Oo! Really? I will go rent it asap!

Katie said...

I heard that same story on NPR. And strangely enough, Louise was born the same day AND same year as my husband, about an hour before he was (I am obsessed). Weird, huh? Love Louise. And her mom is still kicking, so that's good, right??

Gotta check out Mad Men.

annacyclopedia said...

I keep meaning to watch Mad Men - everyone I love seems to love it - but I always forget and need to start at the beginning - I'm sort of weird that way with series that are supposed to be really good. I'm not watching as much TV these days either - trying to read blogs has become my evening entertainment! I'm fascinated, too, by the portrayal of the way things were and how much things have changed. And also interested in the subtle ways things haven't changed, or the way things have morphed from one kind of offensive to another.

I hope August is blissful and mellow by comparison and that you are able to spend some time relaxing and caring for yourself.

peesticksandstones said...

Yes! I have had so many of the same thoughts regarding IVF. I'm also strangely sentimental about my filled-up sharps containers *and* pre-plan for what I'll do after my next miscarriage. It was eerily reassuring to know I'm not the only one.

Sometimes, though, I am so grateful to have such a crazy, science-y option available. I mean while it's still expensive as hell, it is amazing it's available to us "normal" folks -- and not just movie star types (who no doubt use it like crazy, but won't admit it). In some ways I am "proud" to be among this generation of IVF pioneers.

Just caught MadMen for the first time last week, and was quite intrigued! Must check out the first season now.

While I do get excited thinking about how far the gals have come in the work world, I gotta say we've still got far, far to go! Especially in fields like advertising (which I work in) -- interestingly enough. I've worked at agencies (present-day) that are not so far off the one in MadMen. The sexism, talking down to women consumers, etc is still very commonplace -- and it's very rare to find high-ranking women creative directors.

Anyway, you've got me excited about quite a bit! Thank you. Looking forward to hearing how things progress over there...

Ally said...

I heard the same piece on NPR on Friday and had much the same reaction you did. The absolute fearlessness of Louise's parents-their stepping out into the complete unknown-humbles me. It makes my fears seem petty and ridiculous. As much as I hate cycling, I am so grateful for the opportunity to do so. It's sort of a love-hate thing with me, I guess?!?!

Ms Heathen said...

I loved the first series of Mad Men, but have to wait until January of next year for the second series to air here in the UK (so not too many spoilers, please, Babychaser!)

You're absolutely right: it must have been much, much worse to have been dealing with infertility forty years ago, when there were no real treatment options and when marriage and motherhood were seen as a woman's ultimate destiny (can you imagine how much greater the sense of isolation and of failure must have been back then?).

But I think that the fact that there are so many treatment options available also brings its own dilemmas. At the same time as I am incredibly grateful that IVF is available to us as an option, like you, I find it hard to remain unconditionally optimistic after a couple of failed cycles.

kate said...

Ah, Mad Men. Yes, I totally watch it. I missed one crucial episode, so I need to go back and watch the first season again.

Yes, very good television. I also find myself feeling lost in that era, feeling like I wish I could help some of the characters, like shake them and tell them that it's not always going to be like that, that you have to be a decent person, that work isn't life, etc.

And I don't how they try to humanize him, I just want to kick the shit out of the Pete Campbell character. What a dick. He just seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I don't care how hurt he feels or how stoic or whatever- I just want to punch him almost every time he opens his mouth.

Joonie said...

Thanks for bringing Louise to my attention. I had no idea it had been 30 years and I too applaud her parents for paving the way for us.

Hey, I love Mad Men too. I've recorded the first episode, but haven't had a chance to watch it yet. It is the only show that my husband and I both like (aside from some late nite cartoon shows and jeopardy, of course).

Barb said...

I heard that story on NPR too. :) Thanks for expounding on it. I hope this latest IVF proves fruitful.

Newt said...

I always thought "test tube baby" meant they went through the whole gestation in the lab, too! It sounded like science fiction!

What an awful term. Thanks for the reminder of how far we've come. I need to be reminded to have some optimism now and then!

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