Recently, I had occasion to listen to the famous semi-autobiographical book Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I hadn't read the book in over thirty years, and it was interesting to come back to it again from the perspective of an adult. As a child, I took in the Ingalls' adventures and travails as they settled in Kansas at face value. As an adult, I couldn't help being a bit shocked by all the chances that "Pa" took with the lives and the fortunes of his family. Luckily, most things turned out alright in the end, but there were certainly many instances in which disaster was a likely possibility. As I listened to the book, one thing became clear to me: I would have made a lousy pioneer, because I am naturally risk-adverse, and I don't feel lucky.
And yet, it also occurred to me that because of my medical condition of infertility, I became a social pioneer without really thinking about it. By creating a family through international adoption and IVF, my husband and I essentially got the covered wagon ready and started heading west. We aren't alone, as there are many in a similar situation. But the social territory in this new land has yet to be fully settled. Also, even as we try to put down our roots, the terrain keeps changing, making it difficult to feel secure, and competent in this new land.
For instance, when we adopted our daughter, now ten, from India, it was in the height of a wave of international adoption from a number of countries, such as Russia, China, and Guatemala. At the time, we lived on a street with four other internationally adopted children. Whenever I went to the doctor's office or grocery store, I almost always saw other families built through international adoption. Because the world of international adoption has changed so much, I almost never see babies or young children adopted from other countries anymore. It seems odd to me that there was a large generation of children who found their families in this way, and yet now, there is only a small one to follow them.
In my opinion, the changes in international adoption, and the declining US birthrate in terms of babies available for domestic adoption, have pushed more prospective parents in the direction of third-party reproduction. I was once interviewed by Scott Simon, the NPR journalist who wrote an excellent book on adoption. During the interview, he asked me which I thought would "win"--adoption or infertility treatment. I responded that I thought that due to the changes in circumstances, infertility treatment had already "won". I got the sense he didn't like my answer very much, but the fact remains that there are more babies being born with the help of egg donors, sperm donors, and gestational carriers than ever before. I can't help but wonder what this will be like for this new generation of children in terms of their psychological and social identity.
Much has been made of the problems that these children will encounter because of their often unknown genetic origins. Because the stories of their beginnings are different from the the norm, it is assumed that these children will encounter problems. And perhaps that may be. After all, there is a certain reality to the situation--these children may not have access to genetic information, may look different than their parents, and have come to be via different means.
The thing is, though, that in the end, societal viewpoints and norms are plastic. They change over time, and in response to events and situations. People define them, and they change them.
As infertility pioneers, it seems to me that we have a good opportunity to help redefine social norms and values in this regard. Why can't we help shape what all this means for ourselves, and for the children of the IVF generation? Instead of just reacting to others' negative opinions, we can put forth our positive opinions instead. For instance, just because something is different, it doesn't mean that it is bad. Perhaps the differences actually just make things more interesting.
Of course, by the time we really accomplish all this, I predict the landscape of infertility will change again. I believe that the donor egg/sperm era is but a temporary one. Science is advancing at a rapid rate, and I think that in my lifetime, scientists will discover a way to revitalize damaged eggs and sperm or restart their production. Then we will have a whole new set of issues with which to struggle.
Such was the case with the Ingalls family in Little House on the Prairie. After spending an arduous year building a homestead on the Kansas prairie, the family learns they must leave their farm because they settled 3 miles over the boundary into Indian Territory. All of their hard work and investment was lost. On the way back East, the family encountered a lone wagon stranded on the prairie. The couple inside had lost their horses to horse thieves, but refused the Ingalls' family offer of a ride into town because they didn't want to leave their worldly possessions behind. As the Ingalls family rides away, Pa comments that the couple are "tenderfeet"--they didn't use chains to tie up their horses, preventing their theft, and they had no watchdog to watch over their things. Even though Pa had made a huge mistake in picking the wrong spot to settle, he had still learned a great deal about life on the prairie.
And so have those of us dealing and struggling with infertility. Although our landscape will most certainly change, I hope that we can use our knowledge and experiences to change things and make it easier for those who will follow after us.