I’m the offspring of my father and my mother’s sister.
No, it’s not as scandalous as it sounds. At 32 years old, my mom was a two-time cancer survivor, but her eggs, scrambled by chemotherapy, were not.
“I was told I’d never have children,” she’d often remark when brushing my hair, marveling at my being. The credit is due to a little scientific breakthrough known as in vitro fertilization.
IVF is when a woman’s eggs are fertilized in a petri dish outside the body. The eggs are extracted from the mother — or in my case, the egg donor — via a needle going up the vagina and well beyond. The sperm, well, that’s some porn-produced jizz in a cup. After incubation, the doctors pick the most viable embryos to transfer. Typically, they choose several embryos in order to increase the odds of a successful outcome, which also increases the odds of a multiple pregnancy. Once inserted into the mother’s cervix, the creation develops just as a typical pregnancy would. Then, violá! A baby! Me!
Basically, my parents could be virgins for all I know.
For my mom’s first pregnancy, her best friend from college volunteered to be the egg donor. This resulted in my blue-eyed older brother, Kevin. Two years later, when my parents wanted another baby, my mom asked her favorite sister — my aunt Molly ― for help. This time, however, three of the four inserted embryos survived the procedure.
Unfortunately, the third embryo miscarried in the womb. My mom was disappointed but probably wouldn’t have survived triplets. A collapsed lung left her on bedrest for most of the pregnancy, and placenta complications led to an emergency cesarean section and hysterectomy. My brother Sean and I were born five weeks premature in the mid-1990s.
My parents never kept my conception a secret from me. However, at 5 years old, I learned it was a taboo subject. I was playing dolls with my cousins Kelly and Shannon — Aunt Molly’s daughters. When talking about how much we looked alike, Kelly said, “Well, we’re technically sisters.”
I later repeated this in front of my mom. To my surprise, she grabbed me, rushed me to the garage and closed the door behind her.
“How do you know that?” she asked, flustered. “Who told you?”
I was so confused. I explained how Kelly told me that day, but I already knew. Mom had told me many times. To this day, I don’t understand why she acted as though it was news to me.
“This doesn’t leave our house. Understand?”
I wanted to cry. Not only did I fear I was in trouble, but I was scared my mom was ashamed. Was there something wrong with the way I was created? Maybe my mom would’ve preferred to do things the normal way, I worried. I didn’t have the words then, but it felt like my life was a little less real than everybody else’s. It felt like there was something artificial about me.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I’d learn about the controversy around IVF. My honors history class required us to write a research paper on a “turning point” in history. I chose the birth of Louise Joy Brown, the first “test tube” baby.
The masterminds behind IVF were English medical scientists Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe. After teaming up in 1968, the two spent 10 years researching human reproduction, moving forward despite the criticism of many failed experiments. Finally, on July 25, 1978, a medical miracle was born via C-section. The baby’s mother, Lesley Brown, had spent nine years trying to get pregnant. This breakthrough gave hope to women everywhere struggling with infertility.
Not everyone was inspired, however. One of the harshest antagonists was the Roman Catholic Church. The church viewed IVF as a violation of God’s will and the sanctity of marriage. Perhaps more significantly, it implicated the still-debated question of when life begins. In the IVF process, embryos are often destroyed or compromised. Many Catholics believe this to be murder, including members of my mother’s family.
“Oh, Mary, some people just aren’t meant to have children,” my grandmother said in her Irish brogue when my mom was trying to get pregnant and simply broached the idea of IVF. “It’s God’s will.” My mom responded by saying God probably wouldn’t mind.
The family’s disapproval only made my aunt Molly’s sacrifice more meaningful. Most people are products of their parents’ love, but I wouldn’t have been created without sisterly love as well. My conception had the girl-power kick of “Frozen.”
To avoid family drama, my mom generally pretended her pregnancies were natural miracles. She later confessed the truth to her mother, who was by then dying in hospice at our house. It went well. My grandmother didn’t object. How could she? She already loved my brothers and me. Of course, cancer had obstructed her ability to talk at that point. But she nodded.
Today, IVF has become fairly normal as success rates have risen with improved technology. Since 1968, over five million babies have been born from lab-assisted conceptions worldwide. We are, literally, the children of miraculous scientific discovery.
I don’t keep my conception a secret anymore because it’s a nice fun fact. People often ask if I feel a special bond with my aunt given that she’s my biological mother, too. No, not really. My mom is my mom, annoying as she can be sometimes. Plus, because they’re sisters, I still share a genetic history with my mom.
However, I do have a special bond with my three cousins — Kelly, Shannon and Kaitlyn. They are my sisters. Because of them, I understand the type of love that brought me into this world.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be an IVF baby in relation to other people’s notions of it. When Beyoncé was pregnant with her twins, TV host Wendy Williams (assuming Bey used IVF) made a comment insinuating that women who conceive twins naturally must be upset by “artificial” twin pregnancies. She said, “It’s kind of upsetting these days that all you have to do is swipe a credit card and make it happen.” She then compared the procedure to boob jobs or hair extensions, as if my existence is a cosmetic luxury.
There’s no such thing as an artificial person. No one would say a cancer survivor’s life was any less real because it depended on science and a credit card. If we simply let “God’s will” happen, most of us would be dead by now. And if God really expected us just to accept fate, we’d probably all have been damned for disobedience long before now. The evolution of science is the evolution of humankind.
We IVF babies are the children of what was once thought impossible. More importantly, we’re made from love. And I don’t even have to imagine my parents having sex.