Miraculous Moms: Open Talk on Infertility

By Marjorie Ingall

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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I’ve always loved Emma Thompson. She’s hilarious and self-effacing and sexy and beautiful in an un-Botoxed way. She can handle Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Nothing”), film noir (“Dead Again”), Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility”) and Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”). She was incredible in the HBO Films production of Margaret Edson’s play “Wit.” And if you’ve never seen her in “The Tall Guy” with Jeff Goldblum, her first movie role (“Are you going to walk me home, or should I just get murdered on my own?”), you must Netflix that sucker immediately. She’s just brilliant. And did you know that she’s the only person ever to win Oscars for both acting and writing? I bet you didn’t, because you don’t hear her mother bragging about it, and this is how you know that Emma Thompson is not a Jew.

But I just found a new reason to love her. In the November 24 issue of Entertainment Weekly, she talks about how hard it was for her to conceive her daughter (despite grueling in-vitro fertilization treatment) and how years of attempting to have a second child simply didn’t work. “I went into a deep clinical depression,” she told the magazine. “It’s only now that I no longer count people’s children or judge myself harshly for not providing my daughter with a sibling.”

In a world where the Celebrity-Industrial Complex consistently rewards fatuousness and dishonesty, how real is that comment? How lovely is it that she said something that certainly will make women dealing with infertility feel less alone?

And my girl Emma’s pretty much a voice in the celebrity wilderness. There’s been a raft of famous ladies giving birth in their late 40s and 50s these days (Holly Hunter had twins at 47; Geena Davis had twins at 48; Cheryl Tiegs had twins at 52; Joan Lunden had twins at 54; plus there are a gazillion actresses and singers in their late 30s and early 40s who recently have had singleton babies), but most of these women are less than forthcoming about how they got their bundles of joy.

Julia Roberts, who had Hazel and Phinneas when she was 37, babbled about how twins ran in her family. (Internet gossips buzzed about her supposedly going to Cornell Medical Center, with its famous infertility clinic.) Jazz singer Diana Krall, 41, expecting twins imminently with hubby Elvis Costello, said that twins ran in her family, too. Hey, what are the odds?

But even if celebs fudge and elide the truth, are we really entitled to guided tours of their wombs? Are their uteri no different from the houses they show off to In Style (only smaller, and with placentas)?

Yes and no. I believe that celebrities who actively lie about how they got pregnant are doing a huge disservice to us normal people. The chance of a 43-year-old woman getting pregnant with her own eggs is somewhere between 6% and 10%, depending on whose data you look at. By age 45, her chances are somewhere around 2%. At 48, they’re statistically zero. But there always will be unscrupulous IVF clinics that prey on the hopes of women in their early to mid 40s, and there always will be women who say, “But Famous Toothy Person X got pregnant at 45!” If every Famous Toothy Person admits that she didn’t use her own eggs, she could save normal nontoothy people a lot of money and vain hope.

Furthermore, any woman who pimps out her babies to magazines — using them to advance her own career while cooing about how clean living and hearty peasant stock are all that are responsible for her super-duper eggs — deserves to be publicly tsk-tsked. Some celebrities are semi-open, talking about undergoing fertility treatment or even about using gestational surrogates, but they invariably stop short of saying they’ve used donor eggs. Again, nuh-uh. Just as I’m sick of celebrities lying about their plastic surgery and fostering unrealistic expectations about what aging actually looks like, I’m sick of celebrities lying about how they got their babies. (If, like Holly Hunter and Jodie Foster, you actually don’t use your babies as a publicity tool, ever, then okay, you don’t have to tell me how you begat ’em. Deal.) Also, I propose a tradeoff: If you natter on about Kabbalah, you have to carry a speculum along with your special water and your red-string bracelet. Just because you bug me. Hey, you want to share, let’s really share!

Seriously, though, I don’t think most of us know how precipitously fertility declines after age 38 or so. When the American Society for Reproductive Medicine launched a fertility awareness campaign a few years ago, feminists like me were irked. The public interest ads warned of the risks of smoking, sexually transmitted diseases and excess weight, but the poster that got our notice said, “Advancing age decreases your ability to have children.” It was reductive and came off as condescending. Hey, we women get criticized for “opting out” of our careers when we have kids in our 20s and early 30s; we get told not to “settle” for a man unworthy of us; we get tut-tutted for choosing single motherdom if we don’t have a partner… but if we decide to wait for a husband or for more financial wherewithal, we’re fools? Feh! There’s no winning. But the basic info was sound. It does get harder to have kids as you get older. So famous people, if you’re going to sell images of yourself all dewy and glowy with your newborn(s), talking about how much more fulfilling motherhood is than acting (the two live-in nannies are conveniently airbrushed out of the picture, along with any trace of your forehead wrinkles that haven’t been sufficiently eradicated by Restylane), do a public service. Tell the truth about how you achieved your heart’s desire. Make people feel more legitimized, or help them understand that the financial costs you can shoulder are simply out of reach for most Americans. I know you’re terrified to be perceived as truly old, because it’ll hurt your ability to be cast as a hot babe. And nothing says “truly old” to you like “bad eggs.” I know that, little skinny aging famous ladies, I know. Do it anyway.

Celebs, however, are hardly the only ones who are silent about egg donation. A quarter of a million egg donor babies have been born in the United States, but many parents have no intention of telling the kids about their origins. A 2004 study of 157 couples who’d used donor eggs found that a third were opposed to telling their kids, ever. Only 10% had already informed their children; 49% planned to inform them eventually, and 10% were unsure of what they’d do. And this was a self-reported questionnaire that had only a 31% response rate. Do we really think that the 69% who didn’t reply are all going to come clean with their kids? It seems to me that this is where the adoption movement was a couple of generations ago. Talk about silence and stigma!

Celebrities have serious power to lessen stigma in general. Emma Thompson will help a lot of people with that interview in Entertainment Weekly, just as Brooke Shields did with her book on postpartum depression, and Betty Ford with her openness about her alcoholism. Researchers actually use the term “The Couric Effect” to talk about how Katie Couric’s on-air colonoscopy and discussion of colorectal cancer (the disease that killed her husband) on “Today” a few years ago actually had a significant, measurable impact on Americans’ willingness to be screened for the disease.

So come on, famous breeding ladies. Follow Emma’s lead. Crack the silence.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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