When do I get a sibling? How to talk to your child about infertility

This week’s blog post is by WDP co-host Matt Rocco, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with Professor Foster (his “Brown Mom” wife), and their daughter Viva, a.k.a Mommy and Daddy’s adorable six-figure science project.

The first question I got from my 3-year-old this weekend:

“Daddy, can I have a baby sister if I take good care of her?”

… and the second question:

“Daddy, why are you crying?”

Like so many – actually, most – of our friends, my wife and I had a helluva time conceiving our daughter. After SEVEN rounds of IVF (An award for my wife, please), we had Viva. And because we’re either incredibly hopeful or love flying too close to the sun, we’ve even gone a couple of luckless rounds with the help of a gestational carrier to try for a second baby. Are we done trying? Ask us at the end of a long day or when we’re plucking out our gray hairs and we’ll say, “Yes.” Ask us when we’re trying to decide if we’re getting rid of the bassinets and the changing table and we’ll say, “Maybe not.”

Don’t think we’re not appreciative for all the super-science and support that went into making the child we have – some of our closest friends are still trying for that first baby as we careen into age 40 and beyond. What is it with Generation X and infertility? Is it that we were pragmatic and waited until we had advanced degrees (in practical fields like Vocal Pedagogy and Musical Theatre Writing) before we gave babies a shot? Is it that most of us waited until past 30 to get married to try and do a little better than the Boomers’ divorce rate, which hovers around 98.5 percent? Is it that years of staging Wiffle bat accidents to the groin with our cousins in an attempt to get on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” left us unable to conceive? Probably yes to all of the above – but whatever the reason, many of us are stuck with fertility issues and secondary fertility issues (that’s when you can’t make a second kid).

And when it’s a second baby that you can’t make – how do you tell the first one? In the case of my daughter, she’s too young to really grasp sex or all the non-sexy ways people reproduce now. To her, Egg Quality is an FDA concern, and Sperm Count must be the virile cousin of a Sesame Street character. As she grows up, she’ll realize that she’s part of a generation in which nearly every child in her class came into their family via a different process: IVF, open or closed domestic adoption, international adoption, egg donation, sperm donation, embryo donation, traditional surrogacy, gestational surrogacy, puppets brought to life by fairies, and androids brought home from work like the girl on “Small Wonder.” (I wonder if V.I.C.I. has a family of her own now?) Her generation will likely put intercourse as about tenth on the list of how babies get made. It still doesn’t help me now.

I attempted a few explanations of why she couldn’t have a baby sister, but they all fell flat:

“Making a baby is complicated. It didn’t used to be complicated. I mean, it’s not complicated if you’re, like, 16 – not that I’m saying you should have a baby at 16. Do NOT have a baby at 16! Look, it’s complicated.”

“Have you ever heard that saying, ‘When you were born, they broke the mold”? Well, when YOU were born, they cryofroze the rest of the injection materials.”

“God smiled upon us and gave us the perfect little daughter in you. Then God turned his back on us. I’m not sure why. Probably because of something you did.”

Those answers didn’t quite do the trick. So, instead of explaining to her why making another baby might prove problematic, I tried to tell her reasons why she should reconsider wanting a baby sister:

“You see all those fetching outfits in your closet? You know how we eat in restaurants a lot? You know how you were almost crushed in an avalanche of gifts on Christmas morning? Do you want this sweet gig to go away?”

“At the current rate of tuition increases, if we have a second child, we can probably only send one of you to college. We’ll choose the smartest and send her. It might be you, but it might not. Do you really think it’s worth the chance?

“Babies are noisy, tedious and attention starved. Like having Kanye West running around the house in a diaper. Is that what you want?”

I might yet consider turning to books. There are number of excellent books now about fertility issues and different means to building a family – these books skirt the gooey details but still address the emotional underpinnings of the problem. Books like:

“One More Giraffe” by Kim Noble, “The Kangaroo Pouch: A Story About Gestational Surrogacy For Young Children” by Sarah Phillips Pellet, “Mommy, Was Your Tummy Big?” by Carolina Nadela, and, of course, “Mister Panda’s Warm Specimen Cup,” “Hide in the Basement, Mommy is on Clomid,” and “Why Didn’t I Freeze Some Eggs Before I Worked on My Masters?”

(Those last three are by me – if you’re an interested publisher, e-mail me at whitedadproblems@gmail.com.)

In the end, I could think of no simple or painless way of explaining infertility to my young child. I could only tell her that conception is complicated, difficult, and just the price of parking downtown for the treatments is murder, let alone the copays.

I told her that different families have different numbers of children – some are the Partridges, some are the Flintstones. She didn’t know what that meant, and I didn’t want to make her sit through “The Partridge Family” to have it make sense, but it’s true nonetheless.

I told her if she does remain an only child, that only children are special, like Batman, Superman, or Harry Potter … minus all the orphaning.

We’re not overpromising, we’re not overcomplicating the issues, and we’re trying to keep her positive about being an only without shaming families with more than one kid. (I tried to ask her, “You don’t want to be like those awful Von Trapps, do you? They needed police whistles and show tunes to control their family,” but my wife stopped me.)

The whole line of questioning died down, however, when I told Viva she may or may not ever get a baby sister or, of course, a baby brother.

“I said, ‘sister,’” Viva interrupted. “Not ‘brother.’” And she hopped away to play.

If you enjoyed this essay, subscribe to the WDP podcast (One of Podbean’s 10 most downloaded Parenting Podcasts worldwide and an iTunes staff pick for best Parenting humor) for free on iTunes, or listen at whitedadproblems.com. (Do note that the show has a potty mouth and is definitely for Over 17 Only.)

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