I’d tell someone my wife was pregnant with twins, or they’d find out, and, well, most of them raise an eyebrow and ask the same question: “Oh,” they’d say. “Do twins run in your family?”
The first many times, being a bit thick about these things, I wasn’t quite sure why the question sounded so loaded, why some subtle hesitations and feints as they spoke made me feel like I was being investigated. But the question kept coming—from passing acquaintances and even, at times, total strangers who only overheard me telling someone else our happy news.
“Why is that everyone’s first question?” I asked my wife one night. “Why is that so important?”
“Because that’s not what they’re really asking,” she replied. “What they really want to know is if we were receiving some sort of fertility treatments.”
I was stunned, but only momentarily. Because my wife’s explanation made perfect sense. I got it now: I felt like we were being investigated because we were. And as the months passed both my wife and I ran into people who pressed the questioning further.
“Ohhhh, do twins run in your family?” they asked.
“Nope,” we’d say.
“Oh,” they replied, then ask—flat out. “Were you receiving fertility treatments?”
I even ran across a couple of people who skipped the first question altogether and went straight to asking about, you know, our fertility. Lisa and I laughed it off through her entire long pregnancy and always answered honestly. Truth: We had Jack and Eli without fertility treatments. But incredibly, I ran across multiple people who didn’t seem to believe us, or even understand how such a thing might be possible.
“How?” they asked, incredulous. Some even smirked because, of course, any schmoe who asks a personal question about our fertility clearly deserves an honest answer.
Over time, I realized that we got here because Kate Gosselin (sextuplets) and the Octomom (octuplets) had wreaked their havoc on the world, reframing the social contract between expectant parents and total strangers, as if the multimillion dollar reality TV contracts they signed obligate us all to be right up front about our familial ovulations. This phenomenon is in fact so pervasive someone even made a cartoon about it. To wit:
But what’s worse is that many people pursued this line of questioning with some small bite in their voice, as if they were passing judgment on the whole practice of fertility treatment.
Now, I understand the practice of implanting multiple eggs during in-vitro fertilization is one of the most controversial aspects of reproductive medicine. And I agree that having six or eight eggs implanted seems, shall we say, wildly excessive—and fraught with risk due to the escalating complications associated with multiples. But I also don’t believe that passing acquaintances and people who stop expectant parents in grocery stores—true story—should request such deeply personal information about any family just because Kate’s been open about it all.
I’m no privacy hound. I even wrote a column, early on in the Dad Files, about the two miscarriages my wife (and I) suffered. I think there are many issues in our culture we don’t talk about openly enough. But it’s one thing for me, or anyone else, to volunteer the information—under a banner headline that will chase you away if you’re disinterested—and entirely another for you to ask.
Now, for the sake of this column, I’ll open up my personal life a little further. My wife and I visited a pair of fertility doctors after the miscarriages. The first one pressed us to pursue fertility treatments. We explained that getting pregnant wasn’t our problem. Staying pregnant was. Then we explained it again. And again. As a result, we saw a second doctor, to see if there was any help available for people like us, who were merely looking for a way to lessen the risk of further miscarriages. She told us, essentially, to relax. Go home, she said. And let nature take its course.
We took her advice.
My wife and I were, at this point, each around 40 years old. So the clock was ticking furiously. But that proved to be an unexpected advantage for us. Because women over 35 are more likely to release multiple eggs during a cycle—a last biological gasp to produce offspring. So, if you didn’t know already, now you do. Women can have multiples naturally, even if they don’t “run in the family.” And this fact of nature ushered Jack and Eli into our lives—along with all these strangers, asking invasive questions.
My wife and I actually went this deep into our story for numerous people before she gave birth. (I found myself forced to get into this exchange with at least a dozen people). But all along, I knew some day I’d write this column. Because my wife and I do have three friends who underwent in vitro fertilization, implanting two eggs. All three emerged with a baby. So, in a sense, I’m writing this for them and, of course, for other parents of multiples. Because Kate and the Octomom don’t have anything to do with their stories. And probably, if you stop and think about it, neither do you.
So, um, that question you were about to ask?
Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly. Read the series from the beginning.