Before getting pregnant this time around, I spent a lot of time thinking about the pros and cons of having twins. As time-wasting pastimes go, I had to admit that this one was somewhere up there just below watching paint dry. In the first place, since I wasn’t planning on fertility treatment, it was an utterly moot point; whatever conclusion I reached, I wasn’t going to be offered a choice in the matter. (Well, except that I did, while Googling on the subject, discover that apparently there is a type of yam that can increase your chances of popping out more than one egg at a time.) And in the second place, I already knew perfectly well what I thought on the subject. The idea of twins used to fascinate me right up until I had one baby, and then I realised that the whole ‘Wow!’ factor of having two babies at a time would not actually make up for the practical realities. Barry was quite in favour of the idea (although that was mainly because he wanted to have identical twin girls so that he could teach them to enact the "Come and play with us, Danny!" scene from The Shining), but I much prefer the idea of having babies one at a time.
It’s not that having a third child would be so terrible, for me at least; it’s that having two at once would, in all sorts of ways both minor and major, impact on my ability to be the mother I wanted to be to either of them, and that’s something that I would find endlessly frustrating and saddening. On top of that, the question of how we’d have coped financially with the extra time I’d almost certainly have had to take off work is one that I’m sure we could have answered if need be, but am glad we didn’t have to. I made sure I steered clear of those yams.
Still, having twins wouldn’t have been a disaster. I wouldn’t have wanted it that way, but if that’s what had happened, I’d have sucked it up, dealt with it, got on with things, and done my best to focus on the benefits – which might not have outweighed the downside in an ideal world, but would nonetheless have been considerable. But if I’d had twins due not to the vagaries of Fate but due to someone’s stupid, careless screw-up? Then I think I’d have been rather less philosophical about the whole thing.
This is the situation faced by a couple in Australia. One of the women (it was a lesbian couple) was undergoing IVF. Having initially signed a form to the effect that the doctor could replace ‘one or two’ embryos on the day of transfer, she then changed her mind and made it explicitly clear just prior to the transfer that she only wanted one replaced. She did not want twins. No, sirree, don’t even joke about it. Only replace one, Doctor. The doctor then failed to pass this rather crucial piece of information on to the embryologist whose job it was to place the appropriate number of embryos into the tube used to introduce them into the womb, and… well, you can guess the rest. Three years after the birth of the consequent twins, their parents are suing the doctor for the extra financial costs involved – medical bills, time off work, and, most of all, the cost of raising an extra child.
I encountered this story via Julie’s post on it. Despite her fears, her post didn’t offend me – in fact, I agreed with quite a bit of it, though not all. Julie’s take on the matter, and one dittoed by many of her commentators, is that she sympathises with the lawsuit but not with the couple’s attitudes as described in the media. This immediately rang alarm bells with me – if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that judging people solely on the picture the media gives us of them is not always such a great idea. This seemed, when I clicked on the links in Julie’s post, to be a typical example. These women seem to have said a couple of things along the way which indeed don’t show them in the best possible light, but which are getting splashed all over the papers devoid of any context or any first-hand information from the women themselves about how they see or are dealing with the whole situation, and that is waaaaay open to potential misinterpretation. Heaven help me if someone ever chooses to do the same with whatever of my comments on life they can get their hands on, because I don’t weigh every word I say before saying it and I don’t like to think about how many statements I may have made along my road in life that really wouldn’t paint me in the best of lights if they were the only information someone had about me.
In this case, the problem appears to have been exacerbated by a case of Chinese whispers. Julie reported one of the women as having claimed that she was ‘traumatised’ by buying a double stroller. Now, I do have to agree that, despite everything I said in the above paragraph, there are some statements that aren’t really excused by any context, and if this woman actually had claimed to have been traumatised by buying baby equipment of whatever variety then I would currently be rolling my eyes and muttering "Get a grip!". However, when I clicked on the link given, I found that the word ‘traumatised’ seems to have been introduced into the discussion by Julie – what the woman is actually quoted as saying is "It was like the last frontier of acceptance to spend hundreds of dollars on a pram". While this is a rather weird way of putting things, I’m guessing that it means something like "last straw", and, if so, then I get that. I can well imagine that if my brain was already swimming with "Oh, no! How long am I going to have to spend on bed rest? How will we make ends meet if I have to take all that time off work? How will I ever manage two babies at once? What’s going to happen when they’re both crying and I can’t deal with both their needs at the same time? Am I ever going to get any sleep again? Oh, bugger that doctor!", then the discovery that I was going to have to spend a few hundred more on a pram than originally budgeted for might be temporarily magnified from a minor and easily shrugged-off setback on life’s bumpy road to a disaster that would reduce me to a sobbing wreck.
I’m a bit baffled, too, as to why it’s supposed to be so terrible that the other mother described her partner as having ‘lost her ability to love’ following the birth of the twins. I do think that post-natal depression – or even stress, burnout, and exhaustion short of depression – can temporarily rob you of your ability to empathise and to respond emotionally to others, and that that’s probably what this woman was describing. And of course that’s all part of what you sign on for when you become a parent, but that doesn’t change the fact that being a parent to twins is that much harder and could well contribute to that result in someone who might have coped perfectly well with only one at a time.
Julie raises the pertinent question of how this lawsuit will someday be perceived by the children in question, given that it revolves around the desirability of the nonexistence of one of them. I agree that this is a big potential issue; I’m not sure I agree that it’s bound to be an actual issue, although everyone else seems to think so. These women are not, after all, going to be saving these press cuttings for the children’s baby book. The twins are three years old right now. By the time they’re old enough to take an interest in such things, the court case will be ancient history. Maybe I’m over-optimistic, but I do think that children can generally grasp the idea that their parents love them very much now even if they didn’t want them initially. I don’t think children look to a years-old court case to draw conclusions about their parents’ attitude towards them; I think that they look to the way their parents have acted towards them day after day after day in those years. (I also wonder if perhaps this couple just didn’t think about the way the media would turn a supposedly anonymous court case into a three-ring circus. If so, then I’ll certainly buy that they’re naive, but not necessarily that they’re terrible parents, or terrible people.)
As I said, Julie’s opinions on these points didn’t offend me – I thought they were quite reasonably expressed. What did offend me, to the point of eventually driving me to write this post despite already having added some lengthy comments to the discussion on Julie’s blog, was the attitude of a lot of her commentators. Partly because I disagreed vehemently with many of the things said, and also partly because of the way so many of those things were being said. ("Money-grubbing assholes" would be a fair summary of much of the commentary.)
For starters, there was the insistence that suffering a particular consequence because of someone’s carelessness can’t possibly raise any moral issues over and beyond suffering that same consequence through sheer bad luck. By that argument, I can stop checking results and prescriptions so carefully – after all, people die of cancer or suffer medication side-effects every day, so what does it matter if a few extra bite the dust because I couldn’t be bothered to pick up warning signs in their results or notice that they’ve been put on medication that’s contraindicated for them? While I’m at it, I’ll stop looking out for pedestrians when I drive. They knew there were risks when they decided to cross that road, so the hell with ’em – they’ve no right to whine and bitch when I run ’em down.
It’s only fair to argue that carelessness is also not the same as malice and that there should probably be limits on the amount that someone should have to pay for a genuine mistake, however stupid. (One could, for example, quite reasonably question whether the doctor really needs to pay the extra child’s way through private school.) But the number of people who seemed to think that the couple should treat medical carelessness as just another part of the risk they accepted when they decided to undergo IVF astonished me. I suppose it at least makes a change from the reverse attitude that crops up so commonly these days – the idea that if anything has gone wrong with your life it must be due to someone’s carelessness and that Someone, Somewhere, had therefore better pay. Heaven knows I don’t have much patience with that attitude, either. But this was a genuine case of someone screwing up. One of the commenters accused the women of having a ‘sense of entitlement’, as though there was something wrong with this under the circumstances. Having a doctor who’s willing to listen to your wishes regarding your treatment and make reasonable efforts to carry them out strikes me as one of the things to which people certainly should be entitled.
Then, there was the attitude that the couple had no right to complain because all they had to do was opt for one of the other options available to them once they discovered the twin pregnancy – you know, one of those many alternatives easy and insignificant enough to be appropriately prefaced by ‘just’. Just selectively reduce! Just have one of the babies adopted! Just get on with it and love them both anyway! With such a range of options available, why would anyone be whiny enough to complain?
Which is a pretty ironic attitude to find on an infertility blog – the place of all places where advice to "Just adopt!" is recognised as being utterly inappropriate in its simplistic dismissal of the very real emotional and practical difficulties that hang on such a decision. Advice to just have a baby adopted really doesn’t strike me as any more OK. Nor is advice to just undergo a procedure that almost everyone would see as having at least some moral implications and that would present the risk of miscarrying the fetus that wasn’t aborted as well as the one that was. And as for just loving them both anyway – you know what? I’ll bet they do, lawsuit or no lawsuit.
Which brings me to the other thing that really bothered me – the assumption that, because they didn’t want two babies, this must mean that they’ve designated a Wanted Twin and an Unwanted Reject and made certain both know exactly what their role in the family is. To read a lot of the comments, you’d think the parents had already had the T-shirts made up to differentiate the two. (One commenter even stated her belief that the judge should make any financial reimbursement to the couple conditional on them doing so. Huh?!?) Once again – I don’t believe that loving both your children and wishing you had never been put in the position of having to deal with two at once are mutually exclusive emotions. It’s nice, sometimes, to act as though life were really that simple, but it just isn’t.
None of this is to say that I believe there are no questions to be asked about how the pair are acting and whether these actions are justified. It’s to say that, since none of us knows the couple, their parenting skills, or their side(s) of the story, I don’t believe we are in a position to assume we have answers to those questions. Especially not answers as dismissive and simplistic as many people seemed to be rushing to provide.