Lovely. Are They Natural?

Due to the common use of assisted reproductive technology, twins and triplets are now subconsciously labeled “natural” or “unnatural.”

In Katharine Wroth’s Salon article about the questions people ask pregnant women, she expresses her outrage at continually being asked “Were you trying?” She thought it was not only too personal, but the answer potentially passed judgment on her relationship and lifestyle. The good news is that once she gives birth, this question will most likely disappear. As the mother of twins, there is a question I feel is far more invasive and offensive that begins with pregnancy and is more frequent after birth.

“Are they natural?”

It is universally the most-hated question asked of parents of multiples, followed closely by “You must have your hands full!” or “Better you than me.” In just three words, strangers pry into your method of conception – a private and intimate moment – and tack a label on your children. Using the term “natural” to describe children conceived without any help automatically conveys what the asker thinks of children who were conceived using assisted reproductive technology (unnatural).

What is an unnatural child, anyway? Am I really supposed to answer: Yes or no? It’s shocking that strangers and casual acquaintances think it’s appropriate to ask someone how their children were conceived. Although fertility treatments account for 77 percent of multiple births, many single children are born that way, too, yet I don’t see the same people marching up to everyone they meet and asking how their child was conceived. Whenever I am asked, I get the creepy feeling that the person is either picturing me in bed with my husband or in a gown and stirrups at a doctor’s office. I was raised to be polite, so as yet I haven’t asked that person how they conceived their own children – flat on their backs or in some other position? Maybe next time, I will.

I have seven friends with twins to whom I am close enough to know the circumstances of their origin. Out of our group, six sets (one mom has two sets) were conceived with no outside intervention, and three were the result of assistance. We have all been asked how our children came to be, and I’ve noticed that when the answer is that they were conceived naturally, the asker smiles and is supportive, commenting on how cute the children are. When the answer is that they were conceived with help, the asker usually replies, “oh,” rather flatly. Many parents report that they have resorted to lying or giving outrageous answers like “No, they’re plastic” or “We had sex twice in one night” in an attempt to end unwelcome conversations in the mall or at the supermarket.

My friend’s mother was talking the other day about a coworker’s daughter who had IVF and subsequently had triplets. She said, “Well, you get what you deserve.”

Exactly what do couples who have infertility issues deserve? The repeated disappointment of not being able to get pregnant, month after month, while watching their family and friends reproduce without issue? The devastation of miscarriages? The bone-deep, hollowed-out heartache of watching a fetus on an ultrasound that is not moving and has no heartbeat? Or, because they had the nerve to see a specialist and use fertility medications, they “deserve” multiples? Evidently, multiples are somehow a punishment.

Assisted reproduction has become more common now due to a variety of factors, and it is certainly discussed more often. Perhaps that’s why people feel that they can ask parents how their children came to be, however inappropriate it still is. While it’s more common, judging by the reactions, assisted reproduction is still looked down on by many. For some reason, having one child through assisted reproduction is a miracle, but having multiples that way is unnatural, even though having twins or triplets is always out of anyone’s control. One commenter on a twins blog said that he had “natural” twins, and felt they were special, whereas twins conceived through IVF were not.

Whether people are fascinated, admiring, or just plain nosy, the issue affects more than the parents – the kids can hear these comments, questions, labels and tone of voice, too. One mother posted a story about a woman who asked her if her triplets were “natural.” She then said, sympathetically, that the mother’s life must be so hard and how did she possibly do it? Later, her sad daughter asked the mother if she wished she had had only one child instead of three. I worry, too, that soon my two-year-old sons will want to know what “natural” means. That funny, irrepressible Ben and serious, cuddly Sam will wonder if they are a burden to me due to the thoughtlessness of others.

When people ask, “Do twins run in your family?” (the fraternal twin question to “Are they natural?”) in that I-would-shoot-myself-in-the-head-if-it-were-me voice, I tell them I’m adopted. Although they are asking for personal information, it seems that when they get some they don’t expect, people shut up – at least long enough for me to make a getaway. But what’s next? Perhaps they’ll want to know if I plan to find my “real” parents someday.

image: Angela Vincent

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.