Coming Out of the Fertility Closet

How Jimmy Fallon is helping infertile couples across America

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Evan Agostini / AP

Talk-show host Jimmy Fallon and his wife Nancy Juvonen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on May 7, 2012

Although 1 in 6 U.S. couples faces problems conceiving, many still feel funny telling others that they are undergoing treatment. In fact, infertility is one of the last great cultural taboos. One survey of infertile couples conducted for the pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough, which later merged with Merck, found that 61% hid their infertility from family and friends, and half didn’t share it with their mothers. Why the secrecy? The study also found that 7 in 10 women admitted that being infertile made them feel “flawed” and half of men reported feeling “inadequate.”

It’s no wonder then that talk-show host Jimmy Fallon waited two weeks after the birth of his daughter Winnie Rose to reveal that she was carried by a surrogate. “My wife and I had been trying for a while to have a baby,” Fallon told Today’s Savannah Guthrie on Friday morning. “We tried a bunch of things. So we had a surrogate.”

Fallon’s openness came as a surprise, considering that most celebrities have been notoriously mum on the subject. Who can blame them? Remember all the rampant speculating about whether Kate Middleton had infertility problems? And — gasp! — was Baby George conceived via IVF?

(MORE: Having It All Without Having Children)

To date, Hollywood stars having baby-making troubles haven’t received much public sympathy, amid criticism of being able to “buy” their way out of fertility problems with expensive medical help that many Americans can’t afford.

But the narrative turns extra nasty when other people’s reproductive parts, such as rented wombs or donor eggs, are involved. When actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicole Kidman revealed they had used surrogates, they were accused of hiring these other women in order to spare their own bodies from the ravages of pregnancy — as if these women chose this route for cosmetic reasons, when both had publicly shared their battles with infertility.

And woe to the woman who becomes pregnant using eggs donated by another woman because her own eggs were too old or poor quality. She’s frequently called “selfish” and accused of pushing the boundaries of older motherhood. Instead of praising the third parties and doctors who make such miracles possible, we attack women for putting their careers first and waiting too long to have babies.

(MORE: My Sister, My Surrogate: After Battling Cancer, One Woman Receives the Ultimate Mother’s Day Gift)

We should applaud Fallon — along with his wife and other high-profile women willing to share their stories — for going public with facts so many would prefer to keep hidden.

While celebrities take a lot of flak for exposing their private lives, these are important gestures of support to all the families who are suffering in silence. Such honesty is also welcomed by fertility doctors who struggle to educate patients about the challenges of getting pregnant in your 40s, when popular culture makes it look so easy. Many Hollywood actresses, they explain, became pregnant using donor eggs. Hopefully, one day, the stars will feel comfortable telling us that fact themselves.

What’s more, these announcements go a long way in changing the public perception that infertility is a source of shame. In 2011, Redbook magazine and RESOLVE, a national infertility-education group, launched an online video campaign called “The Truth About Trying” to chip away at the stigma. “It’s crazy to me that this topic is still taboo,” Rosie Pope, star of Bravo’s Pregnant in Heels said in her video. “In Hollywood, you can talk about your drug addiction or divorce, but not infertility.” Perhaps that’s starting to change.

Richards is a health-and-science journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It.

41 comments
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JoeScatone

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Jemma
Jemma

As someone who has struggled with infertility for 4 years, and gone through thousands upon thousands of dollars’ worth of fertility treatments that did not work, I feel there are very valid reasons for “staying in the infertility closet.”

1.)When you tell people you are having trouble getting pregnant, they want to throw their two cents in. “Oh, have you tried this? Have you gone to a doctor, yet? Have you considered your options?” Do people think you really have not painstakingly considered your options?

2.)People try to console you. “Oh, it’s probably for the best. Parenting in this economy is hard.” or, or, “There’s always adoption.” The worst is when they tell stories about their cousin’s friend who had supposedly struggled with infertility for years and then got pregnant by sheer miracle. It doesn’t work for everyone.

(Comment was too long- see the 2nd half in the replies.)

Jemma
Jemma

3.)Friends who know about it try to relate, even if they can’t.“Oh, I know exactly how you feel! I tried for two whole months to get pregnant. It was so stressful.” Right…

4.)People try to protect your feelings by leaving you out. I cannot tell you how many friends’ baby showers I wasn’t invited to, how many close friends texted/called everyone but me to announce their child’s birth, how many people tried to hide their pregnancies from me because they were afraid I’d be jealous or upset.

5.)Then, there are the people who pressure you by constantly asking whether you’re pregnant, yet.

6.) If and when you DO get pregnant, people have opinions on that, too! People judged my husband and me for going through fertility treatments because they believed we were “playing God” or “wasting money.”

This is a very personal struggle.

UnaDagger
UnaDagger

@Jemma Gee, you mean that when you over-share the personal details of your family life with people, they feel free to comment?  HOW DARE THEY.  Obviously, other people exist merely to sit there and listen to you blather on about your personal problems.

Of course, maybe that was your point, but you do tend to take a rather smug tone about it, as though maybe people have no right to comment on a topic that you've decided to share with them.  In that case, you're 100% correct- if you don't want people commenting on a particular aspect of your personal life, don't share it with them.

HelainaHinson
HelainaHinson

@UnaDagger @Jemma "Overshare"??? As if a person is out of line when they share those details with family members and close friends? It's reasonable to expect support from those who care for you.

It's also hard to hide the fact that you're in doctor appointments almost every day (whichi is often necessary for blood work to check hormone levels, and for ultrasounds to monitor the condition of the uterus) without someone close to you noticing, and hard to hide the joy of a pregnancy and the sudden, intense grief of a miscarriage.

You, furthermore, are male, if your other comments are to be believed. You don't understand what this is like from a woman's point of view.  I pray to God you didn't treat your wife this way during her journey through infertility.

Jemma
Jemma

@UnaDagger @Jemma  I didn't take a "smug" tone with anything I said. And you proved my point, so thanks. "If you don't want people commenting on a particular aspect of your social life, don't share it with them." You know, we should be able to share our struggles with family and close friends, and they should just be there for us, not try to fix us. Sometimes, it helps just to get something off our chest, but that doesn't mean we want to be "solved."

Jemma
Jemma

@HelainaHinson @Jemma Thanks. :)  And yes, I was in doctor's appointments at least 3 times a week, an hour away. I used a lot of vacation time doing that for months on end, so it was impossible to hide it from people at work. 

StormyWeather78
StormyWeather78

As a woman who has dealt, and is still dealing with the pain of infertility, it is many of these comments that keep "us" in the "closet".  I had, and have, no issue explaining my fertility difficulties with anyone and explaining our decisions.  The crux of this issue, and why it is kept so secret is because it is a pain like no other, and it's a pain that unless you've experienced it, you just can't understand it.  I'm not trying to be disingenuous with that statement either. After dealing with the death of my dad to lung cancer, several other close family member's deaths, personal illness,  financial problems, and even marital issues, this is the one area that people don't understand.  Even I didn't understand it until I went through it.  I can only hazard to guess the reason for this is that you either can or can't have children. There is no in between.  If you have children and experienced pregnancy, you can't imagine what it would be like to not be able to do that, unlike the other situations I mentioned.   The personal questions that people ask become dreaded and extremely invasive and intrusive. People, even very close family members will ask when, why, how, and how much you're spending on having a baby, and why you should do all these other things.  Being repeatedly asked if you're having a baby when you are trying so desperately is like being stabbed repeatedly in the heart. It is a sadness that overwhelms your body and soul in a way I have never experienced before and there is a depth to this pain deeper than I can describe.  Eventually you just can't take it anymore. And it's easier to deal with silence, and suffer alone even without telling your mom, then having people constantly ask you about it.  Plus, you don't have to disappoint others when this month or this treatment failed, and have to relive the heartbreak in telling each person it didn't work.  People don't know what to say or how to respond.  Most don't want to hear about the endless procedures we go through in order to make our dreams come true.  And this is a dream different from any other I've experienced.   Even though Jimmy Fallon "came out", notice how clipped and curt he is about it.  We tried all these things and they didn't work and so we got a surrogate. End of story.  He doesn't go into the details.  Nia Vardolos adopted her daughter, and in her book, talks quite a bit about not wanting to talk about her fertility, because of the extreme pain of it.  She would rather forget about it.

Don't even get me started on the adoption issue.  Suffice it to say that adoption isn't as easy or financially better than fertility treatments....and I speak from experience.  Everyone has a reason for their decisions and should be allowed to make them.  IVF, donor eggs, and surrogacy are difficult decisions to make.  Most women are not over an age that would be ethically responsible to have a child.  We tried donor eggs, and I was 25.  When you try these options, you are at the end of your mental, emotional and financial rope.  These are not the options you choose immediately, nor do the doctors allow you to do, unless medically necessary.  The stories in the news of older women, or men, having babies, I personally find ethically irresponsible for the reasons others have said, but it's not my right to decide.  I think doctors are ethically responsible to decide these things, just like the Octomom debacle.  However, those cases are much rarer than the media likes to make us believe.  And I object to government restrictions as there are in numerous countries in Europe.  However, in Europe, most countries have mandatory healthcare, so fertility treatments are covered.  A family doesn't have to decide to place multiple embryos back in the hopes that one will survive because they have used all their savings and gone deeply into debt just for the chance one will survive....resulting in some cases in higher order multiples.  So Europe probably can "afford" to place greater restrictions on the reproductive technologies.  I don't agree with it, but I can potentially see why.


And poster who mentioned focusing on "curing" infertility......there are so many different reasons for infertility, there isn't a one-size fits all cure.  Endometriosis, PCOS, male factor (multiple different sperm issues), uterine issues, and unknown factors, are a few among the NUMEROUS reasons people need fertility treatments.  And within each of these that I listed, what works for one person won't work for someone else.  I have endometriosis, and began treatments very early.  I know women who have endometriosis who have gotten pregnant without treatments, with little treatments, with heavy treatments, and none had the same treatments.  I was one of the unlucky ones who was unsuccessful no matter what I did.  If we had had the money to continue, maybe things would have worked, but you are gambling on a chance of success.  My doctors were more excited over donor eggs, with my "beautiful uterus", and no reasons they could think of as to why healthy embryos from a women who had achieved previous pregnancies wouldn't work.  They were more upset they didn't work than I was at that point. 


Infertility is an area where people who don't understand, THINK they do, and think they know how best to deal with it and what they would do. It's this sentiment, as well as the ignorance of the complexities surrounding the physical, mental, emotional, and financial reasons that keep infertility so shrouded in secrecy and thousands of people suffering in silence.  I don't think the Hollywood stars who have more than likely used donor eggs or have used surrogates choose silence because they don't want to hear the backlash from the public for "waiting until they're too old and being selfish". They keep silent because it's such a deep and personal pain, they don't want to relive it the countless times the media will ask them to, when they've already lived through it more times than they can count.  It is a private issue, and one they don't want their children to have to go through hearing about from friends on the playground before they're old enough to understand how and why they were conceived.  And it's no one's business but theirs and their parents.  Period.

UnaDagger
UnaDagger

@StormyWeather78 Oh for hell's sake.  Adopt and quit whining.  That's what my wife and I did, and we couldn't be happier. 

KarenEss
KarenEss

Beutifully wirtten. Thank you. We experieced all of this earlier in our marriage and never did manage to have children. It is still sometimes hard to hear of a young friend's or relative's new pregnacy. and not be overcome by wistful feelings. And the "if onlys and what-if" come back to haunt you... 

HelainaHinson
HelainaHinson

@StormyWeather78   People say the cruelest things.  I ended some friendships over the cruel, insensitive comments made to us in our (failed) course of treatments.  I had six miscarriages and I'm glad YOU got support for your infertility.  We will live with the pain for the rest of our lives.

HelainaHinson
HelainaHinson

@UnaDagger @StormyWeather78 Adoption is not for everyone, and it does not exist to provide infertile people with children.

People who grieve their infertility are entitled to so.  It's especially heart-rending to see people have child after child who then murder or abuse them. The week of my last miscarriage, a man in Philadelphia beat his toddler to death with an X-box controller because "she bothered" him while he was gaming.  Yet the infertile couple must listen to people tell them "God will give you a baby if He wants you to have one" (as if God chose to sterilize you) and "Well, this is a sign from nature that you weren't meant to be a mother" (when you know you and your spouse could parent a child much better than that Lower Anatomical Body Part did his daughter).


Everyone doesn't qualify to adopt, either.  The lowest cost we could find in my area was 13K - and that was NOT for an infant. It was Russian children.  A round of IVF, on the other hand, was 11K, with no social workers and family court judges with which to deal. (I was adopted, and I know what those people are like).



pendragon05
pendragon05

Because according to Fallon, humans should breed like rabbits. As if they aren't already doing so. Someone call the Duggars...they ain't making enough baybeez

Wisconsinmom
Wisconsinmom

To me, it is not so much taboo to talk about the cruel fate of infertility but rather the morality of the solutions offered to infertile couples. Surrogates and IVF are pushed as appropriate means to an end. Yet they are rift with questions of morality. I would prefer the medical establishment focus on curing the underlying ailment of infertility rather than justifying any means to acheive pregnancy.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@Wisconsinmom Surrogates and IVF are last-ditch attempts to help infertile couples.  They are not the first line of treatment, unless one partner is known to be physically incapable of reproduction.  That would include some men who have had serious spinal cord injuries as well as women whose have a damaged or missing portion of their reproductive system.  But those are exceptions.

Further, it's not up to you or to any other individual to judge any part of this.  If you don't approve of it personally, so be it.  But you can't make that decision for others, and you ought not to even try.

rpearlston
rpearlston

@WisconsinmomFurther, there is no one cause of infertility.  That alone makes it impossible to"the underlying ailment of infertility rather than justifying any means to achieve pregnancy".  

Now, please explain to us why it is that you think that no one is researching the many causes of infertility, in both men and women.  It's only when a cause, ANY cause of any particular problem has been identified that the work to treat it, and then to prevent it (which may not always be possible), let alone cure it.
The morality of any given procedure is your to determine, but ONLY when it involves yourself and your partner.  

Jemma
Jemma

@Wisconsinmom No one goes through IVF unless they have tried everything else. It can cost anywhere from $16,000- $30,000 per cycle. Most doctors won't even do it unless you've tried for over a year to get pregnant and exhausted every other medical option. It's expensive and inconvenient. You have to use medicines that make you gain weight, have mood swings, and increase your likelines of getting female cancers later in life. You have to miss a lot of work to get ultrasounds and tests. Plus, who "wants" to conceive a baby on a table, with her legs in stirrups? Yours was a very uninformed comment.

Jemma
Jemma

@Wisconsinmom For example, I have endometriosis, which is incurable. I had surgery to burn away lesions/adhesions all over my ovaries, uterus, and abdominal cavity. I also had to use a medicine that created an induced menopausal state for 6 months-- what a nightmare. Then, after I went through all of that, I had to go in for torturesome, painful procedures to detect any other underlying causes.