When Candice Thum (nee Reed) was born in 1980, she was hailed as a “miracle,” and given the title of “Australia’s first test-tube baby.” As the first child to be born via IVF in Australia and the third in the world, she was the focus of intense media interest, a source of intrigue and a beacon of hope for many. During her childhood, Thum faced questions from her curious classmates – “Do you have a belly button?” – and a hurtful remark from a Catholic school teacher – “IVF is not how babies are supposed to be created.”
Now, more than 40 years on, much progress has been made to answer the curious questions and address the misinformed stigma surrounding IVF: fertilisation doesn’t happen in test tubes, IVF babies do have belly buttons and they’re created with the same love as all babies (and some added science and technology).
As far as we’ve come in the mission to educate the masses about IVF, there’s still a way to go. Enter the newly released children’s book: Where Babies Come From, by fertility clinic Genea.
“Normalising the conversation about infertility and IVF is something we’ve worked on since Genea was established as Sydney IVF back in the 1980s,” says Associate Professor Mark Bowman, Genea Medical Director. “Within some communities and in some areas of Australia, fertility is still a taboo subject. But the more we can talk openly and honestly about infertility and IVF, the more people will get the help they need when they need it which is still an important issue.”
When Rachel Rawlinson and her husband Nick turned to Genea after unsuccessfully trying for a baby for two years, the couple didn’t know much about the IVF process and had no idea there was a clinic in the nearby town of Orange. “Going through IVF was an eye-opener for me,” admits Rawlinson, 32, who openly shared her experience with her friends, family and community. “People were supportive when we spoke about struggling with infertility, but when we started talking about doing IVF, their reactions changed; they became uncomfortable, like it was a private matter that shouldn’t be discussed. When people can’t relate to your experience, they don’t always know what to say or how to act.”
Education is the antidote to ignorance and awkward silences, says Kathleen Waite, Genea General Manager Operations. “Even though IVF has become more mainstream and people are more open to talking about it now, there’s still a certain amount of shame and stigma that is attached to not being able to do something naturally that everyone else seems to be able to do so easily,” she explains, noting that one in six Australian couples have issues with conceiving. “When people come out and talk about their experiences, it normalises IVF for others. That’s why they’re such important conversations to have.”
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In the Northern Tablelands town of Armidale, Jess Dixon, 33, has become a poster girl of sorts for IVF. After sharing her story with a local newspaper, she had colleagues at work and acquaintances on the street thank her for being open about the journey she went through to have her son Jack, now 18-months. “My husband Leonard, who works as a rural contractor, was getting text messages from country blokes wanting to discuss IVF,” marvels Dixon, who is currently 32-weeks pregnant with their next baby.
As valuable as these conversations are for adults, they’re just as important for kids. Considering one child in every classroom in Australia is born through IVF, it’s becoming a part of everyday life. That’s why Genea set out to re-write the baby-making story and re-define what a “normal” family is.
In their new and improved (and more inclusive) take on Where Babies Come From, Genea celebrates the stories lesser told: the tale of Sunita who’s happily single, and the plight of Chloe and Claire who are in a loving same-sex partnership. In kid-friendly language and fun rhymes, they explain, “IVF’s super duper common, it helps parents all the time. The babies turn out perfectly, no second noses or blue slime.”
“What better way to re-educate people about how babies are made than with a children’s book?,” says Bowman. “Didn’t a famous singer once say something about children being our future and teaching them well to let them lead the ways? Where Babies Come From is helping normalise fertility treatment and celebrate it.”
For Rawlinson, there’s plenty to celebrate. After giving birth to her son Charlie in 2019, she is now expecting her second child via IVF in a matter of days. “We want our kids to know how badly we wanted them, and this book is such a nice way of explaining that to them when they get a bit older,” says Rawlinson. “Having a resource like this will help kids understand and break down so many barriers.”
Likewise, Dixon has bought a copy of Where Babies Come From for her son Jack as a treasured keepsake and an educational tool. “When I had my eldest son naturally 12 years ago, we got him the original Where Did I Come From book, and after I had Jack, I couldn’t find one about IVF. So this is absolutely fantastic,” says Dixon, adding that she’s also shared the book with her sister who has now done IVF with a sperm donor.
The beauty of the book is in its simplicity and pure joy. Infertility is a complex issue and IVF is a methodical process but discussing it with kids needn’t be a complicated conversation. The message is straightforward: not every family is created the same way. “We wanted to tell a different story with the book,” explains Waite, who says parents should be open and honest with their kids when explaining their origin story. “We knew Where Babies Come From had to be informative and educational, but also fun and engaging, so parents could share it with their kids from a young age to explain how absolutely special and loved they are.”
As the book so poetically says, “It takes courage and determination, science and technology too, but it’s certainly more than worth it to have a child just like you!”
Next Wednesday at 12pm join us online for a Frank Chat on Fertility, where we’ll be debunking fertility myths and hearing honest stories from women on their fertility journeys. Hosted by Women’s Agenda’s Editor-in-Chief Tarla Lambert, our special guests include Benita Bensch, Samantha Payne and Melissah Bell. Thanks to Genea for supporting this valuable conversation. Register for free here.