My older son was born in the first year of the 21st century; his brother came a few years later. Since then, assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization have helped hundreds of thousands of infertility patients become parents. I have many friends and family members who have built their families using IVF, almost too many to count. There's plenty of data showing how prevalent these technologies have become. The Centers for Disease Control reports that over 1% of all births in the United States occur following the use of ARTs.
In some pockets of the country, the rate is clearly much higher. For parents like me, living in affluent urban neighborhoods, the anecdotal evidence is clear. Parents talk openly about their struggles with infertility and exchange stories and advice. Women and men well into their 40s or 50s push infants in strollers on the weekend; several I know joke about being mistaken for the baby's grandparent. And although the rates of multiples born through IVF have decreased somewhat, there are a noticeable and statistically surprising number of twins in the preschools and on the playground. The demographic snapshot of modern parents and families has been transformed by ARTs.
In the 11 years since I became a parent, I see another transformation as well. We live in a post-9/11, economically uncertain, Starbucks-Venti-fueled world. Like it or not, we have constant electronic access to news, information, and gossip. We are captivated by-or captives of-websites, listservs, Twitter, Facebook and our smartphones. At any moment in time, we have complete access to more information about our children, our communities and our world than our own parents could possibly have dreamed of accessing in a lifetime. There is plenty to worry about, and we hear about it all, relentlessly.
I believe these 21st century conditions have contributed to a new style of parenting: parents who are deeply, perhaps overly involved in managing every detail of their children's lives in an effort to protect them from real and perceived harms, and provide them with every possible benefit. "Helicopter parenting" describes the hovering and circling that these modern parents feel compelled to do, even after their kids grow up and head out on their own.
Is there interplay between the increase in the use of ARTs and the emergence of this 21st century parenting style? I have heard both fellow parents and IVF providers describe a phenomenon that goes something like this:
"The IVF patients make a decision to pour everything they have into having a biological child, including sometimes-extraordinary financial resources. They feel like they are losing control in turning to ARTs. Some have a sense of entitlement that goes along with putting in the cash and effort. These are probably the same parents who later give and do everything to try to manage every detail of their children's lives to ensure a perfect life: from exclusive preschools to intensive music lessons and tutors, to the parents who call their children's college professors to complain about grades."
Maybe. My view is that while the experience of IVF may take this kind of toll on some parents, the usual toll isn't that it turns them into relentless worrier-warrior parents. Really, it is more likely to turn them into exhausted piles of mush-mush that mutters, "I might be too old for this" while chasing twins.
I do understand why helicopter parenting may look like a related phenomenon. That is, I believe that all parents want "the best" for their kids. IVF requires a level of affluence to begin with; thus, affluent parents of IVF kids may be more likely to be able to provide for their children in more obviously expensive ways. However, we shouldn't forget that parents without many resources also pour what they have into helping the next generation succeed and prosper. We see that in the United States in patterns of immigration going back centuries.
There are some parents who do seem to approach ARTs with the expectation that the technology can give them exactly the child they choose. The best example is sex selection, where parents seek out pre-implantation genetic diagnosis in order to choose whether they are going to have a boy or a girl. In this case, the technology enables the parents to think they can control who or what their children will be.
Many people assume that sex selection happens only in traditional families and cultures where there is a strong bias towards having a boy. But preferences for girls appear to be at least as common in the United States, and preference for either sex are rooted in parents' own rigid expectations of what it means to be-or to raise-a boy or a girl. Perhaps it needs to be gently suggested to these parents that choosing a child's biological sex does not guarantee who that child will be.
The flip side of sex selection is another story I hear often: couples who, having finally succeeded in conceiving using IVF, surprise their doctors by refusing standard prenatal testing. They don't want testing for chromosomal issues such as Down syndrome, because after trying so long to have a child they are going to welcome that child no matter what. They don't feel the need to know, let alone choose, the sex or anything else about the child. These parents talk about how they have waited so long for a child, that their only remaining "goal" is to relax and enjoy the parenting experience, and support their child simply for who he or she turns out to be.
We should not restrict reproductive options or limit access to technologies like IVF or PGD. But whatever motivates parents to seek sex selection, or to micromanage every detail of their children's lives, we should consider another model of parenting-one that involves taking a deep breath. In this age of too much effort to control our unpredictable world, let us all strive to shift our emphasis from "What kind of child do I want?" to "What kind of parent do I want to be?"
Susannah Baruch, JD, is the Policy Director and Consultant at Generations Ahead.