When any polite woman learned I was pregnant with twins, she’d ask, “Were you surprised?” I would say, “Yes, totally surprised!” The next question would inevitably be, “Do twins run in your family?” “Yes,” I’d say, “My aunt had triplets for her third pregnancy, and they’re 33.”
This conversation was, of course, code. If I weren’t surprised, I’d be admitting to fertility treatments. And my cousins are old enough that no one would assume that my aunt had any help conceiving them. The code allowed me to cover.
Covering, as defined in the brilliant article by Kenji Yoshino in the January 15 issue of The New York Times Magazine, is what you do when you’re not part of a dominant group but don’t want to stand out. You don’t hide the thing that makes you different — say being black or gay — you just keep it from being too obtrusive. If you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of women who’ve had trouble conceiving, you’re not alone but you’re not in the majority either. And if you’ve conceived because of fertility treatments, you have not conceived the real way. You have something to cover.
And make no mistake, if you’re straight and in a stable partnership, there is “a real way” to get pregnant. If you’re someone for whom pregnancy didn’t just happen, you remember hearing about this kind of conception in high school health class. It doesn’t involve anyone other than your baby’s father. No doctor, no ultrasound technician, no phlebotomist. This kind of pregnancy, a pregnancy achieved by simply having sex, is natural. It is a pregnancy that is authentic and uncontaminated by the modern world. If you’re not sure of this, hop onto any twin moms’ bulletin board, and I’ll bet you’ll find some woman identifying herself as the mother of “natural” twins. Do not confuse her with the unnatural kind. Unlike that other woman, the mother of natural twins did not need any help conceiving; the womb did not fail her, and she as a woman has fulfilled her destiny, for free.
The dominant culture wants to preserve this ideal of conception. It wants the narrative of pregnancy to be man meets woman, man and woman make love, woman becomes pregnant, pregnancy is lovely. The very fact of fertility treatments is threatening. It creates moral dilemmas about how far humans can wade into mysteries of reproduction. It stokes fears of cloning, frozen embryos, and trait selection. Reproductive technology makes the story of having a baby complicated and sad. It reminds everyone just a little bit that what we take for granted — that we will grow up and have children — won’t necessarily play out the way we expect.
And so, even though we know that nature and biology are not clear-cut, the narrative norm of man and woman meet, man and woman commit, man and woman have baby, adheres. And even if we reject that norm intellectually, we affirm it emotionally in all kinds of ways.
We affirm it by repeating the urban legends of women who became pregnant after adopting. (“And after all those treatments! It just happened.”) Or by telling the stories of women who became pregnant accidentally, very quickly after giving birth to a child conceived by fertility treatments. These are stories of redemption, not only from the pain of a childless house but from the pain of a childless womb. It’s an arc as breathy and predictable as any Hollywood Cinderella story and one that even the most thoughtful women cannot resist retelling.
I personally affirmed the simple, normative pregnancy narrative each time I told someone I was surprised by having twins and didn’t follow it up with, “And you should’ve seen the look on my doctor’s face!” I became pregnant with fraternal twins after transferring one frozen embryo. We transferred the embryo in what’s called a “natural” cycle, which means I didn’t take any drugs to suppress ovulation. So, I probably became pregnant with one child who began life in a Petri dish, while the other was conceived between the sheets. And, no, we don’t know, nor will ever know, which is which. Because no matter how they were conceived, one of my kids is not more real than the other.
So, you see, every time I admitted surprise and didn’t describe the look on my doctor’s face, I was covering. And I was furious. Partly, I was furious at the questioner (does it matter that only women asked this question?), but mostly I was furious at myself because in covering I denied the authenticity of my own experiences. In covering I could never begin to articulate that I was thrilled and grateful to be pregnant, but that I no longer thought of pregnancy as a necessary step to parenthood and that I was losing the child I imagined I’d adopt. And, finally and most regretfully, in covering I was thoughtlessly stoking my need for everyone to know that I didn’t conceive twins by fertility treatments alone. That I was a woman capable of doing what women are just supposed to be able to do: meet a man, fall in love, get committed, get pregnant. Naturally.