An idea for Michelle Obama: Use 2019 bully pulpit to convey IVF risks, realities

Michelle Obama had a big year. She launched a best-selling book and secured the number one spot on the list of most admired women.   

In a surprise move, she also revealed a miscarriage and the use of IVF to conceive her two daughters with Barack Obama.  

Cognitive Dissonance

That last bit of news, for me, landed with a thud. It took some time to figure out why.  While I have not always seen eye to eye with Michelle, I have long admired her strength and her accomplishments. This latest cognitive dissonance stemmed from the way she conveyed her IVF news, and its ensuing coverage.

I reviewed the reporting following Michelle’s acknowledgment to see if it could help me tease out my irritation.  There was quite a bit of fawning. Many stories depicted her as brave for speaking about IVF. 

Yes, it takes some courage to ‘fess up about reproductive intervention. I also know she suffered as a result of her miscarriage. I deeply appreciate the pain and stigma that accompanies pregnancy loss.  It can be excruciating to divulge the most intimate aspects of one’s life.

Michelle, however, is far from being in the lead on this topic.  In fact, she’s solidly in the middle of the pack.    

Incomplete Narrative

I hoped for some nuance and depth on the life-altering impact of IVF, however, the coverage was one-dimensional. Piece after piece described how Michelle marched down to the IVF clinic, took control of her reproduction and tra la went happily on to motherhood. Those of us who have endured IVF know all too well, this characterization is not only simplistic, it’s misleading.  

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Fact is, I would have had greater respect for Michelle’s disclosure if she had followed up with some much needed IVF education.  It’s not too late, however, to make amends. She has many more book tour dates and interviews lined up in 2019.

The 21-date lineup so far includes 11 additional appearances in the US, as well as four dates in Canada. Michelle will also visit Europe for events in London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Stockholm.

Michelle Obama 2019 Book Tour

Education Opportunity

So, how could Michelle break some new ground? She could discuss how grueling the IVF process is emotionally, physically and socially.  She could educate around how many times IVF fails. She could call for greater clinic oversight, consumer protections, and better informed consent procedures. She could underscore the risks involved for those injecting powerful hormones. (Read more on IVF drugs in a recent Washington Post article, Are fertility drugs safe? The industry says yes, critics worry they’re overprescribed.)

At a minimum, her audience and followers might come away better informed about how truly soul-destroying the IVF experience can be.

Trauma Triggered

The Michelle Obama IVF headlines and online adulation also took me back to some excruciating periods in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

This was the time in my life when I poured my grief and anguish into my Coming2Terms blog following failed IVF. It was also when once silent blog readers (known then in the blog world as ‘lurkers’ for consuming posts without commenting) sought me out and sent sucker punch-inducing emails. They followed a strange format. They introduced themselves, and thanked me for helping them understand and validate their infertility sorrow. Then they ended their notes with a variant of:

I wanted to come out of the shadows to share that we’re now six months pregnant and looking forward to welcoming our child (or our twins) so I won’t have time to read any more…

Buy Bye!

I kid you not. These women clearly lacked empathy. They seemed curiously incapable of understanding how their news — delivered at a well publicized fragile time for me — inflamed my pain. They had remained silent while feeling validated in their infertility sorrow, and only revealed themselves to announce their ‘happy news.’

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Unless there’s a reality-based reset, I fear Michelle’s disclosure will become nothing more than another marketing tool for the IVF industry. E.g. Try IVF! Michelle did and look how well it worked for her.

Welcome your thoughts

I would also like to highlight another woman’s expressive way of depicting pregnancy loss and healing. If you haven’t already, please check out Mali’s blog and book. Here’s a post with more information.

Pamela Tsigdinos

Writer, blogger and, oh, yeah, infertility survivor. My memoir, Silent Sorority, tells the whole story. There's a movie in there somewhere. Given the quirkiness needed to relate it all I'm thinking Jennifer Lawrence would be a good fit.

  1. Klara

    dear Pamela,
    thank you so much for writing this post – those are my thoughts exactly! I have already wondered why nobody till now commented anything on Michelle’s big news.

    I just hated all the articles describing how she took control of her reproduction / with the help of IVF and tra la went happily on to motherhood. Nobody mentioned women like us – we also took control of our reproduction but failed. Well, failed in this field but flourished in many others.

    Michelle’s big news happened exactly on the date when my husband and I visited some colleagues, a couple with three kids. They described how difficult their path to parenthood was – the first child was stillborn, then they got twins with the help of IVF and then soon another “surprise” baby followed. I know they wanted to hear our story. But luckily when it was our turn, the kids came to our room so we didn’t have to comment anything personal.

    When we got home I wondered how easy it is to reveal your IVF past if your story has a happy ending. Nothing brave about that.

    But telling my story – about 10 failed IVFs and somehow still managing to put the pieces of my broken heart and soul together. That is brave.

    Wishing you and your husband and all your readers all the best for the new year. In our country we always wish for happiness and health. So: Srečno in zdravo novo leto!

  2. Cristy

    I’m horrified to hear that women would write to you, taking about how you helped them navigate the pain of infertility and then drop their “happy news.” Horrified, but sadly not surprised as there’s something much more socially accepting to be an IVF success story as people seem better able to grasp the happy ending stories over the reality.

    I agree with you that Michelle Obama is far from being a pioneer about revealing her infertility. But I do think she is helping normalize the idea that infertility happens to good people. Could she do more? Absolutely! I look forward to the day when the stories are not one-dimensional and when those in positions of influence reveal all the heartache and pain that comes. But as someone who 10 years ago was silenced for even breathing about their diagnosis, being told that it was because I was being punished, this speaking out is a step in the right direction. Now we just need to get them on the correct path….

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      We’ve witnessed a lot of horrors, haven’t we Cristy? Yes, yes and yes! Infertility does happen to good people who do all the right things. It feels sometimes like we’re in the black and white starting point of The Wizard of Oz. We need to open the door to more color, nuance and dimension.

  3. KatherineA

    I’m so sorry you had to deal with such insensitivity at such a painful, difficult time.

    Yeah, I’ll admit when I read about Michelle Obama revealing her IVF I was a bit less than thrilled with the narrative in the press coverage. I do think she’s doing something good in the sense that there are relatively few women of color who speak about infertility and plenty of celebrities who don’t talk about IVF/donor eggs/etc even when the odds are very high that they had to have some form of intervention. The problem – for me, at least – is how the whole story came across as “oh look, one fertility treatment and success – it’s so easy!” I suspect it’s not the whole story – I’d be really surprised if there weren’t some failed IUIs or failed IVF cycles in there. If she *did* get pregnant on the first cycle each time and have routine pregnancies from there, she’s definitely the exception. It’s possible but absolutely not representative of the typical IVF/RE experience.

    I’d love to see more coverage in general of the cost of failed cycles – emotional, physical, and financial. How, like many medical treatments/procedures, IVF is so dependent on diagnosis and other factors (most of which are out of anyone’s control) in terms of outcomes – it’s not a magic bullet. Nor is it easy or without major side effects/considerations.

  4. Mali

    I admit that I shared the same feelings you did, and shared them on another (Mel’s) blog where the majority of people (also mostly parents through IVF or adoption) were lauding her actions.

    Yes, I admit it must be hard to share these things when in the public eye, but she’s not standing out by talking about it. As you say, she is squarely in the middle of the pack, and yet she wants people to spend our hard-earned money to buy her book, so I would hope it is indeed an honest account. (I await Loribeth’s review of it).

    I’m pleased that she talks about it, rather than not at all, as she is definitely going to get more publicity for the issue (as Cristy noted). But as you say, it has been one of the classic IVF-Happy-Endings stories that can make the lives of those of us going through IVF or having come out the other side (or those who felt unable to even attempt it) once again feel like failures.

    Thanks too for publicising my tiny (and hasty) effort to bring some comfort to those who didn’t come out of their family-building efforts with children. I very much appreciate it.

  5. Sarah

    I had some mixed feelings about Michelle’s “coming out” myself. Overall I feel it’s better that she came forward and I don’t want to foster an environment where those who do come forward are automatically ripped apart. Also, infertility aside, she deserves acknowledgement for serving in an unprecedented role in this country for the past ten years or so now.

    I too though, have been concerned about the potential over glorified and simplified narratives that might result. And from people coming forward with their infertility, we need more. A deeper and more fully disclosed acknowledgement of assisted reproductive technology’s ramifications. After all, so much is expected from those of us who come out of treatments without children as far as healing, fitting in socially, acknowledging other people’s babies and parenthood etc. I don’t think it’s expecting too much for people who come forward to acknowledge that they were lucky as IVF and other ART procedures so often don’t produce a child.

    • Pamela Tsigdinos

      “so much is expected from those of us who come out of treatments without children as far as healing, fitting in socially, acknowledging other people’s babies and parenthood etc. I don’t think it’s expecting too much for people who come forward to acknowledge that they were lucky as IVF and other ART procedures so often don’t produce a child.”

      You nailed it, Sarah! Thanks for summing it up so well.

  6. Léa

    Dear Pamela,
    Thank you for your article! I find it interesting to see how mixed the feelings about this news are even among people who share at least a part of the infertility journey.

    I have to admit that I still find it good that Michelle Obama talked about miscarriage and IVF, rather than not mentioning it at all. As Cristy says, it shows that infertility can happen to anybody.

    I didn’t read her book but I’m quite sure that the conception of her children is not its main focus. Maybe it’s the media who picked one best-selling stories out of it?

    I would leave her the benefit of the doubt: maybe IVF worked for her rapidly, and maybe she didn’t feel a too heavy burden going through this? If it is the case, she cannot really be made responsible for telling her (happy ending) story. I would rather blame other celebrities who had failed IVF and didn’t talk about it (there are probably some out there, but I couldn’t name any of them).

    Still, I find it quite appalling that some people for whom IVF worked don’t realize that they just have been very lucky and spread the wrong impression that there is always a guarantee for children. I also cannot explain why they don’t insist on how physically and emotionally difficult it is to go through this? I wonder if they really didn’t inform themselves about the odds, if maybe they didn’t suffer as much as other women do? Or if they just forgot it afterwards, or are not keen on speaking about it in order not to discourage other women?

    If Michelle Obama is hiding a part of the truth, I think it is irresponsible of her not to talk more about the success rates and risks of IVF. She would be doing a disservice to all women, and especially CNBC women, by not speaking out. And she would not be different from these readers totally lacking empathy who wrote these heartless comments on your blog.

    I wish you a Happy New Year and I’m looking forward to reading your insights in 2019!

  7. loribeth

    Some great points here, Pamela. I don’t know if you’ve read the book yet — I did over Christmas. (Review at https://theroadlesstravelledlb.blogspot.com/2019/01/becoming-by-michelle-obama.html )

    I think it was the media that seized upon the miscarriage/IVF as a “revelation” in reviewing their advance copies, and made it all look so easy. She’s certainly deserves some credit as the first First Lady to openly admit to experiencing pregnancy loss & doing IVF. (Laura Bush touched on infertility in her own memoir, but glossed over the subject of treatments, and Hillary Clinton has hinted she would have liked to have other children, but that’s not how things worked out.) The miscarriage/IVF is covered in just a few pages — it’s a very small part of the book overall, maybe four pages out of 400+ — but it’s effective. She doesn’t go into the gory details, but she does manage to convey her pain over the loss of a much-wanted baby, and what a slog IVF was (especially since her husband was away a good part of the time while they were going through it). Her appreciation of motherhood and her protectiveness towards her girls is evident throughout the book. Overall, it’s a good read.

    I know a few people within the ALI community who wish she’d revealed this while she was in the White House — what a platform that would have been, right?! I suppose she didn’t want to detract or distract from what her husband was trying to do… and of course, Malia & Sasha were still pretty young when their dad became president. I can just imagine what they might have had to deal with from the schoolyard bullies if this had been revealed then.

    Could Michelle (even now) say & do more? Of course — and how great that would be! — but I think it’s wishful thinking on our part. I’m glad she wrote what she did, that she turned the spotlight on the subject and addressed it openly — but the fact is, it happened 20 years ago, she was successful and put it behind her, and her girls are now grown up. It’s not a big part of her book, and it doesn’t seem to be one of her pet issues so I wouldn’t expect it to come up — unless perhaps she’s asked the right question(s) by a savvy interviewer. (Or audience member, but I’m not sure she’s taking audience questions — she’s speaking in arenas, after all!) I’m not holding my breath. Unfortunately, I think the search for our “celebrity” champion goes on…!

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