I'm In History Books And I'm Only 28: 5 Weird Realities
Imagine growing up seeing an endless number of photos of yourself in magazines, newspapers, and books, all under titles and headlines like this:
That's Alice Kirkman. She became world-famous for being conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF) using her mother's egg, her aunt's womb, and "semi-mystery sperm." What's it like to live your life as a walking scientific curiosity slash political football? She says ...
The Parental Situation Is Confusing, To Say The Least (And It's OK)
Do you know your dad's sperm count? Because I do. And I was asked about it live, on national TV, starting at the age of 4.
I had become famous for reasons that should have been strictly personal. My dad was infertile, and my mum couldn't conceive due to a hysterectomy. Not one to be dissuaded by the impossible, in 1986, my dad suggested to my mum that they try to have a child anyway. He wanted to combine in vitro fertilization with surrogacy, which sounds like no big deal until you realize that, at the time, it just wasn't a thing. It would become the subject of fierce political debate in the years after.
It also spawned an awesome superhero name that I'm totally stealing once the powers kick in.
Still, they had a willing surrogate -- my aunt Linda -- and they made it happen. It turns out this was a huge deal -- my family has had to tell this story publicly ever since the media somehow found out about me shortly before I was born. If you haven't seen the headlines, you've probably read about me in your biology textbook.
You know, you don't have to phrase it like a weird talk show topic.
So, just to make it clear: I was the product of my mother's egg, a sperm donor, and my aunt's womb. You might think this last part would be very confusing to a kid ("Isn't your "mother" the woman you popped out of? Do you have two moms?"), but I'm no closer to Linda than I am to my other aunt. And because it's been talked to death both in my family and in public (more on that in a moment), that's just a part of the story. It was never a secret.
What I sometimes get hung up on is the sperm donation part, because that was more of a mystery to me. The nice man who wanked in a cup to create me didn't want his family to know and didn't especially want me to find out who he was. Still, I figured it out when I was 12 because I was going through a private detective phase, and my mum is a sucker for my puppy dog eyes. He knows I know, but we've never sat down and discussed it.
"Hey, want to talk about that time you masturbated?" is never going to be a good conversation starter.
This sticking point is why I always say that if you're planning on having kids in an unusual way, make sure you tell them constantly, so it becomes boring, normal, irritating, and not a potential emo song lyric when they're teenagers. I wasn't especially angsty about any of it (we really are the happy poster family for assisted reproductive technology, or ART), but there were a couple of truly awful poems written about it all when I was 15. Aside from the natural curiosity any kid would have, there's the fact that the circumstances of my birth were the subject of international headlines. It was kind of hard to avoid. Speaking of which ...
It's A Weird Reason To Get Famous
The first side effect of this apparently radical procedure was a tendency to blab about deeply personal family issues to reporters, which I've been doing since I was old enough to talk. My mum and my gestational mother are sisters, so I make a lot of jokes about inbreeding and having two of my parents being siblings. Things get awkward. Exactly how much of my family drama is for public consumption, and what doesn't need to be said? That line goes out the window as soon as a picture of your mum breastfeeding you goes on the front page of a major daily newspaper.
Suck it, martians and murderous dictators!
Until I was about 6, I just assumed every kid was on the news for their birthday. When I discovered they weren't, I assumed that meant I was famous. At that age, you don't know the difference between being famous in a way people care about and just being a human interest story people are mildly interested in, so you kind of act like an arsehole for a while. The media attention made me feel like I was an impressive trailblazer, rather than just the child who showed up at the end, after all the hard work had been done.
On more than one occasion, the Channel Nine News helicopter came to my small town to cover my story. Having a helicopter bring a camera crew to film you, when it would have been a simple one-hour drive by car, is a surefire way to feel like a rock star. You can imagine the effect this has on a kid -- at least child movie stars had to get good at acting first.
I wasn't even "famous for being famous." I was "famous for literally existing."
School is where my arseholery would shine. I would say stupid things such as "I'm famous, you know, you should be my friend." Or, I would be featured in a special edition of Who Magazine, and I would encourage some parents of my friends to buy it as a collector's edition. My mum and Linda wrote a book about my birth, and, after signing some copies on the weekend, I came back to school and gave my autograph to a teacher. I thought that's what people wanted from me. It's amazing that I wasn't popular with the other kids.
"Want me to sign this stock photo I posed for that one time? Yeah, you do."
School Can Get Awkward When You're In The Textbooks -- And At The Center Of A Controversy
I generally understood the difference between real fame and "being born that one time" fame by the time I had finished fourth grade. Once high school hits and you're no longer cute enough for magazines, but still do the occasional morning show, speak at medical conferences, and write for medical journals, you have another problem: being in the textbooks.
I was in the high school legal and biology textbooks for years nine and 10, so there were a few times when my friends would study me in class -- luckily, without having to physically dissect me. I didn't take those classes (though, looking back, I totally should have, as I would have done well in at least one of the essays), but, every now and then, a teacher would raise the idea of me talking to a class. I was OK with giving talks about my birth, but it did sometimes create a disconnect between me and the other kids. One time, a boy started shouting at me, "Test tube kid! Test tube kid!' (Yes, this was a 16 year old.) I just replied, "Yeah? Well, your parents had sex." Again: Nobody wants to think about where they came from.
"Hey, want to talk about that time your dad raw dogged your mom?" is never going to be a good conversation starter.
Yeah, this brings us to the ugly side of my story. If you don't see why anyone would be creeped out by a "test tube" or IVF surrogate baby, imagine what kind of shit the first human clone will have to deal with in the future. Where science advances, you'll always have those who are terrified that we are "playing God."
A few of the schools I attended were very religious, and some religious people are very anti-IVF and believe that kids conceived through ART aren't people in the eyes of God. Weirdly enough, those people were always very nice to my face. There was one guy in particular who was really vocal about it in the newspapers and on TV, calling our surrogate a prostitute and saying I would be a mixed-up, ruined kid. But, whenever we saw him, he was just really friendly.
And if he wasn't, my dad had the tools to fix that real quick.
Even in high school, when my religious education teacher was teaching the class that ART kids aren't people, she tried to be nice about it. She simply insisted that it was in the textbook and the belief of the church, and you couldn't pick and choose what you believed when it came to religion. Not teaching beyond what's written in the textbook is a time-honored tradition among lazy teachers, so I don't hold a grudge against her.
You Become An Expert In How The Media Works
It's hard for any new people in my life, and sometimes for me, to understand how big of a deal the whole thing was at the time. My mum still has hundreds of cards that were just addressed to "Baby Alice" and the name of our small town. There used to be tour buses that would drive past our house. I spent my first birthday on The Bert Newton Show. (Note for Americans: Bert Newton is a very famous Australian person.) I've been interviewed by journalists of varying skill levels from an assortment of countries since I could talk, and probably thousands of stories were written about me, some of which I read. My first press conference was when I was 2 weeks old and my parents presented me to the world, The Lion King-style.
With the role of Scar being played by every asshole with a sound bite to spew.
All of that gave me a view into how the journalism process worked. I could see how the questions and answers were culled to become a written piece, I learned what people were trying to get out of an interview with me, and I saw how often they royally fucked up and made stuff up. I also saw how many hours and hours and hours of footage were condensed into a two-minute news report, how photo shoots for a half-page piece could take a half-day, and, by 6 years old, I had worked out what kinds of answers would definitely make the final written piece and how I could word others to be rejected.
It's amazing what kids can absorb from their parents answering the same questions thousands of times over.
It wound up being a very valuable education -- I ended up going into journalism as a career. (I'm actually not the only "first baby" who went into journalism -- see Candice Reed, Australia's first IVF baby.) I'm a video game reviewer, newspaper columnist, and freelance entertainment journalist, and pretty much all of my training came from people who thought my conception was weird. One of my earliest memories is of someone on TV saying, "Alice Kirkman is a child many believe should never have been born." Trust me, that's pretty good preparation for the kind of feedback you get as a woman reviewing video games.
So, while it's nice to be known for something other than my unusual conception and birth, the reality is ...
You Become A Weird Symbol/Political Tool Forever
I did my first international medical conference at 10, because I wanted the chance to speak on my own behalf. Of course, as a 10 year old, my conference paper was more "I like The X-Files and Good News Week and think my parents are good" and less of the academic analysis on the psychological effects of surrogacy the 2,000-plus doctors were probably hoping for. By that time, I had already had a couple of articles published on the matter, but it wasn't until I was 12 or 13 that I did my first conference overseas and had my first peer-reviewed journal article published in a respectable journal. Unsurprisingly, it still sucked, but it was reassuring to the medical community and potential parents that surrogacy didn't create the monsters religious fanatics prophesied.
At some point, around age 20, I realized that when I'm asked to speak at conferences, they're never actually interested in me. All I did in this process was show up at the end and not be (too) weird. The prospective parents just see me as decorative hope. I'm there to be the one they prepared earlier and prove that at the end of this expensive emotional roller coaster, things usually end happily. While the lack of interest in me as a person bothered me for a little while, I get it now. I'm preparing to have my own kids using donor sperm, and I get wanting to make sure there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
My light: riding a motherfucking tank and knowing my future children can, too.
When the surrogacy law reforms were being debated in parliament here in 2008 (surrogacy wasn't mentioned in our laws when I was born in 1988, but was outlawed soon after), I would go there to watch and be available for any MPs that had questions. Some of the gay parents there asked me not to mention to anyone that I was gay until after the law had been passed. They didn't want to scare any MPs off from voting, because maybe they might think surrogacy makes you gay or whatever. I kind of understand their fear -- there weren't any straight examples yet, and there's nothing a conservative politician fears more than a gay atheist created by science.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Awful Lessons I Learned Living With A Mystery Illness and 5 Horrifying Things Real Dead Bodies Do (Too Weird For TV).
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