One night at dinner, a conversation came up with my 13-year-old son that reminded me of a moment I had when I was just a little younger than he is now. 

I was almost 11 — one of the oldest in my 5th-grade class — and I was your typical New England preppy: plaid skirts, boat shoes, chunky fall sweaters, and heavy straight-across bangs that always seemed to have a cowlick in the front just above my right eyebrow.

I had gone into school believing it was a regular day until my class was split into two: the boys were sent across the hall while the girls were to remain in our current seats and await the school nurse.

condom on a banana

I leaned over to my classmate, nudging her in the ribs with my elbow. “I bet it’s ‘the talk,’ I said to her. Her eyes opened wide and she gasped back, ‘What talk?’”

“You know, the one where they explain all about sex to us…” 

Like clockwork, the male teachers all were sent across the hall with the boys, while all the female teachers came to our all-girls classroom. 

This was the first time I realized that Sex Ed in public school systems was not only dated but exclusionary. Currently, according to the CDC’s latest data, over 7.3 million women have received some form of fertility support. This is because 1 in 5 women struggle with infertility, according to the CDC

The first IVF baby in the United States

Back then, conversations around infertility weren’t as common, but that didn’t mean people didn’t experience it. My parents were a couple who struggled to get pregnant until their OB/GYN gave them a trifold brochure about something called IVF, which had only been successful in England at that time. My birth in 1981 marked the first success in the United States with the then-controversial reproductive technology.

This is why, when I was 11 years old and the conversation came up in class, I raised my hand and said to the nurse, “Well, I know you said that’s how babies are made, but that’s not at all how I got here.”

“In my case, my mother’s egg and my father’s sperm were fertilized in a petri dish and then once that happened I went back into my mother’s womb and grew like everyone else.” 

The school nurse didn’t know what to say. 

teacher writing about sex on a chalkboard

And with that, there was a knock on the door from a male teacher, inquiring if our talk was done and if he could bring the male students back in. The nurse looked at me, looked around the room, and said, “Yes, I don’t think we need time for any more questions.”

Being a mother myself now, I now know that a letter went home from my school to the parents of all of the other girls in the class apologizing on my behalf for explaining family-building methods outside of the “approved” discussion points previously outlined and approved by the school.

I was hopeful that now that I was raising my own teenager and that our society was more open about infertility struggles that he would get taught something different than I did.

Instead, over our dinner, we talked through the letter that he had brought home that day. 

The letter explained that in an upcoming module on genetics, they assured me, they would “not cover reproduction, reproductive systems, or human sexuality in any way.” 

petri dish

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"Sex Education failed me."

As someone who now works at a preimplantation genetic testing company, I know that genetics, reproduction, and human sexuality are all intertwining pieces that are tricky – if not impossible – to fully separate. 

When I expressed this sentiment aloud between bites of dinner, my son asked me point blank: “Why wouldn’t we learn about those things while we are learning about genetics?”

“Because,” I sighed back at him, “as far as we’ve come in some ways, in other ways we haven’t progressed at all.” 

“But Mom,” he said, “I’ve known all about sex and reproduction and genetics for a long time.” 

“And where did you learn that,” I asked. 

“From you,” he said. 

“And sadly, kiddo, I had to learn all this stuff from your grandparents. And I got in trouble in school when I shared what I know. My class was split in two…”

Elizabeth Carr is the first baby born via in vitro fertilization in the United States. In the media since 3 cells old, Elizabeth is a passionate advocate for those fighting for fertility rights. She is also a marathoner, triathlete, coffee connoisseur, wife, mother, and writer.