Two women, one a shy British housewife and the other a groundbreaking social scientist, who changed significantly the landscape of family life, died in recent days — and it is worth taking a moment to remember them and their courage.
Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist whose research concluded that children bear the scars of their parents’ divorce well into adulthood, died at 90 at her daughter’s home in Piedmont, Calif.
And Lesley Brown, the mother of the world’s first “test-tube baby,” died of a gall bladder infection at 64, surrounded by the two daughters she bore through in vitro fertilization and her five grandchildren.
“I am so grateful that I am a mum at all, because without IVF I never would have been and I wouldn’t have my grandchildren,” she said in an interview in 2008.
Brown did not want any part of the international spotlight in which she found herself when her egg, fertilized in a petri dish with her husband’s sperm, was implanted on the very first try in 1977.
When word leaked that Drs. Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe of the Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge had finally had success after more than 100 failures, the church and the British Parliament went into a fury and the press stalked Mrs. Brown — to the point of calling in bomb threats to the hospital where she was on bed rest in an attempt to flush her out.
Reporters and photographers also posed as window-washers and hospital repairmen, and when she and her railroad-employee husband returned home with baby Louise in July 1978, they found reporters camped on their front lawn.
The couple would eventually move to a house with a fenced backyard so Brown could take little Louise outside in privacy. (Four years later, she would have another daughter, Natalie, also by IVF and also successful on the first try.)
Meanwhile, the procedure, coming on the heels of the controversial development of artificial insemination, was stirring a medical and cultural conflict. There were predictions that the children conceived this way would be physically or mentally handicapped. There was talk of babies grown in laboratories in artificial wombs, and of the manufacture of human life.
The Catholic Church continues to condemn the procedure, which has resulted in more than 4 million babies, including 59,000 in the United States in 2010. Dr. Edwards would receive the Nobel Prize that year as well.
“Mum was a very quiet and private person who ended up in the world spotlight because she wanted a family so much,” daughter Louise told the British press.
Speaking on behalf of the clinic where Louise was born, chief executive Mike Macamee talked of Brown’s courage, after nine years of trying to conceive, to attempt a procedure that had been, thus far, spectacularly unsuccessful.
“Lesley was a devoted mum and grandmother, and through her bravery and determination many millions of women have been given the chance to become mothers.”
When Wallerstein published her conclusions in the late 1970s, no-fault divorce was all the rage and marriages were breaking up at an alarming pace. Couples thought they would simply go their own way and the kids, assumed to be so resilient, would learn to cope.
But her research showed that the children were still suffering the effects of divorce long after their initial distress seemed to have disappeared. Even into adulthood, they were “worried, underachieving, self-deprecating and sometimes angry young men and women.”
She followed 131 children from 60 divorced families for 25 years and found most had trouble forming relationships, completing education and holding jobs. They were less likely to marry than children of intact families and more likely to divorce.
It is worth recalling that, at the time, it was thought that if the parents didn’t slug it out every Sunday night at the kid exchange in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, the children would adapt to the fact of two parents in two different houses.
Even Wallerstein was surprised by how lasting the damage of divorce was for the kids, and she was accused of guilt-tripping women who were either abandoned by their husbands or who sought to get out of suffocating or abusive relationships.
Over the years that followed, other research confirmed the importance of intact family life for children and their academic and behavioral development. Wallerstein continued to write extensively on divorce, including contributing to a blog about divorce on Huffington Post, and established an institute to try to help families navigate this difficult transition. She also wrote that parents should regularly revisit custody arrangements and adjust them for the benefit of the children, not their own convenience.