It’s all relatives


Clockwise, from upper right: friend, sister, mother’s partner, mother, and sister-in-law send welcome.

[Cross-posted at the Family Pride Blog.]

Your Gamete, Myself

Many of you will have read Peggy Orenstein’s cover piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Your Gamete, Myself.” For those who didn’t, or who just now linked to it and balked when you saw that it spans nine pages online, here’s a synopsis: Orenstein, an astute writer on matters feminist and maternal, looks at the medical and social evolution of egg donor conception. She interviews several families (mostly the mothers therein) who conceived their kids using donor eggs. She talks to doctors at fertility clinics, and weaves in anecdotal notes from her own journey to motherhood.* Throughout, she explores the ethical and emotional ramifications (to parent and child) of donor egg conception. She muses about how, in ways both like and unlike sperm donor conception and adoption, donor egg conception blurs the “bright lines” that ordinary, “biogenetic” parenthood draws around parents’ “genetic, biological and social relationships to their children.” Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have an answer, though you’ll have to wade through my own thicket of paragraphs to find out.

Those queer and queer-cognizant readers that do mosey through the entirety of Orenstein’s piece might find themselves nodding and murmuring in assent to this or that point, all the while waiting patiently for the moment when Orenstein would of course consider how queer family-making sheds a bright light from a fresh angle on the myriad emotional issues she’s examining. After all, we couldn’t be bigger boosters of alternative conception, both via egg- and sperm-donation. “Ah,” these readers might have said to themselves as they watched paragraph after paragraph slip by, “the sly dog! Orenstein’s holding her big guns ‘til the last section of the article!”

And many of these readers will have, like me, scratched their heads when they arrived at the end of the piece having never seen the word “lesbian” or “gay” in print. Well I have just one thing to say to that: lesbianlesbianlesbian!

Okay, maybe I have more than one thing to say.

Been There, Thought About That

It’s not that I’m simply on a campaign to see to it that queer families be duly represented whenever parental issues are taken up in the mainstream press. If that were my mission – and it’s a noble one — I’d be at this pro bono blog 24/7, wearing the fingerprints off the ends of my digits in a never-ending quest for visibility. Fortunately, organizations like Family Pride [later note: now renamed to Family Equality Council] and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force are on the job. No, there’s another reason I’m drawing attention to the omission of queer family-making in this piece: damned if we haven’t already asked ourselves — and figured out wise answers to — most of the questions in it. When Ornstein considered egg donor conception, she had a lot to ask herself:

Would I have felt less authentic as a parent than my husband, or would my gestational contribution have seemed equivalent to his genetic one? Would we tell our child? And when? And how? What about strangers on the street who commented on how little the baby resembled me? What if someone said the baby did look like me and I smiled — would I feel dishonest? How would the experience be different from adoption? What kind of relationship would the child have with our friend, the donor? Would my husband feel awkward about pointing out similarities between our child and himself? What if the child someday turned to me and said, “You’re not my real mother?” What if I secretly agreed? What if she wanted to put the date I met our donor on her sixth-grade [family events] timeline?

I can say with absolute certainty that every non-biological lesbian parent asks herself most of these questions (minus the ones about disclosing donor conception to the child, of course). It is axiomatic that we will face questions – our own, not to mention others’ – about our maternal authenticity. And while we each may come to different answers, we’ve been asking the questions as a feverishly reproducing demographic for quite some time now. More than twenty years into the “gayby boom,” we’ve begun to develop not just insight, but conviction about it, based on an ever-expanding wealth of experience. And a lot of what we’ve learned has to do with cultivating pride about our openness, and openness about our pride.

Any family that is, at its biological level, dependent on some kind of community outside its nuclear unit – be it with the help of an adoption agency, the help of a fertility clinic, or the generosity of friends, acquaintances, or strangers as donors – is an open family, not a closed one. This quite obviously is an area in which LGBT family folk are immensely practiced. Queer family-making begins with sharing, and can only happen when we open ourselves to others. Because of this, we have a hell of a lot to teach heterosexual family-makers about not just making peace with that fact, but understanding it for the gift it genuinely is. In other words: we’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers, and therein lies the strength of our families, not their weakness.

Yin, Meet Yang

In a fascinating balance of opposites, our positions are flipped from those of straight families. We have no choice but to look outside our couplings for help in becoming parents; to do so is ordinary, and not a sign of biological mishap. But they can find themselves disheartened (if not devastated) by the need to look beyond their own bodies to make their families. Ironically, straight couples using egg or sperm donation to conceive a child are “right,” socially (as members of the normative majority, and as people whose legal parenthood of the child remains stable, due to the institution of heterosexual marriage). But they are “wrong,” biologically. Queer families that come about with the use of egg or sperm donation are “wrong,” socially (as members of the non-normative minority), but as recipients of donor eggs or sperm, we suffer no especial implication that we’re not “right” biologically. The counterbalancing of social and biological power between us is worth prying into if we’re going to evolve our notions of what makes a family. From quite different standpoints relative to social and biological correctness, we all – donor-assisted straight families and queer ones alike – have a vested interest in the slogan “Love makes a family.”

Problems with either fertility or virility imply a disruption to central, naturalized beliefs about “proper,” or “correct,” or “healthy” femininity and masculinity. Loss of fertility, to many women, very much feels like the loss of an essential element of their womaness; likewise it is not lost on men who are infertile that the word “impotence” stands for the lack of masculine fertility, or worse, of masculinity; more nakedly, even, impotence means a lack of power. Here again, queer folk have more than a little life experience. Sexual object choice has always been presumed to be one of the main descriptors of one’s gender (i.e., part of what defines normative femaleness is the attraction to males as object choice, and vice-versa). In our coming of age and our coming out to ourselves and others, all queer folk have had to examine and make some kind of fresh sense of our femininities and masculinities.

Do Ask; We’ll Tell

What to do, one might ask, with all these intriguing criss-crossings? Well, if the “one” asking is a heterosexual feminist writer examining matters of donor-assisted parenthood, I would suggest that she might ask queer moms and dads about their parenthoods, many, many, many of which were donor-assisted. I would suggest the writer sit herself down and listen long and hard and be sure to bring a notepad and a copious supply of sharpened pencils. Likewise if she’s looking at the related sub-topics of fighting stigma associated with non-traditional families, and the dilemmas around how to talk with children in these families about their origins.

Perhaps I feel so evangelical because my own views have changed so much from the time that my beloved and I began to conceive of having kids, to when we actually conceived them. At first I, too, cleaved to a narrow, possessive, “poverty mentality” about my parenthood. Biology was all, I thought. I was sure that my lack of genetic connection to our kids would leave me adrift, even more so than the women in Orenstein’s piece who gestated and gave birth to children from donor eggs. Since of course not only did I see myself isolated on an ice floe of biological irrelevance, I was chilled by legal invisibility and social condemnation to boot. By necessity, my view has had to expand. And from experience I’ve learned that it’s right to have done so.

It’s All Relatives

From the moment I cut my first umbilical cord, I have known in my blood that my children are my children because my love makes them so. Ask them. Okay, ask the one who can talk. She’ll tell you. And the little one, the one that only grunts and squeaks: look at the expression he flashes when he sees me. Note his response to my pinkie finger. It’s manna to him. You don’t have to be subjected to yet another report of parental abuse to know that the ability to conceive does not automatically confer the ability to parent. By the same token, you don’t have to wonder whether non-birth parents like me will move heaven and earth to help our kids live the fullest, most love-bedecked lives. (Studies will tell you that anyway.) What I have to give my kids is all nurture, no nature, and I have had to learn to be fine with that. After all, no matter how any one of us has landed the kids in our family, we quickly find it’s the nurture that takes most of the effort. Fortunately, it’s the one thing you have the most control over.

Would I have confidently projected this sense of belonging years ago – let’s say, even as recently as four years ago – before I diapered my first child? Hell, no. But I do now. Without benefit of the living, loving body of your child in front of you, you can run all kinds of amok with fears. But after they’ve arrived, look into their eyes for a moment – dab the tears from them, drink up the glee in them – and it’s a no-brainer. The fact that the social and legal system lags long behind us is of some practical consequence, but it makes my love no never mind.

Matter of fact, if I’ve learned anything else from being dependent on the kindness of strangers (or, happily, in our case, friends), it’s been that we are, genuinely, all members of the same human family. It sounds corny but goddamn it it’s true. Social and legal systems organize and divide us, as do cultures, religions, and more. But we are all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to one another under the skin. This is no saccharine bromide to queer families, it’s the god’s honest truth. And the sooner the rest of the world catches on to this understanding, the better.

________________
* The title of Orenstein’s recent memoir is Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother. And you thought I was loquacious!

A deep bow to AZ + JPB for aiding and abetting this with their sharp wits.

10 Responses to It’s all relatives

  1. Liza July 19, 2007 at #

    You are my (s)hero.

    I haven’t read the NYT story, but I heard Orenstein on NPR Monday or Tuesday, and I thought, “Yes, these are great questions! And perhaps one of the few areas where LGBT families have an advantage. Maybe she should talk to some of us.”

    You put it much more eloquently.

  2. Shereen July 19, 2007 at #

    Brava, sister. My wife and I, attending our first adoption parenting preparation course as part of our family-building journey, noted to each other that we seemed to be further along the track of self-awareness and choice-making than many of the couples we shared the room with, most of whom seemed still to be grieving their infertility, and sitting in the adoption room by painful default. It was a relief, after being hurt and scared by all the vulnerability in our pursuit of a family so far, to realize that it has created a deep consciousness about what we want, why we want it, how it meshes with our values, and what we are and are not willing to do to get there. Thank you for putting this into words so powerfully.
    Side note: the link to the studies goes to a 404 message, with a note to remind you about a toolbar?

  3. ShirleyMalmborg July 19, 2007 at #

    I did read this whole story in the NY Times mag this past weekend I was looking for this lady to bring up the subject you write about in your post. She said nothing about queer families and their quests to become parents. I thought that was weird.

    You’d think it would kind of be central in there.

    But she did make me remember to be grateful that we had no insurmountable conception issues, and that because of this fact we now have two wonderful, silly, magnetic, adorable, smart children.

  4. epowley July 19, 2007 at #

    Please write a letter to the editor in response to the article? Your post is beautiful and your analysis is so helpful.

  5. LesbianDad July 19, 2007 at #

    Thanks, all. (Shereen, thanks: it was a “curly” quotes issue. Who’d-a thunk.) And epowley, contarn it that’s just what I’ll do.

  6. Vikki July 20, 2007 at #

    “Queer family-making begins with sharing, and can only happen when we open ourselves to others.” This is a powerful sentence (one of many). In my experience, there is a do-it-alone attitude with most heterosexual families…not just with conception but with parenting as well. I’ve had straight parents stare at me blankly when I talk about my community and the ways in which we care for and parent all of our children. It is not part of their experience. I have a clear memory of leaving the hospital after our second child was born. The nurse wheeled me down to the street level and was telling me that I would need to rest and that I should try to rely on my partner for helping with meals and child care and cleaning the house. I told her that we were set: our friends had already cleaned the house while we were in the hospital, meals were set up for two weeks by friends and that our oldest child would have many opportunities to spend time with his friends and their parents. She looked at me and said, “Well…you have more support than most people”. That is the truth and it is a gift that comes from the type of sharing to which you refer.

  7. rreagler July 20, 2007 at #

    What a great, great post. Thanks!

  8. Shelley August 20, 2007 at #

    Fabulous in so, so many ways. Thank you!

  9. Tamara Granger February 24, 2011 at #

    This struck a cord: “From the moment I cut my first umbilical cord, I have known in my blood that my children are my children because my love makes them so. Ask them. Okay, ask the one who can talk. She’ll tell you. And the little one, the one that only grunts and squeaks: look at the expression he flashes when he sees me.”
    what a beautiful piece…just I love how you see the world…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Mombian: Sustenance for Lesbian Moms » Blog Archive » Teaching Non-LGBT Families a Thing or Two About Family Creation - July 19, 2007

    […] Last Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece titled “Your Gamete, Myself,” that explores issues surrounding conception via an egg donor. The author, Peggy Orenstein, has written with about infertility before, notably in her memoir Waiting for Daisy, but somehow overlooks a vast resource on this subject: LGBT families. Polly at LesbianDad calls her on this, noting that it’s not just a matter of LGBT visibility, but of our community having deep expertise on this topic: Any family that is, at its biological level, dependent on some kind of community outside its nuclear unit – be it with the help of an adoption agency, the help of a fertility clinic, or the generosity of friends, acquaintances, or strangers as donors – is an open family, not a closed one. This quite obviously is an area in which LGBT family folk are immensely practiced. Queer family-making begins with sharing, and can only happen when we open ourselves to others. Because of this, we have a hell of a lot to teach heterosexual family-makers about not just making peace with that fact, but understanding it for the gift it genuinely is. In other words: we’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers, and therein lies the strength of our families, not their weakness. […]

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