[Cross-posted at the Family Pride Blog.]
Your Gamete, Myself
Many of you will have read Peggy Orensteinâ€™s cover piece in this past Sundayâ€™s New York Times Magazine, â€œYour Gamete, Myself.â€ For those who didnâ€™t, or who just now linked to it and balked when you saw that it spans nine pages online, hereâ€™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 â€œbright linesâ€ that ordinary, â€œbiogeneticâ€ parenthood draws around parentsâ€™ â€œgenetic, biological and social relationships to their children.” Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have an answer, though youâ€™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 Orensteinâ€™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 sheâ€™s examining. After all, we couldnâ€™t be bigger boosters of alternative conception, both via egg- and sperm-donation. â€œAh,â€ these readers might have said to themselves as they watched paragraph after paragraph slip by, â€œthe sly dog! Orensteinâ€™s holding her big guns â€˜til the last section of the article!â€
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 â€œlesbianâ€ or â€œgayâ€ 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
Itâ€™s not that Iâ€™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 â€“ and itâ€™s a noble one — Iâ€™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, thereâ€™s another reason Iâ€™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 â€” 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, â€œYouâ€™re not my real mother?â€ 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 â€“ our own, not to mention othersâ€™ â€“ about our maternal authenticity. And while we each may come to different answers, weâ€™ve been asking the questions as a feverishly reproducing demographic for quite some time now. More than twenty years into the â€œgayby boom,â€ weâ€™ve begun to develop not just insight, but conviction about it, based on an ever-expanding wealth of experience. And a lot of what weâ€™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 â€“ 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 â€“ 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: weâ€™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 â€œright,â€ 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 â€œwrong,â€ biologically. Queer families that come about with the use of egg or sperm donation are â€œwrong,â€ socially (as members of the non-normative minority), but as recipients of donor eggs or sperm, we suffer no especial implication that weâ€™re not â€œrightâ€ biologically. The counterbalancing of social and biological power between us is worth prying into if weâ€™re going to evolve our notions of what makes a family. From quite different standpoints relative to social and biological correctness, we all â€“ donor-assisted straight families and queer ones alike â€“ have a vested interest in the slogan â€œLove makes a family.â€
Problems with either fertility or virility imply a disruption to central, naturalized beliefs about â€œproper,â€ or â€œcorrect,â€ or â€œhealthyâ€ 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 â€œimpotenceâ€ 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 oneâ€™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 â€œoneâ€ 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 sheâ€™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, â€œpoverty mentalityâ€ 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 Orensteinâ€™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 Iâ€™ve learned that itâ€™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. Sheâ€™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. Itâ€™s manna to him. You donâ€™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 donâ€™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 itâ€™s the nurture that takes most of the effort. Fortunately, itâ€™s the one thing you have the most control over.
Would I have confidently projected this sense of belonging years ago â€“ letâ€™s say, even as recently as four years ago â€“ 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 theyâ€™ve arrived, look into their eyes for a moment â€“ dab the tears from them, drink up the glee in them â€“ and itâ€™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 Iâ€™ve learned anything else from being dependent on the kindness of strangers (or, happily, in our case, friends), itâ€™s been that we are, genuinely, all members of the same human family. It sounds corny but goddamn it itâ€™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, itâ€™s the godâ€™s honest truth. And the sooner the rest of the world catches on to this understanding, the better.
* The title of Orensteinâ€™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 Womanâ€™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.