Nota Bene: This post is long, but I think it’s an important discussion to have. It’s something I’ve wanted to write for awhile now, and, whatever your subject position, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this, either in a comment or through private message.
I had a hard day yesterday (lots of sadness: I think it was a cathartic, end.of.summer, the.Rabbit.is.doing.well, J.is.feeling.better, I.can.fall.apart sort of thing), so when J got home last night, she took me downtown to eat carry-out on an outdoor table and hit a movie (a perfect RLG pick.me.up). We ran into our friend G and her incredibly sweet mama, who did something adorable. She asked what I weighed at birth, and then what J weighed at birth, and then she told us that her kids weighed the average of her husband’s birth weight and her own, so, she speculated, the Rabbit would probably weigh the average of ours. G’s mom is a badass, and I’m pretty sure she’s not senile, so one of two things happened: either she was just being sweet in including me, or she forgot (because she’s the kind of person who might just forget about biological necessities). This moment made me feel incredible.
I was being asked a question about myself by way of speculating something about my son!
Reflecting on this last night and this morning, I’ve asked myself why these kinds of comments make me feel so good, all the while I’m dreading the constant commentary that I anticipate we’ll hear about how much Rabbit looks like my wife. It isn’t that I don’t want him to look like her, so let me be clear:
- She’s gorgeous.
- She’s brilliant.
- She’s my favorite person in the world.
- I would LOVE for this boy to have her amazing eyes, her upturned upper-lip, her high cheek-bones, her long neck, her long limbs. I tell our son this all the time, speaking through her belly, loving them both and the connection they share.
And I never needed for my children to look like me. If I could choose which parts of me my babies would inherit, I would give them my loyalty, my self-discipline, my steady sense of gratitude, my joy. And I’m just as likely to give these qualities to a non-bio child as I am to one with whom I share genetic material. So for me, it’s not about any actual desire for a biological relationship with my children. What it is about is perception. It’s about the deep investment our culture has with biology, the not.so.subtle privileging of blood-relations.
This morning, I ran across a new post by Lyn – over at First Time Second Time – who wrote these words in response to the question, “are there any differences in how you feel about your gestational kids and your partner’s gestational children?” Lyn and her partner, Gail, each gave birth to one of their two children. Like all of the First Time Second Time posts (I’ve been a silent reader of this blog for some time now), this one was full of insight and honesty. Though – as a mom who will probably only share genetic material with a child who didn’t make it – some of what I read there was painful, I’m glad to be a part of a community that can discuss these questions openly and vulnerably. So in that spirit, here are my thoughts:
The problem isn’t that we draw distinctions between biological parent/child relationships and non-biological parent/child relationships. There’s nothing wrong with distinctions. The problem is that we do so in a society wherein this binary is always already weighted. From our first utterance on the issue, we’re fighting against the assumption not that there are differences, but that because of those differences, relationships can be valued and ranked. We live in a culture where biology is so privileged that any acknowledgment of difference amounts, essentially, to confirmation of a hierarchy. It’s the same reason we have to fight, as members of the LGBT community, to insist that our families are the same, even though in many ways they’re not. It’s why “separate but equal” never works. We can’t be trusted to allow differences between groups of people because we are so deeply conditioned to rank and compare. And once we make value judgments, we stick to them.
Men are better than women? Check.
White is better than black? Check.
Straight is better than gay? Check.
Moms are closer to their kids than dads? Check.
A biological connection with your children is always best, and anything else is a back-up plan? Check.
These are the terms. And, as is typical, these terms dictate what we can even think about, forcing us to ignore the complexity that actually drives these issues. If Emmett Ever had made it, I probably would have had a different relationship with her than I will with my other (from J’s body, from other women’s bodies) children. But why would we assume it would be better? Maybe it would have reflected that common mother/daughter tension. Maybe she would have been so much like me that we would have fought a lot. Maybe she would just have been closer with J. I’ve had our two black cats for thirteen years now, and our boy-cat (they’re siblings) is my soul-animal. He and I fell in love at first sight. His sister and I learned to love each other, but when J came into our lives, that girl-cat finally found her soul-mama. I love her, but we don’t have that same, magical thing. But loving her is, in some ways, sweeter for the work that it’s taken us. There’s a different kind of depth because it wasn’t instantaneous. Connections aren’t so easily predicted. They’re a product of too much complexity for that.
And the reality is that, because I’m a different person than everyone else, I’ll be a different mother too. J and I were both raised by our biological moms, but they’re very different parents, and my guess is that if you asked them to describe how they think about motherhood (which I’d love to hear them do!), they’d give you very different answers. The problem is, nobody compares their answers because, as biological mothers, they’re both assumed to have experienced ideal motherhood.
What hurts me is not that E is the only child I’ll share DNA with. What hurts me is that, just as I have to fight against the mainstream assumption that my family is lesser than because it happens to include two women, I’ll have to fight against the assumption that my relationship with my children is lesser than too. Personally, I think there’s something beautiful about the likelihood that I won’t be related to any of the children I get to raise. It creates an equality that I like. The Rabbit, and any other children we decide for J to carry, and any children we’re blessed to adopt: their relationship to me will be based completely on my love for them as people in the world. It won’t be based on shared features. I think of this as a privilege. It just hurts me that few others do too.
And I find this whole conversation a little absurd because – just as with this country’s divorce rate, it’s laughable to suggest that gay marriage will harm the “sanctity of the institution of marriage” – it’s laughable to think that all bio-moms are inherently more connected to their children than I will be to mine. Being a mama is the most important thing in my life. I’ve waited a long time to be sure that I’ll be good at this, that I’m ready to put myself down in the ways this will necessitate, that I have room in my life for these people to grow. I am humbled by the prospect of being invested with the safety of my children, with their happiness, with their ability to become the best possible versions of themselves. But I’m supposed to think that, even with all that intentionality, I’ll always be second to their “real” moms? Or that, because they don’t share my nose shape, I’ll do all of that a bit less enthusiastically?
I remember having lunch with a friend who had struggled for years with infertility. When I asked about adoption, she said that couples had to fully mourn the possibility of conceiving before they could move onto adoption. This was true for her, and she’s since become an incredible adoptive mama. But I bristled at the generality of her statement, largely because it never felt true to me. I wanted both: to adopt and to carry. And I wanted them equally. I’ve always sensed that my children would come to me in a variety of ways, and that’s never made me feel like some of them will be any less my children than others. But what she said is culturally true (ideologically-driven), precisely BECAUSE we tell women that adoption is a back-up-plan. It’s something you do if you can’t have the real thing. It’s something you settle for. But I refuse to think of my relationships with my children as “settling.” I’m not infertile, but trying again might be dangerous for me, and if I did try again, I’d be doing it because my culture tells me that’s the better experience, the true-mama experience. But why would I believe that? I don’t believe that I’d be happier if I’d just found the right man. J is my unequivocal right person. And my children will be my right children. E made me a mama, but she didn’t need the things from me that I wanted her to need. I pray that the Rabbit will. And assuming he does, that experience won’t be cheaper than it would have been had it been her. It won’t be lesser than. If anything, it will be even greater for the lessons I’ve learned in losing her. The depth with which I already love this little boy astonishes me.
I think that we should talk about difference, but we shouldn’t talk about it as though it’s entirely biologically driven, or as though the biological differences can be valued. We have different relationships with each of our children because they are different human beings. They need different things of us. They bring different things to the table. Unless they came into our lives at the same moment, we’re different people when we meet them. I’m a different mama than any of the mothers I’ve observed in my life. I’ve learned from each of them: picked up bits of wisdom, things I’d like to emulate, things that wouldn’t be right for me and my family, but in the end, I am and will be the kind of mama that only I can be. That would be true no matter how my children came to me, but if I were a heterosexual bio-mom, the uniqueness of that would be invisible. It’s only visible (up for discussion) because of the alternative nature of our family structure. And that’s kinda silly. I wish we could all be like G’s mom: could just forget that we’re supposed to notice these kinds of things. I think that if we stopped noticing them, they would stop being true.
A note for further reading:
Two blogs have helped me to undermine the privileging of biology. I share them with you now in case you’re walking through any of this yourself, or in case you want to better understand someone who is.
- The first is Love Invents Us. I ADORE this family, and I’ve learned a lot from this mama’s refusal to submit to the mandates of shared genetics. She is a total role-model for me.
- The second is Regular Midwesterners, especially Josh’s posts about his adopted son. There are lots of ways in which I feel connected to a gay male experience of fatherhood: because of my bodily limitations, because I’ve always wanted to adopt. I just found this blog a couple of months ago, but it’s already proven helpful.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, if you find yourself willing.