the false binaries of parenthood

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.

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10 thoughts on “the false binaries of parenthood

  1. So, I have a lot of thoughts. I think (ha). When I was reading the beginning of your post, where you talked about how the Rabbit might look like jlg, I chuckled. I mean, you know (because you’ve said it yourself) that BOTH of our children look like me, even though neither of them have any genetic connections to each other, and only one has genetic connections to me. So, you know, there’s that.

    That said, I think we are all different parents to each of our children no matter what our genetic relationship to them is. When our son was born, and until he weaned, he certainly needed me in a different way. And, wow. That kid loved to nurse, and would nurse all day long if I let him. But, even then, he had this amazing connection to Jess that was bound up in how she played with him, comforted him when I wasn’t there to offer nursing, how she loved him. And, now? Seven (holy cow) years later? He’s just our kid. Ours. That I carried him was brought back into focus when Jess was pregnant, and still is a little because she’s nursing, but only because we remember those sweet times with him. And, I still comfort that baby (and she, me. ask one of us about what happened yesterday when i was feeling sick. wait, maybe I’ll write about it when I finish this procrastinatory comment and the work that I’m procrastinating!), and love her and play with her. And, I really cannot imagine anyone in our lives not thinking that I’m her mama. Or that my relationship is less than.

    And, if you imagine Jess and our son, you can’t imagine two people who are closer. Seriously. I’m sometimes jealous (and then she reminds me that his is my carbon copy, so he knows how to push my buttons, and of course).

    And, I think that we probably both felt some of what you are feeling–worry, curiosity, fear–about how our relationships would be with the children we carried or didn’t carry before they came. Well, I did. And, now? It just is, and we just are. If someone questions it? Well, I kind of dare them. Because, really.

  2. I don’t have time to fully respond to this blog post right now, but i wanted to get back to you about the guide you were talking about on my blog. Please do send it to me! I’d love it. If you could email it to me at chachachaliz at aol dot com. Thanks!

  3. One of my earlier blog posts deals with my relationship with my non-gestational parent (my dad). I’ve long been associated with my mom, because I carry her physical genetic traits, and some of her personality quirks. Yet, part of my reason for keeping my birth name is to honor the ways in which my dad has shaped me. It’s because of his encouragement that I have pushed myself to achieve more than I thought possible, and it’s his influence that is shaping my current and future career in grad school. My dad and I don’t look anything alike, and we don’t have the same personality, but I now recognize the traits that I have gained from him. They’re certainly not a matter of genetics, either. I have his stubbornness, his innate ability to work with language (even though he’s a medical doctor!), his aptitude for learning, his passion for reading, and his sense of identity. I am fiercely proud to be his daughter, and your son will say the same about you.

    • I really appreciate your thoughts here, Bonnie. I love these traits in you as a person, and I love knowing where they came from. And your thoughts re: our son’s connections to me mean a lot.

  4. I still treasure those few comments from people who “forgot” — our rabbi who thought with absolute certainty once when I was meeting with her (on my own) that Leigh had (my) red hair (she most certainly does not), Gail’s grandmother who enthusiastically asked after Leigh was born whether she had brown or red hair (everyone always with the hair!). Especially when she was a baby, they felt like such an affirmation that my daughter was part of me and I was part of her.

    When you write “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” you hit the nail on the head. It is a privilege and it is a rare gift to your kid(s). This is exactly what I find so deeply powerful about parenting a kid with no genetic or gestational tie to me, no “privileged” connection (though thankfully we’re in a state where I’m recognized as an equal legal parent to her).

    One thread you pick up on that I didn’t in that particular post is about how some of the differences I feel are intrinsic, something about us and our family, our own internal relationships, and some of the differences are in response to the outside world, likely in response to the “binary” you lay out. If I wasn’t fighting against that binary, would I be so defensive when I have bad interactions with my daughter? On the other hand, would those good times feel as much like a triumph, like confirmation that we’re really doing what we set out to do despite some very real barriers. So yes, I think that some of the differences I wrote about come in response to exactly the structures you’re talking about.

    I have a slightly different take on your closing paragraph. I LOVE that the ‘alternative’ nature of our family brings these topics up for discussion, that by the very nature of our family form, we make that uniqueness in our relationships to our kids visible. Then the beautiful stuff about how conscientiously we form these bonds is out in the open (or can be if we let it). If we all “stopped noticing” then we’d miss so much of the good stuff.

    Thank you so much for this post. I hope any painful moments in the reading of ours have eased. I am thrilled to have found you via your link to us. I’ll be reading and cheering you on.

    • Oh, the small pain has eased, and I’m even grateful for it. I’m sorry now to have phrased it that way at all. Truly, you put into words differences that I already strongly suspected I would notice. I wasn’t much fooled by the artifice of “no difference,” so it’s much better for me to face the honesty with which you write, an honesty that notes (along with the challenges) all the ways in which my connection to our son (to all of the children we get to raise) will be unexpectedly great. I’m starting to adore this role in surprising ways. I loved your previous post about the NGP-role and choice, by the way (Non-Bio Mom Manifesto, I think?). I sent it to my mother-in-law a few months ago, in an effort to explain my subject position. Choice. Choosing to love. Choosing devotion. What could possibly be better?

  5. Thanks for linking to my blog. I hadn’t seen yours before and am very happy to have found it.

    I found your point about what you’d hear if you asked your and your partner’s moms about their experiences of motherhood to be especially illuminating. You write, “The problem is, nobody compares their answers because, as biological mothers, they’re both assumed to have experienced ideal motherhood.” Traditional families and people who at least appear to be in traditional roles get collapsed into the cultural categories which they represent. They’re moms! What else do you need to know? The rest of us–all of us who defy traditional family identities–don’t have these default roles and relationships to rely upon.

    While my son’s birth sister was visiting recently, our talk often turned to, “Miles and his sister are so much alike.” And it was true in so many ways–and good for Miles to hear such open, easy acknowledgment of the irrefutable importance of genetic connection. But I couldn’t help myself from wondering if we overplay similarities between bio-siblings simply because we’re culturally indoctrinated to look for them with so little nuance. My relationship to my own biological brother is a weighty counterpoint. I couldn’t feel much more different from another person. It was downright painful and tense to have to share a room with him for years. Although I care about him, we still talk very little today because it’s almost impossible to connect with him. Yet if people just met us, would they assume we’re more alike than not because we’re biological brothers? I think probably. In the same way the category of “mothers” resists scrutiny, so can that of biological siblings or parent-child relationships (which you point out).

    I agree with Lyn that I love–and I embrace–the ways that being in an “alternative” family prevents me from sitting comfortably in a big, old, cliched identity or culturally recognizable relationship. It can be tough and isolating (especially out here in small town Midwest), but I like the work involved in creating new ways to be. I like not taking things for granted. The trick for me is to figure out when to keep noticing what might be different or new about what we’re doing and when it’s a better idea to shut off the scrutiny and just be a parent to the kid I adore.

    • The balance you describe at the end of your comment has had me thinking a lot. As an academic who has waited a LONG time for these children, it’s my inclination to over-think every aspect of this. But I find myself at my happiest when I’m NOT thinking at all. When I’m standing in his room just anticipating his presence, the sound of his cries there, his weight in my arms. If I had to guess, I’d say my favorite parts will be those times when I’m “just be[ing] a parent to the kid I adore.” It’s healthy for me to realize this: it encourages me to let go and just be in this bodily, to trust, to just live. I appreciate the nudge in that direction. :)

  6. I’m behind on my reading and commenting but I didn’t want to let this post go by without saying how much I value your voice and perspective. I’m glad you’re writing and I can’t wait to hear about how you approach and nurture your roll after Rabbit is born.

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