I’ve been thinking about the new question Gretchen posted over at Regular Midwesterners. She asked:
For queer couples with kids, there is a necessary third figure in our children’s lives. How do you plan to explain or acknowledge this person?
Indeed (as Gretchen goes on to acknowledge), there’s at least one other figure. For those of us intent on adopting, there are two. And we typically need the support of lots of other people: sperm bank or adoption agency support staff, medical practitioners, lawyers, family, friends. It’s one way that our families just aren’t like lots of straight families (though this connects us to plenty of adoptive hets). It’s an important question.
Since J and I don’t yet have children here to parent (though we are in the third trimester today, thank you very much!), our plans for handling this with our kids are still entirely hypothetical. I don’t know what we’ll say about Rabbit’s donor (a man I feel deeply and intimately connected with). I know that we plan on creating a consistent and cohesive narrative about donor conception, but I don’t know exactly what that will look like. I guess I think it’ll depend on our son, on how he seems to hear and internalize these ideas. On what kinds of narratives make sense to him, given his unique worldview. But I’m not sure that what we plan to say is as important as how we really feel about this reality because my guess is that our kids will hear how we feel about this lots more than we will actually talk about it.
So in terms of how I really feel about it, I’d say this: it comes down to vulnerability, which means that it comes down to how I, as a parent, handle being vulnerable.
Vulnerability is something I’m super interested in. It is the foundational concept of my dissertation, where I use alternative feminisms (queer. postcolonial. black. Islamic.) to try to read power in vulnerability. In the west, we tend to perceive vulnerability as a weakness, as something we’re supposed to fight against. Conversely, we perceive strength in all things impenetrable. In sovereignty. In liberation. But in looking at national sovereignty and the harm that’s done in its name (for example: our retaliation to the threat of 9/11; our belief that the need to protect the self justifies any assault on the other), this definition of strength seems problematic. The question here is: what does our resistance to vulnerability cost us in the end? So I tend to think politically about vulnerability, about what it might stand to accomplish. Because the truth behind all of our attempts to convince ourselves otherwise is that we are always already vulnerable. We are ceaselessly exposed to violence, to accidents, and to the breakdown of the body’s natural processes. At any moment, our lives – or the lives of the people on whom we depend (bodily, emotionally) – can be extinguished. We can lose. That reality is so viscerally threatening that we work hard to deny it. To shore up our sense of empowerment, and control, and invincibility. We pretend.
Maybe it’s the fact that I spend so much time thinking about these issues, but to me, parental narratives of possession are inseparable from all of this. We’re conditioned to think of the things we love as ours: our lives, our loves, our children, our homes, our friends. And in claiming all of this, we feel tethered to it. In owning it, we convince ourselves that it cannot be taken away.
But in his answer to Gretchen’s question, Josh said something really beautiful:
[This] goes to the heart of the radical nature of adoption and maybe other forms of alternative family(?): we share our children with others and do not wholly possess them.
This is the core reality of adoption – of non-biological parenting in general – to which people seem most resistant. They’re not really our kids. Or they’re less our kids. Or they can only be two people’s kids, and those roles are already filled. So here’s where I think we are ironically privileged: we know better from the start. We aren’t at liberty to ignore the fact that none of us ever “wholly possess[es]” his or her children. They are shared, as, I would argue, all children are shared. They are not our sovereign territory. And we know it before we even lay eyes on them.
So how do I think this functions in the lived reality of alternative parenting? I’m not sure yet. If I had to guess, I’d say that queer and adoptive (and queer adoptive) parents are positioned to teach their children this early on, that the children of queer/adoptive parents spend less time under the illusion of sovereignty. The dangerous traditions of in-group privilege and out-group exclusion. That, if they see us grappling with these issues, they’ll grow up grappling with them too. And that this is good for them.
I was born to an adopted father who was neither married to nor in a committed relationship with my incredible mother. To a brave, unwed woman who had never planned on parenting. For a long time, I saw pieces of this as a liability. I wanted a “normal” family, to feel a part of a secure, unbreakable unit. But I like these facts now. I think they’ve helped me immeasurably on this path. When I came out, when I married a woman, when I decided not to try to carry again, I gave up other pieces of a narrative that has never really served me anyway. It was probably easier to let go because I was already on the outside.
So it’s important to me that my children are raised in a committed, two-parent household. It’s important to me that they know they are safe and loved beyond measure. That they know that their well-being is our top concern, always always. But the idea that they might feel connected to the other people who helped give them life? That isn’t threatening to me. Because they should feel connected to those people, right? I feel connected to them. And it seems, to me, better to show my children how interconnected we all are than to have them sense that interconnectivity, but think of it as a betrayal to me. Like the women of the novels I write about, I think there’s more to be gained from the acceptance of vulnerability than there is to be lost. I think there’s more to be gained from the acceptance that other people are a part of my children than in the denial of that fact. Because doesn’t that break down so much of what we, as queers, are positioned to see through anyway? I love Rabbit’s donor. Though they may never meet, I hope that Rabbit will love him too. That he will be a silent, absent, beautiful, undeniable part of our family. That allowing lots of space for that will only serve to connect me more tightly to my son.
Nota Bene 1: I probably sound like I’m completely comfortable with vulnerability, and you should know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I get so scared about so many things. I worry that something serious is wrong with my health, that I won’t get to see my kids grow up. I spent much of this weekend OBSESSED with one off-hand comment that a doctor made about a symptom I’ve been having. I worry that, in my lack of legal recognition, this little boy will be taken from me. I don’t mind sharing him, but I mind very much the horrible possibility of losing time with him. Still, I don’t think this serves me, and I work constantly (in therapy, with friends, with my wife) to find ways of letting go of these driving fears. They keep me thinking about what I might lose and not what I actually have right now.
Nota Bene 2: In losing Emmett, I learned a lot about the cost of vulnerability, so I don’t say any of this lightly. Still, I know this is theoretical, and therefore inherently simplistic. I know that, when we begin the adoption process, we could face painful realities I can barely imagine now. This is how I want to walk into this process, but I hold no illusions that the process itself won’t shatter these notions and force me to construct new ones again and again.