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.


13 thoughts on “vulnerability

  1. Thank you for this post. It reads like my favorite Butler, and makes me very curious about your dissertation – which sounds like it will be fantastic. I would love to hear about how you and your partner are thinking that you *may* go about allowing “lots of space” for the “silent, absent, beautiful, undeniable” donor in your lives/your family. Are you thinking along lines other than having plenty of open communication about him, i.e. something tangible in your home that references him, for example? We are in the process of working on our baby book, and I’ve been thinking about how I want to include our donor in that space/narrative, because I most certainly do want to include him. Just thinking, thinking, thinking about these things…

    • Precarious Life? Yes, that and Halberstam’s new Queer Art of Failure are both pretty central to my dissertation, and to the process of grieving our daughter and my infertility. I’ve mentioned Precarious Life on here quite a lot, actually. I think about these texts with so much gratitude. They’ve shown me ways of seeing the pain of this year as empowering. They’ve made this new path to mamahood a joy at times that might otherwise have felt (and sometimes did feel) terribly painful. Thanks for your comment; I look forward to reading on in your journey (especially since now is such an exciting time for your family!). I’ll give your other questions here some thought and be in touch.

  2. And again I thank you for your thoughts, which proved to be very timely for me. My partner and I had our first meeting with a lawyer today, to obtain what small legal protections we can get for me in our very red midwestern state. The meeting had me feeling quite frightened, anxious, and well, vulnerable. It had me feeling very much like the baby wasn’t really mine. I think a lot about that word lately, especially in reference to our child. That “mine” that I want to cling to so much, out of love, out of defensiveness, out of an idea that if I cling more tightly no one will dare to try and take her from me. I know it isn’t really true, that she is a person already who is not only not possessed by me, but who is equally not possessed by my partner, even though they share things I can’t be a part of right now. I think it is so important to remember that we share children, that they are not ours, that everyone only belongs to themselves. But it is difficult. Being aware of your vulnerability is uncomfortable, but I agree that it is a helpful awareness. Thanks for the reminder today- it was what I needed.

    • I hope you got the private message I sent, Amy. I love seeing your comments here, and I’d love to know more about you and your family. We’re in the midwest too; I wonder if we’re close? At any rate, I’d love to talk more about all of this, and I wish you and your partner and your much love and luck. Thanks for your kind comments, and for your community in this space.

  3. I can’t tell you how fantastic it is to feel connection to you and others out here in the blogosphere about these parenting issues. As always, I got a lot out of your open and highly reflective style of writing. I admire the way you pull from academic/theoretical concepts and make them personally applicable–and understandable. I have to admit, I often want to do the same with my writing but I worry about not being able to make it so understandable to readers not familiar with the texts.

    I wanted to share a piece, “The ‘Enabling Violation’ of International Adoption,” I found on the Times website by Drucilla Cornell. I haven’t exactly sorted out how yet, but what she wrestles with–adoption and what it means for her daughter and for her–is directly related to these questions of alternative family-making, loss, and vulnerability.

    One additional thought…there is some balance to accepting vulnerability and accepting that we do not wholly possess our children with firmly claiming them as our own, right? With open adoption, I sometimes worry there could be a tipping point when too much attention to adoption, difference, and the role of birth parents could become destabilizing for my son.

    • You made my day with this comment, Josh. Seriously: thank you. This article is now on my weekend-treat reading list, and I’ll respond more once I’ve read it. In the meantime, I wanted to say that what you’re suggesting about the balance of possessing (not owning, maybe, but claiming) makes a ton of sense. That’s part of the lived reality of adoption that I know I can’t come close to grasping (having not started down the adoption road yet).

      Like your (amazing, by the way) small world glossary suggests, language gives us lots of room to shape our relationships. I don’t think I would (could?) be as committed to adoption as I am if I didn’t believe that what most defines parenthood is simply the daily, lived reality of parenting. I feel a little behind in talking about these issues with you and my other favorite bloggers because you have all been actively parenting for awhile now, and I haven’t even started. I feel naive and reductive because my ideas are all confined to the theoretical. But what you’re saying here makes complete sense, and it seems like an extremely important distinction to make.

      It also seems tied up in whether we’re talking about parenting (the verb) or being a parent (the noun). When I think about your family, I almost exclusively think about you and Travis parenting Miles. About road trips and breakfast time and park encounters. That doesn’t exclude other parental figures. I mean, I make space (largely because you do this in your writing) for the people for whom being a parent to Miles means something other than a daily, lived reality (for whom it means blood, maybe, or a bodily experience), but the work of active parenting takes up more space than not in my understanding of Miles and his daily life. I want for my children to have two active parents. I hope to make room for other people to play other roles, but I don’t want to share that role. Being an active parent is probably the thing I feel most called to do in my life, and the only person I want to do it with is J. I’m sure that’s why I get scared about health stuff some times. I don’t want to be exclusionary about parenthood (especially not artificially so), but it hurts me terribly to think about not being the person who is THERE, you know? In that space where difference and biology and blood disappear and there’s just the truth of daily intimacy. That’s what I’m in this for, and it seems likely that that’s what kids most need?

  4. I’ve got to agree with queermamayama on how interesting your dissertation sounds. Each time you’ve referenced it I’ve thought…. I’ve got to read that! Now that you’re talking about the strength in vulnerability you’ve hooked me entirely. I was trapped almost entirely in the land of quantitative empirical research as a graduate student and I’m sure that I’m unfamiliar with most if not all of your references (although I have read Halbertstam’s Female Masculinity when I ran across it in a book store), but the power inherent in vulnerability (and to my way of thinking maybe femininity generally) is something that has always seemed intuitively right and interesting/exciting to me. If you ever find yourself wide awake worrying about something when Rabbit has zapped J early, I would LOVE a reading list. ;) Sounds like there is a lot of thoughtful work out there!

  5. Hey again – Do you guys have a blog email address? Mine is I wanted to get in touch off-blog but couldn’t find one….I too wondered more about your dissertation. My partner is an academic…even more in common, it seems….Thanks for the thoughtful response to my earlier comment. So much to chew on, as things keep evolving…and will for you even more when Rabbit arrives. How exciting to think of your future together.

  6. My partner and I have an almost 12 year old son. I thought I would share what we did in regards to his conception.

    First thought, we purchased sperm, not a person.
    Second thought, we believe the energy that goes into growing a baby, even before birth, is what contributes to the personality, behavior, and yes, looks.

    We started talking to T when he was three about sperm, eggs and using a Doctor to help us get pregnant with him. This conversation occurred because we were attempting a second pregnancy and wanted him to be aware of what was going on. Believe it or not, he was much more interested in the biology of the process then in the identity of the sperm donor. Even at three. Which prompted our first conversation about sex when he was four.

    I believe that the energy that goes into creating the child, and trust me my partner contributed as much in the arena as I did, has a physical effect on the baby/child. How else to explain his mom’s blue eyes and angular jaw in my son’s face? We have straight friends who are genuinely convinced that my partner is his biological parent. We both share physical characteristics with our son. Our son looks like he could be the biological son of either of us.

    I think we make too much of biology. It goes back to the nature vs nurture argument. Biology gives us a good grounding for our physical bodies, hence our choice of our donor was a conscious one to give him the best biological start we could. But, nurture rules. He has no interest or inclination to explore his biological roots.

    • I agree completely with Josh, Karen. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I love hearing how this has unfolded for you, your partner, and your son. I agree with you about our culture’s overemphasis on biology, and I’m so grateful to hear that this holds for you, not merely in theory, but in lived reality, as well. And there’s this: your words about how much you see your partner in your son are thrilling to me. Thank you. There’s so much transgressive power in all of what you write: the way you think about your son’s conception AND how you parent him. I’d love to know more about your family, so please let me know if there’s ever a public forum for your writing.

  7. As for ownership . . . .

    Judeo-Christian culture teaches that parents own their children. Our society is built around that concept; why else would the narrative around children include comments like “children are to be seen and not heard” or “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

    We took a different approach grounded in the thoughts and values of First Nation people, specifically the Lakota and Sahiela peoples. We believe in raising an exordinary individual and have focused the resources of our household on that outcome. From the beginning, my son was given choices, was given a voice, was made a priority, in our household. As he has gained in age, maturity and wisdom, his choices have matured as well. We have rewarded the behaviors we value . . . good grades in school, managing his process in the morning to ensure he reaches the bus on time, helping us with groceries and cleaning, when appropriate. But mostly, we let him be a kid. We make the things that are important to him a priority for the family. We sit at the table with him every night while he does homework. We encourage his curiousity, his intelligence, and his integrity. We treat him like a person, with his own voice, his own opinion, and his own agenda.We have never equivocated on a question: if he asks a question of us, the answer he gets is the truth as we know it, scaled to his ability to understand. We never lie. If there is something he shouldn’t know yet, we tell him that it is an adult concept and he needs to wait until he is older to understand.

    It is so different from the way my partner or I were raised.

    There are no chores, other than getting good grades, atttending school and doing his homework without complaint. The rules we insist on are grounded in how they will help him in the future. We have taught him not to fear truth. He has begun to develop critical thinking skills. We are teaching him about sacrifice in the short term for long term gain. We treat him as a partner in our family, albeit one who hasn’t learned all of the lessons we have and who must be protected and sheltered from outside elements. We acknowledge the effect that hormones play in the development of a person, how anger can take us off guard, but that learning effective tools to manage anger will save him the agony of hurting someone in the future. He understands that tears and crying are okay, that emotions are normal and to be experienced, that a hug or snuggle may not make everything better, but they can help a person feel not so alone. He has experienced loss and death.

    In other words, like an individual with his own needs, his own wants and his own, separate from us, being.

    • Karen – I admire how you articulate your values through descriptions of everyday interactions with your son. It has me thinking in some new ways about how we’re passing on values to ours.

      It’s gutsy to openly dispense with the power of biology/DNA to shape our children in favor of a belief in the power of nurture. I realized how rare it is when I read your comment. It reminds me of the handful of times when strangers have assumed either my partner or I are the biological fathers of our son. My son is African-American and Latino; we’re both white.

      Once while walking through an airport, an older black woman stopped me to tell me my son is beautiful. After briefly studying my face and his, she looked me in the eye and said, “He’s your son? Well, he looks like you.” I said, “Oh, thanks. We adopted him so I can’t really take credit for his looks.” She said, staring straight at me, “No, he really looks like you. I can tell he’s your son.” It had me wondering about the ways we have shaped his expressions, gestures, and maybe even, just a little bit, the way he looks.

  8. this post is really beautiful. i’ve had it open all week, thinking i’ll think of something more substantial to say than that, but i should at least say that much.

    this line, in particular: “They are not our sovereign territory. And we know it before we even lay eyes on them.”

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