Monday, December 8, 2008

The inevitable awkward questions

Gail's post got me thinking about how we handle the inevitable somewhat awkward conversations that come up due to our family structure. As she wrote, we've both noticed they come up much more now that we're back in pregnancy (and later, little baby) land. I noticed some time ago that we had developed some mix of official and unofficial guidelines:

1) Before Leigh's arrival we decided that divulging who gave birth to her was not forbidden. I understand why some families choose this route, but we feel strongly that Leigh should not have to feel secretive about her family structure, and so we need to model that for her (though see comment 4 on how we handle donor questions, which is different).

2) That said, when discussing such matters, we are careful in our language. We do not say that Gail is Leigh's "bio-mom"--rather we might say that Gail nursed Leigh, or that Gail gave birth to Leigh, so that her genetic link (and fallout from that link) is not also presented as representing her motherhood of Leigh. Her motherhood of Leigh is based on the same stuff mine is, the day in and day out love and hands on parenting. Along the same lines, I don't refer to myself in casual conversation as Leigh's "non-bio-mom." I'm just a mom (or Mama as the case may be). That said, in conversation with peer parents around the nitty gritty issues that come up around buidling our family this way, I will refer to myself as a non-bio-mom or and "NGP" (non-gestational-parent, my dad coined that one)--but only with people who understand our family structure.

3) In response to subtle prying on first meetings, say someone new at the playground, or a new work colleague, I usually don't divulge information on how we formed our family, either regarding our donor, or who carried Leigh. I understand people are curious, but you need to wait until at least a second meeting. We want people to see both of us parenting before we give information that might lead you to decide one of us is the "real" mom. My least favorite type of prying is resemblance talk. Seriously. I hate it when Gail and I show up somewhere with Leigh, and someone pointedly makes a comment about her hair or eye color (brown and brown) and then says she looks just like me (red and blue), pointedly staring at me for clarifying information, while Gail is standing right there (with her brown hair and brown eyes--yes, this really happens). It really drives me crazy and I make special note of who does such things and vow never to give them any tidbit of information ever. However, if I'm out with Leigh alone, and someone casually says she looks like me, I secretly glow and take it as a compliment.

4) We do not provide any details on donor information (other than we went with frozen). Not which bank. No tidbits from the profile. Nothing about appearance. We feel very strongly that that information belongs to our kid(s) and they should decide who should know and how to handle the information as they grow. It belongs to them, not us. And if anyone asks, that is what we tell them. I know other families handle this differently, meeting up with donor siblings early for example, and sharing all information freely from infancy, and I can see the attraction there. But for us, it feels a little wrong to have a whole slew of people knowing potentially sensitive information about Leigh that she doesn't even understand yet. Note, this does not contradict number 1, because we don't feel that Leigh should have to be secretive about her donor information. But we don't want to decide for her who and what people outside of our family will know. If another queer couple or single mom working towards TTC asks us how we made decisions around donor selection, we will definitely talk to them about it, and will probably give them more info (e.g. the thinking we did on ID release vs. not), but that is only for folks trying to work their way through the same decisions.

I'm sure there are more unofficial or official guidelines that I'm not really thinking of right now. Most of this stuff we just make up as we go along really. And we have no idea yet how this will shift as Leigh grows and understands more about her family. But for now, it works. I'd love to hear other folks thoughts on those inevitable awkward questions.


Anonymous said...

Your post helped me realize that for all the concerns/challenges with non-bio motherhood that I've blogged about, I have never called myself a non-bio mom in conversation. In my real life, I don't identify as such, and would never refer to Kiddo as my non-bio daughter.

We've chosen to be open that M carried her, but have noticed that most people don't ask. They jump to the conclusion that I carried (due to a striking resemblance between Kiddo and me and because I present as more feminine), which doesn't both M and certainly doesn't bother me.

Your decision to keep donor information close to the chest has me thinking... I wonder if we're too free and easy in sharing donor info (physical characteristics and some personality traits... never donor number, though because that violates other families right to NOT know about donor siblings).

Kiddo doesn't yet understand that there was a third party (or fourth or fifth counting the medical staff) involved in her conception. When she's ready to ask questions (and to divulge her donor-conceived with her friends), she should be the only one who knows certain details. Although we only have a 40-page profile and an audio interview to share, I assume it will become important to her one day.

Thanks as always, for a thought-provoking post!

Anonymous said...

1. We've actually not thought about this, mainly because I doubt it has occurred to either of us not to tell our child who birthed him. Doesn't matter to me.

2. I'm not sure how we'll be handling this, except to be explicit in that we are both our child's mothers. I guess it'll depend on who is asking and how they're asking it to divulge more than that. I don't mind being the non-bio mom as long as that's all someone sees it as-- I didn't carry the child, but he'll still be MY child.

3. I agree with you on this- it's not really anyone's business, especially during a first meeting, as to how we did it. Again, it may depend on the person's feelings or intentions towards the subject if we choose to tell them or not. I know Nutella is much more open than I am about personal stuff, but I also want to share if I think the person is genuinely interested in a friendly, non-judgmental way. I'd like for things like that to not be such a big deal.

4. We picked a donor that looks like a male version of me, and that's what I usually say to people. He's got my most obvious physical characteristics, plus some emotional ones, and that's why we picked him- case closed :)

Good questions!

Lyn said...

Strawberry--Just to clarify on number 1, I was referring to families that don't tell people outside the family who has what genetic relationships. I guess I was assuming that the kids still knew. Such families definitely exist (one that is fairly high profile in the queer parenting world), though I think it's getting less common as legal rights expand for our families.

Anonymous said...

the resemblance conversations are most annoying to me too and people ALWAYS want to go there. i don't get the appeal really. i carried our first daughter and while she has my wife's skin tone (very white, thanks to our donor), she has many of my facial features/body structure and people LOVE calling her my little clone. i know it bothered my wife early on, she never complained about it but how could it not. it definitely bothered me too as i felt the need to protect her. now that my wife is pregnant with our 2nd and we used the same donor (close match to my wife's features, red hair/green eyes) i'm guessing i will never get the, "she looks just like you" comments. i'm ok with it certainly but suspect it will be just as annoying the 2nd time as it has been with the 1st though i probably won't feel as bad about it as i would have had i not already given birth. what i'm most excited about really is to see the similarities between our 2 girls.

thanks for posting your thoughts on this, it's definitely something that we all have to navigate in one way or the other...

Anonymous said...

Gotcha. Yeah, I guess if it isn't obvious to someone (which I feel it may be since Nutella has really strong genetics, but we'll see...maybe he'll have red hair!) I don't know if that's something that needs to be shared or not...cause why does it matter? So again, I guess it depends on the attitude of the person asking it :)

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of things that we haven't thought through because it just hadn't occured to us yet. Its helpful for us to hear how you choose to handle these things and gives us the chance to talk about issues that we didn't even know to think about. Thanks for sharing your ideas and helping the rest of us talk about these issues and plan ahead a little.

Gail said...

Bree -- I really like your point about never referring to your daughter as your "non-bio daughter." When it's put in that context it seems so obviously wrong. The important thing is the relationships we have, not what's missing.

And we actually have talked to Leigh about who birthed her because we tell her the story of her birth from time-to-time. Actually, the way we tell it, it's a really sweet story so I think I'll make it a real post.

Gail said...

One more note -- I tend to be freer with information about who gave birth to Leigh than Lyn is. I think this is sort of a "bio-mom privilege" situation in which I don't have to have any worries about assumptions people would make about my connections to Leigh because they are the ones that are both expected and accepted. I try to hold off with the information, but I just don't always remember to because I'm not personally worried about it. This is one reason why we are glad I took a non-standard mom name because to some extent I've been able to use that non-standard name to see "the other side of the fence" (as I discuss more fully in this post).

Lex said...

It is fascinating for me to read about how other queer families approach these issues surrounding our children's conception and genetic history. We have always been very open about everything with pretty much everyone. When we were originally picking the donor, we had our top 6 profiles out whenever anyone would come over and we'd collect votes on which donor to use.

While I was pregnant the first time, I'd always welcome any questions anyone had about the process of using donor sperm, and about the donor we used, just because I thought I'd be increasing awareness about the different ways that families are made . . . as well as getting practice in how to answer the questions that our kids would eventually have.

We get a LOT of questions about the donor (or "father") because two of our kids have reddish hair. Strangers will frequently note the hair and then ask, "does he get it from his dad?" Such an innocent question, such a complicated answer! Sometimes, if I don't feel like getting into it (or if I don't have the time), I'll just say, "he doesn't have a dad. But his grandfather had red hair." Other times, I'll explain that our son has a donor, not a father, and that the red hair came from both of the donor's grandmothers and my father.

I try to model openness and comfort when talking about the donor in front of the kids because I hope that this will help them to feel comfortable asking questions, as well as to solidify their knowledge about the donor (and to avoid a big "reveal" of information at some later point along the lines of "all of the things we never told you about your genetic history"). We are also open about the fact that the kids have donor siblings and have shown anyone interested photos of the donor siblings (as well as of the donor as a baby).

I definitely see your point, however, about this information belonging to the children, and not necessarily being MINE to share. That said, I would be afraid that my holding back of information would somehow translate to the kids that the donor isn't something we talk about, is something secret/is something to be embarrassed about. As much as I'd like to downplay the significance of the donor all together, I'm guessing that the kids will feel like he's quite significant someday. At this point, at the ages of 2 and nearly 6, they've barely shown any interest at all in any of it (and still don't seem to understand the conception story despite numerous tellings).

Love the blog!