Thursday, April 29, 2010

A lesson I want to learn

When we meet other parents (straight), if it happens to come up in conversation that each of us carried one of our children, the relatively consistent response is approximately "What a great idea!" or "I wish we could do that!" Members of two-mom families, who understand the work and luck it takes to get pregnant as lesbians, and who have experienced some of the pitfalls and struggles of building our families, know it might not be all that rosy. But in general, I tend to agree with the positive assessment of surprised straight parents who sometimes seem to think we've invented something new and amazing by structuring our family this way. It is great. We got a deeper level understanding and empathy for each other by both experiencing both paths to motherhood. Residual tension around the donor's place in our family, that we hadn't even known we still had, has fallen away not least because he no longer poses as much of a threat (albeit hypothetical) to our family structure. Instead of moving onto parenting our second child with the previous relatively comfortable roles we'd developed, we were forced to question some of our assumptions and find some new ways to interact as a family. Parenting Ira has made me appreciate even more what I built with Leigh, and I'm loving watching Gail and Ira form a similar bond. I think Gail has experienced a similar shift, all for the good.

But among all the good, there's one thing I'm finding somewhat difficult about this arrangement. This isn't all about looks, but I'll start there. Our donor, bless him, seems to have a peculiar genetic quality of producing "mini-me's." If anyone were to look at our family portrait (that is, if you could get all four of us into a photo at one time), there would be absolutely no guesswork involved in figuring out who was genetically linked. Ira has my coloring to a T. Comparing pics of him as a baby to me as a baby, the resemblance is undeniable. Leigh looks like a mini-Gail, to every detail except her dimples (which I like to claim credit for…). But the similarities don't seem to stop at looks. From all the stories I've heard from my in-laws, Leigh is much like Gail as a child, extremely talkative and curious, thrilled to connect with people but a little shy around new ones, deeply compelled by stories of all sorts, intent on figuring out how people interact and why they do what they do. There are differences, and she certainly also has many of my speech patterns and mannerisms, but still, it's hard to deny the similarities. Now that Ira is getting older, we see pieces of my personality in him. He's a little more sensitive, and focuses intently on his little baby "projects," patiently trying to figure out how his sister's scooter works, or diligently and persistently undoing our various childproofing efforts.

But the thing I wonder about is how much of this is that we're perceiving our kids with too much of a framework of genetic determinism, particularly since the only genetic piece we see is our own contribution, and the donor is still anyone's guess. We've both birthed one of our kids, so I think we may end up missing the lesson that straight families learn easily, that kids are different, even with identical genetic contributions. I should know this. My sisters and I, all of us with the same genetic make-up, are different as night and day. We look around our neighborhood kids and see this, too, but it's a lesson we're not primed to learn in our own family, in it's current structure. During the fleeting moments when I wish for another child, it is this lesson that I'd love to learn. In the meantime, I'm looking for ways to remember more often that our kids are not us. They really are their "own people" -- as we frequently remind Leigh when she tries to treat Ira like an overgrown doll.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Old pain and new paths

As Gail mentioned, we went to a workshop on talking to kids about donor conception last weekend. It was organized by the Massachusetts RESOLVE chapter and was very well done. I highly recommend checking out such a workshop if it is available in your area, and for those in MA, this is a repeating event.

At one point in the workshop discussion, a mother of twins via gestational surrogacy and donor eggs talked about how when her children were babies, she knew she would need to talk to them about their conception, but her constant worry and rumination about how to do so started to take over her entire relationship with them. She couldn't stop thinking about their conception and birth, about how to help them understand it, and because she was so preoccupied, there was no room for her to parent them freely, even though they were too small to understand anything she might have said. She decided she needed to focus first on her own relationship with them, and developing a secure attachment with them. It turned out that a couple years down the line she was coming from a more secure place, and when they were at the ripe old age of two or three, she was better able to talk to them about how they came to be.

Her story struck me in particular because parts of it sounded familiar to my own experience during Leigh's infancy.

Just after Leigh's birth, I was actually doing well. I was getting to know my baby, finding my footing as a new mother. I particularly relished the time that I had alone with her, caring for her during the day, and the satisfaction and security that came from social validation of my role in her life. Gail and I were learning to parent together, and starting to have a sense of the kind of parents we were and the kind of family we were building. My worries about my place in our family as a non-bio-mom were quickly falling away.

But then, when Leigh was seven months old, that fledgling security was shaken to the core. We found out that at least two people knew our donor number and that one of those people was pregnant by the same donor. A door was opened to information that we thought we had kept securely private, and suddenly we had information about Leigh's genetic relationships that we hadn't wanted to know, and hadn't sought out. For another family, or another NGP, this might not have been a big deal. But for me, at that particular time, it was devastating.

When I look back, I see how I was so desperately in love with Leigh, but deep down, still had a fear that she wasn't really mine. I craved any and all possible connection with her, any kind of validation of her place in my life or mine in hers. Now, suddenly I was forced to acknowledge that there were other people out there in the world and even within my own social circle who were arguably more strongly connected to Leigh than I was.

I was absolutely gutted. That night I clung to my baby and sobbed.

What sounded familiar to me in the mom's story at the workshop was her description of knowing she was "supposed" to be doing something that it turned out she couldn't do, and that trying was hurting her relationship with her kids. After that disclosure when Leigh was a baby, I felt so many complicated things. One was was that I was being watched, that suddenly our entire community knew something about us, and about our daughter, and now they were going to watch how Gail and I handled it and pass judgment. I knew we were "supposed" to be open, and I felt there was an expectation out there that we were "supposed" to be connecting with donor siblings. I imagined that suddenly the protective bubble we'd built around our family both to protect our kids information, and to give me in particular space to nurture a relationship with our daughter, was being judged by "everyone" as wrong and backwards, that we were ruining our daughter by being too defensive. I felt that no matter what we chose to do with this information, we were doing it wrong and everyone knew, where mere days before we had been a happy and healthy family.

I got good advice at the time to set aside thoughts about the donor, siblings, or a possible pregnancy (one of my many reactions to the information was to want to have our second baby, via the same donor, ASAP) and to instead focus on my relationship with Leigh. If I could come from a place of strength, then it would become clear later on how to proceed. Even if people were watching, it was our family that mattered anyway.

I did just that, and my relationship with Leigh flourished. On about the same timescale as the woman who spoke at the workshop, things got better. Now, three years and another baby later, though I still remember vividly how I felt then, it is from a distance, and a place of security. We are in a much different place.

Before Ira was born, we wrote about a shift in how we thought and spoke about our donor within our family, towards more openness and frank discussion about his existence, and hopefully a real acknowledgment of that connection between our kids. Even that was a change, but now that Ira has been here for nearly eleven months, things have shifted again. The presence of donor siblings that once felt so threatening, now feels like an opening, and maybe even a resource. We're not sure where this is going, but the iron clad lock down that started when Leigh was 7 months old is lifting. We don't know how much we'll share here, but I do know that now that the possibility of connecting with people who have a genetic link to our kids is a choice that we can make ourselves, from a place of security and strength, it doesn't seem so scary. I don't feel those eyes on us anymore. I just see my wife, and our kids, and a new path opening before us.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Donor Conception

If you have even a passing acquaintance with our family, you know that we didn't acquire our children through the "traditional" method. Two women simply can't combine their genetic material to make a baby. Both of our children were conceived through the use of frozen donor sperm. It was our first choice for how we wanted to start a family, and we feel very blessed that it worked out so well.

When we were first starting a family, many of the issues I saw in the use of donor sperm had to do with protecting the structure of our family, and, in particular, the status of the non-bio-mom and relationship between the non-bio-mom and her child, both legally and socially. But by now, Lyn and I have gotten used to our roles as mothers and we've each worked through a lot of personal issues around forming a family with two moms. I'm no longer worried about protecting us as mothers, and as I result I have begun to see a whole separate set of issues with donor conception much more clearly -- the issues that our kids will face as people who were donor-conceived. How will they interpret their identity? How will they define their family? How will they understand and navigate their genetic and family relationships?

A couple of months ago, Lyn and I realized we needed to do more work to figure out how to talk about donor conception issues with our kids. But we quickly realized that we were framing the issue in the wrong way. Our kids' conception isn't something to be figured out -- it's an already-established fact. We don't need to "figure out" how to help them deal with it, thinking and agonizing over exactly what words to use at what time, in hopes of "doing it right." Instead, we need to deal with it ourselves, so that we can get over our own stuff, and really learn how to be good parents and good supporters for our kids, who are different from us in a fundamental way.

We have dealt with lots of our own challenges around being a two mom family, but I think we still have plenty left to work out around donor conception -- fear of our kids' reactions as they get older, discomfort with having strangers be a part of our extended family, grief over not being able to combine our genetic materials to have a child, and guilt over any difficulties our choices might cause for our kids. We can't let "helping our kids" handle "their" issues become a substitute for dealing with our own. We have to be able to get to a place of such security that we can honestly convey (with conviction!) to our kids that they do not need to protect us from the reality of their lives.

So we've embarked on a journey. We went to a workshop on talking to children about donor conception. We've taken a peek at the DSR. We're talking more with Leigh about her conception. We're hoping to talk to some young people or adults who were donor conceived to learn more about their lives (if we have any such readers, we'd love to hear from you). We'll keep you posted.