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Becoming Family

Illustration by Tom Peake

Jennifer Berney | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,486 words)

 
“He’s really cute,” my partner Kellie whispered to me, moments after our first son arrived. He had a head of black hair and a pug nose. His eyes were alarmingly bright. Kellie rested one hand on the top of his head as he lay across my chest. “So cute,” she said.

Her declaration meant something to me. Because the baby wasn’t of her body, because he was of my egg and my womb and a donor’s sperm, I’d been haunted by the worry that she’d struggle to claim him as hers — that he’d seem to her like a foreign entity, like someone else’s newborn, red-faced and squirming.

Hours later, in the middle of the night, a nurse came into our room, tapped Kellie on the shoulder, and asked her to bring our newborn to the lab for a routine test. Kellie cradled the baby as the nurse poked his heel with a needle and squeezed drops of his blood onto a test card. Our baby, who was still nameless, wailed and shook. In that moment, she tells me, she was overwhelmed by biology, by the physical need to protect a tiny life.

* * *

In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle proposed a theory of reproduction that would persist for thousands of years. It’s a theory that, while scientifically inaccurate, still informs our cultural thinking about parenthood.

According to Aristotle, the man, via intercourse, planted his seed in the woman’s womb. The woman’s menstrual blood nourished that seed and allowed it to grow. She provided the habitat, he supplied the content. The resulting child was the product of the father, nourished by the mother.

When it came to parenthood, the woman’s essential role was to nurture what the man had planted within her. To father was simply to provide the material — a momentary job. Fathering was ejaculating. But mothering was nurturing. This job was ongoing, never-ending. Her care began at the moment of conception and continued into adulthood and beyond.

* * *

When Kellie and I came home from the hospital with our newborn, our house felt strangely quiet and bare. In the days preceding delivery, Kellie had cleaned and organized as a way of getting ready for the baby, and our house was now unusually tidy. We sat on the couch with our sleeping baby and admired him. We smoothed his hair so that it crested at the center of his forehead, Napoleon style, then we smoothed it to the side. We said his name — West — over and over, trying to teach ourselves the word for this new being. Every so often he twitched. I had the sense that our world was about to transform, that the quiet of the first newborn days was temporary.

In the days that followed, I roamed the house in mismatched pajamas and snacked on casseroles that friends had brought over. I nursed the baby and rocked the baby and watched the baby while he slept. Meanwhile, Kellie, wearing her daily uniform of work pants and a worn-out T-shirt, built walls around our back porch to create a mudroom for our house. In the months leading up to our baby’s birth, we’d agreed that our dogs would need such a room, a place set away from a baby who would one day be crawling and drooling and grabbing, and so we called Jesse — a carpenter acquaintance whom we had once, long ago, asked to be our donor, and who had considered it for two months before turning us down. He wasn’t game to donate sperm, but he was game to bang out some walls. All day, I heard Kellie and Jesse’s hammering and muffled conversation.

In this way we entered parenthood. I was the full-time nurser and the guardian of sleep; Kellie was the builder, the house-maintainer. At night, the baby slept between us.

* * *

The idea that paternity is primarily a genetic contribution, that a father’s role is simply to provide the seed, is a very stubborn one. An absent father is still considered a father. When we use father as a verb, we usually mean the physical act of conception, while to mother more often describes the act of tending to. When a father takes on some of the active parenting, when he drives the kids to school or makes them breakfast, we often refer to these acts as “helping,” as if he were doing tasks assigned to someone else. “He’s a good father,” I’ve heard people say, bemoaning a wife’s lack of gratitude. “He helps.”

“Who’s the dad?” is a question friends of friends ask at parties when they learn that my children have two mothers. It’s a question that distant relatives ask, eager for the inside scoop.

The idea that my son doesn’t have a dad, that it is indeed possible to not have a father, is a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around. They may understand the process of donor insemination, but still, they think, because conception requires sperm, every child must have a father. Even for me, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. When I say that my child has no father, I feel like I’m not telling the whole truth.

“Why doesn’t West have a father?” a wide-eyed boy asked me one day as he sat at a classroom table with West and three other first graders. I was helping them make illustrated pages, and somehow the topic of our family had come up. West looked at me anxiously.

“He has two moms,” I told the boy.

“But why?” he insisted.

Of the kids I knew in West’s class, one was being raised by grandparents and several more had stepparents or were being raised by a single mom. But I could see that our situation was the most confounding.

“That’s just the way our family works,” I said before rattling the crayon box and offering it around the table. The curious boy did not look satisfied, and West remained steady and silent.

* * *

* Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

By the time our donor, Daniel*, met our baby, he and his wife Rebecca had a baby of their own and had resettled on the other side of the state. We met them at a pizza place on a weekday afternoon. It was spring in the Pacific Northwest and the sun glared on fresh puddles. They had come to town to visit family and meet with longtime friends who wanted to meet their new child. At the time, our relationships with one another were still undefined, and we counted more as friends than family.

I remember that meeting in fragments, like bits of color held up to the light: Trays of half-eaten pizza. Plastic cups filled with ice water. Rebecca holding her newborn, Wren, against her, a burp cloth draped over her shoulder. Wren’s bare baby feet and the creases in his chubby ankles. My own baby, old enough to crane his head, looking around with wide eyes and a two-tooth smile. All of us in constant motion — standing to rock the baby, sitting to feed the baby, slipping into the bathroom to change the baby’s wet diaper. We passed our babies from one parent to the other, then across the table. We lifted the babies, assessing their heft, then tried to meet their eyes so that we could bombard them with smiles.

I remember it this way: We were neither distant nor close, neither awkward nor easy. We’d all been remade by parenthood, and it was like we were meeting for the first time.

I had wondered before our meeting if West, at 6 months old, would connect to Daniel especially, if there really was some magic carried in their shared DNA, if our son would recognize him, cling to him, fall asleep against his chest. But he didn’t. West greeted Daniel with joyful curiosity, the same way he greeted any stranger, and then returned to my arms to nurse.

* * *

Several months later, Kellie and I drove six hours across the state — baby tucked in his infant car seat in the back — to meet Daniel and Rebecca again, in their new home.

The fog of new parenthood had lifted, and this time, the ease between us was instant. Rebecca and I each claimed a spot at her kitchen table, sat with coffee, and watched as our children chewed on toys and pulled themselves across the wood floors. Conversation between us was continuous. We found a rhythm of interrupting one thought with another, then picking up where we left off, all the while tending to our babies as needed — rising to lift and nurse them, to change a diaper on the floor, to pull a board book from a mouth. Time with Rebecca was a respite from the solitude and repetition of early motherhood, a dose of medicine I needed.

So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.

Kellie and Daniel found their places just as easily. They spent their time rewiring Daniel’s carpentry studio, or salvaging beams from a nearby teardown, or driving to the forest to cut up fallen trees for firewood. Each of them, I imagine, had experienced their own kind of solitude as they watched their partners devote themselves fully to another human, and they both, I imagine, felt relief in working side by side.

We became parallel, symbiotic. Two families on either side of the Cascade Mountains. Sometimes they traveled to us; other times we traveled to them. Our boys knew and remembered each other. They splashed each other in a steel trough in Daniel and Rebecca’s backyard, climbed trees that had grown sideways over the shore of Puget Sound, built forts together out of cardboard in our kitchen.

The beauty of our new extended family had little to do with anything we had asked for or planned. Two years earlier, a friend had suggested that Kellie and I ask Daniel to consider being our donor. We had met him only a handful of times, but we knew that we liked him. He was strong but soft-spoken, handsome but unassuming. We were nervous to ask him. We’d explored the prospect with several men already — with Jesse the carpenter, with a coworker, with other peripheral friends — but two ghosted, one said no, and another seemed to think that the resulting child would be his own. Daniel turned out to be different. When he and Rebecca showed up at our house to discuss the possibility, it seemed he was already clear. “What kind of involvement would you want?” he asked us. We had agreed only to stay in some kind of touch over the years, to not become strangers to one another.

And yet we wound up with something I’d never had and never would’ve thought to plan for. I grew up with cousins, but none my age. They were five years older, or 12 years older, or three years younger, or 20 years younger. They were also scattered far and wide across the country. My brother was seven years younger than me, and my half-siblings were so much older that they were almost like aunts and an uncle. So I found something deeply healing in having an extended family that was at once chosen, but also truly family, tied by blood.

Or was it even blood that tied us? In theory, we wanted to know Daniel forever because questions might arise about the DNA he’d shared with us. We might someday need to ask him about some rare disease or mental illness, to probe beyond the brief set of questions we’d asked over dinner that first night we talked. And then there was the way we’d been trained to see blood as a legitimizing factor, trained to understand that blood equals family. Like many queer families, Kellie and I, while challenging this notion, unconsciously embraced it. Daniel was blood-tied to our children and therefore he was kin.

But, even more than blood, it was fate that tied us. It was like that film cliché where one stranger saves another’s life and they are therefore bound to each other forever. Rebecca and Daniel had agreed to help us build a family, and their choice had a moral weight. Gratitude would forever bind me to them. The love that I felt for West contained a love for them. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

So it made sense to me when, four years after we’d first shared a meal and talked about becoming family, three years after our sons were born, Rebecca called us to ask if we’d considered having another baby. We had.

“Do you guys want to get pregnant again?” Rebecca asked me that day on the phone. “Because, you know, we are.”


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We went to visit them two weeks later and stayed in a motel two miles away. On our first morning, Kellie woke up before me and left in search of coffee. She came back with two paper cups filled with coffee, and also a small mason jar that held a quarter inch of semen. Later she showed me the text that Rebecca had sent: “Good morning! Donation is ready. Cum on over.”

Rebecca delivered a second son, Ryan, in November. I delivered a second son, Cedar, in January.

* * *

I am a gestational and biological parent. Kellie is an adoptive parent. We come to our roles differently.

That I gestated and breastfed my sons carries immediate, clear meaning for me. When they were babies, my smell, my voice, my touch meant sustenance. Kellie held them and bathed them and changed them, but she did not offer milk. In the middle of the night, it was my body they reached for. My role as gestational parent had immediate consequence: for the first three years, my children’s need for me was more urgent, more connected to their survival.

The other difference, the difference of biology, is far less clear. What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?

In the 10 years that Kellie and I have raised children together, I’ve avoided asking her how she feels about being the adoptive parent. I’ve avoided it because I was afraid — afraid that she would confide that our children never fully felt like her own. I’ve been worried she might say that they felt more like small people she lived with and cared about, but that if our own relationship ended she wouldn’t know exactly where they fit.

In my own community of lesbians, there’s a legacy of loosely defined second parents. I know a number of women who conceived in the ’80s (back when artificial insemination was just beginning to be available to lesbians) and planned to be single parents. But then, during pregnancy or early in the child’s life, a partner entered the picture, stayed for a year or two, then left. The partner had no legal claim to the child, but in many cases continued to parent from a distance. I’ve spoken to some of their children — grown now — who have trouble defining their role with a single term. “She’s certainly my other parent,” one of them told me over beers, then went on to explain that the word Mom doesn’t feel right when her gestational mom “did every load of laundry, packed every lunch, and cooked every meal.”

“We had no blueprint,” she told me. “She was kind of like a weekend dad.”

Though Kellie is much more than a weekend dad, I’ve long worried about the ways in which her role as other-mother remain ambiguous and undefined.

“I feel like they’re mine” is the first thing Kellie told me when I finally summoned the nerve to ask her. But sometimes she worries that if I died, the world would not recognize her as a parent, and that our own kids might reject her. She feels secure in her own attachment, but the role the world assigns her is a tenuous one.

What does it mean to my family that Kellie shares no DNA with our children? Does it mean next to nothing? Or does it mean more than I want to admit?

In her book Recreating Motherhood, Barbara Katz Rothman writes that the value our society places on genetic relationships is inherently patriarchal, tied to our initial false belief — based in Aristotle’s “flowerpot theory” — that men were the sole genetic contributors. Because the child was of the man, he belonged to the man. Once we recognized that mothers contribute half of the genetic material, we began to see mother and father as having equal claim to their child. Rothman asserts that this is still an inherently patriarchal position, one in which blood ties indicate a kind of ownership, and one in which the work of nurturance is not accounted for.

In our own contemporary culture, we may sometimes act as though we value nurture over nature. These days I see the truism “love is love” everywhere I turn — on signs, in social media, spoken aloud by celebrities and friends. The statement suggests that love alone is the element that legitimizes a couple or a family. Still, we track our ancestry and meet new genetic relatives — strangers whom we’ve been told are family — through services like 23andMe, and we marvel at the overlapping traits and mannerisms of close relatives raised apart from one another.

We’ve learned to be careful, when speaking of adoptees, to use terms like “birth mother” instead of “real mother,” acknowledging that genes and gestation are not the only thing that make a parent real. And yet, when someone does say “real mother,” we know exactly what they mean.

“Kellie’s not your real mom,” a neighborhood kid once told Cedar, who stood there agape because he had not yet thought to wonder too hard about his origins. At the time, he already understood that his family was different. When other people asked about his father, he had learned to explain, “I have two moms.” But as far as I could tell, this was the first moment someone had invited him to wonder about the actual legitimacy of his family — its realness.

* * *

Rebecca and I are tied by blood tangentially, but not directly. Our children are blood-related. She and I are not. Still, she feels more like family than many of my actual blood relations. Rebecca’s sister and nieces feel like family too, though they are not tied to my family by heredity. We live in the same community, so when Rebecca and Daniel come to town we have large family get-togethers: picnics at parks and birthday celebrations at restaurants. Sometimes Rebecca’s mom joins us too. When we meet she always hugs me and says my first name sweetly. She knows about what ties us, and so she feels tied to me too.

Meanwhile, Daniel’s family of origin is a mystery to me, for reasons of geographical distance and family culture. I see pictures of his relatives on Facebook and have to remind myself that his kin are also my children’s blood kin. My children’s faces may grow to bear resemblance to the faces I see in these photos: the long jawline, the aquiline nose. Or, pieces of these relatives’ histories may give clues to my own children’s futures — special talents and obsessions, illnesses and struggles. Even when I remind myself of this, it feels distant, hard to reach.

Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?

Kin: Your mother who birthed and nursed you, your father who bore witness to your childhood. Your grandmother who let you sleep beside her in the bed when you came to visit. Your aunt who drove you to her home for long weekends, where you lay alongside her golden retriever and looked at the forest through her windows.

Kin: The grandfather you never met who was a ne’er-do-well, whose legacy is a stack of letters and a rainbow painted on a barn. The uncle who joked around with you in childhood, but became distant as you got older. Your second cousin who discovered you online and now sends you a Christmas card every year.

Kin: Your brother who you speak to only a few times a year, but who you carry in your heart. Your aunt by marriage (then lost through divorce) who delighted you with her easy brand of sarcasm.

Kin: The cousins you’ve only met once or twice in a lifetime. When you see photos of them, some of them look like people you might easily know. Others look like strangers, like someone you might pass in a grocery store and immediately forget.

* * *

Kellie told me once that she hesitates when telling our kids about her family’s history. It’s not quite clear to her: Is her history their history, or is it something else? Long before she spoke this aloud to me the same question hung in my mind. Does her history matter to our kids because it’s their mother’s history, or because it is, somehow, their own?

When I look at my own ancestral family photos, I seek clues to who I am, traces of a self that predate me. Are these connections real, I wonder, or are they lore? Why does ancestral connection hold a sense of magic? Why do I look so hard to find my reflection in blood kin, as if seeing myself in my ancestors will somehow legitimize me?

And yet it turns out that some of my ancestors are not related to me genetically any more than Kellie is genetically related to our sons. Over the course of generations, our genetic ties to individual ancestors dissolve. Geneticist Graham Coop writes that if you trace your genetic heritage, after seven generations “many of your ancestors make no major genetic contribution to you.” In other words, your cells carry no trace of their DNA. They are no longer your genetic relatives, and yet they are still, of course, your ancestors. “Genetics is not genealogy,” he writes.

What if, more than heredity, families are really a collection of stories, some of them spoken, some of them withheld? Kellie’s ancestors were pioneers. My boys spent the first years of their lives in a house that her grandfather and great-grandfather built together. Kellie spends most of her free time splitting wood, building fences and sheds, capturing bee swarms. Cedar can now spot a swarm from a great distance. West is learning to measure wood and use a chop saw. They may one day raise their own families on the same land they grew up on. They may add new walls, new buildings, new fixtures. They do not require Kellie’s genes to carry on her legacy.

* * *

Four years after West was born, he asked me where he came from. It was a bright summer day and his brother — a baby then — was on a walk with Kellie, strapped against her chest. We were staying at a ranch in Colorado and the land was expansive: trails that went over bare hills and into forests, rocks and brush under wide blue sky. That afternoon West and I were inside our dark cabin, with light streaming through the windows and making patches on the floor.

I asked if he wanted to know who his donor was. “Do you want to guess?” I asked him. I was curious to see if he already had a sense.

“JoAnn?” he said, referring to a close family friend.

“The person who helped us is a man,” I said.

“Oh right,” he said. He thought and guessed some more, until I finally told him.

“It’s Daniel,” I said. “Wren’s dad.”

I watched him closely to see how he’d respond, but I detected neither joy nor surprise nor disappointment.

“Did Daniel help make Cedar too?”

“Yes,” I said.

He smiled. It didn’t surprise me that this was the thing that mattered to him — that he and his brother had the same origin story, that he wasn’t alone in the world.

* * *

We tend to understand our DNA as a simple blueprint for who we are and what we might become. We see experience as the tool that can push a person toward or away from their full potential, yet we see the potential itself as innate and fixed.

But in truth DNA and experience interact with each other. The field of epigenetics tells us that genes are turned on and off by experience, that the food we consume, the air we breathe, and how we are nurtured help determine which genes are expressed and which ones are repressed. Our DNA coding isn’t static. For instance, drinking green tea may help regulate the genes that suppress tumors. A sudden loss may trigger depression. And the amount of nurturing and physical contact a child receives in the early years may help determine whether or not he’ll suffer from anxiety as an adult. Currently researchers are investigating to what degree trauma in one person’s experience can cause a change in DNA that is transmitted from one generation to the next. Experience might become a legacy carried in blood.

Frances Champagne, a psychologist and genetic researcher, writes that “tactile interaction,” physical contact between parent and child, “is so important for the developing brain.” Her research shows that “the quality of the early-life environment can change the activity of genes.”

When Kellie held our newborn sons against her chest, when she bounced them and rocked them until they slept, she was not simply soothing them in the moment. She was helping program their DNA, contributing to their genetic legacy. Parents, through the way they nurture, contribute to the child’s nature. There is no clear line between the two.

* * *

In her memoir on adoption, Nicole Chung discusses the concept of family lineage and writes that she has been “grafted” onto her adoptive parents’ family tree. The graft strikes me as an apt metaphor. The scion is not of the receiving tree, and yet it is nourished and sustained by the tree. In the process of grafting, the tree is changed. The scion is changed. Through a process called vascular connection, they become one body.

The rootstock does not automatically reject the scion. The human body does not automatically reject an embryo conceived with a donor egg and sperm. A baby is comforted by warm skin, a smell, a heartbeat. A body loves a body. The baby may care that the source is familiar, but not that the DNA matches his own.

When Kellie’s mother visits with us, she often compares our boys to other members of her family. “It’s funny how Cedar’s blonde just like Noah, and wild like him too,” she’ll say, or, “West’s eyes are that same shade of hazel your grandpa’s were.”

I used to think she was forgetting that our children are donor conceived, or maybe just being silly. Now I realize it’s the opposite. Kellie’s mother doesn’t forget. She knows. She’s claiming them: tying her family’s present, past, and future, like stringing lights around the branches of her family tree, affirming that we belong to one another.
 

Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Offing, Tin House, and Brevity. She is currently working on a memoir that examines the patriarchal roots of the fertility industry, and the ways that queer families have both engaged with and avoided it.

* * *

Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Gross