it’s all relatives: a guest post by Polly Pagenhart

Polly Pagenhart lives with her partner and their two kids in
Berkeley, California. She has published in the areas of feminist
pedagogy, queer theory, and popular culture. Her essay “Confessions
of a Lesbian Dad” appeared in the anthology Confessions of the
Other Mother: Nonbiological Lesbian Moms Tell All (ed. Harlyn
Aizley, Beacon 2006). She is the author of the blog LesbianDad, and is
currently at work on a book about parenting at the crossroads of
mother and father.

Your Gamete, Myself
Many of you will have read Peggy Orenstein’s cover piece in this
past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine,
“Your Gamete, Myself.”
For those who didn’t, or who just
now linked to it and balked when you saw that it spans nine pages
online, here’s a synopsis: Orenstein, an astute writer on matters
feminist and maternal, looks at the medical and social evolution of
egg donor conception. She interviews several families (mostly the
mothers therein) who conceived their kids using donor eggs. She
talks to doctors at fertility clinics, and weaves in anecdotal
notes from her own journey to motherhood.* Throughout, she explores
the ethical and emotional ramifications (to parent and child) of
donor egg conception. She muses about how, in ways both like and
unlike sperm donor conception and adoption, donor egg conception
blurs the “bright lines” that ordinary, “biogenetic”
parenthood draws around parents’ “genetic, biological and
social relationships to their children.” Is this a good thing or a
bad thing? I have an answer, though you’ll have to wade through
my own thicket of paragraphs to find out.

Those queer and queer-cognizant readers that do mosey through the
entirety of Orenstein’s piece might find themselves nodding and
murmuring in assent to this or that point, all the while waiting
patiently for the moment when Orenstein would of course consider
how queer family-making sheds a bright light from a fresh angle on
the myriad emotional issues she’s examining. After all, we
couldn’t be bigger boosters of alternative conception, both via
egg- and sperm-donation. “Ah,” these readers might have said to
themselves as they watched paragraph after paragraph slip by,
“the sly dog! Orenstein’s holding her big guns ‘til the last
section of the article!”

And many of these readers will have, like me, scratched their heads
when they arrived at the end of the piece having never seen the
word “lesbian” or “gay” in print. Well I have just one
thing to say to that: lesbianlesbianlesbian!

Okay, maybe I have more than one thing to say.

Been There, Thought About

It’s not that I’m simply on a campaign to see to it that queer
families be duly represented whenever parental issues are taken up
in the mainstream press. If that were my mission – and it’s a
noble one — I’d be at my pro bono blog 24/7, wearing the
fingerprints off the ends of my digits in a never-ending quest for
visibility. Fortunately, organizations like Family Pride and National
Gay and Lesbian Task Force
are on the job. No, there’s
another reason I’m drawing attention to the omission of queer
family-making in this piece: damned if we haven’t already asked
ourselves — and figured out wise answers to — most of the
questions in it. When Ornstein considered egg donor conception, she
had a lot to ask herself:

Would I have felt less authentic as a parent than my
husband, or would my gestational contribution have seemed
equivalent to his genetic one? Would we tell our child? And when?
And how? What about strangers on the street who commented on how
little the baby resembled me? What if someone said the baby did
look like me and I smiled — would I feel dishonest? How would the
experience be different from adoption? What kind of relationship
would the child have with our friend, the donor? Would my husband
feel awkward about pointing out similarities between our child and
himself? What if the child someday turned to me and said,
“You’re not my real mother?” What if I secretly agreed? What
if she wanted to put the date I met our donor on her sixth-grade
[family events] timeline?

I can say with absolute certainty that every non-biological lesbian
parent asks herself most of these questions (minus the ones about
disclosing donor conception to the child, of course). It is
axiomatic that we will face questions – our own, not to mention
others’ – about our maternal authenticity. And while we each
may come to different answers, we’ve been asking the questions as
a feverishly reproducing demographic for quite some time now. More
than twenty years into the “gayby boom,” we’ve begun to
develop not just insight, but conviction about it, based on an
ever-expanding wealth of experience. And a lot of what we’ve
learned has to do with cultivating pride about our openness, and
openness about our pride.

Any family that is, at its biological level, dependent on some kind
of community outside its nuclear unit – be it with the help of an
adoption agency, the help of a fertility clinic, or the generosity
of friends, acquaintances, or strangers as donors – is an open
family, not a closed one. This quite obviously is an area in which
LGBT family folk are immensely practiced. Queer family-making
begins with sharing, and can only happen when we
open ourselves to others. Because of this, we have a hell of a lot
to teach heterosexual family-makers about not just making peace
with that fact, but understanding it for the gift it genuinely is.
In other words: we’ve always depended on the kindness of
strangers, and therein lies the strength of our families,
not their weakness.

Yin, Meet Yang
In a fascinating balance of opposites, our positions are flipped
from those of straight families. We have no choice but to look
outside our couplings for help in becoming parents; to do so is
ordinary, and not a sign of biological mishap. But they find
themselves disheartened (if not devastated) by the need to look
beyond their own bodies to make their families. Ironically,
straight couples using egg or sperm donation to conceive a child
are “right,” socially (as members of the normative majority,
and as people whose legal parenthood of the child remains stable,
due to the institution of heterosexual marriage). But they are
“wrong,” biologically. Queer families that come about with the
use of egg or sperm donation are “wrong,” socially (as members
of the non-normative minority), but as recipients of donor eggs or
sperm, we suffer no especial implication that we’re not
“right” biologically. The counterbalancing of social and
biological power between us is worth prying into if we’re going
to evolve our notions of what makes a family. From quite different
standpoints relative to social and biological correctness, we all
– donor-assisted straight families and queer ones – have a
vested interest in the slogan “Love makes a family.”

Problems with either fertility or virility imply a disruption to
central, naturalized beliefs about “proper,” or “correct,”
or “healthy” femininity and masculinity. Loss of fertility, to
many women, very much feels like the loss of an essential element
of their womaness; likewise it is not lost on men who are infertile
that the word “impotence” stands for the lack of masculine
fertility, or worse, of masculinity; more nakedly, even, a loss of
power. Here again, queer folk have more than a little life
experience. Sexual object choice has always been presumed to be one
of the main descriptors of one’s gender (i.e., part of what
defines normative femaleness is the attraction to males as object
choice, and vice-versa). In our coming of age and our coming out to
themselves and others, all queer folk have had to examine and make
some kind of fresh sense of their femininity and masculinity.

Do Ask; We’ll Tell
What to do, one might ask, with all these intriguing
criss-crossings? Well, if the “one” asking is a heterosexual
feminist writer examining matters of donor-assisted parenthood, I
would suggest that one might ask queer moms and dads about
their parenthoods, many, many, many, of which were
donor-assisted. I would suggest the writer sit herself down and
listen long and hard and be sure to bring a notepad and a copious
supply of sharpened pencils. Likewise if she’s looking at the
related sub-topics of fighting stigma associated with
non-traditional families, and questions regarding whether “to
tell or not to tell” the children about their nontraditional

Perhaps I feel so evangelical because my own views have changed so
much from the time that my beloved and I began to conceive
of having kids, to when we actually conceived them. At
first I, too, cleaved to a narrow, possessive, “poverty
mentality” about my parenthood. Biology was all, I thought. I was
sure that my lack of genetic connection to our kids would leave me
adrift, even more so than the women in Orenstein’s piece who
gestated and gave birth to children from donor eggs. Since of
course not only did I see myself isolated on an ice floe of
biological irrelevance, I was chilled by legal invisibility and
social condemnation to boot. By necessity, my view has had to
expand. And from experience I’ve learned that it’s right to
have done so.

It’s All

From the moment I cut my first umbilical cord, I have known in my
blood that my children are my children because my love makes them
so. Ask them. Okay, ask the one who can talk. She’ll tell you.
And the little one, the one that only grunts and squeaks: look at
the expression he flashes when he sees me. Note his response to my
pinkie finger. It’s manna to him. You don’t have to be
subjected to yet another report of parental abuse to know that the
ability to conceive does not automatically confer the ability to
parent. By the same token, you don’t have to wonder whether
non-birth parents like me will move heaven and earth to help my
kids live the fullest, most love-bedecked lives. (Studies
will tell you that
anyway.) What I have to give my kids is all
nurture, no nature, and I have had to learn to be fine with that.
After all, no matter how anyone landed the kids in their family,
it’s the nurture that takes most of the effort. And, it’s the
one thing you can change.

Would I have confidently projected this sense of belonging years
ago – let’s say, even as recently as four years ago – before
I diapered my first child? Hell, no. But I do now. Without benefit
of the living, loving body of your child in front of you, you can
run all kinds of amok with fears. But after they’ve arrived, look
into their eyes for a moment – dab the tears from them, drink up
the glee in them – and it’s a no-brainer. The fact that the
social and legal system lags long behind us is of some practical
consequence, but it makes my love no never mind.

Matter of fact, if I’ve learned anything else from being
dependent on the kindness of strangers (or, happily, in our case,
friends), it’s been that we are, genuinely, all members of the
same human family. It sounds corny but goddamn it it’s true.
Social and legal systems organize and divide us, as do cultures,
religions, and more. But we are all brothers and sisters, mothers
and fathers to one another under the skin. This is no saccharine
bromide to queer families, it’s the god’s honest truth. And the
sooner the rest of the world catches on to this understanding, the

* The title of Orenstein’s recent memoir is Waiting for
Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility
Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night and One
Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother
. And you thought I was