Reviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman
Where do I come from? Who am I? These are some of the most fundamental questions humans ask themselves. In many cases, the answers have to do with family. But, what, then exactly is a family?
Joshua Gamson tackles these complicated issues in Modern Families, a book about contemporary tales of family creation including adoption, in vitro, surrogacy, and more. Gamson is a sociologist who has previously written books on fame, tabloid talk shows, and sexuality, but this book is far more personal. This is also the story of the creation of his family.
Unlike Mitchell and Cameron on “Modern Family,” the ABC sitcom that inspired the name of the book, Gamson and his husband don’t go through international adoption (though other couples in Modern Families use both domestic and international adoption to create their own modern families). His first daughter, Reba, was conceived using the egg of a friend and the uterus of another friend, what is known as “collaborative reproduction.” His second daughter, Madeleine, was carried by a paid surrogate who liked to refer to herself as a “fetus sitter.” It’s no wonder then that when describing Modern Families Gamson explains, “More broadly, you might read it as an intimate view of the much-remarked-on transformation of family structures, as seen through the experiences of people who have been, out of necessity as much as anything else, making their families up.”
Gamson successfully weaves together the personal and the academic throughout the book. He takes personal stories and situates them in more complicated institutions and social structures. In the Introduction (titled “Impertinent Questions” about the probing questions strangers sometimes ask about how their daughters were “got”) he usefully describes the book as the “love child” of two different types of writing on reproduction.
The first type of writing is what he calls Repro Lit. These personal stories, usually memoirs, double as how-to books and are ultimately celebratory about the process—think Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy. Repro Crit on the other hand is more of a buzzkill focusing mainly on institutional structures and the circulation of power within them and how this literally reproduces inequality. Though less well known, a book by the name of Outsourcing the Womb, suggests the tone of this category.
Like Repro Crit Gamson points out forces of inequality throughout (mainly to do with financial issues, but also sometimes social class and cultural knowledge that impacts legal processes), but the narratives are often emotional and triumphant, with some how-to advice thrown in. Gamson details the legal workarounds they used with their surrogates in Kentucky and Massachusetts, and one of the best lines in the book is when he writes that Kentucky had out-liberaled California (where Gamson and his husband live) when they listed “parent” and “parent” on their daughter Madeline’s birth certificate, and not “mother” and “father” like California.
In the end it is the stories we are left with, mainly because there is a little serious research on families like Gamson’s, partly because they are so new. The various stories of family creation told in Modern Families—the struggles and the successes—are quite moving. On multiple occasions while reading I was moved to tears, usually tears of joy. One caution is that while this is a book you can dip into and out of, it can be hard at times to keep all the families and the people who make them up straight (no pun intended) given the multiple families featured.
A lasting theme of Modern Families is: “How extraordinary you are, and yet how ordinary.” While the families profiled here were brought together thanks to various types of technology, often in extraordinary ways, in the end the children and their parents are ordinary. Gamson insightfully writes, “It’s one of the things these family origin stories share with more typical ones: every family story has silences and secrets. More to the point, the farther away you get from the conventional, the less you can fit your story into a familiar script of family creation and the more you’re likely to face disapproval. For those of us who grew up in a culture of disclosure—in which, for instance, coming out is an act of empowerment and Facebook is a verb—becoming parents has posed the jarring challenge of figuring out what not to tell.”
As the extraordinary, yet ordinary, children whose creation stories are relayed here age, they will have the lasting evidence of just how much they were wanted, just how much their parents were willing to tell on social media and beyond to create their own modern families.
Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She loves all modern families, including her own.