Heritable Traits

Heritable Traits



“Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion.” 


There’s a wicker chair in the corner of the dentist’s treatment room. It’s the parent’s chair. I sat there while my five-and-a-half-year old daughter, Saskia, lay back on the magical chaise. First, she pushed the button to recline it, per Dr.’s instructions and then she was stretched out long with her mouth wide open. The dentist and his assistant labored to pull decay and infection and whatever else from inside her tiny tooth and medicate it and save it. “Saskia should keep this tooth till she’s eleven,” he explained. “We need those teeth to stay there in place to help her entire mouth grow correctly.” That’s how a baby tooth gets a root canal, in case anyone was wondering. “The good news is that I think we can save it.”

“That’s great,” I offered. I wanted rather desperately not to be in the room. More than that, though, I wanted to be in the room and appear calm, so she’d stay calm. Amazingly, she was wholly compliant and funny and signaled when it hurt.

I sat there and felt guilty about the bottles of milk Saskia still drinks at night before she brushes her teeth (almost every night) and about the fact that she refuses most healthy food and has a wicked sweet tooth. Saskia’s our fourth child. Battles we fought hard—two chocolate chips counts as a treat—are long behind us. So often with her, it seemed that getting through the day mattered more than exactly what she ate. Overall, she is healthy, engaged, smart, and strong. I watched her do a chin-up at gymnastics just last weekend, thanks to her summer of daily monkey bar practice.

Whether Saskia’s weak teeth are inherited, I have no idea. This was the second emergent visit to the dentist in as many months. It sounded as if her teeth weren’t very strong, and so when a cavity hit, the stress was greater than it would be on a more constitutionally robust tooth. I never asked her birth mother about her teeth. Her teeth—and her birth mother’s sister’s—look really great, though. We never met her birth father, so I can’t vouch for his.

Adoption, from the start, took any sense of control away. Her birth mom smokes cigarettes. She smoked during the pregnancy (less than usual; she tried to smoke as few as possible, and felt guilty about the ones she smoked). Obviously, the smoking bothered me; I knew it was less than ideal behavior and I knew I wouldn’t have ever done the same. What I focused on though was her birth mom’s concern over the baby’s well-being. Love trumped smoke, I reasoned.

During my pregnancies, I didn’t feel fully in control, either, between the nausea and vomiting and the aches and pains, the aversions and the few things I could eat for long stretches. One morning at the market, I emptied the contents of my shopping basket onto the checkout conveyor: white grape juice, jellybeans, and a doughnut. It was the only doughnut I ate during any of my pregnancies, and it stayed down. I felt simultaneously disgusted and triumphant. Someone sent me a copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a book that should have a subtitle like “Or How to Feel Like a Failure at Parenting Well Before Your Child Arrives.” All your actions are terrible: caffeine, white flour, white sugar, not sleeping, you name it. When we first met our daughter’s birth mom, she didn’t have any prenatal vitamins. I sent her some. The gesture was just that. I wanted to contribute to my future baby’s health. I wanted to ward off my anxiety. When I worried about behaviors beyond my control, I tried to focus upon my diet of jellybeans and goldfish crackers and the fact that I’d birthed three healthy boys despite what I ate and what I didn’t eat.

Every family has heritable traits, some wonderful, some difficult. There is no way to avoid gene pools’ inconsistencies. The golden American family, the Kennedys have great teeth and alcoholism. The Windsors have homeliness and corgis and fabulous wealth. The wealth seems to be encoded in their genes by now. William did well to marry the beautiful and capable Kate.

“There’s depression in the family,” I declare. I want to bring those shadowy story shards into the open for my teens. As soon as one teen asks whether I was ever depressed, I realize most of the people in the stories I cannot recount anyway are practically strangers to them. Me, I can tell them about much more easily. “My parents weren’t all that happy. Their divorce wasn’t all that easy,” I offer, to speak a hazy enough and honest enough non-blaming truth. As I say this, I fill in details for myself so clear I can’t believe I still remember them this way: the flower print on the suitcase I carried between their houses, the smell of Stouffer’s baked apples, and the dry, nearly-dead plants I’d return to after five days away from my permanent childhood bedroom. “I went into therapy more than once,” I say. “If not for all the help I had throughout my twenties, I don’t think I’d be married to your papa now, or be your mom. It’s good to ask for help. It’s good to let the help actually help you. To get help is a wise thing to do.” I want them to feel supported enough to ask for help if—I assume when, really—they need it.

The work that lies ahead of our children—anyone’s children—isn’t so much about what they’ve been handed; it’s about how they take whatever complicated and contradictory gifts family provides and make peace with them so they move forward.

Or, I’m scared and I’m in over my head and I don’t know how, exactly, I went from miserable to happy—and so, kids, I can’t tell you how to do it. I want to, though.

The dentist told my girl she’s awesome about fifteen times during the course of her appointment. “My boy’s so silly,” he said, while he wielded his instruments. “He wants to be a dinosaur or a hermit crab for Halloween.” Saskia kept her mouth open when he asked her to and in return he said, “You can have three prizes.” She got that, and the promise she could keep her tooth. I felt fortunate—and very relieved.

I’ve had these worries, the ones about what was passed Saskia’s way by people I know and people I don’t—her family members by birth—and I know it’s likely that if I fast-forward another decade, I’ll have them again. Like rings on a tree, these questions about where we came from and what that might mean to us at present, reveal themselves, but not in a linear fashion. There are things that lurk around corners, things that we have to round a corner in order to glimpse.

In this way, I realize that the children I gave birth to and the one I didn’t share something I couldn’t have named before they came to me: they aren’t entirely “ours” or at least aren’t at all within some control we imagine when we envision childbirth or sleep schedules or systems to keep them neat and polite and earnest and well. It really is more like Sweet Honey in the Rock sings: “Your children are not your children… they pass through you, but they are not of you.” Or from you, they aren’t within your grasp, even though you hold so tightly and even though as you let go you still want to cling sometimes. You cannot.

I had to take a deep breath before I stood up from the parent’s chair. I followed Saskia, my intrepid girl, so she could pick out her treasures. Then, I took my own advice and I let go of why and how and who caused what and hugged her. “You are amazing,” I said. “You are so brave and so cooperative. Good job!” And I took her home.

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Photo credit: forestfoundation.org