Author Q & A: Joshua Gamson

We asked our Facebook fans to present questions we could ask Joshua Gamson, author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship. Here are his wonderful responses.

 

1. Since you write about your daughters have you decided at what age you will allow them to read your book?

We’ve talked about that some, since our older daughter (currently 10) wanted to read it right away. The content is adult enough that I think we’ll probably hold off until the kids are teenagers, and even then I suspect I’ll want to read it along with them, so we can discuss and answer any questions along that might come up along the way. That said, they know many of the basic facts of their own creation stories, and other details we will fill in for them in age-appropriate ways when they ask.

 

2. In Modern Families you describe different ways that families procreate (adoption, IVF, surrogacy, etc.). Do you find a lot of judgment in this world (for instance, between the groups or even domestic vs. international adoption)?

I have not observed a whole lot of judgment within the assisted reproduction scene. It sometimes takes a while for straight couples pursuing fertility assistance, and staff of fertility institutes and the like, to make sense of non-heterosexual people in their midst‚ÄĒthe latter are confronting the logistical task of coordinating the various bodies but not the disappointment and sometimes even desperation that many straight people face when they are having trouble conceiving, and those are very different experiences. We’re all on the same roller coaster of trying to conceive a child, though, and that’s a big thing to have in common.

This is not to say that these alternative family-making worlds are devoid of judgments and social ranking. For instance, as I write about in the book, there’s a lot of class-inflected judgment of both egg donors and gestational surrogates by many agencies and also some intended parents: donors with higher education and certain physical characteristics more valued than others, and gestational surrogates stereotyped, as one fertility doctor put it to journalist Liza Mundy, as “not typical donor caliber as far as looks, physical features, or education.”

There’s another not uncommon tension within the adoption world, which I touch upon in another chapter, between people using or advocating open adoption (more common now in domestic adoption) of those using closed adoption (still common in international adoption); that can also involve judgment of others. Still, in the adoption world it appears much more common to find people supporting one another than criticizing each other’s family-making process. Most of the critical judgment, I think, comes from outside of these scenes rather than within them.

 

3. What do you see as the next frontier in reproductive technology?

The technological side isn’t really my field of expertise (though you can peruse research and news at places like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine), but it seems likely that the next big step is in uterus transplants. If this becomes technologically possible (the first live birth after uterus transplantation was in Sweden in 2014, and doctors are working on that in the U.S. now), that would mean that a woman without a functioning uterus might be able to carry and give birth to a baby. This also means that it is not entirely impossible to imagine that a male-bodied person could become pregnant‚ÄĒstill very remote, and medically very complex and elaborate, involving pelvic reconstruction and the creation of a vagina, but at least imaginable. And for transgender women, born with male anatomy and seeking to change that to match their female gender identity, pregnancy would become at least theoretically possible. (Male pregnancy already sometimes happens, when transgender men become pregnant after transitioning to male from the female gender assigned to them at birth.) It sounds very sci-fi, but then so did “test tube babies,” gestational surrogacy, and embryo freezing when they first became technologically possible‚ÄĒand the same sorts of big ethical questions that emerged with each earlier advance in reproductive technology will have to be confronted with new ones.

You’re Beautiful

You’re Beautiful

By Kelly J. Baker

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“You’re beautiful,” my daughter says to a sixty-something waitress with a halo of wild gray curls. The waitress looks tired and worn. The compliment seems to take her by surprise, as if it unsettles her. She pauses, tentatively smiles, and murmurs a hushed “thank you.” When a five year old offers a compliment, you take it, even if it doesn’t resonate. You say, “thank you.” You smile. Maybe, you even offer a compliment back. The child says, “you’re welcome” with bright smile. Sometimes, she just nods and grins mischievously.

My daughter makes these pronouncements of beauty daily: at the grocery store, at her elementary school, in parking lots, in the street, in nature, and at home. She uncovers beauty in birds and squirrels, sunsets and cloudy days, the green grass and the autumn leaves, her toddling brother and smiling babies. Beauty appears everywhere as if waiting for her alone to identify it. She finds people, especially women, beautiful and never hesitates to tell them so. Shape, size, skin color, and age don’t matter. Beauty appears to her as inclusive and expansive.

There’s no stopping these declarations of who, or what, is beautiful. They erupt from her in a clear, singsong voice. Her excitement telegraphs through her inability to stay still. I cannot bring myself to try to contain them. The words emerge when I least expect them. She catches a cashier off guard. She shouts at teenagers walking in our neighborhood. She lovingly tells her grandmother, my mother, how beautiful she is. She compliments her friends, and they shrug off her words in the midst of play.

Many women appear stunned by her pronouncements unsure what do when a now six-year old offers a compliment seemingly out of context. (Is there a context for compliments? If so, my kid refuses to acknowledge it.) Others focus on her “cuteness” to return the favor, as if the compliment must be reciprocated. Some ignore her outright. She doesn’t appear to mind. Once she’s declared someone is beautiful, that beauty exists whether acknowledged or not.

I wonder what my daughter means by beauty. I want to ask her. I stop myself before I can utter the question because I’m afraid the question will change her. If I make her define why someone or something is beautiful, I fear I’ll make her question her visions of beauty. So, I don’t ask. Instead, I try to embrace her lesson of limitless beauty and apply it generously. I want her to keep finding everyone beautiful. I want to find everyone beautiful too.

My daughter also finds beauty in me, usually in the moments when I think I’m anything but. In the mornings before coffee, without my trusty under-eye concealer and the benefit of a hair brush. In the afternoons when my energy and patience are low, she tosses the compliment around haphazardly ignoring whether it landed. In the evenings while she snuggles close, she whispers, “You’re beautiful.” She touches my cheek or holds my hand. I hold her tightly, forcing myself to remember these fleeting moments and her kind words.

No matter how I look, she finds beauty. Glasses or contacts, yoga pants or jeans, make-up or none, I appear beautiful to her. She’s pronounced my beauty, so it exists.

Like the strangers she compliments, I’m often stunned by her words. I find myself at a loss of what to say. Most often I respond with a rushed “thank you,” but in trying moments, I hold back an exasperated “seriously?”‚ÄĒshe finds me beautiful, even though I rarely think of myself in such terms.

Instead, I can enumerate my flaws, and the many features I dislike: my nose, crooked bottom teeth, chubby cheeks, and squishy tummy. I want to say I’m not beautiful, but I would never say this to her. This is my opinion, not hers. What I look like does not define who I am, I remind myself. This is not all of me. Yet, my disquiet with my appearance remains. This is my burden to bear, not hers, so I smile and offer my thanks. My daughter finds me beautiful, so I am.

I revel in her appreciation of beauty without judgment. I look for beauty with her. I point out what I find beautiful. I hope her visions of infinite beauty can make my definitions more expansive and forgiving. I attempt to ignore the cultural pressures that assert beauty is limited rather than limitless. She sees no limits to what can be beautiful. I hope she always does.

After listening to her declarations of beauty for over a year, what I realized is that “you’re beautiful” is more than a compliment. It is also my daughter’s way of saying “I see you.” For her, there are no flaws, just human beings. When she tells me that I’m beautiful as she holds my hand, she’s explaining that she sees me. “You’re beautiful” is “I love you.” These words become her way to articulate that I bring beauty to her life as we encounter the world together. I’m her mother, she’s my child, and beauty is all around us. I’m glad she points to beauty, or I would miss it because of my limits. She sees me, and I see her. She loves me, and I love her. She’s beautiful too.

Kelly J. Baker is writer, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida with her husband and two kids. She can be found online at www.kellyjbaker.com or on Twitter @kelly_j_baker.

The Judgment That Wasn’t

The Judgment That Wasn’t

toddler Abbie

We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them.

 

I cringe a little when I’m with a group of moms and the hot baby topics come up. You know the ones: breast or bottle; home or hospital; disposable or cloth. The decisions that, when we are parenting brand new people, are so vital and consuming. We fret over them. We go to playgroups where all the moms do the same things we do, and discuss them, and defend them, and it all feels so important.

Now, from the distance and experience of many years as a mom, I know these conversations by heart, and I know the defensiveness that comes if I reveal that I had my youngest child at home, or that I breastfed and used cloth diapers for all three of my babies. Immediately, the explanations begin to pour out as moms defend their need for a C-section or an epidural. They explain their inability to breastfeed and I want to shrink into a corner because I hate that our culture has done this to us. I hate that we feel we must defend ourselves so much that we engage in these wars.

My home birth is not a judgment of anyone else’s birthing choices. In fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a home birth advocate at all. I am an advocate for every pregnant woman and her family having access to the best possible medical care and the birthing environment that is safest and most comfortable for her and her baby. I’m not an advocate for breastfeeding as much as I’m in favor of babies being fed. I want all the babies to have their milk delivered to them while they are snug in the arms of someone who knows they are feeding a miracle. As to the diapers, I didn’t choose cloth for any noble reason. I was too poor when my first two children were born to buy disposable diapers, and by the time my youngest was born I was used to it.

We have become a culture that questions every decision a parent makes, from where they are born to whether or not they should be allowed to walk to the park to how involved parents are when their children are at college. We judge each other and we judge celebrity parents and when something goes wrong, we immediately look to the parents to find a place to lay blame. Likewise, when a child gets accepted to a great university or lands a dream job, we congratulate the parents, assuming they must have done well to produce such a successful person.

The problem with all of this is our children are not products and we are not half as powerful as we believe ourselves to be. I wish the whole world could take a collective deep breath about kids, take two steps back, and re-evaluate everything.

Parenting matters. Good parenting is vital to a child’s healthy development. They need to be safe and loved. Every child needs at least one person who thinks he or she is absolutely the best person who has ever happened in the history of people. Babies need full tummies and dry bottoms, and toddlers need someone to patiently teach them to use a toilet. Preschoolers need someone to read them stories and let them help in the kitchen even though they make a mess. Grade schoolers need reassurance that even though they are beginning to move into the world, away from their families, they will return home to the same loving arms that embraced them when they were small and helpless. Teens need to learn so many things, I’m amazed most of them manage to fit it all into the few years they have, and they need parents who will still receive them with those loving arms when the world is overwhelming. Small children need a great deal of care, and older children need a great deal of guidance, and while it’s a big responsibility, there is no single decision that will make or break a child.

When my second child, my daughter Abbie, was three months old, I became very depressed and needed to take anti-depressants. It was 1996 and my psychiatrist and Abbie’s pediatrician insisted I must wean her before I took the medicine. I was devastated at the thought of giving her formula, but I was very sick and I knew my children needed me to be well and happy, so bought some bottles and formula and weaned my daughter.

I made a good decision based on the best information available at the time, but I was terribly ashamed. I was embarrassed to give my baby a bottle in public, as if the way I fed her said something about my character. Of course, in our culture of hyper-awareness and judgment, we assume that how we feed our babies does speak to our character. I beat myself up for years for weaning Abbie so young, even as the girl herself stood before me, shining and healthy.

As my children grew, life got very complicated. I divorced their dad, then remarried and my kids gained a new stepdad and stepbrother. I had their youngest brother who has multiple disabilities, and finally my eldest two children’s dad alienated them from me and robbed us of five years together. By then it was almost too late, but I finally understood that the only thing that truly matters is the relationship. We make choices about thousands of things for our children, and none is as important as seeing them, knowing them, and loving them. Good education is important, and feeding our kids well protects their health, but what they need most is loving parents who are interested in them, curious about them, and willing to be their safety and warmth in an unpredictable world.

I took too long, was too focused for years on doing parenting the “right” way, and beating myself up because I could never meet the false standards I created for myself. I am fortunate to share my life with my children and I wish I’d known sooner that I could set aside the weight of responsibility sometimes and simply be with and know them. I’m glad to know it now.

Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned

Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned

By Asha Jameson

It’s been eight thousand, three hundred, and ninety-five days since my last confession. I have judged my neighbor. Really, I judged moms and dads on how they parent before being in their shoes. And I want to apologize.

I’m so sorry I passed judgment on you, (now my fellow) parents. Before I had a child, I had no idea. I had no idea what you were going through, existing with a new human being in your lives. I had no idea what it meant to be responsible for a tiny living thing. I had no idea that¬†having a baby could throw your expectations 180 degrees from where you thought they’d be.

Hypothetically, I knew life was tough and at times, chaotic. But, what I didn’t understand is that you were spending every minute, every moment, making sure he was ok. I didn’t ‘get’ that you were¬†learning a new human being, and were completely absorbed in understanding him and responding to his needs promptly and effectively. I had no idea how hard it was to simply get through the day! Even as¬†a woman with siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews, I judged you based on my own assumptions about what parenting is, and what kind of parent I knew¬†I¬†would be.

What kind of parent was that, you ask? Well, I didn’t¬†really know. But, for example, I just knew things like… “I would never be one of those parents who had a kid with crusty stuff¬†all over its face.” How hard could it be to keep your baby clean?¬†My¬†kid was always going to be clean and utterly adorable.

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What a load of horse#$%*. Anyone who has attempted to clean pureed carrots out of an active and squirming 9-month-old’s nose when they¬†are rushing to get out of the house to make it to work knows that sometimes, frankly, it just isn’t going to happen. So, again, to all the parents of crusty kids…I’m sorry.

I also¬†knew¬†“I would never¬†be one of those parents who sat in the back seat of the car with the baby while¬†the other parent drove.” No way. That baby was coming along with¬†us.¬†We’re the parents and we sit in front.

Oh really? Well, after a couple car trips filled with blood-curdling screams and the honest belief that she could possibly be¬†dying back there, I changed my mind real quick. So, I apologize for not realizing that when you¬†have a brand new baby, this is not a choice you make‚ÄĒto cater needlessly to your baby and choose them over your spouse. This was¬†not a choice, it was just reality. I get it now. I’m sorry.

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Finally, I was absolutely sure “I would never be one of those mothers who happily left their kid behind and headed back into the workplace with vigor.” Being a mother was going to be the end-all, be-all. And work, though necessary to pay the bills, would pale in comparison to being the loving, impeccable¬†mother I knew I would be.

It took me a long time to realize¬†how grateful I was to go back to work. How the car ride by myself in the morning grounded me. How the solo decision about where to have lunch excited me. How I could finally relax because someone else was in charge of making sure she was ok. And, I’m a better mother because of it.

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So, I apologize. I’m sorry I judged the parents who have walked before me. I will take any penance you want to give me, except for listening to ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ fifty times.

 

Asha Jameson is an attorney who lives in Oakland, CA with her husband and 9-month-old baby girl, Clover. She writes about balancing work and family life for the blog,¬†www.hearsayandhappiness.com, under the pseudonym “Hope.”

Here Comes the Judgment

Here Comes the Judgment

By Eileen Flanagan

Here Comes the Judgment_PhotoA few months ago, I heard author Faulkner Fox present a paper on mothers judging each other. She began with an anecdote about a woman who was giving her child organic strawberry yogurt at the playground when another mother pointed out that strawberry yogurt had a lot of sugar. The stranger explained that she bought strawberry yogurt in tubes, squeezed half the pink yogurt out, and squirted in plain yogurt with a syringe. That way, her child could have the same yogurt package as everyone else without having all the sugar.

Fox used this anecdote to illustrate how mothers compete with each other, how we judge each other, and how we respond to those whose suggestions feel judgmental to us. I appreciated Fox’s point, that mothers should criticize each other less and support each other more. I also agreed with her that we need to find ways to talk about the issues that really matter to mothers and that we should use our playground encounters for constructive things, like community building and consciousness raising.

But the yogurt squeezer story left me conflicted. A part of me sympathized with the syringing mother who was trying so hard to swim against the tide of sugar. I have my own struggles with resisting our culture. I’m always trying to figure out the line between judging our society (which I do, and harshly) and judging other mothers (which I try not to do).

How, for example, can I speak as an environmentalist about my enmity for Lunchables, processed food in disposable plastic, while being sympathetic to the busy parents who buy Lunchables? I don’t judge any parent for wanting convenience, but I do judge the marketers and corporate strategists who put Scooby Doo on the package, knowing that my five-year-old will beg me for it, no matter what kind of junk is inside. I judge the fast food industry that seduces children with little plastic movie characters. I judge the sugar industry that lobbied against the latest health guidelines from the FDA because the guidelines conflicted with the business of selling sugar.

“So don’t buy Lunchables or Happy Meals,” you might say, and that’s basically my approach. But part of me feels it isn’t enough. When powerful corporate forces are setting our children up for a future of diabetes and overflowing landfills with discarded Lunchables packaging, shouldn’t we be working together to oppose them? It’s not just a matter of my individual choice. The choices of parents around me shape the culture my children inhabit and the environment they will inherit. As a mother and an activist, is there a way I can raise consciousness on these issues without coming across as obnoxious and judging?

Part of the problem is that we live in such an individualistic culture that we abhor anyone telling us what to do. Although we may quote the African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” most of us don’t really want a village telling us how to raise our kids. I discovered that for myself when my husband and I considered sending our children to a Waldorf school with strict policies against letting children watch television, wear clothes with Disney characters on them, or eat junk food. While I liked the idea of the school protecting my children from the baser aspects of our culture, I bristled at the idea of someone telling me that I couldn’t use PBS as an occasional crutch. More importantly, I didn’t like the way that many parents I knew at this school seemed to feel shamed into pretending they fit the community.

In traditional societies, villagers are stuck with the values of the village around them, but in a big city like ours parents can seek out like-minded families. Still, it may be impossible to find a community where everyone’s values match perfectly. We ultimately chose for our children a Quaker school where non-violence is taught and war toys are forbidden. But when my son recently went on a play date with a new friend from this Quaker kindergarten, he was given a toy machine gun and allowed to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that I personally wouldn’t have shown to five-year-olds. My surprise must have registered on my face when I came to pick him up and found him enthusiastically shooting the machine gun at the Nazis in the movie.

When the other mother (probably sensing my disapproval) said, “I think boys are just hard-wired to shoot,” I thought of Fox’s talk and wondered, “Now how do I avoid sounding judgmental here?” What I wanted to say was, “I agree that boys are more attracted to aggressive play than girls, but if you let your five-year-old watch violent movies and play with machine guns, what do you expect?” Instead I did what Fox confessed that she often does in awkward situations with other mothers: I said, “Uh huh,” nodded, and hustled my son out the door.

Fox would say, “Uh huh” when she felt judged and didn’t want to sound judgmental back. But what should I say when I don’t like the way another parent has supervised my child? In my situation, “Uh huh” was a copout used to get us out the door on a busy afternoon. It did nothing to build a relationship with the other mother or guarantee a better play date in the future. Being silent may be the safest response in the moment, but it ultimately creates more work for parents who, if they reject the popular culture around them, have to make their own culture from scratch. It is hard work, syringing yogurt and avoiding violent movies. Trying to change the culture around us can be equally challenging.

I recently heard of parents at a local nursery school who, because they didn’t want their child to eat sugar or animal products, wrote a letter to all the other parents, sharing their recipe for cookies made from carob, tofu, and rice syrup in hopes of discouraging the sugar-laden cupcakes that usually appear on birthdays. The response from the community was a resounding “You’ve got to be kidding.” The friend who told me this story‚ÄĒa mother of three who said she didn’t have the extra energy it would take to stock rice syrup in her kitchen‚ÄĒmade a point that stayed with me: “If you are going to take this radical a stand on food, you might as well teach your child now that he is going to be out of the mainstream. The world is not going to change to accommodate him, and you’re doing the kid a disservice to teach him that it will.”

This is, perhaps, the hardest part of resisting the culture as a parent. We want our kids to fit in, even if we don’t fit in ourselves. That, of course, is the real reason the woman at the playground went to the trouble of using a syringe instead of just sending her kid to school with a jar of plain yogurt. She wanted his food to look like everyone else’s on the outside, the way carob looks like chocolate chips until the kids get old enough to tell the difference.

The issue of fitting in only gets more difficult as the children get older. When I picked my eight-year-old daughter up from school the other day, she announced that another girl in her class was teaching her how to dress “cool,” which was apparently going to require me to buy her some new clothes. Feeling my blood pressure rise, I made eye contact with another mother who was standing nearby and said, “I need help.” My friend jumped into the conversation, followed by a third mother, and together we discussed the concept of cool with our three daughters.

“I think everyone has to find her own style,” another mother said, “and it’s not always what’s in the magazines or what someone else thinks is cool.”

“But I’m not wearing my own style,” pointed out my daughter, who has a wardrobe of hand-me-downs. With the other mothers making all my usual points about our consumer culture, I was able to really hear my daughter and realize that she did deserve the chance to pick out at least one new outfit of her own. Because I felt supported by other mothers, I was better able to support her.

Perhaps moral support was what the yogurt mom and the carob cookie parents were really looking for when they shared their quirky food suggestions. If so, I don’t want to judge them too harshly for attempting to articulate their values, even if they did come across as smug and judgmental. We all need support if we want to resist the food, films, and fashion that our culture tries to sell us. What I’ve learned is that I’m more likely to get that support when I ask about the issues head-on‚ÄĒno tips, no recipes, no judgment. Marketers know that it’s not what you say but how you say it. It’s a lesson we could all learn.

Author’s Note:¬†Just for the record, although I don’t buy Lunchables, I do let my children eat way too much sugar, including organic strawberry yogurt squeezers.¬†This essay was inspired by a Literary Mama Mother Talk salon featuring Faulkner Fox, author of Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life.¬†

Eileen Flanagan is the author of¬†The Wisdom to Know the Difference,¬†which¬†was endorsed by the Dalai Lama and won a 2010 Silver Nautilus Book Award. Her forthcoming book¬†Renewable¬†is about the midlife journey that lead her to civil disobedience to protect her children’s future. Visit her at¬†www.eileenflanagan.com.

Brain, Child (Fall 2005)

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