During a recent morning commute, I overheard two teenage girls discussing the ideal age to become a parent. One girl concluded, “Well, if you’re really old when you want a kid, you can just adopt.” “True,” said her friend. Then she added, “And if you’re really ugly, you can just adopt!” Their laughter ricocheted off the walls of the subway car. Running with the theme, the first girl said, “And if you’re really stupid, you can just adopt!”
As an adoptive mother, I could have been offended, but it was hard to resist their artless hilarity. I laughed at their adolescent rendition of Darwinian natural selection, wherein the bad genes of adoptive parents don’t survive into the next generation.
The notion that there is something wrong with people who can’t bear children — beyond the fact that they can’t bear children — lurks within the depths of my psyche. Just as a poor person may imagine that money bestows happiness, part of me believes “normal parents” live more fulfilling lives. It only takes a friend’s getting pregnant to flood me with toxic jealousy. That this lingering bitterness sits right next to my most profound happiness, being my children’s mother, bewilders me.
I take it as a sign of healing that I could laugh with the girls on the subway, but there are still dark times when I am outraged by my infertility, when I can only think that I am an evolutionary dead-end. A discontinued line of goods. Furthermore, my infertility transforms my parents into genetic cul-de-sacs. My sister, their only other child, is childless by choice.
Perhaps I am prone to these thoughts because I grew up debating the genetic contribution to traits like intelligence, homosexuality, schizophrenia, and matters of taste and preference, around the family dinner table. My father was a behavioral geneticist whose research tended to proclaim the rule of nature over nurture. Although he passed away years ago, before I met my husband and we started, then abandoned, infertility treatments, I can almost hear him say: “Oy vey, when my children die, I’ll be genetically extinct!”
And yet, my four-year-old son — an African-American of Caribbean descent — bears an uncanny resemblance to my father: a dead, white Jewish man. Sometimes my son smiles and its like I’m looking at my father’s baby pictures. The way his ears stick out, the wide shape of his head and the predominant nose. It’s spooky. When I finally admitted my thoughts to a cousin, she exclaimed, “Yes! I’ve thought that as well, but I was too scared to say anything. I didn’t want you to think I was crazy or overly nostalgic.”
I take this resemblance as a thumbs up from the afterlife — an affirmation of how much my father would have loved to be a grandfather to my children. He is telling me that, in spite of the pain and loss that form the kernel of adoption, everything is fine. It is a message to reach beyond the science my father and I revered and to open myself to something bigger, something more subtle, than inheritance and genetics.
At the same time, I am amazed to consider that there are two men — my sons birth fathers — who go about their lives unaware of the existence of their magnificent biological offspring. I know nothing of these men, yet their destinies are interwoven with mine more intimately than those of any other living man, apart from my husband. Without them, my children would not be the people they are.
So, dear teenage girls, I thank you for your witty musings. You forced me to dig out a festering hurt and examine what it is made of. In so doing, I am reminded of how blessed I am. My children and I found each other through a circuitous route, indeed. Though I didn’t make the Darwinian cut, I made the cut to be selected as a mother. After all, it is the joy we take in each other, not the way we came together or the fitness of our genes, that’s the ultimate measure of my family.