Monday, September 14, 2009

What's In A Gene?

Not surprisingly, I have thinking about what it means to be genetically related.

The other day I was following LB as she walked down the street and I wondered how things would be different if she were my genetic offspring. I made a mental list: different hair and eye color, different temperament, different personality - in short, a different person. She would also be a different person if one of the other DE embryos implanted instead of her - suddenly that train of thought seemed rather pointless. I don't think I would love her or treat her any differently. The day to day stuff would all be the same. Does it really matter?

Several people who adopted with adult age children have told me, "It doesn't matter at all!" I continue to disagree. Although perhaps I misunderstood. Perhaps these people were trying to tell me that it doesn't matter at all in how you feel about your child and the way you raise them. The "big stuff" would all be the same. I think there is more to it than that. Here are some observations that paint a picture that it does matter.
  • My hairdresser is adopted and has zero interest in ever meeting his birth parents. The hairdresser in the station next to him met her birth family (the mother is not mentally well) at 13 and she loves having them in her life. She said it was great to be surrounded by people who laughed like her and shared so many traits. I wonder why it doesn't matter to him, but it does matter to her.
  • A friend's son had a child with a women my friend didn't like. This was from a short term relationship. She refused to meet her grandchild. When I asked why her answer was, "He doesn't even know if the child is his!" To my friend it was apparently irrelevant that her son had chosen to parent this child. Why is this child not family?
  • Brad has recently reconnected with his niece. She was born to his brother when his brother was 20 and also in a short term relationship. Brad's brother never had a relationship with his daughter and Brad hasn't seen her since he was around 19 and she was a few years old. He has been looking for her as long as I have known him. He finally found her on FB. They met for the first time last weekend. I got to join them for part of the meeting and we had a really nice time. Brad really hopes they will continue to get to know each other. I asked him why it was important. He said, "She is the only family I've got left." (He doesn't get along with the rest of his family.) Why is she family?
  • LB was crying the other day and her eyes appeared green - a shade that was very close to how my eyes look when I have been crying. I could imagine what it would have been like to see my eyes in her. It was a bittersweet moment. It was sweet to imagine sharing our eye color. It was sad to know I would never get to experience it outside of my imagination.
  • A fellow DE blogger has reconnected with her birth father. He told her that he was proud of her. If an unrelated stranger had said that to her it wouldn't have had nearly the impact. Why does it matter if the stranger is your genetic father?
The interesting thing is that when I ask people why it matters or not or why someone is family or not, they often don't have an answer. They try to answer it, but it seems they don't really know themselves. I suppose it is possible that they are trying to protect my feelings, but that is not my belief.

What are your thoughts? What makes someone family? What does it mean to have a genetic connection? Does it matter if the genetic contributor expected to help someone else conceive and not parent (as with donor eggs, donor sperm) compared to a surprise pregnancy where a decision needs to be made whether or not to parent? What questions / thoughts come to your mind when your are musing about genetics?


Sara said...

You ask a lot of good questions here.

I think that, at least in part, what makes someone a relative is the decision to consider them such. I have an ex-aunt (ex-wife of my uncle) who I still consider to be my aunt (based on our long relationship), and several ex-uncles that I don't (didn't know them well). My in-laws are family, even though we aren't genetic relatives. However, genetic relatives that I have never even met are also family, but only in a meaningful way if we are connected by at least one shared loved one (i.e., someone that I love also loves them).

I really think that it's different for everyone. Some people care the most about genes. Others care the most about actual everyday relationships. Most people consider both. In the end, family is what you make it.

Leah Maya Benjamin said...

I think you are stuck witht he family your are related to, BUT we all or at least I choose others as family as well, my best friend has always been considerred a sister and I am called aunt by her daughter and visa versa, I had an elderly neighbor that became a grandparent, plus the foster family in guatemala. Some people that arent' family you are closer to becasue you are more like them then your own family. I think you are wrong about LB, the red hair and eye's came from Brad, remeber I know B and she didn't have either of those, her hair was the same color as your as were her eyes. I tell you she certainly didn't have thighs like the chunky monkey either. Its hard no matter what, people will assume that LB is your bio child and nobody assumes Maya is mine, it is what it is.

battynurse said...

These are good questions although I think that the answers can be different for different people.
I am adopted and while I have some curiosity about my biological origins and wouldn't be against meeting relatives it's not a must have. It's not something I would spend money on trying to find someone and I don't feel like less of a person because I don't know where I came from. That said I've heard others say that it's vitally important to know. It's just not to me. As far as family goes I have all of the family (aunts, uncles and cousins) that I grew up with them being family to me but I don't really keep in contact with any of them. I may exchange christmas cards and that's about it. I also have my chosen family members who are really my very close friends and the people that seem more like my family members than my actual family members. When I need to talk to or be around someone it is usually them I choose.
As far as the friend who refuses to acknowledge the grandchild? Sounds a bit selfish. Especially if her son chooses to act as if the child is his and is trying to parent. At any rate it seems to be a choice. As does Brad's desire to connect with his niece. I know my ex had a daughter from a short term relationship that he has never been involved with and the child as an adult contacted his mother wanting to connect with "family". When she found out Jan is not his biological mother even though she is the only mother he remembers the child ended contact. In my opinion this is a choice and sort of a selfish one. The mother at least in this case is the one who has been there, cared for and raised him for almost his entire life.
Again these are just my feelings and others often feel very differently. I think maybe a lot of it has to do with the fact that my parents made me feel very much like biology wasn't as much of an issue as love and caring.

Anonymous said...

Excellent questions. As someone with a bio son through own-egg IVF who's currently pregnant with a DE baby, I think about these questions a lot.

I think about my son, who looks like me but more like his dad. He is the center of my world and I couldn't adore him more. I wonder how I'd feel if he'd been a DE baby too. And it occurs to me that he is who he is, and I wouldn't change a thing about him. I hope I'll feel the same way about my new baby, too.

And then I think about the old "you can't choose your relatives." I wonder whether my bio son will inherit a certain mental illness that runs in my family. And if he does, will I be grateful that my DE baby didn't get that gene?

What if one of my kids grows up to be a juvenile delinquent? If it's my bio son, will I blame myself? If it's my DE son, will I blame his genetics?

Big questions, big "what ifs." I guess I don't have an answer.

Me said...

I will have to think about this. In all probability my answer will be so long winded that I will post it on my own blog instead of here.

Anonymous said...

We are drawn to our genetic past because on some level we know that we were shaped by things that happened long before we even arrived on this earth. We want to include our genetic history in our understanding of ourselves. It is a search for more knowledge. It is hard not to take personally as a parent with a DE child, but there are some people that need to find out more about themselves. It is part of their beautiful journey.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! In my humble opinion too much emphasis is put on genetics. I believe that society has taught us that it is important. I'm not saying that it isn't, but I think that we have been taught to put more emphasis on it that we should.

niobe said...

Not exactly what you asked, but I think that our surrogate (who was *not* genetically related to the baby) had a huge influence on his development. While there are undoubtedly some subtle things that I can't see, one thing that really stands out is his size.

Based on his genes, Cole should be on the small side. However, I'm convinced that his prenatal environment caused him to grow to his current enormous size (99th percentile) and is responsible for his relatively early development of motor skills.

Summer said...

As you know, I'm thinking a lot about genes and genetics, too. More and more I'm beginning to think that it is for each person to decide for themselves what "family" is. That there is no universal definition. As a DE mom, my son is my family. I have no genetic connection with him at all, but he will always be my son and I will always be his mom in my eyes. I will always belong to him and to me family means belonging.

Will my son feel the same about me? I would hope so, but in reality I'm not sure how much control I have over that. Because I had to use DE to have my pregnancy and my child, I had to change my definition of family and it is one that does not need to be based in genetics.

Sunny said...

I *love* your honesty with how you struggle to process the genetic connection. Thank you for illuminating this discussion.

I don't have anything brilliant to say, but seeing as I frequent so many IF blogs, sometimes I do actually wonder how I would feel if my son did not carry both of our genes. When I look at his hair and laugh at how it sticks up straight like mine did, but it is blond like his dad was as a toddler. It's sort of a sobering moment for me, strangely enough. I'm sure I would love him and marvel at him just as much, but would my mind speculate about where his traits came from, outside of our family?

B said...

interesting post Kami. I think it matters more than we all care to admit although it is very difficult to figure exactly what it is about biology that has such strong emotional pulls.

It is a similar question as to why we have kids.

Here are some other anecdotes to add to your collection.

My brother-in-law was adopted and recently had a child of his own. I asked him if it made him want to find his birth parents. He said no, but he was commented on the experience of now knowing what it was like to have someone who was connected to him by blood.

A friend who is gay fathered a child with a lesbian couple. The photos of him staring into the eyes of his newborn son are quite profound, and he has become very close and protective of the mother of his child, even though he has always been much much closer to the other woman in the relationship.

Something to do with our evolutionary construction I guess.

Lisa DG said...

I am wondering if you have read anything about "epigenetics." I just heard about it myself. It has to to with the "vessel" an embryo develops in. The vessel is not actually a mere vessel but impacts how the DNA from the embryo is expressed. Therefore, if LB had been carried by someone else, even the donor, she, well she wouldn't be LB at all. One example is that scientists implanted pony embryos into horses and they grow large like horses, rather than like the ponies one would think they would be.
I can send you some stuff I have come across if you're interested.

Happy said...

Wow! You raised a lot of good points. Hmmm, we domestically adopted and our daughters bio mom did not want anything to do with her. Although the pictures I submit go to her bio grandmother. I will be open about everthing with my daughter, and the fact that she's not genetically related to me does not affect my feelings for her. She's my daughter no matter what! My family, friends, and extended relatives don't feel any differently towards her because she's not biologically related to us. On a side note, she has far better medical genes than she would have gotten from me.

MLO said...

I am struggling with all of these questions right now. How did you manage to write a post that reflects my thoughts?