Tuesday, July 28, 2015

You Own Everything That Happened to You

A donor conceived woman posed a dilemma recently on a donor conceived forum that I frequent.  She said her mother had forbidden her to tell people she is donor conceived.  She said her mother felt the topic was her own sex life and her partner's infertility and thus it was their secret to keep.  Here is my thought:

It's your origin story and your life, and you have every right to talk about it.  You have every right to write about it.  You own that story at least as much as your mother does.  My mother forbid me to tell anyone I was donor conceived, and I kept the secret for years.  But now I talk about it sometimes.  Just not to my parents, which I think is a solid compromise.  They don't have anything useful to contribute to the conversation anyway.

You aren't your parents' secret keeper.  It isn't fair of them to ask that of you.  You own everything that happened to you, including where you come from.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Terrible Eating Habits of My Childhood Home

When I was little, I remember being yelled at on a fairly regular basis for not eating all the food on my plate at dinner.  Actually, I remember this being a thing for as long as my mother cooked, which ended around the time I was in middle school, to be replaced with dining out, takeout, and fast food.  My dad would sit with me and tell me I couldn't leave from the table until I "cleaned my plate," and I remember sitting for a few minutes until he would give up in a string of curses and scream at me to get out of his sight.

When I got older and moved out on my own, my mother told me about how she hadn't understood serving sizes when Dante and I were kids.  She laughed about how she used to cook a roast or a casserole, divide it into fourths, and serve us each a quarter of the meal.  From the time I was able to eat solid food, she had expected me to eat the same amount as my morbidly obese dad and mom, each of whom was eating at least two adult sized servings, often more.   

She also laughed about how fat Dante had been as a toddler when she fed him two adult portions of sugared instant oatmeal every morning because one packet of oatmeal "just didn't look like that much."  Toddlerhood was the only time the naturally thin Dante had been chubby in his life, though his eating habits never improved.  His regular meals as a 20-year-old man consisted of hot dogs and lunch meat, potato chip sandwiches, a variety of Little Debbie snack cakes, and candy from the limitless supply my mother kept in baskets around the house. 

I, on the other hand, spent my childhood wondering why I was heavier than most of the kids at my elementary school.  The candy around the house didn't help, but it was a comparatively mild problem.  My mother encouraged me to eat cake or cookies for breakfast on the frequent occasions that we had them on hand because "they have eggs and flour in them, just like breakfast food."  In retrospect, she probably just wanted me to leave her alone so she could go back to sleep, but I took this logic so far that I ate Cadbury Creme Eggs for breakfast in the weeks surrounding Easter because I thought they were made of real eggs, not just chocolate and colored fondant.  I knew nothing.  No one corrected me. 

I knew I was chubbier than I wanted to be, but my mother insisted I had inherited my figure from her and it could not be altered.  "We're big boned," she said.  I didn't get made fun of to my face often, but I do recall being called "Fatso" by a boy I didn't know and being asked by one of my best friends in elementary school if I oversalted my food because I was "overweight and had trouble losing weight," and I guess it didn't occur to her these problems could also come from eating mostly junk food. 

My mother forbade me to drink low-fat milk with my school lunches because, as she explained much later, she had fed me skim milk as a new baby and been scolded by my pediatrician for doing so.  I drank full-fat milk with every meal thereafter, blind to the fact that I eventually got older and had different dietary needs.  We drank a lot of soda too.  My mother kept a Big Gulp full of 7Up or Pepsi on the table beside the couch and drank from it all day everyday.  I don't remember having a glass of water before the age of eight or so, when Dante started drinking water with his meals and I insisted on having the same because anything he did was "cool." 

When I was ten or eleven, I had my first cholesterol test, and it was already over 200.  For reference, an adult's total cholesterol should be below 150 for optimal health.  My pediatrician told me I needed to lower my cholesterol, but I didn't know what cholesterol was, let alone how to lower mine.  He was shocked to hear I was still drinking full-fat milk at my age, so we switched to low-fat and eventually to skim.  My mother encouraged me to reduce my saturated fat intake -- another cause of high cholesterol, my doctor said -- by buying me countless boxes of Snackwells fat free cookies.

We were a "meat and potatoes" household at mealtime.  And casseroles.  Casseroles featuring Miracle Whip and cheese.  We didn't eat a lot of vegetables.  Sometimes we had salad, which consisted of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and a bottle of creamy salad dressing.  Sometimes we had a warmed up can of vegetables, or a can of spinach dumped into a bowl.  I lost a little of my chubbiness when I hit puberty and had a sudden growth spurt, but it got even harder to control my weight when we started having exclusively restaurant food for dinner.  One night per week was devoted to McDonald's, one to delivery pizza, and one to Chinese takeout, which mostly meant crab rangoon.  I tried to make up for the calorie dump at dinner by eating plain shredded wheat for breakfast and celery sticks for lunch.  I was generally starving by dinnertime, which I knew wasn't good, but I didn't know what else to do.

When I moved out to go to college, I lost weight.  I had starting reading books about nutrition after that first cholesterol test -- they became something of a hobby for me -- so I knew more by then.  I also went back to eating normal breakfasts and lunches since my dining hall dinners were significantly more reasonable.  I also walked a lot because public transportation cost money I didn't have. 

I gave up meat, just because it had disgusted me for years and I finally had full control over my diet away at college.  When I came home for spring break, my mother asked, "Why are you doing this to me?!"  She said I was ruining spring break for her because now she would feel like she couldn't eat anywhere she wanted (she could and did -- I could find something to eat at any restaurant, and she didn't cook anymore anyway).  She also said it was too expensive to eat vegetables so much.  She said her own mother had stretched meals for their large family by adding ground beef to canned spaghetti.  Her logic was presumably that, since her family had been poor and her mother had done this, it must have been the cheapest way to eat.  And cheap was good.  Especially if it was something for me.  Also, my mother hates vegetables.  Also, I think she wanted me to be like her.

I didn't know how to cook until I got a campus apartment.  From the time I was in grade school until I moved out for college, our oven was mostly broken.  My mother used a pair of pliers to turn it on and off, and it burned the bottom of any food she cooked in it.  We couldn't get it fixed because we lived in a hoard house and she wouldn't allow a repairman inside at that point.  My dad taught me how to boil pasta and scramble eggs when I was in high school.  Beyond that, I learned to cook from the internet when I was 20.  I turned out to be good at it.  When I came home on break and wanted to show off some of my new cooking skills by making a simple side dish for my dad to try, my mother burst into tears.  She said I'd make a mess, I'd ruin everything.  I was taken aback at her crying.  I had rarely seen her cry in my life.  She normally defaulted to screaming or guilt trips.  I promised to clean up after myself -- something I also started figuring out how to do in college -- and cooked my dish.  I washed everything I'd used too.  The kitchen was still a filthy, sticky mess.

I want to put a happy ending on this, but I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, so here:  I'm in my 30s and healthier now than at any point in the story above.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Grandpa Was a Bastard

My maternal grandfather was born out of wedlock in the 1920s.  He grew up with his mother and two maternal half-siblings.  His mother married several times over the course of her life, and she worked as a washerwoman when she was between husbands.  Grandpa's father was a widower who left his children with his parents when his wife died.  He went on to live in local boarding houses and impregnate women in the area.  But I didn't know any of these things when I started looking for their names.

My cousin's letters from our grandmother mentioned some of my grandfather's half-siblings' names.  She said Grandpa hadn't really known his father, so he ran away from home at the age of 14 to find him.  He learned that his half-siblings from his father's marriage had moved to California, so he traveled half-way across the country to find them.  Using the names in her letter, I found them too.  Census records showed that their father had been in their hometown all along.  I wonder if Grandpa found him when he got back home.  I wonder if he ever found him.

Grandma's letter mentioned another paternal half-sibling showing up at the house when Grandpa was in his sixties.  She was another illegitimate child.  She had already found the California half-siblings, the legitimate ones, and they had pointed her in my grandfather's direction.  Grandma didn't mention her name in her letters.  Much like my own half-siblings, she would have to take a mass market DNA test for me to find her now, if she's still alive.  Much like my own half-siblings, we don't know how many more are out there.

Since Grandpa had taken his father's surname and his parents were never married, I had no idea what his mother's first or last name had been.  I couldn't find a single census record with my grandfather on it until after he married my grandmother, and there is no evidence that he even existed by that name until he enlisted in the army during WWII.  Grandma's letters did mention his maternal half-siblings' first names though, so I took the names I had and enlisted help from an internet forum.  Someone who is better at genealogical research than me found them as children living with their mother in the right area under a different surname.  The next census showed them at the same location but with yet another surname.  They were simply listed with whatever married name my great-grandmother had at the time, which explained why it had been so hard to find them.  In reality, all my great-grandmother's children had different surnames and different fathers.  All were dead by the time I found this information. 

I was surprised to learn my great-grandmother had lived in the same city as my family until she died when my mother was a teenager.  My mother had never mentioned her.  She had inherited her middle name from her.  I wonder if they ever met.  According to her death certificate, she had died a couple of days before she was formally pronounced dead.  I think this means she wasn't found immediately.  I haven't been able to find a headstone for her or any evidence of a burial or an obituary. 

I found some old photos of my great-grandfather that had been posted on Ancestry.com by descendants of his legitimate children.  I have his nose.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Mother's Oral Family History

I have always known who my biological mother is.  She was the same mother who raised me.  But finding out about her family history was harder than finding my biological father.  I haven't found a single person in her family interested in genealogy but me, and our family is full of secrets that we only know from oversharing.

I grew up within a mile of my maternal grandparents and saw them at least once a week for the first eighteen years of my life.  There were certain things I grew up knowing, stories I grew up hearing over and over again, but they were specific and limited.  I knew my grandmother had had ten pregnancies in eleven years.  I knew my only biological aunt had died of SIDS on Christmas Eve and that my then 3-year-old mother had tormented her own mother with the persistent question, "Where is my baby?" for weeks afterward.  I knew my mother had been named after her own maternal grandmother, and that her grandmother had hated her own name so much that she'd gone by her middle name nearly all her life.  These were some of the facts my mother recited to me regularly, just like the story of my birth (I "ripped [her] from end to end") and of my brother's adoption ("she called and said, 'Do you want a peanut?' A peanut is what they called premature babies.")  They were her oral history, and they are embedded in my brain.

I knew my grandmother had gotten married at age fifteen because she wanted to run away from home, but I didn't know she had been running away from her "wicked stepmother."  I knew her own mother had married at fourteen and lost custody of my then 2-year-old grandmother when she became a teenage divorcee, but I didn't know my great-grandfather's name or that he was a college graduate, unlike anyone else in my family for the next 75 years.  Grandma's maiden name was Adams, or Addams* -- I didn't know which -- and my mother hated my great-grandfather for taking Grandma away from her mother.  He "didn't like girls," my mother told me when I asked why Dante had been invited to meet him and I hadn't.  I knew he'd written and self-published a memoir that my mother claimed was a catalogue of his sexual exploits, but I didn't know the name of the book, and I didn't know that he lived within a half-hour's drive of my home for over a decade of my childhood.  I didn't know he was the only person in my family to live to the age of ninety, or that he'd died within a year of "the love of his life," my Grandmother's longtime stepmother.  I didn't know they had given my grandmother a half-sister, who had finished college but who hadn't been able to bear children of her own.  She has an adopted daughter close to my age who has a graduate degree.  They're both on Facebook now.  She looks like a younger, healthier, more affluent version of my grandmother. 

I've mentioned before how my cousin helped me with my search for maternal family by providing old letters our grandmother had sent her.  Our grandmother used to write letters once a week to pretty much everyone she knew who lived out of state.  My cousin had kept several years worth of Grandma letters.  She pulled them out of storage at my request.  She said they shared too much information, that she wouldn't be comfortable rereading them if Grandma had still been alive.  They read more like private journal entries than something you would say to a granddaughter.  Those letters also held names and dates I hadn't absorbed from my mother's oral history.  They gave me search terms, and the knowledge my mother had embedded in my brain filled in the blanks.  My cousin didn't know the things I knew -- even our great-grandmother's first name -- so I was able to fill in some blanks for her too. 

I assume my great-grandmother's first pregnancy ended in miscarriage because she got married at the age of fourteen and didn't give birth to my grandmother until over a year later.  I learned these dates from documents on Ancestry.com.  She got divorced in the 1930s at the age of 18 and lost custody of my grandmother to her ex-husband.  My great-grandfather left my then 2-year-old grandmother with his parents and moved on.  My great-grandmother spent time in the Deep South, though neither I nor my cousin knows why.  My grandmother's letters made it sound like purgatory.  My grandmother lived with her own grandparents until she was eight.  She became close with her father's only sister, whose name I recognized because my grandmother had visited her every week at her nursing home until she died in the 1990s.  At the age of eight, my grandmother moved in with her newly remarried father and the woman she referred to in letters as her "wicked stepmother."  Her father called her the love of his life.  My grandmother wasn't happy there.  As I mentioned earlier, she ran away at the age of fifteen to marry my grandfather.  She didn't know how to cook, and she never learned how to drive.  Neither of them finished high school.  They eloped on my grandfather's birthday, allegedly to distract the court registrar out of asking for proof of my grandmother's age.  It apparently worked.  Their marriage license lists her age as 18.  My eldest uncle was born ten months later.

I've found my great-grandparents' headstones.  My great-grandmother remarried at least once, but she survived her final husband, so even her death certificate doesn't list his full name.  My mother told me she died of stomach cancer, but her death certificate cites cardiac arrest.  I've learned that death certificates list whatever catalyst literally killed the person that day and will never say what led to what killed them, like cancer or diabetes or blunt force trauma.  I come from a long line of ladies who battled their weight, and my great-grandmother relished the easy weight loss that came with dying of stomach cancer.  One of the few pictures I've seen of her shows her svelte figure standing with both legs inside one leg of pants, demonstrating that she was half her previous size and delighted by it. 

My grandmother's aneurism created the same effect.  The weight melted off when she spent months on a liquid diet, unable to swallow most food without choking.  She recovered though and was unhappily battling her weight again by the time she died some fifteen years later.  One of my last memories of her was of visiting her and my grandpa's duplex and witnessing one of her daily weigh-ins.  She had gained weight and was disappointed.  She was in her seventies. 

Mental illness was my mother's best diet.  She lost around eighty pounds when she stopped eating or drinking or getting up from the couch in her early fifties.  She was pleased with the effect and bragged to me over the phone in the days leading up to my wedding.  It was the thinnest she had been since before I was born.  She commandeered one of my dad's old wheelchairs because she had grown too weak to walk.  When I saw her next, she had aged twenty years.  Her formerly thick brown hair was sparse and grey, and the skin hung loose from her face and neck like wax dripping from a candle.  She reminded me of Emperor Palpatine.

My grandfather's lineage was much harder to trace because his parents were never married or lived together, and he never spoke about either of them.  I met one of his half-siblings once as a child, but it turns out there were at least six more.  More on Grandpa next time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Curious Circumstances Surrounding My Grandmother's Death

After my parents divorced, my mother moved in with her parents.  She was receiving monthly maintenance payments from my dad that would have covered rent on a nice apartment in their inexpensive town -- especially if she'd cashed any of the maintenance checks from their legal separation, which my brother had found in a pile by the front door with the rest of the mail for the last several months -- but she wasn't functioning at that point.  She didn't shower, she rarely ate, and to my knowledge, she mostly slept. 

My grandparents had recently sold their house and started renting half a duplex in the next town over.  There were suggestions that they'd needed the money from the sale, that my grandfather had been too generous with the union pension he'd been receiving since the age of 55 and was running low on funds, but my mother also claimed the new house was easier to get around in now that they were both old and frail. 

I don't know how my mother moved in.  I know she didn't pack.  I know my brother Dante was at my parents' house a lot at the time and saw the empty storage pod she left behind in the driveway.  I presume one of her brothers came and retrieved her.  Her two remaining brothers were caring for their parents at the time, coming over a couple times per day to do laundry and cook and clean for them.  My mother became their third ward.  I presume she slept on the couch since my grandparents were living in a 2-bedroom home and hadn't shared a room in my lifetime.

A number of months later, my grandmother died.  She was in her seventies.  Most people in my mother's family don't live to see seventy.  My great-grandparents all died in their sixties, except for my grandma's "deadbeat dad," who was educated and well off and lived into his nineties.  My mother's numerous siblings have all died now except for one.  None have made it to sixty but her.  So it seems odd to say my grandmother died unexpectedly in her seventies, but at the same time, I don't know what precipitated her death.  She'd suffered an aneurism a decade earlier, and she'd had a stroke or two since then.  She didn't get around well anymore, hence my uncles taking over the housework and caregiver duties.  My mother said my grandfather killed her.

My dad called to tell me my grandmother had died.  Dante had told him.  He said there were some shady circumstances surrounding her death and no one really knew what had happened.  He said my grandmother had been hospitalized a few days earlier and had asked to file a police report alleging domestic abuse.  I don't know if the police report was actually filed.  I don't know that my grandfather was the perpetrator of the abuse.  I wouldn't put it past him to hurt someone, but he was also old and so morbidly obese that he'd barely been able to walk in years.  He would have still been stronger than my grandmother though.  The last time I saw her, she couldn't walk without assistance.  She couldn't get to her walker without assistance.

My mother mailed me a card not long after her mother died.  It had a picture of a sad puppy on the front and said something like "I miss you" on it.  The inside was completely covered with her handwriting.  She said it was 3:30 in the morning.  She said her dad was screaming at her as she wrote (not surprising if you've met him), telling her to get out of his house.  She had accused him of killing her mother, and he was blind with rage and kicking her out (my family has long been a fan of the kicking-each-other-out power play).  I don't remember what else the card said -- mostly things about how bad everything was.  It seemed so bizarre when I received it, the absurdity of the sappy cover art juxtaposed with the insanity on the inside (and I don't mean my mother, though she did seem unhinged even in greeting card form, but the insanity of the entire situation).  I hadn't wanted to throw it away, but I couldn't stand to look at it either because I was still in contact with my mother at the time and any contact felt painful, so I'd hid it from myself, only to find it again years later when it fell unexpectedly from a book I'd opened.  That time I threw it away.  I don't know what happened between my mom and her dad after that night, but I know she didn't move out until he died a couple of years later.

There would be no funeral for my grandmother.  She had many friends, and eventually her church congregation came together to hold a memorial service in her honor, but I didn't find out until it was over.  This was the first in a line of family deaths that would receive no services or burial or acknowledgment of any kind from family.  The bodies are burned at the cheapest crematorium in town, which also offers completely free disposal of remains for any body that has been donated to science, as well as handles the necessary paperwork.

I check that crematorium's website occasionally for new obituaries, doing a search for my mother's married and maiden names.  It's how I found out another uncle had died, as well as my grandfather.  My grandfather's obituary said nothing beyond "proud WWII vet."  Nothing about being preceded in death by his wife of sixty years, nothing about their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren who survived them.  I suspect there is no one left in my family who is willing to write obituaries anymore. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Great Clean Out of '88 (or The Time My Mother Thought Her SIL Would Leave Her Three Children in Her Will)

When I was in elementary school, I learned that my Aunt Janie had a brain tumor.  She was my aunt by marriage, but since she married Uncle Charles long before I was born, all I really understood was that she was my aunt and she was my cousins' mother.  Uncle Charles -- my mother's brother -- had committed suicide when I was a baby, so Aunt Janie had been raising my cousins on her own for a number of years when we found out about the brain tumor.

I don't remember if there was a time when we thought Aunt Janie might survive.  As I recall, my mother told me she was dying and not to say something crass like "get well soon" because she was never going to get better and was going to be dead soon.  I think the doctors had given her six months to live.  That was how long I knew about it anyway.  My cousins were in middle school and high school at the time, and my mother made an effort to get the youngest out of the house as much as possible.  She was one of my favorite cousins and always nice to me, despite being several years my senior, so I was delighted to get to spend time with her.  My mother told me she was trying to get my cousin out of the house so she could take her mind off her mother dying and so Aunt Janie could rest. 

The Great Clean Out started shortly thereafter.  We were clearing out the basement so that it could finally be finished.  My mother told my dad, my brother Dante, and me that she would be adopting my three cousins when Aunt Janie died, and we needed to get the basement finished to make room for them all.  In hindsight, it seems odd I don't remember my dad making any kind of fuss about this huge decision to more than double the number of kids in the house.  But then again, he has always seemed to prefer to let her do whatever she wants and then complain about how badly everything is going and how none of it is his fault.

My mother ordered a large dumpster that sat on our front lawn, and we spent every weekend for I don't remember how long hauling garbage and debris up the stairs and out of the house.  Dante and Dad and I fantasized about what else we'd do with all the space.  Everyone wanted new bedrooms.  Dante and I each tried to lay claim to my dad's master bedroom on the ground floor when he said he'd be moving downstairs, but Mom overruled us and said it would be hers.  She'd moved back and forth between sleeping on the living room couch and the lower bunk bed in Dante's room for as long as I'd been alive.  Dad was going to have a soundproof music studio in the basement too, he said.  In my imagination, the windowless finished basement was bright and clean in a way our cave-like, hoarded ground floor home had never been.

My parents had never gotten a sump pump installed, in spite of the basement flooding every time it rained and the house allegedly having been built on a spring.  Eventually the deeper slantings of the basement held a full inch of standing water on any given day.  It became dangerous for my dad to use his elevator -- a forklift with half-walls constructed years ago by his own father -- because the floor of it submerged into the dark water before touching down.  The only wheelchair-accessible shower in the house was in that basement, in spite of the fact that my parents had had the home custom built to be accessible.

There was visible mold on most of the things that had been stored down there.  Dante and I wore leather work gloves as we lugged enormous amounts of wet cardboard and paper up to the dumpster.  My dad mostly sifted through moldy old books and papers while my mother "sorted," supervised Dante and me, and occasionally loaded the elevator with full file boxes too heavy to carry up the stairs. 

I didn't like cleaning out the basement.  It wasn't an enjoyable way to spend my weekends as a first-grader, but I was thrilled about the idea of having a newly finished, clean home and a new bedroom and not one but THREE new siblings.  It was like a whole new life.  The promise of what was going to be was enough to keep me cleaning and hauling.  Besides, I was seven -- I had no choice.

This went on for at least a couple of months.  Shortly before Aunt Janie's death, my mother learned that Aunt Janie's parents were moving into her home to take care of my cousins.  My mother was upset.  She had wanted to adopt my orphaned cousins, and now she couldn't, and it sounded like she was never even considered.  She seemed jealous.  She seemed angry.  The time was close enough to my aunt's death that I think my mother might have actually expected to be left the children in her will with no advance conversation about it.  Lots of movies she liked played out this way.  Baby Boom comes to mind.  She really loved Baby Boom.  In hindsight, I think a primary reason she took my cousin out so often was as a means of throwing her hat in the ring as the future guardian.  Aunt Janie had started declining her offers near the end.  She said she wanted to spend more time with her kids.

I was a bit disappointed that I would not, in fact, be getting new siblings, but my disappointment was outweighed by a sense of how good a plan they had in place.  My cousins wouldn't have to move.  They wouldn't have to change schools.  They would be cared for by their grandparents, who I could safely assume already knew them better than my parents did.  Losing their mother would be the only massive adjustment they'd have to undertake.  Even as a 7-year-old, I could tell this plan was much better than having anyone else adopt my cousins.

My mother immediately called a halt to the clean out.  There was no point anymore, she said.  I wanted to continue.  I thought having a fixed up home for ourselves to live in counted as a point, but I was seven. 

We never even got close to having the basement cleared, and there was no plan to work on the ground floor at all.  In hindsight, I think non-hoarders could have cleared that basement in a weekend since everything down there had become moldy, soaked garbage, but I don't think it would have mattered.  My parents avoided having work done on the house whenever possible, and to this day there is still no sump pump.  My dad still doesn't have a handicapped-accessible shower on the ground floor either.  The place is still infested with mold, not all the exterior doors close all the way, there has been a known but unaddressed termite problem since the '90s, and most of the electrical work is shot.  My dad still talks about fixing up the house with a five-figure government grant for which he supposedly qualifies, but he has no desire to get a sump pump installed because "that would cost hundreds of dollars."  The last photo he sent me was of one of his new "collections."  There was still hoard in the background that he probably doesn't even see anymore. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Weird "Donor Conceived" Plot Ideas

People talk a lot about the danger of donor conceived people who are unwittingly half-siblings getting married and/or having children together.  I don't think that is the weirdest thing that could happen.  Here are some story ideas I have:

1) Incest Schmincest
A woman grows up knowing she was conceived with anonymous donor sperm.  As she gets older, she decides she wants to conceive her own child with anonymous donor sperm.  Unwittingly chooses her biological father to be the donor (she intentionally went to a different cryo bank than her mother, but he donated all over the place) and births her own half-sibling.  Only finds out the truth later when DNA testing in an attempt to find each of their fathers gets super confusing. 

2) Snowflake
A child created through embryo adoption takes an autosomal DNA test and has a 100% genetic match with another person in the database.  Immediately assumes he is a clone.  Then wonders if his future self traveled back in time to contact him.  Ultimately finds out he was part of a fertilized egg that split in two and that he has an identical twin brother old enough to be his grandfather (this would have to take place several decades in the future obviously, simply because we don't have any frozen embryos that old yet).  They meet up and cause twin shenanigans in spite of the age difference.  It's kind of sad though because he finds out his biological parents and multiple other siblings all lived together as a family and that most of them died before he was born.  Spoiler:  The kid goes all Chuck Palahniuk on the storyline and blows up the cryo bank in a confusion-fueled rage, only for his much older and -- surprise! -- dying identical twin to voluntarily take the fall.  And he can because they have DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene! 

3) Snowflake 2 -- The Avalanche Begins
A law passes in the US stating that, because life begins at conception, all embryos have a right to be born.  Women in need of money in this dystopian future sign up to be gestational surrogates to the thousands (millions?) of cryogenically frozen embryos currently in storage, some of which were abandoned nearly a hundred years ago.  The "snowflake children" are simultaneously seen as a solution to the dwindling number of newborns up for adoption, and they are doled out to waiting families, foster homes, and orphanages.  Some might be sold on eBay.  I'm not sure where this plot would go, but it would have to follow one of the snowflakes as an adult or it would be just too sad and awful to be endured.  This one has a very Brave New World / Children of Men vibe to me. 

4) The Twin Project
Scientists discover how to make fertilized eggs split, creating sets of identical twin embryos in petri dishes (this can't be manipulated yet, can it?  I'm under the impression it currently just happens when it happens).  The doctors at one Assisted Reproductive Technology center do this with every fertilized egg created for IVF, implanting one of the embryos in the intended mother and freezing its twin to be sold through embryo adoption.  Basically a few years pass and lots of people find out they have identical twins in other families.  We also find out some of the sets of twins were kept by the hospital and used for research, hence the name.  If you want to get just a shade darker of a plot than this, read Never Let Me Go.  It's actually about cloning, but it hit home for me in a lot of ways as a DC adult, and it's a beautifully written book.

I think #4 is the only one we don't currently have the technology to make happen (I don't think we do anyway).  It's actually possible #1 has already happened in the US and no one knows yet.  It may not be likely, but I think the fact that there is no record keeping preventing it is food for thought.  Can a woman even request her DNA be tested against her chosen donor sperm before insemination to ensure they aren't closely related?  That should come up in one of those comedy films about donors having hundreds of offspring -- the prolific donor who has kept his secret so well finds out his sister's child was conceived via anonymous sperm donor too and it's his! 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Goodness of Fit

When I got pregnant with my daughter, I wondered what she would be like.  I wondered what she would look like, what she would be best at, what she would enjoy.  I had no preconceived notions about who she might be.  I was so different from my own parents that I knew she could be anyone.

People in the parenting realm often cite "goodness of fit" when discussing how well a parent and child get along.  The idea is that you might unintentionally favor one of your children over the other because you have the same temperament or the same hobbies, while the other might function as a sort of stranger in your home.  I don't know how well my adoptive brother, Dante, and I fit with our parents.  It didn't seem like any of us fit well, but my mother and I bonded more than the others.  Even when she favored Dante over me, it seemed more like a strategic alliance than a familial bond.

Aside from her vast volunteer duties and some persistent personality issues, my mother almost seemed like a blank slate.  She knew what foods she liked -- steak, shrimp, lots salt, nothing green -- but she didn't otherwise seem to know what she liked.  Who she was could vary wildly.  On the plus side, this meant she fully embraced my hobbies, including buying us season tickets to nearly every live theater in our area when I showed a passion for it.  She said I made her feel "cultured." 

My dad and I had little in common.  He knew what he liked -- jazz, stargazing, bad '80s movies -- but his hobbies seldom overlapped with my own.  He introduced me to the television show "Ghost Hunters" around the time I was trying to divorce him from my increasingly mentally ill mother, and that gave us something to talk about on our phone calls until I changed cable providers and no longer got the right channel.  He liked what he liked.  He was unwilling or unable to feign interest in topics simply because they mattered to me.

I took music lessons from a young age, but I didn't enjoy them, only the attention gleaned from performing.  I dreaded the actual live performances, but people would hug and praise me afterwards, and I lived for that.  I liked museums and art galleries, though I only got to see them when a friend's parents or a school field trip would take me there.  I loved reading.  My mother read me stacks of books until I took over the job myself at the age of four.  I don't think either of my parents has read a book cover to cover since that day.  I'm also good at baking and enjoy eating elaborate vegetarian meals.  I love spicy international cuisine, despite my mother's insistence that we don't like onions or most vegetables and that everything should be served "plain" and "mild."

My daughter was born and soon gained a reputation as a smart, funny child with a sunny disposition.  She's still very young and will undoubtedly grow and change, but she fits in well with both my husband and myself.  My mother used to say, "I hope you have a child just like you someday," when she got angry, like it was a curse or a threat.  I battled depression from a very young age (maybe four?), but I tried hard to be good at things and to be kind and to overcome my many fears.  My thought was that if I had a child like myself -- kind, funny, hardworking, smart -- but happy, that would be great.  Why would anyone not want that? I thought. 

Something that I haven't heard much about "goodness of fit" in parenting is that, if a child is raised by her biological parents and they don't hate each other, it should come fairly naturally.  My daughter inherited half her genes from me and the other half from one of my closest friends.  My husband and I have lived together easily for many years, and while we have a variety of hobbies and interests between us, we have the same sense of humor and priorities.  We get along.  We are raising our daughter together in our home, so theoretically, whether you believe nature or nurture is the greater factor, we were always going to have a certain goodness of fit.  That didn't occur to me until well after she was born. 

I don't think I have the same sense of humor as the parents who raised me.  To be honest, it's hard to remember what made them laugh or made them seem happy, but I remember us all favoring different movies.  I don't know if I got my gallows humor from genetics or from my life experiences, but my mother didn't approve of it.  I had to pretend not to laugh at the things I found amusing for fear of being scolded or told I'm a bad person.  My half-brother, Hans, has that same dark sense of humor.  He's says its one of our German qualities.

My biological father reads and enjoys history and science.  My half-siblings do too.  My sister likes baking as much as I do.  These might all just be coincidences.  They're all common hobbies after all.  But I didn't share them with the parents who raised me.  I'm the most educated person in my family, but tied for least educated in my father's family.  Can a person really be more academically inclined -- and I don't mean smart, which I think a lot of my family was in spite of what they thought themselves, but loving of school and learning -- simply because she descended genetically from someone who was?  There are other potential explanations, after all. 

I'm sure I must've had more in common with my mother than I can remember now.  Surely I didn't just inherit similar hair and some maladaptive behaviors.  She liked crafts when I was little, like I did.  We only did them if there were other children around, like visiting cousins or a Girl Scout troop, but she liked doing crafts.  We did jigsaw puzzles together.  We both liked going out to dinner and a movie.  She liked making things beautiful, which was hard because her hoarding tendencies meant she could only beautify our home through shopping and filling it with more things.  I don't remember my mother very well, especially how she used to be before she went off the deep end.  I have a hard time remembering why I used to love her so much.  I'm not sure if that sounds more mean or sad, but it's true.  It is what it is, I guess.

When my daughter started developing a personality of her own, I was surprised.  She wasn't a stranger.  Nothing about her seemed to be pulled from the ether.  She was so much like me.  Sometimes when I saw her from certain angles, she looked like my childhood self.  She cocked her eyebrows and made mischief faces like me.  She mirrored my reactions and behaviors -- if I wanted her to be calm and happy, there was little I had to do beyond modeling good behavior and giving her "cuddles and kisses," as she likes to say.  She is young.  She still has a lot of growing and changing ahead of her, and she will make friends and have experiences outside my home and outside my control, but none of this parenting stuff has been as impossible or even as illogical as I was led to believe it would be.

I don't know what I'm trying to say.  I don't think living with your two biological parents solves all your problems, or even ensures goodness of fit.  If I'd had more in common with my dad, we might have enjoyed each other's company more, but I still don't think it would have been a great relationship because I think he'd still only value in me what he already values.  Having more in common with my mother would have solved nothing.  I'm confident that her self-loathing would have only caused her to hate me more, the more I resembled her.  I don't think my half-siblings get along particularly well with their parents either, though I do know they have more functional relationships than I do with any of mine.  We're all very different people though.  I blame the mental illness more than anything for our lack of good fit.  I believe the parts of my mother that weren't fundamentally broken were fundamentally good.  Maybe.  I guess I think the worst situation would be like Dante's -- being raised by two people whose love is conditional when it's present at all, who aren't related to you, who are not mentally healthy and cannot see far enough past their own pain to consistently give a fuck about you.  It does make me wonder what kind of relationship Dante might have had with his biological parents though.  Or with anyone else really.