By Jennifer Berney
“How can you not have a dad?” a friend of my son’s asks him, incredulous.
My son shrugs and continues to play with LEGOS.
“Everyone has a mom and a dad,” the friend continues.
“I don’t,” my son replies. “I just have moms.” He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by this line of questioning, but our family’s difference is evident to him at these moments.
My son’s friend means no harm, of course, but there’s an edge to his curiosity. It’s not just that he wants to understand our family, it’s that we are a contradiction, a challenge. Either we are pulling his leg or his parents have given him bad information, and either way he is vexed. Although his parents are friends of ours and fully support the rights of queer families, I suspect that no one has prepared him for our situation—for the possibility of a child conceived via a donor instead of a father.
I was six years old when I asked my mother how babies were made. I had a vague idea, based on games my best friend and I had played with her Barbie and Ken dolls, that getting pregnant had something to do with a man and a woman being naked in bed together. My mother confirmed this by explaining the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse to me. Her answer was in line with what we typically think of when we reference “the talk” or “the birds and the bees.”
Our cultural template for talking to our kids about reproduction often begins with the line, “When a man and a woman love each other very much…” The talk may include discussion of love, intimacy, and the nature of sex, but it often presents heterosexual lovemaking as the sole route to conception.
My mother’s answer to the question “How are babies made?” came naturally to her because it reflected her own experience and mirrored the story of how I was conceived. Indeed, even now, it’s natural for many parents to default to the answer that addresses the highest common denominator. But that sometimes leaves my own children in the awkward position of filling in those gaps.
The story of how my kids are conceived starts like this: A woman and a woman wanted a baby and so they asked some friends for help. When my children express curiosity about reproduction, it comes more naturally to me to list an array of options. I wouldn’t want my children’s existence to be a lingering mystery to them, the way it sometimes is to outside observers of our family.
Other families have other stories: A single woman wanted a child of her own. A woman and a man tried, but they needed help from doctors. Two men found a woman who would help them. A trans man carried his partner’s baby. These are stories that sometimes take us away from the bedroom as the site of conception and sometimes invite us to unpack our assumptions about gender. They help our children understand reproduction both more broadly and more fundamentally. Babies are made not just through intercourse, but in whatever way sperm finds its way to egg. In 2021, it’s not by any stretch unusual for doctors, friends, and donors to have a hand in making babies. Acknowledging this from the very beginning helps underline our connectedness and reliance on each other.
It’s also worth making sure our children understand that babies and children don’t always remain with their birth parents, and that there are all kinds of family structures So often, we present difference as a deficit.
When I was a child in the eighties, around the same time I asked my mother how babies were made, a friend (the same one who I played Barbies with) explained to me what the word “gay” meant. “It’s like a man loving a man, or a woman loving a woman,” she said. Even though she was explaining the context for the insult we used daily, I was deeply relieved to learn that there was a word and a recognized practice for this romantic orientation. Similarly, when we tell our children about all the innovative ways that families are made, we are adding detail to the map that they might follow as they grow up. We are letting them know that, as they envision their future, they’re not limited to any single option.
Jennifer Berney is the author of The Other Mothers, out now.
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