Thursday, December 21, 2006

Defining family this holiday season

In another life I would have been a geneticist. I’m fascinated with the idea that from a drop of blood we can today learn that our ancestors left Africa and traveled along the coastline, through India, to Australia. Or headed into the Middle East and eventually to Europe. Or ventured inland through Central Asia, into the arctic reaches, and crossed the frozen Bering Strait into North America, and eventually South America.

My own amateur attempts at genealogy are paltry, extending at most 300 years, compared to the amazing discoveries that geneticists who unlock the codes of DNA can tell us about.

When I was young, with a brother who had died at birth, and a younger one who was brought into our family through adoption, I admittedly, subconsciously, fantasized about the similarities I might have had with my older sibling had he lived. I did recognize my blue eyes and my thin face as that of my father. And eventually, as adulthood set in, and middle-age took effect, I recognized the metamorphosis that enabled me to not only look more like my mother, but enable my young daughter to look like her as well.

I still fantasized about my long-lost brother, and what he and I might have had in common. Or about the grandfather who died when my mother was 10, and the grandmother who died when my father was 8. Was my love of learning a trait that had come from my grandfather, who briefly attended college? Would I have had anything in common with my grandmother, a housekeeper who reportedly liked to play euchre and green tea?

Unanswered questions that I could daydream about, and eventually explore in a novel as yet to be finished, but ultimately put away in storage since they simply did not affect my day-to-day life.

Except that periodically I’m reminded of the value that I place on genetics. When I travel to Ireland to seek connection with my ancestry, and meet people who have lived in the same home that my distant relatives left 100 years ago, what is it that I’m seeking? I know many of the people I’ve met there express bewilderment about how fascinated we Americans are with the lives of people who lived generations earlier, tucking their secret histories into our genetic code.

When I read, as I did recently in the Washington Post, of an 18-year-old girl who was conceived from donor sperm, and made contact with the once anonymous man who donated his gametes for her conception, I wonder about the connection she is seeking from him. Is it to learn about herself? The identity experts would tell us that it is so. That especially as teenagers we look for ourselves in the reflection of others who share our genes.

And why is that? What can that mysterious mirror of DNA tell us? What hunger does it satisfy, to know from whence we came?

When we sit around the dinner table over the holiday season, and look across at aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and siblings, what is it that gives us comfort? Or if those same faces annoy us – why do many of us feel obligated to sit together over a feast, year after year after year?

What is it that defines us, as family? If we all share common ancestry, yet have splintered off because of different migratory routes, what is it that binds some of us to a few, rather than to a larger community? Is it simply our shared biology? Or is it that less scientific spirit of shared moments and experience that binds us to those that we love?

Some would say, as they did when the 18-year-old wrote about her need for a connection with her biological sperm donor father, that the only important family comes specifically from the man and woman whose direct genetic code we carry in our bloodline. They would say that one mother and one father are what each child needs, and without it there is a decay of spirit that can lead to violence, promiscuity, and abuse.

Some would say that a same-sex couple cannot offer the same sense of family that a child craves, and thus our marriage laws must be clear about not sanctioning any union that is not of one man and one woman for life.

Where did these rules about our definition of family come from? When did grandparents and elders and mentors become less consequential to our children? And why? Is it because there is something inherent in the DNA code of our ancestry that makes us feel complete, and that non-biological connections can never fill that space?

And how non-biological are we anyway, given that very little variance is found in our genetic code?

These are things I will quietly wonder about this holiday season as I sit with biological and non-biological kin, sharing in traditions that I know will shape my children, whether they are genetically significant or not.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What my kids say....

Since I'm a spokesperson in favor of Choice Motherhood, I'm aware that it might put a burden on my kids over time to be rah-rah. And I want to be careful that they are able to express how they really feel about aspects of it. I don't want either of them to feel they have to be "poster children" for Choice Kids.

For now, my nearly 3-year-old son is still trying to put basic sentences together, so it will be awhile before he and I discuss the Choice lifestyle in any detail. But I was amazed when my boy of few words saw an online version of my book cover and exclaimed, "Mama's book." Good brand imaging, I guess—I wasn't aware that particular design had any meaning for him.

My 7-year-old daughter proudly tells kids that her mom is a "Choice Mom," and that I have written a book that "millions of people have read." (Wouldn't that be nice for my bank account. )

But I don't want them to ever feel that because I'm proud and confident of my choice to be a single mother that they are not allowed to feel something else. I know my daughter recognizes that there are aspects of Choice Motherhood that are tough. (Although frankly, I think it's self-employment that makes it tougher.)

Recently she asked why I wanted to have kids without a partner....which enabled us to talk about how important it is to find the right person you want to spend the rest of your life with.

We're in an interesting place, because I'm raising them alone, and paying my bills alone, yet I'm married for two years now to a widower who is raising his teenage special needs daughter alone. (She tends to be aggressive, especially toward my little ones, which is why we don't live together.) So last night she and I talked about how it is different when he is with us, which happens about one weekend every two months (when his daughter is in respite care), and for maybe an hour each week before he and I go on date night.

She clearly loves having mom's attention and devotion most of the time. She likes having him show up occasionally to mix things up, but right now thinks men tend to be "rougher, and like wrestling, and don't care as much as moms do about watching what you're doing." I'll continue to remind her of the fun things we do with the men in our lives.

My son LOVES his visits, and I'm trying to get them together more frequently. He loves the wrestling, and being lifted and spun around in the air. And my outdoorsy husband is likely the one who will get both of them skating, bike-riding, and more over time. Good balance to their more bookish, indoorsy mom, who would rather take them to a museum than play in the backyard.

Both kids call him by his first name, rather than "dad" or "stepdad." That might change in four years or so, if he ends up living with us after his daughter gets into a group home situation.

For now, I welcome his influence on my kids, as well as his brothers and father as male role models who complement my brother and father (all quite different!), whenever we can get it. And I'll continue to find ways of letting them separate from mom's more intense presence as they mature.

I'm feeling really good especially about the International Baccalaureate program at my daughter's elementary school, which has an excellent male principal. There she's learning about the skills and strengths of being an Inquirer, a Communicator...the value of being Caring and Principled...

Last week she was awarded a Student of the Month recognition. Her classmates and teacher rewarded her for exhibiting the traits of Tolerance.

When her principal asked students assembled for a definition of tolerance at the award ceremony, my normally shy daughter quickly raised her hand and said, "Respecting other people for who they are."

I teared up. I don't think there's anything more valuable to me right now than knowing my little girl practices, understands and succeeds at putting tolerance into action. If my daughter lives a life of "Respecting other people for who they are," I'll be a very happy mom indeed.

Monday, December 11, 2006

What Our Kids Have to Say

I'm working on an update to my "Choosing Single Motherhood" book that includes the voices of more of our kids. I will also publish a booklet in 2007 that specifically cites the comments of Choice Kids in describing the pros and cons of having a single mom as parent.

As a refresher, here are some of the comments from grown Choice Kids that I interviewed for the first edition of my book:

* “My mother did so many things right. She was devoted to me. She was more interested in discovering who I was than in molding me into any preconceived image. Her parenting style was relatively hands-off, trusting me to make choices that would aid me in my own process of knowing myself.”

* “An advantage to the way I grew up is that I never witnessed my parents fighting. As far as fears some have that a guy like me will grow up overly aggressive, or less analytical, because of the lack of a father in the home—it doesn’t make sense. I went to a competitive prep school, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college as a computer science major. There are a lot of stereotypes about single parenting, and it seems as if we’re all clumped into the same category.”

* “My mother means the world to me, and me to her. I think that had I been raised by two parents, that bond would logically be decreased by half.”

* “I don’t agree with the idea that men do some things better than women, and vice versa—the idea that you need a man and a woman to balance the parenting. People are complex. One person can do so many things, in many different ways.”

I think it's time for Choice Moms to start hearing more about what our kids say about this lifestyle choice we made. What they like, what they don't like. I know I'm curious.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Why Single Women Make Great Parents

When news hit recently that out-of-wedlock births in the U.S. have climbed to an all-time high, there was a predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth by some commentators about how bad this is for the children.

I know hundreds of single women who have become mothers, through conception or adoption. There are actually tens of thousands of women embracing this choice each year, most in their 30s, but also increasingly in the late 20s and early 40s. I was 37 when my daughter was born; 41 with my son. In both cases, I purposely chose motherhood, using a known donor, before embarking on my second marriage.

Some of us do start out fearful of the daunting challenge this lifestyle can be. Some of us grieve for the childhood dream not realized of sharing parenthood with a lifetime partner. Some worry about the impact it might have on their child to grow up without a father.

Then a funny thing happens. As time goes on, and the prospective mother becomes an actual mother, what she used to think would be important…isn’t. Yes, it can be exhausting. Yes, the support network that any parent needs is vital. Yes, male role models need to be found and recruited who will balance out Mom.

But there are amazing strengths to Choice Motherhood — my term for proactively choosing to become the best parent we can be as single women — that get overlooked by people who don’t know any.

Research Says
The quick version of what “studies say” about single-parent homes is that its boys end up in jail, its girls end up sexually promiscuous, and that high school dropout rates are high. What the quick version doesn’t mention is that this often has more to do with divorced/abandoned homes when household income drops substantially. And that generally this involves parents who are depressed, narcissistic or otherwise lacking in the ability to sustain a nurturing and attentive environment for their children.

A child born into a Choice household is not torn apart by divorce. Many Choice Moms make upwards of $60,000 a year, own their home in a child-friendly neighborhood, and do not experience the emotional upheaval of a downward economic slide.

Of course, there are many out-of-wedlock births to impoverished women, especially in their early 20s, which was reflected in the recent news data. One of these single mothers lived in my home recently and yes, the challenges she and her child face are dramatically different than my own. Lack of education, income and emotional support for these women is an important issue.

But I strongly believe that the single woman who conscientiously throws herself into mothering has amazing benefits to provide to her children, which is too often overlooked by those who would simply prefer to marry her off.

I hear this strength daily, as moderator of an online discussion board for Choice Moms. In the hundreds of honest conversations we shared in November, for example, we offered support to each other about how to deal with a toddler’s tantrums, insight about how to incorporate dating into our lives, and lively debate about a child’s right to have a father.

We approach parenting in different ways, but some of the assets we offer our children include:

1) Self-sufficiency — Choice Moms are not victims. We proactively make our dreams of parenthood come true, sometimes after years of hoping an emotionally strong, loving partner will become part of our life. Most women who choose yes to single parenthood are strong-minded, independent, and creative problem-solvers in many aspects of their lives—all excellent traits to pass along to their children.

2) Determination — We are not ambivalent about parenting. Some of us spend years preparing and saving; others make the choice after an unplanned pregnancy puts us in charge of our child’s destiny. Women who say a loud “yes” to parenting do what they need to in order to make for their children the best lives possible. Our families tend to be proud, with open communication, emotional closeness, and a strong commitment to one another.

3) Community connection — A benefit of many Choice Moms I know is that they make an effort to bring a wide network of family, friends, mentors, and male role models into their children’s lives. Child development expert Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Boys, among others, told me that boys in today’s society especially benefit from this kind of extended network. “Boys need a greater concerted effort on the part of the mom, the family, the elders, the community, and the social institutions in order to inculcate all the moral coding of a social group.” In the absence of community connection, young people turn to peers as role models and celebrities as heroes.

4) Dedication — Many special needs children are placed in single-parent homes because they often thrive from the focused attention. I have seen many confident Choice Kids whose self-esteem is enhanced by the concentrated bond they have with their mothers. One Ivy League student I met was undeniably strengthened over the years by the Choice Mom who adopted her at 13 months, when she was in the hospital because of a neglectful home environment.

I do not claim that single-parent households are better than two-parent households, or that mothers automatically make better parents than fathers. Loving fathers add tremendous strengths to a child’s upbringing, and many Choice Moms I know (myself included) have welcomed good men into our family lives.

But the emphasis some prefer to place on the drawbacks of fatherless homes fails to take stock of the enormous benefits Choice Moms bring to their children as counterbalance.

There are disadvantages to be countered, certainly. The one-on-one intensity between mother and child can be difficult to break as the child matures into a young adult—aided somewhat by the growing trend for Choice Moms today to have more than one child. Social isolation can be a struggle with the more reclusive mothers. The financial and logistical stress can be taxing, especially for those who haven’t developed a stronger support network. Many of us wish we could be stay-at-home mothers, or otherwise have even more time to spend with our children. We sometimes get flustered when our children inevitably start asking who and where questions about “daddy.” It is hard to eventually enter into an intimate adult relationship when we are 24/7 parents. We feel sorrow that another parent is not available to love our child as much as we do.

But despite the weaknesses, the reality is that most children in single-parent households do not grow up to be morally defective. Discouraging one common family structure because some don’t do it as well as others is akin to not allowing people in their 20s to marry because statistics show these are the couples most likely to divorce.

Being a good parent is more important than being a married one. While it’s lovely that the U.S. government is spending $500 million on its Healthy Marriage Initiative, it is money that might be better spent helping all mothers and fathers who need it—single or married—put conscious parenting into action.

In large part I believe the best thing we can do for our children is instill them with a sense of responsibility—for taking control of their own lives, for understanding their obligations to others—as well as giving them an open door to possibilities that gives them a love of learning and exploration and spirituality and mental health. For these reasons and more, Choice Mothers are great role models.