The Guy on the Street and New Tech Babies Advice from the Trenches for Parents By Patricia Irwin Johnston
Media interest in advancing reproductive technology has once again piqued the general public’s interest in the ways infertile people form their families. Parents who have used ARTs or third party assistance in building their families have several concerns to consider…
“Who should know what and when?”
“What about the jokes that aren’t funny?”
“If we want to maintain some privacy, will people assume that we are ashamed?”
“What do we do about curious strangers?”
“This is all so new that there aren’t any guidelines! Help!”
These concerns don’t seem so new to me. You see, I’m a member of a family that has expanded itself through two generations by adoption, and for adoption-built families, these questions have been a part of family life for years. And because they have, the adoption experience offers valuable guidance “from the trenches” for ART-formed families dealing with the reaction of others to how their families came to be.
One of the first concerns that new parents express is that once their child has arrived they begin to feel uncomfortable with the number of people who were told beforehand about the circumstances of the child’s conception and who now feel free to probe or share these very private issues with others– co-workers, extended family, their own children. Once information like this is out, it can’t be taken back (an important issue to consider when deciding beforehand just how much you want to tell and to whom.) You may set the wrong tone if, after having been open about your treatment alternative before the birth, you suddenly ask friends and co-workers just “not to discuss it” anymore. But you do need to help them learn sensitivity.
I do not in any way advocate keeping ARTs secret. In fact, I feel that secrecy is damaging to family systems and I don’t recommend it. What I do advocate is setting family privacy boundaries and insisting on sensitivity from others about these. IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO START.
So, for example, I take special effort to educate my family and friends about the insensitivity of their making comments like “Aren’t you people wonderful” or “Too bad you have no children of your own”, etc. regarding our family, which is built by adoption. Dave and I and other adoptive parents have worked hard to help those whose lives touch ours learn how children perceive adoption, how to use positive adoption language and imagery, and how the children’s personal histories are their private information not appropriate for dinner conversation.
In a world where marketing gimmicks have produced adopt-a-whales and adopt-a-highways, this isn’t easy, of course, but slowly and surely we have been making progress as we help our families and friends and the world beyond understand that it isn’t that we are being “hypersensitive” adults when others treat adoption lightly or ask us probing personal questions, but that we are being good parents. We know that our concrete-thinking children take these jokes and misstatements very literally and are hurt by them. I believe that families built with the assistance of IVF/GIFT or third party assistance have similar work to do.
For example, qualifiers which emphasize difference almost always reflect a negative bias on the part of those who use them. (”I was followed by a Black man.” “She’s a woman lawyer” etc.) So adoptive parents who are concerned about friends’ or family members’ tendencies to label their children (”This is my adopted niece, Jessica”) are encouraged to explain that adoption is not a label, but simply one way that children join their families.
This analogy may be helpful: Even though very often extended family or co-workers learn that a pregnancy comes as a result of a birth-control failure, they would think twice about announcing this fact to others, and they would never consider introducing a child as a “birth-control failure nephew.” This is a privacy issue, and the boundaries are clear.
In families expanded by any of the assisted reproductive technologies or quasi adoption alternatives the issue is the same. The GIFT or ZIFT or IVF or DI simply provided a means for conception. It isn’t appropriate to label children as “our test-tube triplet nieces” or “Jon and Ann’s twins–they were on fertility pills, you know.”
A question like “How much do you know about his real mother (or real father)?” to the parents of a DI- or donor egg- or surrogate-conceived child can be answered similarly to the way adoptive parents learn to deflect this highly invasive question: “As much as we need to” is straightforward and discourages further questions without being flippant. On the other hand, those who are not seeking diplomacy but prefer “zingers” which make clear that the question was not appreciated might say something like “Everything! We’ve been married for ten years!”
Jokes like “womb with a view,” are always inappropriate and should be cut off swiftly and with proper indignance even in all-adult company, but under no circumstances should parents allow jocular or derogatory remarks within earshot of their children. The best way to assure this is to begin reacting to them with firmness before children are born or while they are too young to have language.
As for new parents’ role in serving as ambassadors or advocates on behalf of their chosen method of family expansion, this must be considered carefully and weighed against a child and his family’s right to privacy.
Not everyone wishes to become an advocate. Always keep in mind that etiquette does not demand that we respond to invasive questions at all! When I work with adoption-built families about privacy issues, I try to help them understand that questions like “Are they yours?” (often asked about children who don’t look like their parents) or “Are they twins?” (when children are obviously close in age) can be handled with brief but courteous answers which don’t invite follow-ups. A pleasant “Yes, they are mine,” or “No, they’re not twins,” before strolling on will do it.
On the other hand, many of us do wish to educate the public and are looking for ways to feel comfortable as advocates. One woman, for instance, told me that she felt that as a successful GIFT patient she needed to serve as an advocate for other infertile people. Otherwise, she reasoned, how would society at large ever come to understand the need to support ARTs as a “normal” method of family building through insurance coverage. She felt it was her duty to answer fully and truthfully the questions from strangers on the street about her multiples, and yet some of the questions she got made her uncomfortable.
Adoptive parents of children who are ethnically different than their parents or two children who are very close in age have been dealing with the curiosity of strangers for years. Experienced advocates suggest that consistency is important. Since advocates often find that their children soon become very uncomfortable when their parents answer “supermarket questions” with long involved mini-courses on infertility or adoption, finding a way to educate without embarrassing children is important.
Veterans suggest this approach for would-be advocates… Clarify the questioner’s motives. Respond to queries like “Was he adopted?” or “Is this an IVF thing?” with a cool but not unpleasant “Why do you ask?”
If the answer is really “Just curious–he doesn’t look like you,” or a judgmental “They’re awfully close together” the reply might be just, “Adorable, aren’t they?” as you roll your cart on.
If, however, the response is a wistful, “My husband and I would like to adopt,” or “We’re infertile and are thinking about GIFT” a helpful approach advocates can take which respects their children’s feelings is to have something like a business card handy which includes their name and home phone number, convenient hours for calling, and perhaps the address and phone number of the local infertility or adoption support groups. These can be pulled out and offered with a sincere smile and an encouraging comment, “Please call me some evening between 7 and 9 and I’ll be very happy to help you find the information you need!” before walking on.
If the question is invasive or rude, most “veterans” feel that it should be cut off with the classic Miss Manners response, “Why would you ask such a personal question?”
The bravest among us might be able to “zing” somebody with a response like “Yes, and how about you–what position for intercourse did you and your partner use to conceive that cute baby you have there?” (I’ve always wished I could do that, but I’ve never quite had the courage!)