Sharing DNA Does Not a Family Make

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web_ready_gathering_final_kondrichLately I’ve been seeing stories about people seeking out others whose mothers were impregnated with sperm from the same donor – ostensibly looking for “siblings” they didn’t know they had. There’s even a new TV series called Almost Family, the premise of which is that a young woman discovers that her father, a renowned fertility doctor, used his own genetic material to impregnate many of his patients. This news sends her reeling and in search of biological half-sisters and other half-siblings running around unbeknownst to her.

I object to the idea that sharing DNA makes someone a part of one’s family. Aside from medical considerations such as the need for matching bone marrow or a kidney, there is no real family connection between people conceived in the sterile confines of a medical facility with sperm from the same donor. And the implication that somehow “blood is thicker than water” is a slap in the face to adoptive families such as my own.

I have three biological children conceived, luckily for me, the old-fashioned way. I loved the early bonding I was able to have with them, loved being able to nurse them and know them from even before they were born. I recognize the emotional pull of wanting to have one’s own biological children. And I truly understand why couples go through the rigors, expenses, and discomforts of fertility treatments.

But I also have a daughter adopted from China when she was eleven months old. I missed her very earliest days and the ability to breastfeed her. We had a short adjustment period during which we had to get to know each other, and she had to learn to trust us as her new mom and dad, brothers and sister. Yet today, my closeness with her, my sense of her as my own child is indistinguishable from my feelings for my other three children.

A family is made from shared love and experiences, from late nights comforting a colicky or sick child, from laughs shared at the dinner table, even from fights and defiance and setting boundaries. Families are made, not born, and a tenuous biological connection is fairly inconsequential.

I’m not dismissing the urge for adopted children to wonder about or search for their biological parents. Wondering why they were given away, wanting to know something about the mother, say, who carried them in her womb for nine months is perfectly normal.

But thinking that somehow you’re connected to someone because the same anonymous donor contributed his DNA to both of you? That reduces the idea of family to something mechanistic, impersonal, and ultimately meaningless.

In this day and age, families come to be in so many different ways. It’s unconditional love that makes a family, not the biological origins of one’s birth.

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Play It Again, Sam

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My family likes to tease me about my penchant for watching certain television series over and over. How many times, they want to know, do I need to see thirtysomething or Gilmore Girls before I’ve had enough? The answer, of course, is: I’ll never tire of these or many other books, movies, and TV shows.

Repetition is a standard feature of life, starting in childhood. Mom and Dad might not enjoy reading Goodnight, Moon every night into infinity, but their sons and daughters can’t get enough of it. When my own kids were young, they wore out the VHS tapes of their favorite animated movies. They insisted on reading the same books time and again even though we had a gigantic library of selections.

Children’s fixation on repetition is actually important for their development. Repetition helps them learn. It not only helps them practice new skills, but it actually strengthens connections in the brain. Remember having to memorize poems or Shakespearean soliloquies? It may have seemed dull and pointless at the time. We saw no future in which we would suddenly launch into, “Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .” But our teachers knew something we didn’t. Rote learning is good for our brains.

Beyond practicality, rereading favorite books or rewatching favorite movies and shows is comforting. It connects us with certain feelings and thoughts from times past. I can’t read a Curious George book without picturing myself in the children’s section of my childhood library, unable to read just yet but still eagerly poring over the pictures of George and his friend, the man with the yellow hat. Watching season 7 of Gilmore Girls reminds me of the summer before my oldest daughter went off to college, and I still get teary-eyed thinking about it.

“Play it again, Sam” is actually a slight misquote from the classic movie Casablanca. In the film, Ilsa asks the piano player at Rick’s, “Play it, Sam.” And at the end of the film, Rick simply tells Sam, “Play it.” By sheer repetition, though, the line stands for an iconic moment in an iconic movie.

So have no fear of playing it again, reader. Whatever it is, I have no doubt you’ll enjoy it just as much as, if not more than, the first time around.

Generation Gap

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WoodstockThe other day my teenage daughter sat at the kitchen table and started reading off a list of 100 famous movie lines: everything from “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” A few were vaguely familiar to her. But for the most part, she had no idea where most of the lines came from or what they meant.

“How is ‘Rosebud’ such a famous line?” she demanded. She also wanted to know why Humphrey Bogart was the speaker of so many famous movie quips. As she went down the list, occasionally she asked me to replicate the intonation of the line as it was spoken in the movie. But it’s hard to convey, say, the hair-raising quality of the little girl in Poltergeist when she turns away from the television and says, “They’re h-e-e-e-re.”

My husband and I realized right then that we had failed to indoctrinate our children in the all-important canon of memorable films. Indeed, in so many areas – music, theater, television, history – there’s a generation gap between our own experiences and knowledge and that of our kids.

Much was made of the so-called generation gap during the 1960s. After the hardships and deprivations of two major world wars, members of the “Greatest Generation” were cautious, conventional, and level-headed. They enjoyed the economic well-being of the Fifties and saw it as a result of hard work and sacrifice. Self-expression was not valued as much as order and peace.

The Baby Boomers, children and grandchildren of the Greatest Generation, were born into relative peace and prosperity. As they grew up, they chafed at the older generation’s insistence on conformity and favored freedom and experimentation. Hence, the social unrest, drug use, and wildness of the hippie generation.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the famed three-day music festival in the farmland of upstate New York. There have been all kinds of retrospectives on Woodstock and what it represented to the people who were there. Interestingly, my daughter has been captivated by Woodstock and has spent hours with my husband watching a PBS documentary on the subject. She even had a conversation with a family friend who was at Woodstock, and I’m sure in her mind she was comparing his experience with her own immersion in Lollapalooza a couple of weeks ago.

The friend explained that he and many of his friends had planned to meet at the festival, but that, in the days before cell phones, there was really no way to connect with them once he’d arrived at Woodstock. There were hundreds of thousands of people amassed on the Yasgurs’ farm. Security consisted of volunteers with no weapons at all simply trying to convince the crowds to be cool. When food ran out, people from nearby farms contributed produce, and festival-goers themselves prepared and served the masses.

Although it’s definitely not my cup of tea to attend a huge music festival, there was something magical about the way Woodstock unfolded. Many of the greatest musicians of all time performed there. The PBS documentary showed footage of Jimi Hendrix rocking “The Star-Spangled Banner” on his guitar. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young performed live for only their second time on the Woodstock stage. It was music history in the making.

It’s hard to describe to young people what it was like growing up in a different era. Mine was one less saturated with media and technology. My kids can scarcely believe that my husband and I would be out and about on our bikes all day long without any contact with our parents. Now if they don’t pick up their cell phone on the second ring, I immediately go to DEFCON 1!

I think it’s great that my 18-year-old daughter has become interested in the past, especially the recent past as experienced by her own parents. After all, we are not only creatures of the present but of the accumulated past, the men and women and events that came before us. And learning about that past is one way to bridge the inevitable gap that each generation experiences with the one before.

Last First Day

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This morning my daughter rose before dawn to catch the sunrise over the football field at her high school. It’s her last first day of school – and ours. Senior Sunrise is one of the many traditions we will experience to mark this important milestone in my child’s life. Soon she will be starting a new chapter in college. And my husband and I will face a new future together as empty nesters.

For nearly 29 years, my identity has been wrapped up primarily in my role as a mother. From the moment my oldest child took her first breath, I have been holding mine. It’s scary, this parenthood stuff. Late night fevers, scrapes on the playground, friendship drama, homework crises, fears about what our teens are up to on the weekends. “No rest for the weary,” my husband would often quip as we sat up waiting for one of our children, the ticking clock reminding us that in time, all this shall pass.

But there has been infinitely more pleasure than pain in shepherding our four kids through childhood. Those first smiles, warm hugs, late nights cuddling an infant have given way to fun excursions, adult conversations and joy in their achievements. As my daughter leaves for her last first day of school, she is tall, confident, and strong. Like my other children, she has been given a foundation from which to grow and mature.

In less than an hour, my daughter will join her fellow members of the Class of 2020 as they head into their first period classes. It will be a year full of “lasts” for us, but I’m not sad – just looking forward to the vistas opening up before her and all of us as we head into our futures.

 

Gotcha

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3628e74410cef8316a75ca354bc5f3e4.jpgThe July day was sweltering in a small city in China the day we adopted our daughter. But the large hotel conference room was chilly as my husband and I entered it to the sounds of babies crying. The rest of our adoption group were there with babies in arms as a small woman with tears in her eyes approached us and handed us a little girl, almost one year old. The baby began to wail as she realized her caretaker from the orphanage was handing her over to total strangers. I was crying too and trying to say “I love you” in Mandarin. My husband was videotaping the whole affair, but he forgot to take the lens cap off the camera. So all we have to commemorate the moment is the audio of lots of crying.

Adoptive parents refer to this day as their child’s “Gotcha” day. Many have parties not only to celebrate their child’s birth, but also that fateful day when their precious child came into their lives. My daughter’s Gotcha day was this week, and it always brings me back to memories of China in the heat of the summer.

For days our new daughter appeared shell-shocked as she adjusted to two new people who looked, sounded, and even smelled different. I carried her in a Snugli through parks, museums, temples, and other sights as our guide showed us the land in which she was born. All the babies in the group were about to turn one, so the guide arranged a little birthday celebration at our hotel. The candle on the cake was shaped like a lotus flower, and it opened slowly when it was lit.

One morning as I fed our baby congee, the traditional breakfast of most Chinese, she looked up at me and gave me the most heartwarming smile. I knew we had crossed a threshold. As we packed our suitcases to leave for home, she started to become animated and engaged, giving us an impish smile as she removed articles of clothing I’d just packed.

The flight back to the U.S. was rough. It was an overnight to L.A. and was widely known as “the baby flight” because it usually held a number of families returning home after adopting their children. Our daughter was inconsolable. She had gotten sick and was on antibiotics, but I’m sure her ears or sinuses must have been hurting. I was dazed and sleep-deprived when we finally landed and went through immigration, thus making our new daughter a U.S. citizen. My husband claims that I scared a celebrity by leering at her while we waited for our luggage at baggage claim.

Once home, we awaited the return of our older children, who had been staying with my husband’s family. Their noisy arrival threw our baby off for a while, but she soon adjusted to three doting older siblings and an extended family who all loved her instantly.

Today our daughter is a thriving teenager, and it seems a distant memory thinking about the forlorn little girl we pledged to care for and never abandon during our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China. When people adopt a child, particularly from overseas, well-wishers often comment on how lucky the child is. But we were the lucky ones – blessed with our beautiful, infuriating, fabulous daughter, who we couldn’t have loved any more if I had given birth to her.

Daughter, I’m so glad we “gotcha”!

 

What a Hassle!

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3_730x410In my advanced middle age (read: “old”), I have come to realize that most of my time consists of avoiding hassles. I’m forever commenting about potential activities, “That seems like a hassle.”

I love that word: “hassle.” My dictionary app says that the word comes from a Southeastern United States expression meaning, “to pant, as from exertion.” Or it could derive from the British meaning: “to hack at, saw away at with a blunt blade.”

Yep. That’s how it feels when something is a hassle. Not long ago, our friends were telling us about the day spent getting their boat ready for sailing on Lake Michigan. They described a long, dirty ordeal that just seems like too much work.

Many people’s avocations seem to involve too much hassle: gardening, wood-working, restoring furniture, and most DIY household projects. And many sports are equipment-heavy and time-consuming just to prepare for: football, hockey, golf, waterskiing, snow skiing, among others.

I remember when my son started playing tackle football the summer before fifth grade. He came home with a huge bag full of equipment that I had to somehow help him assemble onto himself. A friend whose son was also starting football that year hosted a get together whose main purpose was helping each other figure out how to suit up our boys like gladiators for battle. What a hassle!

I’ve also seen fit over the years to complain about school projects with many moving parts and expeditions involving long drives, packed coolers, and other hassles. Even getting the kids ready to go to the local pool – finding their suits, packing towels and goggles, slathering sunscreen on wriggling bodies – sometimes made me weary.

On the other hand, tell me you need two dozen baked goods for the school bake sale, and I’m all over it. There will be nary a complaint about buying, assembling, and prepping ingredients for cookies, cupcakes, or other sweet treats. No exasperation at counters covered in flour and colored sprinkles. No whining about hassles.

I guess when you truly enjoy something, you have the patience and sustained interest to plough through without feeling hassled. For me, cleaning up the house and the kids after a beach expedition: hassle. But three hours on the couch reading book after book to my little ones? Pure joy.

I guess a hassle is in the eye of the beholder.

Does Dad Need Some Daditude?

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Does your father or husband like to chuckle and/or laugh out loud occasionally? Do you need a last minute Father’s Day gift?

I’ve been listening to a wry, humorous, and heartwarming book of essays titled Daditude by Chris Erskine. Erskine is a Los Angeles Times writer whose columns are syndicated in my hometown Chicago Tribune under the title “The Middle Ages.” I’ve followed Erskine’s musings for a number of years now, and the man is great with a turn of phrase.

Erskine writes about the trials, tribulations, and joys of family, friends, and growing older. His tales about his brood of four kids and his long-suffering wife alternate with stories about a group of incorrigible drinking buddies. In Daditude, though, he has culled a selection of former columns about his family: rites of passage, holidays, childhood memories.

The tone of these essays is always one of tender bemusement. As much as he mocks some of his kids’ excesses (In one story, he claims his younger daughter renamed herself VISA, with a dollar sign for the “S.”), its clear how much he adores his kids and worships his wife, whom he affectionately calls “Posh” in his writing.

In descriptions of Christmases past and summers in LA, of dropping his oldest daughter off at college, and of shopping for the perfect valentine, Erskine notes the details – the little nuances of nature and human nature that many of us miss. For instance, he describes dressing his newborn son: “I can’t seem to thread this kid’s tiny hand through a shirt hole the size of a nostril.” Or the first cool day of fall: “The cool feels good. Like brushing your teeth. Like a snowy kiss.”

Some of the stories are even more poignant in retrospect, as the twin losses of his son and wife in the past two years had not yet happened. The book was published as Erskine’s wife was going through cancer treatment. Even in those columns that described Posh’s illness, Erskine retains some of the gentle humor and wry sense of the world that no doubt has helped him through such tragedy.

I highly recommend Daditude for fathers and mothers and anyone with a heart, really. As Erskine himself says in the foreword of the book, “I hope you devour this book shamelessly, like no one’s watching, like a big gooey pizza at midnight.”